When talking to people about aging cigars, and for that matter smoking cigars, I often find it useful to relate the process and experience to wine. There are a lot of parallels. Grapes and tobacco are agriculture products. From one year to the next grapes grown from the same vines have different qualities and so do tobacco leaves coming from the same field and seed-stock. This all makes sense right? Each year the amount of sun, shade, rain, average temperature, and other daily variations affects how the plant grows.
Once harvested, grapes are crushed and put into tanks where, adding a little yeast, sugar is fermented into alcohol. Tobacco leaves are dried (cured) by hanging in warm airy barns, then fermented by being pressed together into “pilons” roughly 8’x8′ pallets stacked from a few inches off the floor to about 5′ in height. The pressure, heat (135F) and reduced oxygen environments in these dense stacks causes chemical changes in the tobacco that produce all the different molecules (and the carcinogens by the way) that we sense as aromas and flavors in the tobacco when we smoke it. These include esters, aldehydes, alcohols, ketones, lactones, and so many others I’ll just call them “aromatic molecules”. The process also produces huge amounts of ammonia, something you notice immediately when you step into a tobacco fermentation room. Grape fermentation takes a few days. Tobacco fermentation takes some (sometimes many) months while each pilon is regularly rotated (inner leaves going to the outside and outer leaves to the middle) to insure that all the tobacco gets an equal amount of pressure and heat during the whole process.
After fermentation, alcoholic grape juice is typically put into oak barrels and left in a controlled temperature and moisture environment for one to two years, sometimes more. Here the parallel between wine and cigars breaks down a bit. Few cigar manufacturers age their fermented tobacco before sorting the leaves and rolling cigars. Padron is the only manufacturer I know (there are perhaps others) who age their fermented tobacco for two or more years prior to rolling from it.
Once wine has aged for a few years it is bottled. Often bottles are made from a single type of grape. Such wines are called varietals. In California (for example) a wine must be at least 75% from one grape type and one year (it might be a blend of the same grape variety from different parts of the field) to be called a varietal, sirrah for example. But many wines are also blends of several different grapes quite possibly from barrels of different ages. Cigars are almost always like these blended wines. Any number of leaves from different tobacco plants are used in the manufacture of cigars, and the presence of some leaf from long-aged tobacco is common in limited-release blends. Usually the limitation is the amount of aged leaf available to the manufacturer!
Once wine is bottled it is shipped. When cigars are rolled they are rested for two to three months (and sometimes more) in slightly drying conditions. This allows them to shed any remaining ammonia and let the hundreds of different flavor and aroma molecules meld. At the end of this process, the cigar should smoke (burn, draw, smoke-output) and taste more or less as the blender intended. Following this rest, cigars are boxed, shrink-wrapped, and shipped. It’s at this point that we pick up the wine parallel again.
Some time is consumed shipping wine and cigars from manufacturer through distributor to retailer and finally to our hands. Wine is very vulnerable at this stage. Heat a bottle of good wine to 100F in a hot warehouse or truck for a day and the wine will most likely be ruined. The whole wine supply chain normally stays climate controlled. Cigars are a bit more rugged. A few days too hot, cold, moist, or dry doesn’t seem to bother them much. I do not know if cigars are climate controlled in the journey from factory to retailer (for economic reasons I would tend to doubt it) where we hope they are kept properly! I routinely have cigars ground shipped from the U.S. East to West coast in all seasons, a 5-7 day trip. I doubt they are climate controlled anywhere in this journey, although many retailers do put little Bovida packets in their shipments for just this reason. Out of hundreds of boxes a few arrive a little dry or moist, but most are just fine.
So open a bottle of new (say 2 year aged) wine and a cigar ROTT (that’s “right off the truck” if you don’t know that one yet). The wine tastes good, and the cigar likewise. Of course we don’t know how long the wine or the cigar has been with the retailer. With wine this can be a big problem and many aficionados buy their wine directly from the winery — wine clubs are hugely popular in California for this reason. This can be a problem with cigars too, but we rely on our retailers to hold the cigars in a reasonable environment. I’ve received boxes of cigars with two year-old dates stamped into them. All of these cigars were fine, and delicious, but of course I don’t know what they would have tasted like two years prior.
Let’s make believe that our bottle of wine left is barrel and our cigar its factory a few months ago for the sake of comparison. What happens when we leave the bottle and the cigar to sit for a while in conditions appropriate to each? Sometimes some magic happens.
After say a month the wine should not have changed much at all. Wine flavors evolve because hundreds of flavor molecules interact within the wine. The water and alcohol make chemical reactions possible between these molecules and new molecules are produced. This process happens more quickly in the barrel but it continues in the bottle although of course without the barrel’s influence. Cigars are a different story. The cigar’s environment isn’t liquid. Chemical reactions (and molecule formation) in fermentation are a product of heat, pressure and reduced oxygen. Although different tobacco leaves (and combinations of flavor molecules) are brought into contact when a cigar is rolled, there isn’t any heat or pressure to induce further chemical changes that form new molecules except by the break-down of existing molecules.
