We’ve talked a great deal about the many factors that influence a cigar’s body, flavor, and strength, for good reason too. A strong understanding of the components that influence a cigar’s core tasting points can mean the difference between enjoying a leisurely smoke and feeling like something is missing or overwhelming, but not knowing precisely why. Too often, we fear what we don’t understand in the world of cigars. Case in point: strong cigars.
Strong cigars get hated on more than a Pontiac Aztek in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot. Both are easy targets for criticism. People pass judgment without taking the time to remember that it is what is on the inside that matters.
Have you ever braved the interior of a Pontiac Aztek? It’s damn practical. Get past the offensive exterior, and you discover a cabin fairly well thought out. Strong cigars suffer from the same affliction, for, much like Pontiac’s wedge-shaped oddity, it is their interior that makes full-strength smokes so fantastic.
In the following overview, we will discuss how strong tobacco is grown and processed, the various strains of seed that possess the most potent potential, and why you shouldn’t judge a cigar by its appearance.
Long-Filler Cigars: A Multi-Tiered Smoking Experience
Calling a cigar “strong” based purely upon appearance is one of the biggest blunders a beginner smoker can make. This is without question one of the most common misconceptions in the tobacco world, and it’s an easy one to make when cigars can be so misleading.
An oily cigar rocking a leathery wrapper, with bulging veins snaking down its barrel may trigger thoughts of a muscle-bound MMA fighter as they enter the octagon. But strength doesn’t typically come from the cover leaf that comprises the cigar wrapper, for that is where most of the cigar’s flavor and aroma are housed.
The binder tucked beneath a cigar wrapper doesn’t have much to do with strength either, for its primary purpose is to keep the contents of the cigar orderly and encourage even combustion from the first puff to when it’s time to tap-out.
It is within the filler of a cigar that the intensity lies. Housed in the center of the barrel, long-filler tobaccos not only make up the “guts” of a cigar and add strength, but they also control burn speed and influence aroma. By selecting a particular tobacco strain for filler duty, and choosing which part of the plant the leaves are utilized, cigarmakers can determine what sort of smoking experience can be produced, long before a single leaf has been rolled.
Tobacco Seed Strength Explained
Although the strength of a stogie can be influenced by where a certain type of cigar tobacco is grown and how it is treated once harvested, the strain of seed planted is the first thing to ponder when considering the strength.
A few of the more robust tobacco plants that are prized for their intensity include, but are not limited to Pennsylvania Broadleaf, Dominican Piloto Cubano, San Vincente, Honduran Corojo, Nicaraguan Criollo ’98, and Ecuadorian Sumatra.
Like almost every strain of tobacco cultivated today, the seed varieties listed above all have been carefully crossbred throughout the past few decades. Disease resistance, higher crop yields, elasticity, combustibility, flavor, and strength all must be present in a seed strain for it to be worth a damn.
Tobacco Nerd Note: It may not be ideal for the novice cigar smoker, but the act of retrohaling is one of the best ways to determine the strength of a cigar. By blowing a small amount of smoke out through the nostrils, the human olfactory senses can detect all manner of nuance that the palate cannot ascertain on its own, including tobacco strength.
Tobacco Plant Anatomy Matters
Which part of the tobacco plant gets used in a cigar also determines strength levels, as all four of the following leaf varieties play a massive role in cigar smoke’s intensity.
How much of one particular type of leaf is used can also influence a cigar’s potency, which is why master tobacco blenders utilize a broad range of tobacco to construct a balanced cigar.
That being said, all of the following portions of the tobacco plant add a certain level of strength to a cigar, starting with the top and working downward from there.
As the highest canopy on the stalk, ligero leaves can soak up more sunlight than any other portion of the plant. Not only does ligero leaf take the longest to mature, but it also tends to be the toughest and most veiny of the lot thanks to all of the sunshine it soaks up. Strength intensity and spiciness ooze from ligero leaves, making it the preferred leaf for full-strength cigar wrapper production. The more sun a ligero gets, the more intense it will become, so always keep that in mind when choosing a cigar.
