I often recommend people to note down some pointers while smoking a cigar, but as some of you have pointed out it’s hard to know where to start. So I figured I might as well write a guide on how I do it.
First of all have to right tools handy, either start with a piece of paper (notebook or a like), a pen or pencil (don’t forget a rubber/eraser if you go with a pencil), a flavourwheel (I’ll supply you with one in this guide) and a measuring tool (could be a measuring tape or a specific cigar measuring tool).
When doing a review make sure you only have still water to cleanse the palette. It’s very important to keep a consistent and fair approach towards the cigar you are trying. Any other liquids can and may effect your taste buds. If you are doing a pairing with your cigar, make sure to state that clearly in your notes as it will effect the characteristics of your smoking experience.
Personally I think it’s easier to use the phone and a notes app to write my reviews, but it can also be therapeutic to write by hand sometimes.
When starting I like to take a picture of the cigar I’m trying out, to have a reference when looking back at the cigars I previously have had. Also if I’m going to publish it online it’s a nice visual reference for the readers. Try to make sure the actual cigar is in focus and not obscured by other things around it.
After the picture, write down the name or blindtasting number, the date and what environment you are sitting in. If you are sitting outdoors I would recommend noting down the temperature, air humidity and weather. These are all important things for how the cigar will perform, like for example if it’s high humidity outside the cigar might feel tighter, it might crack easier as the tobacco expands with the moisture. Or if it’s cold outside it might crack because of the temperature differences.
Now to measurements, you can either do it in inches which is the most common to read about on websites or in mm which is most common in Europe. Use a ruler/measuring tape or if you have a special cigar measuring tool use that. There are a ton of ring gauge guides online if you don’t know how to measure that by yourself.
Something worth thinking about, where did you get the cigar from? Have it been stored right? Have you stored it right? What I tend to do when getting a new cigar is letting it rest in the humidor for a couple of weeks to acclimatize. Or when I will review a cigar I take it out of the humidor a couple of hours before to do the same. Remember we all have different climates all over the world, so you have to find what fits best for your climate.
Time to examine the cigar, what shade of brown is the cigar? If you don’t want to use the cigar industry set names for the different shades. Use instead metaphorical descriptive things as milk chocolate, coffee bean, sand etc.
Now run your finger over the wrapper, how is the feel? Oily, sandy, rough or smooth feeling. Does it have tiny, small or clearly protuding veins? Check over the cigar if there are anything “wrong” like water splodges (green spots, which isn’t anything wrong really but some might argue it’s shouldn’t have gone through quality control) or cracks. The problem you can run in to with cracks, is when you go to light up the cigar and it swells, the crack can expand and ruin your enjoyment of the cigar.
Does the cigar have something special about it lookswise? The shape or the wrapper?
When that’s done, time to lightly squeeze the cigar from foot to cap to feel if it’s even hard or soft. Remember don’t squeeze to hard otherwise you might crack the wrapper. This is to control the construction of the cigar.
Now cut the cap of the cigar, remember never cut to much. So what is to much? Keep within the cap (the tobacco wrapped on the top of the cigar) or else the wrapper might unravel. I have a house rule of always cutting my cigars with a straight cutter just to keep a consistent point of reference when doing the reviews.
After cutting, now take a cold/dry draw to see what flavours appear before lighting up. This might give you hints of what might come during your smoking experience. But remember this is just a hint, so don’t think you are crazy for only feeling wood, hay or nothing at all.
Now you might ask yourself, how do I point out flavours? If you feel your memory isn’t like it used to be always have a flavourwheel handy. The flavour palette is based on things you have tasted or smelled before as the nose and mouth is connected. (The flavourwheel/Aroma Wheel I use is by Cigarsense, a great website if you want to learn more about the in-depth research about the sensory experience). Don’t feel afraid if you can’t precisely point out what type of wood you are sensing just write wood if so, but try to challenge yourself to figuring it out over time.
Now finally it’s time to light up the cigar. There are many different ways you can do this, if you are sitting outdoors I would recommend a jet lighter as a soft flame and matches might blow out in the wind. If sitting indoors choose whatever suits you best.
Something I’ve started doing the last year is writing down the time when I start and when I finish just to get a hint on how long it takes to smoke the cigar. By this you later can gauge when buying cigars how long it would take you to smoke a certain vitola.
