Cigars 101: Cigar Types - The Complete Guide
Dipping your toe into the complex, long-historied world of cigars and cigar smoking can be overwhelming. With hundreds of different names for different types of wrappers, fillers, binders, sizes, and shapes, the sheer volume of information involved in learning about cigars can be intimidating. How, then, can you determine not only what makes a quality cigar, but also which kind of cigar is best for you?
As a rule, hand rolled cigars are generally much better quality than machine rolled cigars. Many machine rolled cigars are not 100% tobacco; paper, preservatives, and other chemicals are often present in them. On the other hand, hand rolled cigars are comprised only of tobacco - the filler, binder, and wrapper are all tobacco leaves that have been grown, aged, cured, and fermented according to their intended use, without additives. Hand rolled cigars are also more likely to have properly spaced filler tobacco that allows the right amount of air flow through the cigar; machines may roll filler too tight or too loose. If a cigar is rolled too tightly, there is inadequate space between the leaves inside of the cigar, meaning the cigar will burn unevenly and be hard to draw from. If, on the other hand, the cigar is rolled too loosely, the cigar will burn too hot and too quickly, delivering very little of the intended flavor of the cigar in the smoke.
In addition to the dichotomy of hand rolled and machine rolled cigars, there are many other factors that affect the quality and flavor of cigars, all of which are covered in this handy guide. The types of wrappers, fillers, and binders, as well as the size and shape of the cigar itself will affect the strength and flavor of it, all of which will directly affect your personal enjoyment of the cigar. While this guide will help you learn the terminology of the different parts of cigars and how they will affect your smoking experience, figuring out exactly which cigar is best for you is a matter of trying many different types of cigars over time and choosing your own favorite.
The wrapper of a cigar is itself a tobacco leaf, instead of the paper used in cigarettes. The strength and flavor of every cigar is largely determined by its wrapper, and the flavor of the wrapper is determined by the conditions under which the leaves are grown and aged or fermented - not necessarily the color, as many mistakenly believe. The most common types of wrappers are listed below, with their flavor profiles and other pertinent information.
These leaves, also known as Connecticut wrappers, are usually light tan or yellow in color, grown and aged under gauze or cheesecloth to limit sunlight, giving them a mild flavor that allows the flavor of the binder and the filler to come through more fully.
Also known as Double Claro, these leaves have a light, sweet taste, and they are picked before they have fully matured and aged for a comparatively short time, allowing them to retain some chlorophyll that gives these wrappers a pale green tinge.
A prolonged fermentation and aging period over the course of several years gives these leaves a dark brown color and a characteristic sweetness; the longer the leaves are aged, the more pronounced the natural sugars in the leaves become.
Sometimes referred to as Double Maduro, these are the darkest leaves in the lineup of cigar wrappers. They are aged for even longer than Maduro leaves, deepening their inherent sweetness and building a richer, deeper flavor profile.
Originally grown in Cuba, the fertile soil of Honduras now supplies the American market with these medium brown tobacco leaves, which have a slightly spicy flavor reminiscent of black pepper.
Grown from Cuban seed in Nicaraguan soil, these wrappers are even spicier than the Corojo wrappers, with one of the strongest flavor profiles. Cigars wrapped with these leaves are generally best enjoyed by experienced cigar smokers, as beginners will likely find them too strong as an introduction.
These leaves are the original tobacco used to roll cigars and were once the most popular leaf used to roll Cuban cigars, though fell from popularity due to the rise of Corojo and Habano wrappers. Their flavor combines a hint of sweetness with some of the peppery spice present in Corojo wrappers.
The reddish-brown hue of these wrappers is distinctive to tobacco plants grown in Cuban soil, making them some of the rarest cigar wrappers available. These wrappers are quite spicy and often have an almost earthy flavor.
These sweet, mild leaves originate from the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and they are often used in infused cigars as their mildness enhances the added flavors in the binder and filler.
Grown in both Cameroon and the Central African Republic, these wrappers are among the most delicate leaves and brittle leaves, with fewer oils present to give them elasticity. Their rich, smooth taste is as distinctive as the raised bumps in the grain of their leaves, described as "toothy."
The filler of a cigar creates most of the bulk associated with the larger size of cigars compared to cigarettes, though cigarillos can also be quite small. As described above, hand rolled cigars tend to have better filler fold quality, as master cigar rollers have the skill to avoid rolling the filler too tightly, thereby making the cigar hard to inhale through and burn evenly, or too loosely, causing it to burn too quickly and too hot for comfort.
