Cigar Aficionado's cigar ratings are a cornerstone of our success. Manufacturers wait for the independent judgment on their products, retailers post the scores in their shops, and consumers use the scores to help them make buying decisions. In 20 years, we estimate that we have rated more than 15,000 different cigars.
The process is rigorous. We have a full-time employee—Clay Whittaker fills the role today—who regularly goes out into New York City cigar shops, buys cigars, brings them back to the office, removes the bands and places them in the tasters' humidors. There have always been at least four staff members—our editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken also takes part—who participate in the blind tastings, and we are training new staffers right now who will become members of the panel in the future. Each taster scores each cigar in four different categories—appearance, smoking performance, flavor and overall impression—to reach a number based on a 100-point scale.
I would be remiss to not point out that the ratings have been controversial from the day we debuted the magazine. No manufacturer of any product in the world likes to be subjected to independent criticism, especially if it doesn't meet their expectations. We also created a lexicon of tasting vocabulary that some experts dismissed as misleading, but we have always believed that taste is universal, and four basic tastes—sweet, sour, salty and bitter—can be found in a cigar too. Of course, consumers seem to relish the debate, criticizing us if we don't like their favorite cigars, or being astonished that we can like something they don't.
In the end, we strongly believe that the ratings have provided a focal point for debate that has opened up conversations between cigar smokers that didn't exist in the past. Smokers today compare notes, talk about what kind of flavors they discover in their cigars, and give their own ratings on a 100-point scale. They argue and compare, and then share their cigars to try to convince their fellow smokers.
The manufacturers also have come around, and today use the scores in advertising campaigns, and even on their shelf-talkers in stores. It is a marketing tool embraced by many in the industry. We monitor those campaigns to ensure that the facts they present to you are accurate and current.
Which is why I'm writing this blog. We just saw an announcement for Licenciados, citing a score of 93 points given to one of their cigars; the recent announcement was for a cigarillo product packaged in a tin box. The original score was given to a handrolled Licenciados Toro in 1994, something the announcement chooses to ignore. But that cigar—a 6 inch long, 50 ring gauge smoke—bears no resemblance to a small, thin cigarillo in a tin, produced 20 years later. The only thing they have in common is a brand name. That's misleading. By the way, we rated the Licenciados Toro size twice in the magazine since 1994—it received an 86 in 1996, and the last rating in 2006 was an 80, something I guess they'd prefer you not know about.
The ratings remain something we protect with our all our vigilance. We want our readers, and any consumer in the market, to have faith that what they read with our name attached to it is the truth. That's the best thing we can do to preserve our own credibility.