It’s a Tough Job …

By Gregory L. Pease, Associate Editor
You’d think it would be the easiest thing in the world, and the best job ever, right?
Smoke a cigar, write some comments about what it tastes like, what it smells like, what it burns like, how much you liked or didn’t like it, and give it a score from a 100 point scale. Simple? Not quite. Since we’re a real magazine, not just another cigar blog, we’ve got a responsibility to our readers to be as fair, as professional, and as objective as possible. We want all our reviewers to deliver commentary and ratings that can be relied upon consistently by our readers. In other words, though we might each like different things (we do), and we might each describe the same cigar differently (we do), we should each wind up assigning that cigar a fairly similar score. That’s where things can get challenging.

What makes Cigar Chronicles reviews different?

We actually smoke the cigars we review. That should be obvious, but it’s not always the case in other publications. Some reviews are based on little more than a cursory evaluation of the cigar; look at it, light it, take a few puffs, and give it a score. When you’re trying to get through hundreds of cigars, that may be all you have time to do, and those first impressions might have some value, but it’s not now, nor will it ever be the way we do things. We understand that the character of a cigar changes as you’re smoking it. Some may get better, some may remain fairly consistent throughout, and some may get worse, but always, the development of the cigar as it is smoked is important, and it’s discussion is a necessary part of a good review.

In other words, it’s impossible to get a grasp on what is like without actually smoking the whole thing. I recently lit something from my humidor that showed great promise in the first few puffs. I called the pup, and went out for a walk, with the intention of enjoying a great smoke along the way. A few minutes later, the thing turned bitter and acrid, and I couldn’t wait to get rid of it. It happens. If I’d rated that cigar based on the way it started, it would have received high marks. Fortunately, in this case, it wasn’t a review cigar, so I could dispose of it with impunity, and no small measure of disappointment. If it had been a review cigar, I’d have suffered through the whole thing in order to give it a fair evaluation. (That goes in the "It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it" category.) I won’t mention the brand, because, it’s likely it was just a bad one. I’ll give it another shot one of these days, but if the next one is just as bad, I’ll share the misery, and make sure someone else gets the reviewing job should it find itself on the table.

This brings me to the next point: One experience with a cigar really isn’t enough to give it a fair rating. The probability, however low it might be, of one bad cigar in a box of good ones is still much higher than the probability of one great one in a box of dogs, so we have to smoke more than one. We like to smoke three. Personally, I’d like to smoke a whole box before making my opinion known (this is especially true if I really like them–though my motives here might be suspect), but it’s hard to persuade manufacturers to send me full boxes. Maybe they’ll read this and see the light. (Hint…)

 



Another good reason to smoke more than one is that the reviewer might be having an off day. We’ve all had it happen. We grab one of our faves, light up, take a few puffs, and the thing just doesn’t taste right. Maybe it doesn’t agree with what we’ve eaten that day, what we’re drinking, the weather, changes in the vitamins we’re taking, or cosmic rays, but it’s just not right. Those same influences can affect our tastes when we’re smoking a cigar we’ve never tried before, and in that case, that single experience certainly would not result in a fair or balanced review.

So, we invest the time to do it right. We smoke the cigars we review in relative quiet, giving them our full attention. We’re not hanging out with our friends at the local bar, sucking down martinis while puffing on a stogie, and then, in the cloudy hungover brain-fog of the following morning, scribbling down the few hazy things we think we remember, or don’t, about the experience. That can certainly be fun, and might make an entertaining story, but it wouldn’t make for a very good review.

Another reason multiple cigars should be tasted is that set and setting do affect how much we enjoy a smoke. The same thing that might be really enjoyable on the back porch with a cup of coffee might fall short in a smoke filled room and a flagon of ale. (I’m trying to bolster that whole "Send me a box argument," here. I wonder if it will work.)

Finally, after the cigars are smoked and the notes are made, after the exposition on the overall merits of the cigar has been outlined, there’s the rating, itself. We all use the same scale. Sometimes, our ratings might be lower than those given by other reviewers. There are good reasons for it when it happens, and just because a cigar doesn’t get 98 points doesn’t mean it’s not a good, or even a great smoke. Tad, Russ, and I discussed this recently.

As Russ puts it, "Today, hyperbole tends to be the rule and not the exception, and people are used to seeing ridiculously high ratings, but to me, an average cigar should rate no higher than 75. For a cigar to rate above 90 will require very fine veins, a nice sheen or tooth, a nearly flawless straight burn and a memorable flavor with outstanding aroma. So many other elements have to fall into place for a superior rating – balance, how well the blend works for the shape and size of the cigar and more – that it will take a truly superlative experience for me to give a number in the nineties."

Tad agreed, adding, "When I smoke or review a long-filler, hand-made cigar, there are only two non-starters: poor construction and poor fermentation/aging. At any price, a skunky tasting cigar, one that ‘boats’ because of spongy spots, one that has wrappers that consistently split or unravel, or one that’s impossible to draw because of overly tight construction are reasons for a failing grade.

"Beyond those criteria, I believe a cigar has to stand on its own among the entire universe of available premium, hand-made products. I don’t believe in a sliding scale influenced by price, company reputation, hyperbole or any factor other than construction and taste. Not every cigar can be a rock star, but a star also deserves to be appropriately recognized if its greatness can be justified. The final decision of whether a superb smoke is worth $15, $20 or $30 is best left to the smoker."

It’s not clear when or why a very respectable score of 80 became an indicator of a bad smoke, but by understanding our rating scale, it will become clear to the reader that this is certainly not the case. In fact, an excellent cigar that I very much enjoyed, and would happily smoke regularly, ended up only getting a mid-80s score from me.

Russ explains the scale. "When we rate a cigar for Cigar Chronicles, we use a framework, which is 0-15 points for appearance, 0-35 point for burn and construction and 0-50 for flavor and aroma. In my opinion, a top rating in any category indicates that the cigar delivers far more than the average stick.

As reviewers, the greatest value we can provide is to maintain a consistent standard based on quality and taste. We do our best to do just that. Ultimately, of course, despite whatever methodology we employ, a review is still an opinion, a guidepost for our readers, but we take our jobs seriously. So, going back to my opening sentence, it’s not always easy, but, yes, it really is the best job ever.

Oh, and that whole send me a box thing? I’m just kidding. Sort of.

-glp

Gregory L. PeaseGregory L. Pease Associate Editor.

Greg joins us for regular cigar reviews, his monthly editorial column, "Up in Smoke," and the occasional feature article, bringing over 30 years of deep passion for the leaf to our team. Prior to becoming the founder and principal alchemist behind the pipe blends of G.L. Pease Artisanal Tobaccos (est. 1999), he’d been a pipe and cigar aficionado since his college days, and spent time working at the legendary Drucquer & Sons Tobacconist in Berkeley, California to support his affliction. He is widely educated on tobacco and all things epicurean, is an experienced writer, and has quite a refined palate. He is also a wine and spirits geek, and a gourmet cook.

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