Smoking in Retro-spect: How and Why Retrohaling Works
by Rob Gray, Ph.D., with David "Doc" Diaz
Revised Sunday December 4, 2011
[Editor's Note: This article was first written in October 2007, but it wasn't until November 2007, in a subsequent article that we coined the term: "retrohale." This article has been revised to utilize the term more comprehensively and to more fully consider retrohaling within the context of cigar smoking.]
cigar smokers often remark that the flavors in a cigar change dramatically
when smoke is expelled through the nose instead of the normal practice
of releasing it through the mouth. The practice of expelling smoke
through the nose is called retrohaling.
Many people in the industry practice retrohaling and have even
gone so far as to say that, “Unless you have blown smoke out through
your nose while smoking a cigar, you have never really tasted the cigar.”
Does retrohaling really change the flavors you experience while smoking
a cigar and if so, how and why?
As we consider the topic of retrohaling, we want to re-emphasize that cigar smoking should not involve inhaling smoke into the lungs. This is an unhealthy practice and one that may more readily predispose a person to nicotine addiction.
The term retrohale is a contraction of two terms: retronasal olfaction and exhale (retro-hale). When we created this term we believed that using the terms "exhale" or "exhale through the nose," were both confusing and inaccurate. Exhaling is the opposite of inhaling and, since we do not recommend inhaling cigar smoke, we don't employ the terms "exhaling" or "exhaling through the nose," but instead have chosen a more accurate term: retrohale. Retrohaling bypasses the lungs completely and channels the smoke from the mouth out through the nose.
Below: The two primary routes of olfactory
gustatory stimulation are illustrated
To answer the question of how retrohaling affects our experience of smoking a cigar we must first look at the basic sensations produced during cigar smoking. When one takes a draw on a cigar two primary senses will be stimulated: gustation (taste) and olfaction (smell). These two senses combine to produce “flavor.” The sense of touch is also stimulated while smoking, either by the texture of the smoke (i.e., “mouth feel”) and/or via pain receptors in the mouth and nasal cavity (we will save that discussion for a future article).
to the sensations that arise from the stimulation of taste buds and
taste receptor cells found on the tongue and throughout the mouth. Olfaction refers
to the sensation that arises from the stimulation of olfactory neurons located
in the nose, specifically the olfactory bulb (shown in yellow in the
figure). Particles in the air can reach the olfactory bulb through
two different pathways: orthonasal and retronasal olfaction.
olfaction refers to sensations from aromas traveling
through the nostrils, to the olfactory bulb. This is what we typically
mean by “smelling." Retronasal
olfaction refers to sensations that arise from aromas that
travel in through the "back door,” or through the back of the
throat into the nasal cavity. The primary purpose of retronasal olfaction is
to act as a last minute warning system in case you are about to swallow
something harmful, but smokers have exploited a little known secret,
in the form of retrohaling, that fully engages the olfactory senses.
As illustrated by the thin line in the figure above, normally the number of aroma particles reaching the olfactory bulb via retronasal olfaction is much smaller than the amount via orthonasal olfaction and in many cases there may be no molecules transmitted at all. Aroma particles transmitted through retronasal olfaction have a smaller channel to move through and must travel a greater distance (which increases the likelihood they will dissipate before reaching the olfactory nerves). However, by channeling the smoke up through the nasal cavity and expelling it through the nose, the number of aroma particles reaching the olfactory nerves will be dramatically increased. The two different methods of expelling smoke are illustrated below.
Differences Between Orthonasal and Retronasal Olfaction
At this point a novice cigar smoker may be wondering, “Why should I put the effort into learning how to blow smoke out my nose when it just leads to the same effect (aroma particles hitting the olfactory neurons) as pulling the smoke in through my nose by sniffing”? In other words, aren’t orthonasal olfaction and retronasal olfaction just two different methods that have the same result? As it turns out there are several important differences between these two types of olfaction that could dramatically affect the overall flavor of a cigar.
