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A Deep Dive Into Our Ratings

Breaking down and analyzing our cigar ratings from the past year
| By Gregory Mottola | From The Godfather, March/April 2022
A Deep Dive Into Our Ratings

A year’s worth of ratings can provide enormous insight regarding the state of the premium cigar industry, but that much information can be difficult to recall all at once, which is why we’ve compiled this detailed analysis of 2021. It’s our annual, data-driven examination of 12 months’ worth of blind tastings, putting the spotlight on the countries that produced the highest-scoring cigars and the brands that consistently rose to the top of our 100-point system. Not to ignore your wallet, this report also serves as a price guide showing which countries delivered the best (and worst) bang for your buck.

All the scores compiled here are a result of our blind-tasting process. During evaluation, our panel of reviewers do not know the identity of the cigars, as the original bands are removed and replaced with a numbered label. Blind-tasting is the only true way to remove bias—conscious or not—and arrive at the most objective conclusions about any given cigar, and it’s the way we’ve rated cigars since 1992.

Between the six issues of the magazine and the 24 issues of Cigar Insider, our twice-monthly newsletter, we rated 628 handmade cigars in 2021, most of which came from the four major cigar-producing countries of the world: Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Cuba. Forty-three percent of the cigars from that grand total (268 cigars) scored 90 points or higher. This is an extraordinary show of consistency, especially considering the continuing logistical challenges of the pandemic.

If a 90-point cigar still isn’t good enough, there’s an elite subset of 51 smokes from 2021 that scored even higher. Performing at remarkable levels, 35 cigars scored 93 points, 12 did even better at 94 points and four had the stunning score of 95 points—classics by our standards. Scores that high are normally achieved by aged cigars that have had time to develop complexity and balance. The fact that these cigars scored so high right out of the factory makes them true prodigies in terms of tobacco. Many of the cigars that scored 93 points or higher went on to repeat the performance in our Top 25 tournament, which is a separate tasting altogether and not factored into this analysis.

This high-scoring group of extraordinary cigars came from two Nicaraguan companies that typically top our tasting sections in each issue: Padrón and Oliva. The Padrón Family Reserve No. 50 and the Padrón Serie 1926 No. 48 Maduro scored 95 points, as did the Oliva Serie V Melanio Figurado and the Maduro Churchill.

The Padrón Family Reserve No. 50 came out in 2014 to commemorate the company’s 50th year in business. It’s made in small quantities in Nicaragua each year with well-aged Nicaraguan tobacco, but shouldn’t be confused with the other Padrón 50th Anniversary cigars, which are longer, come in white humidors and are far more difficult to find. Answering the demand for thick cigars, the Padrón Serie 1926 No. 48 Maduro is the only size in the line with a 60 ring gauge and one of the highest-rated grandes to ever appear in our tastings.

A former Cigar of the Year, the Oliva Serie V Melanio Figurado proves that Oliva Cigar Co. does not rest on its laurels. Seven years after the grand accolade, and under new ownership since 2014, the Figurado is still one of the highest scores of 2021, showing great distinction with its Nicaraguan tobacco and Sumatra-seed wrapper from Ecuador. The maduro version is different from the original Serie V Melanio blend due to its dark, Mexican San Andrés wrapper, which adds a new dimension of richness, and showed quite brilliantly on the Churchill.

Both Padrón and Oliva are becoming emblematic of Nicaragua’s quality and market dominance. The Central American country not only produces the most handmade cigars for the U.S. market, but also created the most cigars in 2021 that scored 90 points or higher. We rated 296 cigars made in Nicaragua last year, and they had an average score of 89.17 points, with 123 of them (nearly 42 percent) scoring 90 points or higher. For another consecutive year, Nicaragua was the leader in premium cigar exports to the U.S.; it surpassed the Dominican Republic in 2016, according to data from the Cigar Association of America, and has kept that lead ever since.

Naturally, there are concerns that Nicaragua’s rise to dominance and increase in production will lead to market saturation and a decrease in quality. So far, this hasn’t been the case. If you look at the 51 cigars of 2021 that scored 93 points or higher, nearly half of them came from Nicaragua, including every cigar that scored a classic 95 points. We rated more cigars made in Nicaragua last year than from any other country, a direct reflection of Nicaragua’s current market share.

