Cigar Buying Guides

2020 CA Report: 12 Top Shelf Cigars You Should Smoke At Least Once

It’s been said a million times: “Life’s too short to smoke bad cigars.”

Of course, everything is subjective…what you like, and what you’re willing to pay for it. For instance – my special occasion cigar might be the same cigar you knock around with on a daily basis. Smoke what you like, like what you smoke, I always say. You’re smoking good when you feel good doing it.

But then there are those premium cigars that, when you smoke them, raise your eyebrows…or even some goosebumps. I think we can all agree that these cigars occupy a class all their own: super premiums, luxury cigars, the top shelf. Whatever name you give it, it’s more than a smoke, it’s an experience – bookmarking your memory with the time, place and taste you were experiencing at the time. (I keep a list of these cigars in my desk drawer. Someday I’ll shake loose enough coin to buy them again.)

It’s More Than the Money

What’s your threshold for a special occasion smoke from the glass case? MY top shelf cigar usually runs around 10 bucks. And while we’ve all been burned by an overpriced cigar, there are some sticks that just don’t get questioned when it comes to quality or return on investment.

Hell yes, they’re expensive – but somehow, each of these premiums still has some “it” factor that gets us nodding along when someone drops the name in hushed tones, like you’re in church. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little burning sensation in my pocket when deciding on which cigars made the list.

So this is more than just a list of expensive cigars – they’re brands held in very high regard, and we’re going to discuss why.

Top Shelf Cigars Defined

best top shelf cigars top shelf of a bar
The top shelf comes in 3 parts at Leaf Cigar Bar – hard to reach for a reason, as that’s where you’ll find the Louis XIII.

As you’re likely aware, “top shelf” is a bartending term that describes liquor “of a high, excellent, or superior quality.” These are the highest quality (and most expensive) bottles, and they’re literally kept on the top shelf behind the bar. Walk into a high-quality watering hole, and you’ll see Hennessy XO cognac…Beluga vodka…Pappy Van Winkle (or Weller 12, if you think Pappy is just played out at this point)…Willett Family Reserve Single Barrel Rye…Oban 18…the list goes on. More than the taste, it’s the experience that’s hard to compare.

When it comes to top shelf cigars, it’s highly likely your local smoke shop displays these highly coveted brands in a glass case, rather than just stacked up in the walk-in humidor.

What Makes a Cigar a Top Shelf Cigar?

Simply put, these are the best cigars in a brand’s lineup: their Mike Trout’s, their LeBron’s, their Tom Brady’s (hate – I’ll wait). All are first-ballot all stars, setting the bar with attention to every detail…and a touch of affluence, too.

But how does a cigar gain entry to the top shelf club? Four things:

What’s the Occasion?

Usually, top names like these get tossed around when it’s time to celebrate with a cigar…after all, you don’t enjoy these every day. Holidays, Father’s Day, graduations – these all qualify. Maybe you won the Super Bowl; maybe you only slayed your Fantasy Football league. Doesn’t matter. Let’s smoke the good stuff.

Life changes are the other big ones: you got a raise, a promotion or both. Better yet, you got a new job. New baby? Mazel tov! But save the It’s a Boy and It’s a Girl handouts for your friends, while you dig into the special stash.

More good news: the luxury line is a little blurry these days. What I mean is, a cigar doesn’t have to cost more than $20 to be considered top level – and many of the cigars below are more affordable than you might expect. Which is reason enough to just make up a special occasion and feel good about smoking one.

So when only a top shelf smoke will do, consider these…

Padron Family Reserve 46 Years Maduro

Originally made exclusively for the Padron family’s personal enjoyment, the Family Reserve line is their cream of the crop. And I mean that literally: they’re made with Padron’s finest 10-year-aged tobaccos – which only amplifies that signature Padron flavor: coffee, leather and earth.

Released publicly to celebrate Padron’s then-46th year in business, this savory, 5 ½” x 56 trunk pressed 46 Years Maduro is sometimes overlooked for the 45 and 85 Years/Jose Birthday picks. I’m not sure why, as you really can’t go wrong with any of the Family Reserve picks – if you’re splitting hairs that finely, then you’re probably arguing over whether or not your Bentley needs a heated steering wheel.

