If You Think Cutting a Cigar is Simple, I Challenge You to Reconsider. Seriously.
The simple answer is that clipping a cigar isn’t very difficult at all, so does it really require much consideration? You whack off the head of the cigar so you can draw, and light up, right? For the truly cutter-challenged, most cheap short-filler cigars come with a pre-punctured head, but let’s not go there.
Sure, you can use one of those cheap (or free) plastic guillotine cutters, and they might work adequately in an emergency. If you’re happy with that cut, drop me a line because I have dozens of unused ones floating around my house in various boxes of junk. You’re welcome to them. I just hate throwing this kind of stuff away, and most have attractive cigar brand logos on them.
If you buy a cigar in a shop, and intend to smoke it there (say, in a comfy lounge), most stores offer an assortment of cutters for communal use. Based on personal experience, they might be sharp—or they might not be, in which case, they might turn your cut cigar’s head into confetti. You won’t know until the fat lady has sung and left the auditorium. Avoid cigar shop cutters!
Okay, rewind. You have a beautiful, handmade cigar that you’ve paid good money for. A lot of care went into creating that cigar, and if it’s a really solid product, a lot of time and trouble was taken to create the cap and the flags of tobacco that envelop it. For instance, when I talk about a triple-flagged cap in my reviews, I respect the fact it took time and care to create this smooth cigar head. There are good reasons for the time and trouble taken, including creating a good mouth feel and a proper concentration of flavors and smoke volume.
So why would you want to hack off half an inch from the head of the cigar, essentially eliminating all the work done to create a beautiful, smooth, flag? The flag isn’t just about the appearance.
Cutting a cigar isn’t exactly the equivalent of a formal Japanese tea ceremony, where servers might practice proper pouring techniques for years before being allowed to serve customers, but how you cut your cigar can, indeed, make a big difference in the overall experience.
My Article, My Opinion
Before I continue, I’ll tell you that I’m going to make a strong case for using a punch cutter on every cigar except figurados with pointed heads and thin cigars like panatelas. See if you agree with me or not. If you want the quick and dirty before I give you my rationale, here it is: buy yourself a quality guillotine cutter for small cigars, figurados, and anytime you just want a straight cut, and buy a punch cutter for any cigar with a flat cap that’s large enough to accommodate it.
For less than $100, you will have two cutters that will last for years, and handle every possible cigar scenario you will ever encounter. The various options for cutting your cigar—V-cutters, punch-cutters, double- and single-bladed guillotine cutters being the most common—are pretty obvious if you surf the Net, but nobody explains the strengths and weaknesses of these cutters, and that’s where I want to weigh in.
First and foremost, don’t skimp; it’s worth spending money for a quality cutter. You can spend hundreds for a cigar cutter plated in gold or silver, but you’re paying for the plating. What you want to be paying for is a super-high quality blade (or blades) that deliver a surgically sharp cut, mounted in a frame that’s constructed to tight tolerances, allowing little or no blade wobble as the cutter does it’s
job. (Obviously, this is not an issue with a punch.) Aesthetics are of secondary consideration; your tastes, and your wallet will guide you, there.
Guillotine (Straight) Cutters
If you spend $3 for a single blade guillotine cutter encased in flimsy plastic, you will be getting a dull blade that will wobble. Even worse is a cheap double-bladed guillotine cutter, because now you have two dull blades that wobble. With a double-bladed cutter, the blades must be stable and perfectly aligned. A cheap pair of scissors with play between the blades will bend and tear the paper you’re cutting rather than providing a clean cut. Likewise, you’ll crush and tear the head of your cigar with a cheap double-bladed guillotine cutter, no matter how impressive it may look.
It’s difficult these days to find a quality single-blade guillotine cutter. I’m not sure why, because these can deliver a great cut. However, the reality is that for a straight cut, you’ll probably be looking at a double-bladed cutter, and that’s great, as long as the blades are sharp, and the case precise enough to prevent the blades from wobbling.
Many high-quality double bladed guillotine cutters require you to press on each side to move the blades. Personally, I like this relatively recent development; you can cradle the cutter comfortably between your thumb and first two fingers to stabilize it. Call it ergonomics. Double bladed cutters with finger-holds at the top and bottom offer somewhat less control. I like to take off as little as possible of the cap as possible, "e;shaving"e; off the flag and leaving some roundness at the head. This requires a steady hand and good control, but it’s easy if you haven’t had too much malt whisky.
The reason I like to shave off the cap is because I like the mouth feel of a slightly rounded head. And when I cut a figurado cigar with a pointed head, I try to take less than ¼ inch off the tip to retain as much of the head as possible. You have to remove enough of the cap to facilitate a good draw, but if you take off too much, you lose the great mouth sensation of having the carefully crafted head.
Zikar has become a leader in offering excellent mid-priced (around $60) double-blade guillotine cutters with side "e;controls."e; You can get fancy with the finishes and spend more, of course. I’m not promoting Zikar, but I think they’ve done an excellent job delivering sharp blades in a tightly constructed metal casing in a variety of cool looks at reasonable prices. I must admit I’ve coveted their Havana series, which incorporates little bits of colorful cigar labels in a lacquered collage. (I always loved making collages in school.) But, at $250 or so, all that hand work makes it a little too expensive for me.
The bigger the ring gauge, though, the tougher it is to manage this "e;cap shaving"e; technique. Most guillotine cutters will handle a 50 ring, but it starts getting dicey to properly fit the cigar into the hole with ring gauges larger than this.
