The 5 Cigar Flavors Most Prominently Found in Your Smoke
By Jonathan Detore
Becoming a cigar reviewer is pretty easy when you’re as judgmental as I am. Hell, being any reviewer seems like a walk in the park to me. “I rate this movie as okay” or “This wine tastes just like wine ought to.” See? My uncanny ability to tell it like it is makes me the Shooter McGavin of the review world: I’m the best in the biz. I guess that’s why Cigar Advisor decided to bring me on board to smoke cigars all day and give my opinion of them. But at first, it wasn’t all fun and games, leading me to believe I couldn’t cut the mustard.
I was just a lowly customer service agent telling people how they can’t return boxes of half smoked cigars from the early 2000s (not even kidding), and trying to smoke a cigar once, twice, or three times a week. I figured I was in the industry, so I should learn as much as I could. Eventually CA brought me on as a writer, and I was immediately shell shocked. Gary was talking about smoking a cigar that tasted like leather, and Pullo was rambling on about some awful sounding earthy flavor from the cigar he was smoking. I chimed in with “This cigar I’m smoking tastes like pretty good tobacco!” That’s when we knew we had a problem. I was a writer in an industry that needs a truly honed palate, and I was barely dressed for my first little league game.
That’s when Tommy, Lou, Gary, and John educated me about flavor. I knew how to smoke a cigar, but tasting a cigar is far different. Understanding your palate and the areas of the tongue that pick up different flavors is important. Sweet sits on the tip of the tongue, metallic and creamy on the sides, spice on the flat, etc… It was all very confusing, but their training and constant quizzing me on what I thought of the different cigars I’d smoked helped me greatly, and within a few weeks, I was introduced in what was Cigar Advisor’s first ever video review.
I’ve learned tasting flavor and understanding flavor are two different fields of study altogether, and I want to give you a crash course in understanding 5 of the most prominent or base flavor categories in the industry so you can understand what we mean when we say we taste malt, vanilla, spice, or any other flavors we mention. Hopefully this will help allow you to not only taste your cigar, but understand how to taste and open up new flavors throughout your future smokes.
I will preface all of this by sharing the advice that Cigar Advisor’s own Tommy Zarzecki has given me: the flavor notes we mention aren’t going to hit you as if you’re chewing on whatever normally gives us these flavors. It’s more like when you smell something and can almost taste it in the back of your throat. We’re talking about flavors we experience that are in reality the essence of a flavor, which sounds like a bunch of hippy bullshit.
This flavor note is the perfect example to elaborate on the advice Tommy had given me. Obviously to relate to a taste like earth, one would have to shovel a pile of dirt into their mouth to find this “ah-ha!” moment. But since we most likely haven’t done anything like that since preschool, perhaps this will help a little more in your understanding of this note: Open a bag of dirt and take a whiff. After you do that, you’ll have the essence of earthiness that you can virtually taste in the back of your throat. Hints of minerals, must, salt, and actual dirt will trigger in your mind, allowing you to store in your flavor memory bank what it actually is. A perfect cigar that has an earthiness to it would be something like the Camacho Triple Maduro. Minerals and some salt can be tasted right on the edges of the tip of your tongue as well as some of that gritty earthiness on the back edges and top to really pile on the flavors and stimulate your entire palate with full-bodied taste.
If you’ve ever read one of our cigar reviews and we mention spice anywhere in it, we’re not talking about the unbearable fire found from the 8 pounds of Ghost Pepper dried and ground into every spicy Thai dish. Of course, Ghost pepper as well as red, white, and black pepper are housed in this category; cinnamon, cumin, and even liquorice are categorized here as well, although we usually mention if we specifically taste liquorice. Again, this can be tasted on the tip of the tongue, but spice can be found all over your palate depending on how intense it is and if it is more fiery or sweet. I usually experience fiery spice as well as cinnamon or clove on the top of the tongue with liquorice on the sides. Exhibit A, the La Gloria Cubana Serie RF (above). Another cigar that can deliver spice right up front is the 1502 Black Gold. It’s a full bodied offering that has plenty of spice including a red/chili pepper that will eventually dull out to become a supporting flavor rather than the main act. But whoa momma is it ever an eye opener right up front.
