My brothers and sisters, let me tell you – there is much knowledge to be had about cigars. Allow me also to come clean and tell you that, even though I spend an awful lot of time at this fabulous little digital outpost in the online frontier called Cigar Advisor, I sure don’t have all of the wisdom I’d like. Like many hobbies (though I prefer to look at it more as a lifestyle), we learn through doing. We develop our palates, we familiarize ourselves with certain tastes and flavors of different tobaccos and we experiment with different blends and tastes to find what we like and enrich our smoking experience.
If I really wanted to be pompous about the art of cigars, I’d argue that we put ourselves through what basically amounts to a crash course in atmospheric dynamics when we take the steps to maintain a well-balanced humidor. And there are many in the cigar business who, when it comes to farming are far more than men outstanding in their fields (ha!).
So in that climb up the mountainside, I thought to myself – we really should take some time to more usefully define a terrifyingly vague cigar term: “body.” As in, “what is body?”
No, really – what is body? It seems like it should be such a simple term to describe – it’s how strong a cigar is, right? Well, not really. It’s more about flavor….kind of. I asked a few of my fellow Advisors; each one of them defined it a little differently. Thanks for nothing, guys. Terms like “mouth-feel” and “particulates” were thrown around – but still, we settled nothing. I didn’t expect that we were going to find a cure for the common cold, but really – we couldn’t come up with one reasonable definition for this term, and how it relates to cigars?
Seems I’m not the only one – Dr. Mitch Fadem, who contributes regularly to about.com’s cigar column, said so point-blank: “Most cigar smokers have differing opinions about the meaning of the word ‘body’ when it comes to describing cigar body.”
What we know: the term “body” is not absolute. You can’t really use it as a synonym for strength, because we’ve all had cigars that are wicked full in flavor, but only mild or medium in strength and vice versa – Vitamin N flamethrowers that didn’t serve up much in the way of flavor. And when we say flavor, should we be talking about the overall mix of flavor(s), or the specific tasting notes (pepper, cocoa, citrus, etc.) or flavors we pick up when smoking?
Gary Korb, one of our Advisors, took a stab at this before: “In describing the ‘ cigar body’, what is essentially being described is the strength, or ‘heaviness’ of the smoke.” I think there’s a little more to it – but he pinpointed some great examples of “cigars described as ‘medium-bodied, yet full-flavored,’ in which you’re talking about a cigar that’s somewhere in the middle with regard to its strength, but delivers a lot of flavor without being overpowering or too heavy like a full-bodied cigar would be…such as the Rocky Patel Vintage 1990 & 1992 cigars, Perdomo Lot 23, CAO Italia, Arturo Fuente Don Carlos, Avo XO, Olor Fuerte, and Carlos Toraño Exodus 1959.”
What else we know: smoking a good cigar is like getting a little taste of heaven. And now that we’ve introduced the quality of “taste” into the discussion, I posed the question to Michael Giannini, who does the Lord’s work blending for La Gloria Cubana. I figured, “He’s a flavor nut – Giannini will straighten this whole mess out for me.” Here’s what he said:
“You know, if you ask me the difference between mild, medium and full – it’s hard for me to understand what you really mean. I was trained as a chef. So when I blend, I think the taste should hit the 4 tastes on the palate: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. I’m blending the tobacco so that it hits these senses differently, instead of just an overall show of strength. Full body can be full strength, but it has to have a good mix of intense flavors in it. A cigar that’s just a strong cigar will hit you in the head, and you start sweating. Thai food is like that – to me it has a very one-dimensional flavor and taste. And I’ve had some cigars like that, that will actually give you the hiccups because it hits you right in the back of the throat. And some guys are bringing out cigars purely for the sake of strength that really aren’t fermented properly in my opinion. They’re short-fermenting the tobacco in the pilones to juice the strength, but the problem is that it’s still high in impurities – but that’s done to increase strength.”
The first takeaway here is to start divorcing the term “strength” from “cigar body,” and focus in more on “flavor.” Let’s all agree, for the time being, that strength has more to do with potency of nicotine – even though that’s not 100% true, either. Confused yet? Me too. But Michael brought up something interesting when he referenced food – there’s something to how you season it. Just like the difference between drowning your steak in A-1 or hitting it with a nice rub before you throw it on the grill – that steak, now seasoned, is going to hit your senses with a whole new level of complexity (another disgustingly vague term we’ll tackle in a future issue) than just the meat alone. So if we’re flavoring our steak, so to speak – which rub do we use…mild, medium or full?