Ashton Virgin Sun Grown (VSG)

A bucket list cigar for sure, and one that we’ve mentioned in our luxury cigar lists of years past. So why discuss it again? Consistent 90+ ratings, for one thing. The other is the blend of six Dominican tobaccos – many of them quite potent – that are treated to a high-priming Ecuador Habano leaf, bulldozing the taste buds with a rush of earth, chocolate, cedar and more. (Try it and see what you taste, or read our Ashton Guide for a cheat sheet.)

Sure, you could make the case to smoke the VSG’s limited-edition counterpart, the Estate Sun Grown. I wouldn’t dissuade you – but as the star of the Ashton lineup, the Virgin Sun Grown certainly lives up to its blue-chip reputation.

Oliva Serie V Melanio Maduro

Named for Melanio Oliva, the first of the Olivas to grow tobacco in 1880s Cuba. The Serie V Melanio was the highest tribute Oliva could pay to their family forebear…that is, until they took it up a notch even higher, adding a thick, oily San Andres maduro wrapper. Talk about gilding the lily.

More than an exercise in Oliva genealogy, Serie V Melanio Maduro is a highlight reel for San Andres’ bold taste: spice, semi-sweet chocolate and earth. And coupled with the peppery, dark coffee-rich taste of the Jalapa ligero inside, no wonder Melanio Maduro has brought home its fair share of highbrow awards and rave reviews. A true A-1 cigar– yet somehow, it’s nowhere near the priciest smoke on this list.

Plasencia 1865 Alma Fuerte

The poster child for luxury smokes, Alma Fuerte is so high up on the top shelf you’ll probably get a nosebleed. But Nestor Plasencia, Jr. says you’re worth it: “We put a lot of heart and soul in everything we do. So, if [cigar smokers] are going to give us two hours of their precious time, we take it very seriously, so we want the best product possible.”

Adding to this ultra-premium’s mystique is the fact that Nestor began setting aside bales of Nicaraguan tobaccos in 2008, unsure of what he was going to do with them – but knew whatever it was, it had to be extraordinary. And it is: medium-full in body, Alma Fuerte evolves through notes of chocolate, cedar, roasted nuts, sweet tobacco and spice. Memorable, to say the least.

Joya de Nicaragua Cinco Décadas

Says JdN owner Dr. Alejandro Martínez Cuenca, “The most memorable of celebrations always require that you rise to the occasion.” The celebration was Joya de Nicaragua’s 50th Anniversary; and to mark the “five decades” since releasing their first cigars, made Cinco Decadas – “the most spectacular cigar to ever come out of Joya de Nicaragua.”

Joya’s theme for this cigar is “throwback”: the sizes (including this 7” x 50 El General Churchill) are the exact same sizes they debuted in 1968, and the blend is only prime, extra-vintage Nicaraguan tobaccos. About the only thing they didn’t do was coax the original rollers out of retirement. “The fact that there’s one in the humidor, will be enough to celebrate,” said Cuenca. Which is a good possibility, as Cinco Decadas will continue to be made in small batches for as long as he sees fit.

Arturo Fuente Don Carlos

Argue all you want that Opus X belongs here instead, but you’ll have to take it up with Liana Fuente: “Don Carlos was my grandfather’s blend, he loved it very much. Until the day he died, he always had two sticks in his pocket – one to give to a guest, and one for him to smoke.”

That alone should earn Don Carlos a place of honor in your humidor. But there’s more…

Don Carlos Fuente Sr. spent a significant amount of time deciding which of his first-class tobaccos would provide the right balance of spice and rich, full body in his personal smoke. And once it was matched to the Cameroon wrapper he selected, it became the high point of the Fuente portfolio. Plus the Belicoso (shown) is about the closest you’ll get to the 2018 cigar of the year, the Don Carlos Eye of the Shark.

Winston Churchill by Davidoff

Arguably, most Davidoff cigars are worthy of the top shelf…but if we’re looking for “a cigar of character,” then we must extend the ladder to reach the tippy-top shelf. And it’s waaaay up there we find Winston Churchill.

