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2020’s Ratings In Review

A breakdown of our ratings from the past year
| By Gregory Mottola | From Dustin Johnson and Paulina Gretzky, March/April 2021
2020’s Ratings In Review

Last year may have started off normally enough, but 2020 turned out to be anything but typical, especially for the cigar industry. Shops had to close down, factories had to shut their doors and a general air of uncertainty plagued cigar smokers across the country in the wake of Covid-19. As it turned out, the industry adjusted to the circumstances, and despite the “pivots,” “new normals” or other buzzwords of 2020, Cigar Aficionado and Cigar Insider were able to conduct blind tastings with the same level of accuracy and volume as any other year.

This analysis is an embodiment of 2020—a breakdown of 12 months’ worth of ratings, showing which countries produced the highest-rated cigars, which cigars excelled and which sizes performed at the highest level. It’s also a price guide of sorts revealing the countries that have the highest and lowest average retail prices. The data evaluation is not only a representation of our ratings but a cross-section of the cigar industry. 

Between the six issues of the magazine and the 24 issues of Cigar Insider, our twice-monthly newsletter, we rated 609 handmade cigars in 2020, most of which came from what we call The Big Four: Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Cuba. Thirty-eight percent of the cigars from that total (233 cigars) scored 90 points or higher. The high scores came from the major cigar-producing countries as well as ancillary nations like Mexico and the United States. When looked at in practical terms, it means that you have more than a 30 percent chance of picking up a not just good, but excellent cigar in a retail shop should you simply choose one at random.

Within that upper echelon of cigars that scored at least 90 points is an elite subset of 36 smokes that represents the highest scores of 2020. Of that group, 24 of them scored 93 points, nine scored 94 points and three cigars achieved the astounding height of 95 points, which is considered classic on our 100-point scale. Ten of these cigars repeated their fine performance in our tournament tasting and ended up on the list of Top 25 cigars of 2020. (Note that this analysis does not include our Top 25 list, which is a separate tasting of the year’s highest-scoring cigars).

These polished, top-tier classics of the 2020 ratings were the Padrón Family Reserve No. 44 Maduro from Nicaragua (95 points); the Arturo Fuente Don Carlos Eye of the Shark from the Dominican Republic (95 points) and the La Mission L’Atelier 1959 from Nicaragua (95 points), a cigar that went on to become the No. 4 Cigar of 2020. 

The Fuente Eye of the Shark proves that it still has as much star power now as it did in 2017 when it was named Cigar of the Year. It’s a curiously half-pressed belicoso that’s squared off at the bottom and pointy at the top, an unusual shape well-suited to the blend of Dominican tobacco and Cameroon wrapper. 

Made by My Father Cigars in Nicaragua, La Mission L’Atelier 1959 comes from the experimental L’Atelier arm of Tatuaje where brand owner Pete Johnson can produce more offbeat blends. This combination of Nicaraguan tobacco and Mexican wrapper may seem commonplace, but the Sancti Spiritus varietal in the filler brings unique dimension to the smoke making it as distinct as it is delicious.

There was a time when the Padrón Family Reserve lines were commercially unavailable, offered only at private Padrón events where a family member was present. It was perhaps Padrón’s most esoteric cigar. Now available, though in limited quantities, the No. 44 Maduro brings together some of the most aged, refined Nicaraguan tobaccos in the company’s inventory.

The nation that created the most 90-pointers is Nicaragua. We rated 285 cigars that were rolled in Nicaragua last year, and they had an average score of 88.97 points. And 112 of them (nearly 40 percent) scored 90 points or higher. Nicaragua remains the leader in premium cigar exports to the U.S.; it surpassed the Dominican Republic as the top exporter of premium cigars to the U.S. in 2016, according to data from the Cigar Association of America, and has maintained that lead role ever since. While Nicaraguan export numbers were down in the first quarter of 2020 (along with the other cigar-producing countries) the entire industry saw a return to growth later in the year and imports gained speed in August. The growth clearly did not affect quality.

If you look at the 36 cigars of 2020 that scored 93 points or higher, one third of them came from Nicaragua, including two of the three cigars that scored a classic 95 points: the Padrón Family Reserve No. 44 Maduro and the La Mission L’Atelier 1959.

You’ll notice that we rated more Nicaraguan cigars than from any other country. That is commensurate with not only the export numbers mentioned above, but also reflects the market share that Nicaraguan cigars currently enjoy on the shelves of American cigar retailers. 

