What Is The Cigar Formula?
Charles-Philippe [Left] & Paul Anthony [Right]
In late 2017, we published our very first cigar review where we covered the Davidoff Winston Churchill The Late Hour
. However, we wanted to take it much further in order to provide all the details of the experience so readers would have a clear idea before making their purchase.
As passionate cigar enthusiasts, we are constantly seeking new ways to expand our knowledge so that we can share it with you. Therefore, we began researching how we could improve our methodology to improve our review structure.
A Quantifiable Approach
Paul Anthony & Klaas Kelner
When reading reviews from similar publications, we started to become frustrated by what would sometimes come across as arbitrary scoring. Needless to say, we have the utmost respect for our peers and we are confident in their expertise.
Nevertheless, the majority of scoring systems weren’t very transparent and it was occasionally difficult to understand how the cigars were graded. Similarly, we noticed a tendency to mark most cigars very highly and within 85% and 95%.
Despite being optimists ourselves, we felt such a narrow window for scoring didn’t always reflect the reality of what we experienced.
Henke Kelner & Charles-Philippe
Therefore, we started work on developing a quantifiable scoring system for cigars in 2017 following the release of the Bespoke Unit Fragrance Formula.
The objective was to produce a sheet to accompany each review and that could be used by readers for their own evaluations.
Over the course of its development, we consulted with a number of leading cigar industry professionals.
Their feedback was very encouraging and the formula was soon ready after a number of modifications and fine-tuning.
Finally, we released the cigar formula with our review of the Avo Nicaragua in August 2019. Shortly afterwards, we used it for all our previous reviews, which was then uploaded to an internal database for our records.
Although our older reviews don’t yet feature the formula, we have them on record and intend to upload them soon. Nevertheless, this then paved the way for us to produce our Best Cigars guides by cross-referencing the scores for different purposes.
2021 Revised Edition
After several years of using and testing the Bespoke Unit Cigar Formula, we were able to determine its strengths and weaknesses. In 2021, therefore, the cigar formula was revised and updated in time for the release of the Davidoff Winston Churchill limited edition of that year.
The new version is designed to be easier to use no matter your level of experience while still following the same approach. Although we simplified its structure, we were also able to introduce a greater level of detail.
It was improved following feedback from both professionals in the industry as well as Bespoke Unit’s readership. Bespoke Unit columnist Reinhard Pohorec also greatly contributed to the revision process. When creating our liquor formula in 2020, we were also able to reevaluate the tasting experience.
The scoring system was refined and adjusted so as to rebalance areas we felt received too much or too little importance. For instance, its appearance and prelight experience was originally worth 30% of the overall score and has now been reduced to just 10%.
Meanwhile, the tasting experience, arguably the core of what a cigar offers, has been increased from 45% to 70% of its total value. We also introduced other elements such as a separate value for money score that allows us to evaluate its quality against its retail price.
While older reviews still carry the previous version, we have internally recalculated the review scores so as to more accurately use them in our buying guides. Similarly, some newer reviews may occasionally feature the older formula as they were written when it was still in use.
Download Your Copy Of The Bespoke Unit Cigar Formula
Indeed, there are already a number of different cigar journals that you can use to document your cigar-smoking experiences. Nevertheless, we humbly believe that the Cigar Formula goes well beyond their limitations so that you can keep a detailed record.
For that reason, we’ve produced a blank version that you can print download and print to use at home:
Download The Printable Cigar Formula Template As A PDF
Feel free to download your own copy using the link above according to your own paper format. However, we don’t recommend using the preview image as it’ll be too low-resolution to blow up onto an A4 or US Letter sheet of paper.
Furthermore, you’re welcome to use the Cigar Formula for your own reviews and documentation at home. If you have a blog and will use them for these purposes, please ask for permission first by leaving a comment below.
Finally, we’ll now guide you on how to use the cigar formula properly. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us by posting a comment if you have any questions that aren’t answered by the guide.
Getting Started With The Cigar Formula
Before we continue, we’d like to outline a few parameters that we put into place when reviewing a cigar to ensure that the environment is controlled. Given that the experience may easily change due to a number of external factors, we try to reduce this as much as possible.
All of our cigars destined to be reviewed will be left to rest for at least one month immediately after purchase. This acclimation process is in an effort to account for any changes in humidity during shipping and handling.
Different home cigar storage solutions are used by each reviewer from homemade “coolidors” to large cabinets. Therefore, reviews are standardised through a control step whereby the cigars spend three weeks in a Boveda acrylic humidor.
During this time, the cigars are carefully separated to avoid them from marrying their flavours. Furthermore, we only use Boveda for humidification during every process, which we believe is the most consistent and reliable humidification system.
Furthermore, our Cuban and non-Cuban or “New World” cigars are stored separately. While non-Cuban cigars will be stored using 69% Boveda packs, we use 65% RH packs for Cubans and some Dominican puros.
