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Analysis: The Scores of 2019

Taking a closer look at an entire year's worth of cigar reviews
By David Clough | From Charles Barkley, March/April 2020
Analysis: The Scores of 2019

In cigar shops all across America, men and women are faced with a problem. They stare at the shelves in walk-in humidors and glass display cases with furrowed brows, puzzled expressions on their faces. They can’t decide what to smoke.

We’ve all been there. Faced with walls of brightly colored boxes from around the world, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with choices. And nobody wants to make the wrong choice. Smoking a bad cigar is not only a waste of precious time—it’s a waste of hard-earned money.

That’s where we come in. Last year, between Cigar Aficionado magazine and the newsletter Cigar Insider, we reviewed 648 cigars in blind taste tests. (Curious about how a blind tasting works? See our story here.) That’s an enormous number of smokes rated and reviewed. Based on this thorough research, we’re able to help readers make better purchasing decisions. By analyzing a year’s worth of ratings, we can determine which countries produce the highest-rated cigars, reveal which shapes and sizes perform the best and see which smokes offer the most bang for your buck.

Let’s start with good news: when you take into account all of the cigars we smoked last year (which came from every major cigar-producing country, in all manner of shapes and sizes), nearly 41 percent of them (264 cigars) scored 90 points or higher. In 2018, about 36 percent of the cigars we rated scored in the 90s, suggesting the quality of cigars at retail stores remains high.

There were 39 smokes that scored at least 93 points, and 11 that scored 94 points. The highest-scoring cigars came from all four of the largest cigar-producing countries in the world: Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Honduras. These top-performing cigars are significant because seven of them went on to make our Top 25 list of 2019. (The Top 25 is a separate taste test where the top-scoring cigars of the year are pitted against one another. Top 25 scores, which tend to be higher, are not included in this analysis.)

The champion smokes include Room101 Farce It is a Lonsdale (the No. 22 Cigar of 2019), Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo de Río Seco (No. 17), Juan Lopez Selección No. 2 (No. 14), Illusione Epernay 10th Anniversary D’Aosta (No. 7), Oliva Serie V Lancero (No. 6), Warped Serie Gran Reserva 1988 Robusto (No. 3) and Aging Room Quattro Nicaragua Maestro, Cigar Aficionado’s No. 1 Cigar of the Year.

The nation that created the most 90 pointers is Nicaragua. We rated 298 Nicaraguan-made cigars last year, and they had an average score of 89.01 points. And 130 of them (nearly 44 percent) scored 90 points or higher. Nicaragua’s cigar industry has seen explosive growth over the past few years, surpassing the Dominican Republic as the top exporter of premium cigars to the United States, according to data from the Cigar Association of America. While Nicaraguan export numbers have shown signs of cooling in recent months, the country still holds the lead for cigar exports to the U.S., and cigar quality has remained consistently high.

Take a look at last year’s 94-pointers, and you’ll find that four of the 11 cigars were made in Nicaragua. This includes the Warped Serie Gran Reserva 1988 Robusto, a Nicaraguan puro blended by cigarmaker Kyle Gellis and rolled at the Aganorsa Leaf factory. We also see the Villiger La Vencedora Churchill, a powerful cigar that boasts an all-Nicaraguan tobacco blend made at the Joya de Nicaragua factory.

Another 94-point cigar, the Oliva Serie V Lancero, is a slender Nicaraguan smoke rolled at Oliva Cigar Co.’s Tabolisa 1 factory. We also have the Aging Room Quattro Nicaragua Maestro, an all-Nicaraguan blend created by Aging Room brand owner Rafael Nodal and cigarmaker A.J. Fernandez. The Maestro is a tour de force—its tobaccos come together harmoniously to show rich notes of dark chocolate and wood intertwined with hints of caramel and toasted almonds.

Cuba was also a strong performer last year. While it didn’t produce as many 90s as Nicaragua, it had a much higher average of 90-point scores. Forty-six of the 75 Cuban cigars we rated—61.3 percent—scored 90 points or higher.

The average score of a Cuban cigar was 90.08, the highest of any country. At the top of the list, there were four 94-point Cuban cigars, including the Cohiba Behike BHK 52, a smoke notable not only for its rarity and expert craftsmanship, but for its hefty price tag. The cigar retails for £50.10 in the U.K. Other 94s included the Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo de Río Seco, Juan Lopez Selección No. 2 and the Punch Double Corona, one of the finest big smokes on the market today.

The Dominican Republic, the second-largest exporter of premium cigars to the United States, had several top-tier smokes as well, although its average scores were lower than scores from Cuba or Nicaragua. We rated 186 Dominican cigars in 2019 and 51 of them (27.4 percent) earned 90 points or higher. However, the average rating of a Dominican smoke was only 88.16, the second-lowest scoring country after the Bahamas (83.5, which had a small sample size). Standout cigars from the Dominican Republic included the Room101 Farce It is a Lonsdale and the Montecristo Platinum Series Churchill (Tubo). Both cigars earned 94 points, but they couldn’t be more different in presentation and style. 