Despite Cuba having considerable production and distribution difficulties last year, the cigars that came off the island were still, by and large, impressive. Cuba did not have quite as many cigars score in the 90-plus range as Nicaragua, but it did have a higher percentage. Out of the 80 Cubans we rated, 54 scored 90 points or higher, which works out to more than 67 percent. The average score for Cuban cigars was 90.49, the highest average of any cigar-producing country. And while no Cubans made it quite to classic status, four Cuban cigars came very close at 94 points, including the Partagás Serie D No. 4, the most popular Cuban cigar in the world. It retails for £22.06 (about $30) in the United Kingdom. Other 94-point Cubans included the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especial—which is thicker than the Epicure No. 1 and longer than the Epicure No. 2—and smaller-production smokes like the Sancho Panza Belicoso and the Ramon Allones Gigantes.

Once the market leader, the Dominican Republic is now the second-largest exporter of handmade cigars to the United States in terms of volume. With the exception of the statistically irrelevant Bahamas (we only rated one Bahamian cigar in 2021), the Dominican Republic had the lowest overall average of any country at 88.61. We rated 169 Dominican cigars in 2021 and 58 of them (a little over 34 percent) earned 90 points or higher. Like last year, the top-scoring cigars of the Dominican Republic were absolutely dominated by Arturo Fuente Cigar Co. Eight Dominican cigars scored 93 points or higher, and seven of them were made by Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia. These included the Fuente Fuente OpusX Petit Lancero (94 points), the Ashton Heritage Puro Sol Churchill (94 points) and the Casa Cuba Doble Cuatro (94 points), which was the last blend that Carlos Fuente Sr. was directly involved with before passing away. The one non-Fuente Dominican cigar in the upper echelon score bracket was the E.P. Carrillo La Historia E-III, a 93-pointer that’s consistently performed well since it was released in 2014.

Honduras is often left out of the conversation when it comes to cigars, and it’s unfortunate. The country is still one of the top four producers of premium cigars for the U.S. market, with ideal soils and distinct growing regions that provide excellent tobacco. We rated 59 cigars from Honduras, and the average score for the country was 88.81 points. There were 25 cigars that scored in the 90s, but only one Honduran reached 93 points, and it also became Cigar Aficionado’s No. 19 cigar of 2021. The Saint Luis Rey Carenas Toro from Altadis U.S.A. is made at the company’s Flor de Copan factory in Honduras. Altadis gave the sleepy Saint Luis Rey some new life with an all-Honduran blend, save for the Nicaraguan wrapper. Of note is the binder, which is Honduran broadleaf, a varietal normally grown about 2,000 miles away in Connecticut.

Two more notable 92-point Hondurans both came from Rocky Patel Premium Cigars. The Rocky Patel Vintage 1990 Churchill also relies on Honduran broadleaf tobacco, only this time for the wrapper, which Rocky Patel says has been aged for 12 years. For the Rocky Patel Grand Reserve Robusto, which became Cigar Aficionado’s No. 10 cigar of 2021, the company decided to make it available in the U.S. market in 2020. It started as a European exclusive and is a tasty assembly of Honduran and Nicaraguan tobaccos brought together by an Ecuadoran wrapper.

Cigars made by hand in the United States remain a relative rarity, mostly due to the high costs of labor and tobacco importation. They’re more expensive than cigars made in other countries and more difficult to find, but we reviewed 15 American-made smokes last year and a third of them scored 90 points or higher, the standout being the 92-point Tatuaje Reserva K222. This cigar is made at the El Rey del Los Habanos factory in Doral, Florida. We also rated one cigar from Costa Rica, seven cigars from Mexico and one from the Bahamas. Because we rated so few from these countries, the scores of 2021 do not give us any meaningful statistical information regarding overall quality.

