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Learning Your ABCs: Cigars 101, Part II

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

(continued from page 1)

Taste and smell are almost inseparable sensations. While some people may have more highly developed perceptions of taste or smell, nearly everyone agrees that clogged sinuses hamper their ability to taste. Basically, when you can't smell, half of your "taste buds" are missing, especially in cigar smoking, because you're not eating the smoke, but smelling it.

To make a good-tasting cigar, then, cigar makers are very concerned about the smoke and the aroma it delivers. Carrillo maintains that aroma and taste are inseparable: "It doesn't have to mean strong or mild [aroma], but it doesn't work if I don't get any taste from a cigar." To Carrillo, there's no quantifying cigar taste; it either exists or it doesn't.

By contrast, Kelner says that taste, at least the act of tasting, is highly quantifiable. "The sense of taste is located mainly on the tongue and to a lesser degree on the palate. There exist only four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Everything else is either a combination of these four or a combination of taste and aroma." Fuente agrees, at least in part, with Kelner's claim. Fuente says that when he talks with other tobacco men, he doesn't use what he calls elaborate "food language" (coffee, chocolate, nutty, etc.) to describe cigars. "We use words like, acidic, salty, bitter, sweet, bite, sour, smooth, heavy, full-bodied, rich and balanced."

Regardless of the language used to describe and evaluate cigars, coming up with a blend of tastes that works requires many different types of tobacco. And to reach a consistent taste, one that stays the same year after year, is the most difficult task for any cigar maker. Explaining what happens to tobacco over several growing seasons, Fuente says that no two leaves of tobacco are the same, and no two cigars can be exactly the same year to year. "Every year, if you were to go by the numbers [to use strict ratios of the same tobacco blend in any given cigar], that cigar would be completely different." Any tobacco, even tobacco grown on the same spot, changes constantly.

Kelner says that cigar makers use several different tobaccos for two reasons. The first reason is to compensate for nature-which alters tobacco leaf taste from year to year, plot to plot and plant to plant-but the second is to vary taste. Elaborating, Kelner says, "It is possible to obtain an agreeable flavor from only one tobacco type, but a single taste will make the smoke tiring." Kelner notes that to ensure an interesting taste variety, as well as a consistent flavor over the years, "a good blend must be made with tobaccos from different [geographic] zones, varieties, grades and harvests, so that the cigar will be complete and balanced." Agreeing with Kelner, Fuente enthuses that, like a great chef, a cigar craftsman must have a variety of tobacco ingredients with which to work: "If you give him just salt and pepper, he's really limited. But if you give him different amounts of herbs and spices, even if you have a bad crop of pepper one year, you could adjust the balance so the consumer wouldn't recognize that there was something different."

Fuente, Kelner and Carrillo often talk about creating cigars that make us believe in an unalterably consistent blend, but what they are actually saying is that the consumers' taste buds are always being fooled. Two Red Delicious apples never taste exactly the same, but we've become accustomed to, and believe in, a certain taste attached to that piece of fruit. Likewise, no two cigars taste exactly the same, but adding a stronger tobacco one year and a weaker one the next to achieve the same "balance" creates the illusion of consistency-no such thing ever really exists.

Achieving this balance is also complex; there are an infinite number of variables that can alter the taste of any blend. Kelner categorizes just ten: soil, tobacco variety, climate, ground condition, curing, the harvester, fermentation, aging, manufacture of the cigar and the humidity of the cigar. But not all makers agree. The list of variables inevitably expands and soon becomes unfathomable. The only agreements among makers seem to be that a wrapper has the greatest potential impact on nuances (Fuente calls these "overtones" and "undertones") of taste, and filler (the heart of the cigar) determines overall strength or weakness (or fullness of body). "With a neutral wrapper," such as Cameroon, according to Kelner, "it can be compensated for with a filler and binder that has more flavor and especially more aroma." Kelner says that "Connecticut wrapper [contributes] to about 20 percent of the flavor, with Cameroon at about 5 percent." Of course he qualifies his numbers, saying that a stronger binder and filler will have a dissipating effect on this 20 percent figure, and a cigar with a larger ring gauge will be far less affected by wrapper taste: the ratio of filler to wrapper is far greater in a Churchill than in a Lancero-sized cigar.

Kelner, whose approach to cigars is somewhat more analytical than that of his peers, also quantifies the contribution of binder and filler to the taste and aroma of any cigar. Kelner says that within normal parameters-weather, leaf quality, etc.-binder contributes no less than 20 percent to the taste of a cigar, and filler, no less than 40 percent. Again, Kelner cautions not to take these numbers too literally. It's a question of many variables, and to extrapolate from these figures that a cigar is like a puzzle would be a gross misinterpretation. It is better to let the numbers speak for themselves: a binder, even one of relatively weak tobacco, will have some impact on the quality of the smoke, while the filler will determine overall strength; the wrapper will add a great deal of character, or not much at all, depending upon its condition, seed origin and type.

Other factors that are at least somewhat agreed-upon are aging and construction.

A good cigar has a range and variety of tastes, and one way to alter those tastes is with different ages of tobacco. According to Fuente, aging makes a smoother, richer cigar. "If you get a cigar right from a roller's table you won't find that." But Fuente says that the common people of Cuba smoke freshly rolled cigars, and he makes no claim that an aged cigar tastes better. Rather, it simply makes the cigar taste "rounder," with less sharp tobacco taste. On this point, both Carrillo and Kelner agree (especially the former, whose cigars are often the "youngest" commercially available in this country), though Carrillo is perhaps more interested in producing cigars with a sharp, spicy taste, like the cigars his father made in Havana before the Revolution.

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