The Retrohale: A Technique for Advanced Flavor Appreciation
Retrohaling is the practice of expelling tobacco smoke through one's nose without having inhaled it. For those of us who haven't practiced the technique, the obvious question is, "Why?" What's the advantage when we can obviously taste our tobaccos already?
The advantage develops because our sense of smell and taste are both dependent on our noses. Aromas are flavors. An article called "What the Nose Knows," on the Harvard Gazette website, quotes Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Venkatesh Murthy:
"Smells are handled by the olfactory bulb, the structure in the front of the brain that sends information to the other areas of the body's central command for further processing. Odors take a direct route to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory. The olfactory signals very quickly get to the limbic system," Murthy said. ... "When you chew, molecules in the food," he said, "make their way back retro-nasally to your nasal epithelium," meaning that essentially, "all of what you consider flavor is smell. When you are eating all the beautiful, complicated flavors ... they are all smell." Murthy said you can test that theory by pinching your nose when eating something such as vanilla or chocolate ice cream. Instead of tasting the flavor, he said, "all you can taste is sweet."
The tastes that we perceive through our tongues and soft palates are limited to salt, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami. Interestingly, not all organisms can recognize all of these flavors. Cats, for example, have no receptors for sweetness. Some may argue that cats lack sweetness altogether, but they've just experienced the wrong cats and I will forever argue that good cats may exist somewhere. Still, it's reassuring that cats are not motivated to raid our pantries for maple syrup and chocolate baking morsels; cats on a sugar rush would be intolerable vortexes of over-animation. They will never know the sensation of melted Belgian chocolate on the tongue. Sad for them, but thankfully, we can taste sweetness.
What We Perceive
There are limitations to the perception of our tongues, though: they can determine only sweet, or only sour, etc. Without our olfactory senses, our taste repertoire is severely limited. We can literally count the choices on one hand. I've not tried this, but theoretically, if we pinch our noses and restrict the sense of smell, we're unable to differentiate between an apple and an onion when bitten into. It's the aroma that provides the details and character necessary to identify our favorite meals, beverages, tobaccos, and whatever else people in their infinite variety put in their mouths. It's logical that any technique magnifying the sensations from our nasal epithelium (see how I poached that term from the quoted passage above?) would provide an interesting alternative from which to triangulate a more precise appreciation for the tobaccos we enjoy.
And we already retrohale anyway, to some extent, even if we don't recognize it. For years, I didn't think I retrohaled, but that impression is contradicted by specific memories of occasional smoke manifesting from just above my mustache, so I'm not the best judge. Smoke particles, like food molecules, travel via the turbulence in the mouth into the nasal area, where the flavors are sorted and sent to the brain for memory association and the registration of complex flavor/scent profiles.
Our perceptions of various tobacco flavors are dependent upon smoke particles migrating into the nasal cavity, just as food flavors are dependent upon food molecules making "their way back retro-nasally to your nasal epithelium," as Dr. Murthy puts it.
How to Retrohale
We wouldn't distinguish the multitude of tobacco flavors we already do if we weren't already retrohaling to a minor degree. Smoke particles naturally migrate into the nose where the olfactory bulb recognizes them, but the idea of retrohaling is to route more smoke through that sensory area.
Through what's called retronasal olfaction, flavor and aroma sensations are produced when particles from food or smoke travel through the back of the throat into the nasal cavity. Retrohaling reroutes the smoke through the nasal cavity, bathing the olfactory receptors and dramatically multiplying the number of aroma particles reaching the olfactory nerves, resulting in enhanced and magnified flavor.
Smoke particles, like food molecules, travel via the turbulence in the mouth into the nasal area, where the flavors are sorted and sent to the brain
As mentioned, it isn't something I typically practiced. It spontaneously occurred now and then without my understanding how I accomplished it, and it certainly intensified the flavors, but it made my nose itch and I didn't think about its inherent possibilities nor pursue the phenomenon. Cigarette smokers commonly exhale through their noses, but cigar and pipe smokers typically don't inhale the smoke, and it's harder to exhale smoke through the nose if it doesn't originate in the lungs.
I only started learning to retrohale properly as I was preparing for this article, and it was a humorous initial session. I practiced in front of my cat, who is pretty judgemental about human behavior — mine, anyway — and she seemed to think my comportment contemptible. In fairness, though, she thinks that regardless of what I'm doing. Still, she was pretty attentive as I contorted my face into various configurations and I think she even stopped planning her next move against the vase of pipe cleaners I keep on the table — to better observe the show.
"Mock me all you like," I said. "I can taste chocolate and you can't." She seemed unconcerned. "Hey," I continued, "my tamper was right here. Where'd you put it this time?"
I fetched another tamper and continued experimenting. I found it similar to learning how to blow smoke rings, but faster and easier to achieve. At first I would take a large mouthful of smoke and try exhaling air from my lungs to see if I could carry some of that smoke into and through my nose.
