All things Whisky & Cigars
Cigars: Should we judge a book by its cover?
Cigars: Should we judge a book by its cover?
One of the more common misconceptions we see, especially when faced with selecting a New World cigar, is that people tend to assume that the darker in colour that a cigar looks the stronger that cigar will be.
Whilst there is some element of truth to the thinking that a cigar with a dark wrapper will be strong and full-bodied, it is not a clear-cut rule as there are other factors to consider that contribute to a cigars strength…
Let’s take a basic look at the construction of a cigar, the impact of the wrapper leaf on the strength, and some of the more common wrapper types and generic flavour characteristics associated with them, to try and alleviate this confusion!
It can take up to six types of tobacco leaf to make a cigar, and each type is specially grown and prepared for its purpose - where does the strength (nicotine level) of a cigar come from?
To provide most of the flavour and strength, between two and four different types of leaf are bunched together to form the ‘tripa’, or filler – these will be a combination of Volado, Seco, Ligero and Medio Tiempo, and each has different strength and combustion properties.
Volado grows lowest on the tobacco plant and are used for lighter flavoured fillers and for the binder. They are mild in strength but burn exceptionally well
Seco grows around the middle of the tobacco plant and are used for medium flavoured fillers. They are medium in strength, are most important in providing the aroma of the cigar.
Ligero comes from the uppermost parts of the plant and are used to provide full flavoured fillers. This is a slow burning leaf and is used to add strength to the cigar
Medio Tiempo is the strongest and most unique tasting filler leaf – it’s only found in the top two leaves from the plant and requires a special fermentation, so it is normally only used in selected high value cigars.
The selected blend of filler tobaccos is then wrapped in a ‘capote’, or binder, (often a Volado leaf is used for its combustibility, but this isn’t always the case) for structure and to help define the final shape of the cigar.
The cigar is then rolled in the ‘capa’, or wrapper, to form the outermost surface – this is what makes a cigar appealing to the eye, and colours of the wrapper can range from the vibrant greens of Candela to the dark and almost black Oscuro.
It is worth noting that whilst there are four types of leaf as mentioned above, each of the tobaccos selected for the blend of specific cigar can come from different countries, different years of harvest and be different strains of tobacco – for example the Ashton Symmetry line of cigars, which are rolled in the Dominican Republic, feature a blend of Nicaraguan and Dominican filler tobaccos, a Dominican binder and a wrapper leaf grown in Ecuador.
So, if a cigars strength is mainly rooted in the blend of the cigar as opposed to being based on the shade of the wrapper, why are cigars produced with these different coloured wrapper leaves? The answer is quite simple: the wrapper leaf also contributes somewhat to the overall taste profile.
Of course, the colour of the wrapper used is just one aspect as to why it was chosen to adorn the cigar: the type of leaf used, the country or region where the tobacco was grown, how the tobacco was grown - under shade or in direct sunlight (stronger and fuller flavour) - and how the tobacco was cured all play a part in in the flavours provided by the wrapper..
Some wrappers, such as Connecticut Shade, have a more mellow flavour and are grown in Connecticut USA and, also, in Ecuador – this wrapper leaf is a light caramel colour and has a subtle leather and mild pepper taste. Although this wrapper type is commonly used on mild, smooth and creamy cigars like those by Davidoff, some companies have successfully experimented with more robust blends paired with Ecuadorian Connecticut Shade wrappers for a whole new smoking experience – for example the medium/medium-full Undercrown Shade line from Drew Estate.
Reddish-brown, rich and spicy wrappers such as Criollo, Corojo and Rosado (Rosado tobacco is notoriously difficult to grow outside of Cuba, so only a few companies are lucky enough to have a regular supply of this awesome tobacco), take on different characteristics depending upon climate and soil conditions where they were grown – wrappers of these types grown in the Dominican Republic are normally lighter and smoother than wrappers from the same seed strain grown in Nicaragua or Honduras. This is alongside the fact that those grown in direct sunlight will be stronger and fuller flavoured than their shade grown counterparts. These are the types of wrapper leaf most commonly found on full bodied cigars due to their robust and spicy flavours complimenting the stronger blends – the Last Call from A.J. Fernandez is a great example of a medium-full cigar with a punchy Rosado wrapper.
Perhaps the most misunderstood type of wrapper is the Maduro (Spanish for ‘ripe’). Tobaccos destined to become Maduro wrappers are cured at higher temperatures than other leaves, allowing the leaves to turn to a dark brown / almost black colour. In this process the natural sugars in the leaf caramelise, deepening and intensifying the flavours and adding a beautiful sweetness.
Of course, because it is a colour change in the tobacco that gives us the Maduro wrapper, we can now see that darker doesn’t necessarily mean stronger as a milder type of tobacco could be cured to become Maduro (if the leaf type selected is thick enough to withstand the process…) e.g. a Connecticut Maduro wrapper leaf will be very dark in colour but reasonably mild in strength, whereas we can achieve a full bodied and spicy Maduro if we use a Corojo or Criollo leaf. The Joya Black are a great medium strength Maduro cigar – Nicaraguan fillers and binders with a decadent Mexican San Andres Maduro wrapper!
Other notable wrappers would be Sumatra which has a beautiful sweetness, Mata Fina and San Andres both which have a lovely toasted nut flavour, and Candela which is a beautiful mossy green coloured wrapper and has fresh grassy and bittersweet taste – the Alec Bradley Filthy Hooligan Barberpole is a great way to experience a Candela wrapper, albeit with a spiral of deep cocoa coloured Nicaraguan Jalapa wrapper applied to the Candela…
So, whilst we can see that you can’t 100% judge a book by its cover, the wrapper on a cigar can at least show us part of the story!
A great way to experience how the wrapper leaf of a cigar impacts the overall flavour and strength of the blend would be to try a couple of the Robert Graham Tobacco Lords cigars – the blends of the Natural and Maduro cigars are the same for each vitola (or size of cigar) but it’s remarkable what different flavours you can taste between the variation in wrapper!
Keep it Smoky,