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

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Best of the Best: 12 Top Shelf Cigars Recommended

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:

  • Tobaccos: If a cigar maker is crafting a smoke that’s going to be his high-water mark, only the best leaf will do. No fluff.
  • Accessibility: This is the trickle down of the tobacco factor. The tobaccos being used are usually in very limited supply, allowing for a (comparatively) small number of these top shelf cigars to be made – so there aren’t a lot of cigars to go around.
  • The “X-factor”: Blenders make these special cigars for a reason. More often than not, these top shelf cigars are the highest honor a cigar maker can pay to their family, short of printing out their ancestry.com report and sticking it in the box with the cigars. Other times, it’s an anniversary or milestone. Even who in the factory rolls it can add to a cigar’s cachet, well before any ratings come into play.
  • Price: More than anything, cost really is still a huge factor. Everything above (tobaccos, accessibility, x-factor) affects the price, giving cigar makers license to attach a super premium price tag.

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

best top shelf cigars Padron Family Reserve cigars 46 years Maduro at Famous Smoke Shop

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)

best top shelf cigars Ashton Virgin Sun Grown VSG cigars at Famous Smoke Shop

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

best top shelf cigars Oliva Serie V Melanio Maduro cigars at Famous Smoke Shop

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

best top shelf cigars Plasencia Alma Fuerte cigars at Famous Smoke Shop

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

best top shelf cigars Joya de Nicaragua Cinco Decadas cigars at Famous Smoke Shop

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

best top shelf cigars Arturo Fuente Don Carlos cigars at Famous Smoke Shop

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

best top shelf cigars Davidoff Winston Churchill cigars at Famous Smoke Shop

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

best top shelf cigars Diamond Crown Julius Caeser cigars at Famous Smoke Shop

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

best top shelf cigars Rocky Patel Fifty cigars 50 at Famous Smoke Shop

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

best top shelf cigars Sin Compromiso cigars at Famous Smoke Shop

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

best top shelf cigars La Flor Dominicana LFD La Nox cigars at Famous Smoke Shop

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

best top shelf cigars Highclere Castle cigars at Famous Smoke Shop

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.

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Cliff
2 years ago

So put these Cigar’s in a sampler and put a price to it?

thomas chiaravalli
2 years ago
Reply to  Cliff

agree!

Mike
2 years ago

Yup – what they said

hosey
2 years ago

You left out “God of Fire”.. rare and one of the best

Tony
2 years ago

I’ve tried 4 of them. 2 out of 4 ain’t bad…!
Actually, they were all good. Two made my rebuy list.
Wish you included the tasting notes profile. I generally look for the profile before I buy.
Good article.

Dan Moore
2 years ago

“Top Shelf” to me is the finest available, when and where you can find it. I still have 3 Partagas 150 Don Ramon’s in my best humidor; they are what’s left of a box I bought when my daughter was born in 1995. I have friends that would sell me THEIR daughters to smoke one. Is that top-shelf? The other day I smoked a La Flor Dominicana 2000 I bought when they were released in 1999; it was sublime, and I remember thinking it was 2000 times better than the first one I smoked when I bought them – in this case time made the stick “top shelf”, a stick that was not so when fresh.
I guess my point is that to me “Top Shelf” are the cigars that you can’t just stop by the local tobacconist for a box. In this I disagree with CA’s premise. And any cigar smoker can create his own, with patience. There’s only 1 cigar on this list that moved me that way: when the Ashton VSG came out everyone raved; I smoked one and thought: RAW. If I can pick up a hint of ammonia (which I did) then the cigar simply isn’t ready. But after 12 years in the humidor, it really IS a superb cigar. So grab a box of La Nox’s – the best cigar on this list to “lay down” – leave it alone for a decade or two – and enjoy “Top Shelf”. Especially true because YOU had a hand in making it happen, almost as much as the hands that rolled it.

TigerTom
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Moore

This is more valid than any “top shelf” list.

Aging does wonders for cigars. Any leaf that is not fully sweated before being rolled can get that extra time for enzymes to do their magic, turning sticks from mediocre to memorable.

Al Penne
2 years ago

Yah, that’s a great idea, make a sampler.

Dave
2 years ago

This is a pretty weak list. Most of these are daily smokers, and you couldn’t give me a RP.

Steve
1 year ago
Reply to  Dave

Agree on the RP

Dick Engel
1 year ago

Byron Reserva 5 anos deserves a top shelf

Editor
Gary Korb
1 year ago
Reply to  Dick Engel

Will have to take your word for it. Unfortunately, I have not had the pleasure.
G-~

angel
10 months ago

I guess we can also name a few of our very own favorites as “TOP SHELF” within our very own humidor collection. I have a few in mind and a few that are in contention.

john
4 months ago

Seems like the wrong Diamond Crown to me. I prefer Maximus.

John Pullo

John Pullo

Editor in Chief

This is not his picture, nor does he even have a beard. A solid 'B' student and occasional low-fi musician, John is a medley of cynicism and sarcasm crammed into a wrinkled Oxford shirt who makes it nearly intolerable to watch reality television with him in the same room. Interestingly, his Social Security number is all ones.

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