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Thursday, March 19, 2020

CIGARS 101.9: Tasting, Evaluating & Reviews

Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides the following two definitions for TASTE:

"the special sense that perceives and distinguishes the sweet, sour, bitter, or salty quality of a dissolved substance and is mediated by taste buds on the tongue" (noun)


"to have perception, experience, or enjoyment" (verb)

Tasting is the process of perceiving, experiencing and enjoying!  As you can see, the words we use matter.  And some of the words we use can have very different definitions.  The key to understanding, enhancing and communicating our taste preferences is having a strong fundamental understanding of the words, facts and science relating to human taste.  Keep reading to learn more...

Traditionally speaking, there are five physiological human senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.  Each of our senses plays a special role in the way we experience our lives and time.  The enjoyment of luxury tobacco is an organoleptic delicacy, a sensory delight: just like the enjoyment of fine wine, great food, a beautiful view, our favorite music, or even a hot bath.  And the enjoyment of luxury tobacco involves all five of the human senses.

Consider sight/seeing the "introductory sense", since it is typically the first sense we use when selecting cigars.  Our sight helps us determine size, color, shape, consistency, oiliness, etc...  While our eyes can deceive us, they mostly help us asses the initial quality and construction of cigars.  After selecting your cigar, the importance of sight will increase.  Seeing and monitoring the cigar and ash is critical to maintaining the proper burn, pace, and ash-free clothing.  Ultimately, sight is useful on many levels.  For reasons that date back to the dawn of man, the sight of fire and smoke have a hypnotic and soothing effect on humans.  To lovers of luxury tobacco, there is nothing so relaxing as the sight of smoke wafting up into the air, as if your tension and worries are being carried away with it.  

With regard to cigars, what you don't hear may matter the most.  Aside from the sounds of good conversation, few sounds are associated with cigar smoking.  Even the "sound" of freshness is silent.  But there are a couple distinct sounds occasionally heard from tobacco that tell us something important.  If you gently squeeze a cigar and hear a cracking sound coming from the wrapper, it is probably too dry and not optimally conditioned; a snap, crackle or pop while smoking could be a cigar beetle popping - indicating you should not be smoking that cigar.  

There is a lot to say about the importance of touch and cigars.  Touch is the physical sensation of feeling.   The way a cigar feels in the hand is paramount.  With our hands we can sense if a cigar is at the proper humidity.  We can even use our fingers to determine the silkiness of a cigar wrapper as well as the firmness, construction consistency, and much, much more.  But the key to understanding touch is realizing that it is not limited to the hands:  we feel with our mouth, tongue, and nose as well.  It is important to note that spice and heat are sensations that we feel as well!

Nicotine = Strength
Nicotine is a naturally occurring organic compound in the same family of substances (alkaloids) as caffeine: it is found in tomatoes, green peppers, potatoes, and tobacco.  Traditionally, we do not think of nicotine as something we touch, but it is definitely something we feel.  As with caffeine and alcohol, every person has a different tolerance level to nicotine: too much nicotine can induce nausea and a light head: if this every happens to you, consume a little sugar and it will subside.  The effects and/or level of nicotine will determine the "strength" of a cigar.

Taste, also known as gustation, is the human sense which drives our appetite and protects us from ingesting poisons.  We taste with sensory organs called taste buds which are located on our tongue.  Our taste buds are limited to sensing only five distinct tastes: salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami.  All of these tastes can be experienced when enjoying a cigar: some of them will make the experience better and others can be a detriment.  Click here to learn more about the human sense of taste...

Smell, also known as olfaction, is the human sense contained in the nasal cavity that detects microscopic molecules released by substances like food, smoke, flowers, and wine.  Our olfactory nerve cells can detect thousands of different "smells" that our sense of taste cannot.  Without our sense of smell it would be difficult for our palate (sense of taste) to distinguish between an orange and coffee or chocolate and vanilla.  Ultimately, smell is the sense that reveals the extraordinary qualities (ie. complexity/sophistication) of great tobacco, food, wine and even air.  If you don't believe this, try smoking a cigar with a cold, or with cotton stuffed up your nose - just for fun.

Flavor is what we perceive when taste and aroma combine:
a true synergy! 


Merriam-Webster defines aromatherapy as: "the use of aroma to enhance the feeling of well being".  Tobacconist University began using the term TobaccAromatherapy in 1998, referring to the beneficial and therapeutic effects derived from luxury tobaccos; products which are cultivated, crafted, and curated until they are combusted and savored for our sensory pleasure.  Stimulating our senses for pleasure and health is one of the most natural and enriching ways we can savor our time!

People enjoy luxury tobacco on many different levels and for different reasons. To some, a great cigar can be a meditative or transcendental experience, while to others it can simply be something to puff on while playing a round of golf. Some people taste vanilla, leather, and nutmeg while others just taste tobacco. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong because taste is subjective. 