Cuba was also an impressive performer last year. It may not have produced as many 90s as Nicaragua in terms of volume, but it had a higher percentage of 90-point scores. Forty-two of the 73 Cuban cigars we rated—57.5 percent—scored 90 points or higher. The average score of a Cuban cigar was 90.23, the highest of the Big Four. Shining brightest among the Cubans were five cigars that scored 94 points, including the Montecristo No. 2, undoubtedly the most iconic pirámide in the Cuban cigar portfolio, if not the entire world. The cigar retails for £26.91 (about $37.30) in the U.K. Other 94-point Cubans included mainstays like the Cohiba Esplendido and newer cigars like the Juan Lopez Punto 55, which is a Regional Edition cigar made exclusively for the French market. (Note that Cuba’s Regional Editions are often purchased and resold in other markets due to their popularity among collectors.)

The Dominican Republic, the second-largest exporter of premium cigars to the United States, had several top-tier smokes as well, although its average score was the lowest of the Big Four. We rated 163 Dominican cigars in 2020 and 50 of them (30.67 percent) earned 90 points or higher. However, the average rating for Dominican cigars was only 88.19, beating only Brazil (86.50 for four cigars) and the Bahamas (86.0, for a single cigar). 

It’s hardly a surprise that some of the highest scores from the Dominican Republic in 2020 came from Arturo Fuente, a company with an enormous following and one of the top Dominican producers. There’s the 95-point Eye of the Shark; the Fuente Fuente OpusX PerfecXion A (94 points) and the Fuente Fuente OpusX Double Robusto, a 93-point cigar that went on to become the No. 2 cigar of 2020. And while the E.P. Carrillo Pledge initially scored 92 points late last year, it absolutely excelled in our Top 25 tasting tournament, ultimately being named 2020’s Cigar of the Year. The cigar is made in the Dominican Republic at Ernesto Perez-Carrillo’s La Alianza factory. That same factory is also responsible for producing the Villiger 2020 TAA Exclusive Toro, a 94-point cigar made under contract for Villiger North America and only available for sale through retail members of the Tobacconists’ Association of America. 

Often forgotten, Honduras is still among the top four producers of handmade premium cigars for the U.S. market and provides some outstanding smokes. We rated 70 cigars from Honduras, and the average score for the country was 88.26 points. There were 19 cigars that scored in the 90s, but only two Hondurans reached 93 points, both of which ended up as the No. 9 and No. 10 cigars of 2020. The Rocky Patel Number 6 Corona showcases a Honduran Corojo-seed wrapper and is made by the Plasencia family for Rocky Patel, while Altadis’ Henry Clay Warhawk is produced at the Flor de Copan factory in Danlí. Both consist of Honduran-heavy blends, and both made our Top 25, placing No. 9 (the Rocky Patel) and No. 10 (the War Hawk). 

Another notable Honduran cigar rated last year was the Plasencia Cosecha 146 La Vega (92 points), which features a Criollo ’98 wrapper grown in Honduras’ Jamastran Valley from the banner crop of 2011-2012. It also ended up on the Top 25.

Few premium cigar brands are still rolled in the United States, and we reviewed only five American-made smokes last year.  Three cigars from this small sampling scored in the 90s, the standout being the 93-point Herrera Esteli Miami Short Corona Gorda. We also rated one cigar from Costa Rica, seven cigars from Mexico and one from the Bahamas. These countries have very small premium cigar operations, and are peripheral at best to the major producers, so small sample sizes do not paint a particularly telling picture.

While every cigar smoker has his or her preference in terms of size, there are some formats that tend to perform better than others. Length and ring gauge have an effect on airflow and combustion rate, which in turn can dictate how well the characteristics of the blend come through. It’s a trite cliché, but size does indeed matter.

After the extra-long “A” size, which had an average of 94 points (but this was for only one cigar, so the sampling here is statistically irrelevant), robustos had the highest average, scoring 89.25 points. We tasted 101 robustos last year, and they not only continue to be consistently popular sizes in cigar shops, they also tend to be reliable performers across the board, no matter the country of origin.

