In the language of cigar tasting, the so-called ‘mechanics’ include three main aspects that are usually observed during the tasting of a cigar: the draw, the combustion and the ash. They probably drive the most ‘objective’ considerations we can have when tasting a cigar. In fact, it is easier to observe that the cigar has a tight draw than to identify particular organoleptic characteristics through retro-nasal olfaction or through palate perceptions.
However, a good tasting experience is mainly driven by the latter. Such qualities can be affected by the quality of the mechanics, but below we will see that there is very little correlation between the mechanics and the presence or absence of off-flavors in a cigar. Off-flavors are unpleasant aromas (ammonia, coal, cardboard, sulfur,…) or tastes and palate perceptions (excessive bitterness, sourness or dryness), typically deriving from certain defects in the production of a cigar, or from the use of poor quality tobacco.
Let’s first have a glance at the mechanics aspects.
The Mechanics : Draw
The draw should be allowing the air to pass through the cigar with little resistance.
Too little resistance may cause the cigar to smoke too hot. A slow pace while smoking is probably the only behavior we can control to avoid any unpleasant consequences.
Too much resistance can frustrate and spoil the experience, even if flavors are not affected. It is often sufficient to massage the cigar in the areas where it is possible to feel that the obstruction is located. Obstructions are generally created when the cigar is rolled. The more love in our massage, the greater the chance to not be totally disappointed. I personally believe this is another one of the reasons for which genuine cigar lovers are known for being patient and tolerant.
With experience, you gain more ability to know when it’s worth showing more love to the cigar or when it’s really wasted energy because the cigar is not reciprocating.
The Mechanics : Combustion
Some people call this burn. It’s how long a cigar remains lit. From a tasting perspective, the cigar should remain lit as long as possible.
The relighting of a cigar, unless this is carefully done while the cigar is still warm, is not recommended. In fact, the re-ignition triggers a smoke affected by residues of the distillation that condensed in the remaining portion of the cigar. This generates more nicotine and potentially off-flavors.
One thing that you can do, whether the cigar needs to be relit or not, is purging. When you note that some off-flavors replace the pleasant flavors, you can – while the cigar is lit or being relit – blow outwards through the cigar repeatedly. Basically, this is the contrary of what you do when you draw smoke from the cigar into your mouth. No guarantee that the off-flavors will totally disappear, but it’s good to give the cigar another chance. This can be precautionary as well, you don’t need to wait for the unpleasant to arrive in order to purge your cigar.
The golden rule to apply before blaspheming anybody is: smoke slowly. Generally speaking, the smaller the gauge, the slower you need to smoke: there is an acceleration effect in the flow of air which naturally speeds up the combustion and raises the temperature level. Therefore, it is important to adjust the distance between the puffs to the cigar’s own pace of combustion.
The good burn depends on many factors: mainly on the soil, on the tobacco processing, on the quality of the leaves, on the blend and on the rolling of the cigar.
The Mechanics : Ash
The ash is the unburnt part of the mineral content of tobacco. The darker the ash, the less complete is the combustion. The more the cigar contains tobacco with multiple constituents, the more it will be difficult to complete the combustion.
Holding the ash, as far as you can, attached to the burning ember is good, it’s not just about showing off or competing. This helps moderate the combustion temperature. The longer the ash, the less oxygen reaches the burning end of the cigar which, in turn, reduces the burning temperature and cools the smoke. Pleasant flavors find a better environment in a colder combustion, so this is important to enjoy all the flavors a cigar has to offer.
The Construction Imperative, a Myth?
Every now and then I hear somebody saying that construction in a cigar is the most important criterion for appreciating a cigar. I personally never thought so, but I wanted to dig further into this based on data relating to thousands of tests of wordwide cigars performed blind by Cigar Sense panelists during the last three years. Here is what the data say:
Only about 5.7% of the samples we tested, had both difficult draw and off-flavors. This is a much lower score than the 27.9% of samples that showed off-flavors even if their draw was excellent.
Almost following a similar pattern as for draw, the samples with both off-flavors and irregular burn were just 7.3%% as opposed to 25.6% of samples with excellent burn but displaying off-flavors.
In terms of ash density, we found 8.4% of the samples showing both off-flavors and soft ash. 43.7% had either compact or solid ash and presented off-flavors. This definitely does not support the popular belief that you can judge a cigar’s quality from its solid/compact ash.
There are also many theories regarding the color of the ash. The most popular ones tell that a white ash is indicative of a good tobacco quality and a black ash of a bad tobacco quality. It is interesting to note that, in our experience, 23% of the cigars presenting off-flavors had white or light grey ash, vs. only 0.4% of the samples with black ash.
One thing must be said. Panelists know how to smoke, taste and test a cigar, and the cases in which the samples were not smokable even for them are extremely rare. Therefore, I would like to ask every cigar lover reading this article to judge his/her own attitude toward the cigar before blaming anybody else for the poor performance of the cigar.
The above insights, of course, do not want to be an encouragement for manufacturers to be less vigilant on the mechanics of their cigars. They just want to demonstrate that judging a cigar primarily on its mechanics can be very mis-leading.
What are the Key Causes for Off-Flavors?
Claudio Sgroi, President and Master Blender at Mombacho Cigars, explains that, assuming a good harvest, tobacco can lose its qualities during two main phases:
- The curing process:
- “ if the leaves are dried too quickly, the chemical changes inside the leaves will not complete and the tobacco will not have the quantity of polyphenols suitable for a good fermentation. The leaves will remain greenish, maintaining a flavor of cardboard and freshly cut grass.
- if the leaves are dried too slowly or for too long, the polyphenols produced by their oxidation and by the hydrolysis of the glucose will provide for with a minimum content of essential oils. The result is a tobacco without complex flavors.”
A loss in organoleptic characteristics can also be originating during
- the tobacco leaves fermentation. Sgroi continues “The most critical problem here is temperature:
- fermenting at high temperatures, the essential oils will de-compose and the tobacco will not have the aromatic complexity that it should have. Aromas will be toasted, displaying damp earth and ammonia;
- if temperatures are low and the fermentation is not prolonged, the aromas will be sugary, with wet cardboard notes, lots of ammonia, simple herbal and floral aromas and a sensation of dirtiness/dryness on the palate.”
Nevertheless, it is finally up to the master blender to optimize the blend based on good quality tobacco. “You can have the best tobacco in the world and make a poor liga, or have mediocre tobacco and make a decent liga. If you use very young but good quality tobacco, with appropriate curing and fermentation, time is key to grant complexity and balance to the ‘young cigar’. 2-3 years are a necessary rest for a good result. If tobacco is mediocre due to incorrect processing, you can age it 10 years and the cigar might improve, but will never be of good organoleptic quality.”
- D’Amore Giuseppe, Oltre Il Fumo, Marlin Ed., 2011
- Houvenaghel Didier, The Cigar From Soil To Soul, Ed. Myosotis, 2005
- Nee Min Ron, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Post-Revolution Havana Cigars, AWM-Verlag, Germany, 2003
- Sgroi Claudio, President and Master Blender at Mombacho Cigars, interview
- cigarsense.com database
featured image : Rian McGuire