After a brief hiatus Ask halfwheel is back and with one of the most frequently asked, as well as controversial questions, we get asked on a regular basis: how do you taste _____ flavor in cigars?
Reader Joel commented in a review of mine:
Chocolate milk to spoiled milk? Plus ketchup? I have never heard these words in a review. 1 question do you have any sort of palate cleansing during this or just a cigar? I wonder as i try hard to find half of the flavors of many reviews and have been a cigar smoker for 18 years.
Its a question that we’ve been asked before—albeit never part of the formalized Ask halfwheel segment—and it’s one that I routinely get asked in person: how do you taste all these (weird) flavors in cigars? Charred chicken skin, Japanese gummy candy, honey sickle and pencil lead—those are just some of the more interesting flavors we’ve written about finding in cigars over the years.
They are not foreign, extraterrestrial flavors—yet, they also aren’t things you are going to see an ad from a cigar company. So, how did we find a hop flavor in a cigar and how can we help your next cigar taste like soy sauce.
I could inevitably write a book about this, so I will try my best to keep the following concise and logical—or at least segmented. In very short terms, we can taste all the weird flavors because we try our best to taste them, a combination of using taste receptors most do not use and focusing intensely on what flavors we are detecting beyond a generic tobacco taste place.
IT’S A MIND GAME
The best and worst place to better taste more flavors in cigars is when smoking the same cigar with other people.
If you are sitting around talking about what flavors each person finds what inevitably happens is someone suggests that they can taste a flavor like chocolate, for example, and two to three puffs later, you are suddenly able to find chocolate. Is it that you actually are now able to chocolate—that’s unclear; but whatever the case, you went searching to find chocolate somewhere in the smoke and more often than not you can return a false positive once the search for a specific flavor begins.
So it’s great because you can hear about all the possible flavors other people are finding, but for just about every other reason (explained below)—it’s the worse.
To answer Joel’s question about palate cleansing. I try to do as little as possible. Reviewing cigars is very much a ritual and mine includes bringing a cold glass of water outside, though I oftentimes don’t drink anything and rarely have more than a few ounces of water.
I remember watching a video back in the day where Cigar Aficionado broke down how it went about its review process. Whatever one might think about what the magazine does, I learned one really important piece of advice that I try my best to follow to do this day: consistency.
In that video, the magazine argued the importance about trying to review, or taste cigars as they say, in the same place and at roughly the same time each day. And that’s what I try to do. I almost exclusively review cigars on my patio and roughly 75 percent of the time it’s done late at night. The one exception I make is during mid-afternoons on weekends.
The reason I choose these times is because it’s generally the slowest time of the day for me, so it means that I have the least amount of distractions.
In addition, I prefer reviewing cigars outside because I feel like there’s less interference from any lingering smells or third party smoke from others at the cigar shop.
And perhaps most importantly, I try to review alone so that I can focus as much as possible on the cigar. That’s crucial because tasting these flavors is not something that’s particularly easy to do. It’s not something I can do when I am in conversation with people.
For me, I need to deliberately focus, sometimes even tricking my brain into thinking that I am not so much tasting a cigar, but tasting smoke that contains a deep sea of textures and flavors. As it turns out, your brain is as important for tasting as your taste buds. The taste buds are there to identify a sensation and its intensity, it’s your brain’s job to determine what the unique combination—provided by thousands of taste receptors each relaying a unique level of favor intensity—actually is.
The basic science goes something like this. Your tongue can taste five basic flavors: bitter, salty, sour, sweet and savory/umami. There’s also spicy, which is not actually a flavor, it’s actually just a pain level on your tongue. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, your tongue can taste these flavors all throughout the tongue. There’s a common myth that only certain geographic regions of your tongue can taste specific flavors.
(image via the NIH)
While it’s not true that the back of your mouth cannot taste sour, it is true that not all taste receptors can detect all flavors. Adults have 2,000-4,000 taste buds, each contain 10-50 sensory cells, which are the actual receptors that detect flavor. About half of the sensory cells can taste all five basic flavors, but the other half can only taste a single flavor.
The thousands of sensory cells send signals to your brain that reveal the intensity levels of what’s going on in the mouth. Your brain combines the flavor intensity levels with other data, such as texture, temperature and smell. The latter of which might be the most important part. There are another 350-400 receptors in your nasal cavity that are specifically designed for taste.
They are separated off from the receptors at the front of the nose that you would use to normally smell things and rather work—along with the taste buds in your mouth—to help give your brain the most complete picture of what’s going on in your mouth.
National Geographic describes an easy way to just understand how important these receptors are:
If you pinch your nose shut and chew, say, an anonymous-looking white jelly bean, your tongue will register immediately that it’s sweet. That sweetness comes from sugar, and it’s the jelly bean’s primary taste. Let go of your nose, though, and you’ll immediately perceive the flavor: Ah, vanilla. Conversely, if you pinch your nose shut and put a drop of vanilla on your tongue, you won’t taste anything, because vanilla has no taste—only a flavor you can’t detect with a pinched nose.
