Jesus Martinez stands tall and thin, framed by the dark wood of plaques and pictures hung on every wall in Martinez Hand Rolled Cigars on 29th street and 7th avenue, a cubby hole next to a “Lottery Tickets Beer Sandwiches” corner store. Jesus smiles easily, his eyes a little watery, possibly from the pleasant, acrid smoke that doesn’t cloud the air but is nevertheless cloying the instant the door to his store swings open. He speaks quietly; it sounds like he says the store has been open four years. “Forty”, he repeats. The shop is ageless in the way that cigar stores are, filled with old artifacts — a signed photo of Bill Cosby, a seat cushion from a baseball game, paintings of family members holding cigars — hinting at bygone eras but not screaming out specifics. The customers that pop in to buy cigars and shoot the shit are both young and old. That smell, though, the odor of barnyard tobacco and creamy smoke: that’s so pungently ingrained that 40 years seems about right.

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The telltale scent of Martinez’s comes from fermented tobacco leaves. Aging is a well-known part of the cigar-making process. Ask for specifics beyond that fact, though, and things get murkier. Old articles from cigar publications float about the internet with a standard set of information: aging is an important process in the pre- and post-rolling of a cigar, and most major brands do it; many cigar smokers age their own cigars in personal humidors after buying them, for months or years, in order to enhance their flavor; cigars must be kept in a constantly humid environment with steady temps to age without being ruined; aging, simply, makes cigars better. But the deeper questions of why the process works, how long it takes to make a good cigar great, and the exact role of aging before and after cigars are rolled get less attention. Possibly because these answers are lacking, a decent amount of smokers don’t bother with aging at all.

CIGAR AGING BASICS

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The Humidor: Buy one lined with Spanish cedar. Season it correctly.
Humidifiers: Floral foam and sponges are possible options, but you should use humidification beads, gel or packs.
Ideal Conditions: 72 degrees Fahrenheit, 72% humidity according to Jesus; some people say 65-70 for both. Use a hygrometer.
Any Higher And: Uneven burns, mold, and bugs.
Any Lower And: A dried-out, bitter cigar.
Cellophane On or Off: Off.
Aging Different Types of Cigars Together: Do it.
Mixing in Flavored Cigars: Don’t do it.
How Long? 3-6 months makes a difference in taste, according to Jesus. But the longer, the better.
What’s That White Stuff? If you’ve been storing cigars properly, it’s “plume”, which is perfectly safe, and actually a sign of correct aging.

All premium cigar makers — your big players like Ashton, Arturo Fuente and Oliva, along with smaller companies like Martinez — buy filler (for inside the cigars) and wrapper (for the exterior) tobacco from their growers that has been aged roughly four to six years after harvesting. Leaves are aged to create particular aromas, colors, textures, and tastes, all of them involving hanging in dark sheds and barns to dry and then ferment. After they’ve been aged, those leaves are hand-rolled into cigars.

Here, paths diverge. Certain cigars, like those with maduro wrappers (“ripe” in Spanish, they’re particularly dark and oily), retain dampness more than others; Martinez dries these in a special dehumidified shelving system for one to two weeks. The rest go straight into a humidor, where those maduros join them after they’ve dried. Aging at this point for Martinez’s cigars varies anywhere from one to six months, based on the size, gauge (diameter), and makeup of the cigar. This time ensures that the different types of filler tobacco and wrappers “marry” to each other, blending their flavor profiles to create a smooth, singular taste without any of the harshness that comes from “green” or young tobacco. It’s also to ensure an even burn. At the end of this aging process, the cigars are sold.

Until recently, this was often where the intentional aging process ended. Many cigar buyers smoked their stogies immediately or held them until a not-far-off convenient moment. The 1990s brought the “cigar boom”, a time of enlightenment for smokers and thriving publications like Cigar Aficionado. Aging in personal humidors lined with Spanish cedar, for months and even years, became popular as enthusiasts learned how time affected cigars and how growers and rollers used fermentation to craft a unique smoke.

Aging’s cult of patience fits perfectly into the appeal of the cigar, which is perhaps why so many enthusiasts embrace the practice.

While this enthusiast cigar aging movement sounds comparable to wine collecting and aging, it’s nascent in comparison. Wines have been aged for improvement by individual enthusiasts rather than as a production process since the 17th century, when the bottle and cork were invented. This rich history is reflected in massive libraries of books and apps on the topic, which dwarf data on cigars: there are over 225 wine apps in the Apple Store, and less than 50 involving cigars.

But then, cigars have something wine doesn’t: stores that are also social lounges. Dens across the country filled with smoke and colorful characters just like Martinez Cigars offer inexperienced smokers the perfect place to meet experts and aficionado collectors who teach aging and collecting by word of mouth. Cigar lounges are less like bars and more like social clubs; patrons can spend all day bullshitting, debating, watching sports, playing cards or just listening to stories and not feel pressured to spend more than five or ten bucks on a single cigar. These are the homes of cigar culture.

Jesus doesn’t have specific answers about what happens on a chemical level when cigars are aged, but his quiet confidence and knowledge are convincing without data. Aging is a good experience for the smoker, regardless of how much better it makes different kinds of cigars, he says. He’s sure that across the board aging means improvement.

“I have smoked cigars that sat in my personal collection for six or seven years, and you can taste the difference. I don’t know if you’d be able to taste the difference between one year and three years, but you can certainly taste it between one year of aging and no aging at all”, he says. “If you have the right temperature and humidity, the longer the better.”

Conspicuously absent from our talk is the set of standardized rules we originally sought. But in this absence is a challenge: study and experiment on your own with just about any cigar that you enjoy smoking. Learn from experts (or those who think they are) in your local shop; try the same cigar new, and aged for three, six, twelve months. Turns out cigar aging is less about a set of standard rules and more about trying and doing on one’s own.

Aging’s cult of patience fits perfectly into the appeal of the cigar, which is perhaps why so many enthusiasts are embracing the practice. Aficionados don’t have a barn to ferment leaves in, deft hands for tightly rolling fillers and wrappers, or their own store with fervent customers and a sense of place, but through aging in their own humidified box they can be a part of a smoke’s final character. Being part of the creation story of a culturally deified product — just as sommeliers learned before them and beer drinkers are learning now — is an empowering, addictive thing.