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Gordon Mott

Telling the Complete Truth About Licenciados Cigars

Posted: Apr 18, 2013 12:00pm ET

Cigar Aficionado's cigar ratings are a cornerstone of our success. Manufacturers wait for the independent judgment on their products, retailers post the scores in their shops, and consumers use the scores to help them make buying decisions. In 20 years, we estimate that we have rated more than 15,000 different cigars.

The process is rigorous. We have a full-time employee—Clay Whittaker fills the role today—who regularly goes out into New York City cigar shops, buys cigars, brings them back to the office, removes the bands and places them in the tasters' humidors. There have always been at least four staff members—our editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken also takes part—who participate in the blind tastings, and we are training new staffers right now who will become members of the panel in the future. Each taster scores each cigar in four different categories—appearance, smoking performance, flavor and overall impression—to reach a number based on a 100-point scale.

I would be remiss to not point out that the ratings have been controversial from the day we debuted the magazine. No manufacturer of any product in the world likes to be subjected to independent criticism, especially if it doesn't meet their expectations. We also created a lexicon of tasting vocabulary that some experts dismissed as misleading, but we have always believed that taste is universal, and four basic tastes—sweet, sour, salty and bitter—can be found in a cigar too. Of course, consumers seem to relish the debate, criticizing us if we don't like their favorite cigars, or being astonished that we can like something they don't.

In the end, we strongly believe that the ratings have provided a focal point for debate that has opened up conversations between cigar smokers that didn't exist in the past. Smokers today compare notes, talk about what kind of flavors they discover in their cigars, and give their own ratings on a 100-point scale. They argue and compare, and then share their cigars to try to convince their fellow smokers.

The manufacturers also have come around, and today use the scores in advertising campaigns, and even on their shelf-talkers in stores. It is a marketing tool embraced by many in the industry. We monitor those campaigns to ensure that the facts they present to you are accurate and current.

Which is why I'm writing this blog. We just saw an announcement for Licenciados, citing a score of 93 points given to one of their cigars; the recent announcement was for a cigarillo product packaged in a tin box. The original score was given to a handrolled Licenciados Toro in 1994, something the announcement chooses to ignore. But that cigar—a 6 inch long, 50 ring gauge smoke—bears no resemblance to a small, thin cigarillo in a tin, produced 20 years later. The only thing they have in common is a brand name. That's misleading. By the way, we rated the Licenciados Toro size twice in the magazine since 1994—it received an 86 in 1996, and the last rating in 2006 was an 80, something I guess they'd prefer you not know about.

The ratings remain something we protect with our all our vigilance. We want our readers, and any consumer in the market, to have faith that what they read with our name attached to it is the truth. That's the best thing we can do to preserve our own credibility.

Comments   21 comment(s)

Eric Schwenk April 18, 2013 5:28pm ET

You raise great points, Gordon. Many cigar brands will cite a score within an advertisement that one of their cigars received either years ago or for another cigar line that hardly resembles the one in the ad. "Rated 93 in CA" has been a frequent claim but only a few manufacturers have been open and honest enough to list specific cigars and their exact ratings within the ads, along with the dates they were rated.


firoz sabuz — kushtia, khulna, Bangladesh,  —  April 19, 2013 6:04am ET

this is very independent and frequent claims to be an honest about their product and exact ratings.


Float Dub April 19, 2013 12:54pm ET

They BS, you BS. It's all the same.

I read the year end round up and am always amazed how you re-smoke 700+ for the top 25. In addition to the several dozen "new" sticks you review for that issue.

How and when do you do that exactly? For the 700, that would be 2 cigars a day for a year. I am guessing you "retry" all of the sticks in the 60 day interval between magazines for the January issue. No? Please explain.

So are you smoking 10-15 a day? How are your palates not blown? Or are you, as we all suspect, smoking a 1/4" of each? Or is everyone not actually smoking every stick? Or is it, as we all suspect, a load of BS?

Also, if 8 cigars got a 93 this year, how do you determine which one came in at #8 and which came in at #16? This one was a 93.1 and this one was a 93.2?? Or it is a reward for the advertisers? Oh...Kristoff started advertising this year? Let's slip him in, but only at #11. Rocky has been with us for ages. He gets a #8....I mean it's hard not to think that fellas.

