In the two previous installments of Cigar Aficionado's cigar education series -- excerpted from editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken's Shanken's Cigar Handbook -- we examined cigar shapes, colors and sizes as well as proper cutting and lighting techniques. In this installment we explore the ways cigar aficionados can maintain the freshness of their cigars.
In many ways, fine cigars are like wine, orchids or humans traveling in space. They are natural, organic and sensitive to their environment. They are the mature products of a carefully controlled combination of temperature and moisture.
The first thing to know is that cigars should stay in a humidor (the first syllable rhymes with "you," as in the word "humid") until they're ready to be smoked. When necessary, you can get away with keeping properly humidified cigars in a sealed plastic bag with a small, damp paper towel for a day or so. But, if you want to become a true aficionado, a humidor is an essential piece of equipment.
A humidor is an elegantly simple device that keeps cigars at their best by maintaining them in conditions similar to those in which their tobacco grew, fermented and was rolled.
Left out in a heated or air-conditioned room, a cigar can dry out and die as quickly as the most delicate flower -- in less than an hour. In a properly maintained humidor, the atmosphere inside of which closely mimics that of a tropical isle, cigars can be kept for years.
Dedicated aficionados often have more than one humidor. Perhaps a large one that stays at home, and a smaller, more portable one that holds a day's or two's supply. Some aficionados even keep different humidors for different brands of cigars. Within a humidor, the scents from various cigars mingle or "marry," and subtle shifts in flavor can result from cigars of one sort being stored adjacent to very different ones.
WHAT IS A HUMIDOR?
A humidor is, quite simply, a storage container designed to allow controlled air flow and equipped with a device that maintains the internal humidity in the range of 70 to 75 percent; its internal temperature should be maintained in a narrow range of about 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. (Without something to maintain the internal humidity, it's not a humidor; it's just a box.) Humidors come in all sizes. Travel-sized humidors hold just a few cigars; room-sized humidors hold thousands of boxes of cigars.
Note that a humidor is not a sealed environment. Inside an airtight moisturized container, cigars are likely to become moldy. For that reason, it's better to have air circulating between the cigars in your humidor than it is to squish them in too tightly.
While a humidor needs a device that maintains moisture levels, it does not necessarily need a gauge. Some humidors, however, come with hygrometers, which indicate the interior humidity. While the analog models (the round gauges with a needle inside) often have the appealing style of a dial on a sports car's dashboard, they are frequently inaccurate. Digital hygrometers, on the other hand, are usually reliable to a level of plus or minus 2 percent.
No matter what a thermometer or hygrometer says, the true measure of your humidor's performance will be the condition of the cigars inside. If the cigars are exuding a little oil, the conditions are perfect. If they seem too dry, you add more water. If they turn moldy, you have to throw out the cigars (probably with a tear or two in your eye), no matter what the hygrometer says. There's even a species of beetle, called a tobacco beetle, which can quickly bore holes through the contents of humidors. This will sometimes occur when the humidor maintains a temperature above 75 degrees for more than 24 hours. If your humidor becomes afflicted with these insects, freeze the contaminated cigars for 48 hours, then transfer them to the refrigerator for an additional 24 hours before returning them to your humidor. The beetles and their larvae will not survive. Be sure to wipe down your humidor with a damp cloth (using only distilled water) before returning the cigars.
MAINTAINING A HUMIDOR
Humidors are much simpler to maintain than other balanced environments, such as tropical fish tanks. All you have to do is keep the lid or door shut and periodically add distilled water to the humidifying device. (If you use regular tap water, the minerals in it are likely to collect on the humidifier and diminish its ability to emit and absorb moisture.)
A little common sense helps, too. Exposing a humidor to temperature extremes such as in direct sunlight or on top of an air conditioner or radiator is bad for the humidor -- and your cigars.
SELECTING YOUR HUMIDOR
Investing in a humidor is a big decision. Good humidors aren't cheap, but there's no point in having a bad humidor. A humidor that does not maintain a constant desired level of humidity, no matter how pretty it is, is a waste of money and cigars. Consider how wine lovers store their wine. They're protecting an investment. Your cigars are equally valuable, and deserve a similar level of care.
The first step is to decide what size humidor you want. A good guide is to buy a humidor that's a little bigger than what you think you need. At the same time, you might want to investigate whether your local cigar retailer or cigar club has rental facilities that will let you store the bulk of your stock, so that you'll only need room for a few days' reserve at home or at work.
Just as if you were buying a new car, you'll want to look carefully at the construction and performance features of a humidor, as well as at its finish. If the seams aren't perfect, or if the corners aren't square, skip that humidor.
