Cigars 101

Smoking, drinking, and the benefits of cleansing your palate

First, why would you need a palate cleanser in the first place? A little biology combined with culinary science helps answer this question. We all know that the organs that allow us to perceive the sensation of taste are the taste buds located on the tongue, soft palate, upper esophagus and epiglottis. (Notice that taste buds are not located just on the tongue but also further back in the proverbial pie-hole which explains why “rolling” cigar smoke produces a greater and more intense sensation of a cigar’s flavor – but that’s a whole other column).

Taste buds only sense 5 flavors -salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami (or savory) which, in combination, gives each cigar blend its unique flavor which cigar critics like to describe with feathery prose such as “leathery with a touch of cocoa and pencil lead evolving into a dash of earth.” It’s amazing that all the myriad of flavors we enjoy are permutations of the 5 basic flavors. Imagine coloring the whole world in all its brilliance with a just 5 different crayons. Amazing.

However, taste buds, like any sensors either biological or man-made, can only function maximally if they’re clean. Think about it: a camera lens – a sensor of light – doesn’t work if the lens cap is on. Similarly, taste buds can’t capture the whole essence of a cigar’s flavor if they are covered in gunk. And this is where palate cleansing comes into play.

Ideally, you want to clear away from your taste buds any residue that may be impeding their function without leaving behind any additional flavors that would mask the “true” flavor of the cigar. A little research in the culinary sciences tells us that the majority of flavors in foods are carried in fats rather than in proteins or carbohydrates. Don’t believe it? Google research articles on how food companies spend big bucks on getting flavor into fat-free foods. Or just leave the bacon fat out of your roux while making gumbo OR don’t sauté your garlic in olive oil when cooking Italian. You get the picture.

Fats, while good at carrying flavor, are “sticky” from a chemical standpoint. That’s what makes them good carriers of flavor but also difficult to dissolve away when you want to get rid of them. This explains why oils stain your clothes and why they can “clog” your taste buds. But how do we cleanse the palate of these pesky oils while not leaving behind other flavors? The answer: solvents – specifically, polar protic solvents.

Without getting too chemistry geek about it, polar protic solvents are any molecular solvents which contain dissociable H+ (alright that IS a bit geeky). Examples of such solvents are water, ethanol (the good stuff in any alcoholic drink) and acids. These solvents, or more specifically any beverages containing substances such as those just mentioned, would be effective at dissolving the pesky oils and fats that keep you from enjoying your cigar’s true essence.

Thus, Bitter Lemon, the palate cleanser noted in the blog, is a chemically sound choice as it contains TWO polar protic solvents (water and citric acid from the lemon) to clear out any oily residue that might be clinging to your taste buds. My favorite palate cleanser is a weak cocktail of Maker’s Mark with a twist of lime and a splash of water. The ethanol, water and citric acid from the lime clear the gustatory deck of any lingering flavors on my tongue prior to lighting up my stick du jour.

Notice the emphasis on my cleansing drink being a WEAK cocktail. Why in the world would I want to put water and lime in premium bourbon like Maker’s Mark? Before the production team from Loretto, Kentucky hops in a van to drive to New Orleans to kick my rear end and revoke my Ambassador’s statue, let me explain: it’s the same reason that drinks like coffee, wine and highly flavored drinks don’t make good palate cleansers – they carry too much flavor and can alter how your taste buds sense the flavor of the cigar.

Now that’s not to say that those same beverages don’t make great ACCOMPANYING beverages because, in fact, their flavors complement the flavor of the cigar and enhance the smoking experience. But as palate cleansers, they’re lousy, coffee especially so because the flavors of coffee are directly related to the essential oils contained in that particular drink. Some might say that you could smoke almost any decent cigar with coffee and mostly what you’d taste is the coffee.

For my accompanying drinks I try to stay away from sweet beverages (with the exception of Port wine to accompany full-bodied cigars) and stick with drinks that derive their flavor from more “dry” ingredients. For example, my two favorite cigar-accompanying drinks are that very same Maker’s Mark (Or Pappy Van Winkle if available) but this time neat. Similarly, the venerable and Official Cocktail of New Orleans, The Sazerac, a concoction of rye whisky, bitters and absinthe, served neat, makes an outstanding drink to sip with any cigar, especially a spicy Cameroon-wrapped stick.

But accompanying drinks are almost entirely a matter of preference. As the great Cajun Chef, Justin Wilson, was fond of saying, “the best wine to accompany any meal is the one you like the best.”