Havana cigars change in taste with time. Like wines, knowledge about the chemical process of Havanas is incompletely understood.
There is one thing for certain, like every great wine, the aging period is measured in terms of decades, and is not the cliché like: “Put the cigars into your humidor and lay them down for a couple of years, and you will find that they will taste much better.”
When cigars go through the aging process they pass these four stages:
The sick period is the period when an ammoniac smell is still detectable in a newly manufactured cigar.
The tobacco leaf is moistened before being rolled into a cigar. This invites accelerated fermentation which generates a lot of ammonia. An unpleasant ammoniac smell is noticed. Unlike bitter or tannic tastes, the ammoniac smell is influenced by the rate of fermentation, packaging and storage conditions.
Good ventilation gets rid of the ammoniac smell in no time at all. If you cannot wait and want to get rid of the ammoniac smell, storing your cigars in the open, if the atmosphere is not too dry, or opening your humidor or box of cigars for some time every day really helps.
For the majority of cigars handled in the “usual” way, the ammoniac smell will be over 90% gone after a few months, 95% to 99% gone by the end of the first year, and practically all gone by the end of the second year.
2. First Maturation
The first maturation is the result of the ongoing fermentation after the cigar has been made.
Cigars continue to generate pleasant aromas and flavours as a result of the continuous fermentation. These flavours thus increase in intensity with time. And bitterness, believed to be the taste of nicotine, becomes less and less as fermentation causes nicotine to be broken down into simpler molecules.
As time goes by, fermentation slows down as fewer and fewer raw materials are available. The rate of generation of these flavours becomes slower and slower. At the same time, these flavours are lost continuously through evaporation, oxidation, chemical reactions, self degradation etc.
The first maturity is the time when the cigar is most “flavoursome”.
This exact time is different with each cigar, with individual preference of different pleasant flavours (different flavours have different level of formation and attrition), and personal tolerance of the bitter and harsh tannic tastes.
For most “mild” cigars, the first maturation time is around 2 to 3 years in Semi Plain Boxes, 4 to 5 years in Cabinets.
For “medium” smokes like Montecristo, H.Upmann, Romeo y Julieta etc., the first maturation time is around 5 years in Semi Plain Boxes, 6 to 8 years in Cabinets.
For stronger smokes like Bolivar, Partagas, and Punch etc., the maturity is around 7 to 8 years in Semi Plain Boxes, 10 to 15 years in Cabinets.
The actual time of course varies with each different model within the brand with different types of packaging.
3. Second maturation.
The second maturation is the result of degradation of tannin and the interaction of its end products with the flavours generated by fermentation.
All young cigars have a “tannic” taste, to a different degree. An excessive taste is “dry” on the mouth, “green” and “harsh”. It is believed to be, as its name suggests, the taste of tannin, a natural ingredient of plant structures. It can be only tasted by the tongue.
Like in a great wine, it may take a long time for the harsh tannic taste in a Havana to mellow. In a particularly tannic cigar, this “tannic feel” can still be annoying after 15-25 years for a trained palate. Please note that the “tannic” taste might not necessarily be considered bad, and might even be pleasing to some smokers. Like in tea, the “tannic” taste accounts for part of its appeal.
How long the “tannic” taste reaches tolerable or even pleasant levels depends on the original tannic level of the cigars, and of course also on personal preference.
The second maturation is the time when the total pleasant flavours formed by interaction between the end products of fermentation and the breaking down of tannin long chain polymers reach peak level.
This period might need 15-25 years to attain for most “tannic cigars”. A cigar at the second maturity is very, very smooth, extremely mellow, complex, classy and elegant.
The cigars tastes quite different to what it was when at first maturity. It is interesting that part of this kind of “taste” is strikingly similar to a 20 year or 25 year old Scotch whiskey.
Not all Havana Cigars go through the second maturation process. To be able to achieve the second maturity, the cigar should have enough “woodiness” and tannin to generate additional pleasant flavours.
4. Third Maturation
The third maturation is the result of accumulation of a finesse generated by mysterious chemical reactions between congeners, and everything else in the cigar.
This finesse begins to appear after 20 years. It is interesting that in Havanas 20 years is the minimum time such finesse begins to become barely detectable. The aroma is extremely complicated, so complicated words cannot describe it, but it is unforgettable once experienced. “Etheral” is the nearest word which can describe a cigar which is very much into the third maturation process.
It is interesting that machine-made cigars are unable to develop the finesse of the third maturation process, despite the tobacco used being the first class. This remain one of the mysteries of a hand-rolled Havana.
When will a Havana ‘peak’ in taste?
It should be noted that as a cigar matures in time, it does not necessarily taste better to an individual smoker.
A young cigar is “punchy”, a cigar at first maturation is “flavoursome”, at second maturation “classy and elegant”, and in the third maturation is “ethereal”. These are absolutely different virtues of a great cigar and cannot be compared. In short, when Havanas age, they just become different.
Which is better depends on personal preferences. And when it comes to personal preferences, they may change at anytime. Sometimes you may want a “punchy” cigar as an “eye-opener”. Sometimes you may want a “flavoursome” cigar after a heavy meal. Sometimes you may want a “classy and elegant” cigar to brighten up your spirit. Sometimes you may want an “ethereal” cigar when you are “in the mood”.
So here is the answer to the most commonly asked question: “When is the age that a certain Havana ‘peaks’?” There is no such thing.