And where does Clay go out in NYC and buy your Cubans for review exactly?

Also, if a budget stick got a 93, why is it not in the top 25? Is price a factor? If so, how do you know it's budget if it's a "blind" tasting? If it were 7 bucks would it get a 91 instead?

If this year's #1 budget stick (Cuba Aliados) was a nickel more at MSRP would it have made top 25? Similarly, if the #1 Cigar this year was 90 cents less, would it have been the number one bargain cigar?

How does a stick that got the highest rating all year a couple years ago (AB Family Blend, 94) not even make the Top 25 that year? Did it just fall to pieces on the "retry" phase?? Seriously? Everyone called you out on that one. What an amazing coincidence that the AB Prensado wins next year!!

How does it all work? No wonder everyone with a brain calls BS on the whole process


Greg Mottola April 19, 2013 4:25pm ET

"am always amazed how you re-smoke 700+ for the top 25"

We don't. We never did. As we have stated repeatedly: For Top 25, we hone in on the top 50 or 60 best scoring cigars of the year and re-smoke those. Blind. It's like a tournament. Those that still scored well go onto subsequent tasting rounds until we have finally narrowed it down to a list of 25. It's that simple and becomes a numbers game of attrition. We explained this. Every year. Over and over and over again. But in case you missed it, here is. Again. (http://www.cigaraficionado.com/top25/show). The procedure is delineated in that link. The answers are there, however if all you're looking for is some sort of "gotcha," you won't find it.


Christian April 19, 2013 4:51pm ET

Hey Float Dub, you sound a lot like Lew Rothman did before his mag-a-log “Cigar” went under. Half your questions are based on false premises and then you answer your own fabricated straw-man arguments with infantile conspiracy theories. Nice attempt to confuse the reader. You want conspiracy theories, go read the Pelican Brief.


Float Dub April 20, 2013 12:56pm ET

Fair enough, Mr Mott. I actually really appreciate you responding. I will admit I totally misunderstood the "700 cigars" under review. This makes much more sense.

But that was only the first point.

I still wonder about the 93 rated budget stick, though. Why does the price put it in a different list? A 93 is a 93, right? And what makes a 93 come in at #8 vs #16?

And I am still curious to know where you go out and get the Cubans :)


Christopher Dunn — Honolulu, HI, USA,  —  April 22, 2013 7:36pm ET

I, too, appreciate Mr. Mottola's "blog" and his response. As a reader of Wine Spectator, I have questions about tastings and scoring that are very similar to the situation here. Most tasters for Wine Spectator do not revisit the wines the following day, despite the fact that most wines being reviewed are of a recent vintage and will benefit from 24-hr of air.

With respect to cigars, I have seen several people on the CA forums ask if Mr. Mottola and his colleagues smoke the entire cigar, or just a portion of it. We know that the flavors change during the course of the smoke, but I rarely see any tasting notes that would suggest that anyone at CA smokes the full cigar. So, I use the notes and scores as a guide, and supplement them with other comments on the forums and elsewhere.

The other thing that I'm curious about is who, exactly, does the tasting of each cigar. With Wine Spectator, each reviewer identifies him/herself. Thus, if I know who the reviewer is, I know if I might like the wine, or not. I know how my palate compares with theirs. With CA, however, I have no clue. It would be usefule if Mr. Mottola, Mr. Savona, et al. would sign their reviews.


GORDON MOTT — NEW YORK, NY, UNITED STATES,  —  April 23, 2013 8:30am ET

Gentlemen,
As much I love Greg Mottola, he is not the Mr. Mott who wrote the blog...just wanted to clear that up so he doesn't take the heat for my blog. His response, however, was right on: every question asked has been answered many times in the magazine and here in the forums.

But I digress.

Cigar Aficionado adopted many of the tenets of the Wine Spectator methodology, but not all. Let me respond again to Mr. Dunn's questions.