According to Boveda, Cuban cigars absorb more moisture and perform better at a slightly lower humidity level. Therefore, higher levels may result in combustion issues as well as plugged draws.
For review purposes, we avoid smoking in areas with which we aren’t intimately familiar. This is to avoid new smells affecting or influencing or palate. In most cases, the cigars will be reviewed in our respective offices or studies.
However, this may occasionally vary as some reviews are undertaken when travelling or during special events.
Similarly, we try to only smoke at the same time of day when possible. Usually, this takes place around midday. Olfactive nerves tend to be their most sensitive in the morning and they slowly become numbed when exposed to external stimuli throughout the day.
Therefore, we choose the middle of the day for a balanced perspective but always before lunch to ensure that our palates are clean.
Finally, despite our passion for fragrances, we never wear perfume when reviewing cigars. Additionally, we always try to shower in the early morning to remove any lingering odours.
Cigar Review Pairings
When directly reviewing the cigar, we avoid accompanying them with any pairings or accords. Even something as cigar-friendly as pairing it with coffee can greatly influence the results. However, we will try different beverages and meals after concluding the review itself for the pairing section described below.
Instead, we will only accompany the cigar with still or sparkling mineral water to avoid our palates from drying.
Number Of Cigars
As we note in all of our reviews, we smoke a minimum of three cigars for the purposes of the review. Sometimes the number may be higher but it’ll never be less. In either case, we will always list how many we smoked.
The reason for this is that cigars are handmade products. As a result, every experience can be slightly different. For instance, the construction may vary, which will affect the aromas.
Therefore, smoking several will allow us to evaluate the consistency and rule out any possible anomalies, which are caused by the cigars or even external factors.
Now that you have read about our preparation and arrangement for every review, let’s finally guide you on how to use the formula!
1. Cigar Overview: Filling Out The Details
A relatively self-explanatory process, the Cigar Formula’s first section consists of its physical characteristics and background.
First, we note the brand and the range in the top righthand corner. Following that, we fill in the details of where the cigar was made, the vitola of the particular cigar reviewed, its construction technique, and then the composition of the blend.
Unfortunately, not every brand is particularly transparent about these things and will sometimes only list out the tobacco’s countries of origin. However, we try to add as much detail as possible, which ideally would include the tobacco cultivars, their strains, and even the primings.
Nevertheless, we try our best to research a cigar beforehand even if some brands may be secretive regarding things like the factory location or certain elements of its blend composition.
You don’t have to add everything to the same level of detail as us. Nevertheless, it can really help in becoming familiar with the different types of tobaccos, their properties and their countries of origin.
There’s also no need to do anything with the final score just yet. We added it to the top to attract the reader’s eye but we’ll be looking at that last.
2. Pre-Light: Experience Before Lighting (10 Points)
Now that the basics are filled out, we quickly assess the cigar’s qualities before lighting. It combines the quality of the cigar’s physical appearance as well as the dry or “raw” draw where you taste the cigar before lighting it. At this stage, we don’t take the band into account but just the cigar itself.
First, we consider the roll and its straightness. You can do this by carefully running your thumb and forefingers up and down the cigar to look out for any hard or soft spots.
Once satisfied, you can give it a slight pinch to get a feel of the roll’s spring. A spring can be too soft or too hard, which is why the scale branches out in two directions. For instance, if it’s a little on the soft side, you add one or two points from the top. At the “ideal” firm position, it is allocated a total of three points.
Afterwards, we take a note of the cigar’s hue or colour. You can use the scale to mark the nearest colour and then add a descriptor so it’s easy to understand. Of course, we don’t score this as excellent cigars come in all sorts of colours.
Following that, we analyse the cigar wrapper’s attractiveness by evaluating its oily shine and the appearance of veins. Before finishing, we smell the wrapper and foot to list out some of its aromas.
Again, these elements aren’t scored as there are some excellent cigars that show few oils or have quite rustic and veiny wrappers.
Finally, you can check the draw after cutting the cigar. Naturally, everyone has different tastes when it comes to the draw’s tightness. However, we try to evaluate this based on the general preference for slight resistance like sucking through a large straw. The tasting notes are jotted down next to the body and foot.
3. Palate: Flavours & Mouthfeel (70 Points)
Arguably the most important section that everyone has been waiting for, the palate actually accounts for 70% of the total score. While it might seem a little low, it’s important to remember that a cigar offers a full sensory adventure.
Therefore, we believe that every factor plays an important role in contributing to the final result. If you take a moment to count where each of the points is allocated, it actually makes a lot of sense and stays surprisingly proportional.
The first section provides both the reviewer and the reader with general information about the overall experience:
- Smoking Time – From start to finish to the nearest 5-minute mark.
