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|| News Item: Posted 2000-07-28

The Count on Cigars: How to Choose a Good Cigar
By Eric Risberg

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"A well chosen cigar is like armor and is useful against the torments of life. A little blue smoke mysteriously removes anxiety." -- Zino Davidoff

Summer is in full swing, and many of you will get a chance to get outside for a smoke -- maybe during a walk or while playing golf or relaxing by the pool. Ever wondered what makes a cigar a good cigar? Here are a few tips on what to look for, followed by a few of my choices for summer golf-course cigars.

Key considerations: construction, tobacco and consistency In looking for a good cigar, considerations have to be made regarding price, taste, packaging, the way it looks, and the name. With taste being paramount on both a subjective and personal level, the key elements are quality construction and quality tobacco, but mostly the consistency of both. Think of it in terms of golf: a golfer is rated by the number of times the ball lands in the fairway from the tee and number of greens reached in regulation. It's the same with cigars: Many can make good cigars, but the best producer will develop a way to do it right almost every time. While some of the best tobacco is grown in Cuba, the quality of their cigars is often disappointing due to a lack of consistency coming from years of increased production. Some of my favorite cigars are the ones that I come back to because I know that they will be consistently good and not taste much different than the one I had before.

Construction and appearance The construction of the cigar is essential to achieving good taste and aroma. The single greatest complaint about cigar construction is overfilled cigars that are plugged and very difficult to draw on. This results in a low volume of smoke, less taste and aroma, along with frustration for the smoker. If a cigar is underfilled, it will draw easily, but the easy draw will be accompanied by hot burning and harshness.

Here are some things to watch for in the construction and aesthetics of a cigar:

--The cigar should burn evenly all the way down. Uneven burning is the sign of an improper roll.
--Ash should be firm and should reach an inch in length without difficulty, except in the case of small ring gauge cigars.
--The cigar should feel firm and resilient in mouth.
--The cigar should look good and feel good to the touch. It should have life - that is, it should squeeze without breaking and should revert to its shape when released. It shouldn't be too spongy or too firm.
--Rolling should be firm, but again not too firm. Too much firmness in a cigar may be a sign that it is rolled too tightly. Look at the foot of the cigar to see if it is overfilled.
--The wrapper should not have too many blemishes. Also, the wrapper should not be dry and unraveling. This is the second most frequent complaint among smokers.
--The color in box should be consistent. A manufacturer who pays close attention to detail makes sure all the shades in the box match.
--The cigar should feel smooth when you roll it between your fingers.
--The box should appear neat.
--High price does not guarantee a good cigar. Remember, prices can vary greatly.

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Good old tobacco An essential part in having good taste is having good tobacco. If taste and aroma are to be good, the manufacturer needs to have a consistent supply of the same types of tobacco and a large enough supply to properly age the tobacco and have enough stock on hand for varying crop years. In addition to having the resources of laying down supplies of tobacco and expertise, tobacco needs to be properly aged. Here are some signs that it is not aged properly:

--Harshness or bitterness on the tongue, lips, and mouth.
--Heartburn in the chest cavity.
--Cigar keeps going out.

When this happens, the manufacturer is not making a consistent use of tobaccos and is probably using the tobacco before its time. This was one of the big problems during the cigar boom of the mid-1990s. People were rushing to cash in on the cigar boom and started buying up what tobacco they could find to make a quickly-produced product that was hurried to store shelves.

Consistency and aroma In order to determine consistency, you need to smoke the exact brand and size of a particular cigar several times to draw your own conclusions. Remember that the same cigar blend in a different size of cigar tastes different -- sometimes vastly different. Thus, if a manufacturer excels at making a great robusto, it does not necessarily follow that the same manufacturer will make a churchill that will be as good or consistent. Also note that cigars will taste differently depending on when they are smoked, such as after a meal, indoors, outdoors, with coffee, etc. There can be slight variations.

In addition to using taste, sight, and touch, I think that the smell of a cigar is a good indicator as well in finding a good cigar. Before it is lit, a good cigar can shed a fragrance and offer a bit of preview of the flavors it will release. Ordinary cigars will have ordinary tones. A good cigar will have any number of fruity, spicy, or woody fragrances.

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Cigars for the course. Here are a few smokes to check out the next time you're on the links:

Ashton Churchill. $7.75-$13 a stick. Big cigar -- 7.5x52 size, creamy, toasty aroma, very consistent, great draw. Mild flavor. My favorite golf cigar.

Hoyo de Monterrey Excalibur #1. $5.75-$8. 7.25x54 size. Another big cigar, great value. Full-bodied. A lot of golf shops are selling a Hoyo #1 golf pack. You get four cigars with a few Maxfli golf balls for $20-$30. Perfect for your foursome. (Lenny Ignelzi's all-day cigar!)

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Padron 3000 in the maduro. $4-$7. 5.5x52 size. Not quite as big as the other two cigars. A medium to full bodied smoke with a sweet maduro flavor. Burns very easily. (Rich Pilling loves these on the course first thing in the morning.)

And to keep these babies lit when the wind is blowing, I have found a great inexpensive torch lighter called LaserJet that sells at Long's Drug for under $10. Until next time,

The Count.

(The Count, Eric Risberg, is a staff photographer with the Associated Press based in San Francisco, CA.)

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