Let’s take a minute and look at what the wine guys do – as in, “What’s the difference between light- and full-bodied wines?” Some argue wine is a great comparison tool – I think it’s terrible. Here’s why: according to Ecco Domani’s website, “body” is used to describe the general weight, ‘fullness’ or overall feel of a wine in your mouth; full-bodied wines are big and powerful; light-bodied wines are more delicate. Medium-bodied wines fall somewhere in between. [Ok, I agree with this.]
They then argue that there are multiple factors that determine the overall body (or weight) of a wine [so far, so good], alcohol (or in our case, nicotine) is the primary determinant of body – so the higher the alcohol content of a wine, the weightier the mouth-feel, and the fuller the body. Which TOTALLY flies in the face of everything we’re talking about here.
We can meet in the middle, however, by agreeing that aging and fermenting practices in both wine and tobacco contribute to the overall body of the finished product.
Here’s where I wanted to bring in Nick Perdomo. Not only does Nick painstakingly monitor and maintain his tobacco for best performance from the seed stage to the stage where the cigar is in your hand, he does everything possible with his leaf to enhance the smoking experience. So I asked him for his opinion on body:
“When I hear the term ‘body,’ I immediately think of volume of flavor, but using the term in the context of an expansion of flavor. So if I say that a cigar is full-bodied, what I mean is that not only does it have a rich taste – but that it has a lot of flavor, too. So to me, when it comes to body…it’s really in the word you use before “body.” Like light body – to me, the cigar doesn’t have a lot of taste or flavor. If it’s full body, then the cigar has a lot. A cigar that’s full body tells me that it has a lot of aroma, too. Whereas a light body cigar won’t have a lot of aroma, but a full body one does. So if you really look at the word ‘body,’ I’m using it to describe the whole package: flavor, taste and aroma – depending on the word you use in front of it, of course.”
Ahhhhh. Expansion of flavor, and “the whole package.” Now we’re getting somewhere – especially because Nick used the words, “rich” and “aroma.” So when I read a cigar review yesterday that called that stick “full-bodied,” we’re now talking about a (probably) strong cigar with rich, bold flavors, which creates an abundance of highly aromatic smoke.
Could this be it? Can it be, that we have finally reached the mountaintop, and learned all there is about body? Have we finally figured out what “full-bodied” really means? I turned to Erik Espinosa, who has more than a little experience with full-bodied cigars to help us out, to make sure:
“Cigars have been around for hundreds of years and we believe that the question of ‘Body’ is just as old. Possibly one of the most confusing terms in the sense that the term is subjective, debatable and widely varied all over the spectrum. My blender and I believe that ‘Body’ is the ‘stamp’ or ‘footprint’ of a cigar. It’s the end result of when ‘flavor, strength, aroma and feel’ all meet and meld. With the end game being the impression and experience it gives you while you ‘burn away’ at it. To us, it’s all of these combined triggers where we find a hit or go back to the drawing board.”
My brothers and sisters of the leaf, we as cigar enthusiasts now know that there is no cut-and-dried answer to be told; but rather, the answer is within. Pretty Zen shit, huh?
So here are our big takeaways on “what is body?” Here’s the long version:
– It is the entire smoking experience of that particular cigar – as in, the general impression that single cigar delivers when you smoke it.
– It is an individual smoker’s subjective interpretation of these characteristics, taken as a whole:
- Flavor – complexity/richness/boldness
- Aroma – strong/mellow
- Smoke – volume, texture, smoothness/mellowness/harshness
- Strength – full/medium/mild nicotine kick
– It is the condition of the cigar you’re smoking – such as age, humidity, etc.
– It is informed by what you’ve done, or are doing, while you smoke it – right down to what you’re drinking with it, or what you ate before you lit up.
The short version? Body is how intense the actual act of smoking is upon your taste buds – to know it, is to smoke it.
It’s going to take you some time and experimenting to learn the difference between different bodied cigars; but rather than be intimidated, it should be a good reason for you to want to practice. Try them all, and learn which one appeals to you the most. Experimentation is the fun we have in our hobby/lifestyle – and is why I love cigars…I never stop learning things.