I kept trying and found that by elongating the back of my throat vertically, the smoke seemed to draw into my nose with the passing of the air from my lungs. From there it was another five minutes of perfecting the geometry of my mouth before I could confidently perform the maneuver on command.
If you have not yet experimented with retrohaling, I recommend practicing by filling your mouth with smoke and then slowly exhaling from your lungs while altering the back of the palate. Lower your jaw, for example, and push the back of your tongue down and back. Keep working on various permutations and registering the results, changing the internal contours of your mouth until smoke begins to make its way through your nose. As results begin to improve, modify and improve from that position.
Pipe smokers pursue many avenues to achieve variety. We alter the humidity of our tobaccos, alter the preparation of flakes by rubbing them out to different consistencies, change the way we load a bowl according to a chamber's dimensions, alternate puffing rhythms, and we find extensions of our smoking experiences in myriad other ways as well.
Retrohaling is another technique for better tasting and understanding our tobaccos. With a new blend, for example, we might identify a subtle flavor that we may not at first recognize, but by retrohaling, that particular flavor is magnified, hopefully to a point where it can be comprehended, or at least remembered until identification is achieved.
I smoke primarily Va/Per blends, and retrohaling that category of tobaccos leaves my nose itchy. There's an increased sensation of pepper and spice from the Perique. I now retrohale perhaps once or twice a day, just to calibrate my impression of a blend.
My usual blends seem to take on a deeper register when retrohaled, with deeper, lower tones of flavor, while the high notes are equally enhanced in the higher register. The nuances and subtle characteristics reported by reviewers often elude me, but with this technique I feel I have a better understanding of these refined and delicate flavors. But I find it somewhat irritating to my nose, and we all possess different levels of nasal sensitivity, so experimentation is recommended.
... flavor and aroma sensations are produced when particles from food or smoke travel through the back of the throat into the nasal cavity
I found similar results with Latakia blends, which I don't care for but like better when retrohaling. English-style blends are usually one-dimensional for me, the Latakia overpowering every other flavor, but with the retrohale, a wide vista of more subtle flavors emerged. They don't induce the itchiness in my nose that Va/Pers do when retrohaled but are smoother and more satisfying. Retrohaling may get me back into English blends.
The Professional Perspective
Jeremy Reeves, Head Blender for Cornell & Diehl, employs retrohaling to identify subtle flavors and aromas that are lost in regular smoking. "With individual blending components that may possess little individual complexity," he says, "retrohaling helps me identify them." Jeremy's technique is somewhat different from mine. He takes a mouthful of smoke, expels it, and then draws it back into his mouth before it can travel, then draws it into and through his nose. "By expelling, pulling it back in, rolling it around in the mouth, and then retrohaling, the subtleties are much more pronounced."
It doesn't require constancy. "Just one or two retrohales during a smoke are sufficient," says Jeremy. "It's like priming a pump to get my sense of smell fully engaged." Orientals, he says, are his favorite category of tobacco to retrohale. "Those heavy, oily leaves are particularly responsive," he says, "and they possess an unbelievable spectrum of different aromas and notes of spice. Retrohaling provides an entirely different experience."
Smokingpipes Director and VP Shane Ireland says that there is less of an advantage to retrohaling than there is a profound disadvantage to not retrohaling. "It's widely known that our olfactory senses inform our flavor perceptions significantly. I think I've heard that something like 70 percent of taste is smell. If you are not retrohaling your cigar or pipe tobacco, you are not experiencing the full spectrum of flavor that the tobacco offers. It's that simple."
Retrohaling is another technique for better tasting and understanding our tobaccos
Shane often hears from smokers who are unable to deconstruct the many disparate flavors reported in reviews. "They read about all of these subtle notes of leather and elderberry and the nuances of earthiness and fruitiness in their tobaccos, and they just don't taste them. I think that most of the time, it's because they aren't retrohaling."
There's some self-education involved, however, and retrohaling supports that process. Some of our perception is recognizing and articulating what it is that we're experiencing. "We have to learn," says Shane, "what a leathery note is and what a citrusy note is, and retrohaling speeds up that process, making it easier and quicker to build the vocabulary needed to differentiate these flavors. I don't ever smoke a cigar or pipe without retrohaling almost the entire time. Our olfactory senses register many more flavors than our taste buds can."
Burley blends, when retrohaled, seem to be additionally supported by a sensation of nuttiness beyond regular smoking, with various side notes harmonizing. Aromatics each have their own qualities; some work well with retrohaling; others may not. I've tried it with only a handful of lighter Aromatics and they respond well, but I suspect that heavier Aromatics might not fare so positively. If you have some experience retrohaling Aromatics, or any blend, a comment below about your experiences would be appreciated. And if you have other techniques for perfecting the process, they will be more than welcome.