We do not smoke all of the cigar, but after injudiciously saying once that I (I don't speak for all the tasters) only get the cigar "running," in tobacco speak, before giving it a final rating, I have revised that comment. I have observed my process carefully since that statement, and I spend somewhere between 20 to 30 minutes on each cigar...smoking three to four during an afternoon of tasting with some time to clear my palate between each cigar. As always, just as in the Wine Spectator, all cigars are tasted blind except where otherwise noted. Our scores are meant to provide a guide for consumers to make selections based on flavor and performance--I will, and have always argued, with smokers and cigar smokers who say "you have to get to the 2nd half of my cigar to the good part." That just doesn't work for 99 percent of normal consumers of any product--and carries about as much weight as saying, Open that bottle of wine 24 hours before your dinner party...it will be ready to drink by then. If a cigar tastes poorly at the outset, very few people will wait out the 20 to 40 minutes to get to the "good part." That doesn't mean it won't acquire some different flavor profiles, but I would wager that in 20 years of rating cigars, the number of times a bad cigar has turned great could be counted on one hand.

As for who smokes it, we have a panel of four to five people who smoke the cigars...each cigar is reviewed by at least two people, and sometimes a third or fourth taster if there are big discrepancies. It's the way we do it...we have always done it that way, and we have talked about it dozens and dozens of times in our publications. We do sign connoisseur's corner cigars, partly because those are also smoked non-blind.


GENSHO YUKAWA — Redmond, WA, UNITED STATES,  —  April 23, 2013 3:08pm ET

I find it truly amazing that individuals who complain about the rating process will cite ratings given to cigars from a few years ago. Given the amount of cigars that CA rates each year, I can hardly remember ratings given to cigars in the last issue of CA. Seems those that want to debunk the process put the most weight into the process...hmmm.

People - this is an OPINION. As in "this is what I think of this cigar, on this particular day, after this particular meal/drink". While I'm sure Gordon and the other testers try to minimize the amount of "noise" in their testing, it's still an effing OPINION! The same OPINION you have of my post by this time...you may be right, you may be wrong. It's still an OPINION.

I've used the ratings and reviews as a way to explore new and interesting cigars that I might have never tried before. It's also something that has guided me to visit a B&M cigar shop in every city that I visit to see what different brands of cigars they might carry from my local shop. It's what helps make my decision to purchase a particular brand of contraband tobacco when I travel overseas. But I don't follow the ratings with a blind eye to my own palate...there are some highly rated cigars that I completely disagree with CA on.

And let's cut to the chase. We're all just extremely jealous of Gordon and the rest of the staff at Cigar Aficionado for the endless bounty of amazing cigars from all corners of the world at their beck and call. On top of that...they get paid to smoke cigars...in their office at work...and share that experience with all of us.

So Gordon: THANK YOU for the fodder you've given us to talk about cigars. It's a great debate to be enjoyed over a cigar and glass of scotch.


Christopher Dunn — Honolulu, HI, USA,  —  April 23, 2013 3:26pm ET

Mr Mott,

My thanks for your candid and helpful reply and my deepest apologies to you and to Mr. Mottola for using his name in error! Please forgive me. I am sure you are tired of answering certain questions, and countering certain aspersions (I'm sure the WS crew feels the same way), but I appreciate your patience particularly with us "newbies" to the cigar world.


Bronson S. April 23, 2013 4:29pm ET

Thank you for the insightful blog.

Mr. Dunn, you would happen to be the Christopher Dunn from Lyon's Arboretum in Manoa?


terry greene April 23, 2013 4:43pm ET

I'm a rating follower. Generally, any cigar rated 89 and above I like. If I can restrain myself to one cigar a week they seem to be at their best. One a day and they kind of loose something. What puzzles me is a how a cigar can be rated high and the next time it lands on the low end of the scale. The most recent cigar rated that I disagreed with is the Olivia Melanio. I had high hopes for it being it was advertised as a member of the Serie V group. I just couldn't understand what they were trying to do with it and how it got rated in the 90's. Anyway, keep working to improve your reviews. Your's is the best.


