For most smokers, the science of taste is like the innards of your cigar lighter - you don't care how it works as long as it does. Still, it is - along with smell - the critical sense that allows you to enjoy the sensation of smoking, and learning more about how taste works may enable you to get more from your cigars. So here, with a minimum of jargon, is a primer on the chemistry of tastes - a brief introduction to those dear unseen friends, your tastebuds, and the brain circuitry that allows them to work.
For thousands of years, scientists have accepted that there are four basic tastes, which each have their own dedicated receptors in the body. Scientists who study tastes today (they are known as psychophysicists) have generally accepted that there's a fifth. Sweet, bitter, sour, and salty, meet - umami?! Yes, apparently taste scientists have decided that certain compounds - soy sauce, fish sauce, MSG, parmesan - have a special taste receptor, which makes them not quite salty, and not quite sour. That's why MSG is such a popular addition to Asian dishes - it offers a taste not quite available elsewhere. So, there are actually five basic tastes, one of which most nonspecialists haven't heard of. These five are the "primary colors" of the tongue.
It's these receptors - and not the taste buds alone - that allow taste to happen. For a long time scientists were unsure exactly how it was that these receptors could pick up on differing tastes - it was clear enough that the taste buds were "hooked up" in some way to the human brain, but nobody was exactly sure why different kinds of foods could cause the taste buds to send such different messages, creating such different sensations in the mouth. Why didn't everything just taste the same?
Actually, it's all about the receptors. Tiny taste receptor cells are bundled together to make taste buds; from these, tiny microvilli - microscopic feelers - extend, and they feature their own smaller receptors, which interact with objects in the mouth, changing their polarization. This change in the chemistry of the feelers sets off a chain of nerve-communication which ultimately reaches the brain. To taste something, then, it must literally become a part of you - its molecules swap with those on the microvilli, changing its polarity and sending those all-important signals up to the brain.
For the cigar smoker, the sensation of bitterness is an important one. The slight bitterness of a good smoke is key to the cigar's overall success - without it, you have a blandly sweet taste, but with it, you have the extra bit of tension that makes the taste of a cigar teasing, ambiguous, and, finally, interesting. Cigars without a hint of bitterness would be like the Star Wars trilogy without Empire Strikes Back - it's the bit of dark contrast that creates drama. We can taste bitterness thanks to taste receptors known, intimidating enough, as TAS2Rs, which, on being activated by the presence of a bitter object in the mouth, transmit a "Bitter!" signal to the brain. This capacity may have played an important role in evolution, because it would have helped early humans (and earlier hominids) to tell the difference between poisonous plants (which are often bitter-tasting) and safer ones.
Taste is initially received, of course, by the taste buds, and recent research has found that taste buds all along the tongue (and even a few along the roof of the mouth) are capable of picking up all five basic flavors. An older theory had argued that each part of the mouth had its own dedicated flavor "zone," but this is wrong. So there's no point trying to hold the inhaled smoke in a particular "bitter" or "sweet" section of the mouth - all of the mouth is more or less equally sensitive to each kind of taste.
Of course, much of what we call flavor is smell as well as taste - and sometimes taste is very secondary. A stopped-up cigar fan may not be able to detect the same subtleties in a stogie. The components of your system of smell are stronger and, in evolutionary terms, possibly older - some scientists have speculated the sense of smell is the body's second oldest sensory system.
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