Cigar appreciation is a fantastic hobby. You don’t really have to know anything about cigars to know how to smoke one and how to enjoy one. Of course, if you’re really going to get interested in them, getting to know the ins and outs of what makes a cigar is important. You’ll learn about what you like and what you don’t, so you can refine your palate and taste the unique flavor profiles present in each different type of tobacco.
So what makes a cigar? Despite being a pretty simple product, there’s a lot of thought, planning, and care that makes a cigar something special. Here are some of the basics.
The Anatomy of a Cigar
Cigars are made of three different types of tobacco. There’s the wrapper, the binder, and the filler. Unlike cigarettes, there’s no paper or additives—everything that’s burning is pure tobacco. Let’s look at each of these elements a little closer.
The wrapper is the outermost layer of the cigar. These are certainly the most visually arresting part of a cigar—in large part because it’s the majority of what you see when you’re shopping. Their color and appearance is carefully considered by cigar rollers.
Leaves that are destined to become wrappers aren’t just carefully selected. They’re carefully processed too. Commonly plucked from the tops of the tobacco plants where they receive the most sun, they’re then fermented and aged to achieve the unique color that’s so striking. Wrapper leaves are selected for a variety of qualities. For example, they have to be blemish-free and smooth.
Wrappers come in a wide variety of colors, but primarily, they fall into two categories: natural and maduro. Natural wrappers skew on the light side, in very light shades of tan to medium brown—even some green, residual from the chlorophyll of the plant. Maduro, which translates to mature from Spanish, are much darker thanks to a longer aging process.
More than aesthetics, the wrapper is usually responsible for the bulk of the cigar’s flavor, as well. The leaves that are selected get a load of flavor from the sun and their fermentation process. Darker maduro wrappers in particular are known for a twinge of sweetness combined with earthy hints that make for a bold, rich cigar.
The binder tobacco is the unspoken hero of the cigar. While the wrapper gets the glory, the binder sits just beneath it and provides structural integrity to the cigar. These leaves aren’t as aesthetically pleasing as wrappers, though in some cases they may simply be blemished wrapper leaves. Otherwise, binder leaves need to be strong, elastic, and absorbent in order to help the cigar hold its shape and burn evenly. The quality of the binder leaf may have some impact on the cost of the final product.
While the wrapper draws you in, the filler tobacco is what makes the smoking experience what it is. A blend of specially chosen tobaccos—more about that below—filler tobacco can be made to complement the wrapper, add depth to the flavor, or even outshine the wrapper entirely.
The filler tobacco makes a difference in how well the cigar smokes. If packed too tightly, taking a draw is difficult. Too loose, and the cigar struggles to hold its shape.
Cigar makers blend different tobaccos to create depth and complexity in the flavor of the smoke. This is a careful process and each master blender will have their own preferences in tobacco to achieve their goals.
There are a lot of factors that determine the flavor of a tobacco leaf. They include:
- Country it’s grown
- Region it’s grown
- Amount of sun it receives
- Where on the plant it grows
Some cigar blenders will choose tobacco from different countries, while others will choose several regions from inside one country.
Leaves taken from the tops of the plants, which receive the most sun, have a tendency to be particularly flavorful. The most pristine leaves are also used as wrappers, but those that aren’t are prime filler material. Leaves taken from the middle of the plant offer a little less flavor, but still more than those that come from the bottom of a plant. The bottom leaves are usually light in flavor, and delicate. These can help round out a flavor profile that a master blender is looking for.
These unique flavors, especially when combined with the wrapper and—to a lesser extent—the binder tobacco, create profiles that cigar aficionados enjoy. They’re diverse as well, making it easy to find a blend that you resonate with particularly well.
Many cigar blenders are notoriously secretive about their blends—and rightfully so. After putting hours into finding the precise blend they’re looking for, why risk letting it slip to a rival?
More than flavor, the best cigar blenders are also considering the way the tobacco burns. The draw of a cigar has an impact on the flavor, as does its size. The longer a cigar lasts, the longer the smoke that’s drawn into the cigar has a chance to season the rest of the tobacco, thereby changing the flavor profile even more. The heat of the burn impacts the flavor profile as well. The leaves picked from the bottom of the plant—also called volado—burn the easiest. So while they don’t really impact the flavor, they do have an impact on the burn.
Cigar Flavor Profiles
With all of these elements creating interesting cigar flavors, there are some common profiles that are really well known. By identifying the flavors you enjoy most in a cigar, you can start looking for other cigars that are similar—or choose to branch out.
You’ll often hear cigars called “earthy.” This isn’t dirt, mind you. It’s like tasting the field the tobacco was grown in. Leather is another common flavor.
Nuts are creamy and sweet, and you can get the same thing from cigars. These are commonly mild cigars, as those that are more robust will overpower the delicate flavor of nuts.
Cigars and coffee are uniquely tied: many places that are ideal for growing coffee are also ideal for growing tobacco. This leads to a commonality in flavor as well, thanks to the nutrients found in the soils of these places.
From black pepper to cayenne pepper, certain tobaccos can pack a serious punch from the spice world. Other peppers have their own unique vegetal flavor that can also be present.
Maduro wrappers are rich and bold, and usually offer flavors like chocolate, maple, caramel, or molasses.
Because humidors are constructed of Spanish Cedar, you’ll often note that cigars pick up a bit of that flavor when stored for a period of time. Oak and, while not a wood, tea are often both commonly present.