Etiquette of Smoking a Cigar
Anticipation provides more than half the pleasure of fulfillment. And so it is with cigar smoking. Even before I finish a meal, I am thinking about the after-dinner cigar, and this makes the food even more tantalizing on my palate. In many cases, I am never quite sure what that cigar will be. When out with friends, I have already tried to second-guess events by preselecting the cigars I might want, and my cigar case, which holds three, is never filled with the same three. After all, who knows exactly how I will feel or what the evening will bring? If we decide to go for a walk afterwards, perhaps I will want an Hoyo de Monterrey Excalibur No. 1. Or, if coffee is served, I may decide upon a Partagas No. 2. But what if cognac is brought out, and an Avo No. 9 seems more in order? No, one can’t be too well prepared when dining away from our supplies in the stockade. On the other hand, when at home, my cigar selection is sometimes much more complicated, as I am faced with a far greater choice to make from my multiple humidors (I have long since discovered that one is not enough). Very often a likely candidate is selected and is poised for the clipping when some inner sense tells me to hold! This is not the perfect subject for tonight’s smoke. And back it goes, only to be replaced by Cigar No. 2, which may have been what I subconsciously wanted all along. But whatever the final selection turns out to be, once the chosen cigar is lit, it serves me well and I have never had any regrets. After all, no matter what the cigar or size or country of origin, when picked from my own reserves, they all have one thing in common: I originally thought them worthy enough to bring into the sanctity of my humidor.
There is a certain degree of mental preparedness involved in selecting and smoking a cigar, and much of the enjoyment is simply a matter of perception on the part of the smoker. There is even something about an unopened box of cigars: holding the solid squareness in your hands, tearing off the crisp cellophane, cutting the seal, and unlatching the brass hinge with your thumbnail. And then, opening the lid and unleashing the fresh, pungent aroma of cedar and tobacco for the first time. Finally, lifting out the first cigar and knowing that there are still more pleasures to be had.
In the Comfortable Outdoor Smoking Area (or COSAs, as they are quaintly labeled in the United Kingdom) of The Churchill Bar & Terrace in London’s Hyatt Regency Hotel in Portman Square, the author prepares to offer a cigar to the life-sized Lawrence Holofcener bronze entitled, “In Conversation,” which has a young Winston Churchill perpetually seated in the warmth of the heaters overhead. Unfortunately, on November 21, 2014, a basement gas explosion resulted in this luxury hotel temporarily closing down, much to the chagrin of London cigar smokers.
Enough Time To Smoke
One of the cardinal rules of cigar smoking is to always allow enough time to fully enjoy your cigar of choice. When picking out a Corona, for example, you will need at least thirty minutes. A Rothschild may take more time if you are a slow puffer. And any of the Churchill sizes will require forty-five minutes to an hour. That is why many of the smaller cigars are so popular today, because we don’t always have sufficient time to enjoy the bigger ring sizes and longer lengths. Smoking a cigar during the day can be quite a different experience than smoking a cigar in the less demanding wee small hours of the morning.
Just when you smoke a cigar is up to you. Your body will usually tell you when it is time to start and when it is time to stop. Or how many you should consume within a given day. One famous French actor segues from one cigar to another by lighting up a new Punch Double Corona with the one he is about to finish. And many enthusiasts glowingly speak of the morning cigar, the before lunch cigar, the after lunch cigar, the mid-afternoon cigar, the before dinner cigar, the after dinner cigar and sometimes even the after-cigar cigar. Frankly, those are too many cigars for me. As with everything worth doing, I hold with the philosophy that moderation is the secret to optimum enjoyment. Smoking a megadose of cigars can overload the palate and dull it, which is a bit like chugging an entire decanter of fifty-year-old cognac rather than savoring a snifter-full. It is far more rewarding to smoke fewer cigars but to be able to indulge in each one more intensely. I often ask people if they are cigar smokers and occasionally they will reply, “No, not really; I only smoke one or two a month.” Then, in fact, they are cigar smokers. After all, there is no rule on quantities in this pastime.
How Many Cigars?
