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| By Michael Frank | From Groucho Marx, Spring 93

You've probably heard the question a thousand times: "Gotta match?" The query was asked by smokers long before lighters were portable. And before the First World War, carrying a lighter would have been equivalent to carrying a clock--ridiculously cumbersome. In their infancy, lighters were strictly tabletop devices reserved for the privileged few.

In 1993, if anyone asks you for a light to get his cigar going, the question is invariably: "Gotta light?" The transformation is subtle, but to the cigar smoker, this small linguistic difference has "sparked" an endless debate about the best way to light up.

All arguing aside, assume for a moment that you are confronted with a perfect source of fire. How do you light your cigar? Do you saunter up to a roaring fire, stick the stogie in the flame and puff away until the air turns blue? Hopefully not, unless you dislike the taste of your cigar. Remember for a moment how hot coffee tastes when it burns the roof of your mouth. There is no taste, because the heat destroys the flavor just as it destroys your taste buds. Logically then, when you plunge a cigar into the heart of a flame, you turn the tobacco into carbon so quickly that the smoke tastes hot and harsh and the flavor of the cigar is greatly diminished--and the cigar will continue to taste cooked because you'll still be sucking air across a burnt surface.

Cool smoke is the goal of a good light. To achieve this end, never let the cigar touch the flame. When you light up, hold the cigar at a 45-degree angle above the flame, just far enough away so that the flame dances up to the cigar but never quite touches it. Then, to assure a proper light, rotate the cigar in your hand so that the foot of the cigar lights all the way around. When a lightly burning ring surrounds the tip of the cigar and begins to creep toward the center of the foot, blow out lightly through the cigar. Rather than breathing this first puff of lighter (or match-born sulfur) gases into the cigar, this first exhalation will rid the tobacco of these unwanted flavors--then you are ready to begin smoking. Do so by continuing to rotate the cigar as you take your first few puffs. This will regulate the burn, ensure that it is even and prevent tunneling. This technique applies no matter whether you light up with a match, a cedar strip called a "spill," or a lighter.

However, don't assume that the perfect flame will always he available. If cigar smokers were free of daily cares, cedar strips tom from the packing of cigar boxes would be an economical and aromatic way to light up. (Use a candle to light a spill; but never use the candle to light the cigar directly, because the wax aroma will invade the cigar and ruin the taste.) But wood sticks are hardly portable, and they create a lot of ash, which might dirty your shirt and ruin the experience.

Matches, especially the long variety, are a bit handier. If you're out to dinner and sitting away from a drafty entrance, it's conceivable that you could light your cigar with little fuss. Make sure that the sulfur match head has burned away before lighting your cigar, and with shorter matches, strike two at once and the fatter flame will enable you to achieve a more even light.

Lighters are the most portable source of fire, and most can be lit with one hand, while the other holds a cigar.

A good lighter should immediately feel well-made. Without even operating it, a good heft should weigh on your palm as you hold it. Grasping an S.T. Dupont or Caran d'Ache lighter will make this clear to you. Both lighter cases are cut from a solid block of brass, to which the lighter mechanism is added. Lighters such as these become permanent parts of a wardrobe--and can become constant companions.

As important as weight, though, is how comfortable a lighter is to hold. As a rule, the larger the hand, the larger the lighter you'll want to buy.

Whatever the size, opening a lighter should be effortless. The cap of a fine lighter will swing open smoothly, and the hinge mechanism should be silent when opened (exceptions are S.T. Dupont lighters which often ring like clear bells). A "clunk" or hollow sound echoing from a lighter cap is a sign that lower quality materials were used to make it.

When you slide your thumb across the roll bar of any lighter, thank Vernon Dunhill, brother of Alfred, who created the first lighters which could be lit one-handed. This horizontal flint mechanism is still found on the Dunhill Unique Lighter, and while it looks old-fashioned, it works very reliably.

All other flint wheels evolved from Vernon Dunhill's original idea, and each mechanism feels different. Be sure it doesn't feel rough to turn, but solid--the friction feedback should be smooth and even throughout the stroke.

