An event was swiftly arranged in the basement of the House of Shields, once the site of a Prohibition speak-easy, and current meeting place of the San Francisco Cigar Society. To ease the potential irritation of such a task, the participants were coerced with Knockando single malt scotch. We opened up our tasting to include a wide selection of colors, sizes, and flavors, ranging from pipe tobacco to menthol, sweets, and generic raw leaves. (The Erik filter-tipped cherry cigar was disqualified after it was discovered the "Erik" logo was stamped on each cigar, making a proper blind tasting impossible.) After their purchase in corner liquor stores throughout the city, all cigars were removed from their cardboard display boxes and rigorously maintained in a properly humidified plastic grocery sack until the evening's tasting.
Judges were required to blind-taste the unbanded cigars, in order of their number, and rate them as impartially as possible. They were asked to leave all prejudices and personal problems at the door. This was not a therapy session. Judges were also warned that if they stumbled upon a particularly magnificent cigar, and found themselves growing attached to it, to remember there were others in the room, and the schedule was tight. Although they were given the option to stub out the cigar and save it for later, or even take extra cigars home with them, none chose to do so.
Each cigar was numerically rated, using a modification of Cigar Aficionado's 100-point scale. All of which led to one overriding conclusion about domestic brand quality: The prices are pretty much impossible to beat.
95-100 -- classic
90-94 -- outstanding
80-89 -- very good to excellent
70-79 -- average-to-good commercial quality
60-69 -- average quality
50-59 -- below average
40-49 -- extremely disappointing
30-39 -- insulting
20-29 -- absolutely infuriating
10-19 -- unbelievably wrong
0-9 -- get this fucking thing out of my mouth
Judges: Michael Batty, Jack Boulware, Yesenia Cardona, Tyler Davidson, Deborah Mosca.
Havatampa Inc., Tampa, Fla.
Length: 4 3/4 inches
Features: "mild and flavorful," "exclusive birchwood tip"
U.S.: $0.30 apiece
18 Rolled as tight as a No. 2 Ticonderoga. Color reminiscent of a weak, loose beige stool. The Merv Griffin of cigars -- bland and mildly offensive yet ultimately of no consequence. Burn is plasticene and artificial, like smoking a Ken doll, with harsh, unpleasant finish. Aromas vary from a joss stick to mothballed cherries, with subtones of burning cornmeal and a hint of hay. Evokes images of tobacco falling off a conveyor belt, only to be swept up and set aside by a small, undereducated man who pauses to look at his watch. To be smoked only in desperation on a long road trip driving through Nebraska or Ohio, when nothing else can be bought. The consumer would have to be 13 and so drunk he couldn't speak to enjoy it.
Swisher Sweets Perfecto
Swisher International Inc., Jacksonville, Fla.
Length: 5 inches
Features: "totally unique blend of fine tobaccos and special flavorings"
U.S.: $0.34 apiece
16 Medium diaper brown wrapper, casual and summery, responds well to saliva. Persistent wrinkles suggests a hasty manufacture, either due to a high demand or ashamed factory workers. Pre-drilled hole a plus for the ladies. Flavor seems to rappel down the throat. Initial aroma of the entire contents of Mom's spice rack. Tip tastes sweet but the draw is a nightmare. Very harsh aftertaste, NutraSweet honey with a hint of concrete, like a cat pissing right onto the tongue. Appropriate to smoke in a seedy porn theater, midday, before the price goes up. The wallflower of cigars -- it will never make it onto the dance floor.
Middleton's Black & Mild Pipe Tobacco Cigar
John Middleton Inc., King of Prussia, Penn.
Length: 5 inches
Features: 100 percent pipe tobacco
U.S.: $0.40 apiece
9 Wobbly plastic tip produces a fast, unpleasant lighting experience. Color reminiscent of dark particleboard. Old cordial chocolate/rancid fruit fragrance. Wrapped cheaply, as if even the machine making it were eager to finish the process. Ridiculously light draw nevertheless yields a subtle smoke, like the patient progress of a Superfund site. Aroma of an old fraternal lodge about to be demolished. Palate varies from apple chutney to diatomaceous earth. Raspy aftertaste, a zing upon exhalation, as if biting into tinfoil with a filling. Brings up the image of an old, old man sitting in a chair under a quilt, waiting to die. Suggested to smoke at a bus station after performing oral sex upon a trick, or perhaps at an execution, where the smoker won't have time to become irritated, because he'll be dead.
Backwoods Mild 'n' Natural Cigar Consolidated Cigar Corp., Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Length: 4 inches
Features: Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper, "all natural filler, selected for mildness"
U.S.: $0.31 apiece
8 Dark brown, very uneven construction, as though rescued off a ship of Haitian refugees. Hard to determine which end to light. Appears as though wrapped by Jerry's kids ... high on crack. Draw is slow and sick, like a damp, yellowed racing form. Taste varies from a 9-volt battery to rancid disgust, with a hint of burned office building. Aroma of Sergio Leone sitting in an outhouse, holding a meeting with Clint Eastwood. Something Pete Rose might smoke. Aftertaste reminiscent of being raped by a toilet brush. Ideal for an AA dropout alumni bash, or as a gift to a witch. Thankfully extinguishes by itself. Prompted the judges' quote of the night, upon hoisting the cigar aloft: "This horse needed more liquid in its diet."
General Cigar Co. Inc., New York, N.Y.
Length: 5 inches
Features: "special blend of fine tobaccos, subtle menthol flavors and a soft plastic tip"
U.S.: $0.24 apiece
5 Dry, unevenly colored tobacco, shoved haphazardly into filter. Appears to be constructed from a brown paper bag. Plastic tip seems somehow necessary. Slow menthol burn is harsh and abusive, with initial aroma of pigs' balls. Judges were observed to look as if they just ate five lemons at once. Flavors range from a sewage pond with clumps of mint leaves to burning fish and mint Listerine. Aftertaste of water-soaked cardboard that was dried in the attic, resting on insulation. Immediate sensation of a city park after a lightning fire, with secondary aftertastes that linger like the memory of a particularly bad relationship. Appropriate to smoke in a church, to give the parishioners an idea of what hell is like. This cigar should be encased in ferroconcrete and dropped into an abyssal ocean trench.