I’ve found that when I’m discussing cigar reviews and the flavor descriptions one of the first things to come up is the argument as to whether cigars actually have any flavors other than tobacco. Some think that tasting flavors other than tobacco in cigars is a load of crap and that those who claim they can are snobs, liars or delusional, or more likely all three.
Over the years I’ve certainly been accused of all three. In defense I’d like to point out that I’ve read quite a few reviews on various forums from the no-flavor camp that contain descriptions like “great flavor”, “creamy”, “sweet”, “bitter”, “grassy”, “dirty”, etc. So while they might not be able to describe specific flavors, it would seem to me that there’s a lot of self-incriminating evidence that the no-flavor folks do taste something besides “just tobacco”.
I do think that most of this controversy has been caused by what I call the “over-the-top” review. These reviews read like a sweeping romance novel combined with an exercise in Roget’s Thesaurus: “…nuances of fresh-mowed red heather lightly intertwined with deep Bavarian forest and 7 year old burnt Madagascar vanilla”. Stop it! Please! I really don’t know how various heathers taste, or most other ground cover for that matter. How about using something a bit less obtuse like grassy or vegetal? Like most people I’ve never been to Bavaria, and I doubt the author has either. I don’t even know where to get 7 year old Madagascar vanilla, and if I did I sure as hell wouldn’t burn it – it sounds expensive.
I don’t think there’s any question that reviews like these are more an attempt to impress than communicate. I think the author has read too many “wine snob” reviews and has mistakenly concluded that this style shows good breeding and taste. I don’t think so. Personally, I like reviews that use descriptions I’m familiar with, and that’s what I try to use.
To me, flavors divide into two different categories. For lack of any better terminology I call them “direct tastes” and “smell-tastes”. Now, before you think I’ve gone whack, let me explain.
Direct tastes are flavors that we pretty much taste on a regular basis. Like coffee, cocoa or molasses. Most people are familiar with those flavors. Smell-tastes are flavors that remind us of things we don’t typically eat but are familiar odors – leather, cedar or grass. No, I’ve never eaten leather except to pull apart a leather know with my teeth, but I really know what leather smells like. And while I’ve tasted grass on occasion, I’m really more familiar with the smell of fresh mowed grass.
Most of the time when I’m describing a flavor in a cigar, I’m drawing an analogy. I don’t really taste grass, I taste a “green” and vegetal flavor that reminds me of the way grass smells. And a sweet note can remind me of molasses or sugar or honey. But sometimes the flavor is so distinct that it really does taste like the description I’m using – Juan Lopez cigars really do have a heavy dark espresso flavor.
Here are some of the flavors I use, hopefully others will add to the list and descriptions:
Black Pepper – a hot spicy note.
Cardamom – a sweet spice used in apple pie, has a very aromatic, floral taste.
Cinnamon – a taste similar to hot cinnamon candy, typical in cammies.
Coffee – a taste like coffee, sometimes very strong (espresso) or bitter.
Cocoa – a taste like hot cocoa or chocolate, if sweet I’ll tend to use chocolate.
Cream – a light vanilla and cream note usually with a really oily texture to the smoke.
Cumin – an earthy spice used in Mexican food, one of the base flavors of chili.
Dark – denotes deep, heavy flavors as in dark chocolate or dark coffee, or dark tobacco.
Fruity – a sweet fruity note, often like a port or cognac note.
Herbal – tastes like a mixture of parsley, rosemary, basil, sage. A “green” note, but pleasing.
Lemon oil – tastes like sweet lemon oil used for cake icing, also called “citrus”.
Honey – a heavy sweet & floral taste like honey
Hot or Red Pepper – a really hot spicy note.
Metallic or Tinny – a tinny or brassy taste, I don’t like this.
Mint – a minty note, I don’t particularly like this either.
Molasses – a dark sweet flavor like molasses.
Nutty – an oily nutty taste like walnuts, macadamia, or peanut. Padron Anni’s, esp. the natty , have a distinct coconut/macadamia flavor.
Oil – an oily taste and texture, usually neutral like corn or canola oil.
Salty – a salty note.
Sour – a light sour note, a tang like dry white wine
Sweet Spices – a taste like a combo of cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, allspice. Depending on the balance I’ll also use “pumpkin pie spice”. Really noticeable in cuban Partagas.
Toasty – a taste like toasted white bread.
Tobacco – a tobacco taste, can be light and toasty like Dominican or sweet and dark like Nicaraguan.
Cedar – tastes like cedar smells, an aromatic, sweet and woody note.
Earthy – a taste like dark wet loam smells, a dark damp forest-smell taste.
Flinty – a slightly metallic and stony taste, I don’t typically use it.
Floral – a light sweet floral note like spring flowers.
Grassy – a taste like fresh mowed grass.
Leather – a taste like an old oiled baseball mitt, leather jacket or football smells.
Red Clay – a smell like a fresh plowed farm field in the northeast, a sweet, oily limestone earth smell.
Wood – a taste like old, well aged hardwood smells.