Body, Strength, and Flavor

Consider three basic components of the cigar smoking experience to bring understanding and insight to the wide variety of styles you'll encounter as a curious smoker.

By E. Edward Hoyt III

Smoke a cigar, and it usually doesn't take very long to know whether you like it or not. Sure, a cigar evolves and develops throughout the entire smoke, so it would be quite unfair to conclude you've experienced everything it has to offer in only the first few minutes, but the general impression gleaned in the first few minutes is usually enough to let you know you're on the right track or it is not.

Accurately describing why you feel the way you do about a particular cigar has a lot to do with your level of smoking experience, the sophistication of your palette, and the size of your tasting-related vocabulary. Each of these add layers of perception and expand your ability to quantify what you taste and sense, but at heart it's either a cigar for you or not.

The various ways one can describe a cigar's taste is a process learned both through first-hand experience and the acquisition of knowledge. Once you understand the playing field, it becomes a little easier to grasp why certain cigars strike you as favorable, and others don't.

To appreciate your likes and dislikes, it helps to understand three core components of a cigar's impact on our senses - body, strength, and flavor. Getting clear definitions of these terms, though, is no easy task: not even cigar makers themselves necessarily agree.

Habanos S.A., the maker of Cuban cigars, actually classifies all of their cigars using a single criteria - from mild to full - that collectively encompasses body, strength, and flavor all at once. But these days, many enthusiasts demand a deeper level of scrutiny when analyzing cigars.

The two components that tend to get lumped together most frequently as a single descriptor are "body" and "strength." It's entirely understandable, as the terms seem similar to the uninitiated and often do correlate to each other, but in reality the differences are quite distinct and important.

Strength corresponds to the nicotine level in a cigar, sort of analogous to the octane level in fuel. Or the heat in chile peppers. Or the alcohol level in a beverage. It's the "kick," and the way your body reacts to this kick will manifest itself as your tolerance (and thus preference) for cigars of various strengths. Strictly speaking, nicotine isn't so much "tasted" as it is "felt," and just as with alcohol, an empty stomach play a significant factor in how that kick impacts you. Smoking an incredibly strong cigar on any empty stomach can be downright nauseating - regardless of one's level of experience in smoking cigars. Everyone has higher or lower tolerances for nicotine, and whatever a cigar's "strength," it is what it is.

Nicotine fades over time, so well-aged cigars will soften compared to those that are freshly rolled. Sun drenched leaves picked from the tops of plants are inherently stronger, but the curing technique and aging of leaves prior to rolling a cigar also impact heavily on the tobacco's potency.

"Body," on the other hand, is a lot more abstract and challenging to wrap one's head around. It very well may correlate to the strength of a cigar, but it doesn't have to. Body refers to flavor, but not in terms of specific tastes. Rather, it's more about quantifying the presence or absence or flavors in ranges - the depth, breadth, and even the intensity of flavor. Think of it like the vocal range of a singer, the depth of field of a photograph, or the resolution of a digital image. A mild-bodied cigar has relatively fewer flavors, while a full-bodied one has many. A mild tasting fish like flounder, verses a gamey meat like venison. Both dishes could have plenty of kick, heat, or strength, depending upon how they are prepared.

That interpretation is far from universal, though, and others think of body in more abstract terms, such as the "weight" of the smoke in one's mouth, or what beverage tasters describe as "mouthfeel."

A cigar could be very flavorful with a lot of body but mild in strength - think classic Davidoff versus a bland entry-level premium. In fact, a new generation of Connecticut shade cigars have rejected the notion that "mild" must mean "bland," and have much more body than those of the past.

"Flavor" refers to the specific, distinct tastes that one discerns when smoking a cigar. Some ratings have become downright ridiculed for their over-the-top descriptions of identified flavors, but far be it from us to question the existence of highly evolved pallets that can actually discern between dozens of different varieties of berries or citrus, whereas the average Joe might simply call something "fruity." Those pallets do exist, often in combination with inherent talent and experience. But even most novices can discern at least a handful of familiar flavors in a cigar - coffee, nuts, caramel, and earth are the most common.

Bite into a loaded hamburger and you'll taste pickles, onions, cheese, ketchup, and whatever else has actually been loaded on. But when describing the taste of a cigar (or wine, or whisky, or beer) the tastes aren't literal identifications - caramel (hopefully) hasn't actually been added to the cigar - but there sure could be notes of toffee discernable in each puff.

Of course, flavor is incredibly subjective. I'll never forget tasting an exotic new herb called "cilantro" years ago, when it had reached my suburban supermarket for the first time. Having only ready about it before, and being quite excited to press it into service in a batch of fresh salsa, I was dumbfounded and confused by the moment of reckoning when I concluded it tasted like a mouthful of soap. An acquired taste, perhaps? Apparently, especially to a Kraft macaroni-and-cheese suburban kid. Intrigued none-the-less, I stayed with the odd culinary addition long enough to embrace it and eventually love its "exotic" taste. Today it no longer reminds me of soap.

Some cigar makers have taken to describing a cigar's body and flavor separately, as in "a medium-bodied but full-flavored cigar." But by body do they actually mean "strength?" In many cases, yes.

Complex cigars can be real treats, since they are packed full of flavor. But there's nothing wrong with a fine cigar that has a rather narrow range of flavors - one or two "notes" as they are referred to by tasting techies - that are particularly pleasing and in balance with a cigar's body.

At the end of the day, balance may be the biggest key of all: when body, strength, and flavor are out of whack, chances are a cigar won't provide a pleasant experience.

SMOKE 2012, Issue 3


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