Conversely, I am frequently asked how many cigars I smoke and people are often surprised at my answer. I rarely smoke more than one cigar a day, unless I am on vacation or it is a special event. Sometimes, I will take a “cigar break” in the middle of the afternoon, just to clear my brain and to take stock of what I have accomplished so far and what else has to be done. But usually when I open my humidor, it will be to bask in the luxury of a well-earned evening cigar, after dinner and often deep into the night, when all is still and I can slip my mind into neutral and with the help of my cigar, coast through any obstacle course that life has put in my path. After hours is the perfect environment to smoke a cigar, for it is a time when all your senses are freed, and one can concentrate on the sensual feel and taste of handrolled smoke from a distant land.
On the other hand, when at a Gentleman’s Smoker, I will enthusiastically and unapologetically succumb to the multiple lures of a Petite Corona with champagne, a Panetela with hors d’oeuvres, a Rothschild after dessert and then a conversational Double Churchill with a snifter of malt whiskey or cognac. After all, a Smoker is a cigar event! But then, I may not smoke another cigar for one or two days afterward to allow sufficient time for my taste buds to regroup. While on vacation or during the weekend, I will occasionally fire up a Dutch-type mild cigar at midday, or later on, select something a little more robust to help me watch the sun go down over a shimmering glass of spirits.
But no matter when you smoke, or how often, there is a definite ceremony involved with bringing a cigar to life, so that it may unleash all of the pleasure that it holds. I have a definite pre-lighting ritual that I go through with every cigar that I smoke. First, I take an exorbitant amount of time to savor the sweet bouquet that emanates from the wrapper. Sometimes my wife shares in this sensual enjoyment, although, as much as she appreciates a good cigar, she is only good for about one or two sniffs. Next, I roll the cigar over in my hand, visually caressing its form, examining the wrapper, and reaffirming my commitment that this is indeed the perfect cigar to smoke at this particular moment in my life. Then, and only then, does the lighting ceremony begin.
Removing The Brand
The first thing to consider is whether or not to remove the band. In Europe there is no question about the matter, for it is considered good form to defrock a cigar of its band, although I find it somewhat ironic that often these bands are then placed prominently in an ashtray or on the table for all to see. If you don’t wish to hide the band, why take it off? I will never forget my shock the very first time I saw anyone tear the band from a cigar. On this particular occasion, it was a rather prominent public official and I have never forgiven him. Why anyone would want to remove the band escapes me, unless, of course, they are ashamed of the cigar they are smoking. In that case, it is best to choose a different cigar. After all, the band is a sign of your good taste. It tells others that this is the brand you have chosen, and you are proud of it. Unlike the Empress of Russia and gentlemen smokers of the Victorian era, we no longer have to worry about soiling our gloved hands with tobacco stains, but the band still serves as a proud reminder of our cigar’s identity.
Pride and romanticism aside, there is also a practical reason for not removing the band. Because a portion of the cigar band is often inadvertently glued to the wrapper, you can seriously damage your cigar by trying to peel off the band. Besides, why would you want to undo the handcrafted accomplishment of a skilled worker? But if, for some self-and-cigar defiling reason you still feel a compulsion to remove the band, at least wait until the body of your cigar has had a chance to warm up as it is being smoked. The heat will soften the glue and the band may be easier to slip off without invoking The Curse of the Ripped Wrapper. If you want to avoid the band controversy altogether, you might consider smoking only Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey Rothschilds and Ramón Allones Trumps. These cigars are boxed without bands. The perfect compromise, of course, can be found in cigars with bands that cover the foot of the cigar. In this case, the decision has already been made for you, because the band must be removed if the cigar is to be smoked. In all other instances, I recommend leaving this bit of historical decoration alone.
With the band controversy firmly affixed, we should now expose another arcane practice, that of licking a cigar before lighting it. This unsavory and vile act had its origins in the days of non-humidors, but even then it was a senseless endeavor. To truly re-moisten the cigar you would have to unroll it and lick the filler and binder as well. I will never forget giving an acquaintance an after-dinner cigar at one of the few Beverly Hills restaurants that, at the time, still allowed smoking such things on the patio. To my horror and disgust, he immediately started rolling the unlit cigar around in his mouth like an all-day sucker. Before I could grab his throat, the maître d’ rushed over and said, “What’s the matter, sir, didn’t you enjoy the food?” A properly humidified cigar does not have to be licked.
