Back in his day, your grandpa could smoke a couple of boxes a week and still taste his meals. No longer. Like beer, cigars have gotten stronger as palates have grown accustomed to industrial-size tastes (Lime-a-Rita, Doritos® Jacked™, Sriracha). Cigar stores have gotten so much darker it can look like someone is leaning on the dimmer. Light brown has gotten downright muddy, and because much of a cigar’s flavor is derived from the wrapper leaf, that means spice, strength, kick, or body, depending on who’s talking.
Alan Rubin, founder of the award-winning Alec Bradley Cigars, says that when he hears the term spice used, he cringes slightly. “I actually use the term spritely,” says Rubin. “It’s almost that it has a tingle—an effervescence. It’s not a discernable flavor necessarily, just a reaction on the palate.” Rubin also has trouble using power and strength as descriptors. “That’s a feeling, not a taste.” A perfect example? Alec Bradley Black Market.
But don’t confuse strength with bitterness—the equivalent of bite in an underaged whiskey. For Rubin and some other cigar makers, it can be a sign of imperfections in certain blends. “It almost refers to a tobacco that’s a little young or underfermented, so you get a chemical reaction from some of the ammonia left in the cigar.”
That’s not always the case. Some tobacco is meant to have a kick, and there are plenty of folks out there blending for just that purpose. Rocky Patel and the folks at Drew Estate are known for hearty, earthy smokes that are sometimes referred to as “spicy.”
And that feeling can be a lot like the tingle of pepper for spicy-food fans. Rubin admits that for some it’s a tolerance issue. “Right as the palate gets seasoned, you say, ‘I like that flavor, and I want more of that flavor.’ Because what may have been strong three years ago is mild today.”
There are other reflections in connoisseur consumables. Peat in scotch, for one, is something most people grow to appreciate and tolerate more of over time. Same goes for hops in beer—not every guy can jump into hard-hitting IPAs from day one.
“The term spice is poorly defined and causes confusion,” says Terence Reilly, general manager of US operations for Quesada Cigars. “When I speak about spice I am talking about sharp, distinctive flavors that remind one of cinnamon, nutmeg, chili, etc; however, often the word is used synonymously with peppery, which is reminiscent of black pepper.” Spice is, in short, a range of experiences whereas peppery is one.
“The former is usually a sign of complexity while the latter can dominate the taste profile and overshadow other nuanced flavors,” says Rubin.
Most cigar makers these days rate all of this on a “body chart," from mild to full. Macanudo Cafe and Ashton tend to fall lower on the list, whereas you’ll see the likes of Bold by Nish Patel and Camacho Blackout pushing the upper limits.
Chances are you’ve got a couple of smokes you’re comfortable with, but if you’re searching for something heartier, throw a few of these terms around with your local shop owner and see what he thinks you should try. A quick way to dial up the body is to see if the cigar you love comes in a maduro wrapper: A leaf aged in more sunlight is a leaf with more nicotine.
None of this is a perfect science, but it’s not supposed to be. Cigars vary more than whiskeys because they contain plants, not the trace elements of plants. That means that every rule is surrounded by a murmuring crowd of exceptions and that the best way to get a handle on spice is to smoke a lot of cigars. Just don’t smoke too many. These aren’t your grandfather’s stogies.
Photos by Drew Estate Cigars