Cigar smoking as a sophisticated pastime has been with us since the 16th century. Over the years, it has evolved into a highly particular activity, akin to wine tasting, gourmet dining and tea drinking. Not surprisingly, people have developed elaborate systems for grading cigars and, for the novice cigar smoker, these systems provide insight into what experienced smokers are looking for.
For the cigar expert, the entire experience is used when grading. The highest grades are said to produce a rare experience with all of the factors coming together in an experience that cannot be reproduced. High praise, to say the least.
Regardless of how transcendental an experience a highly graded cigar is capable of delivering, extended use of tobacco products can result in unpleasant things. End of obligatory warning. We all are responsible for our actions and if you smoke, you accept what may happen.
Until recently, knowledge and opinion about how good or bad a cigar was passed through families and businesses that specialized in high grade cigars. Regardless, grading is a very subjective exercise.The idea of assigning a number to an entire line of cigars by smoking just one is quite a stretch. There are those that eschew the idea of grading entirely, saying that it takes away from the experience, leaving even a superior specimen degraded by grading.
One well-known elaborate system was developed by Cigar Aficionado magazine. CA grew up in the specialty publication boom of the 1990s. Slick production and celebrity covers added to the allure of the magazine. The advent of the internet added reach to the publication and it continues to be the face of modern cigar culture.
CA’s 100 point system is the most recognized way to choose brands and names. Veteran smokers likely lean more towards personal recommendations but I would guess that CA’s ratings make up leisure reading as well.
Cigar Advocate attempts to base their rating system on CA’s but isn’t so secretive about what they look for when evaluating aspects of a cigar’s experience.
What to look for
We are going to use CA’s system as a base with some details about what to look for from other publications.
- Construction (15 points in CA’s rating scale)
This is the actual look of the cigar both before and during the smoke. The cigar should maintain it’s form without coming unraveled during the burn including holding its ash to allow the smoker to remove the ash at their leisure instead of being afraid of a drop.
- Taste (25 Points)
Is the unlit cigar’s aroma pleasant or unpleasant? Does it evoke any specific feeling? The smoke flavor is compared between the beginning third, 2nd third and final third to one quarter. How does the flavor change? Does it produce an increasing intensity or changing aroma or do it remain about the same?
- Smoking Characteristics (25 Points)
How difficult is it to light? Does it have a nice tight weight or does it feel loose and light? Is the draw too tight so that drawing smoke is strenuous? Or do you get a huge cloud from an easy draw? Does the cigar get too hot in your hand and if so, how far through the burn?
- Overall Experience (35 Points)
This part of the grade deals with how well the aforementioned factors integrate. Tobacco produces a physical effect and this is taken into account. Does the cigar feel comfortable at your mouth? Does handling remain sure throughout?
A couple of points here. First, these words are describing something you have to experience to know. No amount of rating is going to tell you how you feel about one cigar or another.
Second, this kind of evaluation and criticism may not be to your liking at all. For example, where you are may have a powerful effect on how you enjoy your cigar. Too much thinking could spoil the moment so make sure you enjoy the way that brings you the most pleasure.