Smoke Signals

By Alan Hughes
Lounging in a soft leather recliner after a long day, a single malt scotch or port in one hand and a premium, hand-rolled stogie slowly smoldering in the other is Nirvana for many cigar lovers. Unfortunately, smoking restrictions in several states prevent communal gatherings of smokers. But even with the loss of many cigar bars, production of and interest in cigars remain high. Each year, about 320 million handmade cigars are sold in the U.S., according to the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America. Among the country’s many retailers is Johnny Drake, co-owner of Renaissance Cigar Emporium ( in Harlem. He and his partner, Harold Span, understand why state laws haven’t dimmed enthusiasm. “It’s all about the experience,” says Drake, 40, about the popularity of premium cigars. “Every cigar is different, and each one comes with its own experience.”

Like fine wines, cigars come in a range of flavors, from creamy and smooth to rich and spicy, and selections are guided by personal taste. Smoking a cigar can provide a satisfying close to a great meal or a complement to a variety of spirits–the most popular being port, scotch, and brandy. Drake recommends mild cigars for novices. “As they develop a palate, they can move on to either a medium- or full-bodied cigar.” Stogies at Renaissance Cigar Emporium range in price from $5 to $35 per cigar.

Of course, there’s etiquette: Aficionados know to inspect before smoking. A good cigar should be firm but soft; a leathery wrapper is a good indication of a well-made cigar. It shouldn’t crackle when rolled between the thumb and forefinger; if it does, the cigar may have dried out. Before being lit, cigars must be cut, always with a cigar cutter. There are several cutting options, and each affects the draw; the most popular is the guillotine-like straight cut. To fire it up, use a wooden match or cedar strip and slowly rotate the cigar over the flame while puffing until it’s fully lit.

Humidity is both friend and foe to cigars. If a cigar dries out (which can happen within a week or two), it’ll burn too fast and may develop an unpleasant taste. Damp cigars tend to not stay lit and have a hard draw, so a good humidor is a must. According to Drake, cigars should be maintained at around 70% humidity and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidors are sold in a wide range of sizes, shapes, and prices, and a cigar retailer can help you decide which is best for you. For more information, visit,, and