We've studied the growing, drying, aging, and rolling process that takes a cigar from seed to smoke. We've broken down the telltale signs of quality you'll notice in a good one, and the basics of how to cut, light, and smoke. But to take a big step back, what exactly is a cigar in the first place?
Well, tobacco leaves, obviously. But there's more to it than that – a careful layering of different components, each with their own contributions to the flavor and structure of the smoke. Any cigar is made up of three basic layers:
The filler – the core, made up of tightly pressed broken leaves.
The binder – the leaves that wrap around the filler. These usually (but not always) come from the same seed as the filler, but the binder uses higher quality, unbroken leaves from the same plant.
The wrapper – the outermost layer that gives the cigar its shelf-worthy appearance.
Finding the Right Blend
According to cigar legend Ernesto Perez Carillo, Jr, "it's all about blending" between the three different layers. Since Ernesto is a third generation master cigar maker who creates some of the world's finest smokes, we're inclined to believe him.
"You need to have that perfect combination," Ernesto says. Each part plays a certain role – the filler's concentrated flavor, for example – but none can stand alone. Change one aspect, and the entire cigar will transform.
Like blending whiskey casks or lambic barrels, balancing all these different aspects into a consistent and layered flavor profile where artistry comes into play. And while it's more art than science, there are some general rules that EP Carillo follows.
"You have to experiment and make different blends, but after a while you get to know which binders and wrappers work well together," Ernesto says. "And then it's a matter of blending the different tobaccos. When I use a Connecticut [tobacco], I usually use a Broadleaf binder because I know that's going to work nicely."
The Most Important Part
You'd guess that the most integral part of a cigar's flavor profile would be the filler, right? It's the core, after all, and uses the largest amount of tobacco.
Nope. And it's not the binder, either.
According to Ernesto, "the interesting thing is that the main tobacco that's really going to give your cigar the final flavors and strengths is the wrapper, which is only half a leaf." While it uses the least amount of tobacco of all the layers, the wrapper is what comes in direct contact with your mouth, which makes a huge difference in imparting tasting notes .
"The wrapper is 60–70% of success or failure in a cigar," Ernesto says. "Taste, aroma, complexity, and mouthfeel – for all of them, the wrapper is going to dominate."
Unless you're a real aficionado, you probably won't be able to distinguish between the three layers when you light up. But knowing the components, and what part each plays, gives you a firmer sense of what you're smoking. Plus, once you identify common threads in cigars you like, buying new ones will be that much easier.