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Wall Street Journal / Life - Entertain

I’m Taking a Cigar Break. See You in Three Hours, 26 Seconds

Competitive ‘slow smokers’ use gentle puffs, moist palms, strategic ashing to see how long they can keep a single stogie lit. ‘Dancing on the edge of not smoking.’


Charles Passy

There have been plenty of famous cigar smokers. Winston Churchill, George Burns and Groucho Marx come to mind. There’s also Bill Hroncich.

Mr. Hroncich, a 57-year-old resident of Hazlet, N.J., who works for a pharmaceutical company, has a rare cigar-related claim to fame. He can keep a stogie going for a long time without relighting.

“You have to puff gingerly—just enough to keep it hot,” said Mr. Hroncich, whose cigar-burning time of 1 hour and 37 minutes earned him the title of U.S. slow-smoking champion at a New York event last year.

The trouble with cigars is that they go out. Now dedicated cigar fans are trying to master “slow smoking,” seeing just how long they can keep the flame alive. That takes practice and creativity. It also yields prizes, handed out at special events from Chicago to Croatia.

In fact, it is in the latter locale where slow smoking largely evolved, courtesy of Marko Bilić, a cigar enthusiast who calls Croatia home. As Mr. Bilić explains, he was out one night almost a decade ago with a friend at a bar. The two planned on enjoying a smoke, only to discover they were down to their last few matches—meaning there was little to no opportunity for relighting.

Julian Riley, a slow smoking competitor, lights his cigar as contest begins.Photo: Siemond Chan/The Wall Street Journal

The idea was born to keep their cigars lighted for as long as possible under those challenging circumstances. “We said, ‘Man, it’s like a competition,’ ” recalled Mr. Bilić.

Mr. Bilić turned it into just that, hosting what has become the world championship in Split—Croatia’s second-largest city—where he owns a cigar shop. He helps support the slow-smoking community and the events that often serve as qualifiers for his tournament, where more than 100 contestants from 25-plus countries come to compete.

In addition, Mr. Bilić establishes the rules that guide the sport (and yes, he very much considers it that). All cigars used in events must be the same size—around 5 inches. Competitors must also refrain from talking during the first five minutes to maintain a proper air of decorum.

In any case, die-hard slow smokers say that to talk while smoking is to risk losing focus. The art of the slow burn, they explain, is about minding your cigar every second, giving it just enough of attention—think “gingerly” puffing—to ensure it stays on the right side of being lighted. “Dancing on the edge of not smoking” is how one competitor described it.

Contestants try to keep cigars going at slow smoking events. Photo: Siemond Chan/The Wall Street Journal

Patricia Benden, a cigar retailer who lives in Germany, attends slow-smoke events throughout the world. Her personal best is an approximately 2½ hour smoke time. Her success is all based on the quick, short puff. “Usually when I smoke, I take longer puffs, but during competition, I try to take short puffs so the cigar doesn’t get too hot,” she says.

The best smokers have pushed the burn past two hours. In 2017, Tomasz Żołądkiewicz, a cigar fan in Poland, crossed the three-hour mark—3 hours and 26 seconds, to be exact—an achievement many in the slow-smoking community speak about with the same awe that others have reserved for the great athletic benchmarks of the past century, like running a mile in under four minutes.

“A few years ago, we thought three hours was unimaginable,” said Darren Cioffi, a veteran slow smoker and owner of the Principle Cigars brand. His top time is 2 hours and 50 minutes.

He advocates a “three stage” approach to puffing, starting with “slow, delicate puffs” to get the cigar gently going. In the second stage, the “puffs are a little more intense” to keep it on the right side of burning. And in the final stage, the “puffs are more shallow”—just to keep it barely going.

He also suggests “ashing”—tapping the ash off your cigar—as little as possible. The reason? “When you ash, the cigar is at a vulnerable state. You’re exposed to elements.”

Darren Cioffi advocates a ‘three stage’ approach to puffing. Photo: Siemond Chan/The Wall Street Journal

Some slow smokers emphasize the lighting aspect. If they get just an edge of the cigar going—rather than the entire “foot” or end—they believe they can add several minutes of burn time. The risk, however, is that if you don’t light enough of the cigar, it can easily flame out, which means you’re playing with fire, literally.

To make sure he doesn’t puff too aggressively, Rob Potter, a software specialist and cigar fan who lives in Hendersonville, Tenn., always smokes two cigars before competing. “You’re not going to want to smoke your third cigar fast,” he explains.

Chase Lyle, who owns Primings Cigar Lounge and Bar in Nashville, Tenn., has kept a cigar going for roughly 2 hours and 45 minutes. “Everybody has a different strategy,” he says. “You have to learn what’s going to work for you.”

He is careful about trying to find the right cigar, but says it can be unpredictable. “A cigar is a handmade product,” he says, pointing to the variation from one to the next. At one event, he says, his cigar had a “weird burn” which affected his ability to keep it under control and rack up minutes. “It was burning in a spiral pattern.”

Felix Paredes, owner of Harlem Cigar Room, a New York emporium that often stages slow-smoking events, holds his cigar such that it can almost pick up the moisture from his palm. The idea is that the dampness can stifle the burn, but Mr. Paredes knows he is in jeopardy of violating the sanction against wetting the cigar. “It’s cheating, but it’s not cheating,” he said of his practice.

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In a recent slow-smoking attempt, Mr. Paredes kept his cigar lighted for a paltry 14 minutes and 40 seconds. He blamed it on losing patience and not being in sync with his stogie, comparing his situation to a golfer who rushes through 18 holes. “It’s allowing you to pace yourself,” he said.

Achieving greatness means putting in lots of practice, which, in turn, means reeking of cigars all the time, slow smokers concede. It can also mean subjecting yourself to a fair share of ridicule. “I’m sure there are people who get off on that, but I’m not one of them,” said John Rosselli, a former cigar retailer in New York, planning to open a store soon. He said the only way he would host a slow-smoking event is if he was “compelled by a court order.”

After claiming his U.S. championship, Mr. Hroncich—who describes himself as a “casual” smoker—said he has no plans to defend it. “I made my mark and I’m done,” he said.

Write to Charles Passy at cpassy@wsj.com