Cigar Flavor Profiles: the Characteristics of Each Leaf
Tobacco flavor starts with the genetic characteristics of the tobacco varietal. Different tobacco types have different properties with respect to body, flavor and strength. Common tobacco varietals include: Habano, Connecticut Shade, Cameroon, Corojo, Piloto Cubano, Broadleaf, and many more. Nowadays, tobacco growers are experimenting and forming many hybrid tobaccos by crossing common varietals and crossing them again with other hybrids. As a result, there are an unlimited number of tobacco types that can be produced and used in a cigar blend. Unfortunately, there is no way to give a generic cigar flavor profile of the body, strength and aroma characteristics of each tobacco varietal or hybrid because it is the combination of the seed, soil and climate conditions that will produce the distinctive characteristics of the tobacco. Thus, planting the same seed in different countries will yield different results. Furthermore, planting the same seeds in different regions within the same country and/or different farms within the same region can also produce a tobacco with different flavor characteristics. Add to this, the different methods for curing and fermentation and the differing lengths to which the tobaccos can be aged and you come up with myriad possibilities for flavor characteristics within a tobacco type.
Master blenders will acquaint themselves with the characteristics of each type of tobacco from each harvest year. During the curing and fermentation stages, they can learn about the tobacco characteristics by the look, feel and aroma of the tobacco. The master blender will touch the leaves to feel for thickness and the amount of stickiness (i.e., a measure of the density of oleoresins). They will smell the leaves and even burn through a leaf to perceive the aromas. Often they will construct “puros,” or small cigars of just one tobacco type that they will smoke and keep notes on the characteristics. This allows them to focus on that particular tobacco type without the flavors being “tainted” by the effects of the other leaves in a typical cigar blend.
How Leaf Placement Affects Flavor
Leaf placement is another factor that will determine how much a wrapper (or filler blend) will impact the overall cigar flavor. Tobacco plants are harvested in stages called primings. Each priming removes 2 leaves starting at the bottom of the plant and each priming is separated by approximately 1 week. There are typically 5-8 primings on a tobacco plant (depending on the tobacco variety). Therefore it will take approximately 5-8 weeks for the priming process to reach completion.
The uppermost leaves of the tobacco plant, the corona and ligero, are primed last. Because they have remained on the plant longer, the leaves have faced harsher weather conditions of direct sunlight, wind, and other elements, and have been nourished longer by the stalk. As a result, they are thicker and contain more oleoresins and possess a stronger flavor. The viso, or mid-level leaves of the plant, contain tobacco of medium-full strength and flavor. Viso tobacco strikes a balance between flavor and burn characteristics and is very useful in providing both a good-tasting and good-burning cigar. The lower primings of the plant, the seco and volado contain tobacco that is lighter in flavor and strength. This tobacco possesses great burning characteristics and provides the bulk of the combustion qualities in your cigar.
If more of the filler blend in a cigar is comprised of leaves from the top of the plant, then that will reduce the effect of the wrapper on overall cigar flavor. But if the cigar blend uses more tobacco from the lower part of the plant (i.e., seco and volado), this will allow the wrapper to assert itself more. Conversely, if the wrapper comes from the higher primings of the plant, it will have a greater impact on the overall flavor, compared to a wrapper from the lower part of the plant.
How the Master Blender Determines Flavor
The body, flavor and strength of tobacco grown in different soil will gain its characteristics from the genetic signature of the soil. A master blender will use their knowledge of the different tobaccos at their disposal and will set out to create a cigar masterpiece by blending several different tobaccos. The master blender will usually start out with an idea of the type of cigar they want to blend. Perhaps they want a full-bodied cigar with more spice and less sweetness. Or maybe they want a medium-bodied blend that has a lot of sweetness and shows more complexity. Whatever the case, they will choose from their stores of tobacco to achieve their goal.
As the master blender works with the different tobaccos, he or she may end up using 3-5 different tobacco types (and sometimes more) in the filler blend. The strength, body and flavor characteristics of these different tobaccos will determine the extent to which the wrapper tobacco will contribute to the flavor of the cigar. The filler blend must be matched with the wrapper and binder leaves and the talented master blender can control the contribution of the wrapper and filler to the overall flavor of the finished cigar.
If a cigar maker wants more strength in a cigar, their recipe will favor fuller-bodied, stronger, and more flavorful tobacco varietals and will favor higher priming leaves. To create a lighter bodied blend, the master blender will favor lighter tobacco types and will use a higher percentage of lower priming leaves.
A filler blend with more body, strength and/or flavor will compete with the wrapper in terms of its contribution to the overall flavor of the cigar. On the other hand, a mild filler blend will compete less with the wrapper tobacco. A wrapper that is stronger and more full in body and flavor will assert its flavor characteristics over a light to medium bodied filler blend. Of course, as demonstrated in the last article, the greater amount of wrapper surface area that a cigar has, the more the wrapper will contribute to the overall flavor.
In my opinion, it is more difficult to show off the characteristics of a wrapper leaf in a full-bodied cigar. By using tobacco with full body and flavor in the filler, it is less likely that the wrapper will be able to assert its own unique flavors, no matter how strong the wrapper. If a wrapper possesses great flavor and aroma characteristics, the master blender will likely create a filler blend that will not overpower the fine characteristics of the wrapper leaf.
In the final article in this series, I will recount an experiment that was conducted at the Davidoff factory that allowed me to taste, first hand, the results of using different wrappers on cigars of identical length, ring gauge and filler blend.
About the Author: David “Doc” Diaz is the publisher of Stogie Fresh and the editor of the Stogie Fresh Cigar Journal. He has served as an educator, researcher and writer and has taught in the Health Education and Health Science field for over 30 years. He possesses an earned doctorate from Nova Southeastern University.