Long, thin cigars tended to score well, as 17 panetelas averaged 89.06 points, but thin cigars aren’t so popular in today’s market. Far more appealing to cigar smokers is the toro size, also known as corona gordas, and in 2020 we rated more toros than any other size, consistent with what is selling in cigar shops. Last year, according to our annual Cigar Insider retailer survey, more U.S. retailers named the toro as their best-selling size than even the robusto, which normally dominated the size ranking in the past. Our year-end total of 143 toros averaged out to 88.99 points—an impressive number given the amount we tested.

Churchills had an average of 88.86 points. The panel tasted 79 of these stately cigars, which, like many traditional sizes, have lost some popularity in the last 20 years, as did classic coronas. We rated 30 coronas last year, averaging 88.73 points. Figurados came next at 88.68 points. Torpedoes, pirámides and belicosos are among the most common figurados you’ll see in the market, but perfectos, Salomones or any shapely cigar with a curve, tip or taper qualifies as a figurado.

The petit corona is another size treasured by traditionalists. We rated 31 last year, which averaged 88.61 points. Other disappearing old-school sizes scored within fractions of each other. The 12 double coronas of 2020 had an average of 88.50 points while 27 lonsdales, which are like elongated coronas, turned in an average of 88.48 points.

When a cigar is too long for one category, too short for another, too fat or just too unusual, we file it under “miscellaneous.” Most of these oddities consist of short robustos, as more and more companies are creating this time-efficient size. Cigar Aficionado rated 32 miscellaneous smokes with an average of 88.44 points. 

Grandes, also known as gordos, have also displaced many of the traditional sizes once found on the shelves of every humidor. Ten years ago, they seemed like a fad, but these oversized logs, which can have thicknesses of up to 80 ring gauge, have become mainstream. Fans of fat cigars often cite value as the reason. We rated 42 of them, and they turned in the lowest average of 88.40 points. It should be noted that, with the exception of the single “A” size, the highest average and the lowest average were within one point of each other, showing consistency in quality regardless of trends or popularity. 

One trend that will never go out of style is the desire to save money, which would make Cuba decidedly unhip. When assessed under the British pound, cigars from Cuba have the highest overall average price at £28 each or $38.20. In the U.K., Cohibas are especially expensive, with cigars like the Cohiba Siglo VI (£42.50 or $58.07) and Cohiba Esplendido (£54.12 or $73.95) driving up the average cost. Even the diminutive Cohiba Siglo I, a petit corona that measures 4 inches by 40 ring gauge, will set you back £17.10 or $23.37. 

Compare that to Honduras, which had the lowest average price of the Big Four at $9.63 per cigar. Out of the 70 Honduran cigars we tested, very few retailed for more than $12. Costa Rica’s and Brazil’s averages were the lowest of all, but the small sample size does not really provide much statistical insight. 

Nicaraguan cigars cost a little more. The average price for the 285 Nicaraguan cigars we rated amounts to $10.79. Nicaragua represents our largest sample rate, and the cigars run the gamut in price with cigars retailing for as little as $4 (El Triunfador Favoritos, 90 points) to trophy smokes costing more than $30 (the Padrón Family Reserve No. 44). 

The Dominican Republic comes to less than a dollar higher than Nicaragua with an average price of $11.25 per cigar. As the second largest exporter of handmade cigars to the U.S., it was also our second largest sample at 163 Dominican cigars rated in 2020. Small, wallet-friendly cigars like the A. Flores Gran Reserva Desflorado Half Corona ($5, 87 points) and the E.P. Carrillo Interlude Maduro Carrillitos ($2.50, 88 points) helped to bring down the average against more expensive smokes such as the Davidoff Special <<53>> ($32, 87 points) and the Fuente Fuente OpusX PerfecXion A ($29.90, 94 points).

The U.S. will always skew more expensive due to higher labor costs. Five cigars made in Florida averaged out to $12.73, but Mexico’s high average is an anomaly. We rated only seven cigars, however the unusually elevated average of $16 can be attributed to the Casa Turrent 1880 series. Four of those cigars in the average retail for $20 each. Mexican cigars aren’t normally so expensive.

Whatever the “new normal” ends up being, the overarching takeaway from the data of 2020 is that the premium industry continued to produce cigars of very high quality and consistency, even when supply chains and production were stalled by a pandemic. Factories once shut down started rolling again and most of the shops and lounges across the U.S. slowly re-opened. On top of that, new releases reached the market despite the fact that the 2020 PCA tradeshow, which is the cigar industry’s most important convention, was canceled. Resilience was as much a theme within the industry as quality, and a look at the numbers proves it.

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