Danny Cha — Fullerton, CA,  —  April 23, 2013 5:04pm ET

As people have mentioned, its a "guide/opinion". Everyone's preference, palate, etc. will differ; as will the scores. I think people create "conspiracy theories" because their favorite cigars or lines aren't flooded in the Top 25 or any other list (ex. Tatuaje/Opus/Viaje/Illusione/My Father/Liga Privada/etc. fans). I'm almost certain that the majority of the people that have negative comments, are sure to be fans of certain brands and think their favorite cigar/s deserve more recognition and credit than other cigar brands.

I myself, personally love those brands mentioned, as well; and keep a good amount of stock of them, age them, enjoy them, and etc., all on a regular basis. But, I also know that there are tons of other cigars out there that please one's palate and experience more than and/or compared to other's, mine included. And that keeps my mind, and wallet, open to try new cigars/lines. If it wasn't like that, I'd be smoking the same cigar every day, my "go-to" cigar, as they did for decades and decades before the whole "Rating system" and hundreds of choices.

All-in-all, like I said, as a big fan of all the brands I mentioned earlier, they don't always get high scores. But that doesn't deter me from still enjoying them, whether they receive a 75 or 95. CA and their guide makes me curious to try to find a new favorite, perhaps. I personally use the ratings as a "guide", as mentioned, to get me to be more curious as to how my palate compares to those at CA, to try new and different cigars, to continue to support the "fruits of labor" from various countries, to enjoy the big picture; premium, hand-rolled cigars, regardless of score/s.

But I do have one last comment, because CA is the biggest and most recognized Rating System, they have a huge impact on a local AND global scale. So it's disappointing to hear that only 20-30 minutes of a cigar is smoked on average; as I believe smoking a cigar isn't just about the initial handful of taste-categories in the first 1/4 or 1/3 of a cigar. But rather, the whole process of enjoying a WHOLE cigar, how it progresses, the flavors and profiles that develop, and then placing a rating on it. Because at the end of the day, a high rating for 20-30 minutes of a cigar can make a company, but it can also ruin one as well.


Rudi de Groot — CALGARY, AB, CANADA,  —  April 23, 2013 5:22pm ET

We have this discussion every time the Top 25 is released. And then we always ask each other, "How much sway & influence does a quarterly, full-spread ad influence a stick's ratings?"

As well, many times the No 1/2/3 smoke is boring, however sometimes it blows our minds. I wonder if consistency is ever measured from initial release to 12 months later... because maybe that #1 Churchill you smoked was a gem, but the one I tried several months later had it's blend altered?

But I guess thats one of the anomalies that goes with smoking a natural, hand made product, eh?

Keep 'em lit!

i]; )'


Steve Thompson — Wahiawa, HI - Hawaii,  —  April 23, 2013 7:06pm ET

Mr. Mott,

I am a relative newcomer to the world of cigars and I want to thank you and the CA staff for providing me an opportunity to learn more about my new deversion. I do, however, have a question. You wrote above that reviews are based on appearance, smoking performance, flavor, and overall impression on a scale of 100. My question is this: does each of these four factors receive a possible score of 25 or are the values weighted somehow? I believe I have read the answer somewhere on the CA webpage, but I can't seem to find it again. Thank you again for your great magazine and this forum.

Aloha,
Steve Thompson


David Hanifan — Elk Grove, CA, USA,  —  April 24, 2013 2:51am ET

Mr. Mott,

Excellent post and I can read the passion we all have for the cigar experience by the fierce questions and responses. I would like to propose that I will be willing to sacrifice my time to smoke and review blind cigars and happily take the heat from those that feel I have the palate of a goat. I realize the surprise you must have that I would be so selfless in my desire to help.

I can assure you that you have no need to thank me as I only want to help.

Kind regards and the Prensado is a fantastic cigar bit don't take my word, I read the rating in some magazine at some point and they rated it number 1.


Rev Davenport — Roseville, CA, US,  —  April 24, 2013 3:06am ET

As a shop owner, I have the fortunate circumstance to access and smoke just about any cigar on the U.S. market. Anytime a new cigar comes out, I smoke it to understand what the flavors are all about.

