Cigar 101 – The Science of Tasting

I would like to take some time to talk about cigar tasting, something I hear a lot about especially when I pen a review and some of my readers comment about the flavors and aromas I pick up. I have been smoking cigars for 43 years. Over those many decades I had my share of spectacular cigars that took me on a roller coaster ride of flavor nuances to the worst cigars that should just never have been smoked. Of course we all start somewhere and over time our palates learn and tell us what we are experiencing. You know a good steak from an awesome steak, you learned about rot gut spirits and fine aged spirits. But do you really understand why you taste things differently than others, especially those fine nuances?

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to get a very cool book on cigar tasting. Written by long time cigar aficionado, Nick Cutro, Cigar Bliss – Demystifying the Art of Taste is an excellent and easy to read book on discerning the flavors you get from smoking a cigar. I know many of you scratch your head when you read reviews from guys like me, but after reading this book I am sure you too will have a better sense of what you are tasting. Even I learned a few things reading the book. Nick is also the creator of the ProPalate system, that will help you better learn and train your palate to pick out those nuances in your prized stash.

It’s Science!!

The book takes a scientific approach to the art of taste, starting with how the modern food industry has been creating products that are filled with artificial and additive substances to make it more appealing but disturbs the palate. Nick gives a great example:

“Real vanilla has 250 flavor compounds versus imitation vanilla, which has a grand total of one: “vanillin.” Imitation vanilla is made from wood-tar creosote, wood pulp, or petro chemicals. Less than 1% of the world’s real vanilla extract comes from the actual vanilla orchids.”

Or take monosodium glutamate (MSG) for instance. It was originally identified by the Japanese in their miso broth, which is considered a healthy soup. Extracting the MSG is an expense process explains Cutro. he goes on to note that American food scientists found an easier way to create MSG by rearranging the atoms in corn flour.

The first chapter of his book delves into these and similar topics and sets the stage for the remainder of the book.

Chapter 2 digs deeper into the what Nick describes as the five sensory tools:

  1. Sight (Visual)
  2. Sound (Auditory)
  3. Touch (Tactile)
  4. Taste (Gastronomic)
  5. Smell (Olfactory)

He goes into the explanation of why each of these has an effect on your cigar smoking enjoyment both positive and negative. Greater detail on the topics of taste and smell are explained and Nick explains why the traditional Tongue Map is an oversimplification of taste. The topic of smell is an even deeper dive, as it is what really effects our taste. Did you know that chewing food releases aromas that access the olfactory sensory neurons through the mouth then up into the nasal cavity. That is known as retro-hale. If you can’t smell or your nasals are blocked e.g. due to allergies, you can’t taste that well.

Another deep dive Nick goes into, is how DNA affects our ability to taste. DNA determines the amount of taste buds we have, ranging from about 10,000 to 30,000. The number of taste buds determine the sensitivity of our palate and those lucky enough to have a larger quantity discern a greater intensity in what they taste. He explains that there are four categories of taste sensitivity when related to cigar smokers:

  • Normal Sensitive (N)
  • Moderate Sensitive (MS)
  • Sensitive (S)
  • Ultra-Sensitive (US)

Nick takes these categories an provides a detailed table on what options of cigars and drinks you would most enjoy, based on your DNA and taste sensitivity.

Another great discussion is the effect saliva has on taste. Nick explains:

“Saliva transports substances and protects the taste receptors and taste buds and is responsible for your sense of taste. If your food isn’t dissolved in saliva, the receptors on your tongue can’t detect food, beverage, or smoke molecules.”

The chapter ends with a number of exercises to help you better understand your palate.

Chapter 3 digs into the many tools of the trade that you can use to help calibrate and understand your palate. He includes a detailed discussion of the cigar flavor wheel and even offers a Cuban Professional Cigar Taster record form that breaks down the review characteristics. This form is something you can use to record your own smoking experience and capture your rating of a cigar.

The 3rd chapter also provides an introduction to his ProPalate System that he touches on throughout the book. He used the system with a number of industry experts and recorded their experiences, which are enlightening to say the least. The chapter also includes various devices and methods that you can use to cleanse your palate along with why the environment you are trying to enjoy your cigar in, is critical to having a pleasurable experience.

Chapters 4 and 5 are a must read for all cigar enthusiasts. You will learn so much about tasting and how to get your palate in top shape to discern the best flavor experience from the cigar you are enjoying. Starting with explaining “flavor references” that affect our ability to discern taste, these two chapters take you through a journey that will have you smoking cigars in the right environment, with a calibrated palate, and a better knowledge of what you are tasting in each puff. Nick includes a detailed description of the most common taste associations and their unique characteristics. Do you know what Cardamom or Sassafras is?

Nick explains that many cigar enthusiasts may not have a reference point to discern what flavor they are picking up. Sometimes, I too have the same problem. You may have smelled it in a restaurant or a bakery but that is the extent of your reference. If you are like most, these hard to discern flavors can be more referenceable just by creating an association through tasting and smelling spices in your spice rack for instance. Then, as you do so, say to yourself, this is Nutmeg or All Spice. Do the same with fruits and vegetables you are not familiar with. Each time telling your self what it is. Now, when you detect that in the cigar it will be less generic and you will appreciate the nuances more.

One of the great ways to calibrate your palate I learned from this book. I know many will say, dark chocolate or lemon water is great but if you really want to reset the palate, and I mean reset to the proper and balanced pH level, then Nick offers the best solution. Take an unsalted saltine cracker, let it dissolve in your mouth chewing gently and swish it down with a few sips of filtered water. This will set your palate to a pH of 7.0. This is the neutral level of the palate. Anything above or below this can drastically affect your taste. Your cigars may taste more acidic or bitter and if the pH is too high you may not taste much at all. So try this approach and you will be amazed at the difference it makes.

Throughout the book, there are excerpts of interviews he conducted with the leaders in the premium cigar industry. Each explains their experience with tastes and smells along with excerpts of Nicks personal experiences. There is so much knowledge in this book that a simple review article is just not enough, I highly recommend you grab a copy and add it to your library of cigar books. Hey, Father’s Day is coming, it would be a great gift….. The price of $34.99 is a steal for all the knowledge you will gleam from it, not to mention how your smoking pleasure will escalate with a better understanding of your taste and smells.

If you are interested in buying a copy, you can find it for sale online at Two Guys Cigars, here.