What Gives a Cigar Complexity?
One of the better qualities a premium cigar can possess, especially for more experienced cigar smokers, is a flavor profile that's complex. OK, that sounds great, but what does it really mean?
In his opinion of the 1964 obscenity case, Jacobellis v. Ohio (378 U.S. 184), Associate Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote: "I can't define what pornography is, but I know it when I see it." That's how I tend to view "complexity" in a cigar. It's hard to define, but I know it when I taste it. Odds are, if you've got a few notches on your cigar case, you know it when you taste it, too. But what about new cigar smokers? Sometimes I wonder if complexity is something they should be made aware of early on, or simply left for them to discover for themselves as they develop their palate.
The way I see it, "complexity" is an amalgam of flavors and aromas that tend to build or improve within a given cigar as you smoke it. As David "Doc" Diaz, Ph.D. defined it in his article, How and Why Cigars Age - Part 1, "Complexity is the emergence of layers and multiple combinations of flavors within a cigar and is a feature of well-aged tobacco." Not too far from my definition, but what makes Doc Diaz's explanation clearer is his use of the word "layers." Although cigar complexity may sound like a jumble of flavors turning over like tickets in a raffle drum, it seems more appropriate to describe the flavors as overlapping, or building upon each other. Moreover, Diaz attributes the amount of complexity directly to the aging process:
"As the cigars continue to age and marry, the flavors will change and may become less distinct. This is because the oleoresins, which carry the bulk of the flavor in a cigar, will slowly evaporate."
This cuts both ways. For one, the cigar may be less complex because some of its flavors have mellowed over time. On the other hand, flavors that may not have been present when you first bought the cigar may appear as new, because months or even years later, they're no longer obscured by other, stronger flavors in the tobaccos. So, the more diverse the blend, and the better fermented and aged the tobaccos, the better the odds are that the cigar will be more complex in flavor.
What the pros say about complexity in cigars
Prior to writing this article, I contacted some of the cigar industry's most respected cigar makers and asked how they defined complexity in a cigar. Here's what they had to say:
"A complex cigar hits all parts of the palette and has a large quantity of flavor. It would also have a high satisfaction level. If you can identify the complexity of wine or whisky, you should be able to identify a cigar with great complexity. Or just smoke an Alec Bradley."
"The word complexity means the 'development and evolution of all our well-aged tobaccos.' Complexity in a Perdomo cigar starts with using the right seeds, as well as the careful steps we take with each and every plant during its growing, drying, fermentation, and aging processes. Every step in every process affects the flavor in a tobacco leaf….Through diligent work and years of proper fermentation, the fine blends of our Nicaraguan tobaccos marry into one in each one of our cigars. They have complexity and balance with a solid core of tobacco flavors. You will also pick up hints of cedar flavor which enhances the complexity in our cigars. We accomplish this by aging our cigars a minimum of 7 months in our Spanish cedar aging rooms. The other rich flavors like mocha, dark chocolate, or earthy spices develop because the tobacco leaves have rich sugars in their cellular structure."
"Complexity means that there are many flavors marrying each other, many flavors harmonizing (another task altogether), and those flavors and feelings of 'spice' or 'pepper' or 'earth,' or whatever they may be, will change throughout the smoke. They will get stronger during the time they smoke and will even change characteristics completely at some time or another during that same smoke - all that is 'complexity.' Suffice it to say, complexity keeps your mind and taste-buds working busily throughout the entire smoke of one and the same cigar."
"Complexity is not about strength. It's more like when you're smoking a cigar and you notice certain nuances about it. I will say this about strength: If you notice a cigar has picked up in strength in the middle that tells you right there that the cigar is not one-dimensional. Of course, certain flavors, spiciness, aromas, etc. that you discover during your smoke can be attributed to a cigar that's more multidimensional. For me, the most important thing is when you first light up and you get that feeling of relaxation in your chest. Or another way I describe complexity is when you feel the cigar throughout your entire body. If the cigar flattens-out in the middle and stays that way, it's not going to be complex. Complexity is when certain characteristics of the cigar continue to change along the way. That keeps me guessing as to what's coming next. It's as if the cigar is saying to me, 'Pay attention!'
"It's important to understand the difference between 'complexity and depth' while smoking a premium cigar. Complexity is the full journey that the cigar took you on, from the time you lit it up until the time you finished it. Depth refers to each puff of the cigar - does it have layers and texture to the smoke? In essence, the difference is the full journey vs. the individual puff."
"Complexity is basically the flavor profile in a cigar changing as the cigar is being smoked, says Ernesto Padilla of Padilla Cigars. This is achieved in different ways. One way is how the roller bunches the cigars when he goes to refill the bunch in certain areas. When they have the bunch in their hands, most rollers take from the bottom of the bunch and fill towards the top. So, for example, if too much ligero leaf is placed towards the mouth of the cigar you might experience more pepper or strength. Another way I thrive for complexity is by combining different tobaccos from different countries that complement each other's flavors.
