I get asked this question a lot, of course by people who do not smoke cigars. Even cigarette smokers do not “get it”, though pipe smokers mostly do. In trying to answer this question here, that is where I live on the once flower-powered central California coast, I find the answer that elicits the most comprehension is one that compares cigars to wines. They have a lot in common.
Why to people become wine aficionados (technically known as oenophiles)? Well, of course there is alcohol which makes you high, but people who take their wine seriously are not drinking to get drunk. If they were, there are far cheaper wines and of course beers, than the ones they are getting from specialty liquor stores, tasting rooms, and wine clubs. The same is true for cigars. There are lots and lots of cheap, machine rolled cigars having plenty of nicotine. If a smoker is looking for that, there are easier and less expensive ways to get it than by smoking more expensive, hand made, boutique cigars. In both cases, something more is going on.
Wine comes from grapes, a natural product grown on vines in fields. Cigars are made from tobacco, another natural product grown in fields. Grapes are crushed and filtered. Cigar leaf is hung in airy barns to “cure” which is to dry them a bit. Grape juice is fermented into new wine, more or less of the sugars in the grape juice are converted into alcohol. The new wine is then put into barrels under climate controlled conditions to age. It is in this step that all of the various flavor compounds one tastes in wines are produced as the wood of the barrels, the little bit of air that gets through the wood, and time itself works its magic creating hundreds of different molecules that were never present in the original grape juice. The barrel aging can take from one to several years. After curing, cigar leaf is fermented. This is a different sort of fermentation than for wine. No alcohol is produced, but sugars and many other compounds in the tobacco leaf are turned into many many other compounds, potentially hundreds of them. Wine fermentation is a short process, a few days. Most of wine’s flavor compounds are produced in the aging step. Cigar fermentation takes place in big cubical piles called pilons and takes not days but months. Most of tobacco’s flavor compounds are produced in this step as are, alas, most of its carcinogenic compounds.
After barrel aging some wines are bottled, but just as frequently, aged wine from various barrels is blended with wine from other barrels. These wine in these additional barrels might be of a different age, type of grape, or both. The blends are then further aged in barrels to allow their different components to meld and produce yet more flavor compounds. Cigar leaf is taken from the pilons, sorted, and rolled into cigars by combining leaf types in various blends. Sometimes before this step it is left to age in big bales for months and in rare cases years. Rolled and blended cigars are then left for a few months (again sometimes years) in climate controlled rooms where there various tobaccos further meld their flavors.
Lots of parallels here. Vintners decide how to blend their wines to achieve various flavor profiles. Much of the time they do not know exactly how they will come out, but as long as the results are complex and taste good they succeed. The cigar world has its own version of the vintner, the blend designer who decides what proportion of what sort of leaf goes into a finished cigar. Like the vintner, they do not always know exactly how things will come out, but as long as they achieve a good tasting product with a complex flavor profile, they have succeeded. So both wines and cigars have many things in parallel, and enjoying a finely crafted cigar is much like enjoying a well made wine and the parallels do not end there, for of course besides flavors there are the aromas of both. Wine flavors are described in terms of fruits, sweetness, tannins, and flavor products of the barrel, oak, other wines, even sometimes “tobacco flavors”. Cigar flavors can range in many directions from sweet nuttiness, to vegetal, leathers, chocolate, coffee, fruit and many more. As with the wines, these are not full on flavors. A wine doesn’t taste like cherry juice, but rather might carry hints of cherry. Similarly, a cigar doesn’t taste like a mouth full of roasted mushroom or pecan, but only suggest hints of such flavors.
Besides the creation of cigars and wine there are a other parallels. Cigar smokers often buy boxes of cigars. Some are smoked soon after purchase and some are put away in humidors for months or even years. As cigars age in appropriate conditions (see my humidification articles) their flavors continue to evolve and enjoying those changes is very much a part of the cigar smoking hobby. Oenophiles buy cases of a favorite wine and store bottles in climate controlled conditions opening a bottle every few months to see how they are coming along. Like cigars in a good humidor, wines continue to evolve in their closed bottles. There is some luck and judgement involved in this. Not every wine ages well for years and the same is true for cigars. But this is much less the case for whiskeys and rums. A sealed bottle of whiskey sitting in reasonable conditions (mostly not too hot or cold) will taste pretty much the same when opened a year or even 5 years down the line. I suppose there is some evolution of flavor over many years, but I do not know of any whiskey/rum drinkers who put cases of their favorites away for decades.
Of course there are also aspects of cigar smoking that have no parallel in wine drinking and those would have mostly to do with construction. After all pouring one wine into a glass is pretty much like pouring any other wine into a glass, but cigars have to be elaborately and (one hopes) expertly constructed so that they deliver their flavors without being clogged or burning unevenly. An ounce of wine is an ounce of wine, but two different cigars of exactly the same size and shape can deliver the goods over widely varying times. I have some 4″ cigars that smoke as long as some 5″ cigars and that doesn’t mean either is bad, only that how the cigar is constructed and the types of tobacco used make for those differences. Similarly, most wines are blended to finish up in the bottle at 12% alcohol by volume. By contrast, depending on the tobacco used the amount of nicotine delivered by a cigar can vary greatly.
So no, the parallels between wine and cigar appreciation are not exact, but there are enough of them so that any wine aficionado should be well able to understand why it is that people who know, enjoy cigars! Once the parallels are understood, the reasons for smoking cigars are as similar and varied as reasons for enjoying wine. One builds up an expertise in the subject from pure experience. It is a hobby and as such relaxing. Then of course there are the pleasures of the aromas and flavors. It’s all in what you like, and what you like grows with experience. The Next time someone asks why you smoke cigars, tell them about wine!