With Farce, Room101 brand owner Matt Booth presents a modern, whimsical brand that contains tobacco from a variety of countries: Ecuador, Indonesia, the United States, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

The lonsdale has the sweet and spicy character of a molasses cookie, with touches of oaky vanilla. On the more classic end of the spectrum, we have the Montecristo Platinum Churchill, a heritage brand from the portfolio of Altadis U.S.A., makers of the non-Cuban versions of Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta and H. Upmann. The company recently updated the Platinum blend with a dark, Nicaraguan wrapper (it originally wore a Mexican San Andrés cover leaf) and the results have been outstanding. 

Honduras doesn’t always get the same attention from consumers as other cigar-making countries, but its cigars should not be overlooked. We rated 70 cigars from Honduras, and the average rating was 88.80. There were 31 cigars that scored in the 90s, but only one Honduran earned 94 points, the Illusione Epernay 10th Anniversary D’Aosta, a celebratory smoke from brand owner Dion Giolito, commemorating the 10-year anniversary of his Epernay cigar line.

There aren’t many premium cigar brands that are still rolled in the United States, and we reviewed only 14 American-made smokes last year. Three cigars from this small sampling scored in the 90s. We also rated one cigar from Costa Rica, two cigars from Mexico and two from the Bahamas, countries that have very small premium cigar operations compared to the major producers.

The ratings of 2019 also showed us that some cigar sizes simply smoke better than others. Many new cigar fans are surprised to learn that the length and ring gauge of a cigar can have a dramatic effect on its flavor nuances and smoking characteristics. Our ratings are consistent with these findings.

Robustos were among the highest performers. The short, thick cigars are immensely popular, consistently cited as the best-selling size in American cigar shops, according to our Cigar Insider surveys of tobacconists across the United States. We tasted 119 robustos last year, which had an average rating of 89.22 points.

We also rated two types of extra-tall cigars—double coronas and “A”s. Both vitolas are longer than Churchills—double coronas measure from 7 1/2 inches to 8 1/2 inches with a ring gauge of 49 or fatter, and “A”-sized cigars stretch even further, starting at 8 1/2 inches with a ring of 47 and greater. Impractical to carry in your jacket pocket and somewhat comical to puff on, these super-long cigars are dying sizes, but they are very good, scoring 89.22 and 90 points, respectively, albeit with small sample sizes.

Toros (which are also known as corona gordas), are another top-tier size combining consumer popularity with high quality. These mid-sized cigars, which fall between robustos and Churchills, had an average rating of 89.15 points. It’s nearly impossible to imagine a cigar brand without a toro in today’s market, and we rated 141 of them in 2019, more than any other size.

Coronas, slim cigars measuring 5 1/4 to 6 inches with ring gauges of 38 to 45, had an average rating of 89.06 points. The panel tasted 18 of them in 2019. Figurados came next, with an average rating of 88.81. These artistic, shaped smokes are made with curves and tapers, and pose a challenge for cigarmakers to roll. We categorize any non-straight sided cigar as a figurado, which includes belicosos, torpedos, trompetas and Salomones. We reviewed 102 of these masterful creations last year.

Panetelas, or lanceros, are treasured among cigar connoisseurs because of their elegant proportions. The long, thin cigars typically measure 6 to 7 1/2 inches long with a ring gauge of 36 to 40 and provide a higher wrapper-to-filler tobacco ratio than thicker sizes. We smoked 41 of them, and the average rating was 88.76.

We also rated 90 Churchills. This classic vitola is becoming less common in cigar shops, as the market turns away from long cigars, but it’s not a size to overlook. Churchills earned an average rating of 88.66. We also reviewed 28 petit coronas, 16 lonsdales and 32 miscellaneous-sized cigars (smokes with irregular lengths that don’t fit into one of our traditional size categories). These three sizes provided some of our lowest scores, with 88.61, 88.44 and 88.09 averages, respectively. But no category fared worse than grandes, ultra-thick cigars measuring 6 inches by 60 ring gauge or greater. These hefty smokes are very popular with consumers, but they delivered an average score of only 88.02 points. Consumers may feel they’re getting more value out of their dollar when they reach for a grande, but all too often, lighting up such a thick log of a cigar means they’re in for a mediocre smoking experience.

When it comes to saving some coin, Mexican, Nicaraguan and Honduran cigars were among the least expensive smokes we rated last year, with average prices of $9.25, $9.94 and $10.60, respectively. Dominican-made cigars were a bit more costly, with an average price of $11.34. The Dominican Republic had more 90-point cigars than any other country except Nicaragua. The average prices from Costa Rica, the U.S.A. and the Bahamas were significantly higher, at $14.29, $14.36 and $17.63, but we rated too few cigars from these countries for the averages to mean much.

The most expensive cigars came from Cuba, with an average price of £23.86, or about $31.19 per cigar. Does the smoking experience justify such a steep price? That’s for you to decide— but remember, Cuban cigars had the highest average score compared to any other country, at 90.08.

Before you go cigar shopping, always do your research. There are $10 cigars that can be just as enjoyable as $20 smokes, and thicker, fatter cigars aren’t always the best value. There is no shortage of excellent cigars coming from every cigar-making country. With a little inside knowledge, it’s easy to find them in your favorite cigar store.

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