Pay particular attention to the rim and the lid, and how they fit together. The lid should shut tightly. For the record, a humidor lid should not "seal" completely; it should allow a minute amount of air to circulate in and out of the box. But any visible warping will mean that too much air gets in and too much moisture gets out, even if there's a "lip" that fits inside the lid.
A heavy lid is generally an advantage. Many humidors, even those with locks, rely on the weight of the lid to keep them tightly shut. This, however, creates a challenge. A humidor should be designed to be in balance, whether open or shut. If the lid opens too far, its weight can cause the humidor to flip up or fall over. If the lid doesn't open far enough to stay balanced in a upright position, it might come crashing back down on your fingers.
Locks aren't a bad idea. Consider the value -- both emotional and financial -- of the collection that you are going to keep in the humidor. Then consider the damage that could be done by curious prying fingers, by pilfering or even by vandalism (we could tell you stories...). You are likely to want a lock. Just be sure to have a duplicate key tucked away in a safe place. Nothing is more heartbreaking than to have to tamper with the perfectly fitted and carefully finished edges of a finely crafted box.
The first thing to notice on the inside of a humidor is the humidification device. Most humidification devices are simple -- little more than a sponge material or a bottle that slowly emits moisture. (Simple as they are, these devices are still light-years ahead of one old-fashioned humidification device: apple cores.) The biggest variable in proper humidification, after good construction, is not the type of humidification system you have, but whether or not you remember to add the needed water or chemicals at regular intervals.
Look for a humidor lined with a fairly nonaromatic cedar, such as Spanish cedar. Cedar absorbs and re-emits moisture in a way that helps the tobaccos that are blended into a fine cigar to age and mature. (If you are ambitious and handy enough and decide to build your own humidor, be aware that you can't use just any cedar. The highly aromatic cedar used to line closets and wool chests would do disastrous things to the flavor of your cigars.)
Humidor trays make it easy for you to organize, and occasionally rotate, your collection. The inside of a humidor has variations in humidity, despite the various slots that promote internal air circulation and reduce the likelihood that the base woods and the veneer will warp or separate. Within this microclimate, you should introduce your driest cigars as far away as possible from the humidification device so that they re-attain proper hydration as slowly and evenly as possible.
Handles can he helpful on larger humidors, particularly if you will be moving the humidor around a room while offering cigars. If you are planning to put the humidor on a table or sideboard, a felt bottom will help protect the humidor and the furniture.
Some humidors have magnets set into the underside of the lid, so you can store a cigar cutter there. This is good if it keeps you from misplacing an expensive cutter, and bad if it leads you to opening the humidor more often or leaving it open for longer periods of time. Before you get excited about a lid magnet, be sure to find out what the cutter that it's supposed to hold will cost you. If you have scissors or a more expensive guillotine cutter, consider anchoring it to your humidor with an elegant chain, which will guarantee that the cutter will be available whenever you want it.
Finding a humidor with good construction and features isn't as hard as it sounds. Better humidor manufacturers are fanatical about quality control. Moreover, reputable tobacconists will reject humidors with even tiny functional defects.
Once you have decided on all of the basics and accessories, you might as well let yourself be dazzled by the designs and finishes. Admire the gleaming rare wood surfaces, catch the highlights dancing in a deep rich lacquer finish, or study the intricate marquetry picture. Marvel at some of the more curved and sculptural shapes. You are buying a work of art. Be sure you love it: it's likely to be an important part of your home or office for many years to come.
SEASONING A HUMIDOR
It takes time, patience and a little know-how to get a new humidor ready to hold cigars. You're trying to recreate the tropical environments where most cigars are made, and you can't rush the process. Putting cigars into a dry humidor can ruin good smokes.
Most humidors have an interior made of untreated Spanish cedar, the preferred wood for humidifying and aging premium cigars. The wood needs to be humidified, or seasoned, before the box is ready to hold cigars. (Some humidors have varnished or finished wood interiors that don't need to be seasoned.)
Take a new sponge -- make sure it is unscented and free of soap -- and wet it with a liberal dose of distilled water. Wipe down all the exposed wood, including any trays and dividers, and the interior lid. Avoid using a paper towel or a fraying cloth; these will literally leave a paper trail on the wood. After you've wiped down the wood, squirt the sponge with more distilled water, then place it inside the humidor on a plastic bag -- to avoid direct contact with the wood -- and close the lid.
Next, prepare your humidification device according to the manufacturer's instructions. Unless the manufacturer specifically states that you can use tap water, use only distilled water. Tap water contains minerals that will destroy most humidification systems by leaving deposits that will clog the humidor element. Once the humidification element is filled, be sure to wipe it down to remove all the excess water. Rest it on a hand towel for approximately 30 minutes.
