Cigar Ratings, Skeptics and Silly Science
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The original idea was to use this post to explain my rating criteria. But with message boards teeming with debate over methodology and even the usefulness of ratings themselves, I thought I’d post a few general observations as well.
First, I know it’s unfashionable to say so, but ratings serve a valuable purpose — to help inform purchase decisions.
Yes, I’m copping to it. I’m not too cool to heed the recommendations of others, even when those recommendations come with a trite little number attached. That’s not to say any single rating sends me rushing to the B&M, but the sum of ratings takes the randomness out of my next purchase.
I use the 100-point scale popularized by Cigar Aficionado. Is it a better system than others? Probably not. But it is a familiar scale, which is reason enough to use it. More on this later.
The noteworthy difference between my rating methodology and CA’s is that they are tasting blind and I am not. I see two enormous benefits to non-blind, or informed, reviews: (1) an informed review replicates the smoker’s real world experience, which does include a brand bias; (2) an informed review allows the reviewer to consider value in the overall rating.
The latter point is critical, since price is an object for every smoker I know. For me, once a stick approaches $8.00 or so, I raise the bar. If it doesn’t show me something I can’t get from a $4.00 stick, the rating needs to account for that.
I use four of the five criteria used on Top25Cigar, weighted in the following order: flavor, construction, value, appearance. From there, I make a relative judgment that reflects my overall experience.
The scale generally mirrors CA’s:
- 95-100 is the rare classic, the Dark Side of The Moon of cigars;
- 90-94 is exemplary, among the best;
- 85-89 is good-to-excellent, a respectable staple in any collection;
- 80-84 is just okay. Probably wouldn’t buy it again, but would happily smoke if gifted;
- 75-79 may have merit, but also has serious issues. Humi-fodder that eventually gets tossed;
- <75 should be banished to the composter before it contaminates something.
Yes, there are problems with this scale. The most common criticism is that only the top quarter of the scale is used, making it a 25-point scale dressed up to look like 100. So what? The familiarity of the scale is what’s important. It doesn’t take John Nash to convey basic, actionable judgments about a smoke. By now, most of us know without thinking what we can expect from a cigar rated 83 or 91. The 100-point scale, efficient or not, gives us a useful shorthand. That’s good enough for me.
Then there’s the complaint that most cigars rate between 85 and 89, so there’s no substantive difference between any of those smokes. Nonsense. If I rate two cigars — one an 85 and one an 87 — there are differences between them to me. Huge differences? No, but noteworthy ones that I do my best to articulate somewhere in the review.
Another method I see with increasing frequency is the Independent Cigar Rating System (ICRS). I understand the urge to standardize rating criteria. The flavor/color chart is useful. But with all due respect to those who like the ICRS, it’s a little too fussy for me.
For example, “Tongue?” What does it taste like, pre-light, when licked or chewed? I’ll pass, thanks.
Likewise with ash quality. Why do I care about the ash? Didn’t I already smoke that part? What can the ash tell me about the performance of the smoke that I didn’t already figure out from watching the burn line and noting the ease and heat of the draw? I don’t care if it looks like moondust once it’s sitting in my ashtray.
And then there’s “What kind of feeling does this cigar cause?” This one stops just short of asking me what kind of tree I would be. How do I feel? Annoyed, dude.
Finally, why rate at all? Why not just write the review and let someone else make a “try it” vs. “skip it” assessment? Valid point. I enjoy plenty of reviews that don’t give me a tidy number at the end. But I can’t lie. The numbers are the first things I flip to in a stogie magazine. They don’t have to be right. They don’t have to match my tastes. They’re fun and, as often as not, useful. Does that make me lame? Probably.
So between the “ratings are for lemmings” crew on one hand and slide-rule wielding scientists in the other, color me a moderate. If ratings are crafted in a way that can inform my purchase decision, I have use for them. But the quest for an “accurate” ratings system, the ultimate cigar algorithm, strikes me as mental masturbation.
So that’s what the number at the bottom of the review means, how I got there, and why I bother.
Now, flame away…