Retrohaling is another tool in the pipe smoker's toolbox. It offers smoking experiences enhanced and magnified by concentrated flavors and aromas, making it well worth exploring for those of us seeking additional adventures in smoking. We're always trying to find better performing pipes and new tobaccos and different smoking techniques to extract the full measure of potential flavor from our blends. Remember this technique for those occasions when a more detailed examination of any tobacco is appropriate. But also remember, for those in situations similar to mine, that cats don't approve. They don't retrohale themselves and don't tolerate it well in their presence, often stealing pipe cleaners in response and depositing them in the dog dish to be extracted later from said dog by a veterinarian. So don't retrohale around your cat, but be assured that under nearly every other circumstance, it offers significant advantage and enhanced flavor.
- "What the Nose Knows" (Feb 27, 2020) by Colleen Walsh, The Harvard Gazette
- "What can I Taste with my Tongue?" by BBC in collaboration with Professor Barry C. Smith - University of London
Tagged in: Cigar Basics Pipe Basics Tips
This is a very informative article. I usually do not give my opinions on different blends because of my inability to recognize the flavors as much as a more seasoned Piper, but now I’ll add more “Retrohaling” in my pursuit of thoroughly getting the most out of what blends offer.
Great article, Chuck, as always. As I was reading, I realized I've been retrohaling since I returned to the "Path of the Pipe" some three years ago after a thirty-some-year absence. I made the decision not to "lung inhale," so moved to the long-remembered and inelegant inhale method named method "French". By a quirk of fate, the retrohale. My technique, though, is a bit different...I push the pipe smoke out through my nose with a constriction of my throat AND push of the back of my tongue. Works for me--IMHO/YMMV
Retrohaling came very natural to me, but I was a cigarette smoker long before bekng a pipe smoker. I never had to do any of that complex learning to do it.That said, tey retrohaling everything you ever try. While some tobaccos will have what is basically an enhancement of flavor, others will have an entirely different flavor in the nose than they do in the mouth (retrohaling doesn't always just enhance all the flavor equally).Yes, some will burn and tingle in the nose, others won't burn at all. But it's worth it, especially with some blends where you can experience two different flavors at once, one that you taste in your mouth and another you taste in the nose (they don't always mix and it's an odd sensation having two different flavors at once, alternating between them by controlling the amount of retrohale is somewhat akin to crossing your eyes for some and for others it's more like being able to keep one eye still while moving your other eye).Somewhat similar to how black coffee seems to change in taste based on temperature (the cooler it becomes, the more bitter it tastes, which is due to the fact that bitter receptors on our tongues don't function over a certain temperature—the coffee isn't less bitter when it's hot, we just can't taste as much of what's there when it's hot).
The retrohale discuss is always fun and educational. The article is for me spot on and while one has to develop the palate in order to understand all the flavors or notes, we are all different and somethings are hard to find. Don’t be discouraged. If you have a chance watch Muttonchop pipers on retrohale and breathing while pipe smoking. It is worth watching. Cigars are the same and why for some the peppery feeling or other nose itching sensations abound. Try it and if it is for you excellent. I always say enjoy what you smoke and smoke what you enjoy.
I’ve been retrohaling since I first took up pipes, mostly upon my initial lighting of a fresh bowl, but never fully understood the physical aspects of it. I did it because it gave me a greater sense of what I was tasting. Now I know why. Interesting article.
I'm an english, balkan, oriental blend pipe smoker, and have been smoking a pipe for 54 years. Smoking a pipe is about smelling the aroma of a tobacco blend. Yes, what you call retrohaling is the only way to appreciate the aroma of a blend. My technique is to let the smoke slowly drift out of my mouth while softly breathing in the smoke through my nose. This technique does work well in a breeze.
I will give this a try , I usually smoke English blends , and have several in rotation and will explore the flavors with this technique. thank you for the article .
Nice factual presentation made. I find that the flavor registration of any blend of complexity is enhanced with the application of retro-haling, including heavier aromatics such as The Squire's Old Toby or Wilke's PeanutButter. I do think however, like when eating, after a certain point the palate becomes saturated with the flavors and does become overly sensitized thus minimizing the incremental boost one gets with retro-haling. So, my advice is to practice it intermittently to optimize its enhancing effects.
Good article, as always - it's nice to read something entertaining and educational at once. In regard to Tallan's comment: What you describe is different from the retrohale, and what I've commonly heard called the French Inhale (although I don't care for the term). Retrohale involves moving smoke directly from the mouth, to the sinuses, and out through the nostrils. The French Inhale is where you gently expel smoke from your mouth, and then inhale it through your nose. I do this nearly constantly, and it's my absolute favorite part of pipe smoking. The retrohale is ok too, and a different experience, but in my experience you need to let the smoke cool a little more in your mouth before introducing it to your sinuses to avoid the burning/stinging sensation.
I happened upon retrohale practicing circular breathing with my horn. I Close off my throat by raising the back of my tongue. Then I just exhale through my nose. Sometimes with the stronger tobaccos it seems as if my nose hairs are being set on fire. It definitely does enhance the smoking experience.