Cigars flavors don’t evolve so much because molecules are being combined, but because existing molecules break down and/or evaporate! Some of the break-down products of aromatic molecules are also aromatic with completely different contributions to the overall flavor of the smoke. Most importantly, these volatile molecules break down and evaporate at different rates. Resting the cigar causes a slight re-adjustment of proportions in its flavor molecules. In some cases (although this shouldn’t happen) a manufacturer releases a cigar a little too early and there is still some ammonia evaporating from its leaves. It might also arrive a little dry or moist. A few weeks to a month in our humidors will acclimate the cigar to our preferred smoking environment. Often the most pungent and sharp (ammonia being a serious offender here) molecules evaporate the fastest leaving a cigar noticeably more balanced after a few months rest, perhaps something the blender intended.
As rest extends from a few months to a year and more it becomes aging. Wines age slowly protected as they are by thick glass bottles and corks that let, at most, a few air molecules in or out of the bottle. Cigars continue their evaporation/break-down progression. As cigars age over a few years, the proportions of aromatic molecules remaining in them change dramatically and as one would expect this has a great impact on their flavor. Relatively speaking, a wine changes as much in ten years as a cigar does in two. In the wine’s case, some molecules have broken down, while various new ones might be built up but none of these molecules gets out of the bottle! In the cigar’s case, everything is about molecular proportions changing as volatile molecules break-down or evaporate from the cigar.
After two years, a cigar having relatively few aromatic molecules when it was young has almost nothing of them even if the cigar is kept in good condition. The leaf might be perfectly smoke-able, it just won’t have much flavor in it. By contrast a full flavored cigar with relatively many volatile molecules in its youth might still have quite a few left after two years but their proportions will have changed dramatically. Molecules that contributed little to the cigar’s flavor years before might now dominate. After a while most of what is left in old cigar leaf is sugar and amino acids that are too big to evaporate. When burned together they form pyridines and pyrazines which are responsible for the dominant note in cigar smoke (fresh or aged), but do not by themselves have much nuance in aroma or flavor. It’s all the other extras, if any, that add the flavors and aromas we look for in cigar smoke.
Here’s where things get interesting and the cigar-wine parallel comes back full force. Sometimes a good young wine is even better in five years, and sometimes not. If good after five years it might be bad (or even better) after ten. There are wines that are characteristically better or worse aging performers, but that is only broadly true and bottling (different years) of the same grape blend can vary here. In the end, when sampling a ten or twenty year old wine (even kept in perfect conditions) you just have to see how it comes out. The same thing happens to cigars. As the proportions of flavorful molecules change the cigar’s taste profile changes and much of the time for the better up to a point. Most smokers agree that cigar flavors are a bit less sharp, more rounded, balanced, and even a little sweeter after a few months rest. This seems even to happen with cigars whose tobaccos are considerably aged prior to rolling. Sometimes (and much here depends on the individual palate) this improvement continues up to a few years, but sometimes it doesn’t and the cigar becomes hot, flat, and uninteresting.
As with wine there are characteristic tobaccos that age well as compared to those that do not, and at the same time there is a lot of individual variation from year to year and manufacturer to manufacturer. I mentioned palate above. Wine experts tend to agree about a given wine. Most will agree about flavor improvement or lack of improvement and in what way the flavor changes with age. There is much less agreement among cigar smokers. There are cigars I believe taste better fresh and are less flavorful after a year or more. Others will feel just the opposite about the same cigars made about the same time from the same crop! I’ve also had cigars that were, to me, mediocre when fresh (other smokers loved them) that were far tastier after two years forgotten at the bottom of my humidor.
Do I age my cigars? Well I buy cigars by the box and I have many different cigars so even when I’m smoking through a box “quickly” it takes about six months. A box of more expensive cigars goes more slowly and I will always have one or two cigars remaining after a year or more. Finally I have deliberately set cigars aside for two years just to see how they evolved. In some cases the results were excellent, in others, not so much. What about the plastic wrapper on many cigars; on or off for aging? I happen to like the plastic, it protects the cigar, but I often cut the foot off of it to let the cigar breath a little more. I do this when transferring cigars from box to humidor so it just remains that way if the cigar ends up aging. I have however also aged cigars that had no plastic wrap to begin with. If your humidor is properly maintained you shouldn’t have any problem with or without the plastic.
I do urge you to give cigar aging a try if you can, another dimension to the hobby. At the same time I don’t sweat it too much. Most of the time my cigars taste fine ROTT and a couple months rest never hurts them. As I’m smoking mostly less expensive cigars these days the more expensive sticks I yet have are going slowly, but I still smoke them now and then. I probably have a dozen cigars over two years old, but that seems to be the limit to improvement for most and some are past their peak at that point. I recently had a four year old cigar and it was delicious with a rich brown sugar flavor. But it was a one-of-a-kind gift and so I have no idea what it might have tasted like when younger.
This link will take you to a good technical paper on the chemistry of cigar tobacco in particular with comparison to cigarette tobacco preparation. It is heavy on the anti-cancer angle concerning tobacco, but the list of chemicals and other components of fermented tobacco is really good.
Here is a link to another aging essay by RobustoJoe who gets the credit for the pilon picture. On the whole he and I agree, but he claims that fermentation continues as cigars age, something I think is not correct.
Smoke ’em up BOTL and SOTL. Have fun!