I am often asked how I use the terms, “body,” “flavor” and “strength” in my cigar reviews and also how I define those terms. Body, Flavor and Cigar Strength represent three different sensory inputs that I reference when smoking a cigar. As a cigar reviewer, I attempt to describe a cigar’s characteristics and I use these three terms separately to refer to different aspects of the experience of smoking a premium cigar. Below, I will describe why and how I’ve come to my definitions.
Any reference to “body” must include a description of the cigar’s impact on the palate and nasal mucosa. We experience “body” through the effect the tobacco components have on the touch and taste receptors in our mouth and nose. But when we describe those sensations, we do so using metaphors like, “texture,” “richness,” “weight,” and overall “mouth feel.”
I rate the magnitude of a cigar’s body as light, light-to-medium, medium, medium-full or full. A full-bodied cigar will feel heavy in the mouth and nose while a very light bodied cigar will feel the opposite. The greater the “impact” one feels in the mouth and nose, the greater the body of the cigar.
To our senses, the tobacco may feel thick and honeylike, or it may prickle the tongue or the inside of the nose when retrohaled. It may also present as viscous, dry or harsh.
You will note that I include the nose as an organ that helps us to determine “body” in a cigar. More specifically I am referring to the retronasal olftactory system and the mucus membrane in the nose. I mention these because many cigar smokers will “retrohale” cigar smoke, which will have a great impact, not only on the experience of “flavor,” but also on the experience of “body.” The same components that present as “full” or “heavy” on the palate, will also present that way on the nasal mucosa when you retrohale cigar smoke. If you don’t believe that, try crushing a hot pepper under your finger and stick it in your nose. Okay, don’t do that, but you get the idea. The mucus membrane in your nose will pick up on the weight, feel and texture of whatever passes over it.
Not only is pepper perceived as hot or spicy to the membranes in our mouth and nose, but the smell associated with that pepper will give sensory data about the spicy feeling it will elicit even before we eat it. Try cutting a lemon and sticking it up to your nose for a whiff. This will not only give you a clear indication that its taste will be sour, but it may start your salivary glands working overtime in preparation for the puckering stimulus.
After you gargle with a mouthwash, you may sense the same chemical mint coolness on your nasal mucosa that you experience on your palate. This is because the molecules that stimulate olfactory receptors are still floating around in your mouth and often proceed up through your internal nasal passage and stimulate the neurons located in the olfactory bulb.
A working definition of “flavor” within the context of our discussion is: “The distinctive taste of a cigar when smoked. A cigar’s flavor can be discussed in two forms: distinctive taste and magnitude.
The magnitude of a cigar’s flavor can be rated as light, light-to-medium, medium, medium-full or full. It boils down to the intensity of one’s perception of the flavor. If a cigar displays weak flavors or just slight nuances of a flavor, then it would be rated as a light-flavored cigar. Conversely, if the intensity and clarity of flavors are bright, pronounced and focused, then it could be rated as medium-full or even full-flavored.
We perceive the distinctive taste of a cigar through our senses of taste and smell. In part, our ability to detect flavor is a result of the density of the taste buds on the surface of the tongue. Each of us has a different number of taste buds and about 25% of the population have an abnormally large number of taste buds and have been dubbed “super-tasters.”
Just as different tastes are sensed on different parts of the tongue, so different smells and textures are distinguished in different areas of the nasal mucosa. There are about 1,000 different types of nasal receptor proteins, which are sensitive to different odors or aromas.
The taste receptors in the mouth pick up basically 4 types of tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. When we use descriptors like bitter, sweet and salty, these descriptions are the result of the chemical constituents in the tobacco influencing the taste receptors on different parts of the tongue.
But when one describes other flavors like alfalfa, cedar, cinnamon, barnyard or coffee, these reflect complex interactions between the senses of taste and smell and any memories of experiences with these items in the past. Not only must we detect flavor and odor molecules on our taste buds and olfactory receptors, but we must then associate that input with a flavor memory and verbalize that flavor.
The bottom line is that, it takes both taste and olfactory senses to distinguish flavors. You can’t really separate the senses of taste and smell because both are active when we identify and describe flavors.
I used to make fun of people who could taste all kinds of outlandish flavors in cigars. But after having studied the field of sensory perception and after having smoked many cigars to determine the flavors in them, I realize that it is possible to TRAIN one’s senses to recognize and describe flavors. People who are trained to identify flavors and aromas (e.g., wine experts or coffee experts) are not necessarily any more sensitive with their palate or nose, but in many cases are just better at retrieving names of tastes and smells from memory. Like anything else, one becomes better with practice.
We experience the “strength” of a smoke through our internal senses in the same way we experience the effects of drugs and alcohol. When one smokes a strong cigar, he or she will feel the effects of the nicotine. These effects may be exhibited through an increase in respiratory rate, or the dilation of blood vessels (to become flushed). One may feel the “strength” of a cigar in the gut or esophagus as a result of gastric reactions to the tobacco. Or the sensations may feel it in the head as a woozy feeling or light-headedness. Strength is related to the overall experience of the effects of the tobacco and how strong those effects become.
The magnitude of a cigar’s strength can be rated as light, light-to-medium, medium, medium-full or full.
If you want to improve your ability to identify and label flavor, body and strength, you will need practice. I have developed a flavor chart to help people think about the kinds of flavors they experience when smoking a cigar.
If you think you note a flavor that is sweet, woody or chemically, look more carefully at those sections of the chart and see if you can’t narrow down the flavor to something more specific. If you use this chart consistently, I truly believe you will become more adept at labeling the flavors in your cigars.
To summarize… Body is the weight, texture or feel of the constituents of tobacco on the palate and nasal mucosa. Think of it as the “impact” that is perceived on your palate and in your nose. These sensations that are produced in the mouth and nose can be either more or less prominent, representing fuller or lighter body.
The experience of Flavor utilizes the senses of taste and smell and the extent to which one can recognize and describe the flavors is a result of the number and type of sensory sensory organs that are possessed. But, flavor identification also requires practice and it is possible to train to enhance one’s ability to verbalize the flavors in a cigar.
Strength is the reaction of one’s internal biochemical receptors to the components in a cigar, especially the active chemical compounds like nicotine. Nicotine and other chemical compounds will cause physiological effects like sweating, respiratory changes and increased heart rate. It is not uncommon to “feel” the strength of the tobacco in your gut, or in your head as either gastric reactions or a feeling of wooziness or lightheadedness.
Some More Interesting Reading on Cigar Strength, Flavor and Body