Alongside temperature, humidity is crucial to our personal comfort. In winter, as furnaces remove the water from the air in our homes and humidity drops, I often get dry skin and lips, and even nose bleeds. Those who live in the south where humidity is high will sweat constantly even when it is relatively cool. The importance of humidity extends beyond our personal comfort though, and effects both whiskey and cigars. Dry or wet conditions can lead to cracked wrappers or mold, respectively. Similarly for whiskey, whose corks expand and contract with changing humidity, potentially breaking the seal on your pricey investment.
So what exactly is humidity and how can we control it? Relative humidity, which expresses the amount of water vapor in the air as a percentage, is the most commonly used measure of humidity. Thus 0% means no water is present in the air, whereas at 100% dew begins to form. As a general rule, 35-50% humidity is comfortable to people, and is a desirable range for most households. Also, it is important to limit the variability in humidity. Natural materials such as cork, tobacco leaves, and wood (if you’re a guitar player, for instance), expand and contract with changing humidity, and hence stability is preferred.
Cigar enthusiasts are crazy about humidity. They’ll debate the relative merits of storing cigars at 65% or 70%. They’ll discuss techniques such as dry-boxing and mold-prevention. I know connoisseurs who have spent thousands on fancy humidors to ensure their cigars are properly kept, and people like me have learned how to make a humidor ourselves, yet think little of the ambient humidity within their homes. Suppose you remove a couple of cigars to smoke and then forget them on your kitchen counter for a few days. In the dead of winter in the mid-west, the near 0% humidity can cause cracking and splitting of your cigar even in a few days’ time. In the south, where humidity is often near 100%, leaving your cigars out could lead to the formation of mold. Ideally, your entire house would be kept at 70% to accommodate your cigars, but this level of humidity is too much for personal comfort, hence a more moderate 40-50% is preferable. This range is also acceptable for whiskey storage, where the cork will hold stable.
The first step is to buy a hygrometer, which measures humidity. You can pick one up from your local Radio Shack, Home Depot, etc. for under $30. If you own a humidor, it’s likely you already own one, so as a cheaper option you could borrow it for a short period to check your household humidity.
If the air is too moist:
As relative humidity climbs over 50%, dust mites begin to multiply, causing allergic reactions in some people. As the humidity climbs over 75%, fungi and mold begin to form, causing damage to your cigars, whiskey, and household in general. There are several techniques one can use to reduce humidity:
- Purchase a dehumidifier. While quite expensive ($150+), these machines are effective at sucking moisture out of the air.
- Use fans, particularly in the bathroom and kitchen, where moisture builds.
- Avoid drying clothes, wood, or other articles inside the house.
- Limit the number of household plants, and tightly regulate watering.
- Keep fish tanks and other water sources covered.
- Make sure your dryer is properly venting to the outside.
- Bring in a contractor to add vapor barriers to various parts of the house.
If the air is too dry:
As relative humidity drops below 30%, our personal comfort is jeopardized as our skin dries out, cigars begin to crack, and the cork sealing your whiskey shrinks and allows oxygen into the bottle. Keeping the humidity above 35% will ease all of these sorrows. There are several techniques one can use to increase humidity:
- Purchase a humidifier. They range from small versions that humidify a single room to built-in units which work alongside your furnace to control humidity throughout your house.
- Purchase household plants, which through transpiration put moisture back into the air.
- Fish tanks, particularly those which are heated, evaporate consistently.
- For those with fireplaces, place a large pot of water on top. Much like a fish tank, this will increase evaporation into the air.
Try some of these techniques out and you should be able to stabilize the humidity within your house. While this is not a replacement for a good humidor (and the 70% humidity it provides), maintaining the ambient humidity within your house will help keep you comfortable, your whiskey secure, and your cigars from a mishap.