For cigar aficionados at the dawn of the 21st century, it’s difficult to find anything but greatness in the increasing availability of quality, handmade cigars throughout the world. Where once there was a small, Cuban-centric industry controlled by an elusive elite, there is now a blossoming global trade that is supporting the addition of fresh new players eager to highlight not only the high art of handmade cigars, but also the technology that is making them more affordable than ever. However, the websites, magazines and general media that are helping to rate cigars and keep quality in check are inadvertently producing a downside: how can cigar hobbyists objectively find the cigars that suit their tastes when price, ratings and brand-reputation weigh in to taint their opinion before the first draw is even taken? The solution lies in mastering the art of the blind tasting. By following the five easy steps outlined here, cigar hobbyists, store owners and even professional tasters can be sure that they are influenced only by the inherent quality of the cigar they are smoking at any given moment.
Naturally, a blind tasting relies on the taster not knowing which cigar he or she is sampling. Give a friend or family member a sampling of five to ten of the cigars you are eager to sample. Have them replace the labels on the cigar with a piece of paper marked only with a number. Have your accomplice match the number to the name of the cigar and keep the list out of your site until the tasting is finished.
For each cigar, prepare an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper divided into four sections. At the top of the sheet, place the number of the cigar you are sampling. Place headings at each of the four sections labeled Aesthetics, Construction, Flavor and Strength, and General Comments, respectively. These will be the four elements you score the cigar on.
As is the case when enjoying food or wine, the aesthetic of the item you are sampling is half of the appeal and half of the fun. For cigars, this largely pertains to the wrapper and the overall facade. Look for veins in the wrapper leaf. Is the wrapper smooth, dry and brittle, dark, light, silky, gritty, oily, or coarse? Make observations on whatever comes to your mind. Remember: the idea is to capture your initial impression. At heart, did you like the look and feel of the cigar? Was it attractive to you? Or was it beat-up, brittle and worn-out? Rate your impression of the aesthetics on a scale of one to ten, pretending that you were judging an Olympic event. Don’t be shy about withholding or offering decimal points for minor details.
As you prepare to light the cigar, roll it between your fingers. Does it have soft spots? What is the weight like? Does it feel dense or light? Take in the aroma before you light it. Is it pleasing? As you light the cigar, pay particular attention to the draw. Does the smoke pull through on its own? Does the cigar appear to burn evenly with little effort? Take a look at the ash. Note the color and the texture. Use adjectives like flaky, solid, and messy. Take notes on all of these characteristics both before and after you light the cigar. Rate your ultimate impression on a scale of one to ten.
4. Flavor and Strength
One of the easiest observations for a blind taster to make is whether the cigar is full-bodied or mild. Look for undertones that seem musty, sweet, harsh, floral, robust, green, or salty. Write them down along with if they were pleasing or not. As the cigar is smoked, does the flavor increase or decrease? Did it steer towards more complex flavors or end in bitterness? As with wine, the after-taste is key: the sensation that remains in your mouth after each puff is an important reflection of quality. Spend a few moments thinking about how the after-taste makes you feel. Are you eager to take another puff to get rid of it, or is it something that you want to linger? Take notes on the overall aroma of the cigar as you smoke it. Use adjectives like grassy, harsh, woodsy, overpowering, unpleasant, and floral. Rate your observations on a scale of one to ten.
5. General Comments
This element is important for context. Some cigars are repulsive early in the day but absolute perfection in the evening after a meal. If the cigar you are sampling seems like it has potential but doesn’t create synergy with the mood you are in at that moment, have your accomplice set another one aside for tasting at a different time. Cigars can reflect on seasons, times of day, and moods just like anything else. Use this category to make notes on what mood would fit the cigar and whether it’s something you would like to enjoy often or rarely. Feel free to use this area to make overall observations such as, “All in all it was boring,” or, “This cigar changed my life and it will yours too.” Rate this category on a scale of one to ten.
Average your four scores at the end of your sheet and record the ultimate rating. If you are feeling particularly motivated, you can create an excel spreadsheet that organizes your ratings so you can observe not only the highest average rating for all of the cigars you have tasted, but the highest rating for each individual category. In this way, you will free yourself from the confines of a mass cigar media that encourages biasing and pushes the idea that you should like this. Cigars, like art, wine, or food, are all about individual personality. One cigar’s demeanor may or may not jive with your own, and that, after all, is the most important information you need to have.