Becoming an Expert Cigar Taster
by Rob Gray, Ph.D.
Monday, November 12, 2007
One of the great joys of cigar smoking is correctly identifying flavors and aromas associated with a particular cigar. Noting the coffee and chocolate flavors in an earthy Maduro or distinguishing between the “pepper-spice” in an aged Corojo and the “sweet-hay-spice” in a Cameroon wrapper, is a rewarding and pleasurable experience. Correctly and consistently naming flavors and aromas helps us to better relate our cigar experiences with other cigar smokers and helps us to identify the characteristics we enjoy in a cigar.
As I discussed in detail in my previous article, “Cigar Flavor Recognition and Identification,” using our memories to describe and label the tastes and aromas associated with smoking a cigar is not something that comes easily and naturally to us. Instead, it is a skill that we must develop through practice and by using proper cigar smoking techniques. In this article I will present 10 guidelines for becoming an expert cigar taster.
The first question we must ask is whether there are really any differences between expert and novice tasters? Are experts really more skilled at detecting and labeling flavors or do they just blow a lot of hot air? While there is no research on this question for cigar smoking, we can look at a similar hobby for answers: wine tasting. Research on wine tasting has shown that experts reviews of wines are shorter in length but contain more descriptive terms. In other words, the wine experts descriptions favored quality not quantity. In an article published in 1990, cognitive researcher Gregg Solomon found that wine experts were more consistent in their use of flavor labels than novices and were able to reliably match wines they tasted (blindly) to descriptions of wines written by other experts. Apparently, expert wine tasters have learned a vocabulary that enables them to consistently communicate flavors and have also developed links in memory that pair a particular flavor with the correct term. So, indeed, there are some significant differences between expert and novice tasters.
In order to become an expert cigar taster there are two different types of expertise that must be developed: Perceptual Expertise and Verbal Expertise.
Perceptual expertise is the kind of expertise gained through tasting lots of different kinds of cigars (actual sensory experiences). By trying many types of cigars (from mild to full bodied, earthy to spicy, sweet to woody), a cigar smoker will develop a larger catalog of flavor memories that can be used when trying to label the flavors in a new cigar.
Verbal expertise involves experience in describing and labeling the flavors during cigar smoking. That is, by attempting to describe and label the flavors and aromas when smoking a cigar, cigar smokers will develop a better ability to organize and access their flavor memory catalog.
Now let’s turn our attention to the $64,000 question: how can YOU become an expert taster? Or even just a better taster than you are now? Below are some specific guidelines that can be used to develop your cigar tasting skills.
Practice, practice, practice describing your cigar experiences
By far the biggest reason why most cigar smokers are not very proficient at distinguishing and labeling flavors is that most of us just don’t have a lot of experience describing tastes and smells. Think about it… how often do we try to pick out the spices used in a gourmet dish or tell our co-worker exactly what flavors we notice in our cup of coffee? We normally use very general labels like “that dish was spicy” or, “this coffee tastes rich.” As the research on wine tasting suggests, becoming an expert taster requires one to develop verbal expertise by being more specific in flavor descriptions; giving more precise labels for flavors such as “that dish had a nice white pepper spice” or “this coffee tastes like dark chocolate.”
For cigar smokers, I think the best way to practice this skill is to keep a cigar journal. Jot down anything and everything you notice when you are smoking a cigar. Think of it like the word association test that psychiatrists use… say the first thing that comes to your mind when you take a draw. Don’t worry about whether the flavor labels you generate match those you have read in reviews or those detected by other smokers. Research on wine tasting has shown that novices can improve their ability to remember and recognize different tastes by trying to verbally describe the flavors, even if they do a very poor job at it at first (Solomon, 1990). The key is to "just do it." As you practice labeling flavors in a cigar you will develop better connections between the analytical, language areas of your brain and your flavor processor in your gustatory cortex. Finally, when you are first starting to keep a journal, try not to read any cigar reviews right before smoking and describing a cigar. As discussed in my last article, this could easily lead to verbal overshadowing where your brain will “detect” a certain flavor in a cigar because it is “supposed” to be there not because you are actually experiencing it.
Smoke slower, taste better
Another hindrance to correctly discerning flavors in a cigar is smoking too fast: draws on a cigar should be separated by at least 1 minute. Smoking faster than this rate will cause problems for distinguishing cigar flavors. Smoking too fast will cause the tobacco to reach too high of a temperature, resulting in strong bitter flavors that will mask the more subtle flavors in the cigar. Unfortunately, these “hot,” bitter flavors in a cigar also leave a long aftertaste, so it is difficult for your palate to recover from overheating. Smoking too fast can also lead to tar build-up in the end of the cigar, which will make the last third of the cigar almost unsmokeable. The final third of a cigar is where a lot of the complex flavors occur in cigar smoking. Finally, smoking too fast is not conducive to flavor identification because it does not allow time for your brain to properly process the taste and aroma signals and access your flavor memories. Leaving enough time to focus on and savor the flavors after each draw will greatly enhance your ability to identify them. If you think you smoke too fast try keeping a watch beside you and taking a draw every minute. After you have done this for awhile it will become second nature.
Sample a wide variety of cigars
Another key to being able to recognize and identify the flavors in a cigar is to develop a large catalog of flavor memories (perceptual expertise) that can be used to compare with the flavors you are currently experiencing in a cigar. The most obvious way to do this is to try a wide variety of cigars with a lot of different flavor profiles, wrapper types, and countries of origin. Be sure to try different length cigars and a variety of ring gauges, which not only helps us to better distinguish flavors, but is also the best way to find which cigars we prefer.