Although the wrapper of a cigar is generally the biggest factor in determining its flavor and strength, the blend of tobaccos used in the filler is the next biggest factor, particularly with cigars that use much milder wrappers such as Claro or Sumatra varieties. Cigars with a greater ring gauge generally hold more filler leaves, adding to their prominence in the flavor profile of the cigar that includes them, and the added bulk as well as the space in between each leaf allows for greater complexity of flavors as the smoke drawn through the cigar seasons them with each puff. Different strains of tobacco plant will obviously affect the flavor of the finished cigar, as well as the country and climate in which the plant was grown and the circumstances of how it was cured and fermented.
The parts of the tobacco plant from which the leaves were picked also contribute to the final body of flavor that each leaf adds to the cigar. The leaves picked from the lowermost part of the plant, referred to as volado in Spanish, burn easily and have a very mild flavor. Leaves taken from the middle part of the plant are known as seco in Spanish have a somewhat stronger flavor, and the leaves harvested from the top of the plant that have been most exposed to the sun, the ligero leaves, are the strongest and spiciest of the tobacco leaves. Ligero leaves are as a rule always rolled into the center of the cigar, as they burn more slowly than seco or volado leaves.
Long filler refers to full leaves being used in cigars; short filler refers to bits and pieces that are bound together and used in cigars. Long filler cigars are generally better quality and are preferred by connoisseurs, but short filler cigars are more affordable and are often made from the cuttings of long filler leaves used in premium cigars.
The binder leaf in a cigar is used to bind the inner bundles of filler leaves before the final wrapper leaves are wrapped around the outside to complete the construction of the cigar. The binder is essential to the structural integrity of a good cigar, giving the cigar its size and shape; the wrapper leaves are purely for flavor and aesthetic. Despite this importance, binder leaves themselves are often made from the lowest grade of tobacco available. Some cigar manufacturers will take lower grade tobacco leaves and grind them into a powder in order to reconstitute them into more uniformly sized and shaped sheets for easier use in rolling the cigars.
Binder leaves are usually much thicker than wrapper leaves, and they generally have little or no flavor, allowing the flavors of the filler blend and of the wrapper to more fully come through; however, some tobacco blenders will use binders as yet another layer to add to the complexity of the overall flavor of the cigar. It is not uncommon for cigar rollers to use imperfect wrapper leaves that have blemishes or irregular colors and shapes as binders to create particularly strong and flavorful cigars. Cigars that have binders made from wrapper leaves tend to be a bit more on the pricey side, though, since wrapper leaves are the most expensive and high quality component of the cigar.
Different cigar rollers will use leaves from different parts of the tobacco plant for the binder; the selection mainly depends on how strong and elastic the leaves are, their absorbency, and how easily the leaves can be lit and burned. Binder leaves that contribute to higher price tags will often be from the top of the tobacco plant, where the sun reaches them most and from where wrapper leaves are generally picked. The middle of the plant yields slightly stronger, less flavorful leaves that make appropriate binders for middling price level cigars, and leaves taken from the bottom of the tobacco plant are the most commonly used parts for binder leaves, as they receive the least sunlight and have the least flavor, which allows the blend of flavors from the filler and the wrapper to take the most prominence.
The length and the ring gauge of a cigar determine its vitola, the technical term for the name of the size of a cigar. Length is delineated in inches, and the ring gauge is the diameter in sixty-fourths of an inch. There are two categories for the shapes of cigars, the parejo and the figurado, which are further explained later in this guide. The parejo is the most common shape for cigars, and the vitolas for parejos with their corresponding sizes are listed below. Note that these sizes will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer; the specifications listed here are by no means the standard across the board.
Ring Gauge: 21
The smallest vitola of a cigar, with the most variation in size, cigarillos can be bought in the United States very cheaply.
Ring Gauge: 48
Invented by one of the Rothschilds themselves, this vitola will give you more filler flavor than the thicker Corona and more wrapper flavor than from a longer Robusto.
Ring Gauge: 50
The most popular size of cigar, the Robusto is known for delivering the truest flavor to what the tobacco blender intended.
Ring Gauge: 42
The smaller ring gauge of a Corona allows more intense flavors to come from the wrapper tobacco than from the smaller amount of filler tobacco.
Ring Gauge: 50
The most commonly produced size by manufacturers, the Toro has all the flavor of its ring gauge twin the Robusto with an extra inch.
