Haven’t been able to smoke any cigars lately due to a raging sore throat; made a silly mistake of aggravating the problem by being tempted with an aged Upmann when i should have known better. But i’ve taken this time to reflect a bit on the cigars i’ve been smoking as a whole, and it’s given me some thought to ponder. Why are some cigars so good, and why are some cigars not so good?

This question is made more confounding by the fact that virtually all the cigars i smoke nowadays are Cuban in origin. Cuban cigars come from tobacco grown in Cuba, rolled by rollers in Cuba. So the source of the raw material is the same, the production line is the same, yet the resulting product can produce such a varied spectrum of performance. It’s like Swiss watches — imagine if some Swiss watches ticked better than others. How does that happen?

Some may argue that since the product is handmade, there is always going to be some variety. They would be correct. Anytime a product, especially a consumer item such as a cigar, is handmade, you can reasonably expect a certain amount of variety in the outcome. Also, despite the fact that all Cuban tobacco is grown in Cuba, the tobacco doesn’t all originate from the same farm or soil and atmospheric conditions. There are at least 5 major tobacco growing regions in Cuba, and each have their own peculiarities. I would even go so far as to say that the methods in which the tobacco is cured after harvesting differs from farm to farm, and this will also have an impact on the final product.

So what does this all mean? It means that no two Cuban cigars are going to be the same, ever. Even those two sticks laying next to each other in that box right in front of you aren’t the same. They may have been rolled by two different rollers (one of whom was having a bad day after arguing with his wife earlier that morning and thus decided to take out his anger on his cigars by mashing the leaves hard together), they may have been made with leaves from different farms (one of which delayed the curing process by 2 days because the farmer’s wife’s sister-in-law needed to be driven to town to see the doctor).  Every cigar factory in Cuba has several quality control officers who make sure that the cigars produced are of acceptable and consistent quality; but they are only able to take a sampling of the cigars produced, and not check each and every one of the millions of sticks made annually. So many sticks will escape the “quality net”.

How many? I would say, very very few will eventually be unsmokable. This is a testimony to the craft, experience and dedication of the industry to their craft. It’s been many many years since i’ve had a plugged Cuban cigar. But there will be varying levels of quality. This is the scale i’d use:

15% of the cigars will be “Below Average” — something that hovers between 75-80% on the MCB rating scale. These cigars will have distinct issue with them, but they will still be reasonably enjoyable to smoke. Perhaps the draw is too loose or too tight, perhaps the flavour will be a bit unusual for the brand (i’ve had Bolivars that taste like RyJs before, no joke).

55% of the cigars will be “Average” — 80% to 86-87% on the MCB scale. Good cigars. Good smokes. No discernible problems, on-target taste profile. I’m happy if my cigars fall into this range.

20% of the cigars will be “Very Good” — about 90% on the MCB scale. Great smokes, memorable. Something i’ll remember the next day. Something that i’ll want my friends to experience too.

10% of the cigars will be “Outstanding” — around 92%-93% and above on the MCB scale. If i get such a stick once a month, that’s enough to keep my happy already. Superior construction, looks great, perfect draw, and has that little extra “something special” that even the “Very Good” cigars cannot offer.

You can see examples of all of the above by clicking on the filtered category links in the navigation bar to the left.

How do you make sure to get good cigars? Well, this is down to your relationship with your cigar vendor. In real life, it’s a lot easier to be sure, because when you walk into a store, you can check the cigars out personally and select one that matches what you desire. Online, it’s much more complicated. That’s why a good online cigar merchant is worth his weight in gold. Talk to him/her, tell them what you like, what you’re looking for, do you prefer lighter coloured wrappers, or looser drawing cigars? Or perhaps certain box codes or dates are your preference. A good merchant will do his best to be helpful and find you want you want. This all helps to narrow your search of cigars into what you would consider the upper range of the cigar curve.

To each his own. We all rate cigars differently, and what is a 90% for me, may not be a 90% for you. How we communicate our wishes to our merchant will help ensure that our experience remains in the positive as often as possible.