The Emerging World of Cigar Sommeliers


The world of cigars is evolving, and the title of “cigar sommelier” carries more weight than ever before. The concept of “cigar sommelier” has become increasingly widespread. It’s not just for hospitality professionals (though you might initially think so), but also for cigar company representatives, retailers, distributors, opinion leaders and cigar consumers.

What Is A Cigar Sommelier?

The term “sommelier” traditionally referred to a wine steward or waiter, initially responsible for transporting goods, including wine, for royalty and nobility. Over time, the role evolved to encompass wine service in fine dining. Today, a “sommelier” remains primarily associated with wine expertise. Wine has held a place as a symbol of luxury and culture for centuries. Well-known organizations like the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) offer rigorous certification programs focused principally on wine knowledge.

Inspired by this example, a key objective in the cigar market is to firmly establish the association between the term “sommelier” and expertise. Also, cigar sommelier organizations emphasize the importance of connecting product knowledge with compelling storytelling.

According to Yamir Pelegrino, co-founder of the International Association of Cigar Sommeliers (IACS), “the greatest strength of a cigar sommelier lies in their faith in the black tobacco, the blend, and the stories of this ancestral product and its mystique. These elements bring joy to those who seek the ‘P’ vitamin – the pleasure of smoking a cigar! The role of a Cigar Sommelier is undoubtedly vital for any business selling cigars. This role extends to the ‘social world of tobacco’, where the sommelier acts as a master of ceremonies with the cigar, its service, and pairings. They are a crucial link in the communication chain from the land, through the brand, to the consumer, artists and worshippers of good taste and its place within the gourmet world. It takes humility, hedonism, and an insatiable desire to overcome challenges to be a cigar sommelier.”

Also per Danays León Sanchez, master cigar sommelier and co-owner of Sperlinga Tobacco and Sperlinga Tastings, Tours & Events, “aside from the quality and presentation of the cigars, the story telling skills play a key role in creating a romance between the customer and the cigar. Every brand, every cigar, every producing family has countless stories to be told and that’s a powerful tool for cigar sommeliers.”

Why Are Cigar Sommelier Certifications Popular?

Education is frequently contributed by the cigar supply chain itself. This convenient access likely contributes to the popularity of cigar sommelier courses, as they cater to diverse educational needs of both professionals and consumers, although there’s a distinct difference between the sommelier skills expected of professionals and the knowledge intended for consumer enjoyment.

Aspiring or experienced professionals may look, in addition to knowledge, for relationships leading to jobs opportunities.

On the other hand, consumers gaining more in-depth knowledge make more informed choices and gain greater autonomy.

Per Constantin Heitkamp, enologist and sensory scientist, “this often allows consumers to have more meaningful, goal-oriented conversations with industry members of all persuasions. Having enthusiastic and more invested/informed consumers is a joy for most professionals in trade, though this is far easier to negotiate on the producer or purely retail side.”

Danays León Sanchez adds that “the elevated customer expectations may push cigar sommeliers to be more creative and unique in their recommendations.”

the cigar sommelier
Image credit: cometary, iStock

Continuous Learning

Cigar sommelier education programs offer valuable insights into topics such as tobacco growing, processing, rolling, storage and brands histories. While the intricacies of terroir are fascinating, unlocking the sensory experience of a cigar is where a sommelier truly excels. However, beyond the mechanics, the cutting, the lighting and the etiquette, navigating aromas, tastes, and mouthfeel can be daunting.

This knowledge gap also exists in the wine market, even though sommelier education is more established there. Isabelle Lesschaeve, Ph.D. in Food Science specializing in Sensory Science, addresses this gap. She teaches wine sommeliers and enthusiasts what “wine pros do not teach them”: how to taste wine.

Knowing how to taste is a pre-requisite to be able to delight a customer who doesn’t necessarily have the same taste as the sommelier or may not like the idea of the proposed pairing.

Another challenge is represented by a lack of commonly understood vocabulary. For example, if a discerning customer in a high-end lounge asks for a “full-bodied” Dominican cigar, is a Dominican nicotine bomb the correct answer? What if the customer actually desires a complex, aromatically rich, and intense cigar?

Perhaps the customer misunderstands the term “body”? Or, does the customer have a misperception about Dominican tobacco characteristics? Or, is there a misunderstanding on the sommelier’s part? After all, “body” is probably the most confusing term in cigar tasting – it carries multiple meanings depending on who you ask. This is just one example of how misconceptions can lead to significant customer frustration.

As Constantin Heitkamp notes, one fundamental challenge is the lack of standardization in sensory terminology. The same term can have multiple layers of detail and subjective context/meaning that are difficult to navigate. For better or worse, each brand will also tend to try and establish their own standards and guidelines, which are often left to “imaginative” approaches by the sales force (and opinion leaders). While these can be incredibly enriching, they are often far away from the reality of the product.

Although efforts to fill this gap are in progress, this is still a big challenge for consumers and professionals alike.

But there is another opportunity that is not yet fully explored.

Can Cigar Sommeliers Read Your Palate?

Learning how to identify, recognize, and name aromas for our own enjoyment is easier than developing the sensitivity to understand a customer’s nuanced preferences. This key concept is called the “experiential gap” – we can only fully understand our own perceptions, not those of others. While expert suggestions can be valuable, true customer satisfaction is ultimately determined by the patron’s individual palate.

