Learning Your ABCs: Cigars 101, Part II

| By Michael Frank | From 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.

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.

The final factor that contributes to taste is proper construction. Beyond every other element of taste, even with the finest blend in the world, a poorly constructed cigar will be less enjoyable than a perfectly made cigar of only modest blend. There are many reasons why faulty construction destroys taste. First, according to Kelner, is the negative effect of a faulty draw. Kelner says that a loose draw (a cigar that burns fast, letting a lot of smoke pass through quickly because it is underfilled) will increase smoking temperature and destroy taste. He adds that a tight smoke "reduces the sensitivity of the taste buds," and on a fundamental basis, drawing less smoke means having less to taste.

Of course, even if a cigar draws evenly, a roller has to be sure to add the right amount of each tobacco in a blend to each cigar. "If he is off by a gram," says Carrillo, "it will change the taste of the cigar."

Even after making an honest effort to quantify taste, the men quoted here don't want cigar making to turn into a scientific process. Kelner instills great tobacco with more power than is logical: "A beautiful cigar touches all of my senses," and Carrillo says that when he is smoking a great cigar, "I don't ever want to put it down." Fuente, somewhat more philosophical than his two peers, praises a fine cigar for the solitude it brings: "You exhale and let the smoke out, and there is great peace in the silence." These men know that the cigars they produce become far more than the sum of their parts.

However, certain analytical observations can be made about cigars that these leaf mavens will own up to: A good cigar can be differentiated from a bad one by observing the leaf, the color of the ash and the burn rate-and by tasting the smoke for complexity and richness. By doing these things, you will understand the quality of your cigar. This does not mean you must stop romancing the stogie; you'll simply know your cigar better. And being more knowledgeable about what you love is, perhaps, the best definition of taste.