Cigars are like any other delicacy, an indulgence for the palate. You often hear sommeliers describing a fine wine, or epicureans a plate of food, and cigars are often portrayed in a similar way. Like all luxuries, cigars embody a variety of flavors and aromas that are unlocked over the course of a fine smoke.
A cigar is judged on four main qualities: balance, flavor, body, and finish, and each component builds to a final impression. To get started, you need to draw a volume of smoke from your cigar. To do this, take several short pulls followed by one final long draw. Allow the smoke to envelope your entire mouth. Push out your cheeks slightly to distribute the smoke and swirl it around your tongue. Before blowing out the smoke, draw it to the rear of your throat and gently release it from your mouth and nose. Releasing smoke from your nose can be difficult to get used to, so start with a cigar that is traditionally mild.
Balance: The majority of the tasting takes place on the palate. Your palate (or sense of taste) is divided into four regions which detect different flavors. The very front of the palate detects sweetness, on the sides toward the front is where you find your salty flavors (typically very dry), the sides on the rear of the palate detects acidic flavors (typically wet) and finally the center toward the rear which delivers the bitter flavors. Think of the smoke as having no definable flavor by itself, but rather the flavor should be something you sense or feel as it reacts with the palate to give you the impression of a flavor. A well balanced cigar will utilize all areas of the palate evenly and the competing flavors should be in unison with one another.
Flavor: Now that you have tackled what regions of the palate the smoke is stimulating, it is time to look for discernable flavors. The art of blowing the smoke through your nose becomes your biggest asset for this task. Specifically, the characteristics you identify on your palate are often referred to as "flavor,” and the characteristics you sense from your nose are referred to as "aromas," however, many enthusiasts will use these terms interchangeably. Cigars are described by hundreds of underlying terms which commonly include: wood, nuts, earth, peat, spice, vegetal, citrus, sweet, salty, sour, wheat, bitter, flinty, grassy, burnt, cinnamon, vanilla, butterscotch, coffee, espresso, cocoa, chocolate, caramel, garlic, bread, pepper, honey, licorice, musk, pine, metallic, floral, cedar, charcoal, toast, etc. The overall richness of the flavor is described from mellow to full.
Body: The body of the cigar is often confused with flavor. Simply put, body is the strength and feeling of the cigar. It is not the level of richness of the flavor. The body is something you feel in your gut and throat as you smoke a cigar. Think of the body of a cigar as its power and like flavor, it is graded from mellow to full. For example, a powerful cigar that you might smoke slowly after a big meal is "full-bodied."
Finish: In the simplest terms, finish is the aftertaste you get from the cigar. After releasing all of the smoke from your palate, wait about five seconds and shift your tongue around in your mouth. Chances are you will detect the finish toward the rear of your palate. While the flavor you detect in the finish may be one you picked up on when the smoke was on your palate, it is often something entirely different that you did not notice when you were first drawing or tasting the cigar. The finish should have a discernible flavor and it is described by its staying power, which ranges from short to long.
The key to training your palate is practice. As your palate develops you will begin to detect more of the nuances of your favorite smokes. While a great number of aficionados like to pair ports, wines, and whiskies as they sample their cigars, I recommend a more neutral beverage like water or club soda so you can get the full, unadulterated cigar experience. For more information about tasting cigars, or if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to speak with any of our highly trained cigar consultants at 800.357.9800.