Cigars are complex, but they’re not necessarily complicated–especially for those just starting out. Ultimately, cigars are fermented tobacco leaves rolled with a wrapper to smoke. Simple in design, standard in construction–nobody is reinventing the wheel when it comes to the traditional cigar.
It’s in the flavors, aromas, types, and strength of cigars where the unlimited options of nuance begin. And the world of cigars should be explored with curiosity and enthusiasm, not pretentiousness.
Learning how to smoke cigars is an education in how to identify different parts of the experience that you like or dislike. To do this, you need language to describe different parts of the experience. The more you equip yourself with the right language to describe a sensation while smoking, the more complexities you can begin to notice, share, and learn from others. Here we’re exploring the tools you need to better enjoy new cigars.
The popularity of cigars is tied to just how distinctive and unique the smoking experience can be with different types of cigars, different tobaccos. The field is wide, ever-changing, and promises to prevent boredom or sameness. There’s a lot going on.
Do you begin analyzing a cigar with the soil where the tobacco plant grew, and what part of the plant the leaves were taken from? Or how long the fermentation process lasted, and how the cigars were rolled? Even the cut and light–and relative humidity of your location–will arguably affect the experience of smoking a cigar.
Here, we’ll discuss the aspects of a cigar and the language used to describe different elements of a cigar–specifically, the body, strength, and flavor of a cigar. Keep in mind the need for wiggle room when it comes to describing and identifying the unique characteristics of a cigar, especially with flavor. No two people will have the exact same experience with a cigar type, but what we want is to have the knowledge and skill to describe and communicate the nuances we detect.
Another reality is that cigars vary. Even cigar brands that make consistent cigars make them from organic leaves that, while similar, will have different characteristics. Not to mention how aging processes can vary.
Body, strength, and flavor are the three main ways we describe cigars.
- 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 a number of reasons, from the tobacco’s origins to how different tobaccos are blended together.
PARTS OF A CIGAR
Let’s cover some anatomy, first. Different parts of the cigar will affect the experience and all three aspects of a cigar (body, strength, flavor). For example, a certain type of wrapper–thicker, more oily–might burn at a slower rate, which would likely change how you categorize the strength of a cigar. Size–or vitola–also plays a role, because the ratio of filler and binder tobacco to the wrapper will also change how a cigar smokes. Wrapper, binder, and filler tobaccos create the blend, which determines the overall flavor.
Unlike cigarettes, cigar wrappers are made from tobacco leaves–typically from the leaves lowest on the plant. Wrappers are generally most responsible for the flavor of the cigar–at least in small and medium-sized cigars. There are over fifty variations of wrappers, but four are most common: Connecticut, Corojo, Habano, and Maduro.
Wrappers can generally be classified into two camps–natural and maduro–that can help smokers generalize the types of flavors they can expect from a wrapper. Natural wrappers will be a lighter color, tan or light brown, and they haven’t been fermented as long, providing a less spicy, nutty flavor. Maduro wrappers are matured, fermented longer, have a darker color, and often have a richer, sweeter flavor.
The binder is the tobacco that holds the filler tobacco in place. This is arguably less flavorful than the wrapper because it’s made with a tobacco leaf that comes from the part of the plant exposed to the least amount of sunlight. Plus, binder leaves are fermented for a shorter period of time. The binder determines the tightness of the cigar bunch, which can affect how a cigar draws, which could also influence the experience.
The filler makes up the heart of the cigar, and this is where tobacco blenders can leave their mark. There are four main varieties of filler made from leaves from different parts of the tobacco plant, ranging in location and flavor/strength: Seco, Volado, Viso, and Ligero. Volado leaves at the bottom of the plant are mildest–almost without flavor–while Ligero leaves at the top of the plant are spiciest and strongest. There are two types of filler, long and short. Long filler means the filler leaf is whole and intact, and short filler is chopped up remnant tobacco and is often used in cheaper cigars.
The wrapper, binder, and filler provide the platform for cigar makers to put their unique spin on flavors and experiences. From these different parts of the cigar, we can already begin to understand how vastly different one experience of smoking a cigar will be from another.
The body of a cigar pertains to its depth–a measure of how much can be tasted. Body is based on the density of the smoke and your palate’s response. The more you smoke different cigars, the more descriptions of body will make sense. It’s a nuanced, developed quality akin to coffee or different types of tea, where you notice subtleties through comparison and experience.
For someone just starting out, it’s initially difficult to note the differences in how a cigar’s smoke feels to the palate and through the nose–where you taste the cigar. But you can likely easily already distinguish a mild-bodied cigar from a full-bodied cigar on first puffs alone.
There are three categories we’ll use for our purposes–mild, medium, and full, but know that some aficionados classify cigars on a larger scale, including light, light-to-medium, medium, medium-to-full, and full
On the lightest side of the spectrum are mild-bodied cigars. So how would you note the difference? Well, we can use terms for body that relate to texture, weight, and richness. Mild-bodied cigar smoke will feel light and delicate and won’t overload your senses with over-rich flavors. To use beer as an analogy, your pilsners are on the same level as mild-bodied cigars. They can still have pronounced flavor, it’s just not as strong, and you will detect more flavor as a result of the aroma.
