When trying a cigar for the first time, I don’t usually smoke and drink as I normally would. My intent is to get the true flavor and aroma, so I try to arrange things to keep my palate clean.
The first thing, obviously, is to select the cigar. Once you know what the approximate strength is, the next step is to determine what to drink and/or eat along with it. This is not as hard a choice as one might think. There are a few types of beverages that do the job, but some are effective with mild cigars and are nearly useless with more potent varieties.
Water is certainly a good choice for light-bodied cigars as it belongs to the group I refer to as neutral beverages. This group is made up of water and flavored waters. As long as the flavor coating your mouth isn’t very strong, water is sufficient to clear the palate, but once the cigar approaches medium-bodied, water probably won’t do the job, and the oilier the smoke, the less effective neutral beverages will be.
The next category would be carbonated drinks. Seltzer, club soda, Vichy water and lightly flavored sodas (but not diet) will all handle pretty much any smoke except for the most powerful. The carbonation will help “scrub” the mouth and tongue of residual particles, and the bubbles will be assisted by acidity, as most carbonated beverages will contain something that will lower the pH. These drinks should handle all but the strongest cigars.
This group contains acidic and tannic beverages. Dry wines, teas, light to medium roast coffees, and the like all fall into this category. They work because the acids and tannins lift the residue from the mouth surfaces and wash them away. The one caveat with these drinks would be to make sure not to select anything has leaves an aftertaste, as that will interfere with the tasting.
The final set of drinks would be alcoholic beverages as alcohol is an effective solvent for oils, and heavy-duty cigars will have an oily nature, so alcohol will likely be your best bet. Stay with lightly-flavored, mostly clear drinks without too much sweetness, such as vodka, gin, certain rums and tequilas. Avoid taking gulps; small sips swished around in the mouth will be more effective.
If food is to be involved, keep it neutral and light. Crackers, toast, mild cheeses and raw veggies should all be fine as long as they don’t have a lingering aftertaste.
Now, on to the procedure. Have the drinks and food ready and put out the cigar(s). Look at the cigar for smoothness, veins and overall appearance. Smell the foot of the cigar (not the wrapper) to get an advance notice of the flavor. Cut the cigar using your preferred method. Take a few puffs before lighting (the “pre-light draw”) and assess the taste. I strongly recommend using cedar spills or wooden matches to light the cigars as the lower combustion temperature will bring out the best possible flavor. Light the matches (use 2 side by side) or spill and toast the foot of the cigar by holding it at a 45 degree angle about an inch above the visible flame. Rotate the cigar until the foot is blackened with a bit of blackening extending to the wrapper.
At this point, put the cigar in your mouth and, holding the flame an inch or so below the foot, puff gently until every part of the end is glowing. Use long, slow puffs to keep the temperature down. Set the cigar down from time to time to avoid heating up too much and take the time to have a bite and/or a drink to refresh the palate.
A really good idea is to have a notepad, or a cigar dossier handy to make note of everything that strikes you about construction, aroma, flavor, appearance and anything else that you deem important. I prefer to address my findings prior to lighting, on initial light, during the first, second and final third of smoking. This will give a full accounting of the experience involving the cigar.
If you’ll be tasting multiple cigars, give yourself at least a half an hour between cigars and have a snack and a drink in-between to reset your palate. If your tongue feels puffy or even the slightest bit raw, put the tasting off until another time. I also like to save the band, if the stogie has one, and paste it to the page that I have put my notes on. To do so safely, remove it when the cigar is about half gone, immediately after a puff so the cigar will be a bit warm so the glue will be soft and removing the band is less likely to damage the wrapper.
This may seem a bit involved, but it helps to keep a clear record of what you’ve enjoyed or what didn’t work for you so you can repeat the good experiences and avoid the bad. And the next time you plan to do one of the marathon tasting sessions, give me a call.