An occasional recital of personal observations, rants and recommendations from the host of Cigars One To One and DogWatch Cigar Radio. Bob is a Certified Master Tobacconist, Cigar Rights of America Ambassador, storyteller and curmudgean at large.
We get a lot of questions here at CigarMedia that involve taste.
How do I improve my palate?
How do I learn to taste all those wonderful flavors you guys talk about?
I never taste marzipan, why is that?
So I thought I would take minute to talk about taste and cigars. Tobacconist University has some additional information about taste that you may want to take advantage of.
First lets understand what taste is when it comes to something like cigars.
Perceiving a cigar involves more than just our sense of taste, it also involves our sense of smell, sight, touch and in some cases hearing. If you hear crackling beetles it can affect your enjoyment or perception of the cigar. Smell or aroma is the close ally of taste, if you have ever tried retrohaling a cigar, you know how it can cause even more flavors to be exposed to your palate.
Aristotle proposed in 350 BC that the two most basic tastes were sweet and bitter. His efforts were on of the first to document the human tastes. As of the early twentieth century, physiologists and psychologists believed there were four basic tastes: bitterness, saltiness, sourness, and sweetness. At that time umami was not recognized as the fifth taste. Asian, Indian and Chinese influences resulted in the recognition of umami or savory as a sixth sense. Since the 1950s, metallic has been considered a seventh taste, as it cannot be achieved by any combination of the other tastes.
Flavor is determined by the seven components salty, sweet, sour, bitter, spicey, metallic and umami. It is the particular combination of these components that create a particular flavor like caramel or pepper.
Your recognition of flavors is dependent on your experiences. You cannot recognize a flavor that you have never experienced, you can perceive it but may not be able to put a name to it. Thats OK and we will talk about how to expand your perception of flavors a little later.
One of often overlooked factors of taste is pH.
Cigars are alkaline, cigarettes are acidic. Your mouth is neutral, when at rest. As you consume various products, the pH of your mouth will vary and the pH of your mouth will affect your ability to perceive the flavors in a cigar.
Taste is the sensation produced when a substance in the mouth reacts chemically with receptors or taste buds. pH affects this chemical reaction.
For instance, if you start with a mouth that is more acidic (think lemon juice), then adding the alkaline characteristics of cigar smoke will move your palate towards neutral but will likely mask many of the flavors in the cigar. If you start with a mouth that is alkaline (think baking soda) then you may experience enhanced or sharper flavors as the alkalinity increases from the cigar smoke. Luckily, your mouth always works to get back to neutral but you can help it out.
Before you begin a cigar, consider where your mouth has been. Have you been eating spicy food (acidic) or drinking acidic drinks like coffee or cola? If so, consider drinking something neutral (water) or slightly alkaline (milk) to help move your palate towards neutral. If you have been eating ice cream, consider adding a slight bit of acidity to help your palate. Sourness is considered the measure of acidity while salt is the closest cousin for alkalinity.
But how do you maintain your palate while smoking a cigar? Well that answer comes in two parts and depends. If you are trying to review a cigar and extract all the flavors possible in the experience, then consider drinking water (I like sparkling water best), raw almond slivers or a little bit of lemon sorbet as you move through the tasting process. These will help your palate recover more quickly and maintain a neutral pH balance.
However, if you are just looking to enjoy the cigar and not create a standard of taste, you may find that you enjoy other types of palate cleansers and this can vary by cigar. Some cigars that are more alkaline in their nature may be enhanced by pairing them with an acidic drink like coffee or tea while other cigars will pair better with neutral or even slightly alkaline drinks like water or milk. Pairing with alcohol involves these same decisions but a much wider variation in acidity and alkalinity.
The bottom line is, pair your cigars with whatever gives you the most enjoyment from the experience but if you find a particular cigar does not taste good with your usual drink, try changing up the pH!
By the way, the secret to surviving cigar trips, conventions or herfs is to drink lots of water while smoking. Sty hydrated and your pa;ate will survive much better.
Now, back to your palate and expanding your palate. My advice to anyone wanting to expand their palate is to look for those basic flavors of sweet, salt, spice, sour, bitter and umami before they try to identify the combinations. By the way, umami is also called savory, it is the most difficult flavor to explain. Savory flavors are often associated with things like steak, mushrooms and root vegetables. Sorry, thats the best I can do, you will know umami when you taste it.
So how do you learn to identify caramel, marzipan and all those other wonderful flavors cigar reviewers write about? Its easy really.
