The most fascinating aspect of a Cuban cigar is that over time the taste evolves and changes. Like wine, the chemical changes in the aging process of cigars are not fully understood. The one thing that is for certain is that like wine, the aging period is measured in decades.
One of the most commonly made misperceptions is that “aging cigars” means laying your cigars down in your box for a couple of years and they will become better tasting. However, in reality the aging process is quite complicated and can be sectioned out in four different stages: stick period, first maturation, second maturation and third maturation.
During the stick period the amount of ammoniac smell is at its highest. This is because when cigars are being rolled, the leaves are moistened. That causes an accelerated rate of fermentation which releases ammonia. The large presence of ammonia in a newly rolled cigar causes a very unpleasant smell and taste. Over 90% of the ammoniac smells will be gone in the first few months and 95% to 99% will be gone within the first year. Cigars should not be consumed during the stick period.
During the first maturation, the cigar starts to produce pleasant aromas and flavors. This is due to the continuous fermenting of the cigar. Within the first maturation one of the biggest changes you will notice is the disappearance of the initial bitter, harsh taste. The reason for this is that as time allows more fermentation, the nicotine breaks down and that outcome is a weaker, smoother taste. To give you an idea of general maturation periods of different cigars:
- Mild cigars such as “ Romeo y Juliet and H Upmann” take around 2 – 5 years to fully complete the maturation period.
- Medium cigars such as “Montecristo and Cohiba” take 5 – 8 years.
- Full bodied cigars such as “Partagas and Bolivar” take between 7 and 15 years.
The actual time of course varies with each different model within the brand, and with the personal preferences of each individual.
The second maturation is the period when the degrading “tannins” within the cigar allows for a higher level of aroma and taste. “Tannins” are astringent, bitter plant Polyphenols that either bind and precipitate or shrink proteins and various other organic compounds. The astringency from the tannins is what causes the dry and puckery feeling in the mouth following the consumption of a un ripened fruit or red wine. Most mild cigars do not need to be put through the second maturation, usually the medium to full bodied cigars with high tannic features need the extra fermenting period to allow for the tannins to be broken down to more simple molecules. When the tannins break down in to more simple molecules it results in a chemical reaction which releases a “woody sweetness” (actual wood sugars) formed by the degradation of the tannin. An average time that’s required for most of the tannic features to disappear from a cigar is between 15 – 25 years. A cigar successfully aged past the second maturation will be very smooth, extremely mellow, complex, classy and elegant. This can be compared similarly to a 20 year or 25 year old Scotch whisky.
The third and last maturation period is the one during which there is an accumulation of finesse. This is generated by the chemical reaction between the congeners within the cigar. The chemical reaction behind this kind of aging might be similar to the mysterious “wine in a bottle” maturing process. It’s also noteworthy to know that it takes 20 years for such finesse to be seen within a Cuban cigar. Unfortunately the knowledge on third maturity time in a cigar is almost non-existent.