Cigars are hygroscopic in nature. In lay terms, this means that they will, over time, dry out in a dry climate or absorb moisture in a humid one. And they will continue to do so until their own moisture content matches that of the ambient climate around them.
A damp cigar will not burn properly. Not only will it be difficult to keep lit, but also difficult to draw on. The smoke may become too dense, leaving the smoker with a sour taste and a rank odor. Also, over-moist cigars will frequently split their wrappers.
A dry cigar will burn too hotly. Without the proper level of moisture, the combustion temperature of your cigar will be too high and the smoke will be hot and acrid against your palate. The smoke may become overly aggressive and you will lose many of the subtle flavor nuances that a properly humidified cigar would have given you. Also, the drier the cigars, the earlier their essential oils will evaporate, which reduces their overall flavor and aroma.
Typically, for the most enjoyable smoking, a cigar should be maintained at 60-70% relative humidity. "Relative humidity" (RH) is a measurement of the amount of moisture in the atmosphere compared with that of complete saturation, regardless of the temperature.
The primary criterion in proper cigar storage is achieving a stable relative humidity within this ideal 60%-70% RH range. The secondary requirement is to store the cigars at temperatures near 70 degrees Fahrenheit and, thirdly, in a darkened environment. Doing these three simple things allows your cigars to not only be stored well, but also to age well, resulting in cigars that will draw easily, burn steadily, and share their optimum flavor and nuances with your palate.
A humidor is simply a well-made box designed exclusively for storing cigars. Many of the better ones have lift out trays and dividers, which are of great benefit. These features help you organize your cigars and allow easy access to the cigars you might wish to smoke at any given time.
Humidors come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. Some are simple, classic designs, while others are wildly exotic. Humidors can be quite expensive, so you should view a wide variety and take your time selecting one. A good humidor should not only serve your needs, but aesthetically pleasing as well.
Most humidors come with Spanish cedar lining inside. Spanish cedar lining is a big plus. It serves three functions:
Look for a humidor with quality workmanship throughout - tight seal, good corner joints, perfect hinge installation, etc. A good humidor will be heavy and solid, and this is essential to prevent warping. Remember, a humidor endures a tremendous amount of stress. For example, in the winter where I live, the heat runs constantly. This causes an indoor ambient humidity of roughly 30%, yet my humidors maintain a constant near 67% on the inside. This type of immense relative humidity delta puts a tremendous strain on the wood and the joints of any humidor.
Breaking in your New Humidor
The first step in breaking in a new humidor is to be absolutely certain that your hygrometer is accurate. To do so, perform the "Salt Calibration Test" included in the Hygrometer section below.
A brand new humidor requires time to reach the appropriate humidity. Depending on your climate and how dry the wood is, this can take as little as a few days to upwards of a few weeks.
You can speed up this break-in period by wiping the insides down with a towel moistened with distilled water. BUT be very careful to not overdo it: if you do, you will cause an ugly water stain on the inside of your pristine humidor. Also wiping the inside can cause the interior liner's grain to rise, this is why it is very important not to overdo the water at this stage. Using a 50/50 solution of propylene glycol and distilled water to saturate your humidifier, you then place it in the humidor. Allow the humidor to settle for 24 hours, check the humidity and add more water if needed.
After your humidor reaches 63% or so, it is a good idea to introduce your cigars to it. A humidor will stabilize better and more evenly when 75%+ of its volume is full. Try to maintain this volume of cigars at all times if possible. Open- air space inside a humidor is your enemy. (By the way, this is an excellent and legitimate explanation to give your spouse as to why you MUST buy another two boxes of your favorite cigars.)
Lift-out trays and moveable dividers are a big plus when selecting a humidor, particularly if they are made of Spanish cedar.
Make certain that there is room in the lid for the humidifying device you will utilize. You don't want wasted space simply because your humidifier hangs too low in your humidor.
Also, make certain that all exterior sides of the humidor are sealed, including the bottom.
Remember that size claims of being a 25/50/75/100/200+ capacity humidor are typically based on corona/corona- extra-sized cigars. If you primarily smoke large cigars, it is important to adjust these numbers as appropriate.
Maintaining your Humidor
Add distilled water to your humidifier when the relative humidity begins to dip. After the humidor has been stabilized, this dip should occur slowly and steadily... 69%, 68%, 67% and so on. Typically, I add distilled water when I hit 64% or so. Remember DO NOT saturate the humidifier, but only moisten it! This is the biggest error most new humidor owners make. Keep in mind that a humidifier not only raises the humidity to 70% RH, but it also lowers the humidity when it exceeds this level. Therefore it is essential that there is room left within the humidifier volume to absorb the excess moisture if necessary.
