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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Dear FDA, Tasting Is Essential


Tasting Is The Only Way To Distinguish

What is the difference between these two nearly indistinguishable cigars?  They are both premium, Nicaraguan, Churchill sizes with similar construction techniques.  They would both commonly be described as "rich, earthy, and mild to medium strength".  In addition, they both have the same suggested retail price of $6.50 USD.  Yet, one of these cigars is a masterpiece that was a limited production (approx. 55,000 produced) while the other reflects mediocre fermentation, poor construction, and inferior or unimpressive ingredients... in my opinion.  Both of these premium cigars come from the same place, are described the same, are priced the same, and look the same!  The point is, you wouldn't know the difference unless you smoked one.  And you could even prefer the one that I don't like, because taste is subjective!

Of course, for every person that appreciates the flavor complexities, richness and nuance of a premium cigar, there are many who simply think they "stink" or think they all smell and taste like "tobacco".  But nothing could be further from the truth (see Flavor Descriptor Tasting Chart below).  There are also people in the world who don't like the taste of clove, bar-b-q, whiskey, wine, meat, fennel, broccoli, etc.... The same is true for smells: just visit a perfume or candle store to prove the point that there is something for everyone.  Variety is indeed the "spice" of life, taste is subjective, and there is no accounting for taste!

A cigars most important flavor qualities are impossible to ascertain without tasting or sampling it.  And unlike a bottle of wine or fine spirit, which can be sipped a few times and understood and savored by the consumer, a cigar cannot be sampled in just a few puffs.  Why?  Because the nature of a liquid is that it is perfectly blended while premium cigars are crafted with five to eight distinct leaves, in varying proportions.  Each of these leaves must be measured and placed in a hand crafted bunch which will combust at the perfect rate:  perfect combustion is what releases the flavor properties of a cigar. So, in order to assess the qualities of a cigar, it must be smoked, in its entirety. 

The hand blending of multiple leaves in premium cigars makes it is natural to expect differences between cigars that were created at the same time using the same blend; but there will also be changes over time due to production realities.  Weather conditions (sun, temperatures, humidity, cloudiness, rain, etc...), soil rotation, and countless other variables make it impossible to plan and predict what a cigar blend will be in the future and what a cigar will ultimately taste like.  So, while consistency is important when creating cigars, it is impossible to achieve.  Recipes do not exist and blends have to vary.  For this reason, consumers and professional tobacconists must constantly taste and sample premium cigars to determine whether it suits their taste.  There is no accounting for taste, and shallow and factual descriptions are not nearly enough information to base decisions upon (e.g. rich, earthy, and mild to medium strength).

Premium cigars, like fine vintage wines, are released in limited, boutique, vintage, one-off, and rare editions.   As an agricultural product that is cultivated, cured, fermented, aged, blended, and hand crafted, the limited, rare and special nature of cigars is inherent to the product.  Premium cigars cannot be created via recipes, rather, they are a cigar makers artistic interpretation of what has grown out of the soil.  And since taste is subjective, this can be a very esoteric process and product.  Ultimately, only consumers can help to quantify or judge taste by determining whether or not that cigar is successful in the marketplace.  But, it is simply impossible to regulate, judge, or impose, taste.  There is no accounting for taste.

When you buy a car, you know the horsepower, MPG and other vital stats and specifications and you get to test drive it.  When you buy a turkey at the market, you know the calories, carbs, weight and other nutritional information.  And, of course you can have a reasonable expectation of what that turkey will taste like because there is very little variability in turkeys.  But, in case you don't, your super market may have someone there promoting and offering samples of that turkey. 

Every industry and product class has reasonable methods for sampling, assessing, and tasting products because it is necessary.  In the luxury tobacco industry, it is imperative.  Ultimately, not allowing samples and tasting of luxury and premium tobacco products would undermine and destroy the whole industry.  Limiting sampling and tasting will handicap retail tobacconists, undermine consumers, and stifle all creativity on the part of cigar makers.  If sampling and tasting is outlawed, the cigar industry will be left with a handful of generic or homogenized products created by the worlds largest corporations, leaving behind an industry that looks more like the mass-market cigarette industry rather than the boutique, artisanal, and creative industry that exists today.

Tobacco Flavor Descriptors from the Tobacconist University Certified Cigar Review Blueprint:

bbq bittersweet anise alfalfa ammonia
gamey black cherry black pepper barnyard astringent
leather blackberry cardamom bell pepper bitter
manure buttery chili pepper cardboard burnt match
meaty caramel cinnamon cedar diesel
musky  cherry cloves charred dry
roasted meat chocolate cumin dark roast coffee harsh
smoked meat citrusy ginger dusty kerosene
venison coffee mulling spice espresso lead
creamy nutmeg flowers mineral
currant smoked pepper fresh cut grass rust
dark chocolate sugar grass salt
dried fruit wasabi hay soapy
fruity white pepper herbs sulfur
honey hickory tar
marshmallow manure
molasses mesquite
orange peel mildew
plum moldy
raisin moss
sugar moss
toffee mushroom
vanilla musty
white chocolate oak
old cellar
raw nuts
roasted nuts
wet forest
wet grass
wine cask

Jorge L. Armenteros, CMT
President & Founder
Tobacconist University