It’s election season, which means you’ve no doubt heard someone talk about the now-clichéd “smoke-filled room,” a power center where political masterminds make decisions under the pungent blue haze of cigar smoke.
Election Day may be Nov. 8, but that doesn’t mean an end to smoke-filled rooms – not if Amarillo entrepreneur Todd Dailey and Good Karma Cigar have their say. Located near downtown Amarillo at 1709 S. Polk St., with a sister shop in Lubbock, Good Karma is a cigar-retailer and smoking lounge with an expansive walk-in humidor and an inventory of around 100,000 cigars. As such, it’s become the center of Amarillo’s cigar-smoking scene. With a half-smoked Donkey Droppings cigar in hand (see sidebar), Dailey guides us through the basics of cigar smoking.
Cigar Sizes With names like “Corona” or “Churchill,” cigar sizes aren’t exactly self-explanatory. According to Dailey, only two factors are important to a cigar’s size. The first is its length in inches. Many popular cigars are around five or six inches long, though some may be as long as eight inches and more. The second measurement is a cigar’s diameter, or “ring gauge,” which is identified according to 1/64th-inch increments. For instance, the popular “Robusto” cigar size usually has a ring gauge of around 50, which is a diameter of 50/64ths of an inch. A cigar identified as 7x47 would be seven inches long with a ring gauge of 47.
Today’s cigars are bigger than ever. “For 15 years, we have been marching toward larger and larger cigars,” says Dailey. Twenty years ago, he says it would have been hard to find cigars with a ring gauge higher than 60. “Now we have days where half the cigars we sell are 60-plus.” He says larger cigars tend to last longer and offer more blending opportunities when it comes to the tobacco, but he’s not sure how long the trend will last. “A lot of retail tendencies and consumer patterns are pendulums,” he explains. “Perhaps we’re swimming to the outside edge and we’re about to come back.”
Shapes and Figures The most popular cigars are known as parejos, which have straight sides and a rounded head that must be cut before smoking. Figurado is a generic term that includes any exotically shaped cigar, including tapered cigars, pyramidal cigars, or torpedo-like cigars that taper on both ends. These days, most cigars are classified as parejos. “The shaped cigars come in and out of fashion,” Dailey says. He says unique shaped cigars are like adding a tachometer or date to the workings of a classic watch: “You just add complications and opportunities to make a mistake.”
Anatomy of Taste A cigar body includes the head (the end you smoke), the body (the part you hold), and the foot (the end you light).
But the components of a cigar are what really distinguish one from another. These three main elements are a tobacco-leaf wrapper, the internal tobacco blend or filler, and the binder – the leaves that hold together the filler. Dailey holds up a thick, densely packed cigar. “If you look at this, you would think almost all of the flavor is going to come from the massive amount of tobacco on the inside compared to the thin wrapper on the outside,” he says. “But that’s not the case. Typically the wrapper will dominate the flavor profile.”
Wrappers give a cigar its coloring, from light tan Connecticut wrappers to the darker brown maduro shade. Maduro is Spanish for “mature,” and reflects tobacco leaves that have been subject to a longer fermenting process. While lighter-colored wrappers tend to have a smoother taste, “maduro concentrates the flavors so they intensify on your palate,” Dailey says.
He describes the process of making a premium cigar as more art than science, and says tastes are almost always relative – and might change from one year to the next. Two people could each smoke two high-quality cigars and have different opinions about the taste. “I can taste [two cigars] and really prefer one. You can taste these two and really prefer the other one. And we’re both right,” says Dailey.
Storage in the Desert Cigars are produced in tropical countries like Cuba, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, which are much more humid than the harsh, dry Texas Panhandle. At Good Karma’s Amarillo location, these premium cigars are stored in a two-room, walk-in humidor. Meanwhile, Good Karma’s entire 3,300-square-foot Lubbock location is climate-controlled to keep cigars fresh. Unless you plan to smoke a cigar the day you buy it, you should try to store it in an environment similar to these warm, moist climates.
“Cigars like consistency,” Dailey says. Tobacco leaves are humidified throughout the production process – the aging itself can take years and even decades – and won’t last long outside that environment. A dry climate like Amarillo, where the relative humidity may dip into the 30-percent range, can quickly dry out a cigar’s fibers. “It burns hotter and starts to taste woody,” Dailey says. “At some point, when you’ve lost enough moisture, you’ll start to lose the natural oils [of the tobacco]. If you lose the oils, the cigar’s gone. It’ll never taste the same and you can’t replace it.”
Good Karma places customers’ cigars in specially made resealable bags. “When combined with a small Boveda humidification pouch, the bag becomes a mini-humidor and will keep cigars fresh close to a month,” Dailey says.
However, to keep multiple cigars at once, he recommends investing in a larger-capacity humidor. Though the traditional guideline is to store cigars at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 70-percent humidity, he says this is more of a suggestion than a requirement. For customers in Dallas or Houston, Dailey prefers a setting around 67-percent humidity. “But here in Amarillo, I keep mine around 75 percent, so when I go out on a golf course I’ve got a little buffer – they’ll dry out quickly when I take them out of the travel case.”
The First Cut Don’t learn from those old Westerns where Clint Eastwood bit off the end of a cigar and spat it into the dust before lighting up (or, more likely, chewing it to death). That’s no way to treat a fine cigar, Dailey says. Before being smoked, the rounded head of a cigar must be clipped open to allow a pathway for air and smoke. Double-bladed guillotine cutters provide the cleanest cut, slicing both sides of the cigar at the same time and preventing any tearing or unraveling of the wrapper. Specialty cigar scissors, cigar punches, and V-cutters are also popular tools for achieving a precise cut.
“I prefer to punch a cigar unless it has a pointed head, in which case I clip,” says Dailey. “Cutting styles are really a matter of personal preference.”