- Primary Flavour – The most dominant basic taste consisting of the following:
- Mouthfeel* – The most dominant physical sensation on the palate based on the following categories:
- Warming: Alcoholic, Fiery
- Cooling: Mentholated, Eucalyptic
- Coating: Oily, Creamy
- Spicy: Peppery, Chilli
- Astringent: Drying, Furry, Powdery
- Spritzich: Fizzy, Sherbert
- Body – The cigar’s perceived physical richness in flavour and mouthfeel according to the following scale:
- Strength – The cigar’s perceived nicotine content according to the same scale as above.
- Smoke Output – A basic assessment of the amount of smoke produced by the cigar.
* The mouthfeel categories were sourced from Charles Maclean’s Whiskypedia and are also featured in our Liquor Formula.
This opening section is unscored as it doesn’t necessarily reflect the cigar’s quality. Instead, it will help cigar enthusiasts determine whether the blend suits their own personal preferences. For instance, some people prefer mild-bodied cigars while others like full-bodied ones.
Tasting Notes & Scoring
Firstly, you’ll notice that each third is scored separately as it may evolve throughout a smoking experience. Each consideration is evaluated when finishing each third.
During this process, we list three distinctive aromas as well as one retrohale note. These aren’t scored but their quality will be reflected in the other considerations that accompany them.
This rule of three (three thirds, three notes) can also be found in our other review formulae. Indeed, we find it the best approach for exploring a sensory experience in an approach yet comprehensive way.
Although the mouthfeel was already featured in the previous section, the score simply evaluates its apparent smoothness on the tongue. A rough cigar is penalised whereas a pleasant sensation receives a better score.
Complexity is an arguably abstract concept. However, you can simply evaluate it by considering the intricacy of the notes and how they interact. Is it a diverse tableau of lots of different and unique flavours that work together or do you only get one or two simple notes? This thought process is an easy way to understand it.
Flavour is related to both a cigar’s complexity and body but they’re not the same thing. A cigar’s body is the boldness when the flavours and mouthfeel are combined. Meanwhile, the complexity looks at the number of different flavours and how they interact to produce accords.
Evaluating the flavour just takes a look at the taste. A high-scoring cigar will have vivid and lively tasting notes whereas an inferior one may be somewhat dull and nondescript.
A cigar’s harmony evaluates how well it balances all the elements of the tasting experience. The reviewer analyses how well the cigar stimulates all parts of the tongue as well as how well the body and strength are properly aligned.
To test the stimulation, you hold the smoke in your mouth and feel where it tingles. A good cigar should spread nicely across the tongue rather than dominate any area in particular.
Lastly, the final third has two additional considerations. The finish rates how long its distinctive flavours linger on the palate after you’ve stopped smoking until they fade into just a general cigar taste. A good cigar should leave precise notes on the palate for at least a minute.
Meanwhile, the evolution takes a step back and considers the transitions between each third and how the flavours evolve. A cigar that stays the same through each third may well be pleasant and scored well otherwise, but it may also be regarded as linear. Meanwhile, a cigar that tells a unique story in each third will be rewarded here.
4. Burn: Combustion Performance (10 Points)
While the burn is very much part of the core smoking experience, it’s separate from the tasting notes as it doesn’t necessarily pertain to the flavours themselves.
Firstly, you’ll probably notice that we cover the draw here a second time. The reason for this is that some cigars will have a draw that changes before and while being smoked. Sometimes, the draw may loosen or even tighten when being smoked so we take it into account here.
As you can probably guess, the temperature looks at the smoke’s heat and how pleasant it is. Bear in mind that smaller gauges will likely be hotter so it’s important to smoke slowly.
Meanwhile, the angle looks at the burn line and whether you experienced any waviness or other smoking issues such as runners or canoes.
Finally, ash quality assesses the ash’s strength, which we call the “backbone” and how well it holds while smoking. Well-constructed cigars will usually produce and long and strong ash.
For instance, flaky ash that gets everywhere with no warning may suggest that the cigar was rolled too loosely. Indeed, it may also have a loose draw. Nevertheless, it’s unpleasant to find yourself covered in grey specks of ash. Reviewers may also comment on the ash’s colour and attractiveness.
5. Presentation: Band & Box (10 Points)
Our final scored section simply takes a quick look at the cigar’s presentation. While its ornamentation doesn’t affect the cigar itself, it does play a role in the overall smoking experience. Therefore, we felt it important to mark it without attributing too many points.
Firstly, we just analyse the quality of the cigar’s band. This consideration takes into account its general aesthetic but also the quality of the paper. For instance, its design might look beautiful but is nearly impossible to remove. Meanwhile, it could look dated or garish while still fulfilling its function.
Meanwhile, the box is evaluated according to similar criteria. We’ll take a look at the quality of the materials and the craftsmanship as well as any hinges, clasps, and similar. The cigar’s design and aesthetics are also taken into consideration.