Clipping The Cigar
We now turn our attention to clipping the cigar. There are four distinct types of cuts that you can make: 1) the Guillotine cut, in which a straight- across slice is taken off of the head; 2) the Punch cut, in which a round sharpened metal tube is rotated into the head and a plug of tobacco is plucked out; 3) the “V” cut, wherein a “V”-shaped wedge is cut into the head, and 4) the pierce, where a hole is punched through the center of the head.
The pierce is one of the older styles of “cuts,” although it really isn’t a cut at all. The pierce can be affected on any ring-sized cigar, but there are some drawbacks to it. The most noticeable is the fact that the single hole very often acts as a collection point for all the rancid acids and tobacco juices. Inasmuch as the smoke (and your tongue) passes over this hole, the taste of the cigar is often adversely affected. Another problem with the pierce is that by boring a hole into the cigar head, there is a risk of crunching the tobacco against the sides and bottom of the hole, which could interfere with the draw, although the machine-made pierce, which is found on many Dutch-type cigars, has eliminated this problem completely. In my collection of tobacciana, I have an elegant gold-and-alligator skin covered retractable cigar piercer that dates from the 1890s, which shows how well esteemed this type of cut once was. However, for today’s knowledgeable cigar smoker, it is impractical.
For many years, the V cut was considered best, as it creates an ample, two-sided surface to provide an adequate draw, and the exposed tobacco—a potential gathering spot for bitter tars—is kept at an angle, away from the tongue.
The three different types of cuts (L to R): Guillotine; “V”; and Pierce (in this case all three cuts have been machine made on Dutch-type cigars).
However, there are some drawbacks to the V cut. For one thing, there are very few pocket clippers capable of making a clean V-type slice without ragging up the edges (the Colibri V-Cut being one of the few exceptions). Another problem has to do with the larger ring gauges that are finding favor with many of today’s cigar smokers. A standard V-cutter is simply not big enough to accommodate some of the more massive cigars, and anything larger than a 52 ring may only produce a shallow slice instead of a deep cut. The punch cut is the most recent innovation and works quite well on most cigars (perfecto tips excepted), but unless you use a tool like the Crestmark (see Chapter 6) with a built in plunger, the cutting tool often gets clogged with tobacco. And unless you use a tool like the Davidoff Round Cutter (see Chapter 6 and 7), the hole you make may not be the right size for the ring gauge of your cigar. But the Davidoff doesn’t have a plunger and the Crestmark only has one size hole. Besides, the punch cut doesn’t do very well on certain figurado cigars like the Belicoso or Pyramid.
Much more practical for virtually all of today’s cigars is the guillotine cut, which, like the V, exposes an ample surface for easy draw and full flavor. It is also a much easier cut to execute, assuming the blade is sharp. The only caveat is that some of the pocket-sized guillotine cutters do not provide a large enough guide hole for cigars with big ring sizes. We will cover this topic more thoroughly in Chapter 6.
Still, for overall practicality, my recommendation is to go with the guillotine. After all, what was good enough for Marie Antoinette should be good enough for our cigars.
When making a guillotine cut, do not cut too much off the top of the head or you could risk turning your Churchill into a Rothschild. The best guideline is to make the cut slightly above the horizontal line where the cap connects with the wrapper, which should put the cut above the curvature of the shoulder of the cigar. That way, enough of the cap is left on the cigar to keep it from unraveling. Make the cut quick and definite, unless you are using one of the scissors cutters, in which case you may want to rotate the blades around the wrapper to create an encircling slice that marks the start of a clean cut. Of course, this only works when your cutter is sharp. A dull blade will tear the wrapper and you’ll run the risk of walking around with a cigar that looks like a pom-pom.
