By Tad Gage
Let’s say you don’t have any immediate plans to be a cigar reviewer, but maybe you’d like to better understand what the reviews are describing. Or, perhaps you want to be a better judge of your own smokes. In my decades of enjoying, writing about and making recommendations to friends, or cigar lounge acquaintances, I believe I’ve nailed a few basics that can be pretty helpful in selecting and assessing your cigars.
Keep in mind – it’s a lot tougher to select cigars online than it is in a shop. You’re not only looking at pictures of the best smokes, but you can’t smell or feel what you’re buying. It’s why I’m a big believer in buying one cigar and trying it before committing to several, or an entire box (whether in a shop or an online sampler). No matter how tempting a good box deal or a positive review might be, until you can see that cigar up close and personal (and then smoke it), you never know what will work for you. I have many friends, who have smoked a lot of fine cigars, who went all-in on a box or two and ended up with a box or two (short of two cigars) because they didn’t enjoy it … for whatever reason.
Even the cheapest, most marginal hand made smokes look great in the pictures. Who’s going to feature a picture of a lousy looking cigar? They’re all oily and glowing, with velvety wrappers, perfect flags (the tobacco capping the cigar’s head) as smooth as a baby’s bottom, and flawless wrappers. The reality is that a boxful may deliver spotted wrappers, ragged flags, veiny wrapper leaf, tears in the wrappers and spongy spots as deep as a Chicago pothole. Even one randomly purchased cigar may not tell the story, but it’ll give you a lot truer sense of the brand than a picture.
Whatever type of wrapper your "target" cigar has, look for smooth wrapper application. Wrapper leaf is applied diagonally over the cigar’s binder, and the final product should look almost seamless. If you can trace the wrapper edges around the cigar like a bas-relief map, you are probably looking at a quickly-made cigar or one created by less experienced rollers. Looks aren’t everything, because the cigar might still taste good, but a really seamless wrapper is one indication the cigar was made with care, and by experienced rollers. A minimal (or reasonable) amount of veins in the wrapper should also give you a clue to what’s inside. Expect to see more veins and bumps in darker, heavier wrappers like maduro or oscuro. They need to be thicker and tougher to stand up to the additional processing. The best dark Cameroon or Cameroon-seed wrappers will still be rougher and bumpier than a light shade-grown wrapper.
A tightly applied flag is also a sign of the care in manufacturing. It usually takes two or three strips of tobacco to make the flag, so don’t be put off by that. However, the components should be smooth and tightly applied. The thicker the wrapper leaf, the more difficult it is to make the flag perfectly smooth. However, if it looks ragged, there’s a greater likelihood it’ll unravel.
[Editor’s note: While cigar heads can be finished many different ways, all of the techniques require extraordinary skills to create a finished product that is both attractive and reinforces the construction of the cigar. The head of a cigar must withstand the extra pressure from your teeth, saliva and lips for extended periods of time.1
|The best caps consist of multiple pieces of tobacco. Because of the need to wrap a flat leaf over a conical or rounded cigar head, one piece of tobacco will never do the trick. Many cigars utilize two pieces of tobacco – one to cover the head, and another thin strip to seal the main piece of tobacco. To create the most aesthetic and the smoothest cap, manufacturers employ three pieces of tobacco. These need to be carefully trimmed, exquisitely applied, and firmly glued (with completely taste-neutral and non-toxic gum). The finest quality flags will be nearly invisible to the eye, and will be so seamlessly applied that there they become one with the cigar.|
This is one of things impossible to judge without engaging your sense of touch, and, of course, smoking the stick. It’s also the single most important determination in cigar quality. Simply put, bad construction is the number one cigar killer. If the cigar is rolled too tightly, you cannot draw in the smoke properly. Any cigar, no matter how good the tobacco, will be a failure if improperly constructed. If the cigar is generally firm but has one or more slightly softer spots, it’ll burn unevenly. If it’s soft throughout, it’ll smoke fast and hot.
The easiest way to judge is to roll the cigar lightly between your fingers. It should have a barely perceptible give. If it feels like a brick, it’ll almost certainly have a tight draw. If it gives any more than a very slight resistance, it will probably burn too fast or hot, or both. I never buy a cigar in a shop without applying this test (with recently washed hands, of course).
Every maker produces the occasional clunker, but these characteristics should never be present in any high quality hand-made cigar. And, if I run through an open box and find any of these undesirable characteristics in more than one stick, I get very suspicious of the maker’s quality control, or the skill of its rollers.
What you detect in flavor, and whether you like it, is really your call. You may find appealing hints of coffee, cocoa, chocolate, spices, herbs, cedar, loam or vegetation. In doing reviews for others’ enjoyment, we reviewers try to identify these attributes to help our audiences decide whether the cigar’s flavor profile might appeal to them.
