Pepper spice and cigar strength are surprisingly similar. They both have the power to mask attributes that our olfactory senses would normally be able to detect and cause a lot of confusion.
For cigar smokers, misidentifying the strength or body of a boutique cigar with its cigar flavor profile is a common occurrence. The same can be said for foodies, as pineapple-mango habanero salsa is often classified as “spicy” due to pepper heat masking the dish’s flavors. Granted, personal preference and palate sensitivity certainly play a hand in all of this as well, despite neither influencing what constitutes a specified flavor.
Cigar flavor profiles are just as diverse as the regions of the world where long-filler tobacco is grown. Flavors can be influenced by the type of tobacco, the climate and seasonal weather that fosters growth, which portions of the plant are utilized, and the aging and fermentation procedures imposed upon harvesting.
A premium cigar blend is like a smooth blended scotch whiskey. An ensemble of tobacco must be carefully curated and hand-selected to form a particular cigar flavor profile.
However, tobacco is but an unanimated medium intended to paint our palates without the knowledge and talent of a master cigar blender. It is this skilled artisan’s passion for cigar-making that provides the balance between strength and body within a cigar flavor profile.
Yet even then, there is more to understanding cigar flavors than just the blend and the smoking experience itself. The following should provide you (and your palate) with a road map of how tobacco flavors are painstakingly formed.
As for the act of analyzing and recognizing a cigar flavor profile for yourself, well that’s going to take a series of stogie sessions and a premium cigar subscription with a broad selection of carefully curated cigars.
The Cigar Tobacco Trifecta: Body, Strength, and Flavor
Pick a basket of Gala apples in an orchard, and you’ll notice that while each fruit resembles the next in size, shape, and color, each fruit has its unique skin pattern, sweetness level, and flavor intensity. The same is true for tobacco, as it too is an organic consumable substance. Therefore every cigar type has its own unique blend, even when the tobacco used is all sourced from the same strain of plant on a single plantation.
As long as you are not suffering from some sort of sinus infection, your olfactory senses will provide your brain with a ton of information the moment you pop a cigar in your mouth. Although aroma does play a role in how our senses perceive a cigar, it is our taste buds that perceive flavor.
However, there’s more to a specific cigar type than just how it tastes. Once cut and torch-lit, a cigar’s body, strength, and flavor all materialize in various amounts.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with these terms, here is the official Klaro Cigars description of each of these specific cigar attributes. Remember, body and strength influence flavor, and visa versa, so obtaining a rough understanding of all three is key to discerning what you will be tasting when you smoke a cigar.
- Body is most helpful in categorizing different types of cigars into three main buckets: mild, medium, and full. It provides a way to describe the overall effect of tobacco on your taste and smell receptors.
- Strength generally refers to the nicotine content of a cigar. But this really should be used to describe the overall physical effects tobacco has on the body, from the brain to the esophagus to the gut. For example, a higher-strength cigar might be better following a meal.
- Flavor is the most dynamic and personal note when it comes to describing the experience of a cigar. Different flavor profiles develop for several reasons, from the tobacco’s origins to how different tobaccos are blended.
A Brief Explanation of Cigar Flavor Profiles
Being that personal tastes can vary greatly, nailing down a particular flavor can be a bit of a challenge. This is one of the primary reasons why monthly curated boutique cigar subscriptions from Klaro Cigars have become such a popular gift. Receiving an array of different 90+ rated cigar types allows you to compare and contrast cigars, as you indulge in the finest tobacco the market has to offer.
As you smoke, pay attention to the intensity of the tastes you are experiencing, for this will determine the magnitude of the cigar flavor. Equally important is the act of detecting precisely which parts of your palate are picking up on particular flavors, as that is what determines the taste. A smack of spice toward the back of the throat is going to be a hell of a lot different than a sweet caramel note on the tip of the tongue.
Here’s a brief synopsis of both cigar magnitude and taste for those who prefer an abbreviated cheat sheet.
