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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 2)

“There were a lot of very boring cigars at the time,” says Savona. “New guys came on the market not really knowing what they were doing, trying to mimic a taste, trying to rush the process.” He adds that the demand for tobacco also forced newer blenders into rushing their production. “You can’t just go out and buy four-year-old, five-year-old tobacco. They were forced to buy fresh tobacco, and the newcomers to the market didn’t want to take the necessary steps required to make a good cigar. And so people getting into the market trying to make money would say, ‘I”ll just copy the best-selling cigar on the market.’ ”

Countries like the Canary Islands, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama and the Philippines all produced premium cigars during this period. While a select number of new brands did things the right way, many new-to-the-industry smokes were rushed and unrefined. “I remember smoking a cigar at a trade show in ’96 or ’97,” recalls Savona. “It was supposed to be a tan wrapper, Connecticut-shade wrapper; it was largely green. The cigar had that green taste to it—it kind of tasted very buggy and sharp. It wasn’t properly fermented, it wasn’t aged—it was bad.” That wasn’t an exception, he notes. “There was a lot of that back then. You don’t see that anymore.”

Another way of looking at the boom is to examine annual average scores across the board. We averaged the scores of all cigars tasted in the magazine and newsletter for each year to assess the overall quality during the 20 years of Cigar Aficionado. The average score for a cigar across all 20 years of data is 87.15 points. This makes determining a trend in quality very simple, because every annual average score prior to 2003 is lower than that average. In 2003, the average began to steadily rise, climbing over 88 points in 2007 and reaching into 89 points for 2011 and, so far, for 2012. The lowest annual average was in 1997 (at the peak of the cigar market in the United States) when the curve dipped to just 85.43 points for the year. That year is among the worst for cigars made in Mexico and the United States, and represents low numbers for the decade for Cuba.

Despite that low, Cuba’s average scores are the highest, currently more than 89 points. Nicaragua and Honduras have shown impressive growth through their own innovations, both rising nearly five points in the two decades on record. The Dominican Republic has nearly always been a steady performer, and after somewhat of a boomtime slump, its cigar ratings for the past two years are higher than they have ever been.

Cigar Aficionado ratings chart, 3.
Examining the data shows how cigars have changed in other ways. Ring gauges showed a steady rise over the past two decades. We looked at averages for corona gordas, figurados and robustos. Robustos rose from an average ring gauge of 49.89 in 1994 (no data is available for 1993) to 51.19 ring in 2012. And corona gordas now average more than 52.5 ring, up from just 48 in 1994. The most impressive rise came from figurados, which grew from an average of 47.5 ring gauge in 1993 to more than 53.6 for 2012.

Over the years, some cigar-producing countries have fallen off the radar. Jamaica’s once-vibrant cigar industry is now virtually absent from the cigar world. Mexican cigar shipments have shrunk, and it’s hard to find a cigar that was rolled in the Canary Islands or the Philippines.

Mott has seen all the trends, and likes what they indicate for the future. The moderation of power cigars, the return of some Connecticut shade: he sees these as indicators that the market is staying diverse.

“I think the market needs to respond to consumer tastes, and consumer tastes are not uniform. Different people like different kinds of cigars, and there are people who just prefer that milder smoother smoke, so I’m glad to see that coming back.”
And the scores reflect those successes. Every one of the major countries has improved over the last decade, and the separation between them is getting smaller. Mott says that the best Nicaraguan tobacco can be just as good as the best Dominican, and even the best Cuban.

“People still laugh at us,” he says. “I tell them smoke ‘em blind. Put your Cubans in with your Nicaraguans and Dominicans, without any identifying marks, and when it’s all over tell me what you find. You still may find Cuban cigars that are near the top or at the top of the pile, but they’ll be a lot of things that are either better or right there with them. And it’s just good tobacco.”

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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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