One of the most common questions cigar smokers ask is, “how do I develop my palate?” If you’re wondering, you’re in luck! There are a ton of things you can do to improve your flavor experiences with cigars. Here are some tips and tricks that you can use to improve the flavors you pick out of your smokes.
What are flavors in cigars?
When you read reviews, you might find yourself saying, “how in the world did this person taste chocolate, hay, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch from tobacco leaves?” The answer is that while some flavors are bold and unmistakable, other flavors come in subtle hints. If you haven’t trained your palate to detect those hints, you could miss them.
At this point, you might be thinking that all this cigar flavor tasting stuff is bullshit, and that since a lot of this has been debunked in the wine world, cigars might be in the same boat. I don’t know of any scientific studies on cigar tasting, but I have seen people smoke cigars blindly and consistently pick out what they are, or at least which country the tobacco came from. I’ve smoked cigars and compared notes with others, and consistently come up with similar flavors. There’s at least something to cigar tasting that isn’t complete crap. (The wine tasters might say the same thing, so take things with a grain of salt. Which is a flavor you might taste in a cigar.)
So if flavors can be subtle, and can seem more like hints or memories of a taste, it makes sense that you’ll need to build up a catalog of tastes and smells to compare to. That’s where we’ll go next.
- Focusing your attention on the flavors is the most important thing you can do to train your palate. Smoking a lot of cigars won’t help you pick out flavors if you don’t pay attention to what you’re tasting. When I smoke with friends, I don’t pick up as many subtleties as I do if I smoke alone for a review. If I switch my attention to the cigar, a couple puffs with focused attention will help me pick out the more subtle flavors.
- You’ll taste more from the first cigar of the day than you will from later cigars. If you’re writing a review, it should be of the first cigar of the day. To taste the most flavors, focus on that first daily cigar to train your palate.
- To get the most accurate picture of what a cigar tastes like, pair with water. Another pairing can be enjoyable – it can enhance certain tastes and mask others. If you’re looking to understand exactly what that cigar tastes like, though, water is your best bet.
- Taste and smell everything, all the time. Know the smell of freshly-cut grass? If that appeared in a cigar, I best most of us could pick it out. We all have that experience. If you want to develop your palate, increase your catalog of flavor and smell experiences. Take the time to really savor the food you eat. Have a spice rack? Go smell everything in there. Give each spice a little taste. Do it often enough that you can pick out which spice is which sight-unseen. Then do this with everything you come across! Building up the catalog of tastes and smells, being able to tell them apart, and being able to describe them are all essential to tasting the flavors in your smoke.
While You Smoke
- Smoke slowly. If you smoke too quickly, the tasty and interesting notes will be replaced with harsh and bitter notes. You’ll miss things. Have a hard time taking 1-2 puffs per minute? Set a timer on your phone if you need to, at least to start. Spend the time you’re waiting contemplating the flavors of what you’re smoking. It will be time well spent.
- At first, and ongoing if you’d like, sit down with a flavor wheel when you smoke. I like this one at Cigar Inspector. The flavor wheel includes many common (and some uncommon) things you might taste. Pick a spot to start on the wheel. As you smoke, ask yourself, “do I taste anything like this flavor right now?” If not, move on to the next flavor. If so, try to pinpoint as much information as you can about it. Then move on to the next flavor. Continue around the wheel as you smoke. This provides excellent focus and helps get you started.
- Know that some flavors are easier to pick out than others. Most people can taste easy-to-find notes like chocolate, coffee, earth, and pepper. Note those and move on – it’s good to know they’re there. But they’re not taxing your abilities to identify things. Look deeper than those flavors when they’re mostly what you taste.
- Unsure if you are picking out a certain flavor? Head over to that spice cabinet and see if you can pinpoint what it is you’re tasting. Dave here at CigarNoise uses a “review buddy” – a box of things that you might taste in a cigar that sits with him while he smokes. Not sure what that flavor is? Check out the options in the review buddy to see if you can nail it down.
- Learn to retrohale. Retrohaling is moving some of the smoke from the back of your mouth out of your nose. Some flavors will only be present on the retrohale. There are a lot of good articles and videos about how to do it well – check one out and give it a try. Start with a very mild cigar the first time you do it and build up in strength.
- Pay attention to the smoke at different times during the puff. Right when it hits your tongue, it might have one flavor. After it lingers a bit, it might taste like something else. As the flavor changes in your mouth, focus on what that change is like and what the different flavors are throughout.
- Write a review. It’s a good way to keep your focus on the cigar, and it lets others chime in with their thoughts too.
- Smoke the same cigar with someone else who has a more developed palate. They can point out flavors as you smoke together. Virtual herfs would be great for this if you don’t have cigar-smoking friends who would do this with you.
- Read reviews. I wrote this last on purpose. Pick out all the flavors you can first. Then compare to what someone else is saying. They might be able to help you pick out some of the nuances. But if you take a shot first, you’ll learn more and be less biased in your hunt for flavors.
- Smoke blind sometimes. Removing the band can remove some bias. Of course I think this Drew Estate stick is earthy. Obviously this Tatuaje has pepper in it. Take off the band and it’s a whole new ballgame. Have a friend you trust send you some cigars with numbered bands instead of the real bands. See if you can determine which cigar it is. You might be surprised with the results. It might also break down some of your biases.
- Smoke cigars made from a single type of tobacco that goes into a cigar blend, like Tobacconist University R&D Puro Components. There are others too – these are just an example.
It’s all about focusing on the flavors and building a knowledge base and vocabulary to identify them. The rest is ideas and details for how to do that.
Could I be completely full of it? Sure. But I bet if you try some of this stuff, you’ll get something valuable out of it and find that it was time well spent.