Our Tasting Methodology is a simple set of guidelines to follow if you are trying to evaluate the qualities of a cigar.  This is especially useful for tobacconists who must evaluate cigars for their inventories and then describe them to their customers.  Following the Tasting Methodology, or conducting a “tasting,” requires focus and purpose because it is more thorough than just casually enjoying a cigar

3 Step Tasting Methodology:

Description & Comparison

Pre-Observation: Establish Neutrality
The most important step before tasting is to establish a neutral setting, starting with the pH in your mouth and eliminating distractions.  Distractions can include people, stress, other tobacco smoke in the air, food odors, and anything else that detracts from focusing on the tasting. Other confounders include food and beverages, which should be avoided during a tasting since they will change the flavors you are perceiving. In addition, emotional biases can also confound a tasting. Smoking a cigar on vacation or under particularly pleasant and relaxed circumstances can make the product seem to taste better.  Establishing neutrality is about trying to eliminate any potential biases, and this includes physical as well as emotional issues. Finally, if you are tasting on a regular basis, you should try to keep the variables as consistent as possible. This means, tasting at the same time of day and in a consistent place. Again, always minimize distractions and confounders.  

Observation is the process of using your senses to observe and experience the cigar.  We recommend breaking the process down into three stages: Pre-Smoke, Smoking and Post-Smoke.  

Pre-Smoke: Appearance, Construction, Draw
As we have already learned, all of our senses are used to savor a cigar, and the process starts before the product is lit. First, we observe appearance and construction with our sight. Then we touch the head and body of the cigar, judging firmness, conditioning, texture, and consistency. Next, we can smell the bouquet of both the foot and the cigar wrapper. Last, we can cut the cigar and put it in our mouth to assess the draw and the nuances of the wrapper leaf.  By removing the cigar from our palate, we can focus on the finish of the unlit tobacco. The finish is the flavor (taste+aroma) that remains after the cigar has left your mouth. All of this “cigar foreplay” will lead to greater enjoyment and appreciation of the cigar you are about to smoke.

Smoking: Combustion, Smoke, Ash, Flavor
Next, we smoke the cigar and assess its combustion, smoke, and ash.  The cigar will need to burn evenly for the flavors to develop properly.  In addition, a good ash will stay firm until it is released. The smoke of luxury tobaccos will have a distinct texture and appearance as well. While smoking, we focus on the flavors (taste+aroma), strength, spice, body, and the overall experience the tobacco conveys.  Every puff of a cigar will yield different flavors. Cigars are blended to change and develop. The unique construction of cigars allows for leaf placements, which will create flavor changes as the cigar is smoked. In fact, cigars can deliver an evolving flavor experience designed by the cigar maker, which is why cigars should be smoked from beginning to end, in one “sitting,” the same way you might watch a good movie or eat a great meal. It is also one of the reasons we start smoking by the head and not the foot.

Post-Smoke: The Finish
Lastly, every puff you take will reveal new flavors and leave a new finish layer on your palate.  The final finish of a cigar will be very important because the flavors and sensations will stay with you and evolve even after the cigar is done being smoked: savor it!

Description & Comparison
This is the process of  ascribing values, measurements and words to your observations.  Your vocabulary, memory, knowledge and experience will contribute to your ability to describe what you have perceived.  Ultimately, describing what you taste can be an artistic process because it is an intangible interpretation of experiences and perceptions.  Using colorful words and analogies is perfectly acceptable.  Regardless of how technical or verbose you are, the only goal that matters when describing a cigar or pipe tobacco is that others understand what you are saying.  Unique descriptors like "musty," "earthy," "cocoa," or "nuttiness" are only useful if it makes sense to you and your audience.  The descriptive process is something you can get better at, and there are many publications and experts worth learning from.  In addition, having the experience and ability to compare one cigar to another is a useful tactic.  It can be easier to describe something in contrast to another, rather than coming up with the perfect descriptor.  But, there does not have to be a right or wrong way to describe what you have perceived.

By now, the fundamental knowledge you have learned is more than enough to get you started on describing and communicating what you are tasting. 

As consumers, we can usually decide if we like a cigar after smoking just one.  In fact, we probably do not need to go through the rigors of the Tasting Methodology.  Just smoking a few of the same cigar brand/vitola can be enough to know if we "like" something.  But, the rationale of tasting is to come to some sort of conclusion - and evaluation.

Price & Value
The Tasting Methodology evaluation should lead to an assessment based on the observation, description, and analysis, but it must also factor in one more variable: the product price.  While price may not seem like an obvious part of Tasting Methodology, it is important since we are tasting products, and all products have a price.  The ultimate value of a product must be related to its price.  Finally, how we choose to add up all these variables and perceptions is a subjective process, just like your personal taste.  The main goal of any evaluation method is for you and your audience to understand it.  As we have said, taste is subjective, and how you evaluate and define your taste will be up to you.

If you would like a little structure and help with your Tasting Methodology, Tobacconist University (TU) has got what you need.  The TU Certified Cigar Reviews platform is the world's first and only methodology to document and evaluate cigars created by Certified Retail Tobacconists for consumers and professionals alike.

1 comment :

  1. You wrote a very cool article about tasting, I'd like to post it on my website - with a link to you, how do I get approval?