First and foremost is the difference in the composition of the aroma particles that arrive at the olfactory receptors. When a cigar smoker takes in air via orthonasal olfaction (i.e., sniffing), he/she is taking in both the aroma particles in the cigar smoke and aroma particles from other objects in the surrounding environment. For example, by sniffing the air around them, they may take in smoke through their nose, but also the aroma particles from the cologne they are wearing, scents from flowers planted around a patio, or the body odors of other smokers. Conversely, during retrohaling only the aroma molecules drawn into the mouth in the cigar smoke reach the olfactory receptors. Thus, retrohaling can be thought of as a more pure form of olfaction.
A second difference is that the two types of olfaction create a different perceived location or source of where the olfactory stimulation has come from. In laboratory experiments it is possible to isolate the two different types of olfaction by using tubes placed in the mouth and nasal cavity with an endoscope. Using this device, aroma particles can be sent into the nasal cavity either through the nose or the throat. Results from these experiments show that orthonasal olfaction triggers the perception that the source of the smell is located in the outside environment whereas retronasal olfaction causes the perception that the particles causing the aroma are in the mouth. Since we more readily combine our perceptions of retronasal aromas with our sense of taste, sensations produced by retrohaling are often believed to be a part of taste. For example, when we say a food tastes “spicy” or “fruity” these are not actually sensations that can be detected by our taste buds (which are only sensitive to sweet, sour, salty, and bitter), but are more likely the sensations we get from retronasal olfaction (or specific pain receptors). In terms of cigar smoking this would suggest that when an aroma triggers the sensation of “leather” it is more likely to be treated as part of the flavor of the cigar (as opposed to some object in the smoking environment like a leather chair) when it is sensed retronasally. This is likely another reason why cigar smokers report that certain flavors are intensified when the smoke is expelled through the nose.
A final reason to promote retrohaling over sniffing smoke, is that
when you sniff smoke from the ambient environment, it is nearly impossible
to keep it out of your lungs. So, besides experiencing a more pure
form of olfaction through retrohaling, you can also benefit without
needing to inhalake the smoke.
How to Retrohale
This article would not be complete without a discussion of how to improve your smoking experience through retrohaling. To retrohale cigar smoke you first need to draw the smoke into your mouth, then close your mouth. At this point you have the smoke in your mouth and are holding your breath. To retrohale the smoke, just open your throat and let the pressure in your lungs force the smoke out through your nose. Use your diaphram muscle to help you channel the air through your nasal passage.
Pretend you are holding your breath underwater and you want to let air out of your lungs slowy without inhaling. You simply allow the pressure in your lungs to push air out of your lungs through your nose. Developing this technique usually takes a bit of practice. In the beginning, until you get the hang of it, it may help if you blow out most of the smoke from your mouth (70-80%) before closing your mouth and attempting to open up the back of your throat to retrohale the remaining smoke.
Just like those “secret men’s clubs” you see in movies where the bouncer slides open the window and asks for the secret password, cigar smoking has a secret “back door” only available to the initiated: retrohaling. And once this door is opened the joint is jumping inside! Retrohaling can open up a whole new world of pleasurable flavors and aromas to the cigar smoker that are far more intense and rich. So, if you haven’t found it yet, keep looking for cigar smoking’s secret back entrance: a straight shot of flavor is waiting on the bar for you!
Halpern, B. P. (2004). Retronasal and orthonasal smelling. ChemoSense,
Small, D.M., Gerber, J. C., Mak, Y. E., Hummel T (2005). Differential neural responses evoked by orthonasal versus retronasal odorant perception in humans. Neuron, 47, 593-605.
About the Author
Rob Gray is an educator, researcher and writer. Rob conducts research in Human Factors Psychology at University of Birmingham, England.
David "Doc" Diaz is the publisher and the editor of the Stogie Fresh Cigar Publications. He has served as an educator, researcher and writer and has taught in the Health Education and Health Science field for over 30 years. He possesses an earned doctorate from Nova Southeastern University. Doc is a Certified Master Tobacconist (CMT), having received this certification from the Tobacconist University and is a member and Ambassador of Cigar Rights of America (CRA).blog comments powered by Disqus