Most scissors style cutters can handle pretty much any ring gauge cigar, but they don’t offer the kind of control possible with a more hand-conforming guillotine cutter, and they tend to be expensive if you want a good one. I don’t like them, and I don’t care how expensive they are or how sharp they are when they’re new; when the blades are dulled, which is inevitable, they’re done, and even the best knife sharpener can’t resurrect them. They might be okay for lopping the tip off a figurado or clipping a small ring gauge cigar, but their lack of control is their downfall. Without that, you can end up with a lopsided angled cut, and there is nothing more annoying than the mouth feel of a lopsided cut. Even worse are scissors cutters that come as part of a kind of Swiss Army Knife collection of cutters, clunky and with a small handles. Really, avoid these at all costs.
Judging by the many antique cigar cutters I’ve seen, this was once the preferred cut. By slicing a "e;V"e; into the head, you get an open draw and still retain quite a bit of the rounded head. This delivers a nice mouth feel. It’s also a popular type of cut delivered by those big, honking tabletop cutters you frequently find in smoke shops. I’ve cut cigars with dull V-cutters and there is nothing worse than having the blade crush the head before ripping out a non-descript chunk from your previously beautiful cigar.
You can certainly find sharp, quality V-cutters that fit in your pocket. But unlike the double-bladed straight guillotine cutters that give you side control, it’s impossible to design a V-cutter with anything but "e;buttons"e; on the top and bottom. The advantage of the V-cutter is that most feature a "e;bowl"e; to cradle the cigar head, creating very good stability as you clip the cigar. The downside is that this is something of a one-size-fits-all approach, so the V-cut on a smaller ring gauge cigar will be much deeper and wider than on a larger cigar. And depending on the size of the cigar, it may not accommodate the head at all.
If you tend to smoke cigars of one size, and you find a V-cutter that properly cradles this ring gauge, and you like the mouth feel of a V-cut, you might enjoy this cutter. If you’re eclectic in your choices of ring gauges, you might find the V-cutter to be the proverbial third wheel in your cutter "e;collection."e; [Editor's note: The Xikar VX is an innovative V-cutter with an inverted blade design that cuts cleanly, accommodates cigars up to 64-ring gauge, and is precise enough to allow cross-cutting of wider cigars.]
My one rule of thumb is to clip as little from the cap as possible to facilitate a good draw. That is a personal preference, but let me explain. I always sip my cigars. I don’t hold them in my mouth, and I certainly don’t chomp them. (I’m guessing you don’t, either). I smoke pipes, and to me, one of the important experiences in smoking a pipe is how nicely a smooth, well-crafted bit feels against my tongue.
When I cut a cigar straight across (excluding cigars with tapered heads, which automatically have a nice mouth feel), I don’t care for the sensation of the tip of my tongue butting up against an accordion roll of tobacco. I much prefer the silky feel of the smooth sides of a well-constructed cap. The less exposure my tongue has to the filler tobacco, the better.
I also believe that the less one intrudes on the flag that has been carefully created, the less likely it is for the delicate pieces comprising the flag to unravel. The more intact this flag remains, the better. Three-part flags, which are the gold standard in cigar head construction, will still fall apart if there is only a thread of tobacco clinging to the cigar, caused by an overly aggressive guillotine-cut. A sharp punch will remove only a small circle of tobacco while preserving the smooth rounded curves of the cap. There is really nothing better than this smooth mouth feel. Using a punch preserves the maker’s efforts to create a nicely rounded flag, and minimizes the chances of the flags unraveling. The illustration provided looks a trifle lopsided, but that’s the photography, not the cut itself. All you need to do is center the punch the best you can, give it a light spin with a bit of pressure to break the cap, and remove. There is no need to take a big plug of tobacco out of the head–just removing the cap will do.
Some smokers say a punch-cut can tend to concentrate tars into a fairly small area, accelerating the buildup of tar and nicotine and generating juice. In 25 years of using punch cutters, I’ve found that if a cigar tends to build tars and juice, it will happen in the same proportions with a V-cut, straight-cut, or punch-cut. I have no personal experience to indicate a punch-cut concentrates tar and moisture.
Punch-cutters have come into their own in the past 20 years. As with a V-cutter, there is nothing worse than a dull punch, because it will simply mash the end of your cigar and will not remove a small and clean plug of tobacco. Some cutters automatically eject the cut when retracted. If not, you can pick out the tiny plugs of tobacco with a pin or pen tip. It’s much easier to find a good punch cutter than it was 20 years ago. A quality punch-cutter will cost you about $30 and the blade is surgical steel sharp. When it stops performing, toss it and buy another. A good punch is basically like a blade bent into around shape.
While there are punch-cutter combos offered by some high-end makers (various sizes of punches), you might pay hundreds for these. I’d suggest the more economical versions at under $50, so you can throw them away when they dull with little guilt, but, even cutters in this price range will cut hundreds of cigars.
The punch is also by far the best cut for huge ring cigars, like Presidentes or Gigantes upwards of 54 ring gauge, and I much prefer it to the guillotine-cut. The punch allows you to enjoy the rounded mouth feel of the finished cigar as you sip the smoke.
So there you have it: a quick dissection of your cutter choices, and my personal preferences. Although it’s a small choice, it’s also the first thing you do as part of your cigar experience. I invite your comments and thoughts about what I’ve written, and your own experiences with this small but important part of the ritual of cigar enjoyment!
|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.|