At Edward Sahakian’s Cigar Lounge at the Bulgari Hotel and Residences in London, Manager Mike Choi, winner of the Hunters & Frankau 2013 UK Habanosommelier Competition and 2014 Habanosommelier World Championships Runner Up, presents a properly prepared display of a cigar and lighting implements to a customer.
With our cigar properly clipped, we are ready for the baptism of fire. For this exalted task, only a wooden match or a butane lighter will do. A cardboard match is impregnated with chemicals, and the flame from a lighter fluid-soaked wick leaves a residue; both of these devices will taint the taste of tobacco. Butane, on the other hand, burns clean and odorless, and this, or some of the extra-long cedar smoker’s matches or a cedar spill are definitely the flames of choice.
The Ritual of Lighting
After striking a match, be sure to wait until the flare has died down, or your first puff will be a sulphurous one. The flame of a butane lighter is easier to control, although it does burn hotter. But whatever method of fire you select, don’t plunge your cigar directly into the flame as if it were a branding iron. This cloddish practice will soot up your wrapper—and you might notice the more erudite cigar smokers around you turning their backs, leaving you out of their conversations, and gradually filtering out of the room. Soon you will be left alone, an outcast, without friends, family, or hope for the future, all because of this one thoughtless act.
To properly light a cigar, the foot should never be allowed to touch the flame. Instead, the cigar should be held at a forty-five-degree angle directly over the tip of the flame, which is the hottest part. Then, slowly rotate the cigar, gently toasting the tuck and drying out the filler so it will be more receptive to the flame. Some people enjoy maintaining this procedure until the end of the cigar is completely charred and bursts into flame of its own accord, with no puffing required. However, this technique, spectacular as it is, also produces a much stronger first few puffs. Rotating and toasting the foot of a cigar is especially practical with big ring gauges, as it enables you to visually ensure that the entire circumference of the cigar is being warmed and charred. Some smokers toast their cigars until a thin ring of fire appears around the foot. Then, to help the glow spread, they take the smoldering cigar away from the flame and gently wave it around in the air. This drives the anti-smokers in the room absolutely crazy! A noble gesture, but I prefer to simply toast the cigar and inhale the delicate bouquet that is released from the tobacco, an aroma that we will not be able to smell once we start smoking.
At the outdoor cigar terrace at Dukes in St. James, London, bar manager Alessandro Palazzi demonstrates the proper way to light a cigar with a long cedar match, toasting the “foot” and keeping the flame from charring the wrapper.
Bar Supervisor Luca Tramontana at The Wellesley Hotel in Knightsbridge, London “toasts” one of the hotel’s exclusive Havana cigars with a butane torch lighter for a customer. Note that the flame does not touch the tobacco.
Next, with the foot of the cigar warm and perhaps just starting to give forth with a few wisps of smoke, place the cigar to your lips and hold it directly above the tip of the flame. As you gently puff, rotate the cigar, gradually lighting the entire circumference of the foot. All too often a smoker fails to rotate his cigar while puffing, thus lighting only half the cigar and consequently, providing only half the enjoyment. He then smokes away in pathetic oblivion, like a man who has forgotten to zip up his fly and is wondering what everyone is staring at.
Now sit back and sip the full, rich flavor of the savory smoke, much as you would a fine wine. Cigar smokers never inhale, as the taste of the pure tobacco is sensed only by the taste buds in your mouth, much like a gourmet meal. The tongue is the main gathering spot for all the different flavors of tobacco. Sweetness is sensed on the tip, saltiness on the sides, and bitterness near the back. Exhale the smoke, letting the bellowing clouds drift upward, for smoke is an integral part of the enjoyment of a cigar. (During an experiment in the 1890s, it was conclusively proved that cigar smokers who lit up in a darkened room, and consequently could not see any smoke, did not enjoy their cigars as much as those who smoked in a room in which there was light.) A cigar’s taste and aroma are transported by the smoke it creates. Thus, the more smoke, the fuller the taste and the more aroma. Because a bigger ring gauge produces more smoke, it also produces more flavor.
