Arguing taste is usually a pointless exercise. Making your case with numbers, on the other hand, can be far more convincing. With that in mind, we at Cigar Aficionado took a long, hard look at our numbers from 2016 to answer major questions concerning the premium cigar industry: which countries delivered the best cigars of 2016? What sizes outperformed the others? Who gave the best value for your dollar? We were as curious about the answer as you, and to get to the root of the issue we stripped away the subjective elements to bring you some objective answers—and we have both the qualitative and quantitative data to support it. The answer is in the scores.
And there were a considerable number of scores, 665 of them, all the cigars we rated in 2016 in the pages of Cigar Aficionado magazine and Cigar Insider, our twice-monthly, ratings-based newsletter. A year's worth of scores is a large brick of information to digest. That's why we've broken down the data.
High scores are, of course, a reflection of high quality, but raw numbers alone aren't as meaningful without context or perspective. To offer a comprehensive evaluation of the premium cigar industry, we presented the results in a few different ways: By brand, by country and by size. We also looked at prices. Which country produced the most expensive cigars? And do the most expensive necessarily have the highest scores? The answer is in the info.
All the cigars we rate undergo a thorough blind tasting process. In our view, tasting cigars blind is the most honest, accurate and impartial method for evaluating a cigar. By "blind," we don't mean that we smoke cigars blindfolded. A full-time tasting coordinator goes out into the market and purchases cigars from high-end, reputable brick-and-mortar tobacconists. He then removes the identifying cigar bands and replaces them with generic numbered labels. These coded cigars are passed out to our panel of tasters. (And the coordinator is not a member of the panel, to avoid the possibility of him recognizing a cigar he coded.) When the band is removed the taster has no choice but to review the cigar at face value. Any preconceived notions that are often associated with a brand name—good or bad—are gone. All that's left is the cigar and its taster. Scores are based on performance and quality: appearance, draw, combustion, complexity and harmony.
As it turns out, 2016 was more than just a pretty good year. Of the 665 cigars we rated, 250 (or 38 percent) scored 90 points or higher on our 100-point scale. That means that a cigar smoker walking into the local brick-and-mortar shop has a good chance of finding a cigar that isn't merely decent, but outstanding.
Within the 90-plus-category of cigars lies an even more exclusive, elite grouping. Of the 250 cigars that scored 90 points or higher, 61 scored at least 92 points, but only 22 cigars scored 93 points or higher. These 22 smokes are the crown jewels of our yearly tastings. Nicaragua makes eight (36.4 percent) of the cigars within this coveted bracket, Cuba makes seven (31.8 percent) and four (18.2 percent) are from the Dominican Republic. Mexico, Honduras and the U.S. had one apiece.
Only six cigars scored 94 points, and these were the highest-rated cigars that the magazine smoked in 2016, many of which went on to make it onto our Top 25 Cigars of 2016. (Note that cigars on the Top 25 list were rated via a separate tasting, and the Top 25 scores were not factored into this year-end report.)
Of the six cigars to score 94 points, two were Cuban—the Romeo y Julieta Belicoso and the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No 2. The Romeo y Julieta Belicoso is one of the more obscure Cuban cigars, and is frequently forgotten in favor of Romeo's Churchill series (Churchill, Wide Churchill, Short Churchill, Petit Churchill). The Belicoso outscored them all. Seeing how the Belicoso is becoming a forgotten size in the Habanos portfolio in lieu of new releases, there's a chance it could be discontinued in the near future.
The Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 is in no foreseeable danger of deletion. It's a classic staple in the Habanos portfolio, and one of Cigar Aficionado's Star Cigars of Cuba. It placed No. 9 in Cigar Aficionado's Top 25, so it is not only excellent, but consistently so—and Cuba produces plenty of them.
The top score bracket of 2016 was dominated by Nicaraguan cigars. Two Padróns and one Oliva. This comes as no surprise. Padróns usually excel in our blind tastings, and the Oliva Serie V Melanio has collected many accolades from this magazine since it was released. Both have been former Cigars of the Year. The Casa Turrent Serie 1901, on the other hand, has broken new ground. It's the first Mexican cigar to ever score 94 points in this magazine.
When we look at the scores on a country-by-country basis, the cigars from Cuba truly stood out. We rated 88 Cuban cigars last year, and 49 of them—an impressive 56 percent—scored 90 points or higher. This is more than a positive statistic. Amid poor crops and a recent shortage of tobacco, Cuba's cigar industry still managed to produce no shortage of high-scoring smokes. While this sample of 88 Cuban cigars included a few special releases like Edición Limitadas and Regional Editions, the majority were regular-production smokes such as Hoyo de Monterrey Epicures or Partagás cigars from the letter series.
The average rating for a Cuban cigar in 2016 was 89.8 points, making it the country with the top relevant average. Though Mexico and the Bahamas have higher average scores of 91 and 90, too few of the cigars were smoked to consider those numbers statistically relevant. In 2016, Cigar Aficionado only rated three Mexican cigars and only one from the Bahamas. Costa Rica was close behind with an average score of 89.4, but only five cigars were rated, so again, it isn't very telling of the country's capability on the whole. For all meaningful purposes, Cuba produced the highest average score of any country.
Nicaragua is a different story. We rated 231 Nicaraguan-made cigars in 2016, and they scored an average of 88.97 points with 40.3 percent scoring 90 points or higher. The number is not quite as high as Cuba's, but once you consider the high volume of Nicaraguan cigars scored last year, the average score becomes more impressive.