What makes a mild-bodied cigar?
Mild-bodied cigars generally prioritize the Seco type of tobacco leaves in their blend. These are thinner leaves located in the mid-section of the tobacco plant that are smoother to smoke. These leaves are often noted to have a milder flavor but a more pronounced and distinct aroma. Seco is the most popular type of leaf and is often used as the filler tobacco opposed to the wrapper.
The wrapper of mild cigars tends to be natural, like a Connecticut shade or Ecuadorian Connecticut–light and with nuttier flavors. And while it comes down to preference, mild-body cigars can be enjoyed at any time of the day, with coffee or on the golf course, and they are often recommended for those new to smoking cigars. Many brands make their unique approaches to mild cigars, and we include several mild varieties in the Klaro Cigar monthly cigar club. Some top mild cigars include the Ashton Classic, Montecristo Connecticut Shade, and the Davidoff Aniversario Ecuador Connecticut.
Next up and stronger in body are the medium-bodied cigars, the compromise between mild and full-body cigars. Medium body cigars include a wide range of brands and tobaccos–especially in a three-category ranking–and they are considered the most popular class of cigars. That’s because they can carry some of the complexities of a full-bodied cigar without the overload and potential harshness. Similar to mild cigars, these are versatile and can be smoked with a cocktail, after coffee, or at the end of the day.
What makes a medium-bodied cigar?
Medium-bodied cigars use a host of different blends and wrappers to achieve the desired flavor and body. For example, you’ll find a lot of natural wrappers as well as maduro. Popular wrappers include the Corojo and Habano as they move from the mild body to medium-body, including a bit more spice. At this stage of the game, medium-bodied cigars are about using every type and blend possible to provide something smooth and easy to smoke that still offers some of those more aggressive flavor profiles as a full-bodied cigar.
Blends will vary, but often both Seco and Ligero tobaccos will be used in the filler and binder, and often in a 50/50 split, depending on usage and preference. Viso leaves will also make a more common appearance in medium-bodied cigars.
Because medium-bodied cigars are popular for a range of occasions, you won’t be hard-pressed to find “best-of” lists. Frankly, there are just a ton of great medium body cigars on the market: throw a stick and you’ll hit one. But consider these standards:
- Arturo Fuente Hemingway, made with a Cameroon wrapper.
- The original Padron, made with a Nicaraguan wrapper
- Perdomo 10th Anniversary Champagne, made with an Ecuador Connecticut wrapper
There’s no hard-fast line you cross when you smoke a full-bodied cigar: the greater the impact you feel in the mouth and nose, the closer you are to a full-bodied cigar. It occurs in degrees of flavor, spice, density, and weight. A full-bodied cigar will feel heavy and substantial. And, for this reason, it’s sometimes a turn-off for first-time smokers. In fact, most recommend consuming full-bodied cigars after a full dinner, so you aren’t overwhelmed by both the cigar’s flavor and strength, or nicotine content (more on this later).
There’s a difference between harsh and full-bodied. These cigars should still maintain a balance, and some are often confused to hear maduros and other full-flavored cigars described as sweet. It’s not just the spicy elements included in this flavor profile, but the sweet, spicy, and complex flavors that create a balance that is robust.
What makes a full-bodied cigar?
Full-bodied cigars will often include far more Ligero leaves in the filler than other cigars. These are the leaves that are most exposed to sunlight and will have the fullest flavors, as well as the most sugars, which adds to the sweet element. The Ligero leaves are also higher in oils, which can extend the smoking experience. Also, you’ll see more full-bodied cigars use a wide range of wrappers as long as the filler includes Ligero leaves.
Full-bodied cigars often receive some of the highest ranking among cigar enthusiasts and groups. But a word of caution: full-bodied cigars are often strong both in body and in strength, meaning they generally pack a much larger nicotine content than the other cigars. This is likely why most recommend smoking full-bodied cigars after dinner, enjoyed slowly with a cocktail.
Speaking of nicotine. Let’s transition our discussion to the strength of a cigar, which is related but should not be confused with body.
Yes, strength and body are related, but while body describes the overall texture of a cigar, strength is the language we use to discuss a cigar’s nicotine content and its effects on the body. The nicotine conversation is challenging because there are different ways to smoke, different tolerances, and nicotine doesn’t affect everyone’s body the same way.
You’ve likely heard the unfortunate stories from those who now refuse to smoke cigars, how at one point they tried a cigar and it made them sicker than they’ve ever been. Their sickness was likely a combination of several factors: they smoked the wrong cigar, they smoked it too quickly, or they attempted to smoke after consuming alcohol or without eating, leading to overstimulation and sickness. To avoid this, we use mild and light strength cigars for those just trying them out for the first time.