But just as a cigar’s shape is the embodiment of pleasure, you may not always want a full sized cigar. Sometimes I enjoy smoking two smaller cigars rather than one large one. This, of course, doubles the enjoyment of the lighting ritual. Also, when testing cigars, I often will smoke two similar shapes at once, such as a Dunhill Aged Samanas and a Don Diego Grecos, or will pair up a Henry Clay Breva with an Hoyo de Monterrey Super Hoyo, alternating my puffs and cleansing my palate at intervals with mineral water (carbonated or plain, it doesn’t matter) and dry bread, just as you would in a wine tasting. I admit it looks a little strange to the uninitiated to have two cigars going at once, but this is a great way to determine which particular blends you prefer and to compare the tastes of sometimes extremely divergent tobaccos. If you only smoked one cigar at a time, your sense of taste might not be as acute when you finally got to the second cigar. Much better to start out with equal taste perception for both cigars by alternating between the two. Don’t forget to jot down your observations as with the multitude of brands that we have today, it will be impossible to recall your reactions to them all.
A properly constructed cigar will develop a long ash, but be prepared to tap it on an ashtray just before you think it might unexpectedly fall off due to hidden air pockets. And that thin charred line between wrapper and ash indicates a well-aged cigar.
A good cigar can be smoked all the way to the band – and sometimes, beyond.
As you smoke any cigar through the course of its existence, you may find that its flavor will change with its length. (Do not confuse this with the oft-cited phenomenon of a cigar not “kicking in” until ten minutes into the smoke; this is sometimes the mark of a poorly fermented cigar.) This is definitely true of torpedoes, where the ring gauge changes as the cigar is being smoked, but also is evident with other shapes as well, as the smoke continues to filter through the tobacco and intensifies as the cigar grows shorter. What started out as an HPH 2 could easily end up an HPH 2.5 when you place your cigar in the ashtray for the final time. Because the head of a cigar acts like a filter during the entire length of the smoke, most cigars, no matter what their brand or size, will smoke at their optimum for the first two-thirds of their length and then tend to become harsh, and many connoisseurs prefer to let them go out once they have crossed that threshold. Others will smoke their cigars right on down to their lips, relishing the hotter, stronger taste as their facial hair bursts into flames.
With decreasing length comes increasing ash. A long ash on a premium cigar is indicative of a healthy outer wrapper and a well-formed long leaf filler bunch. This ash acts as an insulator, and can help cool the foot of the cigar as it is being smoked. However, a soft spot in the bunch of even the best super premium cigar will cause the ash to weaken when it reaches that point and fall off unexpectedly. To avoid this potential problem, I rarely let my cigar ash get more than an inch in length. When it comes time to detach itself from the Mother Ship, I gently touch the tip of the ash to the bottom of an ashtray and let it gracefully depart. But don’t attempt to produce a long ash on even the best of the short filler cigars, as their short leaf tobacco physically prevents it from forming.
Perhaps this is a good time to talk about The Fallacy of the White Ash. For years there has been a great misconception of trying to link ash color to cigar quality. About the only thing a white ash signifies is that you’re smoking a cigar with a white ash. Ash color has nothing to do with how well a cigar may smoke, although the implied purity of white has undoubtedly caused many cigar makers in the past to unjustifiably strive for this color, thereby perpetuating the myth.
All the color of a cigar ash can tell us is the approximate mineral content of the soil in which the tobacco was grown. Obviously, different soils from different areas have different mineral contents and consequently, they produce different ash colors. For example, if there is too little magnesium, the ash is dark. The more magnesium in the soil, the lighter the ash. But too much magnesium will cause the ash of even a long filler cigar to flake off before its time. Normally, the lighter the ash color, the sweeter the tobacco will taste. Consequently, a cigar with a dark grey ash will be more pronounced in taste than one with a light gray ash. Nor does ash color have anything to do with the combustion rate of the tobacco. That is determined by the soil’s PH (which is why tobacco buyers often test the burn rate of a leaf at the warehouses in the fields before purchasing a bale for cigar making in the factories). Now you probably know more than anyone else in your neighborhood about cigar ash.