Get more adventurous with your eating and drinking habits
While the obvious way to achieve perceptual expertise is by smoking a large variety of cigars, your catalog of flavor memories can also be improved by trying a variety of different cuisines and libations. Many of the flavors we pick up in a cigar are also present in the substances we eat and drink. Personally, I have picked up some really interesting “food flavors” in cigars such as barbequed chicken and cinnamon. By trying different cuisines (e.g., Indian, Moroccan, Mexican) and drinks (e.g., wheat beer, cognac, wine) you will train your palate to be better prepared for cigar smoking.
Smoke in an environment free of distractions
As most of us know, our perception of the world is dramatically different when we are concentrating and focusing our attention on something, as compared to when we are multi-tasking. Trying to do too many tasks at once will cause many things to go completely unnoticed. Therefore, your ability to distinguish flavors in a cigar will be lessened if you are engaged in a heated conversation at your local cigar shop, distracted by your laptop computer, or engrossed in a big football game. While of course these activities can all be enjoyable companions to cigar smoking, it will be beneficial to your cigar expertise if you can also set aside some time to smoke a cigar by yourself in an environment (no TV or music) where you can focus your full attention on the tastes and aromas you are getting with each draw.
Use a flavor chart
Novice cigar tasters will very commonly experience “the tip of the tongue” phenomenon when trying to describe flavors. This is the feeling of knowing what the flavor you are experiencing is, but not being able to get the name out. One way to overcome this hurdle is to use a cigar flavor chart. (To use our own Stogie Fresh tasting chart. Click on chart at right.) If you think the flavor you are experiencing reminds you of some type of vegetation, scan the list of flavors in the vegetal section. In many cases one will suddenly jump out at you and voilà you will identify the flavor!
Learn how to retrohale
As I discuss in a different article, “Smoking in Retro-spect: How and Why Retrohaling Works,” channeling the smoke through your nasal cavity as you expel it (“retrohaling”) can substantially enhance and intensify the flavors in a cigar. Therefore, for some smokers, the very subtle flavors that are barely detectable when the smoke is expelled from the mouth will be “turned up a notch” when retrohaling. But be sure to take your time developing this skill; begin with mild cigars and only retrohale two or three times during the duration of the cigar. Jumping into retrohaling too quickly and/or with full-bodied cigars can lead to unpleasant sensations that may hinder your ability to distinguish cigar flavors.
Smoke the same cigar several times over a short period
As anyone who has sat at a piano for hours and hours playing the same song, or shot basketball free throws over and over will tell you, a major key to learning is repetition. When we repeat the same action, the connections within the brain that control these actions get strengthened (both physically and chemically), making the action much more efficient and effective in the future. Conversely, if we try to learn too many new skills at once, learning happens at a much slower rate.
Repetition can also be helpful in developing cigar expertise. Smoking the same cigar several times in a short period (e.g., 5 times in one week) will produce stronger and more persistent flavor memories. It will also help you develop the ability to detect subtle differences in flavors, since even cigars that come from the same batch will have some small differences between them.
Start with water, and then experiment with other cigar-drink pairings
As I discuss in my article “The Science of Cigar-Drink Pairings”, the beverage we pair with a cigar can have a substantial influence on the cigar’s flavors. For this reason, it is best to pair a cigar with plain water the first few times you smoke it. Drinking only water while smoking a cigar will allow you to experience the cigar’s unaltered flavors. I don’t recommend that you drink nothing at all when smoking a cigar since our taste buds do not work as efficiently when they become dehydrated.
After experiencing a cigar’s flavor with only water, it will then be beneficial if you try it with other beverages such as soda, coffee, beer, whiskey, cognac, wine or bourbon. When paired with just the right libation, some cigar flavors will be stronger and easier for a novice smoker to detect and identify. Furthermore, alcohol can actually help to break down some of the chemical components of cigar tobacco that do not dissolve in water (or the saliva in your mouth). When the alkaloids, acids, and esters in cigar tobacco are broken down by alcohol, volatile oils are released that greatly enhance the flavor and aroma of the cigar.
Compare observations to some good reviews of that cigar
After making your own observations about a cigar, it can very beneficial to read some highly detailed reviews of that same cigar. Reading cigar reviews can help improve tasting expertise in a few different ways. First, if the reviewer identifies some of the same flavors that you experienced it will increase your confidence in your cigar tasting abilities. Second, you may find that an experienced reviewer can pinpoint a specific flavor that you were having difficulty labeling precisely; a flavor that you could only label as “sweet spice” an experienced reviewer may more specifically identify as nutmeg. Finally, when a reviewer describes some flavors that you did not notice at all in the cigar, try smoking the cigar again to see if you detect these same flavors. Knowing what flavors you should taste in a cigar can greatly help you correctly identify flavors in the future. The reviews that will be most helpful for developing your cigar tasting expertise will be one’s that have the characteristics I discussed in the article: “The Master Blend: Ingredients of an Effective Cigar Review.”
If you practice the guidelines I have listed above, I believe you will be able to improve your cigar tasting expertise. More importantly, as you begin to correctly identify and associate the flavors and aromas in cigars, you will be able to enjoy your cigar smoking experiences in new ways. You will enjoy more rewarding interactions with others who have smoked the same cigars and you will become better at recognizing the characteristics that you like in cigars.
Solomon, G. E. A. (1990). Psychology of Novice and Expert Wine Talk. American Journal of Psychology, 103, 495-517.
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