On a recent cigar review, I got the following comment from a reader:
“I smoke 4 or 5 cigars a day, Mostly Cubans, but I’ve never had the palate to describe them like you do. To me they’re good or bad, and strong or medium and weak, and smooth or not.”
I’ve heard this sometimes and it really does remind me of my first cigar experience – I’m like “what??!?!?” Of course, being autistic myself I tend to take things way too literally anyway. I first thought these were the literal tastes being picked up by those who smoke cigars.
If you do a Google search for the cigar flavor wheel, you will come up on this graphic that categorizes flavors by type (image credit: Cigar Inspector):
Now, this can indeed be helpful for the beginner, but it does have its limitations. It takes some palate training to be able to identify flavors in your cigars, but even two trained palates can describe the same cigar using totally different descriptors. It’s not that these two palates work any differently. It’s simply because, with the exception of infused cigars, these flavors aren’t literally present in the smoke.
So how do we identify flavors if they aren’t actually there? It’s actually quite simple – the flavor notes are more of the connotation that comes to mind than literal flavors. It’s what the taste reminds you of. There is definitely some artistic liberty going on here. When I say cocoa, it reminds me of the taste of raw cocoa powder, for example. Coffee is the same way – it reminds me of a cup of brewed morning coffee. Earthiness; think of the taste of like a mushroom or similar fungus or vegetable.
However, the tongue is only a very small part of that. A majority of our sense of taste is actually linked to our sense of smell. A prime example to demonstrate this is think of how bland your food tastes when you have a cold or something else stuffing you up. It’s because you aren’t getting the aromas of the food. A lot of these notes people describe in cigars are more of an aroma than a taste. Things such as wood, leather, pepper, earth, etc. really are more on the nose. Leather, for example, is reminiscent of the smell of freshly tanned leather. When you smell certain woods up close, you can identify them by their aromas. Pepper you get some taste but it’s mostly on the nose.
So how do we really smell cigar smoke? You don’t want to inhale the foot smoke obviously, so what are we to do? Smelling the smoke is the purpose of retrohaling – the act of passing some of the smoke through the sinuses and out the nose. It’s almost like smelling in reverse. That’s what will unlock so much more of the cigar’s complexity for you if you do not currently do it, and yes, it can be done without inhaling the smoke. Have you ever laughed so hard you squirted water, milk, etc. out of your nose? It’s actually the same mechanism. Everything is connected back there. To retrohale it’s a matter of moving the smoke into your nasal passages by closing your mouth and pushing it up with your tongue (note this happens naturally when you close your mouth) and then it’s almost like blowing your nose.
David Blanco of Blanco Cigars actually has a very good tutorial on retrohaling which can be found on CigarObsession’s YouTube channel:
As mentioned, you don’t have to do it all the time, but you do at least want to do it every few draws. I personally do like to retrohale the last half or so of every draw because I enjoy it, but you do as you need to get the full experience.
So dear reader, I hope I’ve helped you out here. Those are my big tips – don’t be afraid to take some artistic liberty and if you don’t currently retrohale, doing so is essential and it will unlock a whole new world for you.
Good luck, and I hope you get much more enjoyment out of your cigars in the future!