Maybe it’s the color of the ash, or the patterns it makes, or the natural texture of the wrapper, but I often find myself studying my cigar while I smoke it. Although it is silent, a smoking cigar can tell you many things. For example, that thin, shiny black ring that acts as a fence around the ash and separates it from the unburned wrapper shows that your cigar is well made and the tobacco has been properly cured. On the other hand, if this ring is more like a wide blackened band that is blistered, it is a sign of poor leaf combustion and means that the tobacco wasn’t fermented properly. But then, your taste buds probably already told you something was amiss. Which brings up another point.
Occasionally while smoking, you will get a very uncomfortable hollow, almost gaseous feeling in your chest. This is an indication that the tobacco was not properly fermented or aged, and you are getting too much nitrogen and nicotine into your system. The best cure for this malady is to get rid of that cigar and try a different brand. Another disconcerting occurrence is a cigar that starts burning unevenly down one side of the wrapper, a situation sometimes described as a “runner” or “canoeing.” Normally, there is nothing you can do to stop this runaway brush fire. I have tried reclipping the cigar and even building a backfire. It never gets better and I am usually left with a smoldering brand that is more dangerous than enjoyable to smoke. Assuming you have lit the cigar properly, this unsettling phenomenon can be caused by one of four things: the cigar maker’s “booking” of the filler, improper humidification of your cigar, a poorly burning tobacco, or a problem with the actual construction of the leaf that has somehow escaped the watchful eyes of the inspectors at the factory. Normally, the two most frequently encountered culprits are poor humidification and poor leaf construction. Unfortunately, at this juncture we cannot do anything about poor leaf construction other than to toss the cigar and take notice of the brand, hoping it doesn’t happen again. But there is something we can do about ensuring that our cigars are properly humidified, and that “something” will be discussed in the next chapter.
But, sometimes, no matter how well we’ve cared for them, we still come across a cigar that just won’t draw. These frustrating encounters are usually more prominent with smaller ring gauges, where the bunching is tight. But no cigar is immune, and I have found a hard draw in some well-known premium cigars that were in the 48 and 54 ring categories. No amount of red-faced puffing and re-clipping is going to help. Besides, why ruin your evening by trying to undo what is most assuredly the faulty construction of the cigar itself? The only solution is to take the cigar back to the tobacconist where you got it (assuming it is still relatively unsmoked). Expect a replacement cigar or a credit on your next purchase. Tobacconists are an honorable breed and have, at one time or another, experienced the same thing themselves. They will understand. Or they should.
Assuming everything goes right, as it most often does, there is no peace like the serene smoke from a good cigar. But occasionally, because there are no artificial ingredients or chemicals in a cigar to make it burn, it will go out before its time. This is especially true if we should be engaged in conversation so stimulating it makes us forget to take the obligatory occasional puff to keep the embers of pleasure lit within the hearth underneath the ash. If that should happen to you, simply warm the end of your cigar over a flame before relighting it. This will release the carbon monoxide and ammonia that has been trapped inside the ash and lessen the shock to your palate when the cigar is reborn, as a relit cigar almost always smokes stronger. There are also times when a cigar that has seemingly died prematurely can be brought back to life simply by exhaling through it very gently. A curl of smoke tells you that there is hope.
A counterfeit Cohiba. The short filler does not hold an ash. Note the coarse veins of the wrapper. The uneven burn, the thick black “bubble-like” ring, and the rancid taste are all evidence that the wrapper has not been properly cured.
Eventually, however, all good things must come to an end and our cigar must be allowed to go out. To try and keep it alive beyond its prime can only taint the otherwise fine memory of that once vibrant smoke, for then it becomes disagreeable and bitter, much like a love affair gone bad. When this moment occurs, gently lay the cigar in an ashtray and let it succumb to natural causes. This releases the least amount of odor. Do not crush your cigar as you would a cigarette, as that only spreads the burning ash and increases the total area of noxious fumes. When I smoke my cigars at home, I always dispose of them grandly in the fireplace, or let them quietly go out in a distant ashtray outside, lest anyone complain. It is simply a case of “what they can’t smell can’t hurt you.” And thus, the sanctity of my cigar-smoking enclave is preserved.