Nicaragua has grown into one of the largest producers of premium cigars for the United States, in terms of both volume and quality. Most of the country's cigar-manufacturing takes place in the city of Estelí, now a boomtown thanks to the growing demand for premium cigars. And, despite the rapid growth, Nicaraguan cigars show no sign of deteriorating in quality. They performed quite well in Cigar Aficionado's Top 25 of 2016, occupying nearly half the list with 12 spots, including the
No. 2 Cigar of the Year, the Rocky Patel Sun Grown Maduro Robusto.
Only slightly behind by fractions of a point were cigars from Honduras and the Dominican Republic. The 79 Honduran cigars we rated scored an average of 88.57 points while the 231 Dominican cigars averaged 88.38 points—a marginal overall difference. As far as the 90s go, Honduras had 31.6 percent of its cigars rate in the 90s, and the Dominican Republic had 30.5 percent. Averages were similar, but the difference in volume of cigars rated between Honduras and the Dominican Republic was quite large, 79 to 239, respectively.
It's more telling to compare Nicaragua to the Dominican Republic. Both are vying to be the No. 1 exporter of premium cigars to the U.S. and we rated a comparable amount of smokes throughout the year (231 Nicaraguans to 239 Dominicans). Nicaragua came out ahead by less than a point. In other words: very close. And this neck-and-neck outcome is also reflected in terms of units. Each year, Nicaragua comes closer and closer to matching the Dominican Republic's export numbers to the U.S.
Regardless of the close rivalry between Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, all countries (excluding Mexico and The Bahamas on account of the small sample) fell within two points of each other. This is very good news for the consumer. It indicates that the premium market in general is not only delivering high quality overall, but that the playing field remains quite level.
We rated 19 cigars that were rolled in the United States, and they fared worse than any other country, by average, scoring 88.26 points.
Turning to cigar sizes, the cigars that scored the best in 2016 were corona gordas, sometimes referred to as toros. These cigars are the true middle-ground of the size chart—not the shortest, not the longest, not the fattest and not the thinnest. We rated 145 corona gordas (21.8 percent of the year's total) and they had an average score of 89.2 points. The cigars are not only superb in quality, but consumer favorites. Our annual poll of retail tobacconists conducted by Cigar Insider newsletter consistently ranks toros as one of the top-selling sizes in cigar shops.
Figurados also scored quite well. These shapely cigars tied with corona gordas for top score by average. The size category encompasses any cigar with tapered ends, torpedo tops, pointed heads, bulbous feet or contoured shapes of any kind. We tested 112 figurados last year. They're difficult to produce, require more time and could be intimidating to a casual smoker, but cigarmakers are still including figurados in their portfolios, and obviously producing them with plenty of high-quality tobacco.
Most notable among figurados was the La Flor Dominicana Andalusian Bull, a double tapered salomon with striking contours that could be regarded with fear or awe, depending on your outlook. Either way, most connoisseurs have no choice but to respect it. Look at the Andalusian Bull's résumé: The form requires unusual rolling skill to create; the cigar scored 93 points when first reviewed in Cigar Insider; and the smoke went on to become Cigar Aficionado's No. 1 cigar of 2016 at 96 points in the special Top 25 tasting.
If you're not sold on salomones and are a die-hard robusto guy, this shorter, simpler format continues to be a very strong category. At only 2/10 of a point behind corona gordas and figurados, robustos ended up with an average of 89 points over 120 cigars. The appeal of short, squat cigars like robustos lies in their ability to deliver large volumes of smoke in short periods of time.
We rated few double coronas last year, as it's one of a few dying size categories and difficult to find in the market. Unlike robustos, double coronas require a much longer commitment, but the 14 we rated had an average of 88.9 points.
Five sizes scored 88.5 points: Churchills, grandes, lonsdales, panetelas and petit coronas. Of this five-way tie, the Churchill category was the most impressive due to the 86 cigars—far more than the other three categories. Grandes are a fairly new size. Cigar Aficionado gave this format its own tasting section back in 2012 when the trend started to pick up and it was clear that enormously thick ring gauges were going to be part of the cigar retail portfolio. Grandes are defined as any cigar rolled with a 60 ring gauge or fatter. With an average of 88.5 points, cigarmakers are clearly putting good tobacco in their grande sizes and taking fat cigars seriously. Cigar Aficionado rated more robustos and corona gordas this year than any other cigar.
The size perhaps to avoid? Coronas. These somewhat short and downright slim smokes (the Cuban standard is 5 5/8 inches long by 42 ring gauge) scored an average 87.9 points.
Do you have to spend a lot to get a great cigar? Not at all. Cubans, turned out to be the most expensive smokes of 2016, and by no small margin. Our tasting of 88 Cuban cigars produced an average price of £19.04 (about $23.75) judging from prices on the U.K. market. Buying American might be patriotic, but American labor doesn't come cheap. Cigars made in the U.S. have an average suggested retail price of $11.58 per cigar. Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic are a little gentler on the wallet, averaging $9.19 and $10.67 per cigar, respectively. Honduras comes in at the least expensive at $8.25 per smoke.
Judging by the numbers of 2016, the news is quite positive: you don't have to pay a lot for a great cigar. You can get a great cigar from any country, and you don't need to carry out a worldwide search to obtain them, as great cigars are, for the most part, widely available. No single country has the monopoly on high-quality smokes. Smokers are entitled to their preferences, but, statistically speaking, there is no justifiable reason to be a snob.