Close the humidor with its humidifying element and the damp sponge, and leave it overnight. The next day, refresh the humidification device (it may not need it) and check the sponge. If it is fairly dry, add more distilled water. If it is very damp, leave it alone.
Let the humidor sit another night, and then remove the sponge and plastic bag. The walls of the humidor have now absorbed all the water they need, and now you can safely store your cigars.
THINGS NOT TO DO
Most of the time, if you let cigars dry out, you have to write off your investment as a learning experience, albeit sometimes an expensive one. In some cases, cigars can be reconditioned through weeks in a good humidor, but it's a tricky business, and best left to someone with great patience and experience. If you insist on trying to do it yourself, proceed slowly. Over a period of several weeks, gradually move the cigars from the outer corners into the center of your humidor.
All of the other myths about how to restore dried-out cigars are just that -- myths. Remember that a cigar has many layers of tobacco. It's disastrous for the various layers to become moist or dry out at different rates. For example, if a cigar is placed in a hyper-moist environment, and then taken out of that moist environment, the outside dries and shrinks while the inside is still swollen, and the cigar splits open. (Not a pretty sight.)
Here are some of the odder suggestions we've heard. Don't try them. EVER.
* Put your cigars in the bathroom and run the shower until the hot water gives out.
* Steam them in the upper rack of a dishwasher.
* Sneak them into the steam room at the health club.
HOW TO CARRY CIGARS
When you take cigars with you on your travels, you need to protect them from physical damage, as well as from drying. Travel humidors are an ideal solution. Many are compact enough to easily slip into your briefcase or the small bag you take onboard aircraft (not that it's likely that you'll be allowed to smoke there).
When buying a travel humidor, first make sure that it will accommodate cigars of the size and shape you prefer. Then check it for durability. No matter how careful you are, your travel humidor will get jostled quite a bit. Make sure that it has a hinge that will stand up to a bit of abuse and repeated openings. (If you're a frequent international flyer, you'll find yourself constantly opening the case for customs inspectors who are hunting for Cuban cigars.) One long "piano" hinge that runs the length of the humidor is generally better than two or more hinges. Also, check to be sure that the humidification unit will stay in place as you sprint for a taxi or jam your bag into an overhead compartment.
Even if you don't travel a lot, you may still want a travel humidor. They are extremely convenient for setting up a temporary depot of cigars in another part of your home. They are also perfect for keeping a few cigars humidified during the transition from a store's humidor to your own.
Sometimes, however, even a travel humidor is too much. Then you may want to rely on tubos and cigar cases. Tubos -- cigars that come packed in tubes, which help them stay properly humidified after they are taken out of a humidor -- are a good one-at-a-time solution.
You can also purchase elegant silver or wooden tubes that will keep individual cigars properly moisturized for up to 72 hours. The drawback is that you will need several such tubes to carry a day's supply. On top of that, your tailor will hate them: they tend to be bulky and heavy and, when placed in a pocket, they ruin the "drape" of a garment.
Often the answer is to carry an elegant leather cigar case, loaded with the cigars you hope to smoke that day, and return any that you don't smoke that day to the humidor each evening. If you always smoke the same kind of cigar, you can get a case that fits your cigars exactly -- with "fingers" of the right diameter, and with the ability to telescope, if you favor long cigars. Fingered cases offer the best protection because even a single cigar is held firmly in place and does not roll and bounce around within. If you smoke a varied selection, however, you will probably want to get an "open" case -- one without dividers or molded fingers -- which will accommodate a variety of sizes.
When you buy a cigar case, wear the coat or jacket that has the smallest pockets of all the garments in your wardrobe. Make sure that the case fits, and that you can live with the resulting bulge. Conversely, next time you go to have a suit, jacket or coat fitted, be sure to bring your cigar case. A good tailor will be able to adapt the garment so you can carry the case without looking as if you're packing a pistol.
Also, when shopping for a case bring several cigars. (Or use the occasion as an excuse to buy a few.) The first test of any case is how well it fits your cigars. Load the case and see if the you can slip the cigars in and out with reasonable ease. Close the case, to make sure that it is not too short for your cigars.
You'll want the case to be lined, so your cigars won't take on a leathery taste, and to prevent the tragedy of a fine cigar's wrapper snagging on rough, less-finished leather. The thickness of the leather is a matter of personal preference. The thicker the leather, the greater the protection. But thicker leather also adds weight and bulk.
Selecting the right cigar case can take a bit of time; there are more variables than you would expect. Cigar cases are made with the same craftsmanship as fine footwear, and they come in almost as many styles. Choose carefully. A fine cigar case is not only extremely functional, it is also an accessory that will distinguish you as a person of taste.