In this polarized, convoluted climate of conflicting political opinions, questionable reporting and, yes, fake news, it’s always nice to have some solid stats to help you make an informed decision. That’s where we come in. The most common question we’re asked at Cigar Aficionado is: Who makes the best cigar? The question itself is too subjective to have any definitive answer.
We’d much rather provide you with a year’s worth of meaningful data and a detailed analysis to go beyond the numbers alone. These statistics shed light on where the best cigars are made, how much you as a consumer will need to spend to acquire these fine smokes and where the premium cigar business as a whole is headed. Here’s a hint: it’s going in the right direction. And, as you’ll see, Nicaragua is becoming the shining star of the cigar universe.
Cigar Aficionado rated 668 premium cigars in calendar year 2017, between cigars rated in this publication as well as those reviewed in Cigar Insider, our ratings-based newsletter that comes out twice a month. By breaking down that total and examining the scores we can not only show you which countries make the highest-scoring cigars, but we can itemize the highest-scoring brands, best value by country and even which cigar sizes turned in the best performance.
Again, it all comes down to reliable data. Last year, every one of those 668 cigars were evaluated by our panel of cigar-smoking editors and underwent a blind tasting process. That means that each cigar was stripped of its label (or labels) and affixed with a generic, numbered white band. Before smoking, the editors know nothing about the cigar’s country of origin, the blend of tobaccos contained inside or its price. This way, each cigar was taken at face value and judged solely on its appearance, performance and, most important of all, its taste. The entire process is managed by a full-time tasting coordinator who goes out and purchases the cigars from reputable retailers and high-end tobacconists. He then creates a code and passes out the cigars to each panelist for review. To be absolutely certain that the identity of each cigar remains unknown, the tasting coordinator is not a member of the tasting panel.
We can’t stress enough the importance of a blind tasting process, and it's one that we have employed throughout the entire history of this magazine, which dates back to 1992. Knowing the identity of the cigar can (and will) seriously prejudice the smoker—in both negative or positive ways—and affect the outcome of a score. Our method removes any possible preconceived notions and puts every cigar on a level playing field. It’s the only way to give an honest, accurate and objective evaluation to a cigar.
But back to the data. Of the 668 premium, handmade cigars we rated last year, 237 (or 36 percent) scored 90 points or higher on our 100-point scale. This speaks to the elevated level of the cigars being produced today by the members of the handmade cigar industry. The quality of tobacco is very high, the blends they are crafting are superb, made with intriguing tobacco varietals. This high level of quality could be seen in 2016 as well, when 39 percent of the 637 cigars rated that year scored 90 points or higher. The industry has responded to the high demands of cigar consumers, who are more discerning and sophisticated today than they ever have been.
Which brings us to an even more focused category—the elite circle. Out of the 237 cigars that scored 90 points or higher, 61 scored at least 92 points, but only 19 cigars scored 93 points or higher. This choice-cut segment of 19 cigars represents the very best in cigarmaking for 2017.
Only four cigars were able to reach the lofty height of 94 points, two of which are Nicaraguan and both from the same producer—Padrón. The Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series Toro Natural and the Padrón Serie 1926 No. 2 Natural are two of Padrón’s super premium brands and serve as emblematic examples of how great Nicaraguan tobacco can be. The 1964 line is named after the year that the late founder José Orlando Padrón started his cigar company, while the Serie 1926 is named for the year of his birth. If the 1964 Anniversary line leans sweet, the 1926 tends to lean strong and spicy. Both are complex in their own way, yet maintain the rich qualities that exemplify Padrón’s house style. Consistency has always been a hallmark of Padrón as well. The Serie 1926 No. 2 was named Cigar Aficionado’s No. 2 cigar of 2017.
Also scoring 94 points, the Cuban Romeo y Julieta Short Churchill was one of the best cigars to come out of Havana last year. Habanos S.A., Cuba’s marketing and distribution arm, has made the Churchill a brand within a brand, as there are now four different sizes in the Romeo line that bear some variety of the Churchill name. However the one of distinction is the Short Churchill, which was also named the No. 19 cigar of 2017.
The Dominican Republic also produced an exceedingly fine 94-point cigar—the Arturo Fuente Don Carlos Eye of the Shark. It was the only Dominican cigar of 2017 to score 94 points and wound up as Cigar Aficionado’s Cigar of the Year. (A separate tasting is conducted for our Top 25, again with all the identifying cigar bands removed; those Top 25 taste test results are not included in this analysis.)
The Shark is exceedingly difficult to find, as are big Cuban Cohibas. The Cohiba Esplendido, a seven-inch-long, 47-ring-gauge smoke rolled in Havana, was the highest-scoring cigar in any regular Cigar Aficionado/Cigar Insider taste test. Its 95-point score made it the only smoke to achieve “classic” status on our 100-point scale, however, the big Cohiba failed to make the cut in the Top 25 special tasting, showing an issue of consistency in this particular cigar.