Lighting a Cigar When lighting a cigar, not all flames are created equal. Different smokers prefer different methods, says Dailey, but few aficionados will light a premium cigar with a standard BIC® or Zippo lighter, much less a cheap cardboard matchbook.
A poor initial lighting job can impact the burn and draw of a cigar – and therefore its taste. Dailey says odorless, flavorless butane torch lighters burn hottest, offer the cleanest flame, and are easiest to control. “With a cigar, you really need to get all the material at the end of the cigar lit,” he says. “I always use a quality torch lighter.”
Experts recommend “toasting” the foot of a cigar – don’t let it actually touch the flame – while slowly rotating it, before drawing on the cigar. This allows it to heat evenly until the wrapper ignites and its edges begin to glow. With a hot, pointed flame, Dailey says, “you can ‘paint’ any spots that have not begun to combust.”
Once lit, draw on the cigar to stoke the flame. Then, “you should immediately push the smoke you draw in on the first few puffs back through the cigar as they will contain significantly more carbon from the initial ignition, and taste bad,” says Dailey.
The Act of Smoking Unlike cigarettes, cigars are not simply nicotine-delivery systems. “In cigars, the nicotine is really just an accident,” Dailey says. “The entire process for making a cigar lowers the final nicotine level in the leaf.” Instead, the focus of a cigar is its complex blend of flavors. Rather than inhaling a cigar like one would a cigarette, its smoke should be “sipped” once or twice a minute, like a cocktail or delicate wine. This allows the flavors of the smoke to permeate the palate. A good cigar will smoke for up to two hours, depending on its size.
“Cigars are a one-way ticket to ‘me time,’” he says. “They can’t be rushed. They aren’t intended to be. We make them to provide you the opportunity to take some time for yourself. We try to blend them in a way to capture your attention long enough to push away your ordinary cares and frustrations. We want them to be the vehicle to get you to relax, and possibly concentrate on the larger things in life.”
While being smoked, expertly made cigars will result in a large, tight ash. “Buy a good quality cigar and you will hold an ash for an inch or more,” Dailey says. He suggests flicking or breaking off the ash as little as possible.
To put out a cigar, don’t smash it into an ashtray. Instead, lay it down and allow it to self-extinguish.
Dailey shares his favorite cigars for the fall:
Sobremesa Short Churchill $11 Donkey Droppings Electric Amish Pennsylvania Black Label (6x60) $9.25 Dunhill Aged Centanas $12.50 La Palina Goldie 2015 $22 Padron Family Reserve 45-year Maduro $27
S. T. Dupont cigar cutter $210; lighter $220; punch $165
Oliva Series V Melanio humidor $350
Wild about Donkey Droppings
“We are not kidding around about cigars,” says Todd Dailey. “It is our shared passion.”
That passion didn’t just result in Dailey’s opening of Good Karma Cigar in 2010, but in the development of the shop’s own signature-blend cigars named after Good Karma’s mascot, Pedro, a “Cuban ass.” The Donkey Droppings Electric Amish is hand-crafted at production facilities in the Dominican Republic. Another cigar, the One-Trick Donkey, is rolled in Estelí, Nicaragua. The cartoon donkey figures prominently on these cigars' labels – an outlier among the more refined artwork that tends to adorn cigars and cigar boxes. Dailey says that’s on purpose. “We’re big believers in not taking yourself too seriously.”
But the cigars themselves have definitely been taken seriously, at least by connoisseurs in Amarillo and beyond. “It’s a value-priced premium cigar that offers a lot of bang for the buck,” says Dailey. The company's first signature release, known as Donkey Droppings, was a private-label cigar made by the acclaimed Cuban-born Jose Pepin Garcia of My Father Cigars, whose company develops tobacco blends for some of the world’s most prestigious cigar-makers.
Donkey Droppings gained national attention almost overnight. “It became an underground hit,” says Dailey. “Not just here, not just in Texas, but all over the country and a lot of places over the globe.” Bloggers gave it a cult following. Cigar reviewers began mentioning it in year-end Top 25 lists. Smokers were highlighting it on popular message boards and other online forums. “We sold 8,000 units [individual cigars] in 60 days with no advertising, no marketing system,” Dailey says.
Despite having an estimated 100,000 cigars in the shop’s expansive inventory – including a number of nationally recognized, award-winning cigars, Dailey says the four sizes of Donkey Droppings remain Good Karma’s best-selling products. “Maybe that’s because people want to support what we’re doing. I would like to think it’s a little bit of that and because it’s really good,” he says. “It’s a fantastic cigar.”
Are Cuban Cigars Worth the Hype?
As the United States and Cuba ease closer to normalizing relations, many wonder if the mystique of the Cuban cigar – long out of reach for American aficionados – will diminish should they become more easily (or legally) acquired. Todd Dailey believes they’re not worth the hype anyway, for a simple reason: Many of the best cigars on the market today are already made by Cubans who escaped Communism and began practicing their trade in other countries. “Look to the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and right here in the United States of America to obtain the finest cigars in the world,” he says.
Premium cigars are a differentiated luxury good, he explains. Since Communism doesn’t celebrate the individual or reward product innovation, it offers less incentive to create distinguished products. “Cigars were not a Communist idea,” Dailey says. “The cigar itself, and the culture that incubated it, existed long before Castro’s demonic regime ever came to Cuba.”
Dailey doesn’t mince words. As a cigar maker, he’s met people in the industry whose lives were directly impacted by Communism in Cuba. “This topic is a hot button for me,” he says. “I have many, many dear friends who have suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of the Castro regime. I do not support Communism in any shape or form. It is, as Ronald Reagan so eloquently phrased it, ‘The Great Evil.’”
by Jason Boyett
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.