“The word 'complexity' in itself is a subject of a lot of debate. Some people may want to define it as 'bits' of unique information. Others may say the opposite of ´complex´ is not ´simple´ but ´isolated.´ When one uses the word ´complexity,´ they are describing that the experience will be one that allows the person to recognize different tones in the smoke that might be in flavor or in strength." For instance, a cigar that as you smoke it gives you sensations of various tones of flavors as you burn the cigar, in popular saying it would be considered complex. But that same cigar would also be considered complex even if the flavor only gives you one tone, because as you burn the cigar, the level of strength changes as you progress, which would also be considered complex. This whole matter is very controversial even in cigars, and no one can claim to be right or wrong because, in the end, it all depends on the state of mind of the ´observer."
"A complex cigar has depth of flavor. Every part of your palate is satisfied. For me, a complex cigar also has what I call 'thick smoke;' the smoke is rich and full. By contrast, a cigar that is one-dimensional leaves me wanting more; it’s incomplete, flat; or in some cases, a one-dimensional cigar has a particular flavor that can also overpower a cigar. Thus, complexity in a cigar is something that I’m always looking for, both from a manufacturer's and a smoker's standpoint."
While researching this article I came across two cigar forum discussions on complexity; one on Puff.com, the other on CigarAsylum.com. Both forums had similar responses to the question, "What is complexity?" It was pretty much unanimous that complexity means "multiple flavors" in the cigar; how those flavors were achieved is another matter. In the Puff.com discussion on complexity, one member wrote: "Many cigars have dominating flavors that are easy to recognize. To me, [complex cigars are those in which] I pick up flavors that I don't immediately recognize." Another member wrote: "To me, complexity is both the changing and the melding of flavors in a cigar. When I find a cigar very complex it's usually b/c I can taste multiple flavors at once (melding)," while another member saw complexity as more than just about flavors: "I would agree about it being the changing flavors ... but also coming together to make [a] flavorful smoke. But it’s not just the flavors. I guess you can call it texture? Goes from spicy, to creamy, to rich, and then back to spicy, but staying nice and smooth the whole time."
Over at the CigarAsylum discussion on complexity, one member wrote: "IMO, complexity is when a cigar gives you so much more than just a simple flavor and smoke. A cigar that boggles the mind [so] that you wonder..."WOW, that was awesome and I am not sure why!... The complex ones for me are the ones that, when done, just make me sit back and reflect on that cigar for quite some time." Another member added: "For a cigar to be complex, it has to have two factors: a combination of multiple flavors at once, with at least 3 phase changes throughout the cigar. A cigar with a bunch of flavors all at once that I can't tease out and indentify is generally "muddled" while complexity usually implies balance to me." There was also this take on complexity: "Personally, if a cigar has a nice set of flavors that are balanced, I describe the cigar as balanced, not complex."
This idea of associating complexity with balance is actually quite prevalent. It's not right or wrong, either. Where the discrepancy comes in is, some cigar smokers feel that if a cigar has a lot of different flavors, they should all be equal in presence. However, one could make the argument that the imbalance of flavors is what makes a cigar complex, like when a dash of spice enters the mix pushing a sweet, or nutty flavor off to the side, but not necessarily out entirely.
Complexity can be achieved by how the roller bunches the cigars. "Most rollers take from the bottom of the bunch and fill towards the top," says Ernest Padilla. So if more ligero leaf is placed towards the mouth of the cigar, you might experience more pepper or strength.
Depending on the type of smoker you are, or what you like most about the cigars you prefer to smoke, balance may hold a higher place for you than complexity. As several people in both posts noted, a cigar doesn't have to be complex to be really good; it can have just one or two flavors all the way through and be sensational.
One thing seems to hold true for complexity, and that is, full-flavored cigars tend to be more complex than milder cigars because the tobaccos tend to be richer in taste, and as Doc Diaz pointed out above, the oleoresins in the leaves evaporate much more slowly. Though there's little connection between a cigar's price and how complex it is, the more expensive cigars tend to rank higher on the complexity scale because they use more fully-aged and specially selected tobaccos. Fortunately, as I pointed out in my article on The Best Cigars for $5 and Under, there are many multidimensional cigars to be had in every price range...which brings us back to where we began. No matter how you describe complexity in a cigar, you know it when you taste it.
Gary Korb has been writing and editing content for CigarAdvisor.com since its debut in 2008. An avid cigar smoker for over 30 years, during the past 12 years he has worked on the marketing side of the premium cigar business as a Sr. Copywriter, blogger, and cigar reviewer. A graduate of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, prior to his career in the cigar business, Gary worked in the music and video industry as a marketer and a publicist.Show all Gary Korb's Articles