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20 Years of Tastings

The editors of Cigar Aficionado have rated more than 15,000 cigars over two decades. Here is an unprecedented inside look at the process and results.
G. Clay Whittaker
From the Print Edition:
Cigar Aficionado's 20th Anniversary, September/October 2012

Twenty years ago, Marvin Shanken and Gordon Mott sat down in a boardroom with the people who would become Cigar Aficionado’s first tasting panel. They closed the doors, lit up and smoked their way through seven of the cigars to be reviewed in the premier issue before nicotine poisoning and a green hue set in. They were off to a rocky start, and the process needed some tweaking.

“I’m pretty sure that’s the last time we ever did that,” says executive editor Gordon Mott. “It became clear immediately that that was not a great way to taste cigars.”

But some things had to be learned the hard way. At the time, the idea of rating cigars was unique. This was pioneering, and sometimes pioneers get sick. And Cigar Aficionado had something else in common with adventurers of the past: they faced pessimism.

“When we told people in the cigar business that we were going to do that, they were very skeptical,” recalls Mott. “First of all, because it had never been done. They, I think, were curious, but I don’t think they really understood what it was we were going to be doing.”

Soon the magazine adopted the method of having tasting panelists rate cigars alone in their respective offices, where smoke congestion wouldn’t be such an issue.

Senior editor David Savona recalls the first tastings as an outsider. “I read Cigar Aficionado before I worked at Cigar Aficionado,” he explains. “For me, the ratings demystified the buying process. I remember my first trips to a cigar shop and I didn’t know what to buy. Then I started reading the magazine. The Fidel Castro issue was my first issue. I picked it up to read the interview, but then I saw all of these ratings. And I said, ‘Wow.’ And I took out a little card, I read some notes—you know coffee or cinnamon or whatever—that sounded pretty tasty. And I wrote down some names. I wrote down some scores of cigars that I could afford, and I went to a smoke shop with my little card and I picked out some cigars, and I had a much better result because I had a little bit of information with me.”

Cigar Aficionado ratings chart.
Cigar Aficionado and Cigar Insider Scores From Major Countries, 1992-2012
Ratings have also been a source of contention over the years. After the magazine was released, the questions started popping up immediately. “People would ask, ‘I mean how are you tasting all these things? It’s tobacco. It tastes like tobacco,’ ” Mott says. But a standard tasting vocabulary had already been established for wine, spirits and food. As far as Shanken and Mott were concerned, smoke was no different. They were still looking for unique characteristics of aroma, flavor and quality, only in a hand-rolled, premium cigar.

Charges of favoritism also cropped up. But the editors smoke the cigars in our tastings blind, meaning they have no knowledge of the cigar’s brand, country of origin, component tobaccos or price, which makes the process as objective as possible. Cigars are judged on their merits apart from their origin, so the best tobacco and best cigars rise to the top.

More tweaking would be done. In 1995, as the cigar boom was gathering force, the magazine’s current approach to covering the market began to feel inadequate. Editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken decided to expand Cigar Aficionado’s coverage with a newsletter. “Marvin wanted us to go out and find the latest, greatest brand that was hitting the market, and do verticals,” says Mott. That’s when Savona joined the team to run Cigar Insider, which published its first issue in January 1996.

Unlike the magazine, Cigar Insider rates entire brands at once, giving a size-by-size comprehensive cross section of the whole cigar line. “You went from having a small and easily understood market to a very crowded market full of unproven cigar brands, and thanks to a vehicle like Cigar Insider, we were able to taste many more of those cigars,” says Savona.

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Comments   3 comment(s)

Canada Cigar — Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada,  —  February 25, 2013 10:36am ET

Very interesting article. Thanks for posting!

Keith Tramer — Stoughton, Saskatchewan, Canada,  —  February 28, 2013 11:50am ET

very interesting seeing how the years average out per country and see the trends, especially over the 'boom' years. As a guy who worked in a cigar shop during those early boom years, the lower ratings, the subpar tobacco and your ratings certainly prove what we all felt we knew at the time. Good work Gents.

Thomas Person — louisville, KY, USA,  —  March 5, 2013 6:35pm ET

Great story! I discovered my palette loves Connecticut shade and I often look in the reviews and notes for cigar makers that are using such. Often I am unaware or cannot locate the smokes locally so I make note and look for them when traveling. So the ratings are always a must read for me and makes for a great baseline to see if I can discern the same flavors or notes on a given cigar.

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