Many people ask us how to train to identify cigar aromas. A lot could be said on this very vast topic, however, for the purpose of this short essay, we will focus on portable aroma standards, which constitute one of, if not the most effective way to train our nose. What we mean by an “aroma standard” is a solution which delivers a specific aroma, so that it can be used, for example, to train and test an individual’s ability to accurately detect, name and recall that aroma.
The biggest challenges of designing aroma standards are the quality of the aromas and the way they are presented. Traditionally, proverbial spice jars would be used or, alternatively, the closest applicable scent from a range of artificial and natural options. Kits like “Le Nez du Vin” for wine tasting pursue the latter route. Unfortunately, this strategy only works for some flavors. The concentrated compounds in the vials are often too strong, break down too quickly, or simply, and most importantly, do not represent how that particular aroma is actually perceived in wine, a cigar, or any other context.
Our thought process for aroma standards
For our training on cigars especially, we wanted something that would be approachable, but also elusive and fleeting – that is, instead of presenting a piece of Spanish cedar, we wanted to capture the scent of that cedar and present it without any visual cues.
This is where power and specificity of a sensory tasting panel comes in – alignment and calibration are an integral part of the process. Let’s say we choose “hazelnut” as a key attribute in a cigar. My own “quintessential” hazelnut is probably very different from anybody else’s – we call this the “experiential gap”. Which aspects of hazelnut matter to us for the purposes of this training? First, is it purely a smell, or do we feel a strong connection to a creamy-oily sensation at the same time? If so, we need to spend time focusing on our differentiation of smell and tactile sensations. And yet, certain smells immediately remind us of associated sensations as well. Since a cigar is unlikely to have a “crunchy” sensation, maybe we are talking exclusively about the smell and feel of hazelnut oil? What variety of hazelnut are we talking about? Fresh, toasted, roasted, burnt or even rancid, or covered (lacquered)? Maybe a suggestion of creaminess is an integral part of this flavor experience. Is it really hazelnut we’re talking about, or is it the nutty overall aroma of smelling a cappuccino? What about gianduja or nougat?
After this exercise ranges from fun to frustration, you may now try to go out into the world to find products that represent these facets of flavor. Any experienced flavorist will be able to tell you that any “pure” aroma compound will not be very satisfying. “Natural” flavors are extracted from the real source material like fruits; “artificial” flavors are selected from any source material by what kind of quality of flavor they give. Many common strawberry or vanilla flavors may, for example, be extracted from tree bark, and some people tend to get very hung up about these things for no good reason.
The art of recreating a flavor experience is like cooking, or maybe even a perfumist’s work: it generally involves many elements, and often not necessarily the ones you were thinking about! As a quick example, “geosmin” may be the compound associated with the aroma of “earth” but, on its own, it may only be dusty, musty or even moldy in character. It is in the framing and sourcing of this compound that you can create the experience of “petrichor”, the proverbial fresh earthy aroma as it begins to rain, or the other proverbial experience of “wet forest floor after a heavy rain”.
For the effectiveness of an enjoyable training exercise, it is immensely helpful to be able to present an aroma in the “context” it will be experienced in. For wine studies, for example, you take a bland base wine, into which you add the individual aromas you chose to highlight. A taster picks up a black glass, smells it, and is hopefully able to recognize, from an aroma perspective: “fresh black raspberries stand out above a background red wine smell.”
Motivated by this approach, we made it our task to create an aroma presentation that takes into account such a background of cigar aromas, and so we set out to work on “distilling” the aromatic essence of the cigars in question. We tried many different approaches, determined to capture the impossible – the fleeting impression of a puff of smoke off a burning cigar… After much trial and error, as is so often the case, one of the simpler methods actually produced the best results – something that was recognizable, strong enough, not overpowering, and markedly different from the smell of an unlit cigar.