Since they are partially shaded by the ligero foliage directly above, viso leaves are often thinner and silkier. This makes viso leaf the most multi-faceted foliage on the tobacco plant, with its even combustion and mid-range strength levels providing further value.
Seco leaf sits underneath the viso leaves on a tobacco plant and is by far the most popular form of filler. Exceedingly thin in appearance and structure, seco leaf is responsible for much of the aroma perceived when smoking a cigar, and therefore can be associated with the strength of the tobacco seed itself, as sunlight has little influence on this undercropping.
Toward the nether regions of the tobacco plant resides the homely volado leaf. Although it may not contribute much to the flavor and aroma department, volado leaf is a rockstar when it comes to managing even burn ratios and combustion. Some strains of tobacco produce volado leaves that pack a peppery bite, contributing an additional boost to the overall strength of a cigar.
Tobacco Nerd Note: Cigarmakers and tobacco cultivators will often attempt to determine the strength of a tobacco leaf by gnawing on it during various stages of production. As crude as this approach may seem, this does provide a trained palate with a ballpark estimate of what nicotine levels and flavor intensity will be like once the leaf is fully fermented.
Dark Doesn’t Always Mean Strong
While we’re on the topic of fermentation, it might be a good idea to discuss another common cigar misconception: the assumption that dark cigars are the strongest smoke in the humidor box.
Sure, there are plenty of dark cigars out there that pack one hell of a wallop, with smokes like the Diablo Scamp from Punch rocking palates the world over. But that’s not to say that the average maduro cigar wrapper is going to put your ass in the ICU after just one puff.
Color is determined by the cigar wrapper, a component that has more to do with appearances and olfactory stimulation than strength. Most forms of maduro tobacco are considerably milder in strength than lighter cigars rocking corojo red leaf wrappers.
Tobacco Nerd Note: Almost all cigar tobacco undergoes a fermentation process. This removes astringent notes associated with nicotine, as well as the bitterness imparted by the chlorophyll within the leaves. The longer a tobacco leaf ferments, the darker it will become in color, and the less intense its strength levels will become. The trade-off here is that with this mellowing process comes more intense earthiness and sweetness.
Light Doesn’t Always Mean Mild
On the other side of the smokescreen are lighter colored claro cigars, many of which are indeed quite mild in strength. Connecticut shade-grown tobacco in particular is widely revered for its mildness, as the combination of tobacco strain and dappled sunlight make for a very subtle smoking experience.
This can cause quite a bit of confusion for the inexperienced cigar smoker, as unassuming-looking cigars like La Aroma de Cuba’s Edicion Especial # 3 appear mild, but are quite potent. Remember, it’s what’s on the inside that matters. So when in doubt step back, study up, and know that color does not constitute cigar strength.
Strong Cigars May Surprise You
Nicotine content, bitterness, and spice all influence how a smoker perceives the strength of a cigar. But these are by no means bad things either, especially for the adventurous cigar smoker who isn’t afraid of getting their ass handed to them now and then.
At Klaro Cigars we believe that full-strength cigars that are equal parts intense and balanced can offer a smoking experience that milder tobacco cannot achieve.
Just beware that smoking a strong cigar can be like sipping saké while seated on the floor in traditional Japanese fashion. Everything is going great until it's time to stand up and stretch, and you suddenly realize that the world is looking a little off its axis.
Tobacco Nerd Note: When smoking a cigar, try and allow the ash to form as long as gravity will permit. This ash will not only act as a buffer against wind and other elements, but it will also reveal the quality of the cigar’s construction. This is true for all forms of cigar, no matter what strength, size, or style they may be.
If you fancy the thought of trying a strong cigar for the first time but don’t know where to start, it might be time to consult the professionals.
Here at Klaro Cigars, we have all of the answers to your cigar smoking questions, and our cigar subscriptions are completely customizable around what you, the cigar smoker, are looking to experience.
Are full-strength cigars for everyone? Absolutely not. For most of us, smoking a full-strength cigar is a special occasion sort of occurrence, and not a weekly or even monthly routine. It’s an intense sensory experience that is not intended for the meek. Kind of like that Pontiac Aztek parked outside…