Ratings? Forget it! It's more important to me to be able to describe to a customer the distinct flavors of each unique blend and then let them make up their own mind. I don't ever have customers ask me to show them the highest rated cigars. They ask me what a cigar tastes like and I tell them what flavors I get out of the smoke. They absolutely prefer a description of flavors (i.e. lightly roasted hazel nut with a light floral sweetness with a smooth finish [Conn Shade/Natural blends] or dark roasted coffee/espresso bean with unsweetened cocoa and a spicier finish [maduro blends]) rather than, "This cigar got a 92 and this one got a 90".

But, hey, I'm all about the flavor of the cigar, not the rating.

As far as a CA buyer going into shops across NY and picking up random sticks, I call B.S. I specialize in boutique brands that don't necessarily have the $$ to advertise in CA and are never rated, let alone mentioned. As a business-man, I understand you must cater to those that feed you, hence the advertisers in CA get their cigars rated. Only after the web-a-sphere blows up with well-deserved clamoring for an amazing "boutique" cigar do I see it mentioned and even more rarely reviewed in CA.

With that said, I think the CA rating system does a great job of helping introduce newbies to the world of cigars.


Greg Mottola April 24, 2013 9:20am ET

"As far as a CA buyer going into shops across NY and picking up random sticks, I call B.S. I specialize in boutique brands that don't necessarily have the $$ to advertise in CA and are never rated,"

Mr. Davenport,
This uninformed, knee-jerk skepticism grows very tiring. I had the tasting coordinator job for five years. It was my primary duty to go to shops all over the city (and other cities when I had the chance), buy cigars and remove their bands for blind tastings. I don't see why this is so hard to believe. If you honestly think that it is untrue, then call NYC's shop owners, but do some research rather than calling "BS" before you have the facts.
As for the insipid advertising conspiracy theory, it is neither a realistic nor well thought-out proposition. Some of our biggest advertisers get some of the lowest scores and conversely, some of our largest scores are achieved by companies who don't advertise at all. Just look at the pages. That fact alone destroys the conspiracy theory, yet this short-sighted line of thinking persists. In addition to the evidence, the business logic doesn't work either. Any magazine that sells out ratings to the highest bidder loses overall credibility, then loses readers, then loses circulation, and then loses advertising. No company will advertise in a magazine that nobody reads. Advertisers pay for reader exposure. Ratings are an entirely different animal. This is basic business 101. If you won't follow the logic, and also refuse to see the evidence within the pages, then there is nothing more to be said.
As for rating small brands, we have very simple criteria: A brand must be in 100 different B&M shops in order to be rated in the magazine. Once the company has established itself in 100 accounts, we go out and purchase the cigars and the tasting coordinator puts it into our rotation.


Christopher Dunn — Honolulu, HI, USA,  —  April 24, 2013 12:43pm ET

I, too, find Mr. Davenport's contentions less than convincing. The same conspiracy theory has been levied at Wine Spectator and other serious wine publications, despite clear evidence to the contrary. As Mr. Mottola states, it would be lethal business model to do otherwise.

The only thing with which I agree with Mr. Davenport is his determination to match a buyer's tastes to the right cigars, regardless of reviews, scores, etc.

I agree completely with Mr. Mottola's response. My only comment is this: I, for one, would like to know more about some of these "small brands," including those that are available in fewer than 100 B&M shops. It increases my overall understanding and awareness of the cigar world. And who knows, I might be fortunate enough to find some.


Lauro Araya — Freehold, New Jersey, United States,  —  April 24, 2013 1:25pm ET

Not sure what's the big deal is all about. Every ratings coming out from CA is based on their collective cigar tasting OPINION using their established methodology or process formed by 20 years experience. I have my own set of criteria and OPINION for a few brands of cigars I've smoked and paired with different spirits and meal, some of the tasting notes and ratings agreed to my personal experience and some don't, and that's how it should be. In my humble opinion CA provides the cross reference point for my own cigar tasting and as such provide a very valuable and interesting guide for the benefit of any cigar aficionado. I hope cigar lover see this CA ratings for what it is !


jonathan brogan April 29, 2013 8:10pm ET

Hey, this is fun; keep going !!



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