For most of 2011, the editors of Cigar Aficionado remarked that the new cigars from Cuba reminded them of the glory days of the early 1990s. The benchmark brands showed balance and intensity, beautiful wrappers, solid tobacco flavors and excellent construction. But it is risky to rely only on impressions (and the occasional truly great cigar) to make assertions that in the end, may or may not be true. So, we decided to go to the database and test our impressions against the numbers.
The facts are clear. In 2011, the average score of Cuban cigars rated in both Cigar Aficionado magazine and Cigar Insider newsletter reached an all-time high: 90.9 points, up from 90.3 in 2010. We rated 103 Cuban cigars in both publications last year, which is about on par with every year since we moved to a bimonthly publication schedule in 1997. In 2007, we rated our highest number of Cuban smokes ever with a total of 124.
This past year also saw the highest number of Cuban cigars scoring 93 points or higher—15 cigars. The highest scorer of the year was the Partagás Serie P No. 2; the cigar continued to perform well in our annual Top 25 tasting, earning the No. 4 position.
But there were a number of other great Cuban cigars too: the Punch Double Corona, Cohiba Lancero, Bolivar Corona Extra and H. Upmann Sir Winston. Those results support the conclusion that Cuban cigars are continuing to improve, and reaching levels of consistent taste and quality that had been absent for a number of years.
“We are probably seeing some of the finest years of Cuban cigar production ever,” says Edward Sahakian, who has operated the Davidoff shop on St. James Street in London since 1980. “Now they have time to produce better tobacco, ferment and age it longer, keep the cigars longer and not rush them out.
“Anyone buying a Cuban cigar in the last two, three, four or even five years is getting great cigars. The cigars today are the Dom Perignons of the future. They are real collector’s items,” Sahakian says. He explains that it is difficult to keep some brands, such as the Cohiba Behike line and the Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada, in stock on his store’s shelves.
Christoph Wolters, who runs the Casa del Habano in Hamburg, Germany, agrees that the current production is the best of the last 10 years or so. “I wouldn’t say they were better than the early 1990s, just different. They were using different varieties then,” he says. “Since they began aging their tobacco more again, the cigars, like the limited edition Havanas, have been some of the most remarkable cigars. It is a fantastic improvement.”
He adds that the demand for the regional and limited editions has been “sky-high,” and that Cohiba has been the leader in his market in 2011. “Sales figures for this popular brand are through the roof.”
In our reporting from Cuba in 2011, executives at Habanos S.A. expressed uniform optimism about the changes that had been instituted in the production process, and the evident improvements those had created. For instance, every major Cuban cigar factory now has a draw test machine, and they are testing a high percentage of every cigar rolled. Perhaps more importantly, the marketing strategy, which has developed the regional and limited edition programs, has created a general confidence and excitement inside Habanos. Their own enthusiasm for the products clearly is being translated into the marketplace.
Furthermore, if the tobacco crop of 2010–2011 ends up being as good as the growers believed it to be, then this run of great Cuban cigars should continue as that tobacco begins to be used.
Looking back, the historical information from our tastings also confirms many of the things we have said about Cuban cigars over the past 20 years. The Cuban cigars rated in our first years of Cigar Aficionado, 1992 and 1993, both had average scores higher than 90 points, a reflection of what we have always described as the glory vintages for Cuban cigars: 1990, 1991 and 1992. During those years, Soviet subsidies were still in place, production levels were still quite low by comparison to the cigar boom years from 1995 through 1998, and some of the original tobacco hybrids were still in use. Those crop years helped keep Cuban cigars strong through the 1993 and 1994 box code era, but by 1995, when the first impact of fuel and fertilizer shortages were noticed, the quality began to tail off. In my tastings for Connoisseurs Corner, I have found 1995 cigars to show a vintage character that is less robust than 1994 or 1993, although the cigars have largely been harmonious over their lifetime.
From 1998 to 2005, the average scores of Cuban cigars never exceeded 88.8 points. The year 2002 was the lowest average ever for Cuban cigars in our tastings, 87.2 points. That year also had more low outliers than ever, with 13. (Outliers are statistics that are far apart from most of the data. For purposes of this article, low outliers are any score below 83 points, and high outliers are scores above 93.) Going back to 1992 and 1993, the number of high outliers was 13, or nearly 30 percent of the cigars rated, another sign of the great quality of those superb years.
It deserves explanation that our tasting records are based on calendar years. Invariably, there is a lag time between when a cigar is boxed and shipped to the market and when we acquire them for tasting. So, a 1993 score in Cigar Aficionado could have been based on cigars boxed as early as 1990. (In the early years of our publications, we didn’t include the box codes in our ratings.) Even today, we end up with boxes that may be several years behind our publication date—this is a reflection of the types of cigars found on retailers’ shelves around the world, because we want to taste all brands, and sometimes the smaller brands available at retail have spent some time on store shelves or in distribution channels. Today, we include the box codes in our tasting notes, and that makes it easier to track vintage performances. (You can research historical ratings on your particular favorite cigars via our free tasting database.)
On the flip side of the great vintages, we have always warned people that the period from 1998–1999 up to and even including 2003–2004 represented one of the most problematic eras for Cuban cigar quality. Overproduction, some devastating hurricanes and weather patterns and a struggle to acquire enough raw materials, especially fertilizer and gasoline, made production in the fields very uneven. Tabacuba, the monopoly in charge of tobacco production, also was aggressively testing new hybrids—sometimes with less than stellar success. It was during this period too that draw problems affected many Cuban cigars, especially larger Churchill and double corona sizes; the easiest explanation is that during the boom years, so many new rollers were put on the tables at the factories that they simply were not as well-trained as traditional rollers.
At the time, we noted the inconsistencies with comments about poor construction and flaws in all aspects of the cigar tobacco, from the color of the wrapper leaves to the draw and burn of the cigars to the taste and even frequent problems with tobacco beetles.
But those days are gone. These are wonderful years of Cuban cigar production. Mr. Sahakian is advising his customers to buy one cigar, or one box, to smoke now and one to lay away, because the current inventory is only going to improve with age.