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It’s no secret that I love a good cigar, more than one if I can get them.  Both of my grandfathers were avid cigar enthusiasts so maybe I inherited the gene.  Dad smoked cigarettes when I was young and I never liked the smell.  I never smoked cigarettes and I assumed cigars were essentially the same thing.  That’s like assuming a rickshaw and the space shuttle are the same.

Within the cigar world there are many different levels.  Here’s the story of my cigar learning curve:

My first cigar was a drugstore variety Vega and Garcia cheapo that my old buddy Derek brought to my bachelor party.  At the time I had no idea what a good cigar was and I had nothing to compare the experience to.  I puffed away gingerly; the taste was extremely strong to me.  The next day, as I took my vows, I could still taste it – even after numerous beers, a pot of coffee, and brushing my teeth ten times.  My wife never said anything. 

The next year a friend had a baby.  I went to Walgreens and dutifully bought the exact model Derek had supplied for the occasion.  The experience was much the same.  I wrote off cigars as offensive and impractical.  I had two brother-in-laws who smoked cigars.  I assumed their sticks were the same as what I had tried.  One brother came for a visit and gave me a real Cuban – a Romeo and Julieta, No. 2, Tubo.  He lit one up on the patio and encouraged me to do the same.  I politely declined.  I put the little tube, cigar and all, away.  Several years later the other brother had us over to his house.  I knew he would have a cigar.  The mystique of the Cuban called on me and I brought it along.  After a while I lit it up.  I knew nothing at the time about proper cigar preservation and the stick was a bit dry.  However, I realized immediately the difference between dime store cigars and premium cigars.  Even dry, that Cuban was great.

I wasn’t hooked right away.  I had several more non-Cuban smokes over the next year or two.  Then, one summer, when we were all at the beach I decided to grab a few cigars for the guys.  At that time I had only been in a real cigar shop once as a child – with my grandfather.  I didn’t know where the things were sold!  I ended up buying even lower grade cheapos than before.  I felt like a hobo.

At the end of the same summer, the family eating at Outback.  I had previously said something about wanting another cigar.  My dear wife remembered and pointed out a cigar shop in the adjacent shopping center!  I ventured in and explained my amateur plight to the shop keep.  He took me into the walk-in humidor (I had never been in one before).  There I saw thousands of cigars of all sorts.  He recommend two mild sticks – an Avo No. 2, natural and a local blend of some kind.  I tried both over the next week – they were excellent.  The following weekend we were back at Outback.  After eating I announced I was going back to the shop for another smoke.  Great was my surprise to discover the place had gone out of business between my trips.  I was sad.

Soon after we went to the mall.  On the way back, my eagle-eyed wife said, “There’s a cigar shop!”  I missed it and kept driving.  Then, a few blocks away, she spotted another one.  I made the turn and found my then cigar home.  Two years later we relocated to Augusta and I discovered Top Shelf Cigars, the finest shop in the Southeast. 

My taste in cigars has changed somewhat over the years.  Newbies generally stick with lighter, milder sticks; the intensity of a full-bodied cigar can be a bit overwhelming to a beginner.  After years of experimenting I have come to love the flavor of dark, full-bodied cigars.  I enjoy rich earthy tones, mingled with hints of wood and leather and spice.  No, I do not have the sophisticated palate of a Cigar Aficionado reviewer.  But, I know what I like and I tend to stick with it.  For my tastes cigars from Nicaragua offer the most harmonious smoking.  Perdomo and Gran Habano are among my favorite brands. 

I also tend to gravitate to larger cigars.  My theory is that a large cigar delivers more flavor per puff.  Perdomo and Gran Habano offer several such titans which draw (deliver smoke) easily and also burn evenly.  Nothing is more frustrating to a cigar lover than a stick which burns unevenly or worse, is hard to draw smoke through.  As with most things, higher quality usually means a higher price – most of the cigars I enjoy run in the $8 – $12 dollar range.  There are however, numerous lower priced cigars suitable for different events.  For instance, while fishing or mowing the lawn, a $3 – 4 stick is an excellent choice.  All of these prices have practically doubled in the short time I have engaged in the cigar sport – mainly due to the government.  Inflation is always at work but cigars and other tobacco products have been singled out for rough tax treatment of late. 