Only use distilled water. Tap water has chemicals and minerals that you do not want in contact with your cigars as they age. Also, tap water contains organics and is prone to developing mold. Distilled water is the only readily available water that is free of both mineral and organic impurities.
Do not be overwhelmed about the RH humidity. Any number between 64% and 72% is fine; the truth is every cigar smokes differently. Some will be best at 68%, while other less-tightly-rolled cigars will burn better at 72%. Some people like their cigars even drier and try to keep them closer to 60%. Ignore what everyone tells you about 70/70 and experiment with slightly drier and wetter humidity levels until you find what you like best. Personally, I prefer 65%-67% RH as the ideal relative humidity.
Temperature control is not nearly as critical as the humidity. Any temperature between 50-75 degrees is fine. A couple of notes though; at the lower temp, the aging process slows down, while at the higher temp, the hatching of the dreaded tobacco beetle is a potential risk. More importantly, always keep your humidor out of the sunlight - being bathed in the sun's rays drastically escalates the internal temperature within the box. Also, never place it on a television set or near a stereo system, as any such electronic device will generate considerable heat.
There are two types of humidifiers you can use: active and passive. Active humidifiers are electrically powered and typically utilize a built-in electronic sensor to determine whether they should add moisture to the air. A few top-end units will also extract extra moisture content from the air, but most do not. Typically, these units are very expensive and are intended for use with large furniture-size humidor cabinets. However, there are a few on the market for smaller humidors. One distinct advantage of active humidifiers is that you can easily set most to maintain a lower relative humidity if you so desire.
Passive humidifiers do not rely on any power whatsoever, are of simple design, and utilize basic vapor conduction to regulate relative humidity. These devices are typically inexpensive and serve almost everyone's humidifier needs. Even though passive humidifiers are not as sophisticated as active humidifiers, passive humidifiers are very capable of providing a stable environment for your cigars. Not only are they utilized in desktop humidors, but in large cabinet-size ones as well.
Passive humidifiers are traditionally constructed of sponge, clay, or oasis florist foam encased in a perforated container. The foam is moistened with distilled water and then placed within the humidor. Of the three materials, clay is the most durable, while the oasis foam is the best for regulating because of its open-cell structure, which allows it to retain large quantities of water. Any of the three are functional, but personally I recommend the green oasis florist foam.
Passive humidifiers control the relative humidity within your humidor by hydroscopic interaction with the air's moisture content. In lay terms, it basically expels moisture from the humidifier when the ambient relative humidity is below 70%, and absorbs water when the ambient relative humidity is above 70% RH. It accomplishes this task via the chemical propylene glycol (PG), which acts as a hydroscopic control agent. Most passive humidifiers are charged with a 50/50 solution of PG and distilled water.
Propylene glycol (PG) is an inert chemical that is used in a wide range of products, including animal feed, hair-care products, medicines, etc. It is safe to handle and is non-toxic. It can be purchased quite easily at your local cigar store fairly inexpensively.
When the humidity in your humidor dips below 70% RH, the PG expels the water contained in the humidifier. When the relative humidity is over 70%, it absorbs water. This is why it is critical to never overfill your humidifier, as it needs room left over in order for it to absorb excess moisture if needed. Over time, the PG will expend all of the water contained within the humidifier (assuming you live in area with a lower than 70% RH) and you will need to add more distilled water. You do not have to add more PG though, as it will remain in the humidifier until you rinse it out. In addition to its regulatory properties, PG also serves as an anti-bacterial agent that will help prevent molding. Generally one small humidifier will take care of approximately 40-50 cigars. Adjust the amount of humidifiers based on the size of your humidor and remember:
A humidifier can never be too large, bigger is better with an emphasis towards more surface area rather than thickness.
Always remember; never overcharge a humidifier with distilled water.
Always use distilled water. It will prevent clogging and is far less likely to cause molding in your humidor. I am always amazed by people who say their tap water is "this and that" filtered perfect H2O... Don't be so cheap! You are storing cigars worth hundreds of dollars so the extra $0.99 a gallon for distilled water isn't going to kill you.
All passive humidifiers require a couple of days to settle in after being initially charged. Do not expect your humidor to be at 70% RH in just a few hours.
Most importantly, all humidifiers are going to regulate within a range of the desired RH; do not wig out over yours being a few percentage points off.