Poor weather and diminished tobacco crops in recent years were reasons that cigar lovers have had a difficult time finding certain Cuban cigars, including the Esplendido. Rarer still have been Cohiba Behikes, which are so scarce in world markets that we didn’t rate a single one in all of 2017.
Nicaragua dominated the top scores of 2017. We rated 267 Nicaraguan cigars in 2017—more cigars than from any other country—and they scored an average of 89.23 points, second place among those countries with 10 or more cigar ratings in 2017. An impressive 41.2 percent of the Nicaraguan cigars we rated scored 90 points or higher—110 cigars, far more than any other country. Ten of the 19 cigars that scored 93 points or higher (53 percent) were rolled in Nicaragua, a testament to the growing infrastructure of the country and its position as a leading producer of high-quality premium cigars.
Nicaraguan companies such as Padrón, Oliva, My Father, Drew Estate, Rocky Patel and A.J. Fernandez, among others, continue to release great brands into the premium market. More Nicaraguan cigars on our Top 25 came from Nicaragua than from any other country. There were 12, including five in the Top 10 alone: the Padrón Serie 1926 No. 2, Oliva Serie V Belicoso, My Father The Judge, Guardian of the Farm Apollo Selección de Warped and the Plasencia Alma Fuerte Generacion V. Until now, the Plasencia family has been known primarily as the largest grower of premium tobacco in Central America. Previous attempts to create a premium cigar had been lackluster at best, but the Plasencias kept at it until they finally made a great cigar—naturally, with their own tobacco.
Nicaragua is not only impressing with its quality of cigars, it has also become one of the largest producers of premium cigars for the United States, nearly neck and neck with the Dominican Republic in terms of volume. Decades ago, Nicaragua wasn’t even part of the conversation. At one point, even Jamaica, now a non-entity in the cigar business, overshadowed Nicaragua. Today, its fertile growing regions have attracted some of the best cigarmakers in the world and Nicaragua is in a truly enviable position.
Despite its crop problems and difficulties keeping humidors stocked with certain high-profile cigars, Cuba still scored the highest average of any country, 89.86. We rated 79 Cuban cigars and 42 of them—53.2 percent—scored 90 points or higher. Among them were the Partagás Lusitania, which scored 93 points and wound up as the No. 11 on cigar the Top 25 list. Like the Cohiba Esplendido, Lusitanias weren’t the easiest of cigars to find at retail, especially in Cuba, due to the large size and the fact that large wrapper leaf wasn’t as abundant as in previous years. The most consistent Cuban we rated was the Bolivar Belicoso Fino, which scored 92 points. While it didn’t initially score as high as the Cohiba or Partagás in our regular tastings, it excelled in our Top 25 tasting, maintaining consistency at a high level through multiple rounds. In the end it was named No. 4 Cigar of the Year.
Costa Rica had the second-highest average score by country (89.75), but the small sample size—four cigars—makes it difficult to give that average much statistical importance. The same holds true for the single cigar we rated from the Bahamas, which scored 89 points.
Cigars rolled in the United States, however, had an average rating of 89.58 points, just behind Cuba. We rated a dozen cigars rolled in the U.S. last year, and those high scores show the high quality of these smokes, such as the Tatuaje Cabinet Noellas (91 points, the only American cigar on the 2017 Top 25 list), Casa Fernandez Aganorsa Leaf Robusto (90 points) and the La Palina Collection Mr. Sam Corona (89 points). While the United States remains a smallish producer of handmade cigars, these ratings show how wonderful such cigars can be. Most are made in Miami or its surrounding areas.
We rated 74 Honduran cigars last year, and they scored an average of 88.79 points. Twenty-six of them (35.1 percent) scored 90 points or higher. Honduras did produce some top-scoring cigars in 2017, such as the Alec Bradley Tempus Natural Centuria, CLE Prieto and the Macanudo Inspirado Churchill, each of which appeared on Cigar Aficionado’s list of Top 25 Cigars for 2017.
Cigar Aficionado rated 230 Dominican cigars in 2017, more cigars from any nation other than Nicaragua. Dominican cigars averaged 88.17 points—lowest among the major producers—with 52 of those cigars scoring 90 points or better, or 22.7 percent. The No. 1 cigar of 2017 is Dominican, as are many Dominican cigars that rated 93 points—Villiger’s La Flor de Ynclan, the Ashton Symmetry Belicoso and the Ashton Heritage Puro Sol Belicoso No. 2. Interestingly, more than half of the highest-scoring Dominican cigars from 2017 (there were 11 that rated 92 points or higher) were produced at one factory, Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., the factory owned and operated by the Fuente family—makers of the Cigar of the Year.
The single Brazilian cigar we rated scored 87 points. While Brazil certainly produces lots of high-quality tobacco—both Cuban-seed and native varietals—it’s lacking in cigar production.