Magnitude is how one measures flavor intensity. Due to the complexity of a premium cigar blend, the act of measuring magnitude tends to be multifaceted. For example, you may pick up on “light” notes of Spanish cedar, followed by a “strong” floral flavor that finishes with a “medium” amount of toasted pecan and leather.
Regardless of what flavors you detect, magnitude intensity is generally categorized by the following range of descriptors:
- Light to medium
Now as for the act of describing a cigar flavor profile, reverting to the old tried-and-true flavor wheel will only help ascertain a fragment of what your senses are registering. Bitter, sweet, sour, spicy, salty, and the ever-complex “umami” undertone do not always translate well when analyzing a cigar flavor profile.
Naturally, this gave rise to utilizing descriptors of tastes and smells that most humans are familiar with to describe what a premium cigar blend has to offer.
So go ahead and break out the thesaurus or gourmet cookbook for some synonym-rich inspiration and act like a seasoned cigar snob. Chances are you will likely find a few of the following terms accurately describe what you are tasting in a specific cigar type.
Fruits - cherry, citrus, plum, raisin, orange zest, currant
Nuts - almond, walnut, cashew, marzipan, peanut
Flowers - rose, tulip, lily, lavender, hyacinth
Plants - grass, hay, tea, vegetable, peat moss
Herbs & spices - cinnamon, clove, pepper, cardamom, turmeric
Earth and minerals - soil, musk, mineral, metallic, salt, umami
Non-flavors - bitter, dry, harsh, hot
With all 5,000-10,000 taste buds and countless smell receptors soaking up everything that the cigar has to offer (both before being lit and under combustion), the following categories demand to be considered:
- Animal - grilled meat, gamey, farmyard funk
- Sweet - honey, sugar, vanilla, toffee, cream, caramel, mocha
- Chemical - ammonia, diesel, charcoal, cleaning solvent, tar
- Woody - sawdust, cedar, campfire, toast, tannins
- Spicy - chili pepper, ginger, peppercorn
- Earthy - mold, dust, rust, loam, manure, rot
How Cigar Size and Leaf Selection Influences Flavor
Basic flavor profiles and synonyms explained, we now turn toward the importance of cigar size or vitola in Spanish. Being that a cigar consists of multiple layers of tobacco, there’s a lot to consider when pondering how the structure and contents of the cigar itself influence flavor.
A premium cigar blend consists of different strains of tobacco sourced from various regions of the world. Pulled from certain portions of the plant, and then submitted to an array of aging and fermentation methods, the layers of tobacco leaf within a boutique cigar are a complex affair.
Equally important is the ratio of filler and binder tobacco to the wrapper. Most cigars only have one wrapper, so the types of tobacco stuffed inside can greatly influence the flavors that are perceived.
While our entire Klaro Cigars feature article on tobacco leaves will surely satisfy the horticulturalists in the crowd, a brief rundown of the cigar leaves used to construct a cigar should suffice for today’s “flavorful” topic of discussion.
As the outermost layer of tobacco, cigar wrappers are the stars of the show when it comes to appearances. But being that they too burn and produce smoke, a cigar wrapper imparts a hefty amount of flavor. Although the number of recognized cigar wrapper variants hovers in the 50+ range, the four most common include Connecticut, Corojo, Habano, and Maduro.
Out of this lot, a cigar wrapper can then be classified as either a lighter natural (a.k.a.claro), or a far more opaque maduro. A natural wrapper can range anywhere from pale green, all the way up to a ruddy red, and does not undergo nearly as long of an aging and fermentation process. Flavors can be anywhere from mild and milky, all the way up to spicy and floral depending upon the type of tobacco.
Maduro cigar wrappers on the other smoke ring are fermented for much longer, and due to this extended aging, darker colors and richer, sweeter tastes emerge.
Binders are what keep a cigar in one piece and aid in the combustion process. Less flavorful than the wrapper, binder leaves are rarely fermented for lengthy periods. Granted, there will always be some level of flavor associated with the binder, as it too is combusted and impacts the palate, it just is not nearly as prominent as the other portions of a proper premium cigar blend.