While the above might not be important for cheap bundled cigars, premium blends do come with certain expectations. Indeed, these considerations will play a role in the separate value for money score at the end.
6. Occasions & Pairings: When To Smoke & Enjoy
The last section of this sheet is not actually scored. Instead, we use it to inform the reader. Meanwhile, you can use it for future suggestions and ideas when you try the cigar again. In both cases, it’s a fun thought experiment to conclude the review.
Firstly, we suggest when to best enjoy the cigar. It’s somewhat subjective and our thoughts shouldn’t really be considered dogmatic. Nevertheless, it’ll provide an insight into the best time during the day to enjoy it, how formal it would be, and whether it’s suitable for certain occasions.
For instance, you might be looking for a pleasant morning cigar that’s casual enough for walking the dog or enjoying at a barbecue. Alternatively, you may need a cigar for an evening black-tie event or something appropriate for a wedding. If a cigar is versatile for several occasions, we’ll be sure to mention it.
Again, using the rule of threes, we add three beverage ideas and three things to eat. Of course, there may be many more but we want to avoid overwhelming people who read it.
Bear in mind that these can be absolutely anything. For instance, the food can be full meals or just snacks. Similarly, the drinks can be alcoholic, soft drinks, or even hot drinks.
If you’re unsure of how to pair cigars, check out Light Em Up’s article on the subject.
Tying It All Together
If you were to count every dot present on the formula, you’ll actually find that there are 100 possible points aside from the branched scales, which can’t be completely filled since it’s one direction or another.
When counting the score, you can write-up the subtotals for each section. This will make calculating the grand total much easier lest you lose count! It will also allow you to see the cigar’s strengths and weaknesses.
Once you’ve added up all the subtotals, you can add this at the top score. If you look to its right, you’ll notice a key for attributing the right number of stars:
- 81 – 100: Outstanding [5 stars]
- 61 – 80: Good [4 Stars]
- 41 – 60: Average [3 Stars]
- – 40: Mediocre [2 Stars]
As you can see, the final score is very quantifiable and relatively foolproof! You may have noted that there’s no option for a single star. The reason for this is that we don’t actually publish reviews that receive fewer than three stars.
We prefer not to publicise a poor result that can damage a brand’s reputation (especially a young start-up). Instead, we would contact them directly and provide constructive feedback so that they have the opportunity to make improvements and come back to us in the future.
Value For Money Score
When designing the new formula, we decided to remove the old value for money score that was once available in the “Overall Experience” section. However, Paul Anthony felt it important that evaluating the cigar’s perceived value was of the utmost importance.
Indeed, this qualifier is especially important for particularly expensive cigars as people often ask if they’re worth the extra money. However, it also allows us to look at a cheap cigar in a different light.
While not always true, a premium cigar should in principle taste better than a cheap one. Yet, a cheap cigar might offer a sensational experience for the price. Although it may have been penalised for its shortcomings, it’s an opportunity to express whether its price tag makes it for it.
Meanwhile, an ultra-premium cigar may receive an incredible five-star score but it’s so expensive that it’s hard to justify buying it. It’ll be an opportunity to mention it here, too.
In short, the value for money score seeks to level the playing field across all markets by taking price into consideration. Since it’s somewhat subjective, it’s also completely independent from the main Bespoke Unit rating.
Finally, we try to only list recommended retail prices rather than any reduced prices online retailers may offer. Yet, if they’re exclusively sold from a single retailer at a permanent heavy discount, we’ll likely mention it.
Closing Comments & Additional Vitolas
You can use this last section to add any comments on your experience. We use it to summarise the cigar and its qualities. However, you might want to know when and where you smoked it as well as anyone that was with you. You can also stick the band of the cigar here as a keepsake.
We have also included the possibility to list any additional vitolas. Since we realise that the same blend in different shapes or sizes may taste differently, we note the one that we used for the review. However, we also include the other vitolas so that people are aware if they prefer different formats.
An Objective System
After trying it out, you may also notice that it’s actually very hard to be too generous or over penalise a cigar without being blatantly dishonest. Similarly, it’s difficult for even an excellent cigar to actually get above 90 points.
This may seem like something of a culture shock given the tendency to mark cigars highly, but one of our objectives was to take full advantage of a 100-point scale.
Therefore, the stars and their accompanying key plays an important role in reminding people that even a score in the 60s or 70s is still very good.
Finally, you’re welcome to send us your copies of the Bespoke Unit Cigar Formula when reviewing your own. You never know, it might get featured in a future review! If you do, don’t forget to add your name and date at the bottom of the sheet for reference.
Have any more questions? Feel free to let us know in the comments below! Otherwise, now that you’ve learned how to use our cigar formula, why don’t you also check out our related guides below?