Next, we had to commit to a mode of presentation. Though the idea of “cigar perfumes” left us with ambiguous feelings, we could settle on the following ideas:
- The way to use the standards should not give away any clues to the identity of the aroma
- The aroma should be presented at a high enough strength to be recognizable, but not overpowering
- There should not be any interference from any “carrier” material other than the “background” of cigar aromas
And so ultimately, we came up with what are basically cigar fragrances as the most effective and enjoyable solution – giving us intensity without irritation in a very safe usage format.
The beauty of these solutions is that the “carrier” – be it water, alcohol, oil emulsion – quickly evaporates away, leaving only the aroma compounds behind for appreciation. Since our aroma standards are much less intense than perfumes, they actually work best when sprayed into small to medium size tulip-shaped glasses like modern stemless wine tumblers, allowing for the drying and focusing of the aromas in question. As the aromas dry, the perceived quality may evolve, certainly in intensity, and the experience can be refreshed any time by simply adding a fresh “spritz” of the standard into the glass.
The rest is, as they say, boring technical details – each aroma standard requires its own formulation in order to be usable, effective, stable – and show its best when presented to the inclined consumer.
Aroma standards for learning – the panel
The aroma standards are now fully integrated in our ongoing panel training (here is a link to an article discussing the different cigar testing methods).
It is extremely interesting to observe how certain panelists correctly identify the aroma at the most detailed descriptor level at their first attempt, where others identify what we call a close aroma, which is a different descriptor belonging to the same aroma category. This is currently, together with other metrics, part of our monitoring of our panel performance potential.
Roberto Fregna said “As analyst, I’ve found that aroma tests are very useful in building and constantly training our olfactory memory, especially for those aromas that aren’t very common in everyday life. Thanks to the fact that the tests are repeatable whenever we want, we can verify if our perception is consistent with the aroma tested at every sampling session. And it works both if we test blind or knowing what the aroma is, so we can set different learning objectives for ourselves. Knowing what is the aroma tested is a great aid to correctly associate the “concept” of something already present in our mind with its exact aroma name.”
Nino Inzerillo adds “They certainly help and make it easier to recognize the specific aromas when found in the cigar. They serve for both the identification and the memorization, it is a sort of check in of olfactory skills”.
Aroma standards for sensory marketing
We did not realize how interesting this can be for cigar companies who want to embrace some form of sensory communication with their stakeholders. Not until 2017, when we talked about our panel training activities with Davidoff’s executives at InterTabac.
They were interested in making their marketing events more compelling and special and asked us to design the solutions that would help celebrate their 50 Year anniversary cigar release, the Diadema. Davidoff also wanted an already more widely known frontmark to be featured, the Nicaragua.
We first performed a full set of sensory descriptive tests with our panel for the two designated cigars, so as to assess and agree on the dominant aromas.
We came up with the aerosol solution for each individual aromas:
Davidoff 50 Year Anniversary Diadema: cedar, earth, cacao, cream
Davidoff Nicaragua: hazelnut, dark chocolate, cedar (different from the 50 Year cigar’s cedar), white pepper
Sam Reuter, Director, Global Brand Ambassador, Head of Product Development & Strategic Innovation at Davidoff said: “What made the difference was the consumer experience. With these sensory kits we wanted to offer a different experience to the cigar aficionados. It’s not always easy to identify flavors and aromas in cigars. With the sensory kit it’s much easier to get how all this is translated into the cigar. Education is important. We want to show the expertise of the cigar enjoyment. The kit was very helpful. We also developed some retail sensory kits, where we displayed the cigar in the middle and the aroma vials on the side. We got very good feedback.”
Sensory learning – cont.
This was a tremendous project for us, executed thanks to the excellent contribution of our sensory advisor, Constantin Heitkamp. The amazing knowledge built through this experience allowed us not only to fully integrate the cigar standards in our ongoing panel operations, but to consider adding more projects in our pipeline. In fact, we firmly believe that sensory learning opens the door to a completely different level of cigar enjoyment, one that allows us to be much more discerning and aware of what truly delights us.