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(A big boy!)

Unlike cigarettes, which are usually consumed out of habit, cigars are made to be enjoyed for their own sake.  The experience contributes greatly to an improved quality of life.  I think with clarity while smoking and I try to treat each cigar as a unique event.  I do not feel a compulsion to smoke just to have something to do.  By the way, those larger cigars of mine tend to last between 2 to 3 plus hours.  Time and economic considerations limit the frequency and intensity with which I smoke.  Most (but not all!) people I know are subject to the same limitations.

Your tastes may be completely different from mine.  Of course, variety is the spice of life.  Fortunately for me (and you), the cigar world offers a wide range of tastes and sizes.  Your local shop probably has several hundred varieties to choose from.  Every once in a while, I like to mix up my preferences.  Tastes may be affected by the season, the weather, a meal, or the complimentary drink of choice (I usually smoke while enjoying strong, dark ale and occasionally a short glass of premium single-malt scotch.  The wonderful thing about cigars is that, as I said, each one (if it’s a good one) is an experience in and of itself.  Once you find your particular favorite(s), you generally are assured of continuous consistency and quality.  The hand-makers of these beauties take tremendous pride in their work and go to extremes to ensure continuity of quality.

The title of this column comes from a poem – a comparison between women and cigars.  It certainly has overt sexist overtones.  Setting aside presumed bias against women, consider it a commentary on the fickle and fallible ways of humans in general; sometimes we’re all just off, great cigars seldom are.  One of the greatest lines in poetic literature:  “A million surplus Maggies are willing to bear the yoke; And a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke.” – Rudyard Kipling, The Betrothed, second-to-last stanza.

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(Kipling in the humidor.)

There is something about the cigar life that naturally entrains itself into the consciousness, particularly in men.  “I’m going to spend half of my money on cigars, booze and women.  I’m going to waste the other half.”  That quote is attributed to either W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, or George Best, or I could have dreamed it up.  Good quote though.  It lends itself to the devotion great cigars imbue in their smokers. 

I suspect a few of you frown on my subject today.  That’s okay, you’re entitled to your dumb opinions.  Some (usually women) find the smell of cigars offensive.  Some argue that, like cigarettes, cigars contribute to health problems.  I do not necessarily agree.  One cigar a day is insufficient to cause any type of harm and the relaxation and enjoyment benefits far outweight any potential problems.  Some historically over-exuberant smokers have experienced problems.  For instance, Sir. Winston Churchill smoked cigars from the time he arose til he went back to bed – for most of his life.  That life was cut short at the disappointing age of 92, it’s likely the cigars may have contributed.

Before I conclude I feel compelled to touch on the peculiar matter of Cuban cigars in America.  Many non-enthusiasts I meet invariably want to know if I have ever had a Cuban.  I have had several, though I never violated any law in partaking!  My personal experience with Habanos has been positive overall.  Cubans are the thing of legend in America due to our government’s idiotic embargo against Cuba.  Most Cubans I have had live up to the hype.  However, to compensate the deprived American market for our loss to government stupidity, non-Cubans manufacturers have dramatically increased their quality.  I would actually prefer one of my Perdomos to most Cubans!  Cubans, by nature, tend to be smaller and milder than I prefer.  However, for what they are, they are terrific!

The embargo began in 1962 as a way of punishing Fidel Castro for his revolution.  Gee, that certainly was worked out for us.  Over 50 years later, he still enjoys his smokes everyday while we are deprived.  I can foresee the day when Cubans are reintroduced into the U.S. market.  There will be tremendous demand when that happens and great disappointment.  This will be due to supply and demand factors.  The Cuban factories already have markets for all they produce (the entire rest of the world).  They will not automatically ramp-up production just for us.  Instead, we will receive the lowest of the lowest of their work.  These are already known as “American Cubans” – they sell them to tourists getting off cruise ships (at inflated prices).  My advice is to hold off until they start shipping us the good stuff.  Then again, we may have to wait another 50 years for anything.

In the menawhile, drop by your local shop and find something that suits your tastes.  You’ll be glad you did.

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