Saturday, October 25, 2008

Cigars and finer things

So why cigars? They most certainly aren't good for me; I don't smoke them often enough to be hooked on the nicotine. When I smoked in college, it was pathetic - I had a pack a week habit. I was one of the world's worst smokers.

Some of it is conditioning, I'll grant you. Cigars are supposed to be a Manly Thing; they have been for centuries. I'll confess to buying into the mystique. Freud and the robber barons of the Gilded Age are hard to ignore.

But there's more to it than that.

Cigars share some of the same qualities that fine wine, or bourbon, or even coffee posses. In some ways they're better in theory than in practice - good wine, or coffee, or cigars smell much better than they actually taste. You have to fight your way past a lot of tannin and bitter flavors to find the true character of one of these drugs, too.

And they are drugs. That's something to ponder as well. High-end and elegant, but drugs. There are days when I wonder what, say, marijuana would be like if someone tried to grow it slowly and carefully, instead of pumping out as much as possible as quickly as possible. It might actually be something interesting instead of just a way to get high.

But there's still more. All these fine, wonderful drugs - wine, scotch, cigars, coffee - change as you taste them. A good coffee has a finish, a taste that lingers and changes well past the time it's left your mouth. Blackberries, leather, cloves, vanilla, spice - I've heard all of these things and more applied to coffee and scotch. And the finish, the taste, can change as well with time. It's often a subtle, almost ethereal thing, but it is real and definite, and to skip it by gulping your wine is to miss the better half of the experience.

Cigars have a finish that lasts... well, I can still feel the Punch Motecristo lingering in my pores. It's a little bit of cedar and a strong hint of humidor tobacco, and it's still hovering somewhere between my nose and tongue and in the hand I held my cigar with. And nothing changes and evolves like a lit cigar in your hand. A cigar can start sweet and end peppery, with a host of flavors in between, as the hot smoke travels over unlit tobacco and picks up oils and aromas from the warm tobacco deeper in the smoke.

You have to listen to find these ghostly finishes, these grace notes. That's probably another aspect of the mystique. You have to be quiet and pay attention to what your nose and tongue are telling you. How often do we do that in our world? Just sit and listen to one of our five senses? The exile that a cigar imposes on me - half an hour alone in the dark, smoking, relaxing, listening - can be one of my most treasured quiet times, when doubts and recriminations fall away as I just smell, and listen, and think.

A cigar is probably the most intense expression of that common mystery and focus that spans all the finer drugs in the world. The subtle change, the finish, the lingering ghost of pleasures past... I find these qualities are at their strongest in a mild, well-made cigar.

It's not something I dare try too often, less I end up injuring my health too much - or worse yet, becoming accustomed to an "everyday cigar", and taking some of the anticipation out of the next smoke. But that's all right. Some pleasures are best savored. Mysterious finishes are more magical if they're not everyday things.

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