Ideally, any lighter can be used ambidextrously. If you're left-handed, be sure of this. Davidoff's newest generation of lighters are easy for southpaws to use because the rollbar stretches the length of the lighter body, and wraps around the edge of the lighter casing so it rolls easily in either hand. Other lighters have a top and bottom side, and most offset the roll bar so that it is only accessible from the top side, which makes them easier for right-handed people to light.

After lighting, your thumb should be safely away from the flame. The flame itself should be accessible, even for the biggest cigars. This seems obvious, but the caps of some less-expensive lighters often stop at ten o'clock, not noon, interfering with an easy light. Some lighter manufacturers avoid this problem by angling the flame away from the lighter cap.

The flame itself should be easily adjustable, as is the case with the Dunhill Rollagas model, which has an adjustment wheel located discreetly away from the flame, but still within easy reach--on the outside, just below the cap hinge.

Flame size should be fat. This enables a cigar smoker to light a cigar evenly. Much like the dual-match technique mentioned above, the S.T. Dupont lighter created for Davidoff has a dual flame and is more reliable than two matches. The Dupont, like many other lighters, cuts off the gas source as the cap is closed, preventing damage to the cap or your hand.

With modern technology, there is a temptation to buy a "gas turbo" lighter. The flames from these are blue and hot and resist blowing out. Ikari and Colibri make very high-tech looking ones, but overall these mechanisms require more maintenance and are best used on a boat or out on the fairway.

Zippos have a well-earned reputation for quality and durability, but they run on oil, which can sour the taste of your cigar. If you're fond of this lighter design, the Country, imported by Consolidated Cigar Corporation, looks like a Zippo but uses gas instead of oil.

Consolidated also offers Rowenta's combination cutter-lighters. These are handy devices which are a lot like Swiss Army knives. The only drawbacks are that the lighter mechanisms must be held down to maintain the flame, and the cutter hole may be too small for larger cigars. In the end, whatever lighting instrument you choose should be more than just pretty--it should light a cigar with grace and ease.

The cream of the crop. From the moment when you first flick it open and stroke your thumb across the roll bar, to the first time you need to use the spare gas tank (yes, it has one), this lighter does it all well. It should. For over $1,000 this lighter is a lifetime investment, but like a Rolex, you'll only have to buy one.
Caran D'Ache of Switzerland (212) 689-3590

Both the Dunhill Unique lighters and the more modern Rollagas models are solidly built. They feature refined elements of style mixed with purpose. Notice where your thumb winds up after you open the cap of the Rollagas--safely away from the flame. For that matter, notice how easily, yet solidly the cap opens.
Dunhill of London (800) 776-4053

The Colibri Quantum Premier is another gas turbo lighter. Though it is designed more like a standard lighter, this device puts out as much heat as the Ikari.
Colibri Corporation (800) 556-7354

Variety and good value are the best aspects of Il Corona lighters. A good example is the Briar paneled lighter for Savinelli, which is a bit small, but the angled flame makes it easy to light any cigar. It's offered at a great price, and it even comes with a fuel cutoff valve.
Il Corona lighters are available through Savinelli. Call (919) 481-0511 for retailer information.

The Ikari is heavy-duty equipment. This is not the kind of thing to carry in your suit pocket, and the mechanism requires a firm grip, but if you need to light up in the wind and rain, or even snow, carry an Ikari.

If you must have a gadget, the lighter-cutters are useful devices to have around, but the ignition button must he held down when lighting a cigar. By comparison the Country is an excellent lighter for the money, with a wide flame for easy lighting and a flame adjustment wheel in an easy-to-find place just below the wind guard.
Rowenta lighters are available through Consolidated Cigar Corp. (800) 446-5797

Both S.T. Dupont lighters shown in these pages are stellar performers. They light easily and are comfortable to hold. You'll also find that adjusting the flame is an easy task.
S.T. Dupont (212) 593-4224

Davidoffs new line of lighters are well-made and come in a variety of styles. Design features include angled flames and strongly sprung caps that open easily.
Davidoff of Geneva (800) 328-4365