One of the most exciting, but at times most aggravating, things about the journey into cigars is finding out what you like. Figuring out your palate can seem like a tall order considering the vast number of cigars available in the market. Not only that, but there are so many different wrapper leaves, binder leaves, filler leaves, country of origins, blenders, factories, and cigar personalities that create or promote brands, that it can be overwhelming to keep up with or decide what to purchase. However, it is also a beautiful thing about the industry because there is literally a cigar for every smoker out there.
In this article I want to offer up some tips for building your palate, finding your palate’s preferred profile, and things to avoid and consider. This article will mostly benefit the newer smoker, but these are things I consider when I have found myself feeling uninspired by most of what I am smoking. Or when I feel I am getting too comfortable or complacent with my cigar choices and need to shake it up again. The cigar world has a lot to offer and can be full of surprises.
Palate building, to me, is the process of learning how to smoke cigars in a manner that best presents the flavor, body, and strength profile a cigar has to offer and then understanding how to determine the flavors. The only way to build your palate is through practice. This will take time and a fair number of cigars, but eventually it will “click”. I still remember the puff that clicked for me almost 8 years later. It was about halfway through a Diesel Unholy Cocktail I got in a “crazy” CI sampler. I distinctly remember being blown away by sweet chocolate and coffee notes. Until that point, after smoking a dozen or two cigars, I had never been able to discern particular flavors.
After that, cigar smoking became a whole new thing for me. I began to pay more attention to how I was smoking cigars and trying to understand what I was tasting and experiencing. Paying attention to how you smoke is critical in getting the most out of your cigar. If you smoke too fast, the smoke will be hot and runs the risk of getting harsh or washing out the flavors. Smoking too slowly risks the cigar going out or having burn issues which alter the flavors. For me, I like to puff in a manner that keeps the cigar cool to the touch about ¾” to 1” down from the burn line. Or, if the ash drops, I like to see a fairly flat ash line. If there is a cone, I am smoking too fast, if there is a tunnel, I am smoking too slow. If you are not retrohaling, now is a great time to start. It doesn’t have to be a whole mouthful of smoke or every puff, but it is an important aspect to taste. A great way to start retrohaling is to take a puff and let the majority of smoke out of your mouth, then allow the last little bit to pass through the nose and mouth at the same time. You will immediately experience more flavor and more depth of flavor. Lastly, look at some reviews for the cigar you are smoking and compare notes. This is huge in helping you identify and classify flavors and strength levels. You’ll notice that not everyone tastes the same things, but it will help you identify flavor groups and may help you explain a note you are stuck on.
Understanding Your Palate
Once you are through the stage of palate building, you should naturally be better at knowing your palate’s likes and dislikes in terms of flavor notes, strength levels, textures, etc. However, there is a difference in knowing and understanding. To build your palate, you needed to pay attention to HOW you were smoking in order to get the best delivery of flavors. To understand your palate you need to pay attention to WHAT you’re smoking to understand why you could be getting these flavors. In my opinion, when building your palate, it is important to smoke cigars. When trying to understand your palate, it is important to smoke different cigars.
As I discussed in Part 1 of my Cigar Basics series, there are many varietals of tobaccos used in cigar making and they all have their own characteristics. There are going to be some tobaccos you love, some you hate, and others you are indifferent to. Furthermore, each plant has different primings that offer more differences. And you can’t forget about growing regions, fermentation processes and levels, or aging times and methods. My point is that there are numerous factors that play into cigar tastes and no cigar in the market is going to taste exactly alike, but cigars will share similarities. Samplers are great for experiencing different types of cigars, or cigars that fit a certain theme. Try the Whiskey & Whitetails Intro Sampler to cover a variety of countries, factories, and tobaccos. Check out some other samplers on Small Batch Cigars too. Save 10% with the code “Whiskey” while you’re at it.