Regardless of country or tobacco blend, cigars are getting thicker and thicker. Churchills are larger, toros are heavier and 6 by 60s (also known as grandes) have moved from novelty to mainstream. Grandes—which we classify as any straight-sided cigar with a ring gauge of 60 or more—have become so prevalent we had to give them their own category in 2012. That being said, the grande size hasn’t performed as well as others in our blind tastings. Grandes scored an average of 88.7 points.
The size format with the highest average rating last year was the panetela. We rated 15 of these slim smokes in 2017 and they turned in an average of 89.7 points. Panetelas are prized by connoisseurs for two reasons. Firstly, they represent the elegance of a bygone era. Secondly, the proportions alone ensure that the wrapper is the dominant flavor, not the blend. Panetelas are by no means top-sellers in cigar stores, but, judging by our numbers, will usually reward the smoker with a unique experience.
Figurados scored quite well, especially when you consider how many we rate. A figurado is a shaped cigar, so the category is immense, and includes torpedos, belicosos, double-tapered Salomones, perfectos, any shape with a curve, taper or point. We rated 113 figurados last year, and they averaged 89.5 points—0.2 points lower than panetelas. If you look at the Top 25 cigars of 2017, the top four are all figurados. This is not a coincidence. Cigarmakers tend to task only their top rollers with creating these fine cigar specimens. Everything from shape to proportion to the precise placement of fillers is carefully considered. Your chances of getting a superb figurado are more than just merely good—they’re almost assured.
The double corona size is getting more and more difficult to find, as is clear by the small number we tested—a mere five samples. They averaged well at 89.4 points, but with numbers so low, the double corona is frightfully close to extinction. Coronas aren’t doing much better. Though the average was 89.1 points, we’re only looking at a sample size of 28 cigars for the entire year.
Corona gordas (also known as toros) are a different story. You’d be hard-pressed to find a cigar brand that doesn’t have a corona gorda or toro size of some sort in its line. It remains very popular, and we smoked 159 of them last year, more than any other size and 24 percent of our total. Given the high number, their 89-point average is quite impressive.
Cigars in the Churchill and miscellaneous categories tied with averages of 88.8 points, while grandes fared a little worse at 88.7 points.
Two categories tied with an average of 88.5 points: lonsdales and robustos. It’s no surprise that we rated only 27 lonsdales (another size that’s fading), but robustos remain quite popular and the third-largest category at 112 cigars. The 29 petit coronas of 2017 averaged 88.4 points, only a hair behind. It’s clear that thin is out and thick is in. The reason often cited for the popularity of thick cigars is almost universal: perceived value, ergo more tobacco for the dollar.
When it comes to value, you’re most likely to get the best bang for your buck if you buy Honduran. The average price for a Honduran cigar is $8.98, cheaper than any other country (save for Brazil, which only had one cigar rating in 2017). Honduras might not be as hot as Nicaragua right now, but if you’re watching your wallet, it’s the smartest way to get the most out of your dollar.
It’s become a common cliché of the day that $10 is the so-called “sweet spot” for premium cigars. In other words, it’s the price-point that most cigar manufacturers aim for in the U.S., as most consumers are willing to pay in the $10 range for a good cigar. Both Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic have hit that spot, or at least that range. Nicaraguan cigars average $10.04. Dominican cigars skew slightly higher, at $10.85.
If you’re a patriotic American, your love of country is going to cost you a bit more. Labor is naturally higher in the United States than it is in Central America or the Caribbean, and our averages reflect this reality. Cigars made in the U.S., most of which are produced in Miami, average $11.47. They’re still less expensive than Costa Rica, with an average of $13.24, and far behind the Bahamas at $20.75, which really has only one major producer of premium cigars, Graycliff.
Cigar Aficionado has historically reported Cuban cigar prices in British pounds, a market that is more expensive than most (Switzerland and Cuba, for example) and cheaper than others (namely Canada). With an average of $27.90 per cigar (converted from British pounds), Cuban cigars are not exactly for the bargain hunter, yet retailers of Cuban cigars don’t seem to have any trouble selling their stock. Underscoring this fact was the release of the Cohiba Talismán Edición Limitada for 2017. In the U.K. it retails for around £80, or about $111. According to reports, first shipments of the cigar sold out almost immediately.
Amidst all this data, the predominant theme here is quality, and this shouldn’t be too much of a shock. It’s been said many times that premium cigars are enjoying a golden era right now. In this case, the cliché is correct and the numbers reflect this. Nicaragua is clearly on the rise. It dominated our yearly tasting in sheer numbers alone and shined quite brilliantly in the top scores of 2017. But the best news of all is that the finest cigars are not limited to one particular country or one particular price point. Once you put nationalistic pride and propaganda aside, the numbers make it clear that there is a great cigar for almost everyone.