A cigar is usually divided into 3 parts, 1st third, 2nd third and 3rd (final) third. The blenders tend to blend for this standard. With a start experience a transcend in the middle and a final bit at the end, so we like to write down how the flavours change throughout.
In these parts write down everything you feel, from flavours to how the mouthfeel is, if it’s drying out the mouth or perhaps you are getting a tongue burn or if something happens to the cigar like swelling or if it’s cracking up.
Somewhere between the first and second part I tend to note down how the cigar is burning. Is it burning sharp or wonky? If it’s wonky is it from how you lit it up or is the wind affecting it or is it just burning wonky by itself? Is it burning fast or slow? How is the ash? Is it keeping a firm consistency or flakey? Is it still on when lightly tapping with the finger on the cigar or does it fall off super easily? What colour is the ash? Now you might wonder how much of this should count in to the score? I would say the burn is the most important, if it keeps burning wonky even after you correct it and you keep rotating your cigar around while you are smoking it, well that’s a problematic point.
The smoke is also something worth pointing out. Is it voluminous or almost non existent? How does the smoke feel on the tongue is it cool or warm? How’s the draw? Tight, medium light, light or like breathing through a toilet roll? I would say the only thing bringing down a score would be if the draw is too tight and the smoke gets too hot and it feels like you are burning your tongue. Otherwise it doesn’t really matter.
Retrohaling a topic many cigar smokers tend to point out is essential to getting all the flavours out. But what is it and is it really that important? So what you do is you draw in the smoke in the mouth as you regularly do, swish it around and blow 70% out the mouth, the rest you slowly push out through your nose like you would blow air out regularly.
Something worth thinking about, if you are smoking a spicy cigar this might hurt a lot in the nose and you might feel a bit of irritation afterwards. I myself don’t like to retrohale and tend not to do it, I trust my taste buds enough and like to keep it that way. I would say it’s absolutely up to each individual on if you feel like this, it’s not mandatory.
When coming towards the end you have to conclude your experience. How did it feel? Was it enjoyable or not? Was it an complex experience or didn’t anything happen during the cigar? Was it mild, medium or full bodied? Like no taste, some stuff happened or a lot of flavours. How heavy does it feel? Not nicotine, but intensity, is it mild and smooth, medium some spice or full/rich dark flavours. Also worth noting down when you stop smoking the cigar, you can do it at whatever point you feel like you are done, but preferably after you have written down your 3rd third experience.
Remember the flavours you sense is your individual experience of the cigar, nobody can say it’s wrong! And the flavours I sense is not final on what you will feel in your cigar. Hopefully if you like the cigars I give good scores, we probably have a similar taste in cigars.
Now to the controversial part, scoring. It’s not essential, but I like to do it just to keep track of all the different cigars I try. It can feel harsh to do it, so you can use different types of scales. The most common one is the 1-100 which actually is more like 80-100. It’s used by the major Cigar Magazines and within scoring wine and spirits. Then you have the 1-5 or 1-10 which I feel is a bit lacklustering as the only way to get in to detail is to do .1 or .5 scorings. Then of course you can use more fun scales of your own imagination. Personally I would never score a cigar 100 points as that would be the absolute peak and I would feel like there would be no point in going on from there.
When I do my reviews I use the Cigar Journal scale of 82-100 as I’m used to it from being part of their blindtasting panel. It’s an official and well established rating scale used by many publications not only within the cigar industry. (But don’t let that scare you away from using it in your own reviews). The scores are divided into these six categories:
82 Not Good (0 Stars), 83-84 Mediocre (1 Star), 85-87 Good (2 Stars), 88-90 Very Good (3 Stars), 91-95 Excellent (4 Stars) and 96-100 A Class by Itself (5 Stars).
If you decide to do reviews for more than yourself, remember to try to be as unbiased as you can. Even though you might not prefer the taste of the cigar it might perform flawlessly, that should get it’s fair points. Not all cigars are made for all to like, but try to keep a civilized tone and don’t slander brands.
If you have any other questions feel free to contact me on Instagram @andredias95. That’s been my Guide to Reviewing Cigars, hope you find it helpful, useful and that it makes you start doing your own reviews.
/Cigar Reviewer André