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It’s time for Humidors 101. Get out your #2 pencils and unbox the humidor you got for Father’s Day. If it’s already on your dresser, you might want to start over: Hardly anyone who enjoys cigars really knows how to prepare and maintain a humidor, and countless perfectly good cigars wind up paying the price.
I got a wonderful present this week: a Salerno humidor from TampaHumidor.com. If the life of a cigar columnist were filled with unsolicited $100 bills, I might have bought one sooner. But a cigar column is, I learned quickly, a license to receive free cigars from all over the Western world. Frankly, I was running out of room in the 100-stogey box I got on eBay last year.
This humidor is really, really nice, considering the modest retail cost. It fits 300 cigars in a main compartment and two spacious trays. It comes with two humidification elements and a hygrometer built in to the front panel.
Yes, it’s okay to be jealous.
I was surprised to see that it was made in China, but I suppose that shouldn’t surprise anyone at this stage of the game. (Quick riddle: What do you call shopping at a Wal-Mart in China? Buying local.)
Unboxing a humidor doesn’t immediately make it ready for prime time. You can’t just squirt some water into a humidification module and dump your cigars into a new humidor. Not unless you’re a fan of crumbly — or worse, soggy — cigars. You finally found a great cigar that you really enjoy. Don’t turn that pre-embargo Cuban into a cheap cheroot. (RELATED: Havana comes to Northern Africa)
Here’s a step-by-step guide to avoiding tobacco disaster.
(1) The fancy hygrometer on your humidor is about as reliable as a cheesecloth condom. You have to calibrate it first. Get a bottle cap from a soda bottle and put a teaspoon of salt in it. Then add a few drops of water — just enough to make it moist and mushy. Put the cap and your hygrometer in a Ziploc bag and seal it with some of the air still trapped inside.
After about six or seven hours, the humidity inside the bag will be exactly 75 percent. If your hygrometer doesn’t read “75,” use an eyeglass screwdriver to adjust it from the back. Presto! You’re in business.
(2) Don’t use plain water to fill your humidification device. The best thing to use is a mixture of distilled water and propylene glycol. You can buy 8 oz. of pre-mixed solution at most cigar shops for between $5 and $10. Some people swear by an 80-20 mixture, and other say it should be a 50-50 solution. I’ve never noticed a difference.
Propylene glycol solution usually comes in little squirt bottles, making it easy to “charge” the foam inside your humidification device. Just add enough to saturate the foam. Don’t overdo it.
(3) What the heck is propylene glycol? Good question. It’s the same stuff they use to de-ice airplane wings at some airports, unless they’re using its sister chemical, ethylene glycol. It’s going to form a thin layer on the top of the green sponge that’s at the heart of your humidification element. Think of it as a regulator: It sheds and accumulates moisture to keep things at about 70 percent humidity. Handy stuff.
Note: Some super-expensive humidifiers, like those in Diamond Crown humidors, are designed for water only. Check the label. And I recommend using distilled water so mineral deposits, chlorine and bacteria don’t change the flavor of your cigars.
(4) Your humidor must be humidified before you use it. It’s lined with cedar wood, and it’s bone-dry when you open it for the first time. If you fill it with cigars right away, the humidity will go in the wrong direction — from your cigars to the wood — and your precious Montecristos will be left with all the moistness of billiard chalk. Unless your humidor is at around 70 percent humidity.
So before you start using that new humidor, get it “seasoned.” Fill a shallow food storage container, a soup bowl, or something similar with distilled water and put it inside the humidor. Then fill up your humidification device with propylene glycol solution and put that in there too.
Make sure your hygrometer is calibrated — see #1 above — and check it once a day until it reads 70 percent. Once you get there, you’re ready to open up your own cigar emporium right next to that neighbor kid’s lemonade stand. (RELATED: The whiz kid and his Diesel)
One way of speeding up the process for larger humidors is to soak some cedar strips in distilled water and put one on each shelf. By cedar strips I mean those thin, wooden divider sheets that come in some cigar boxes to separate the top row from the bottom. (Padrón cigars come with them, and some Drew Estates cigars, and probably many others.) Not only will the cedar-to-cedar transfer of moisture make the process go faster, but the whole humidor will smell wonderful.
(5) You have to keep an eye on things — every once in a while. Don’t go overboard checking the humidor every day; it’s not a bird that needs feeding. Most humidification elements can go a month or more without any adjustment at all, provided your humidor has a nice, tight seal.
Just keep an eye on that hygrometer. You did calibrate it, right?
(6) Cigars of a feather get stored together. Ideally, you’d have separate humidors for mild cigars, medium-bodied smokes and full-flavored pepper bombs. (RELATED: Dante’s favorite stogie? Hell yes!)
But let’s be honest: If we had that kind of money, we would just be buying better cigars.
Over long periods of time, different kinds of cigars can transfer their aromas — and some say their flavors — among themselves if they’re stored together. So use those little cedar wood dividers that came with your humidor. If you store cigars for long periods of time, keep them together with their own kind.
If you travel with cigars, of course, it’s fine to mix a handful of selections in a hard-shell case for the road. Your Padróns aren’t going to taste like Partagas after just a few days. But be sure to toss in a Humidipak. Amazon sells them in 10-packs for 80 cents apiece, and they’re well worth having because they turn any small container — including a Ziploc bag — into a portable humidor.
(7) Old humidors can be restored to their former glory. Just follow step #4. You might have to wipe down the cedar lining first, with a clean cloth that you’ve made damp with distilled water. (Don’t ever put propylene glycol solution directly on the cedar.)
Try it once a day for about a week. As soon as you reach the magic 70 percent, you’re good to go. But don’t overdo it: If the wood warps, you’ve got yourself some nice kindling.
Photos by Grae Stafford