Expert tips on how to enjoy a cigar like a pro

Paul Phiri, owner of The Cigar Bar Experience.
Paul Phiri, owner of The Cigar Bar Experience.
Image: Lesedi Mothoagae

We get it, cigar smoking is not for everyone. Largely perceived as somewhat of a niche and cliquey experience, there may be many who have wanted to try, but feel like they don’t even know where to start. Enter Paul Phiri, owner of The Cigar Bar Experience. The 36-year-old got into the cigar life during his days as a cognac ambassador, after becoming fascinated with how people reacted to different food, drink, and cigar pairings. He gave us the lowdown on how to join the cigar-smoking clique. 

What is the difference between a cigar and a cigarette? 

Firstly, you inhale a cigarette and it’s just made out of one type of tobacco. When you get to cigars, you don’t inhale. Cigars are all about the taste — they’re made differently, and there are three types of tobacco in cigars.

Why shouldn't you inhale a cigar? 

You can’t inhale a cigar because of the intensity. Also, if you inhale, you’re going to have diarrhoea.

Are there different flavours? 

There are different flavours. We don’t call the ones that are flavoured cigars, we call them cigarillos.

How long does it take to smoke one? Can you put it out for later? 

Yes. A good cigar will last you between 45 minutes and an hour, so having a good cognac, good wine, or good champagne alongside your cigar is really nice and it blends the taste together. It’s a savouring type of occasion.

Is there a certain type a "cigar virgin" should consider? 

For somebody who’s really starting out, I really think that the Oliva Serie V are very good cigars. It’s a Dominican cigar and a short cigar; it will last you about an hour and a half.

How can we tell if something is wrong with it? 

The best way to tell if the cigar’s good or not is to take it between your thumb and middle finger and gently press it. Place it next to your ear — the more crackling you hear in the cigar, the drier it is, which is not good. It’s like a dry leaf, so you don’t want the cigar if it’s crackling or the wrap is peeling off.

How do you prepare a cigar for smoking? 

First, you take the end where it’s rounded off. You cut it with a cutter, or you can punch it. A punch is where you make a small hole where you’re supposed to put your mouth. Then you can light it using a piece of cedarwood, a very thin, lightweight wood. It’s better than using a lighter because with a lighter, all the gas gets trapped where the tobacco is burning. The most authentic method is wood, but you can use long matches as well. Roll the cigar clockwise or anticlockwise between your fingers and turn it while you are lighting it so the fire is evenly distributed. After that, you simply puff.

Do we need to pair it with a drink?

I really enjoy pairing my cigars so if I have a glass of whisky or cognac, I puff the cigar and blow the smoke into the glass. What happens is the smoke and the aromas come together every time you have a sip of your whisky or cognac.

What's the best time to smoke a cigar?

After a good meal. So after dinner, you have your little nightcap, if you may. That’s the best for me.

What should you never do when smoking a cigar?

Don’t blow it in anyone’s face. Don’t buy one that’s too cheap. Entry-level cigars cost about R150, but it goes all the way up to R1 500. Those cigars are 15-year-olds, in the same way you have 15-year-old cognac — the wrap is dipped in cognac and kept dry for 15 years.

This article first appeared in print in the Sowetan S Mag September 2019 edition.