Advancements in Passive Humidifiers
In recent years, a couple of alternative to regulated foam-style passive humidifiers has been introduced to the cigar smoking public.
The first is units utilizing Cross linked Polyacrylamide Humidity Crystals. These are beads of silica gel bound with a salt derivative designed to retain and expel large quantities of water. When treated with Propylene Glycol these dioxide beads work to maintain the same basic relative humidity hysteresis loop of 70% RH. Many people swear by the performance of these new crystal based humidifiers. Two distinct advantages are they require less refilling and, when packaged in a clear housing, allow for an easy visual cue when additional water is required.
The second is the use of newly developed hybrid latex foams as the unit's "sponge." Many are capable of holding extremely large quantities of water while others actually regulate the RH without the use PG. The controlling agent appears to be the foam's cellular membrane structure. I have limit experience with these units, but they seem to provide a very stable RH.
Hygrometers measure relative humidity and are commonly used by cigar smokers within their humidors to verify that the proper humidity level is maintained.
Both mechanical and electronic hygrometers are available. Typically, the mechanical ones are more attractive, while the electronic ones tend to be more accurate. But this is not always the case. Sadly, many hygrometers, both mechanical and electronic, are grossly inaccurate and require either adjustment or replacement. One of the easiest methods of verifying the accuracy of your hygrometer is to perform a "Salt Calibration Test."
Without boring you with the chemistry of why, let me simply state that this test will always result in achieving the exact relative humidity level of 75%.
Salt Calibration Test
Place the tablespoon of salt within the bottle cap. Slowly add distilled water to the salt while stirring with the coffee stirrer. You want to add just enough water to moisten the salt so that it becomes a thick paste. Do not add enough water to dissolve the salt!
Place the bottle cap with salt gently into your plastic bag then add your hygrometer. Make certain that the sensor is exposed and not being blocked by the sides of the bag.
Seal the bag - this test will not work if there are any leaks. Then put the bag in a place out of direct sunlight and with a stable temperature.
Leave undisturbed for a minimum of 8 hours.
Check the reading on the hygrometer through the plastic bag. It should read on or near 75% RH.
Due to the salt paste reacting with the confined air the ambient RH within the jar will be exactly 75% RH. Most inexpensive hygrometers are only accurate to within 3% of 75% RH, so do not be surprised if yours reads 72% or 78% RH. Whatever it reads plus or minus from the 75% benchmark is the amount of error of your hygrometer.
What you do about an error depends on the circumstances. If your hygrometer has an adjustment potentiometer then, by all means, try to tweak it to exactly 75%. You should repeat the Salt Calibration Test after making any adjustments. If your hygrometer can't be adjusted but the reading is close, then I suggest you don't worry about it; just remember that your hygrometer is X% off - either high or low.
If the reading is grossly in error and you are unable to adjust it, I suggest you replace it.
And finally, let me say that hygrometers are not the final word on humidity. You will find over time, you will be able to judge the relative humidity within your humidor by simply touching and smoking your cigars.
A humidor is NOT essential to cigar storage. In fact, there are many inexpensive and effective methods for maintaining and aging your cigars. Three of the most popular are "Tupperdors", "Igloodors", and "Fridgadors."
A "Tupperdor" is nothing more than a plastic, re-sealable food container. You can use Tupperware or any other similar product. These are inexpensive and very effective. Simply add a humidifier and you are all set. Many people place those cedar separator sheets that come from boxes of cigars on the bottom of their "Tupperdors" to introduce the element of Spanish cedar. Remember to store your "Tupperdors" in a cool, dark place.
An "Igloodor" is simply a large ice cooler like those made by the Igloo or Coleman companies. They come in a wide variety of sizes with the most common being a 48 qt. model (but I know many people that utilize the giant 128 qt. Models). This is an ideal way to store full boxes of cigars very inexpensively. Some people line the interior by attaching Spanish cedar with a non-toxic, scent-free adhesive, and others even create dividers. You can make a large humidifier, but one of the easiest solutions it to place a trimmed brick of oasis foam in the small plastic tray that many coolers have. "Igloodors" are also commonly referred to as "Coolerdors."
A "Fridgeador" is the ultimate in alternative cigar storage. Basically you utilized an unplugged refrigerator or freezer to store large quantities of cigars. A standup freezer is ideal with its well-spaced, ample shelves as it allows for easy organization of your cigar collection.
There are only two minor drawbacks to using these for long-term cigar storage: