Cigar Anatomy 101

Like every organic entity, cigars and pipes both possess a describable anatomy with two obvious commonalities: they have an end to be smoked, and an end to be smoked from. Here I seek to describe that anatomy, at least in the blanket sense, to offer a better understanding not just of the constituent parts of cigars, but of their function and impact on the overall smoking experience.

The key difference between pipes and cigars is that cigars are made entirely of tobacco, while most pipes are made from briar and vulcanite (or acrylic). While some may say that it's absurd to compare pipes, themselves a smoking instrument, to cigars, smoked tobacco, I would posit that cigars themselves comprise both the tobacco and the instrument as a whole, as they are made to smoke and be smoked from.

There is also the immediate issue of ephemerality, something that becomes apparent the second you touch flame to the end of your cigar, as, unlike pipes, once the cigar is smoked, you are left with naught but ash and the pleasant memories of your smoking. In some regards this is unfortunate, even tragic, as these wonderful rolls of tobacco are brought into this world through painstaking labor, possibly the end result of years and years of blending work and aging, to be enjoyed only once before disappearing in a cloud of its own smoke, never to be seen again. However, the transient nature of their existence is part of what makes the experience so special, like a lovingly cooked meal, a fine wine, or an unrecorded musical performance.

The Main External Parts of a Cigar

The Main Parts of a Cigar, How Cigars are made

The external anatomy of the cigar starts with the main body which is called the barrel. The barrel comprises the entirety of the cigar and all of its parts, including: The cap, the shoulder, the head, the body, and the foot. This means we refer to the entirety of a cigar in a structural sense, not as an object, as the barrel, eg: in an exasperated tone, "I can't believe I forgot this cigar in my pocket. I sat down, and now there's a crack down the barrel!"

    There are three main external parts of a cigar:
  • The Head
    • The Cap
    • The Shoulder
  • The Body
  • The Foot

The Head of a Cigar

The head of the cigar consists of two distinct parts, the first of which is the cap, arguably the most appropriately named part of the cigar, and this term refers specifically and exclusively to the small flap or flaps of tobacco that cover the head of the cigar. The cap must be cut before smoking, lest you wish to be left holding an expensive incense stick that constantly goes out and offers only abject misery and indescribable rage. Alternatively, you can smoke backward, drawing from the end that is meant to be lit, but this strategy may anger the smoke gods as it contradicts the careful construction and design of both the rollers and the blenders. The function of the cap is simple, but necessary: It keeps the internal components (which I promise we will get into) together before and during smoking, ensuring that nothing shifts before you light up or unravels as you sip your smoke.

In regard to the shoulder, the second part of the head, the exact beginning and end depend on what kind of cigar you are smoking, being long in some shapes and quite short in others, but generally refers to the area where the cap meets the body, usually extending just a touch to include the rounded or sloped portion near the bottom of the cap, hence "shoulder." This is more of a generalized location than an exact one, though the importance of this feature cannot be overlooked, as this position determines where a cigar should be cut so as not to unravel it by cutting it too far, and is where the cap joins the wrapper, acting to keep the cigar together even before cutting.

The Body of a Cigar

The middlemost segment of the cigar and also the longest, the body determines the overall shape of cigar, as it holds the various tapers and flares that are indicative of particular profiles. The body's most important function is determining the timeframe for your smoke, with longer, thicker cigars ensuring a lengthier burn time than their shorter or thinner compatriots.

The Foot of a Cigar

The final conceptually anatomic part of the cigar is the foot, which, as you may have guessed, is the end that is ignited. There are a fairly wide variety of feet that can be observed in the cigar realm, including the shaggy foot (defined by an extended bunching of filler tobacco that extends past the wrapper line), the covered foot (one which is, well, covered by an extended wrapper), the tapered foot (which is smaller than the diameter of the body by way of a sloping taper), and the open foot, which Is the most common variation. It is worth noting here that there is an associated technique for lighting the foot, known as toasting, which is a very gentle application of flame to the foot, usually with a soft flame lighter at a greater distance, rotating the cigar in the fingers to promote more even distribution of heat. Much like the charring light of pipes and pipe tobacco, toasting a cigar's foot allows for an easier full light, as well as a fuller release of flavors during the smoke itself, though it's recommended to omit toasting with a covered foot for better appreciation of the flavor provided by the extra wrapper.

The Main Internal Parts of a Cigar

The layers of tobacco in a cigar, too, have a distinct anatomy, though more concrete than the exterior structure, with three separate, observable layers that each serve a unique purpose. These three layers are: the wrapper, the binder, and the filler, ordered here from outside to inside. Each of these core components have multiple varietals or utilize leaves from specific parts of the tobacco plant, and there are even certain classifications of leaf that can be created only through painstaking aging or growing processes, especially in regard to the wrapper leaf.

    There are three main internal parts of a cigar:
  • The Wrapper - the outer most layer of a cigar
  • The Binder - the thin middle layer of a cigar and integral to proper construction
  • The Filler - bunched tobacco that forms the inner most portion of the cigar

Cigar Wrappers

Cigar wrapper, the outer-most parts of a cigar | cigar anatomy

The wrapper, the star of the show so to speak, is the primary component when first viewing a cigar, save only for the band, and, as such, manufacturers strive for perfection, both in appearance and in texture. There should be no tears, no holes, and no substantial veins, though small veins are inevitable. The wrapper serves three purposes: to cover the filler and binder, to entice the smoker with its uniform color and clean lines, and to provide the vast majority of the flavor.

