Editor’s Note: If you’re the type that has the time to kick back with a cigar and try to get a little fancy, we’ve recruited our buddy Kap to run through a quick guide on how to explore your palate, define and describe cigar flavors. Or, if you want to keep it simple, “how to taste tastes”.
Kap brings a culinary background to the cigar world and reviews cigars on the web at Kaplowitz.xyz. We call him “The Perfect Palate” but the fact is, everybody’s palate/taste buds and sensitivities are different so if you pick up a cigar and don’t taste the things a manufacturer or other reviewer does – you’re not necessarily wrong.
Of course, if you’d rather stick with my go-to description, “this cigar tastes like tobacco” — you can just skip the froufrou and just enjoy what strikes you as good. That’s what cigars are all about, right?
How do you taste a cigar? Well, I’ll tell you. Freud was correct in stating “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
I can do the good doctor one better within the confines of our given context by offering “Always a cigar is a cigar.” A cigar, is what it is. Ask it and it’ll tell you “I yam what I yam.” In the case of a talking cigar, however, I’d refer you back to the father of psychiatry. Also, check out some newer cartoons, gramps. But, I digress…
What I mean to say, a premium cigar is a 100% natural tobacco product. It is derived all from the same plant; in different primings (cuttings), then to undergo differing fermentations. It is grown in varying countries with varying characteristics of their nation’s soil as influences. All said and stated, “Tobacco” is verily a valid response to the query, “What flavors or notes is that cigar giving you?”
Also valid as a response would be, “S’mores.” Valid ’nuff is it that I’d guess you were smoking a San Andres wrapped offering if you told me that.
But wait. There are no graham crackers in the soil or seed or cigar. No marshmallow. No chocolate, well… here we have differing levels of subjectiveness; from potential influences to the sheer metaphorical meandering of remembrances past. Is there potential with this approach? Sure. Going with the S’more theme, there are times when cocoa may grow near tobacco. Less potentially, or not at all-so, there are no marshmallow fields in any of the major tobacco growing locales.
What is Flavor
What are these “metaphorical meanderings of remembrances?” Well, what we call ‘flavor’ is a combination of taste and
smell. Ever sit down to a meal with a plugged nose? Not overly enjoyable, as you can’t taste a thing — unless it’s day three of the wife’s meatloaf. The sense of smell is closely linked to memory. Closer than any other sense, they say. I taste cocoa, potentially. I taste a woodsiness, potentially. I taste a toastiness, potentially. Campfire? S’mores! I remember loving them when Uncle so and so took me camping wherever that place was all them years ago…
All well and good is all this, but I hear ya asking again and more loudly: How do you taste a cigar? Good question and it deserves a good answer. I’m working on it. Whenever I’m asked that good question, I really hear: what should I be tasting? What am I missing? Allow me to impart on you then, a few tips which will help you not miss a thing… or miss less and less things.
Cigar smoking is somewhat like chess. Want another analogy? Cigar smoking is somewhat like handicapping the ponies. Cigar smoking is imperfectible. There’s always room for improvement; so let’s improve.
There are two categories of assurances in tasting ‘correctly.’ Those involving the cigar, and those involving you. I mean, there’s a lot of cross-over here, but bear with me.
Let’s address the cigar: “Hello, cigar!”
Assuming the conditions of humidification are correct, mainly because that’s another topic entirely, let’s address first address the proper toasting and lighting. Never shall a flame, be it a match or light saber and all points soft to torch twixt, ever touch the tobacco. This leads to scorching attachments to an offering’s profile. Keep the heat about an eighth to a quarter- inch from contacting leaf. Next: don’t under or over-smoke. Take a puff every 45 to 60 seconds. Also, take two short puffs then a long one… whilst rotating the cigar in your mouth. You don’t need to do this every time, and please don’t look at your clock while savoring your cigar. Pace yourself. Stay awhile. Take a load off. Enjoy.
Slow down. Now we get to the second category: you, proper. Or more proper. Again there is some blending of the aforementioned categories. Slow down. Hold that puff in your mouth. Let it hit all of your tongue, palate, and cheeks. Chew it. Swish it. Roll your tongue in it. Notice how it lingers there when finally released. Lingers on your lips. After the release of smoke, you have begun the finish… what you taste after you taste. What do you taste?
“Maybe… dirt. Pepper? Scotch?”
“Well, you’re drinking Scotch.”
Try this, furthering the differential of our categories. What have you just eaten prior to lighting, or drunk whilst smoking? Let your meal leave your breath and pair a new-to-you offering with only water. Pairings and immediate digestivos are fine, but we are talking tasting cigars. Tasting cigars. Taste… smell… let’s discuss the retro-hale, an excellent way to put a ribbon on this primer.
Retro-haling is blowing smoke out your nose. See how that’d help taste, given what we now know of it? Good. You’ll be shocked at the flavors you can bring out of the cigars that you haven’t noticed before with a good retrohale. For instnace, the Todos las Dias from Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust introduces a whole citrus element that you otherwise might not sense.
So, how do you retrohale? First, you’ve already triggered your olfactory system by allowing the smoke to rest and play in your mouth. Some is bound to drift upwards — that’s what smoke does. Ah, but the retro-hale, proper. Simply, hold the smoke in your mouth and refuse to allow it out the same way it came in. Eventually, you will either expire or ‘retro-hale.’
If you’d rather not risk it, say you have a pretty wife whose meatloaf you enjoy, facilitate the process by bracing your tongue against your lower teeth. Then, push the meat of it up toward your palate whilst breathing out through your nose. Try this with a mild offering first as some stronger/bolder cigars can pack quite a tingly punch!
Now, what do you taste?
“I’m not sure?”
“Excellent. Use this.”
Sweet — Sugary and/or creamy dessert stuffs, baked or candied (chocolate).
Sour — Acidity… citrus, grape, wine, weak coffee.
Salty — Simple & self explanatory.
Bitter — Baker’s chocolate, espresso, citrus peel.
Umami — Savory, meaty. Grains (cereal/bread) and mushroom, too. I place leather herein.
S’mores would be a combination of sweet, (depending on chocolate) bitter, and umami. Now, see how the balance of ingredients may fluctuate as smoke progresses. Creams rise, chocolate softens, graham lightens…
“I taste chocolate cheesecake.”
“You’re crazy. It’s just a cigar.”
“You’re crazy. You’re talking to yourself.”
“Easy pal, I simply invented you as a literary device.”