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Stew Cues: Serving cigars takes some know-how

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Stew Cues: by Alene Keenan

As a nonsmoker, cigar service onboard seemed intimidating to me at first. I’ve found crumbly, dried up cigars in some humidors, while other boats have expensive, carefully tended selections to offer owners and charter guests. A proper humidor is required to keep cigars fresh. The interior should be temperature-controlled at around 70 degrees and kept at around 70 percent humidity. There a few basic things stews need to know about selecting, cutting and lighting cigars.

Cigars are rated by experts and the description of a fine cigar rivals that of the finest wine. To purchase cigars, know the size, shape and strength that guests want to smoke. A larger cigar takes longer to smoke. The strength of the smoke is determined by the wrapper of the cigar. The price is usually a consideration, too.

Most cigar smokers start out with mild cigars, but as their palate adjusts they want fuller flavor and strength. There are over four dozen wrapper leaf colors that distinguish the flavor. All tobacco leaves are originally green, but aging and fermentation results in different hues. The four major wrapper designations are Connecticut, Corojo, Habano and Maduro.

The Connecticut is the only noteworthy export from America. It is grown in Connecticut under special shaded conditions that keep the color light. The Corojo is darker, with a spicy, peppery flavor. The Habano has heavy, spicy flavor that is often too strong for a beginning smoker. The Maduro’s color varies from dark brown to almost black. It has a stronger taste, ranging from chocolatey to spicy and peppery.

The shape and size of a cigar are important factors in choice.  There are two basic shape classifications: straight-sided and figurado. The tapered shapes of some cigars concentrate the smoke for a fuller flavor. The wider the cigar, generally the more full-flavored.  A long cigar smokes cooler.

Cigars are often sold by the box, but can be purchased individually, too. Handcrafted cigars can range from $5 to $50 apiece. As with most luxury products, the price may affect the consumer’s expectation and perception. There is not always a correlation between price and quality. The flavor is mostly about the blend, and what really matters is enjoyment. Price is based on factors such as the availability or rarity of the tobacco, the skill of the blenders, where it is produced, how long it is aged  and other factors.

Cutting and lighting are next. They are part of the ritual of enjoying a fine cigar, so very often guests will want to do these steps themselves. The goal of cutting is to create an opening to smoke through without damaging the construction. A quality cutter with a very sharp blade is important. A bad cut can ruin a cigar, making the end split and the wrapper unravel.

There are three basic styles of cutters:  Wedge cutters create a V-shaped opening; punch cutters make a small, round hole in the cigar; and guillotine cutters make a straight cut. A double-blade guillotine cutter has two blades that pull apart, creating an opening for the cigar. On most cigars, a good rule of thumb is to make the cut about one-sixteenth of an inch from the head of the cigar, or just above where the side straightens out, known as the shoulder. A sharp motion makes a clean cut.

Lighting is not easy. A cigar fights the flame. Keep the cigar just above the flame without allowing it to touch. Slowly ignite the cigar, rotating it to create a glowing ring around the circumference, making sure no single spot gets too hot. After about 15-20 seconds, blow on the cigar embers to see that it has been lit evenly. Next, the smoker should take a draw to see if it is ready to smoke.

Standard-flame, double-flame and torch lighters all use odorless butane gas. Avoid lighter fluid, regular stick matches and candles. Lighter fluid emits an odor that affects the flavor of the cigar. Regular stick matches don’t burn long enough. A long cigar match makes sense, but after striking it, always  let it burn a bit to allow the sulphur and phosphorous to burn off. An elegant way to light a cigar is with a cedar spill. Every time you buy a box of cigars, take out the cedar sheet that it comes with and break it into long sticks, called cedar spills. Light the spill and use it to light the cigar, taking plenty of time to slowly toast the cigar to just the right state.

It can take a long time to smoke a cigar – time for reflection, conversation, reading a good book or simply enjoying the nuances and complexities of a fine cigar. Cigar smoking is all about relaxation and pleasure.

Alene Keenan is lead instructor of interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale. She shares more than 20 years experience as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht,” available at yachtstewsolutions.com. Comments are welcome below.

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