These receptors are located in a specific place that they detect flavors that are leaving the back of your mouth and they are substantially better at identifying the detailed levels of flavors than most the receptors in your mouth.
IF YOU AREN’T RETROHALING…
And that leads to this very simple fact, if you aren’t retrohaling, you aren’t tasting most of a cigar. Retrohaling is the process of allowing smoke to enter through the mouth and then pushing it upwards through the nasal cavity—across the aforementioned odor receptors—and then out through your nose.
David “Doc” Diaz of Stogie Fresh, who actually came up with the term, produced this video showing you how to do it:
Only a small minutia of cigar smokers, less than 1 percent, actually retrohale. Even a large segment of the cigar industry doesn’t retrohale and the results when even longtime smokers start retrohaling can be “huge.”
IT MAY NOT BE YOUR FAULT
Even if you are smoking alone, trying to find flavors and retrohaling—it may not be your fault.
About 25 percent of the population is known as what’s called a super-taster.
Those individuals have roughly double the amount of papillae—the small dots on your tongue that contain the taste buds and sensory cells—than the average person. As such, these supertasters are more sensitive to certain flavors, particularly bitter ones, and have an easier time tasting than others.
On the other side of the spectrum, 25 percent of the population are described as non-tasters, people with reduced amounts of papillae and as such a reduced sensitive to taste compared to most people. Some random facts about said tasters:
- Women are more likely to be super-tasters than men.
- Super-tasters have increased sodium intakes compared to other groups; generally do not like spicy foods or certain types of vegetables—the latter because they are bitter—though they do have lower body mass index (BMI).
- Non-tasters like food with higher fat content, higher amounts of sweeter foods and have a higher rate of alcoholism.
Finally, super-tasters are less likely to smoke, though it’s unclear if the Harvard study separated cigar and cigarettes smoking.
Even if you are a super-taster, at age 60 your taste buds begin to decline, which can also affect your ability to taste.
Furthermore, it’s very hard to taste things when you cannot see them. While the bands might still be on a cigar, tasting flavors in cigars, wine, cheese, coffee—just about anything is not as easy as it sounds.
Visual sight is a very important part of how we determine taste, which the more and more I read about it seems to come down to a glorified guessing game. If you need an example of how hard it is, trying replicating this some time.
ABOUT THE MEMORIES
Science class is over, sort of.
As for how I taste these bizarre flavors, it’s important to understand that I am not tasting literal lemon in a cigar. Rather, I am tasting certain things that reminds me of lemon. That’s why all the above science is so important—in the end, the taste of chocolate is ultimately just a unique combination of intensity levels in your mouth and nose. It’s also why you oftentimes read us get very specific about what type of chocolate we recognize, or even when we were interacting with that chocolate—it’s because ultimately what we are tasting in the cigars is something that brings back a memory.
I find smoking alone to also be important because I have to trick my brain—or perhaps my whole tasting system—to ignore the fact that I am smoking a cigar when reviewing. I have to specifically look past the generic tobacco flavors in order to get there and that requires a lot of focus.
It’s also important to understand that many of the flavors we taste in cigars are flavors that we’ve never actually tasted in our mouth. You see reviews mentioning dirt, rocks, leather, pencil lead, gasoline or even more concerning, manure—and you might wonder how we know what those things taste like. We don’t, at least I hope not.
We know what manure smells like and what we are trying to relay that the flavor that we are detecting—usually by retrohaling—is similar to that of the smell of manure or pencil lead.
WHAT CIGARS SHOULD TASTE LIKE
So, how on earth did I taste spoiled chocolate milk in that cigar. The answer—because no one told me I couldn’t.
Without question, the biggest objection to believing what we taste in cigar reviews is because the flavors are deemed bizarre. It’s not that we are talking about tasting purple Sharpie ink, or at least most days, rather, we are talking largely about specific foods that are not commonly associated with cigars. And that’s the problem.
People have been told for years cigars can taste earthy, sweet, spicy; they can have cedar, coffee, chocolate—maybe they are “earthy”—but “spoiled chocolate milk” never made the list. And yet, when you hear sommeliers describe wine or a YouTube fragrance reviewer you are likely to hear a plethora of flavors, some of which you need to look up online.
So people freak out when they hear about someone tasting Flintstone’s vitamins or charred chicken skin in a cigar. As is argued above, tasting unique flavors requires some work, but more than anything else, it requires an open mind. When you go to eat raw ingredients you have preconceived notions that severely limit down what you can actually taste because your brain is telling itself that it already knows what milk tastes like. It doesn’t need to go searching for flavors within its deep catalog of unique sensations, because it’s milk.
Somewhere along the way of life people discover that cheese can have notes of chocolate; chocolate can be as tart as coffee; coffee can have notes of wine—and wine can taste like a juice box.
Hopefully today you discovered cigars can taste like manure.