When ever you eat something, take a minute to identify the flavors and their sources. When you eat a mushroom, pay attention to it and try to keep your palate neutral as you do. Get a piece or two of caramel and really take the time to break it down on your palate. That is how you do it. Now some flavors will be evoked by a sense of smell as well. For instance we talk about the taste of fresh hay or leather. We don’t eat hay or leather , at least I don't, but we do recognize the aroma of these items and that can be triggered by retrohaling or just experiencing the room aroma of a cigar. If you have never experienced fresh cut hay or the aroma of straw, don’t expect to be able to identify those aromas/flavors. You may be able to connect them to something else in your experiences, a fresh cut lawn or the aroma of your favorite goulash. Whatever it is it is a valid descriptor because it relates to you and your experience.
I hope this helps explain a little about taste, pH and flavor perception.
Following is an exchange of emails between Abe Dababneh of Smoke Inn and Bob McDuffee concerning the recent Cigar Curmudgeon column on cigar events.
I am writing to you in response to your article depicting The Great Smoke Event. This year was our 6th Annual event with over 1200 attendees from over 16 states and over 2000 people present. Our event attendance has increased annually by 15% and has become one of the top cigar events nationally. You claim the event was a “Halloween” trick or treat style event that was very impersonal and does not do much good for the industry. After reading your article, I almost questioned if you actually had been there.
After speaking with you, it was as I assumed, you left the event early after obtaining your 40 cigars. Well that is the time when when the crowd is enjoying the activity of visiting each manufacturer at every booth and getting their cigars. Sure the traffic is moving and there is not much time to linger, but this is only for the first hour and a half or two hours of the event. Our event is four hours long for a reason. It is in those last two hours everyone takes the time to sit back enjoy their smokes and strike up deep conversations and share cocktails with their favorite manufacturers. These two final hours are the intimate social hours that your were looking for, but you decided to leave instead. Over the years, thousands (and I mean thousands) of cigar fans & aficionados have stopped me in my tracks during our event to tell me that they go to events like this across the country and that this is the best event they go to hands down. The fact there are many attendees who I only know through The Great Smoke and look forward to seeing every year is a statement about the relationships made at The Great Smoke.
You continue by questioning if there is any real value to the consumers or manufacturers with this type of event. Well, just today I was stopped by a group smoking outside my store to thank me for the event and pointed out the new smokes they were enjoying that they tried for the first time at The Great Smoke. Every year we experience a sales spike in 6-8 brands that had been flat and not selling well. Consumers had tried them for the first time and realized it was a cigar they enjoy. The Great Smoke gives consumers a great opportunity to try many cigars they otherwise wouldn’t consider at a great value.
As far as the manufacturers, no one knows more about events all across the country than they do. Almost all of them have personally expressed to me that our event is the one that they really look forward to doing every year. This is confirmed by the many ACTUAL principles who show up every year...not just a sales rep. This year’s TGS gave attendees the opportunity to mingle with the entire Padron Family including Jose O. Padron, Alan Rubin, Wayne Suarez, Ernesto Perez Carillo, Rocky Patel, Pete Johnson, George Rico, Charlie Torano, Matt Booth, Ernesto Padilla, Glen Case, Terrence Reilly, The Garcia Family, Erik Espinosa, Sathya Levin, Maria Martin, Jonathan Drew, Marvin Samel, Steve Saka, Nick Perdomo, Nestor Miranda and many more. I highly doubt there is an event in the country, other than our annual IPCPR convention, that has more cigar principles in one place at the same time. If you couldn’t find the time to talk with your favorite manufacturer AT THIS EVENT, then something is definitely wrong. These manufacturers and industry legends come year in an year out because they understand the value of the event, to everyone. Otherwise they wouldn’t support it.
I cordially invite you to attend the event again next year. Except this time instead of scurrying off after you nabbed your 40 cigars, stick around and smell the roses, talk to the attendees and see how the feel. Chat it up with the manufacturers. I doubt you will find anyone who feels like it’s Halloween.
Response from Bob ...
I deeply regret that you felt personally injured or insulted by my recent Curmudgeon
article about cigar events. I never intended to single you or your event out from other
events held across the nation each year. My perspective was that of an old man cigar
smoker who does not enjoy crowded parties of any type. I appreciate your response and
agree with many of your observations. I am certain that many people absolutely enjoy
events of this type and cigar manufacturers would not continue to support them unless they
felt they were effective. It is true I did not stay for the entire event nor did I attend
the after party. This may have changed my opinion but as an 'old guy', I was tired and
decided to return home. The article was intended only as my opinion of events in general
and published under the Cigar Curmudgeon section because it was intended to reflect a
curmudgeonly attitude. I hope you will allow us to publish your response as it will be
treated with respect and promoted as strongly as the original article. I have always
respected your retail operations and found the staff to be courteous, friendly and
professional in all cases. I have never made any negative comments regarding your retail
or on-line facilities and have recommended your facilities to many visitors over the
years. Your event was well planned and as near as I was aware, was executed flawlessly. I
am also aware that this event is one of many ways that you give back to charity.
