Cigars 101: Basic Terminology


We’ve had a few requests to do a blog post outlining some of the basic terminology of the cigar industry, as well as a few tips and tricks. Some of the more experienced readers will likely be familiar with the information contained in this post, but it’s never a bad time to brush up!


Common terms and phrases:

The first terms I’d like to cover are strength, body, and flavor. These first three terms are the industry standard, but their exact definitions, and how they relate to each other, are still somewhat debated. The three are somewhat correlated, and there is some overlap of the terms. Most of us are in the same general ballpark fortunately, but opinions may very on the finer points of these terms.

Strength – this most easily translates to the potency of the nicotine in tobacco, and is very similar to the concept of ‘proof’ in alcohol. Strength is what can cause nicotine-induced nausea or sensations of being light-headed in individuals that have a lower nicotine tolerance. 

Flavor – flavor usually pertains to what is happening in terms of notes, undertones, nuances, and richness. Notes are what the primary flavors are; for example, if you smoke an Avo and taste something that is reminiscent of grass or earthy soil you would classify that as “notes of grass and earthy soil”. Undertones are flavors that are present but are subtle, usually noticed after other more pronounced notes. If you primarily taste flavors that are chocolaty and earthy, but notice a soft taste of a sweetness in the background, the sweetness would be defined as an undertone. Nuance typically translates to the individual flavors refinement. It’s similar to comparing a steak from Outback to a steak from a high end steak house – both fundamentally taste like a steak, but the nuances are what keeps them worlds apart in terms of how good they taste.

Body – The body is typically in reference to the characteristics of the smoke as a whole. Things like how dense the smoke is, how harsh or smooth it hits the palate, is the finish clean or does it leave a lingering aftertaste, how complex is the cigar as whole, is the texture thin and sharp or is it more creamy and coating, are the flavors dull or are they well defined, etc. 

Complexity – complexity is essentially a measurement of how many flavors are at play in the cigar, and how the flavors evolve as you burn through the cigar. A cigar with only one or two primary flavors might be described being somewhat one dimensional, where as a cigar that has an abundance of different flavors that are well defined is considered complex.

Balance – Balance covers how well the different aspects of the cigar blend together when smoked. Is spice overpowering other flavors, is an earthy soil taste distorting your ability to taste other flavors, or are all the flavors and aspects present working in harmony with nothing being pronounced too strongly or too softly? If all flavors are well defined and work well together then the cigar is well balanced. 

Aroma – this is generally the term to cover the smell that the cigar is actively putting off. If you’ve ever had someone tell you that they can smell your cigar from across the room, they’re referring to the aroma.

Finish – this most easily translates to aftertaste in lay mans terms. The finish occurs when you exhale; the flavors, spice, texture that linger on the palate are what qualify as the finish. 

Profile – the profile is the term that encompasses all of the previously mentioned aspects; strength, body, flavor, complexity. It covers pretty much everything to do with smoking the cigar, how it tastes, how hits the palate, and so on. A description of a cigars profile might be something like “Drawing into the cigar yields a mouthful of chewy layered smoke, featuring smooth earthy barnyard notes hitting the palate first, with notes of rich creamy espresso and oak-wood quickly following. A tangy sweetness lingers in the finish, and a black pepper spice is present through a retrohale”. 

Puro – a cigar made up of tobaccos all from a single country. A cigar that features a Dominican filler, Dominican binder, and a Dominican wrapper would be considered a Dominican puro, as all of the tobaccos originate from the Dominican Republic.

Foot – The foot of a cigar is the open-ended part of the cigar that is lit. The opposite end of the cigar is known as the cap.

Cap – the closed end of the cigar that needs to be cut before lighting. Caps typically come in either single, double, or triple caps. Multiple caps help prevent the wrapper from unraveling once cut. You can can count the number of caps being used by counting the lines, the first cap will come down the farthest and be the most round.

“Toasting the foot” – Toasting the foot is the process of heating the tobacco at the foot of the cigar prior to actually lighting. You’re merely trying to pre-heat the tobacco. Tobacco tastes right in an ideal temperature range, and thus the aim in toasting is merely to heat the tobacco enough to minimize exposure time to the full flame of the torch. Toasting also helps promote an even burn line.

Retrohaling – the act of blowing smoke through the nose. Certain flavors are more pronounced through the nose, and thus retrohaling is advantageous in picking up flavors that might be easily missed orally. In general it’s best to exhale 60% percent of the smoke prior to retrohaling when first learning, as it’s easy for the smoke to be too overpowering through the nostrils at first. Practice makes perfect.

Tunneling/Coning – These terms both refer to various burn issues. Tunneling is when the core of the cigar is burning inward at a substantially quicker pace than the rest of the cigar, whilst the outer part of the cigar remains either unlit or slow burning. Coning is the inverse of tunneling, with the outer parts of the cigar burning down substantially past the center of the cigar. The causes of both these issues will be covered in our next edition.

Plume – plume is typically white spots on a cigar that are often mistaken for mold. If it’s a white powder that rubs off easily you have nothing to worry about. Plume usually comes around as a result aging, and is a sign that it’s been properly stored. If spots have a blueish/greenish coloration than you might have an unfortunate case of mold. Mold is caused by too high of a temperature and an excess of humidity.

Check out next weeks edition of Cigars 101 where we’ll be addressing common questions and issues!

About Joseph Carroll

I am an enthusiast of all things cigars - from the experience of smoking, to becoming engrossed in their culture. In an age increasingly dominated by technology and automated manufacturing, I consciously strive to retain an appreciation for pursuits based around concepts like craftsmanship, passion, and artistic expression. I believe that quirks and flaws are often what gives art its beauty. I aim to embrace both the good and the bad in my writing, as I think both sides of the coin are necessary to capture something in its entirety. In my spare time I enjoy reading, exceeding speed limits, and nursing my fetish for all things Koenigsegg Automotive.
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