Perhaps you only smoke toros, or maybe you lean toward lanceros. Whatever your preference, we’ve also broken down our scores by size. Double coronas were king last year, as the 13 double coronas we rated ended up with an overall average of 90 points. That high average was driven up by cigars like the Cuban Ramon Allones Gigantes (94 points), the Dominican Fuente Fuente OpusX Double Corona (93 points) and the Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series A Maduro (93 points) made in Nicaragua.

Any pointy, tapered or shaped cigar qualifies as a figurado by our metrics. Most figurados in our tasting section are torpedos and belicosos (with the occasional perfecto or Salomon) and last year, we rated 93 figurados. They had a collective average of 89.57 points, putting them in second place, just ahead of lonsdales. The next six categories had averages that differed by mere fractions of a point. While the miscellaneous group—cigars of unusual dimensions and proportions—averaged 89.44 over 16 cigars, the popular robusto category had an average of 89.43 points over 101 cigars, a very strong cumulative score considering the high volume.

Coronas (27 cigars rated) averaged 89.33 points while panetelas (35 cigars), which include long, thin lanceros, averaged 89.31 points. Petit coronas (we rated 17) turned in an average of 89.29. Toros averaged 89.07, but, like robustos, the volume was much higher than other categories. Toros have become quite popular in the United States, and we rated more of them than any other size, 152 cigars. Still, toros maintained an average near 90 points.

Churchills may be a shrinking category, but we still rate at least 12 per issue of Cigar Aficionado each year. The 81 Churchills we rated last year averaged 88.84 points. Meanwhile, the grande category continues to grow. Many manufacturers are leaving out sizes like coronas or Churchills in favor of cigars with thicker ring gauges of 60, 70 and even 80. Grandes are categorized as any straight-sided parejo with at least a 60 ring gauge, and we rated 76 of them last year, averaging out to 88.22. Few companies still make the extra-long “A” size anymore, which is why we only rated one last year, and it scored 88 points.

Cigar sizes go in and out of fashion, as do strength preferences. The last few decades have seen a move toward stronger, thicker cigars, but bargains never go out of style. Everyone wants value, and despite inflation and price hikes, the agreed-upon “sweet spot” for a premium cigar seems to still hold at $10. In other words, that’s the price that many are comfortable spending for a good, handmade smoke. If a manufacturer can make a good cigar for less, even better. And if you’re a stickler for the $10 mark, then Cuban cigars weren’t in the budget last year. When averaging price, the 80 Cubans we smoked worked out to $37.73 per cigar. Because Cubans are not legally sold in the United States, that number was converted from mostly British pounds. Compare that to cigars from Honduras. With an average of $10.36 per cigar, it’s not only just over the sweet spot, but the least expensive of any country.

Nicaragua, however, was not that far behind, and this is particularly impressive considering the large sample size. The nearly 300 Nicaraguans we smoked last year averaged out to $10.76 per cigar, only 40 cents more than Honduras. The Dominican Republic is slightly higher, averaging $11.03 per smoke with a sample size of 169 cigars. The numbers jump precipitously once you look at premium cigars made in the United States. As mentioned before, high labor costs and leaf importation make American-made cigars much more expensive. The 15 cigars we rated worked out to an average of $17.37 each. Mexico was surprisingly pricey, averaging $14.96 per cigar. All the cigars from Mexico came from the Turrent family. They’re not only growers of Mexican San Andrés tobacco, but are the only cigarmakers doing anything of note in the premium sector.

The prices of 2021 are already, for the most part, outdated, as 2022 has seen a comprehensive rise in prices, due mostly to inflation and the higher costs of logistics. The accepted “sweet spot” among consumers might have to go up a dollar or two.

Last year was a balancing act for the cigar industry, trying to keep up with the kind of high demand it hasn’t seen in decades while maintaining consistency and, at the same time, dealing with Covid-related production and distribution issues. A year’s worth of ratings is an excellent litmus test as to whether or not the industry as a whole was successful. And based on the overall performance of 2021, the answer is a resounding “yes.” You may have waited a little longer for your cigars to arrive, and this year, you’ll pay a little more, but America has a huge appetite for good cigars, and the industry is more than capable of meeting that demand. 

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