The universal spectrum for cigar strength includes the following categories:
These generally correlate with the body of a cigar, so you can count on less nicotine in milder cigars–which is another reason to start newcomers off with a mild cigar.
What determines the nicotine level in a cigar?
The concentration of nicotine in a tobacco plant changes in density from the root to the top, and a variety of factors influence the strength of a given cigar, including: the plant type, the tobacco used and its position to the sunlight, soil humidity, temperature, and the length of the fermentation process.
Rank the nicotine content of the different tobacco leaves with its placement on the plant, with Volado at the lowest nicotine level, next Seco, then finally Ligero with the highest nicotine content.
Nicotine doesn’t just cause the “woozy” feeling we get when smoking a strong cigar, and strength isn’t limited to the buzz effect from nicotine. Instead, when describing a cigar’s strength, cigar enthusiasts might note gastric reactions to nicotine, too, like in the esophagus (a feeling like acid reflux) or in the gut. A cigar’s nicotine can affect the body in a lot of ways, both pleasurable and non, and that’s why it’s important to have a good understanding of the cigar’s nicotine content and your reaction.
Because of the unique experience of tasting the smoke produced from burning tobacco, describing flavor is a complex process. We rely on tools like comparison, magnitude, aroma, and taste location (back of the throat, etc.) to describe how a cigar might taste to us.
Similar to a sommelier, we compare the tastes of a cigar to universal descriptors: food, liquors and beers, aromas, chemicals, and more. Break down the chemistry of the cigar, and sometimes it’s apparent why one tobacco is sweeter than another, or why notes of nuttiness come through in a mild cigar. But that’s not always the case–and that’s part of the fun.
There are two distinct methods to describe flavor: by taste and by magnitude. Taste will involve both the aroma and different mouth tastes we can detect. We use magnitude to describe the level of flavor. Magnitude can be grouped into categories similar to strength:
- Light to medium
As you describe the flavor of the cigar, you can use magnitude to both describe the overall taste of the cigar as well as individual flavors–light notes of cedar, for example.
We categorize food flavors into five main categories: bitter, sweet, sour, savory, and salty. These are the principal ways we categorize tongue-tastes, and they are helpful when applied to tobaccos as well. But these five categories don’t really offer us much when trying to describe the taste of a cigar. Or aroma, for that matter. (After all, aroma and taste are intrinsically linked).
Instead, we compare the taste and corresponding aroma of cigars by comparing them to known ingredients.“This cigar has notes of honey and cedar,” for example. Of course, we don’t all know what cedar tastes like, but we do know what it smells like. In fact, charts exist to help group cigar flavors into known comparison categories. For example, some charts include the following groups:
Using these descriptors–even as odd as “musk” is–we can communicate the unique experience happening with the 5,000-10,000 taste buds and countless smell receptors in our body. This list of categories is inviting, but we aren’t limited to these tastes alone. Your list can include categories and specifics like:
- Animal - beef, smoked, manure, gamey, liver
- Sweet - honey, sugar, vanilla, toffee, creamy, caramelized
- Chemical - ammonia, diesel, charcoal, cleaning solvent, tar
- Woody - sawdust, bbq, charred, toasted, wine cask, mesquite
- Spicy - chili pepper, ginger, Sichuan, vinegar
- Earthy - mold, dust, rust, peat, manure, rot
You can quickly and easily generate your own list. The point is to allow yourself the imagination to compare certain cigar flavors with known, communicable elements in everyday life. As you learn about the organic and fermentation processes of tobacco–and their chemical compounds–you see there are often common flavor profile comparisons to existing foods and smells universally known.
Premium Flavored Cigars
To the chagrin of many tobacco purists, a category exists of hand-rolled, premium cigars whose tobacco has been dipped in products like liquor, honey, syrups, coffees, and other flavorings to infuse artificial and natural flavors. More common are the machine-made, widely distributed flavored tobaccos you could buy at a gas station. But now, premium cigar brands are including variations of their own flavored cigars, infused with products like top-shelf bourbon and rum, fruits and spices, and more.
While there might still be a stigma involved with smoking artificially-flavored cigars, there’s also certainly room for those who argue for the nuanced flavors, no matter how they are achieved. And, again–there’s room for the exploration and curiosity within the world of cigars.
The next time you partake, consider the body, strength, and flavor of your cigar, and begin to take stock of the elements you enjoy and those you’d prefer to leave behind. Also, practice your ability to detect unique flavors, tastes, and characteristics of the cigars you smoke. Hell, keep a journal. One of the benefits of joining a cigar club, or signing up for a cigar subscription, is that you are exposed to all sorts of different flavors, strengths, and bodies of cigars. Consider signing up for the Klaro Cigar monthly subscription where we provide you with a unique selection of cigars that span these categories and types.
Cigars are a social tradition, even if you smoke alone the majority of the time. Just consider all the people involved with producing, selling, and smoking cigars and the communities they build. What unites everyone is being able to appreciate the differences in the cigar, and sharing those with others.