Each captivating synergy, each fascinating pairing journey goes beyond simple suggestions. Sommeliers must skillfully balance a customer’s personal preferences and experiences with relevant scientific insights. Every palate is unique, making it a true challenge to replicate successful pairings. While science provides valuable guidelines, individual preference remains paramount. What one sommelier finds ideal, another – or a discerning customer – may not.

As Gavin Lewis, WSET and Edinburgh Whisky Academy (EWA) laureate, observes, “This could well be a minefield. Without considering the patron’s preferences, the risk of costly mistakes increases. Sommeliers must move beyond what pairs well in isolation and tailor recommendations to the customer’s tastes. This requires creativity and flexibility – like an artist working with a limited palette – and can sometimes limit the opportunity to introduce a patron to new and potentially delightful experiences. A skilled sommelier must carefully balance persuasion and respect, guiding the patron towards an exceptional sensory destination. Of course, if patrons could easily express their preferences numerically, sommeliers could rely on data to guide their choices.”

To connect with customers, IACS cigar sommelier Scott Thieman emphasizes,”it’s crucial to talk with and not to our customers.” Oscar Marulanda, co-founder at NAOS Company, agrees, adding, “Sommeliers must prioritize customer desires, the environment, and the moment. This understanding, coupled with continuous training, product knowledge and offerings, is essential for success.”

These challenges are compounded, as Constantin Heitkamp notes, by the sheer complexity of the cigar market and its often limited product availability at individual locations.

“A key aspect of sommellerie,” Isabelle Lesschaeve explains, “lies in understanding what each consumer likes, doesn’t like and the desired experience. Based on this intel, the sommelier can curate a tailored selection of options.” Constantin Heitkamp observes that this process parallels the broader challenge of effective science communication. Even the most artistic sommelier must balance their intuition with often quite rigorous ‘grids’ of organized knowledge. Even the youngest sommeliers, like Ludovica Tacchini, learned to meet consumer preferences  “by exclusion”, starting from their memorized schema.

The ultimate question becomes how a sommelier integrates these diverse factors to guide the customer, even when their ‘ideal’ product may not be an option.

Therefore,” Isabelle Lesschaeve emphasizes, “sommeliers must focus on the specific attributes that drive liking and acceptability rather than getting lost in less essential details.”

This presents a significant challenge, as Gavin Lewis notes: “Unless the patron is a frequent guest, you simply won’t have the time to fully learn their tastes in a single interaction! Therefore, a sommelier must first be adept in understanding and discussing flavors and aromas. Secondly, they need to skillfully elicit the guest’s preferences within the context of the occasion. Finally, deep product knowledge is crucial to find pairings that either elevate those preferences or offer a compelling, but still suitable (not boring), alternative.”

As Constantin Heitkamp reminds us, “It’s important to remember that personal preference ultimately overrules everything, something that sommeliers in the gastronomical realm have long understood!”

the cigar sommelier - prepping
Image credit: Yor Ven, iStock

An Expanding Toolkit For The Cigar Sommelier

Scientific references such as chemical or sensory analysis outputs are invaluable insights to help sommeliers predict customer delight and optimize their time to familiarize with new cigar pairings. Yet, these references may not resonate with the artistry of a sommelier’s work, where intuition plays a pivotal role.

Oscar Marulanda’s opinion is that the ideal training should encompass everything related to the individual in a dining moment, from water to dessert, including food, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, as well as the chemical components and reactions involved – aspects often only discussed during external training sessions.

Developing a deep knowledge of the product is critical, of course. As a sensory scientist, Isabelle Lesschaeve recommends a structured curriculum on sensory science to educate sommeliers on the importance of all senses to deliver a particular experience. This also emphasizes the individual differences in perceptual skills and the reason why we differ in our product preferences.

The fact that we lack a universal language to describe smells and mouthfeel is a barrier to good communication with a customer. The use of a sensory wheel can augment the customer experience, offering a tool to identify the sensations they like or don’t particularly enjoy. It’s also an opportunity for the sommelier to learn the language consumers use to express themselves about the product.

Sharing a unique lexicon would definitely help professionals in their efforts to delight consumers. [Scott Thieman] We need to keep a common lexicon when describing flavor profiles of any given cigar. What I have come to learn is, it is far too easy to elaborate on flavors that verge on the absurd to the vast majority of cigar enthusiasts, regardless of their cigar education.”

“In general, a more scientific background is required [Danays León Sanchez] Maybe the key is in differentiating courses for enthusiasts and professionals.  Cigar sommelier education should evolve towards excellence by incorporating the vast scientific knowledge and data at our disposal, provided by organizations like Cigar Sense, integrating knowledge about drinks, coffee, chocolate, including water. Also, in addition to theory, practice in tasting is important and learning is a never-ending process.”


In summary, the evolving role of the cigar sommelier reflects an exciting shift in the cigar world. As both consumers and professionals crave informed experiences, the sommelier holds a unique place. They must blend historical knowledge and storytelling with a mastery of tasting and pairing principles. While science and sensory analysis offer invaluable tools, both intuition and understanding individual palates remain the keys to success. As work to create a shared sensory language progresses, we’ll see cigar sommeliers bridge a fascinating gap – expertly guiding each client to the most pleasurable and unique experience. After all, the best pairing is what makes the experience far better than tasting each product individually.

Share this!

Cigar Sense predicts which cigars best fit your personal taste. We are committed to preserve the highest objectivity, integrity and independence in the creation and dissemination of our analyses and industry analytics. This is why we do not sell cigars, nor cigar ads.

To begin receiving personalized cigar recommendations

Leave a Reply