Of Cigar Tasting - The Nicotine Strength


In the language of cigar tasting, the nicotine strength contributes to the backbone of the tasting and needs to be complemented by adequate flavors richness.

The Short History

The term nicotine as active ingredient in tobacco was first isolated from the plant’s leaves in 1828. The name immortalizes the French diplomat Jean Nicot de Villemain, who introduced tobacco to the French court in the 16th century and this gave rise to the plant’s dissemination and popularization throughout Europe.

The Nicotine Influencing Factors

Nicotine is the main alkaloid present in the tobacco plant. Alkaloids are naturally occurring molecules that are mainly composed of nitrogen.

Nicotine levels vary across the different parts of the tobacco plant. Their concentration increase from the root to the buds and the levels are higher in the leaves than in the stems.

According to Didier Hoevenaghel, “the main factors influencing the concentration of nicotine in the leaves can be: the variety of plant, the density of planting, the humidity of the soil, the development of the roots, the amount of fertilizers used, the foliage position, the sunlight and temperature exposure of the plant, the height of de-budding and the rapidity of the side-shoot removal, the quality of fermentation.”

The Nicotine Measurement

As to the foliage position, nicotine strength levels for Cuban tobacco leaves are measured as follows:
1 – volado – lower leaves, lighter flavours, good combustibility for filler and binders
2 – seco – leaf from the middle, essential for filler aroma
3 – ligero – top of the plant, intense flavors for filler
4 – medio tiempo – rare top 2 leaves of the plant, stronger and richer filler

The above relates to sun-grown filler and binder leaves. Wrapper leaves, generally shade-grown, have a different classification depending on their color.

The level of nicotine strength of a cigar is calibrated by the blend, meaning the quantity and quality and types of the various leaves used together to make the cigar. In order to describe the nicotine strength in a cigar, we use the conventional 5 level scale, typically adopted worldwide:
– light
– med-light
– medium
– med-strong
– strong

One of the methods to evaluate the nicotine strength of a cigar consists in observing the perception in the larynx.  Per Amaury Borges Miranda – R&D Manager at Instituto de Investigaciones del Tabaco (TABACUBA) –  the strength can only be perceived in the few seconds (2 or 3) after the smoke reaches the larynx, otherwise, you would confuse it with  irritant sensations originating from other causes.

As we have mentioned in previous articles, the cigar smoke should not be inhaled but rather (if at all possible) retro-haled, to maximize the pleasure of the cigar’s richness in flavors. This cannot be perceived in the lungs.

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The Organoleptic Characteristics

Nicotine is odorless and can turn acrid when the cigar is lit. According to Min Ron Nee, “bitterness is believed to be the taste of nicotine” and it decreases through fermentation and aging, as these cause nicotine to be broken down into simpler molecules. This process causes the typical ammonia smell to appear.

I noted spiciness can sometimes be confused with nicotine strength. Spicy cigars may be mild in strength. When tasting your cigar please try to focus on tactile sensations and nicotine strength separately, so as to avoid confusions.

The Perception of Nicotine Strength

Of course, again, strength is a hedonistic attribute. Some people may like stronger cigars, some people less strong cigars. In addition, the nicotine strength level can be perceived differently, depending on individuals or regional culture.

From a cigar assessment perspective, too much strength may result in an aggressive cigar lacking balance, too little strength may also cause lack of balance. Also, an unbalanced cigar is usually considered not fit for aging.

The Misconceptions

Strength does not depend on the wrapper color. This used to be true until about 30 years ago, when the color of the wrapper was stamped on the bottom of Cuban cigar boxes. This is why, in 1967, Zino Davidoff wrote in his famous Connoisseur’s Book “the lighter the wrapper, the lighter the cigar”. The wrapper color used to indicate certain organoleptic qualities of the cigar. Today this is no longer relevant. A Cuban claro or a Connecticut wrapped cigar can in fact be quite strong.

There can also be some misunderstanding in the English language when using the term “body”. Cigar enthusiasts may use the term body in association to different types of sensory attributes: some refer to it as nicotine strength, some to aromas intensity, some to tastes intensity, some to smoke density, some to a combination of these or even more. This is the reason for which Cigar Sense does not use the term “body” in any sensory evaluation, so as to avoid confusion.



Borges Miranda Amaury, Comment to this article via LinkedIn group
Brutton Mark, Chase Simon, The Regulatory Council for the Protected Denomination of Origin Habanos and other Cuban Tobacco Denominations, The World of the Habano, Tobacco Research Institute, 2012
Encyclopaedia Britannica

D’Amore Giuseppe, Oltre Il Fumo, Marlin Ed., 2011
Houvenaghel Didier, The Cigar From Soil To Soul, Ed. Myosotis, 2005
Molinari Andrea G., Sigaro, La Guida per l’Apprendista Fumatore di Sigari Cubani, Idea Libri, 1998
Nee Min Ron, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Post-Revolution Havana Cigars, AWM-Verlag, Germany, 2003

Featured image : Matteo Speranza

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