At the heart of the cigar is the filler, which is where much of a premium cigar blend gets its intense undertones. Cigar filler can be pulled from any of the following four leaves commonly used on the tobacco plant, with ligero, viso, seco, and volado being the core four.
Ligero leaves are the uppermost portion of the plant, and since they receive the most sunlight, are generally the most intense in every aspect.
Viso leaves grow directly below, are flavorful but not as potent as ligero, and are considered by many to be the ultimate multi-purpose tobacco leaf.
Seco leaves receive even less light and are generally used as a form of combustion aid within the filler.
Finally, there is the volado leaf, which gets the least amount of light, and is considered by certain tobacco blenders to be of little worth due to its proximity to the loamy soil underneath. Those that do use it prefer to pop it in as a filler option or as a binder.
A beautifully balanced premium cigar blend is engineered from day one to take your taste buds on a vibrant voyage. Once combined, the wrapper, binder, and filler have the power to transform even the most unsightly clump of decaying tobacco leaves into something truly special.
But before you fire that stogie up with your torch lighter and get to puffing, there’s one last cigar flavor profile influencer that must be considered: the tobacco aging process.
Aging Techniques Influence Boutique Cigar Flavors
When referring to the whole aging process, people often think of dusty old brick and mortar bunkers, lined with crates brimming with tobacco. Aged tobacco is a glorious (and mandatory) addition to any boutique cigar blend, and constitutes much of the mellowing and marrying of the different tobaccos found within a premium hand-rolled stogie.
But while a designated amount of aging and fermentation is prescribed per each stacked bale of tobacco leaves brought in from the field, the truly intriguing cigar flavor profiles tend to bloom when a little outside influence is thrown into the mix.
One of these methods involves aging the tobacco leaves inside of repurposed liquor barrels. Brands like Ghurka, Perdomo, Camacho and Arturo Fuente have all kicked things up a notch on the flavor scale by aging tobacco destined for a specific cigar type in old casks. Cognac, bourbon, rum, scotch… if it’s sticky and sweet and aged in a wooden barrel then it’s fair game.
Although the fermentation process does remove many of the impurities from the tobacco via the tried and true method of heat, time, moisture, pressure, and a hefty serving of wild bacteria, barrel aging takes this a step further.
As the sugar levels increase, putting the tobacco in hot barrels (100°F is ideal) for anywhere from a few months to a few years does some intriguing things to the tobacco. As the leaves are periodically shifted inside the barrel (either by hand or via rolling), they begin to absorb some of the remnants left behind from the liquor that was once within the cask.
Being that they are typically constructed from oak, those barrel walls are also loaded with tannins and woody nuances, all of which the permeable tobacco leaves are eager to absorb. Remnants of char still lingering within the barrel also act as a form of charcoal filter, absorbing any contaminant that may be deemed unpleasant or coarse.
Some cigar smokers decree that flavor from liquor barrels is not detectable by the human palate. Others claim that it merely imparts aromatics, and does not impact flavor in any way. Then there are those of us who do get smacks of sticky sugar cane, cognac grapes, and chewy whiskey malts, and believe that cask conditioning does indeed influence a cigar flavor profile.
There is only one way to tell if you can detect barrel flavors within a cigar, and that is to try one for yourself. Our suggestion, try and get your mitts on an Arturo Fuente Añejo. This cognac cask-conditioned cigar is the baby brother to the infamous Opus X and is absolutely delightful on every level.
Even the palates of the world’s most skilled master blenders are still learning and evolving with each cigar that is smoked. The important thing to remember is that smoking a specific cigar type is a recreational hobby.
Pleasure is the primary reason why we all enjoy the time-honored pastime of sticking a wadded-up bundle of burning tobacco leaves in our pieholes.
If you start taking your cigars too seriously, then you might find yourself not having nearly as much fun as when you first started.
But for those of you out there who do take this hobby seriously–and are determined to analyze every subtle cigar flavor profile encountered–we offer one final piece of advice. Don’t forget to jot down any cigar styles you like and include a few tasting notes about what flavors stood out to you on the Klaro Cigars subscription review and portfolio page. It may just help determine what cigar you will smoke next.