Cigar history is directly tied to the history of human tobacco smoking. It is an ultra-refined, even elegant descendant of what began (in what is now Central America) as the simple act of smoking bundled up tobacco leaves. That process may be as many ten centuries old, perhaps older, and would eventually evolve and spread throughout modern South America and the Caribbean. Columbus’ late-15th century arrival in the New World would soon see him acquainted with tobacco, which itself found markets in Spain, England, and elsewhere throughout Europe.
In 1730, a little over two centuries after Columbus’ first experience with tobacco, the word “cigar” would enter the English lexicon. It was derived from cigarro (the Spanish term for what would qualify as a modern cigar) which itself is possibly traceable to “sikar,” the Mayan term for smoking. That connection may be apocryphal, but that would amount to an unbelievable coincidence. After all, the Spanish are credited with having opened New World agriculture to the Old World, a process which typically sees linguistic exchange take shape.
In fact, the modern cigar would not materialize in a clearly recognizable form until the eighteenth century. The cigar requires filler (leaves), a binding agent, and a wrapper. All three are essential to the cigar formula, regardless of its shape, leaf concentration, and size. And on the topic of cigar sizes, there are a few points of knowledge any aspiring aficionado should keep front of mind.
Cigar Sizes and Ring Gauges and Gauge Tools
Cigar size is measured both in its length, which is measured in inches, and its diameter. The diameter is broken down into ring gauges which uses a measurement unit of 1/64 inch. The term vitola is used for a cigar’s combined length and ring gauge. The length is easily understood – measure one end to the other using inches as your unit. As for the diameter, a cigar measured at a ring gauge of 32 is 32/64 inches. Simply put, it is half-an-inch in diameter.
There is no industry standard where cigar ring gauge and length is concerned. Cigars are as long in inches and as thick in ring gauges as the market requires. There was a time when cigars were comparatively small by modern standards. Anything over 48/64 of an inch would have been considered somewhat thick in diameter.
But times change. Nowadays, cigars typically fall in the 5 x 48/64 to 6 x 52/64 range, though there exists a broad regional variance stemming from distinctive regional tastes. What is important to bear in mind is that length and ring gauge are closely intertwined where the taste and style of a cigar is concerned. The two dimensions tell connoisseurs a great deal about what they can expect from a cigar.
A certain length-to-width ration might suggest a milder taste, a slower burn, or a heightened concentration of flavors. Each of the prevailing cigar shapes tends to fall within a loose length/width range, though with considerable overlap between them. Use a cigar ring gauge tool or chart to determine where specifically your own brand/style falls diameter wise.
Certain cigar shapes are characterized by fluctuating thicknesses throughout their length. Those that bulge in the center require a high skill-level to properly roll but can possess richer combinations and concentrations of flavor. Perfecto cigars are a prime example thereof.
Cigar Sizes: Large and Larger
For every product in existence, there is an envelope to be pushed. Cars engineered to exceed freeway speed limits three times over, clothing designed to challenge fashion standards, and cigars rolled to be impossibly large in length and ring gauge. Whereas a 40/64 ring gauge was once a perfectly acceptable and rather common cigar diameter, that figure has increased somewhat in recent decades. American appetites, in particular, have seen a rise in demand for cigars in the 50/64 to 52/64 range, with 54 ring gauge cigars not all uncommon. These, though somewhat girthy in appearance, are at least manageable in the hand and can be easily smoked in a single sitting. They are substantial in mass, but this lends itself to stronger tobacco concentrations and flavor variations. If rolled well, a 6 x 54/64 can be possessed of slow-burning, intensive tobacco concentrations in large enough quantities to be enjoyed over a patient evening of measured smoking.
Can that much be said of a 100 ring gauge cigar? Perhaps, but the envelope is easily pushed to its breaking point with such a gargantuan roll. At nearly twice the diameter of what would already considered a thick cigar, a 100/64 ring gauge is almost too cumbersome to be comfortably smoked. That said, there are those who welcome the idea of smoking a seemingly unwieldy cigar. If nothing else, the presence of something so outlandishly sized suggests the 50/64 to 60/64 range will forever seem modest by comparison.