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  • Writer's pictureBen Balliro

What Are We Tasting?

Updated: May 8, 2020

Here’s a topic of debate, what are we tasting when we smoke? Cigar magazine editors, YouTube creators, and bloggers all around the globe have reviewed thousands upon thousands of cigars. Each one with their own unique take and review of the cigars they smoke. Some give a short 30 second review, others will review the cigar with you in real time the entire length of the smoke. You will hear a myriad of cigar tasting notes such as barnyard, leather, earth, white pepper, cocoa powder, almond, graham cracker, pencil lead, grassy, and the list goes on, and on, and on. Sometimes they will have some negative notes in their tastings such as ammonia, rubber, bitterness, and mulch. I’ve heard and seen these as well as many others over the years, but where do these tasting come from? Why do we describe these cigars with these familiar, or unfamiliar, flavors?

Naturally there are always two sides to every coin. The first side is all these “tasting notes” are made up and we only mention these flavors to sound like a French wine Sommelier, giving the impression that our palettes are “refined” and “sophisticated”. The other side is that perhaps these flavors really are there and through years of tastings we start to appreciate the fine nuances of a well crafted and aged cigar. If you’re not careful it can come across as not sophisticated, but pretentious. Think about it, how can someone who never smokes cigars possibly argue with the “tasting notes” you find?

Speaking as someone who occasionally smokes and reviews cigars, there is, in my opinion, some truth in the flavors we taste. You see, there are two ways to smell or taste a cigar. The first is your retronasal olfactories or “taste receptors” in your nostrils. Retronasal Olfactory a.k.a. “retrohale” is when you taste by blowing the smoke up behind your epiglottis and out through the nostrils almost like a dragon’s breath style. This method typically is used sparingly and takes some experience of getting used to as your nostrils develop some familiarity to the burning sensations and flavors from the heat of the smoke. The other method of tasting is ortho-nasal olfactories in which you are smelling the cigar through the front of the nose, basically the normal way you smell anything. Have you ever tried tasting food when you have a cold and you can’t really taste anything? That’s because your olfactories senses are blocked or dried up and you are unable to smell or “taste“ the food or drink you have. It works the same with cigar smoking.

What happens is as we get older our olfactories become more familiar with certain smells and tastes. We try more foods, drinks, and we become more familiar with our tasting experiences. These experiences give us a wider breadth of descriptions to choose from to describe our cigar smoking. There are certain tastings that will be easier to discern from; such as black pepper, sweetness, and bitterness. In a sense, we as adults have a basic understanding of what sweetness, bitterness, and peppery tastes like. The more refined descriptions would be similar what was mentioned before, white pepper zing, graham cracker sweetness, and pencil lead bitterness. This doesn’t mean we have necessarily eaten or tasted pencil lead per se (you may have I don’t know, Cigar Tipsters doesn’t judge), but it means we can associate a particular kind of bitterness that if you have even smelled or tasted in the past, which brings you back to that particular memory.

Cigars are a natural product. They are harvested and manufactured in a natural environment. The imponderabilia surrounding the flavors you pick up from soil is evident. Soil goes through many changes based on the agrarian and horticulture factors that give tobacco leaves there texture, flavors, and characteristics. Soil involves vitamins and minerals from surrounding mountains, animals and their waste byproducts, and aftermarket fertilizers the farmers may add to the soil to achieve a desired result in tobacco growth. If you pay attention to when a cigar reviewer describes the “flavors”he or she are tasting, there are some flavors that get repeated like “earth, leather, and black pepper”. I think this is because the tobacco leaves are grown from “earth”, “leather“ from the animals, and “black pepper” from some of the minerals in the ground.

The second side of this coin is that all these particular specific tastings are all just B.S. and we really aren’t tasting anything. The argument goes where we can only experience basically a handful of things in our noses and the rest is nonsense. You know, does it burn your nose? Is it sweet? Is it mild and creamy? Or is it bitter? I completely understand this viewpoint as well. I mean, do we really taste all these things we say we do, or are we making stuff up to make ourselves look better on social media? I think it's a matter of opinion and only you can judge what you are tasting.

Most of the time cigar manufacturers are successful, even if they miss the mark once in a while. It’s expected when you’re dealing with ingredients almost entirely dependent on the weather and the elements. In my opinion, I think both sides of the coin are correct. I believe you have to choose the cigars that best fits you. Whether you taste notes of “South American white pepper” or just a mild spiciness, you smoke what you enjoy. Both sides have their points and both can be argued in either direction.

My opinion is, don’t let the hype fool you, be true and honest with yourself. If you really taste these specific notes in the cigar and it helps you understand the cigar you’re smoking then great. If you only taste the general topical flavors and textures of the smoke, then that’s great too. Just don’t make it up if you don’t really taste these things. There is no need to lie to both yourself and to others just to show off. Cigars are to be enjoyed for all levels of smokers not just cigar bloggers and interviewers.

We bloggers and podcasters pride ourselves on being true and authentic in our cigar smoking experiences. Whether you are a cigar manufacturer and blender or just a casual consumer, stay true to your assessment. So the next time you light one up, relax and simply enjoy what you’re smoking. I think that‘s the real virtue of smoking cigars. It’s the relaxation and camaraderie with friends and family not dissection of the flavors from each tobacco leaf. Leave that to the blenders and manufactures, you just enjoy yourself.

Anyway this is just my opinion, if you have an alternative theory or opinion on this subject drop us a line in the comment box below. Thank you for reading.

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