I make no claims as to the originality of the information contained in this article. Anything I know about cigars and their behavior I have learned from those more experienced and wiser than myself, and from a little personal experience that I have picked up along the way. Cigars as they age pass through four distinct phases of development. These are in order; the sick period, first maturation, second maturation, and final maturation. For this article we will examine each in turn.*
The sick period, is a period in a cigars life which happens when the cigar is newly rolled. You can identify sick cigars as they will have a very ammoniac smell to them. This ammonia is the by product of the beginning stages of fermentation. How long the sick period lasts is determined by many causes, the rate of fermentation, packaging of the cigars, storage conditions, and lastly the tobacco itself. One thing is for sure, cigars in the sick period should not be smoked as it is definitely a waste of a good cigar. Timing the end of the sick period is more art than science, and it is hard to lay down any time frame. Generally, though the sick period seems to last from one year to as much as five years for stronger cigars. After coming out of the sick period a cigar enters into its period of first maturation, which we will examine next.
As cigars mature, the bitter tastes associated with the nicotine subside and this allows the rich flavors within the tobacco to become more apparent to the smoker. The time of first maturity is a time in the life of a cigar when many of the flavor producing oils are present and the nicotine has broken down to levels generally expectable to most people’s palates. The exact time which first maturity occurs is different with each cigar, and also dependent upon the individual preferences of each collector. However some general guidelines can be illustrated. For milder cigars around 2-4 years would be a safe expectation. For medium bodied smokes 5-7 years seems to be a good rule of thumb. Cigars which are very full-bodied take the longest time to loose their bitter tannic flavors, and as a result can be expected not to reach first maturation until they are 7-10 years old.
Second maturation is the result of further fermentation in the tobacco, as more and more of the tannin and nicotine are broken down into simpler elements. Tannin is broken down into simpler molecules called phenol molecules, these are the molecules which when burned, thereby being mixed with oxygen, produce the aromas, and flavors associated with a fine cigar. This stage of maturation may not occur in a cigar for 15-25 years, and with milder cigars may never occur at all. By this time, almost all tannin should be gone, revealing a wonderful bouquet of aromas that were not even noticeable at the first stage of maturation.
Final Maturation, occurs, at its earliest, at around 20 years and continues for the rest of the cigars life. To smoke a cigar that has been properly aged at around 25-30 years of age, is to know how good a cigar can be. In my experience, smoking these cigars can best be described as transcendent. The flavors and aromas tasted on the palate and in the nose, are unlike any tobacco flavors, and ought to be experienced by every collector.
*The terms first maturation, second maturation, and final maturation were first used, as far as I know, by Min Ron Nee in his book An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Post-Revolution Havana Cigars.