A nutty flavor is usually divvied up a few ways, and I’ll even admit I still have trouble differentiating some of the characteristics. But cashew, almond, and walnut are the big three in this category, usually accompanied by almost a toasty/buttered flavor. That’s where my confusion comes in, because a toasted/buttered flavor can be easily confused with creaminess or even a roasted coffee flavor found in a cigar that also holds heavy notes of cocoa. In any case, nuttiness is pretty common in more hefty Connecticut cigars such as the Rocky Patel Vintage 1999, a velvety smooth cigar that incorporates a lot of nutty flavor in the middle of the smoke, along with some buttery/toasty flavors I mentioned. Some people can differentiate them, and some can’t do it so easily. As you try to pinpoint the differences, the better you’ll become at actually separating them in future smokes.
At first I thought everyone here was crazy thinking cigars tasted like fruit. We’re talking about cigars that are made from leaves you can’t eat, that are grown in the dirt. But after a few years reviewing cigars, one day, the category made sense to me when I smoked the Aging Room Maduro. A fruity flavor can be found in any type of cigar at any strength level, so you can essentially experience it randomly with anything you smoke. In this category is citrus, which can easily be confused with spice if you simply pay attention to the base flavors of a cigar. Once you go searching however, orange peel or lemon zest can certainly come to mind. But with a richer cigar you may be surprised to find a dark bourbon infused cherry, raisin, or even apple which is what I experienced with the Aging Room Maduro. I swear if you cold draw that sucker, you’ll think you’re drinking apple cider with cinnamon. Once you light it though, the apple cider is hidden and you need to look for it again. It’s there, as well as plum, but it becomes a weaker flavor in what is one of my favorite cigars of all time.
This is perhaps the most poorly labeled flavor category there ever was, and can certainly cause some confusion. But I suppose it makes a relative amount of sense. I only say that because the taste of wood and smokiness is housed here, which I simply don’t consider floral. But trees are plants, so whatever. In any case, some of the flavors you’ll experience are cedar, smoke, tobacco, moss, hay, and grass. Heavy cigars like the Kentucky Fire Cured will provide you with a smoked hickory flavor due to how the leaves are cured, while more mild Connecticut offerings will bring forward grass and hay-like flavors found in the likes of the Perdomo Champagne Sun Grown or Romeo y Julieta 1875.
The last note I will make is how subjective cigars are in terms of flavor. We had recently done a cigar review video with the Joya de Nicaragua Merciless where Tommy and I found it to be ultra-spicy up front with red pepper dominating the first quarter inch. Gary, on the other hand, had not tasted any spice. This just gives you an idea of how flavors can change not only from cigar to cigar, but from person to person as well. That is a main reason why I keep my reviews relatively vague in terms of getting into the nitty gritty flavors held within a cigar. Most base flavors stay the same, but sub-flavors can differ. In any case, the guide I laid out in terms of what flavor is and how to interpret them as you smoke will help you find those flavors as you smoke your next cigar.
As an added tip, if you have a really great cigar that you truly feel like analyzing, from base flavors to hidden flavors, it always helps smoking alone. It sounds contradictory since cigars are meant to be a social catalyst, but the aroma from other cigars can bring those flavor notes into what you’re smoking, much like how we “taste” dirt when we take a whiff of a freshly opened bag of top soil (It all comes full circle!!!). So unless you’re all smoking the same thing, analyze high ends alone when you can, and save cigars that you have analyzed previously for the cigar lounge. That way, you’re able to learn what a cigar offers the first time you smoke it so the next time you smoke it with friends, you’ll be able to more easily identify the hidden flavors while not particularly paying attention to your cigar.