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Stogie Commentary: What a Cigar Review Is… And Isn’t

8 Apr 2010

These days there are no shortages of cigar reviews online. Seems everyone has an opinion and wants to share.

cigarsThat’s not necessarily a bad thing. But before you read every cigar review out there and take each as gospel, let’s keep in mind what a review is…and, just as importantly, let’s keep in mind what a review isn’t.

First off, a review can only be as good as the limited inputs that created it. That means whatever review you’re reading is first and foremost limited by two important factors: the reviewer, and the cigars sampled.

Be weary of reviews of based on just one cigar. Cigars are, by nature, a finicky product. What harvest was used? What year was the cigar produced? How long were the cigars aged after they were produced? Under what conditions were the cigars kept? These are just some of the factors that determine how a cigar smokes.

That’s why the first thing I look for in a cigar review is how many smokes were sampled. It’s also why I regularly smoke three or more cigars before writing a full review. (Our Quick Smokes, on the other hand, are upfront about the fact that they are based on just one smoke.) Particularly when it comes to construction, and also when it comes to flavor, a cigar can vary  greatly from stick to stick.

My standard operating procedure is to smoke three cigars of the same blend and size. If all three reveal similar characteristics I go ahead and write my review. If significant variation is detected, on the other hand, I try and smoke at least two more cigars before giving my take. And in the rare circumstance that fewer than three samples make up a review (cigars that are hard to procure, for example) I always explicitly state that in written review.

While the number of samples is an important factor in how much weight to place in a specific review, perhaps the largest and most under appreciated factor is the limitation of just who is doing the tasting. Smokers have a wide variety of palates and preferences, and failing to account for such preferences makes most cigar reviews useless.

Here at StogieGuys.com, we deal with this by assigning a name to each review. Our hope is  that, over time ,you can appreciate the subtleties of the palate of each reviewer since every time you read a review you learn a little more about that person’s preferences and biases.

And speaking of biases, don’t think that just because a “panel” has reviewed a cigar that such biases are eliminated. Cigar Aficionado‘s reviewers are a very small subset of cigar smokers, and they represent just as particular of a viewpoint as any particular reviewer here on StogieGuys.com or on any other site. I’m reminded of one prominent cigar veteran who told me he thinks that some cigar makers specifically blend their cigars to the tastes of CA‘s reviewers.

This brings me to to perhaps the most controversial aspect of cigar reviews: ratings. A rating of 95 in CA can be a goldmine for the company that makes that cigar. But I’m still not clear about what the difference is between 95 and 92 or, for that matter, 90 and 88. (Not to mention the fact that of the thousands of cigars reviewed by Cigar Aficionado in nearly two decades, only two have have been rated lower than “average to good commercial quality.”)

That’s why we employ a rating system that doesn’t pretend to know a 2-point difference out of a scale of 100. And why we place more emphasis on what is said within the review as opposed to the final score.

The lesson is that any cigar review can only be the result of a limited set of experiences by one or a few reviewers. Treating a review as anything more than a limited set of opinions misses the point. Reviews are guideposts, not gospel.

While experienced palates will have common experiences, they will always be limited in their usefulness. Ultimately, the only palate that matters is the one smoking the cigar, and the “best” cigar is the one you like the best. Nothing more, nothing less.

Patrick S

photo credit: Flickr

Drew Estate

17 Responses to “Stogie Commentary: What a Cigar Review Is… And Isn’t”

  1. David Hall Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 10:19 pm #

    I couldn't agree with you more – Expertly written and deadly honest. I wish that more sites would take your advice – just one more reason why I turn to the Stogie Guys as a great 'guidepost' for my smoke experience.

  2. Nick Glaves Thursday, April 8, 2010 at 12:16 am #

    This is a great piece. I've never visited this site before but will certainly be returning based on what you have written here. It is refreshing to discovery this kind of honesty surrounding what are luxury products.

  3. dmjones Thursday, April 8, 2010 at 1:58 am #

    In defense of single-stick reviews: while reviewing multiple samples of a stick may be desirable in some ways, it runs counter to how I've always approached regular cigar smoking: if the stick doesn't impress me the first time I've spent my hard earned money on it, I am unlikely to spend more cash on it. With so many great cigars on the market, why should I? On the other hand, if I have a bad experience with a cigar that is highly regarded, I am willing to try it again, but never 3 to 5 times. The other issue I see with multiple sample cigar reviews is that of the origin of all the samples. To eliminate all the variances you mentioned, you would have to procure each sample from a different shop in a different geographical region of the country–hell, all that does is eliminate problems with the local shipper (UPS or FedEx) and how they handled the cigars. If you get them from different shops all in the same area, you are likely to run into similar problems as they are likely to have been shipped at the same time, at least in the case of new cigars.

    Anyway, single-stick reviews seem as valid to me as multiple-stick reviews. To tell the truth, I don't put nearly as much stock in the number of sticks a person smokes for a review as what they saw and how it is presented.

    You are absolutely correct in that all reviews–multi-stick, single-stick, panel–are just opinions. Cigar-smoking being a subjective thing people can easily disagree with someone else's opinion. If a reviewer takes the time to research a stick to find out the hard facts–or at least those facts available to the public–that goes a long way to increasing their credibility, in my opinion. A review also needs to be entertaining and quick, which is why I strongly prefer written reviews to video reviews. I don't want to spend as much time watching a video as it takes a person to smoke a good cigar–there just aren't enough hours in the day. Add to that the fact that most video reviews are deadly boring with lots of "uhs" and "ums" and even the absurdity of some guy shoving a cigar up his nostril. I good written review can be penned in less time than it takes for someone to edit the video that was shot, and I can read it in 2 to 3 minutes, which is a much better use of my time.

