With the opening of a few new cigar bars around town supplementing Leaf & Bean’s steady presence in the Strip District, cigars are making a comeback. Culturally, cigars have a lot of context, but to the layperson, smoking them can seem like ritualized mystery. “In Pittsburgh, we get a lot of customers who have never had a cigar before. They are some of my favorite people to talk to. They have so many questions and it’s fun for me,” says Rocky Croyle, bartender and cigar enthusiast at Blend Bar with Davidoff Cigars, in Downtown’s Koppers Building.
Cigars saw their last renaissance in the mid-’90s. “One thing that really helped cigar culture was a photo, I think it was on Time magazine [it was a June 1992 issue of Sports Illustrated] of Michael Jordan smoking a cigar and that brought back this idea that cigars were like a reward for yourself,” says Croyle. “The luxurious thing about the cigar is the time it takes to smoke it. You’re basically saying, ‘I’m not going to do anything for 35 minutes to an hour-and-a-half, except sit here and enjoy this cigar.’”
Before you sit down for an hour with a cigar, there’s a few things you should know that affect the smoking experience. Firstly, there are about 60 different shapes of cigar, but they can be divided into two categories: parejos, which are straight-sided cigars, and figurados, which have irregular shapes. The shape of the cigar, along with its diameter or “ring gauge,” and length, affect the way a cigar burns. Different heat distributions determine how the essential oils from the tobacco are released and contribute to the intensity of the flavor. A classic parejo, which is uniformly rounded, is typically between 5 and 7 inches long. Parejos are relatively easy to roll and smoke consistently. Irregular shapes can offer you different smoking experiences all in one smoke by varying their ring gauges. Figurados are also more difficult to roll and tend to be made by a master cigar-roller, or torcedor.
Most companies have several brand tiers. There are premiums, a mid-level brand, and what industry folk call “golf-course cigars.” Cigar-rollers move up the ranks as their skills progress toward the status of master roller. The cigars have price tags that are dictated, in part, by the roller’s experience and expertise. Prices of cigars vary widely, with some as inexpensive as $5. The world’s most expensive cigar (gold-leaf-wrapped and diamond-encrusted) rings in at $1 million.
And, the cultural image that comes with cigars often involves scotch. There are no hard and fast rules for pairing the two, says Croyle, as long there is balanced flavor and intensity. “Everyone’s palate is different. Find out what they like to eat. What aspects of the cigar or scotch are you trying to showcase?” he says.