Bob McDuffee, Certified Master Tobacconist
With all due respect, I can understand your “Curmudgeon” aspect of your article. The only problem is that the article was not so much “curmudgeonly” on the whole, but more of bashing The Great Smoke compared to the South Flo Tweet up.
I believe your article truly misrepresented The Great Smoke to any of your readers. Furthermore you went on to trivialize the event on a national scale and continued with suggesting how ineffective our event is for consumers and manufacturers. A harsh untruth. I was literally shocked to read your article. I wondered if you had been offended or mistreated at our event, but then I realized that had you been you would have mentioned something to us at the station the following week.
I thank you for your well reasoned response and invitation to return next year. I will attend next year with a plan to spend more time talking with attendees an manufacturers as well.
Recently Liz and I attended the Great Smoke, a magnificent event put on by Abe Dababneh and the crew at Smoke Inn. And although we did get to accumulate a massive amount of fine cigars, we did not get the opportunity to connect with manufacturers in the way that we did at the SoFlaTweetup also known as the Charmed Leaf Grand Opening Celebration in Delray Beach.
At the Great Smoke, Liz and walked away with an impressive amount of swag and cigars for our individual $150 ticket prices.
As the crowd moved from table to table, tickets were exchanged for cigars but few words besides “Thank you” and “You're welcome” were actually exchanged. Crowds milled about, jostling everyone and forcing the traffic flow to the will of the crowd. A band played classic rock and the smell of the gourmet buffet line food wafted through the hot Florida air.
The scene could have been playing out in a number of locations across the country, some at inside locations and others outside in tents, but the similarities are relentless.
Cigar lovers pay dearly for the opportunity to line up with their Trick-or-Treat tickets and receive the manna of free cigars from harried representatives. No time to chat about the art of the particular cigar or to express an opinion. Just move on to the next numbered slot, deposit ticket, open bag, receive free cigar.
Economically it is a good deal for the cigar consumer. The average price of the cigars received is usually in the $3 to $4 range, well below the actual price of the sticks. Additionally, there is the free food, music and a crowded form of camaraderie.
But is it good for the cigar industry? Do manufacturers and brand owners acquire new customers? Do consumers make lasting contacts with the people behind their favorite smokes?
And more importantly, do cigar smokers discover new and exciting cigars for the first time?
Contrast this type of "Halloween" event with what transpired at the Charmed Leaf Grand Opening Celebration recently in Del Ray Beach.
I Wish Every Cigar Event Could Be Like This One
The day began with Liz and me visiting the Kiss My Ash Radio Show where I was honored to participate in the Bloggers Corner. In our excitement we hit the road earlier than planned so we got to kill some time shopping at Gander Mountain Outdoor Store - can't say that I did not enjoy that.
We got to the studio where Matt Boothe of Room 101 Cigars was finishing up his segment and just hung out to watch the magic for a few minutes. My Bloggers Corner part was not long and I reviewed the Esencia Petite Corona while trading a few barbs with Abe. It was great fun.
Liz and I then packed up and headed south to Delray Beach for the great SoFlaTweetup, also known as the Charmed Leaf Grand Opening Celebration. Our tickets for this event cost $30 each.
As great as it was to be on a real radio show, this party was really the highlight of the day. I expected to meet a few brand owners/manufacturers. Instead, I made new friends and caught up with old friends.
Boutique manufacturers - I counted at least a dozen - gathered with perhaps three times as many cigar smokers to enjoy a day of conversation, cigars and genuine companionship.
Represented were some of my old friends such as Luis Sanchez (La Tradicion Cubana), Brad
Mayo (Jameson Cigars), Benny Gomez (Casa Gomez), Frank Herrera (La Caridad del Cobre), Barry Stein (Miami Cigar and Company) and people I had previously only met over the telephone like Lou Rodriquez (Lou Rodriquez Cigars), Dan Tiant (El Tiante Cigars/Tiant Cigar Group), Mel Fernandez (Canimao Cigars) and Jeff Groover (AJ Fernandez). And then there were the new friends I made such as Ron Andrews (Los Nietos Cigars), Andrei Iordachescu (Fabrica de Tabacos Santandres/Toro y Leon cigars) and Reynold Benitez of Benitez Cigars.
And I am sure I have missed someone, someone I will regret not naming. Not for commercial reasons but because each of them took time to talk about their cigars with each and every person at the event. As Liz and I were leaving, Jonathan Drew (Drew Estate) and Brian Chinnock (Chinnock Cellars Cigars) arrived and you felt the crowd become more energized with their addition.
It was not about free swag, not about how many cigars you could amass in a single afternoon. It was about the cigars and the people behind them. People with stories to tell of grandchildren, fathers, mothers and life lessons learned in a journey to become brand owners and manufacturers of art, of cigars.
