A cigar’s mechanics, aka “construction”, include draw, combustion and ashes characteristics. They probably enable the most straight forward and easy to formulate considerations on the part of cigar lovers at any level of experience. 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 the palate.
However, a good tasting experience is mainly driven by the latter and the organoleptic qualities of a cigar are rarely affected by the quality of its construction.
But how much does a cigar’s construction really affect off-flavors?
In this article we will share how a cigar’s mechanics relate to the presence or absence of off-flavors in a cigar. Off-flavors are unpleasant aromas (for example ammonia, coal, cardboard, sulfur,…) or can also be tastes and palate perceptions (for example excessive bitterness, sourness or dryness).
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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 worldwide cigars performed blind by Cigar Sense panelists during the three years ending in early 2017. 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 rare. Therefore, I would like to ask every cigar lover reading this article to observe 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.”
- Sgroi Claudio, President and Master Blender at Mombacho Cigars, interview
- cigarsense.com database