Understanding Cigar Strength

When cigars are described there are three terms that are most commonly used - flavor, body, and strength. Some of these were discussed in my Cigar Basics - Part 3: Shop to Smoke article, however I will quickly explain each here.

Flavor: This one is obvious. This describes the flavors you get from smoking the cigar, as well as the level of flavor.

Body: This describes the smoke delivered by the cigar. This includes the sensation and texture of the smoke as well as how it coats your mouth. 

Strength: This describes the nicotine level in the cigar. The more nicotine in the tobacco, the stronger the cigar. 

There are also levels associated with these terms. The three base levels are mild, medium, and full. These levels are pretty self explanatory, but just in case: 

Mild: In terms of flavor, mild means the smoke provides little intensity of flavor (think saltine crackers). In terms of body, mild means the smoke is thin and wispy and does not coat the mouth (think water). In terms of strength, mild means there is little nicotine content or at least it is undetectable (think virgin or weak cocktails). 

Medium: In terms of flavor, medium means the smoke provides a moderate intensity of flavor (think Ritz crackers). In terms of body, medium means the smoke has substance and may lightly coat the palate (think low fat milk). In terms of strength, medium means there is moderate nicotine content that is detectable (think good cocktails).

Full: In terms of flavor, full means the smoke provides a high intensity of flavor (think Cheez-it crackers). In terms of body, full means the smoke is thick and dense and coats the mouth fully (think eggnog). In terms of strength, full means there is high nicotine content that is apparent (think whiskey neat).

These terms are used universally across the industry both by cigar makers, marketers, retailers, and consumers. What’s interesting is how the cigar world is still plagued by vague cigar ads and descriptions, or blatant misuse of these descriptive terms. I have heard countless ads about the “smooth, mild Connecticut shade” cigar. Tell me, is it mild strength, mild body, or mild flavor? I personally love a mild strength Connecticut shade that is medium to full in flavor and body, but I do not like one that is mild in flavor. A common mistake is calling a cigar “strong” because it is full in flavor and body. Being vague, or an incorrect description, can cause someone to not purchase a particular cigar or be disappointed in a purchase because it does not seem to match their preferred profile. 

It is important to note that these descriptions are subjective, as everyone interprets cigars differently. It also depends on what kinds of cigars you smoke regularly and with what regularity you do smoke. However, the hardest one for most people to grasp, and likely the most subjective and important, is Strength. Most people, at first, do not understand that strength is the nicotine level. Since I mentioned that above, we’ll assume you know that! The next thing is, people often can only interpret strength when they begin feeling the effects of the nicotine. Nicotine in cigars can have quite the impact on the smoker. It can be as simple as a little buzz feeling, and there’s plenty of people that like that. Unfortunately, it can also make you clammy, nauseous, increase your heart rate, give you a heaviness in your chest, have to use the restroom, and even make you vomit. These symptoms are why I think it is important for people to understand strength levels and be better at describing them. 

Why is a cigar strong?

So why even have strong cigars? What’s the point? Well, as discussed in the Cigar Basics - Part 1: Seed to Factory, there are different primings of the tobacco plant that are useful for different things. The higher the priming, the higher the intensity of flavor, but also the higher the nicotine content. So ligero leaves in a blend provide tons of flavor, but a consequence of that is added nicotine, and thus a higher strength level. Different types of tobaccos also have different strength characteristics as well. Therefore, a seco leaf of one type of tobacco varietal could be stronger or milder than a seco leaf of another type of tobacco. Some cigars are blended to be strong because there is a consumer group that prefers that style of cigar. Other cigars are blended to showcase stronger tobaccos. Some cigars use higher priming tobaccos with the purpose of getting a particular flavor profile, and the increased strength is just a consequence.

How do you tell how strong a cigar is?

So besides getting sick or knowing the specific primings used in the blend, how can you determine strength? This answer to this question is like trying to tell someone how to taste flavors in a cigar. It’s hard because it is subjective. Everyone has a different tolerance for strength and interprets strength differently. So you have to determine your own levels and then base cigars off of that. Physical impacts, flavor notes or smoking experiences, and blend information will all help you determine strength levels.

A full strength cigar is the easiest to determine because you will know it is full strength. Physically you’ll likely experience one of the symptoms above. For me, the majority of cigars I call full will only give me mild symptoms such as clamminess or heaviness in the chest. There have been a few cigars, however, that have given me an increased heart rate and slight nausea, but these instances are quite rare and often not perfectly repeatable. Full strength cigars have some characteristics I watch out for when smoking as well. The overall smoking experience is typically “heavy” to me, in that the flavors are deep, the smoke is dense and coating, and the finish lingers. When you’re done with the cigar, you feel like your palate could use a break. As far as particular flavor notes, the common one is more aggressive peppers. If you retrohale, the pepper has potency and a bit of a stinging sensation to it. I also get more tannic notes from ligero leaves. In general, I find full strength cigars are often full in flavor and body as well. However, NOT all full flavor and body cigars are full in strength.

A medium strength cigar is what I would consider your average cigar and still relatively easy to identify. It is not uncommon for medium strength cigars to still be full in flavor and body. They also can have pepper, tannins, and an overall deep and heavy profile. The difference with cigars in this category is that they won’t typically give you any physical symptoms of strength. In terms of smoking experience, though the experience can be “heavy”, your palate will not typically be as burnt out, given an equal burn and performance. Any pepper notes should be smoothed out a bit overall and should not have as intense of a sting on the retrohale. I would say the majority of cigars in the market fall in the medium strength range. 

A mild strength cigar is easy to identify when both flavor and body are mild as well. However, it is harder to identify a true mild strength cigar that has more flavor and body. I’ve also heard many blenders remark that it is more difficult to blend a good mild cigar with higher levels of flavor. With a mild strength cigar, you will not experience any physical effects of nicotine. Assuming the cigar burns and performs as it should, your palate will likely not suffer from any fatigue. If you get pepper in the cigar, it is going to likely be purely in taste not in sensation. The retrohale is going to be easy going. As much as I hate the use of the word, these cigars are what people would call “smooth”. 

Tips for smoking above your strength threshold.

If you find yourself in a position where you are smoking a cigar that is stronger than you are typically comfortable with, there are a few things you can do. First, don’t go into the cigar on an empty stomach. I won’t get into all the science, but nicotine is a stimulant and much like coffee on an empty stomach, the effects will be more noticeable. Next, slow down your smoking. This helps in a couple ways. This slows the rate in which nicotine enters your system, which will aid in avoiding unwanted nicotine side effects. Smoking faster also makes the cigar burn hotter which makes the smoke more potent, harsh, and exhausting to the palate. So if you find you don’t like strong cigars because they seem harsh or burn out your palate before you are close to being done, slowing down your smoke rate may help. Lastly, either pair the cigar with a food or drink that has sugar, or keep them handy if you begin feeling the negative effects of the nicotine. Again, without getting into the science, nicotine plays tricks on the body and sugar helps combat these bad symptoms. 

Feel free to reach out to me with questions, concerns, criticisms, or just to talk at @guitarsandcigarsfarm on Instagram, or through my website, www.guitarsandcigarsfarm.com.

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