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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

(continued from page 1)

In 2001 the magazine, which had featured one cigar size an issue since its creation, began to embrace the diversity implied by the vertical brand tastings. Instead of 100 or more cigars of one size, each issue of Cigar Aficionado was now featuring more than a dozen robustos, Churchills, corona gordas, figurados and more, showing a cross-section of the market. Readers and cigar makers alike wonder about the mysterious tasting process. It starts at local shops. To recreate the smoking experience that the typical consumer will have, most of what is smoked by the panelists is purchased at retailers by our
tasting coordinator—currently me.

Once they’re in the building, the cigars are stripped of their bands and dressed with a number-coded white label. At any given time, our editors can have as many as 50 cigars in their humidors—half of the average tasting for the magazine, plus half of the average tasting for Cigar Insider. Editors smoke in their offices every day, so the smoking conditions remain consistent throughout each test.

Cigars are scored in four categories: appearance, smoking characteristics (which includes how a cigar draws and how it burns), flavor and overall impression. Each category is weighted, with the first having the least importance and the last having the most. The final score is a sum of points awarded in each category, with a greatest possible score of 100. Currently the panel comprises five members, though it has varied between four and six members over the years. After the initial run of rankings has been completed, Shanken, Mott or Savona may order additional tastings. If there are any wide variations in the initial round of scoring, (usually between 15 and 20 percent) the cigars will be retasted.

What this means for the panel is that they’re almost always smoking. More than 800 ratings appear each year in Cigar Aficionado and Cigar Insider. Including resmokes and the test for the Cigar of the Year, each editor is smoking more than 500 cigars a year for testing alone. Most test smoke two to three cigars a day.

Each of the tasters has had several years of smoking experience as well as having undergone a probationary tasting period before their scores are weighted. “Everyone goes through a long training period, even if they have had prior experience, before we begin using their scores on a regular basis,” says Mott.

Cigar Aficionado ratings chart, 2.
Countries of Origin of Tested Cigars, 1992-2012
Once a year, when Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 Cigars of the Year tasting begins, a list of all cigars that scored at least 90 points is created, from which the first round of candidates is selected. These cigars are smoked to narrow the field. The list is then narrowed again as a second and third round of smokes are carried out to select the winning smoke and rank the other 24.

Frequently the winner is the highest-scoring cigar, though the panel reserves the right to award Cigar of the Year to a finalist with other factors weighing in its favor. “There’s a subjective quality to it,” says Mott. “Is there some buzz about it? Is it new? Is there something that differentiates it from the others out there? Is the price attractive?”

A look at our scores over the past 20 years provides a snapshot of the industry, and how the market has changed. And the current trends also suggest where the future of the market may be heading. In two decades of tasting, Cuba has been outscored in annual averages by just two countries. According to our database, Cuban scores hit their lowest marks in 2002 and 2004. In 2002, Cuba was surpassed for the first time by both Nicaragua and the U.S.A. Nicaragua’s streak was short-lived, but the U.S. continued to trade places for best scores with Cuba until 2006, as Cuba slowly climbed back to 90-point levels. Keep in mind, however, that far fewer cigars from the United States were being rated.

The cigar smoker who has been lighting up for the past two decades may look fondly back on the mid-to-late 1990s as a golden age in the cigar industry. The cigar boom, a period described by editors at Cigar Aficionado as having run from 1992 to 1997, brought countless new brands and blends into the humidors of smokers. But that variety and excitement did not necessarily come with quality. Scores from the boom show some of the most turbulent data in our 20-year history.

The 1990s saw both the highest and lowest scores on record. A 99 was given to the Cuban Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona in the first issue, in 1992. That was the first and only 99 to be given to a cigar in a blind tasting. (Connoisseur’s Corner, where 100-point scores have been meted out, is not a blind tasting.) To date, only two 97-point scores have been given. But the same issue that saw the 99-point blockbuster also contained one of the worst scores in Cigar Aficionado history: the Penamil No. 57 from the Canary Islands. It scored 69 points. Only one other cigar has performed as poorly: the Ornelas No. 1 Vanilla from Mexico, in September of 1996. The ’90s also produced more than 100 cigars scoring less than 80 points, as compared with just 20 since 2000.

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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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