The Science of Cigar-Drink Pairings
by Rob Gray, Ph.D.
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
For many, the choice of beverage to pair with a good cigar can be as important as selecting the cigar itself. And it is not an easy choice to make. A quick survey of cigar smokers suggests that there are several different libations that can compliment a good cigar including beer, whisky, coffee, root beer, wine, rum, iced tea, port, mixed drinks and plain old water. So how does one decide which beverage will go best with a particular cigar? How much does one affect the taste of the other? In this article I review the science behind taste interactions and consider the implications for cigar smoking.
The first step in understanding how a cigar and drink will interact with each other is to look at the primary tastes. Just like any color can be created by some combination of the 3 primary colors—red, yellow and blue—any taste is some combination of the 4 primary tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. While it was once believed that the taste buds for these different primary tastes were located on different parts of the tongue (sweet taste buds on the tip of the tongue, for example), it has since been shown that we have sweet, sour, bitter, and salty taste buds all over our tongue and the inside of our mouth.
Taste interactions occur when our body is exposed to one of the primary tastes (for a duration even as short as 30 sec). An adaptation process will occur in which the chemical structure of the taste buds and receptor cells in the brain change. It is these adaptation processes that can make the draw on a cigar taste different when preceded by a sip from a drink. In discussing taste interactions let’s call the substance taken first (the drink) the first taste and the substance that is taken second (the tobacco in the cigar) the second taste with some adaptation occurring in between the two, of course. There are three basic types of adaptations that occur: 1) Same Taste Desensitization, 2) Independent Aftereffects, and 3) Cross-adaptation. Let’s next consider each of these in turn.
Same Taste Desensitization occurs when the first and second tastes are the same primary taste. In this adaptation process the receptors that respond to the first taste become fatigued resulting in a decreased sensitivity when the second taste is presented. So, for example, if you hold a sugar cube in your mouth for 30 sec (first taste) spit it out and then pop another sugar cube in your mouth (second taste) the second sugar cube will not taste as sweet as the first. In the case of cigars, taking a sip from a bitter cup of coffee may desensitize one to any bitter ammonia flavors in a cigar.
Independent Aftereffects occur because exposure to one of the primary tastes can cause a chemical change in the taste buds that will cause an aftertaste that will be the same no matter what you put in your mouth next. This type of aftereffect is best demonstrated by using water as the second taste. So, for example, if you take a bite out of a lemon (first taste) and then drink a glass of water (second taste), the water will taste like sugar has been added to it. Note that this increase in perceived sweetness will also occur for any other second tastes (not just water). For cigar smokers, this effect would suggest that sweet flavors will more likely detected in any type of cigar when the cigar is paired with a sour drink like lemonade.
Cross adaptation occurs when the first and second tastes are different and will depend on the exact pairing of tastes. So for example it has been suggested that pairing a sweet first taste with a second taste that has some sourness in it will make the sourness stronger. The best everyday example of this is drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth. If you have not tried this, don’t! The taste is very unpleasant. For cigar smoking, if these cross adaptation effects do occur they raise some very interesting possibilities because the flavors that are dominant in a cigar will depend heavily on the accompanying beverage. For example, when paired with a sweet drink one might notice burnt cigar flavors more while a bitter beer may bring out the cocoa flavors in the same cigar.
So which of these of these taste interactions occur most frequently? Two researchers, McBurney and Bartoshuk, studied these effects in detail. In these experiments 5 different first taste substances (salt, sour citric acid, sucrose, bitter ammonia, and caffeine) were each paired with 5 different second taste substances (water, salt, citric acid, sucrose, and ammonia). Subjects were asked to rate how sweet, sour, bitter and salty the second taste substances were on scales of 1-10. The general finding was that all three of the taste interactions do occur, but cross-adaptations are rare. The specific results are shown in the table below with arrows used to indicate increases and decreases in perceived tastes. Separate columns group the different effects on the second taste substance:
What does all this mean for cigar smoking? I think four basic applications can be drawn:
1. The water present in tobacco may take on a taste determined by the Independent Aftereffect of the paired beverage regardless of which flavors are present in the cigar. So, for example, a cigar may taste sweeter when paired with coffee and more bitter when paired with a very sweet drink.
2. If there are any tastes in the cigar that match the taste of the beverage being consumed (e.g., a sweet maduro paired with sweet tea) that taste may be less noticeable due to Same Taste Desensitization.
3. Pairing coffee with a cigar that has bitter, ammonia tastes may make these tastes even more pronounced due to Cross Adaptation.
4. The net effect on the taste of the cigar will be from the combination of these three different interactions.
Indeed, the choice of libation can have very significant effects on the tastes in a cigar. And of course, since during smoking one alternates between draws on the cigar and sips of the drink, effects will likely occur in the opposite direction as well…the tastes present in the cigar may change the taste of the drink.
So next time you are about to light up your favorite cigar consider pairing it with a different drink than you normally do to see if any interesting taste interactions occur. You may stumble across the perfect cigar-drink pairing!
McBurney, D. H. & Bartoshuk, L. M. (1973). Interactions between stimuli with different taste qualities. Psychology and Behavior, 10, 1101-1106.
About the Author
Rob Gray is an educator, researcher and writer. Rob conducts research in Human Factors Psychology at University of Birmingham, England.blog comments powered by Disqus