Texture isn't necessarily smooth, because there's a certain aspect of some leaves that is known as tooth, and a toothy wrapper is recognized by its distinctive "bumpy" texture. These small bumps are pockets of oil which develop naturally, peppering the surface of the leaf and intensifying the flavor. The wrapper also happens to be the most labor-intensive component of the cigar, not only because of its exacting requirements, but due to the production necessities of two very popular varietals: shade grown (most often Connecticut shade grown) and Maduro.

Maduro leaf requires an intensive process of curing and fermentation beyond the usual, with a process that includes multiple re-bundlings, high temperatures, and lots and lots of time, resulting in a leaf that is dark, thick, and dense with flavor. Shade-grown tobacco is somewhat self-explanatory, though even then is mind boggling, as the entirety of a shade-grown crop must be grown underneath cheesecloth or a similar screen, limiting its exposure to the sun in order to produce light, almost blonde leaves that offer a smooth, creamy flavor experience.

Some of the most common wrapper varietals are:

  • U.S. Connecticut Wrappers
  • Ecuadorian Connecticut Wrappers
  • Connecticut Broadleaf Wrappers
  • Oscuro Wrappers
  • Corojo Wrappers
  • Habano Wrappers
  • Sumatran Wrappers
  • Cameroon Wrappers
  • Candela Wrappers

Cigar Binders

Cigar binder, the layer between the inner and outer-most parts of a cigar | cigar anatomy

Binder tobaccos, for me, are the most underappreciated components of a cigar's construction, as they're the least visible and offer the least in terms of flavor, often rendering them forgotten. I have not forgotten. Binder leaf is instrumental in what is, in my opinion, the most important part of the cigar smoking experience aside from flavor: consistency of burn. The binder essentially acts as a guide for the other tobaccos to follow, ensuring an even burn all around to avoid such lamentable travesties as canoeing (when one side of the tobacco stays solid and the other burns down), running (a seam-like, out of control burn that, well, "runs" down the barrel), or splitting and spilling ash that invariably falls into your lap. Binder leaves are cured for a shorter time than others, and are also cured differently, being bunched and hung in pairs as opposed to being sewn together, avoiding any holes in the leaves so as to encourage an even burn and hold the filler in place.

Binder leaf is instrumental in ... consistency of burn

Cigar Fillers

Cigar Fillers, the inner most part of a premium cigar

At last we come to the filler, the final component in the construction of the cigar, and another contributor to burn consistency when rolled properly. As opposed to the other leaves present in a cigar's construction, the filler consists of multiple leaves, each of which can originate from different countries and different locations on the plant, enabling the blender to experiment freely with combinations, altering the grouping as subtly or as flagrantly as they wish, approaching their vision with small steps and broad strides alike. It takes a talented torcedor (roller) to fashion these leaves in just the right way to perfectly complement and enhance the wrapper flavor and filler aroma while providing excellent airflow and, yes, a consistent burn as well.

That consistency is essential in avoiding a particular burn flaw in cigars that, for me, is the most harrowing of all, the hardest to fix, and the most difficult to detect: tunneling. Tunneling results when the bunching of the filler is too loose in places, though usually not enough to affect the airflow in an appreciable way, and which gives the burning tobacco license to burn faster. As the burn line slowly meanders down the barrel, this site of expeditious combustion opens a hole in the bunching, resulting in an incredibly airy draw that is nigh impossible to draw smoke from, requiring faster and harder smoking and potentially causing more burn problems. One may hope that a continued cadence will motivate the cigar to fix itself, though usually it does not, leaving a cigar that has gone out, or a hot, messy, under-flavored disaster. This is why expert filler bunching is so important, not simply because of the understated, ingeniously blended bouquet that it maintains, but because it averts tunneling and plugged draws.

This is why expert filler bunching is so important

One final element of the cigar pertains to the types of fillers, of which there are two major categories: long and short. Of course, there are also types of plants, leaf primings, and curing processes that differentiate fillers (as well as wrappers and binders), but in the wider sense of cigars, this will suffice for now.

What are long fillers?

Long fillers are those that are exclusively made up of full length leaves of tobacco that run the entire length of the cigar, either folded to fit or rolled as is, but never cut before being rolled.

What are short fillers?

Short-filler generally describes tobacco that is chopped before being put into the bunching, either in large or small pieces, or even scrap pieces from other blends. Generally speaking, however, short filler cigars are found most commonly in gas stations and are often of sub-par quality when compared to their long filler kin, so much so that one of the markers of a true premium cigar is its use of long filler tobacco.

This semi-basic overview of the general anatomy of the premium cigar is by no means all-encompassing, and there will be more advanced investigations to follow, including detailed looks into the processes, techniques, and aging methods that make these magical tobacco products so wonderful. We all start with the basics, however, and build from there, advancing onto the mountain of intrigue that is the cigar industry.

Cigar wrappers, the outer most part of a premium cigar
Category:   Cigar Certified
Tagged in:   Cigar Basics Cigars


    • Robert Hall on March 7, 2022
    • Very informative!

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