When reading cigar reviews you will encounter flavours which at first seem strange in the context of discussing tobacco, such as chocolate, coffee or vanilla. However at the very least, these flavours seem more approachable than other, more “unique” notes, such as earth, leather or barnyard. In these instances, especially for new smokers, the question must (and often will) be asked: how do you know what barnyard and leather taste like? The answer, I can assure you, is not by chewing on your wallet or licking the walls of a barn (thankfully)…but then again, no judgment here. 

The taste receptors on our tongue are able to detect basic flavours such as bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and umami. They in turn inform our brain, which assesses their intensity in conjunction with information regarding texture, temperature and (most importantly) smell: there are over 300 receptors within the nasal cavity which assist the brain in completing its analysis. To understand their importance, eat / drink something whilst blocking your nose: you should notice that your perception of flavour decreases drastically both in intensity and specificity. As such, when we taste chocolate, earth, leather, barnyard, or whatever other flavour we may perceive in a cigar, it is the result of these processes arriving to a conclusion surrounding what flavours and aromas the cigar is reminding us of. 

Whilst many smokers are intrigued by the scientific processes organoleptic perception, many are interested in simply becoming more open to experiencing a greater array of flavours from their smokes. Fear not, we’ve got you covered.  

The first technique refers directly to the above mentioned point regarding the importance of smell, and is referred to as retrohaling,or retronasal olfaction. This is the act of passing a small portion of smoke through your olfactory system and releasing it through your nose. When first starting to experiment with retrohaling, start with a mild cigar and smaller amounts of smoke, before gradually progressing. Upon doing so, you should find the aromas of the cigar coming into sharper focus. Sweetness may be defined as molasses, chocolate, coffee, or even the cusp burnt sugar atop a creme brûlée. Spice will take on the characteristics of black, white or red pepper, cedar wood, leather, cinnamon…the list goes on. Learning to retrohale is a great step in elevating your appreciation of cigars. 

The next step assists in enhancing the efficacy of the first, and involves clearing your mind of any predispositions regarding what cigars “should” taste like. When I smoke a cigar, especially for review, I tell myself that I am not smoking a cigar at all, but rather that I am enjoying a medium which conveys an endless possibility of complex flavours to my palate for me to explore and understand. As mentioned above, our brain collates the information provided by our taste receptors and pieces it together in helping us to identify what it is that we are experiencing. Thus, if our mind is restricted, then our experience of flavour will suffer under similar constraints.

Which leads to a question: why will different people taste totally different things? The answer is simply because your brain can only identify flavours with which it is already familiar. If a cigar presents notes of cardamon, someone who has never tasted cardamon before will be less likely to identify it. I use the term ‘sensory memory’ to explain this process: if a flavour is in your sensory memory bank, you are more likely to perceive it. 

Concentrating on particular flavours can lead your mind to encounter false positives: detecting a flavour within a cigar only after you have been told that it is there. As such, whilst it is always recommended that novice smokers read basic flavour notes initially, blind tasting a cigar, assisted only by a flavour wheel rather than by preconceptions of its characteristics, will leave all inferences regarding its performance to your palate alone. Over time your palate will develop and, most importantly, hone in on the type of cigars which you enjoy smoking. 

All that having been said, let us address one final commonly asked question: is there a right and wrong answer to what you can taste in a cigar? No! Everyone’s palate and sensory memory bank is different, so by default, so will our smoking experiences. 

I hope that this primer on tasting cigars allows you to approach the concept with more ease and confidence. In essence, much like there are minimal hard-and-fast rules in the cigar world, the same applies to what we taste when we smoke. If you want to learn more about this fascinating area of knowledge, keep on the lookout for event announcements including tasting seminars. Until then, happy smoking!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.