This is Davidoff’s tribute to the patron saint of cigar smokers, so you know they’ve pulled out their best: Dominican Cuban-seed tobaccos and Yamasá binder, skillfully rolled in an Ecuador Habano wrapper leaf. When combined, Winston Churchill smokes with a profile of cream, oak, berries, vanilla bean and spice, which I’ll characterize as opulent – only because I googled “synonym for opulent” for 20 minutes and couldn’t find anything more appropriate.

Diamond Crown Julius Caeser

When the founder of your family business shares his name with a Roman emperor, you make sure that your flagship cigar – the one named in his honor – earns every one of its 5 stars.

On paper, J.C. Newman seems a more humble upstart than his name implies…born in a tiny Hungarian village, immigrated to Ohio, started his own company to make cigars. How far they’ve come: Newman’s piece de resistance, Diamond Crown Julius Caeser is made by Fuente, who are certainly no strangers to the high roller room. A profile we called, “woody, toasty, tasty and luxurious” comes from extra-aged tobaccos (5+ years) in a blend they choose not to discuss publicly. So alluring. If you’re bullish on big ticket smokes, make space in your humidor’s top drawer for this deluxe Dominican.

Rocky Patel Fifty

The original intention here was to make a cigar in a class by itself. The occasion? Rocky Patel’s 50th birthday, and no detail would be overlooked: an Ecuador Habano wrapper leaf, hand plucked from the 7th priming of the tobacco plant, fermented to a stunningly dark, oily Oscuro. A double Nicaraguan binder. A secret blend of Nicaraguan fillers aged over eight years. Swarovski crystals on the box. The only thing missing was a coupon for a free yacht ride with complimentary drinks. It was aces: an extremely limited-edition cigar, 4 years in the making. It even landed 2012’s #8 Cigar of the Year spot.

The RP Fifty was Rocky’s most expensive cigar at the time. And though it’s no longer at the top of the price list, consumer demand for those creamy, complex flavors convinced Rocky to bring the Fifty back in small batches.

Sin Compromiso

It means, “without compromise,” and it is the flagship smoke of Steve Saka’s Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust. Sin Compromiso checks every box above for what makes a top shelf cigar: rich and distinct tobaccos, whose names I can’t pronounce. Unique cultivation practices, inspired by Japanese melon farmers (seriously). Using Joya de Nicaragua’s best rollers to make them. And yes, at great cost: “absurdly priced, your wallet would be wise to ignore,” says Saka, unabashedly.

After 3+ years of work, the inventor sits back, wipes his brow, and admires what he’s created: “I can say without reservation [Sin Compromiso] is personally my best liga ever. I have never experienced such an intriguing and satisfying smoke.” This is the guy who green-lighted Liga Privada No. 9, mind you.

La Flor Dominicana La Nox

La Flor Dominicana cigars have set many standards: full-bodied Dominican tobaccos, the Chisel shape, the #1 Andalusian Bull (if you can find them). Then came Litto Gomez’ moonshot…La Nox. Latin for “the dark,” he bred La Nox to be the end-all, be-all of nightcap cigars: “It’s smooth smoke and rich flavor were crafted for elegance and power. The result is a cigar that embodies its name and the serene experience that only the night can provide.”

The name is also a nod to the deep Oscuro color of the Brazilian Habano wrapper. A San Andres binder and a mix of Dominican Piloto & Pele de Oro long fillers blow the doors off, in true LFD form. BUT – and this is a big one – even though it’s made in limited quantities, La Nox is notable for being a high-end smoke with a room-temperature price.

Highclere Castle

If you’re hunting for top shelf taste, it’s hard to top a cigar that’s made in conjunction with the British Royal Family. Highclere Castle is Nick Melillo’s collaboration with George Herbert, 8th Earl of Carnarvon, and Highclere’s current resident. We’re told Lord Carnarvon – the Queen of England’s godson – is actually quite a humble guy; together, they’ve made the crown jewel in the Foundation cigar lineup.

Featuring Mata Fina, Jalapa and Ometepe-grown Criollo and Corojo, and an exclusive hybrid called Nicada’n, the smoke is silky smooth and subtly sweet, with a tinge of pepper; a genuine Shade Grown wrapper from Connecticut (“the Napa Valley of cigar tobacco,” says Nick) lends a creamy, elegant taste. A distinctive smoke that celebrates the “gentleman’s past time,” when it customary to smoke a cigar after dinner.