In the world of cigar tasting, the “organoleptic” characteristics are those that can be perceived by our senses. The gustatory and retro-olfactory aspects being the most important in the tasting of a cigar, we are mostly talking here about the parameters connected to aromas, tastes (or palate perceptions) and nicotine strength.
You cannot take an isolated characteristic at the time. Tasting and enjoying a cigar is not (just) about identifying aromas, tactile perceptions and nicotine strength, it is about how these converge together and hence it is about depicting:
It’s not easy to find cigars that present all the 5 parameters to the highest degree… Cigar Sense is not overly demanding when drawing conclusions on a cigar but, let’s say it, there are some best-selling cigars that are not recommended for our members because the samples we tested did not reach our overall quality index threshold, which takes the 5 parameters into account.
I am going to break them down to hopefully make the reading easier, but please know they are all interconnected.
An Organoleptic Parameter : QUALITY
When we talk about organoleptic characteristics, quality is the finesse and clearness of aromas and palate perceptions. It’s a short definition, but this is an extremely important parameter.
The tobacco quality impacts the organoleptic quality of a cigar but, let’s be clear, it’s not the tobacco that we evaluate when we taste a cigar, it is the deriving gustatory and retro-olfactory perceptions that we need to observe.
A master blender has her job and a taster has his job. The points of observation are completely different. It doesn’t harm and it is beneficial to well understand each other’s job. I met a few master blenders who don’t know how to describe a cigar from an organoleptic perspective and asked me what changes they could make to their blends to reach the balance that Cigar Sense did not find. While I feel qualified to describe the cigars made with their blends, I don’t feel qualified to advise them on how to do their job. If more people appreciated that for both jobs it does take some learning and work, the world would probably have more cigars with good organoleptic quality, not to mention fewer inaccurate cigar reviews being published.
Finesse and clearness of aromas and palate perceptions are not hedonistic aspects, it’s not a matter of saying “I prefer less fine aromas”. You may say you don’t care about focusing on this parameter, but it is an important quality indicator for anyone who wants to evaluate cigars, especially if they advise others.
An Organoleptic Parameter : BALANCE
According to Min Ron Nee, “the appreciation of a good balance in a smoke needs no training. It is one of the mysteries of inherent human capabilities”. He asserts that even a child can identify good cooking or good music, and just in the same way an adult can perceive how different flavors interact with each other in a cigar. Because balance is a “term understood by everyone who knows how to appreciate a fine cigar”.
The way we appreciate a cigar changes over time, almost like when from milk chocolate (kids) we grow into dark chocolate (adults), the more we grow in our career as cigar smokers, the better we are able to perceive balance with its multitude of related aspects.
In spite of our changing palate, we can say that, overall, a cigar strong in nicotine will need to have a good aromatic and taste presence in order to achieve a reasonable balance. By presence I mean the intensity of aromas and tastes needs to be rather high, so the nicotine strength does not play too much of a soloist role.
If, on the contrary, I have a cigar low in nicotine strength and high in aromatic intensity, I might also have a lack of balance, depending on how the rest of the spine (the palate perceptions) behaves.
At this point, if you care about describing a cigar, I would like to invite you to pay attention to a couple of cases, as examples of parameters / descriptors which, if confused, may misrepresent your overall balance evaluation:
- Is this nicotine strength or spiciness? Or is this dryness? Click To Tweet
- Is this spiciness or a pepper aroma? Click To Tweet
- (for native English-speaking people): Is this bitterness or sourness? Click To Tweet We wrote about this confusion in a prior article.
Other behaviors that can go unnoticed when tasting a cigar are decays. We can identify overwhelming elements in the cigar, then perhaps some puffs might offer a degree of balance and suddenly not anymore.
A cigar may present a decay in its organoleptic parameters during one of the tasting phases. Bitter or dry perceptions can be accentuated, but then replaced by different tastes and the finish can result very fine. Or the spine can remain unchanged, but aromas come and go.
Some cigars in entrance may show rather off-key from an aroma and taste perspective, maybe they start with a brutal force and gradually display more moderated registers as you progress with the tasting. This is not a decay. This can be a particular blend design aimed at a certain type of evolution, or lack of evolution.
Some cigars, in turn, may offer a beautiful harmonic palette of aromas and continue on a great register with a steady (or increasing but not overwhelming) nicotine strength. The aromatic and taste palette may change but all can mingle very well together.
Sometimes, though it is possible to enjoy them in their present state, certain cigars need further refinement in the humidor in order for more harmony to be achieved. Again, all depends on the taste, but especially on the experience of the cigar lover.
Some cigars are dry on the palate. According to Min Ron Nee this is the case for all young cigars and it seems to be caused by tannis which, just like nicotine, break down with aging.
Some master blenders rather attribute dryness to the type of tobacco used and believe it needs correction in order to balance the overall perception. Dryness may even amplify the effect of nicotine strength, making the spine overpower aromas.
Another palate perception that often results when a cigar lacks balance is bitterness.
According to Min Ron Nee, “bitterness is believed to be the taste of nicotine and decreases as fermentation causes nicotine to be broken down into simpler molecules”. Young cigars can also present some bitterness due to the ammonia presence.
Palate perceptions in the balance of a cigar are very important. A dominant bitter is not pleasant, a hint of captivating bitterness can be pleasant, or at least acceptable.
Bernard Burtschy makes a very interesting distinction between “l’amer désagréable” (unpleasant bitterness) and “l’amertume noble” (“fine” bitterness).
According to Luigi Ferri, bitterness in a cigar is always a defect, just like any other dominant taste, as it breaks the balance. A cigar with bitterness is not perfect. But not because of ammonia in the unripe cigar. Bitterness in a cigar is mainly due to bad tobacco quality, bad curing and fermentation.
Didier Hoevenaghel confirms and explains that bitterness is generally caused by the presence of a too large quantity of proteins, owing to incorrectly handled drying and fermentation.
High levels of magnesium, sulphur and copper can cause acidity.
More generically, according to Hoevenaghel, unpleasant flavors (also called off-flavors) can be caused by:
- badly conceived blends
- good blends improperly executed
- ideal reference blends properly executed but including leaves suffering from : unsuitable soil, excessively accelerated drying process, problems during drying and or fermentation, unduly prolonged and excessively hot fermentation, pathogenic agents attacks.
I would add that harshness and bitterness can also be present in a greatly designed and executed blend, when the smoker did not apply fire and smoking pace properly.
Personal taste and hedonistic views should not affect a technical evaluation, which needs to be based on objective criteria and parameters. According to Ferri we should not penalize the manufacturers who provide a great product by justifying bitter notes which arise from non excellent production methods.
Luigi Ferri concludes “the perfect cigar should be one that neutralizes all the individual taste perceptions in a perfect balance, leaving free expression to aromas. Neat, clear, integrated, fine, with a good evolution, rich complexity, correct persistence. At the utmost, a slight sweet or savory spine (depending on personal taste).”
We will talk about the other parameters in our next articles.
Book References :
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