At Charmed Leaf, we left having purchased over $400 worth of cigars in addition to our freebie bags of t-shirts, cigars and assorted memorabilia.
But more importantly, we left having made new friends and discovering new smokes. Many of these new smokes will be featured on upcoming DogWatch Cigar Radio episodes. We also made lasting connections with brand owners, factory owners and good cigar people.
I understand and appreciate the allure of events such as the Great Smoke, the massive amounts of cigars and the energy of the crowd. However, I would rather attend events like the one at Charmed Leaf where the personalization is the draw.
The following question was sent to Bob, Dale and Liz by Wes Molaski (Chatroom name: FragmagnetEOD). Liz's response appears after the question. Tune in to Episode #353 to hear Bob's and Dale's responses. By the way, you can join the chatroom during the live broadcast of DogWatch Cigar Radio most Fridays starting at 9 pm EST and talk to Bob, Dale, Liz and other listeners about cigar related topics.
Guess I should start off by saying that my wife and I are huge fans and that I have not found a show that I enjoy more than DogWatch. With that out of the way, I got a question that has been bugging that crap out of me and after listening to virtually every show I haven't heard it talked about on the show so here it goes.
My wife and I have recently taken up the hobby of cigars and after listening to the show and other cigar reviews we both give each other a puzzled look when the flavor notes that are stated start coming up. Flavors like cedar, oak fire place(Liz), earthy, pepper, etc.... My question is, how do you go about knowing what these things taste like? Do you walk around chewing on a piece of cedar, dirt or ashes from the fire place. Is it something to the affect of relating a smell to a specific taste or visa versa? We both are looking to further better our experience of smoking wonderful sticks. Any words of wisdom and guidance you can share would be greatly appreciated.
Here is Liz's response:
Hi Frag and Mrs. Frag!
I think this is a great question and I know that Bob and Dale will use it on the show. Here's my answer to your question. When I associate tobacco to a "flavor," I am referring not only to the actual taste of things, but also to aromas that I am familiar with and even to past experiences. I really like cigars that have a coffee, dark chocolate or cocoa taste and I associate those flavors with something that I have actually tasted before. (By the way, to me, spice or pepper flavors refer to the degree of how much they make my mouth sting -spicy: a little; peppery: a lot). Hay, grass and barnyard flavors really are tied to smells that I have experienced and now equate to a cigar taste. When I describe something as tasting like a fireplace, what I am describing is what I smelled in front of a roaring oak or pine log fire and when I say something tastes "woodsy," it is reminding me of camping trips with Bob and the smell of dried forest tree limbs on the campfire. In those cases, I am using the experience to describe the smell.
Smell and taste are just so inter-related that its hard to separate the two and certain experiences just seem to invoke a specific smell or taste so I find that I use all three -smell, taste and past experiences- to describe cigar flavors. It doesn't really matter to me if what I associate to describe a cigar flavor is not the same as Bob or Dale because we can only use our own senses and experiences to describe something. I find that it is important to have my own flavor associations so that I can remember what I liked or didn't like about smoking a cigar. Describing flavor is very personal because we are each unique individuals with vastly different experiences and we just have to do our best to describe what a cigar tastes like. I don't have a real discerning palate like Dale. It seems like he can break down a cigar's flavors like a watch repairer breaking down a watch. Bob's palate is more like mine with an emphasis on general description flavors such as sweet, bitter, and salty. Sometimes it's fun for Bob and I to smoke the same cigar and compare flavors. It's interesting because I am never sure if what I am tasting is the same as what Bob is tasting and we are just calling it different names; if he is getting a flavor that my taste buds are just too dull to get; or if I am just so much more discerning than he is. Sometimes we taste the same flavors and sometimes we don't, but we've learned each other's palate enough that we have a good idea of the type of cigars that the other will like (who am I kidding - Bob likes all cigars).
Another note on being able to put your own name to a cigar flavor - it will help you find new cigars that you might like. I tried using my descriptors to let a retailer know the type of cigar that I liked, but I ran into the same problem that I have with Bob. We use different words to describe the same flavor. Now I keep a little notebook and tape the cigar label and include my description and whether I liked it or not. When I go into a retailer, I can give him or her the names of cigars that I like and the retailer can find a cigar in that same flavor profile. Just recently I have started looking up the wrapper, binder and filler of the cigars that I smoke to see if there are certain types of tobacco that I like better than others. This will add another dimension to my quest for new cigars that I will like.
Just remember there are no wrong answers when you are describing what flavors you are tasting in a cigar even if someone else uses different words to describe it. I think it can be frustrating to hear someone describe a flavor and not have any idea what he or she means by it. The only real way to tell is to smoke the same cigar and see what YOU call the flavors. I am looking forward to hearing Bob and Dale's discussion on this.
Thanks again for writing Wes.
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