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Learning Your ABCs: Cigars 101, Part II

Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

A love affair with cigars is like most affairs of the heart. We swoon over the beauty and elegance, but we never really know what makes us love--and we don't want to. To overanalyze a cigar, or a mate, is to destroy the mystery. That's the analogy cigar gurus such as Ernesto Carrillo (maker of La Gloria Cubana and El Rico Habano) and Carlos Fuente Jr. (Arturo Fuente, among other brands) use when they reluctantly discuss the relationship between cigars and taste. Their disinclination to quantify their lifelong romance with the leaf is shared by most cigar aficionados. While we want to know what makes a cigar taste great, we don't want our pleasure reduced to a chemical analysis of smoke and tobacco. In essence, we want the romance to continue with each new cigar encounter.

Still, despite the romance, Fuente and Carrillo, along with Hendrik Kelner (president of Tabacos Dominicanos, which makes Avo, Davidoff, Griffin's, and Troya) make no claim that a good cigar cannot be differentiated from a bad one via objective analysis. All of these men were born and raised in the tobacco business. (Fuente says he was brought to the factory when he was three days old and later made forts in the giant bales of leaves as a boy. According to Fuente, the doctor who delivered him was paid in cigars.) And all agree that there are certain constants, that structure and the ingredients of any cigar determine its taste.

Talking about the taste of cigars requires that you sit down with a great cigar and smoke it from beginning to end. Kelner, Carrillo and Fuente advocate this method because they have all learned by experience, by doing and by smoking. And to them, there is more to it than putting a cigar in your mouth-taste means using all of your senses. Sight, touch, smell, taste and, yes, even hearing play a role in cigar smoking. Kelner and Fuente say that a cigar should be listened to as you roll it between your fingers to determine the moisture content of the wrapper.

Sight and touch go hand in hand. The first thing you do when you remove a cigar from a box, or from your humidor, is inspect it. The appearance and feel of the cigar wrapper tell a story about taste. And while wrapper alone cannot make or break a cigar, according to Fuente, "the wrapper plays an important part in the taste because it embodies the overall personality of the cigar. It allows the cigar to have texture and beauty." Even before you light up, seeing and feeling a wrapper with nice silky oil-indicative of proper humidification-and without visual blemishes can give you certain expectations, though wrapper appearance will vary depending upon where the leaf was grown.

The best wrappers from Cuba are indeed like silk, with exceedingly close cell structure; they don't feel like vegetable matter because their surface is so smooth. They also possess an elasticity and strength often lacking in wrapper leaves from other countries. By contrast, Cameroon wrapper shows oil in its bumpy surface, called tooth in the tobacco industry. These bumps are a good sign that great taste and aroma will follow, even if the texture of the leaf isn't silky. Wrappers from Connecticut and Ecuador are somewhat close in surface texture, though not in color. Better Ecuadoran leaf has less tooth, is smooth to the touch and has a matte-like appearance. Connecticut wrapper shows more color depth, a bit more tooth and a nice shine.

Despite the differences in the way oil appears, oil in wrapper leaf indicates that the cigar has been well humidified (oil secretes from tobacco at 70 to 72 percent humidity) and that the smoke should be relatively cool. A cool smoke is a tastier one, because your nose and mouth can pick up more nuance than just hot, carbonized tobacco flavor.

If you don't see any cracks or ripples in the surface of the wrapper leaf, you also know that the cigar wasn't exposed to cycles of over-humidification and excessive dryness. This, too, is important. If the cigar is forced through rapid cycles of expansion and contraction, the internal construction is destroyed. A cigar with internal damage will smoke unevenly, or "plug," drawing unevenly. This may still occur due to faulty construction, but your chances are better with a perfect wrapper than with a broken one.

After lighting your cigar, you can make additional visual evaluations. First, look at the ash. According to most cigar experts, a white ash is better than a gray one. This is not merely an aesthetic issue, either. "The soil produces white ash-the better soil gives whiter ash and more taste," says Fuente. He says that certain manipulations of soil can be made through fertilization, but if too much magnesium (a key ingredient in producing white ash) is added to the mix, the ash will flake, and nobody wants a messy cigar, even if the ash is white.

Of course, ash is not something you taste or smell, but a gray ash indicates that the soil was lacking certain key nutrients, leaving the cigar with insubstantial body, or perhaps little complexity-resulting in a lesser smoke.

A final visual cue is the burn rate. You can taste a cigar that is burning improperly because, according to Kelner, an uneven burn "distorts the flavor of the blend." Simply put, a cigar is designed to burn evenly. A cigar is constructed to burn different tobaccos throughout the length of the smoke. A cigar may start off mild, grow stronger, or change in some other way, and these changes are attributable to the location of different tobaccos in the cigar structure. An uneven burn sets these intended taste changes on edge. Perhaps a "tunneling" effect will occur, with one side of the cigar burning while the other stagnates. If this occurs the draw will be uneven, the smoke may become very strong, and the taste in your mouth becomes overwrought with a single signature-and a one-dimensional taste is far less interesting than a multifaceted one.

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