Ring Gauge: 34
The long, skinny Panatela vitola has a smoother burn and taste than bigger vitolas, as well as having a cooler burn.
Ring Gauge: 42
This longer vitola was created for connoisseurs who wanted a longer smoke that had all the flavor complexity of longer cigars with a similar flavor balance between the wrapper and the filler of Coronas.
Ring Gauge: 47-50
Named after the British Prime Minister, the Churchill has an extra inch on the Toro, and the longer the cigar, the more time the heat and smoke have to season the filler tobacco, potentially making the flavor even more complex.
Ring Gauge: 38
With nearly the same proportions as a Panatela, the Lancero smokes similarly to a Churchill in terms of extra complexity and flavor while burning cool and smooth.
The Culebra is an unusual specialty size that merits mention, even if it is not necessarily a parejo. Constructed of three Panatelas twisted together, Culebra cigars are often split apart before being smoked, either by oneself or shared among friends.
Figurados may have two ring gauges due to their irregular shapes, usually listed like this example: 34/56. The first number refers to the thinnest part of the diameter of the cigar, and the second number refers to the thickest part.
There are two main categories for the actual shape into which cigars are rolled, which affect the classification of their vitolas: the parejo and the figurado. Parejo refers to the standard shape of cylidrical cigars with straight sides, regardless of their length or ring gauge. All other shaped cigars are figurados, which can also vary in length and ring gauge regardless of the shape into which they are rolled. The names of the various types of figurados are covered later in this guide.
So what does the shape of the cigar have to do with anything? Why would it matter beyond pure aesthetic value? The answer is multifaceted, as shape will affect the fullness of the flavor, the heat of the smoke, and the length of the burn of the cigar in question. It is generally accepted that parejos, particularly those that are square- or box-pressed, will burn longer than most figurados, though this is largely dependent upon the strength of the individual smoker's draw, as well. The tapered heads found on several types of figurados, especially Torpedoes and Pyramids, act as a funnel to concentrate the smoke on the inhale, giving those who enjoy them a more intense, fuller flavor. Cigars that are rolled long and wide, such as the Churchill mentioned above, will smoke much cooler than a shorter, thinner cigar, as the extra space and time between the burn and the inhale allow the smoke to cool within the cigar.
Depending on the brand and the blend, different shapes will suit different palates; for example, a brand may release the same blend as a parejo and as a figurado known as a Perfecto. Though each cigar has the same blend, the parejo will not deliver as concentrated a flavor as the Perfecto, as it will not have the same tapered head as the figurado. The parejo, however, is more likely to deliver the flavor that the master blender intended for the cigar, and connoisseurs who wish to sample a new flavor or a new brand will get the best results from smoking a parejo such as a Robusto or a Toro.
A Torpedo cigar is a type of figurado that has a similar shape to a parejo, except that the cap is rolled to a point rather than left straight-sided. A true Torpedo will have a closed foot and a slight bulge in the middle in addition to the tapered point at the head, but many cigars are labelled as Torpedoes despite not fulfilling those criteria. A Chisel is a special type of Torpedo, though it flattens into a broad edge rather than a tapered point at the end; La Flor Dominicana brand has patented this shape, however, so its widespread recognizability is due to the brand's popularity rather than a commonly used rolling technique across manufacturers. The standard size of a Torpedo is a length of 6.5 inches with a ring gauge of 52, though there will always be deviations from the standard across brands. Many manufacturers label the slightly shorter Belicoso cigars as Torpedoes, as they are also tapered at the end, but the tapered head of a true Torpedo is much longer than that of the shorter-tapered head of the Belicoso.
Due to their unusual shape, cigar smokers cutting their first figurado may have trouble initially. Torpedos do not have caps like other cigars, and can unravel if they are trimmed too far up the "shoulder," or the area of the cigar that transitions into the straight sides from the tapered end. Cutting the tapered end of a Torpedo cigar completely off defeats the purpose of buying a figurado cigar, as the tapered end of the cigar concentrates the smoke for each inhale, giving the smoker a fuller, more intensely concentrated flavor than the average straight-edged parejo. While the basic straight cut 1/4" from the tip will work for most figurado cigars, many cigar aficionados prefer the "perfect cut" for cigars with tapered heads, which involves placing the cutter on a flat surface, upending the cigar, placing the tip into the cutter, and cutting twice, as the first cut will often not be deep enough. The angle cut is another option; similar to the straight cut, this cut involves angling the cutter at 45 degrees 1/4" of the way up the end and cutting there, exposing much more surface area and creating an easier draw.