    Agree, disagree, whatever…the Stogie Guys has been one of my main stops every morning for years. Keep doing what you're doing.

  4. Richard Thursday, April 8, 2010 at 3:04 am #

    Thank you for pointing out how useless the 100 point review system is. Don't get me wrong, I like reading many of the articles in Cigar Aficionado but I find the rating system awkward at best and downright misleading at worst. Many times the written comments will describe a horrible smoke yet the score will still be in the 85-89 range! Suckling gave the Cohiba Gran Reserva 100 points non-blind yet Cigar Insider only gave it a 92. What does that mean to me the consumer? I prefer reviews with more comments, particularly when the reviewer states if he or she would purchase another of the same cigar. That's my 2 cents.

  5. Dave in Ashburn Thursday, April 8, 2010 at 3:16 am #

    I come here everyday for the reviews, but it's not for the hints of horse blanket of the two stogies out of five. It's for the technical info you guys provide about the cigar and/or manufacturer. I don't have much luck finding that level of detail on my own, and IMHO it says a lot about your creditability. Thanks for all the hard work!

  6. stinkie Thursday, April 8, 2010 at 4:28 am #

    Nice post. I agree that all cigar reviews are an opinion of the one smoking it. It is always good to search around and find a reviewer that likes similar cigars as you. When I'm looking for a review I visit google and read them all.

    There are so many review sites out there including forum that if you spend 10 minutes researching you should be able to find out if that construction issue is wide spread or not.

  7. simonc Thursday, April 8, 2010 at 5:02 am #

    I read all the cigar sites, yours included which i got to first, and rate over CA as you are daily and free, CA will be left behind if they don't give a little more. I also think that many reviewers favour a "type" of cigar, like an extra strong dark roasted flavour givening them a 5 star rating as it hits the back of your throat in a flash and this is supposed to be good (for them). They strike me like music fans only rating death metal as real music and not the rest of the entire spectrum, some in fact look and write like death metal fans too. Where as not all smokers (like me) find such a strong smoke enjoyable and value the finer notes in a lighter cigar often passed over as "weak" or insubstantial when in fact its is quiet delightful hitting all the required notes.

  8. Gary Korb Thursday, April 8, 2010 at 6:36 am #

    Very good article and long overdue. I'm always a little nervous when having to write a review based on one cigar because it could go either way. That said, sometimes one cigar is all I have to work with. In any event, you hit on some excellent points and I hope this article gets a lot of views. Keep up the good work.

  9. Travis Lindsay Thursday, April 8, 2010 at 7:06 am #

    Nice, well-reasoned article. However, in addition to the natural variety found in cigars, the way those cigars were stored and the biases of the reviewer you could add the atmosphere in which you smoked a cigar: what time of day, have you just eaten a meal, what are you drinking, your mood, etc.

    There is just so much variability to take into consideration when reviewing a cigar that it is no wonder why scores/opinions can be so different. Personally, I like reading reviews on other blogs and on publications like CA to compare notes and because they can be entertaining. Occasionally I will make a purchase off of what a reviewer says about a cigar but when purchasing cigars I will usually pick something I haven't smoked or read anything about. Cigar smoking to me is about trying as many cigars as possible. Then, after the smoke has settled, that's when I look at the other reviews. It's more fun that way.

  10. Luke - AspiringGent Thursday, April 8, 2010 at 10:11 pm #

    Great article, and I couldn't agree more. Anytime I review a cigar that I haven't smoked at least a couple times (because of limited availability, etc.) I make sure to point it out. The cigar industry gets enough bad press; the last thing they need is more from us — the people who really love cigars. Like handmade instruments or art, what makes cigars so incredible is their hand-formed 'personality.' Judging an entire brand through one bad apple isn't doing anyone a favor.

  11. Foe Friday, April 9, 2010 at 3:39 am #

    I was one of those young guys who started smoking premium cigars when CA was launched.

    After the crash of the Cigar Boom, CA definitely lost its way, and more importantly, its credibility, at least with me.

    Anymore, CA is more a bastion of information on how & what NOT to do when it comes to pursuing the art and hobby we here all love and enjoy.

    In any case, this site is hands down my favorite on the web because I agree with your philosophies and methodologies. My agreement is rooted in my own years of personal smoking experience.

    Please stay the course and keep up the great work!

  12. fdxeng Saturday, April 10, 2010 at 7:20 am #

    As usual, I enjoyed the article. Do you guys buy your own cigars or are they donated by advertisers? I am sorry if you have stated this before but I am just curious as opposed to being accusatory.

  13. Sean Sunday, April 11, 2010 at 1:58 pm #

    Good article…Iv'e always been a big fan of the reviews. However, I must agree with others that having to smoke between 3-5 cigars before writing a review is a bit excessive. Generally speaking…cigar reviews are highly subjective and nearly impossible to standardize. However, I do agree that it's important to find a reviewer or website that seems to enjoy a similar taste profile. Most of the cigars that are rated highly on stogieguys I also enjoy and that is why I like the website.

  14. Rodney Beckom Saturday, February 12, 2011 at 8:13 am #

    I personally use A 100 point rating scale. But its just that, my rating system. I am not biased by name brands or what magazines report, I rate A cigar on the merits I personally experience. When I share my reviews I am very careful to explain that it is what I tasted and how the cigar made me feel, be it good or bad. Everyone needs to rate cigars in there own way as no two people are the same, and just as certain no two cigars will smoke the same.

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