You should not ignore the company, blender, and factory for the cigars you are smoking either. A good example for me is Dunbarton Tobacco and Trust. I have smoked most of Steve Saka’s offerings and have followed along with marketing and press releases regarding his cigars. I can now interpret the marketing or his explanation of his cigars to understand what to expect and if it is something I should smoke. He also is deeply involved in the blending of his cigars, and given I like nearly every cigar I have smoked of his, I trust his blends to serve me well. Interestingly as well is that he uses two different factories for his cigars - NACSA and Joya De Nicaragua, and in my opinion, it is evident which cigars come from which factory because each factory has different processes that impact the final product.
My tips for understanding your palate are to smoke cigars from all sorts of companies, factories, and countries, and to take notes before and during the smoking experience. A lot of people when they start really getting into cigars use the method of keeping bands to cigars they liked and tossing bands to cigars they did not like. I do not personally like this method because you’re only remembering a specific cigar you like, not what you like about it or why you may like it. You’re also completely ignoring half the equation, which is what you don’t like and why you don’t like it. Now, you don’t have to do a formal review of every cigar you smoke, but make note of the company, brand, factory, wrapper, binder, and filler and then note whether you like it or not and what you liked or didn’t like. After you’ve done this for some cigars, you’ll be able to start honing in on a flavor, texture, or sensation that you do or don’t like. With the use of the notes, you’ll be able to see which other cigars you have had a similar experience with and look for commonalities. This process allows you to make better judgments on what cigars to try and which to maybe avoid, or at least wait to try it at another time or at a lower price.
Other Considerations and Parting Words
Don’t get frustrated throughout this process. At the end of the day, the point of having a cigar is to relax and enjoy the experience. If you try too hard to pull out distinct flavors, it can be frustrating and can actually be harder than if you just enjoy the opportunity to have a cigar. Some of my most enjoyable cigar smoking experiences had nothing to do with the flavors of the cigar, but the atmosphere, mindset, or company I had while smoking. Don’t turn an enjoyable hobby into a chore.
Also I want to note that palates can change minimally or substantially over time. This can be a result of experience. For example, I notice a lot of newer smokers enjoy fuller flavor and body cigars that deliver bolder notes. This can be because the flavor notes can be more straightforward and easier to discern. In fact I have heard many cigar manufacturers comment on how it is easier to create a good full flavored, straight shooting cigar as opposed to a good medium, complex cigar. As smokers become more adept at discerning flavors, they become a bigger fan of more nuanced cigars. Your palate can also change with the seasons or environment. For example, I often shift towards darker, bolder flavors as the weather gets cooler and lighter, more nuanced cigars when the weather gets warm again.
Because palates change, I recommend that you avoid the temptation to overstock on a particular cigar until you really begin to understand your palate and hone in on what you like. Buying boxes is a cool experience and is something people should do, but don’t jump the gun or could be stuck with a bunch of cigars you come to realize you don’t actually like. At first, stick with just a couple singles or 5 packs of cigars you like for the time being, and samplers to try other cigars.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to try a cigar again. These are handmade products made from natural materials. Things happen in the manufacturing or growing or cultivating processes that could cause an issue in a particular cigar, batch, or crop year. Now, if the cigar had no redeeming quality for you, then you could safely move on. However, if there were aspects you enjoyed but you had burn issues, then give it another try. If you smoked a robusto vitola and you enjoyed most of the cigar, but there was maybe something lacking in the profile for you, maybe try a smaller or larger ring gauge vitola if possible. You may find that the change in size gave you a better experience. Finally, companies often try to fill gaps in their portfolio of brands to appeal to a large range of consumers. Don’t write off a company because you did not like a few of their cigars. Pay attention to the cigar details and see what other cigars the company makes that are similar or dissimilar and smoke accordingly.
At the end of the day, just relax and enjoy the experience!
Feel free to reach out to me with questions, concerns, criticisms, or just to talk at @guitarsandcigarsfarm on Instagram, or via email at email@example.com.