THE driver smoking an out-size cigar at the wheel of his similarly out-size car always conjures up in me a lively feeling of ill will. Smoking a cigar is essentially an act of leisure, like savoring tea or drinking a julep; it is an adjunct of the contemplative mood and occasion. Motion is the enemy of a good cigar; to smoke one on the move — Churchill notwithstanding — is to lose in the breeze all the qualities that make cigars worth smoking.
Much bogus legend surrounds the cigar. One of our most celebrated columnists once wrote that the smoke from a cigar which had been relighted after going out would include thereby a dangerously high percentage of carbon monoxide. Some smokers believe that the quality of a cigar is evidenced by the whiteness and fineness of its ash, although the ash can prove, by its evenness, only that the cigar is correctly rolled and burning properly.
Aside from a uniformity of color and texture that is pleasing to the eye, little can be told from the outer wrapper of a cigar, and extremely dark cigars are not necessarily “stronger” than those with lighter wrappers. By forcing the curing of the wrapper under slightly artificial conditions, a more even color can be achieved, although some smokers insist on the “naturally” cured wrapper. There are celebrated and expensive cigars in both categories, and I doubt that many smokers could tell the product of one method from 1 ho other, except by the appearance of the wrapper. The best cigar tobacco and the best cigars are t’uban; excellent cigars, nevertheless, are made in the United States from the Cuban leaf. One of the finest originates from a small producer in Boston whose name I have unhappily lost.
Aging is highly regarded by cigar experts. A smoker able to invest in a large supply of really interesting cigars might reasonably allow them ten or fifteen years in storage (under ideal conditions of temperature and humidity) before going to work on them. Cigars in storage are believed to benefit from each other, and are usually kept in open cartons, tied in bundles of fifty or a hundred by a ribbon (yellow). Individual tubes are a great convenience for preserving cigars in small quantities around the house, and the use of cellophane instead of tubes for less expensive forms has greatly assisted the householder in keeping moderate supplies in good condition.
A Cuban confronted by a strange cigar holds it to his ear and gently rolls it between thumb and forefinger, if he can hear a faint crackle, he thinks the cigar is too dry. The experts solemnly warn the smoker to use only a wooden match in lighting a cigar, lest the fumes of lighter fluid somehow damage the bouquet. I doubt that any cigar is susceptible of that much effect from a pocket lighter, but I have deferred to the experts with a compromise: I will use, at a pinch, a paper match.
Cigars are in a class by themselves as the best possible gift for anyone going to England to take along. Havana cigars are practically unobtainable in London, except at a few expensive shops and restaurants. The cigars, incidentally, ought to be acquired on the boat, where one avoids both American and British taxes and the price of the best cigars in tubes is roughly 50 cents.
In the absence of Havanas, the British smoke cigars from Jamaica or Malaya. These are a baffling experience. They look all right, they are in excellent condition, but they lack the underlying flavor and aroma of Cuba. There is nothing disagreeable about them, they have none of the horrid qualities of a disastrously bad cigar; but like the draught beer and ale in England, they have no message for the consumer. The London price of a good Havana cigar — if you can find one — runs as high as one pound. The climate and the absence of central heating combine to make the closet of a bedroom in almost any London house a first-rate storage place for cigars. My London host on one occasion last year had built up, in the pre-war period, a superb collection of Havanas — around 10,000 at its peak, and now down to a mere 1500 or so. The choicest were a Jot of 2000 which he had picked up at an estate auction in 1938, and which were certified to him at the time as twenty-two years old.
“I suppose they are now five to eight years beyond their peak,”my host explained. “I began using them up about three years ago, whenever anyone came along who enjoys cigars, and I am halfway through the very last box.”
We spent the next hour trying to decide whether he had done the cigar an injustice. It did seem to have lost a shading of its bouquet, yet all in all it was about as agreeable a cigar as I have ever smoked. Unfortunately, for host and guest alike, only the male tourist is allowed to bring any cigars at all into England, and he is limited to fifty, even though he might be eager to pay almost any amount of customs charges in order to bring in a larger quantity. Women arc not allowed to bring in any cigars, and I still hope to see this antifeminist regulation tested someday in the British courts. I don’t think the government could ever make its position stick against a persistent litigant, especially if she happened to be a cigar smoker herself. And this leads me to suggest that any woman who is troubled by an addiction to cigarettes should have a try at cigars — without inhaling them — before accepting defeat. The brand would be Punch, as good as any in the world, and the shape, only slightly bulkier than a cigarette, would be Exquisitos at about 28 cents each.