What makes a great cigar? Often, it’s one of those “you’ll know it when you see it” things, and over-analyzing a cigar does nothing but destroy the mystery. While we want to know what makes a cigar great, we don’t want our pleasure reduced to a scientific analysis of smoke and tobacco. In short, we want the romance to continue with each new encounter. Having said that, however, most will agree that the ingredients of a cigar and certain parameters of its structure will greatly determine how the experience unfolds.
Of course, there is more to it than just sticking a cigar in your mouth – the cigar experience requires all of your senses. Sight, touch, smell, and taste each are key elements of equal importance.
Sight and touch are two peas in a pod. A cigar should be properly inspected upon removing it from the box or humidor. The appearance and feel of the wrapper will tell you a great deal about a cigar. Even before lighting, seeing and feeling a silky, smooth wrapper glistening with oils and free of blemishes or apparent veins can promote certain expectations. However, looks can be deceiving and what matters most is the origin of the leaf and how it was produced.
The best wrappers are often like silk with exceedingly close cell structure – Connecticut-shade wrappers are a prime example. These light-colored leaves also possess an elasticity and strength often lacking in wrapper leaves from other countries. By contrast, a Cameroon wrapper shows oil in its bumpy surface, called “tooth.” These bumps are a good sign that great taste and aroma will follow, even if the texture of the leaf isn’t silky. True Connecticut wrappers and Connecticut-seed grown in Ecuador are somewhat close in surface texture, though not in color or taste. Ecuadorian leaves are smooth to the touch, but toothier, with a matte-like appearance. A Connecticut wrapper shows more color depth and a glossier shine. Despite the differences in the way oil appears, oil in a wrapper leaf indicates that the cigar has been well humidified (oil secretes from tobacco at 70% humidity) and that the smoke should be relatively cool. A cool smoke is a tastier one, because the nose and mouth can pick up more nuances than just hot, carbonized tobacco flavor.
If the wrapper leaf is free from cracks or ripples, the cigar wasn’t exposed to cycles of over-humidification and excessive dryness, which is a good thing. If the cigar is forced through rapid cycles of expansion and contraction, it destroys the internal construction, in addition to damaging the wrapper. A cigar with internal damage will smoke unevenly, offer a tight or “plugged” draw or go out frequently. While this may be a result of faulty construction, a broken wrapper can cause these problems.
The final factor is the burn. Simply put, a cigar is designed to burn evenly, slow, and cool. Also, a cigar is blended to burn different tobaccos throughout the length of the smoke, purposely allowing the cigar to change in flavor and/or strength. Aside from becoming cumbersome, an uneven burn, tunneling or frequent re-lights can alter the intended flavor of a cigar, making it seem harsh, bitter or even bland.
Equally, if not more importantly, are taste and smell. Taste and smell are almost inseparable sensations. For this reason, many enthusiasts will exhale through their nose to receive all of the flavors of a fine cigar.
Developing a tasty, balanced blend 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. No two leaves of tobacco are the same, and no two cigars can be exactly the same year to year. Any tobacco, even plants grown on the same plot of land, change constantly.
Cigar makers use several different tobaccos for two reasons. The first reason is to compensate for nature (which alters the tobacco’s flavor from year to year, plot to plot and plant to plant). Producing and blending great hand-made cigars has a multitude of variables and obstacles. The idea of a “consistent blend” as most think of it, is non-existent. There are an infinite number of variables that can alter the taste of any blend, such as soil, tobacco variety, climate, ground condition, curing, the harvester, fermentation, aging, manufacturer of the cigar and the humidity of the cigar. Essentially, what it boils down to, is that 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.
Aging and construction play a major role in taste. A good cigar has a range and variety of tastes. One way to alter those nuances is to utilize different ages of tobacco. Typically, aging makes a smoother, more balanced cigar. Most experts agree that aging does not necessarily make a cigar better, but simply “rounder,” producing a mellower character with less sharp tobacco. Most top boutique makers are utilizing tobaccos that have been aging for several years - as much as 5 or more.
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, sub-par blend. There are many reasons why faulty construction destroys taste, with the most prominent being a faulty draw. A loose draw - a cigar that burns fast, letting a lot of smoke pass through quickly because it is under-filled – will increase smoking temperature and destroy taste. A tight smoke reduces the sensitivity of the taste buds, and on a fundamental basis, drawing less smoke means having less to taste.
As you can see, the appearance, smell and feel all play a role in the flavor and performance of a cigar. Next time you’re burning your favorite stick, keep these points in mind and you just might appreciate the art of a fine, hand-rolled cigar even more.