I believe most of us at Cigar Chronicles agree that some "reviewers" try too hard to identify certain flavors in cigars. A cigar should be enjoyable, and complex flavors and changes in taste and character are always interesting to note as you smoke. But, please don’t work too hard to analyze your cigar, because sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. I have seen reviews noting overtones of dried meat and fish (I like both, but they are quite different and I don’t think a dried fish flavor is preferable in a cigar), cow dung (wow, what can I say?), white pepper (as opposed to green peppercorns or pink peppercorns?) and some other pretty long descriptive stretches. Cigars can be complex, but really, not that complex.
There is a very strong connection between taste and smell, which is why it’s possible to detect hints of leather in a cigar without ever having to have chewed leather. The smell of fine leather can definitely be picked up in the sensory aroma of a cigar. Now me, hey, I teethed on my mom’s leather key case and I guess this has always influenced my fondness for that new car smell and taste. No, I haven’t chewed my car’s leather seats. But I couldn’t expect you to have enjoyed the same experience. But there is a definite connection between what you’ve smelled and what you taste. Hence, you can pick up flavors of earth, smoked wood, cedar, hay – all items you may have smelled but never chowed down on. I would call cow dung vegetal or earthy and leave it at that.
However, if you’re picking up an ammonia or compost pile character in the cigar you’re puffing, then your cigar leaf wasn’t properly fermented. All these unfortunate bitter organic characteristics should be gone with proper sweating. But a bit of hay or straw or earth can be a good thing. There is something to be said for simple attributes like "smooth, pleasing, bitter, sweet," and more are sometimes all you need. "I love this cigar" is not good enough for a reviewer, but it can be good enough for you!
This is one of the key measures of a cigar. Once upon a time, you could reliably assume a cigar made in the Canary Islands or Jamaica would be mild. A Honduran or Mexican cigar was strong. Pre-1959 Cuban cigars – despite the prevailing mentality that a Cuban-style cigar is always robust – could be a bland green candela wrapper Dunhill or a power-packed Punch. Perhaps the preferred style of Cuban makers was for a more robust smoke, but they manufactured cigars the world wanted. That might be a robust cigar for Spain, or a bland smoke for America.
Anyway, back to strength. This is an attribute tied to the type of tobacco used, the growing conditions, crop selection, and location of the leaf on the plant. The top, or corona, semi-corona and centro gordo are generally the most robust because of their exposure to sunlight and being at the top of the plant’s sap production and effort to grow. They can also be the most complex. The middle leaves (centro fino and centro ligero) are the plant’s "prime cut," and provide the optimal combination of finesse, nicotine, and sweetness. The lower leaves (seco and volado) are larger and tougher, making them good for binders and accents.
[Editor’s note: Depending on the tobacco varietal and growing region, the names of the leaves may be different. For example, the leaves at the top of the Criollo plant are called Ligero, while most other tobacco plant’s top leaves are called Corona, and the 2nd set of leaves are called Ligero.]
But how these leaves are picked and processed and blended make all the difference in the world. And today, the country of manufacturing origin aren’t so important, because where ever they’re located, cigar makers (outside of Cuba, which only rely on Cuban leaf), can bring in tobacco from all over the world. It’s no longer possible to attribute taste or strength characteristics to a particular country of origin, or even the leaf from a particular country. So, just forget it. Whatever the composition, you simply have to judge the relative strength of a cigar based on your taste.
The details are for another day, but in non-Cuban blended cigars, the mixing of these leaves, growing conditions and country of origin create an almost endless variation of possibilities. All that needs to be said about strength is that if it appeals to you, then it’s a good blend. Many cigars today are specifically blended to be powerhouses of strength, full of nicotine and exceptionally peppery. This style has definitely attracted a following. There are many cigar smokers who have said "this cigar made me sit down and sweat, as my eyes rolled back in my head." Is this really what you want from a cigar?
Personally, I find this style to be too aggressive for my tastes. I love spicy foods, but a dish that’s so incredibly fiery I can’t taste anything else is way over the top to me. Why bother? I’ll just drink straight Sriracha sauce. I have smoked cigars that I know had perfectly sweated and aged tobaccos. But whatever the combination was, it was simply so brutally loaded with nicotine that I couldn’t enjoy it. But it’s all about your personal opinion.
Whether your cigar is mild or robust, you should never experience the strength of poorly fermented tobaccos. If you pick up flavors of ammonia or that "el ropo" essence, you are smoking poorly fermented and improperly aged tobaccos. How do you know the difference? Even the most powerful cigar that’s well-aged and properly fermented is smooth. If it’s harsh and strong, you have yourself an el ropo. Ditch it at your earliest convenience, and don’t apologize for not liking it!
So, read the reviews and enjoy the descriptions. Embrace them as informational guides. And then, be your own cigar reviewer.
1. The Tobacconist Handbook, by Jorge L. Armenteros, CMT
|Tad Gage is the author of the best selling Penguin Books "The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars," in its second edition. The book has sold over 40,000 copies worldwide, in three languages, and is available in stores and online distributors. Tad has made cigar connoisseurship accessible to beginners and veteran cigar smokes alike. He is delighted to answer questions through CigarChronicles.com. Just comment below.|