By Tad Gage
As a cigar smoker, aging a finished cigar is the one aspect of the cigar’s journey that we have some control over. For that reason alone, there’s some fun to be had! You may never quite know what you’ll get, but who doesn’t like playing mad scientist? There are as many opinions on this topic as there are smokers, so I’d like to offer my thoughts – not as a definitive truth, but as something for further consideration.
First, a few truths related to aging a finished cigar I believe are universal:
- Cigars can and will change with years of careful shelf-aging under close to optimal conditions. Exposure to sunlight, extreme temperature changes, or excess or insufficient humidification will lead to ruin.
- Bloom can occur on a properly humidified cigar. This fine, whitish, slightly crystalline occurrence on the wrapper and/or foot of the cigar is generally agreed to be oils/sugars that have emerged from the aging tobacco and have dried. Bloom can range from spotty to covering the entire cigar. It should be carefully wiped off with a tissue before smoking the cigar and is considered a positive indication of significant aging that has no appreciable impact on flavor. More on this later.
- Mold, which is usually fluffy and can be white, gray, black or green, is a disaster indicating over-humidification. Moldy cigars should be tossed and humidity levels adjusted. One can only hope mold spores haven’t spread to adjacent cigars, which should be isolated and carefully watched for signs of mold.
- Finished cigars won’t age or change as dramatically as wine. There is minimal starch or sugar to be converted, and little bacterial, aerobic or anaerobic activity that can take place in a finished cigar. They’re also not like distilled spirits, which don’t change at all after bottling because of the alcohol content and distillation. A single malt Scotch aged in the barrel for 20 years and then bottled will be no different if you open the bottle 20 years after you purchased it. There is, however, a reasonably good comparison to fortified wines like Madeira or Port. While the distilled alcohol introduced arrests most of the wine’s ability to change, subtle changes can occur over time.
- A cigar’s "flavor profile" (as Gregory Pease terms it) should be taken into consideration when aging. In general, robust, full-bodied cigars can be successfully aged longer than mild cigars.
- Bad cigars won’t improve with aging. Aging can’t fix problems like inferior tobacco, insufficient fermentation, or a lack of bale-aging after the tobacco is fermented and before it’s turned into cigars.
- At some point, whether a couple years or a couple decades, aged cigars will start to go flat. If correctly stored, they won’t go bad. They will simply lose some or all of their "oomph" over time.
- My opinions are based on conversations with many knowledgeable individuals who have aged their cigars, and I’ve listened to the wisdom of many cigar makers and tobacconists on this topic. I have been aging cigars for more than 30 years, and my "cellar" has cigars ranging in age from two weeks to 25 years from the time I purchased them.
To Age or Not to Age
In the plethora of cigar and tobacco books and literature in my library, spanning more than 100 years, I find no mention of aging cigars (by consumers) until a couple of decades ago. By default, owner aging might have occurred in large, well-stocked humidors where it might have taken several years to get around to certain cigars; but there is no specific reference in literature to deliberate consumer aging. Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but nothing was written about it.
Some of the aging I’ve done with my smokes has been of the inadvertent nature; I couldn’t resist buying full boxes of cigars I really liked, and as they accumulated over the years, they also aged.
Today, the Internet and smoking lounges are abuzz with discussions of the virtues of aging finished cigars. Many larger smoke shops have dedicated a portion of their humidors to product they’ve set aside, and are offering cigars with several years of shelf-aging. And how cool is it to buy a cigar, or retrieve one from your own cellar, that was great to start with and might be even more intriguing with a few years under its belt?
For this discussion, I’ll assume that any cigar you’d consider for aging is a well-made product with fully cured and fermented tobaccos. These leaves may have aged in warehouses for years before being turned into cigars. So we’re not talking about the age of the crop or the harvest date, but about aging from the time you buy the cigar.
A cigar fresh off a roller’s table can be a tasty experience. While most experts agree cigars benefit from a period of rest after being rolled, allowing the tobaccos in the cigar to marry and the complexity to blossom, smoking a freshly made cigar can be like drinking a young wine – refreshing and enjoyable. If you find a local tobacconist hosting a cigar roller creating smokes for your immediate enjoyment, give it a shot.
That said, it’s fair to say most manufacturers allow finished cigars to rest for several weeks. Brands and blends are isolated in groups. Whether in the manufacturer’s "marrying" room or in your humidor, different cigars will share flavors and lose some of their distinctive characteristics. It’s best to keep them separated during aging to maintain their unique characteristics.
A point of distinction between the Cuban and non-Cuban approach is that finished Cuban cigars are generally boxed and shipped without any in-warehouse aging. Exquisitely fresh Cuban cigars can be enjoyed immediately. However, most connoisseurs believe they need six to 12 months of shelf-aging. For whatever reasons, Havanas go through a rough period where even the finest cigar can range from okay to miserable, much like an under-age Bordeaux wine.
[Editor’s Note: Because Cuban cigars are illegal for U.S. citizens to purchase, or to even consume, whether inside or outside of the United States, this is presented for informational purposes only, and shall not be read as an endorsement for U.S. citizens to buy or possess Cuban cigars. Cigar Chronicles has a worldwide audience, and we present this information for our non-U.S. readers.]
Most non-Cuban cigars are intended to be smoked and appreciated from the moment of purchase. I never hesitate to smoke a newly shipped cigar right away, and judge it based on taste and construction. Aging may be an interesting activity, but it’s definitely not a necessity with today’s fine cigars.
|Tad Gage is the author of the best selling Penguin Books "The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars," in its second edition. The book has sold over 40,000 copies worldwide, in three languages, and is available in stores and online distributors. Tad has made cigar connoisseurship accessible to beginners and veteran cigar smokes alike. He is delighted to answer questions through CigarChronicles.com. Just comment below.|