Steve Saka, best known for blending the Liga Privada, defines strength as “A measure that has a physiological impact on the smoker. I look at the level of nicotine, the level of bite and sharpness as the primary criteria for the strength of a cigar.” Master blender and owner of Dominican Big Leaguer cigars (DBL), Francisco Almonte, defines strength as “The power of the leaf.” José Blanco, senior vice president of E.P. Carrillo, says that people often confuse flavor with strength. “Strength is about the priming of a plant. The higher the priming the stronger the tobacco.”
Ligero is considered the strongest priming because it’s the highest point on the plant, receiving the most sunlight. Fermentation also plays a big part in a leaf’s strength. The longer tobacco is fermented, the less strength it will have. Another misconception regarding strength is the color of the wrapper. Many smokers assume that the darker the wrapper, the stronger the cigar. But Cigar makers disagree. “For so many years, that’s how cigars used to be made,” explains Saka. “Today, all those old rules are thrown out the window. Willie Flores, owner of La Hoja Cigar Company concurs by saying that a wrapper plays a role in strength but not in color.
“I always tell people: never, ever judge the strength of a cigar by the color of its wrapper,” says Blanco. And Almonte states that the maduro wrapper adds sweetness, flavor and complexity, but not strength. Most of the strength usually comes from the filler. Cigar makers use specific criteria when blending a strong cigar. The first step is choosing a plant variety and the second is choosing the priming. The first thing that Flores does, for example, is decide which ligero to use and how much of it. “If you want a mild cigar, you can’t load it up with ligero and viso.”Some of the strongest tobaccos used by today’s cigar makers are Pennsylvania Broadleaf, Dominican Piloto Cubano and San Vincente, Honduran Corojo, Nicaraguan Criollo ’98, and the Ecuadorian Sumatra. Most cigar makers emphasize the importance of retrohaling when measuring the strength of a cigar.
“Just because a cigar tastes spicy doesn’t mean it’s a strong cigar,” notes Almonte. “When you only smoke with your mouth you taste the wrapper. Retrohaling gives a complete experience.” And Blanco agrees: “You really only pick up the strength in the nose. Some people also pick up strength in the stomach.”Most smokers can gauge the level of strength from the physical impact it makes on the human body. A life-long smoker, David Harwood from Montgomery, Alabama, says, “Strong cigars can make a smoker light headed, give you stomach pain or even a feeling of dizziness.”
Many blenders and farmers determine strength by chewing on tobacco leaves, getting a true sense of the nicotine level as it seeps through their lips and gums. So gauging cigar strength is still one of the hardest characteristics to quantify, as Saka reveals: “I have a hard time when people ask me how strong a cigar is. I put things on a 10-point scale and try to give them some sort of comparison. Everyone’s perception is going to be different.”