A Pyramid is another popular type of figurado cigar. Unlike the straight-sided shape of parejo cigars or the tapered Torpedo that straightens out after a point, the Pyramid cigar has a broad foot that tapers continually along the full length of the cigar into a point at the opposite end of the cigar. Pyramids are quite large cigars, usually measuring 6 to 7 inches in length due to variations in manufacturers' standards, with a ring gauge of 40 at the tapered head that widens to 50 or 52 at the foot. As with all the figurado cigars that have tapered heads, the Pyramid allows for a more concentrated, intense flavor than non-tapered counterparts. The tapering for a Pyramid cigar, however, continues from the head all the way to the foot - hence the oft-recognized need for the two ring gauge size listings present on most, if not all, Pyramid labels. Because of the extra length that Pyramids have, the smoke will travel for longer through the cigar, causing the flavors to deepen and become more complex throughout the smoking experience.
When cutting Pyramid cigars, the standard straight cut at roughly 1/4" from the very edge will suffice prior to smoking, as the tapering continues for the full length of the cigar. However, beginner smokers of Pyramids would do well to be careful of cutting off too much of the head regardless, as too many re-tries will shorten the Pyramid to the point of smoking it at the larger ring gauge, rendering the tapered end useless for concentrating the smoke before it hits the palate. The perfect cut, mentioned above, will also work well for a Pyramid cigar, as will the angle cut; more experienced cigar smokers would also benefit from trying a V-cutter, or cat's eye cutter, with a Pyramid. These cigar cutters leave cleft-shaped cuts rather than straight edges, making for a clean cut that is deep enough for an easy draw without cutting too far into the cigar. V-cutters or cat's eye cutters can also be tilted similarly to straight edge cutters and used to make cleaved angle cuts.
Most often seen in cartoons both political and recreational due to their distinctive and unique shape, figurado cigars that are Perfectos are narrow at both the foot and the cap, with a smooth, large bulge in the middle of the cigar. Because of the unusual and distinctive shape of the Perfecto cigar, the length and ring gauge size vary widely, even more so than other shapes of figurados (as there is some variation across manufacturers for every type of cigar). Perfecto cigars can be as short as 4.5 inches and as long as 9 inches, and their ring gauges can vary from a midsized 38 to a gargantuan 48.
Because both ends are tapered, the flavor of a Perfecto cigar changes significantly over the course of its smoking period. Thanks to the tapering at both the head and the foot, the flavor of the initial draw after first lighting a Perfecto will mostly be drawn from the burning of the binder and the wrapper leaves, with minimal flavor coming from the filler leaves. However, as the flame travels along the cigar and the ring gauge swells, the flavor from the extra filler leaves used to create the famous Perfecto bulge will come through much more prominently, eventually nearly overpowering the flavors of the binder and wrapper leaves (unless they, too, are particularly strong - in which case they will accent the flavor of the more tightly and fully packed filler leaves).
Because of the tapered foot, novice cigar smokers may have some trouble lighting a Perfecto cigar, as it will burn more unevenly than other types of figurados. Some recommend snipping the foot as well as the head, though this practice nullifies the initial flavor of the tapered binder and wrapper leaves mentioned above. Finding a proper torch flame lighter is essential to lighting any cigar properly, but this is especially essential with figurados like the Perfecto precisely because the tapered shape will cause uneven burning and smoking. Gently turning the Perfecto as you toast the end and light it should remedy this issue.
Presidente cigars are similarly shaped to Torpedoes, though they tend to have a much bigger ring gauge and a longer length, as well as sometimes including a closed foot akin to a Perfecto. With a gargantuan length of 7" to 8.5" and a maximum ring gauge of 52 to 60, the Presidente cigar can also aptly be referred to as the Gigante, though this figurado shape will often be labeled with two ring gauges due to the tapering. The narrower head will often have a ring gauge of 40, whereas the thicker foot will swell to the aforementioned ring gauge of 52 or greater. Some manufacturers refer to the Presidente by the alternate name of the Diadema, although, in addition to variations in length and ring gauge sizes, Diadema cigars tend to be slightly more bulbous near the foot than is generally seen in Presidente cigars.
The longer length and the extra large ring gauge make the Presidente shaped cigars much easier to smoke than smaller parejos like Rothschilds or smaller figurados like Belicosos. The added girth and length of the extra filler within the Presidente cigar means that there will be more tobacco for the smoke to pass through, giving it time to cool as it passes through the cigar, before it hits your palate. The smoke also often serves to season the tobacco leaves that it passes by on each inhale, giving a sort of seasoning effect that allows the flavors to meld, deepen, and become more complex as you continue to smoke. Many cigar manufacturers capitalize on this seasoning effect, and the master tobacco blenders will include up to twenty different types of tobacco in their blends to bring out the most interesting and complex flavors that they possibly can - particularly in larger cigars like the Presidente.
As for cutting Presidente cigars before smoking, the traditional straight cut, angle cut, or perfect cut will all work just fine - but some of the more experienced cigar aficionados prefer a punch cut, which makes a small round hole in the cap, rather than slicing it off, allowing for an even greater concentration of smoke and flavor.
There are several basic accessories required to experience the enjoyment of smoking a cigar once you have your hands on the perfect one; do not let the title of accessory fool you into thinking they are not necessary. Some fulfill immediate needs, such as lighting the thing and so forth; others are necessary for proper storage and preservation. Below we have outlined the four most basic necessities for cigar smokers, beyond the cigars themselves.
In order to smoke a cigar, you must first cut into the enclosed head of the cigar, removing the end so that smoke can be pulled through it. There are many different styles of cigar cutter, and the shape of the cut each makes will subtly affect the flavor as well as the physical sensation of inhaling from the cigar. Double blade cutters are the most reliable and the most popular style of cigar cutters, though single blade cutters, punches, V-shaped cutters, and even scissors can be used. Whichever you choose, be sure to find a good quality cutter with very sharp blades.
Torch flame lighter
After cutting the head off of the cigar, the next step is to toast and light it, and the average $1 lighter from the gas station will work fine, but it is not going to evenly and effectively toast the end of a cigar, especially if you prefer larger ring gauge sizes such as 48 or higher. Torch flame lighters are the investment of choice with cigar smokers due to their wind resistance and multiple flame capabilities. High quality, multi-filtered butane for refilling these pricier lighters is another must, albeit not as immediate; the higher the number of times the butane has been filtered, the cleaner the flame will burn, meaning there will be less buildup of grease over time.
No one wants powdery cigar ash sprinkled over their clothing and furniture, so having a good ashtray is another necessity for the cigar smoker. Ashtrays with wider stirrups are specifically designed to accommodate the larger sizes of cigars, so keep that in mind when looking for the right one.
The all-important humidor is the fourth and final basic need for the cigar smoker, as a good humidor will keep your cigars from drying out or becoming infested with tobacco beetles and their larvae. Proper humidification and a good seal are the most basic requirements of a humidor, though a hygrometer and a built-in humidifier are included in more expensive models.
This guide is merely that - just a guide. The world, culture, and history of cigar smoking is larger than the various practices and nomenclature covered in this guide, and much of it can only be learned by actually jumping into the world headfirst. The different flavors of the various types of wrappers can be described to death on a page, but the only way to learn which types suit your palate best is to actually try cigars with each type of wrapper - and even that will change over time as you smoke more and more. You may start out enjoying the light, sweet flavorings of Claro or Sumatra wrapper leaves, and eventually graduate to the aged sweetness of the Oscuro or the peppery spice of the Habano wrapper - and that does not even cover the various flavorings of the binder leaves and filler leaves that individual cigar manufacturers and rollers bring into play.
The various sizes and shapes of cigars, too, will affect their flavors, and as much as this guide can describe how the shapes and sizes will contribute to your smoking experience, it is up to you to ultimately figure out which sizes and shapes suit you best. Cigar smokers who are used to the hot, fast burn of cigarettes may lean towards the smaller vitolas, such as cigarillos or Rothschilds. Those looking for a longer, slower, cooler burn would do well to try out larger parejos, such as Churchills, or figurados like the Pyramid or the Torpedo.
Regardless of your initial preference, your tastes and palate can always change; this guide will only serve to provide basic information on the huge breadth of knowledge about cigars. Armed with an arsenal of terminology and what they all will mean in terms of the general smoking experience, you are ready to head to your local cigar purveyor - either in person or online to reputable cigar sellers - and pick out a cigar that will hopefully be the first of many enjoyable experiences with the finest tobacco products known to man. Go forth, and smoke well.
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