Which brings up a new home-improvement innovation spawned by the cigar renaissance, the “cigarden.” This is simply a peaceful retreat in the backyard that has been specially landscaped to make cigar smoking more enjoyable. It can be as simple as a shaded lounge chair and an ashtray within easy reach, or as elaborate as a sylvan enclave featuring the gurgling sound of a waterfall and the melodic strains of music through hidden speakers. Of course, other items, such as a barbeque, badminton net, or a small gardening plot may also be included as part of the cigarden. In fact, their inclusion may be crucial to the acceptance of the cigarden by others in the household. The main prerequisite, however, is that somewhere in the backyard there be a private sanctuary where one can enjoy a cigar.
But even this precious utopia—one of the few islands of solace left to the modern-day cigar smoker—quickly fades once outside the protective environs of our home, the tobacco shop, and the Smoker. Sympathetic understanding ceases to exist on the mean streets of a rabidly fanatical world of anti-smokers. Just as during the Victorian era, cigar smoking is again being frowned upon in public. Yes, history does have a way of repeating itself, and today, with roving gangs of militant anti-smokers waiting in ambush around every street corner and lurking in every building, the world we live in is no longer considered safe for the likes of us. Our only defense is to band together. We have the clout, if only we would use it. Although there are very few places left where one may smoke a cigar in peace, they must be preserved, either through legislation or by outright acquisition.
Which explains the rebirth of a number of cigar-friendly private clubs that are springing up across America. I have christened these bastions of freedom “smokeasies,” a grammatical takeoff of the speakeasy of Prohibition infamy.
A smokeasy is simply a club where cigar smokers can relax in comfortable surroundings and light up in peace. Sometimes there are membership fees, sometimes not. Most smokeasies offer private cigar lockers (or “keeps” as the British call them), as well as deep-cushioned chairs, wide-screen televisions, refreshments, and other amenities as dictated by the members’ wishes and the locale. The Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills and New York City serves gourmet cuisine, features a fully stocked bar, and has become the hot spot for Hollywood’s elite, all of whom need a special key to gain access via private elevator. By contrast, Club Macanudo in New York is open to anyone who buys a cigar there (and it doesn’t only have to be a Macanudo). In Chicago an upscale men’s clothiers has added a cigar lounge so customers may relax while they shop. Other smokeasies across America may simply be smoke-friendly lounges in cigar stores.
The Davidoff Lounge at The Tobacco Shop of Ridgewood, New Jersey, is a classic example of luxury cigar lounges that are enjoying a renaissance, and which blends tradition and modern design. Among its amenities, the lounge features 100 private lockers for members to store their cigars, and a private boardroom for meetings and dinners.
In Havana (which ironically has “No Smoking” signs posted in most areas), Cuba’s modern Meliá Cohiba hotel has a smoking lounge, El Relicario, stocked with an impressive La Casa del Habano selection. On the other side of the globe, The Pacific Cigar Company, the official Havana importer for Asia Pacific, operates numerous upscale cigar lounges, including Cohiba Cigar Divan in Hong Kong and the P&L Cigar Club in Taipei. And in London, which has had smokeasies since Queen Victoria’s reign, England’s notorious Health Act 2006 could not snuff out the cigar and has given rise to a number of “Comfortable Outdoor Smoking Areas,” or COSA’s, as they are quaintly called. These areas are actually outdoor cigar lounges with foliage-thick walls, soft leather chairs, fireplaces, and heated ceilings and floors, which give them the ambiance and comfort of an exclusive gentleman’s club. Some of the most notable are the Cigar Room atop the May Fair, The Garden Room at The Lanesborough, No. Ten Manchester Street’s stylish cigar terrace, and The Churchill Bar & Terrace at the Hyatt Regency London, which features a life-sized sculpture of Sir Winston seated at one of the tables. More dramatic yet is the cigar-centric creation of the Wellesley Hotel in Knightsbridge, which not only features two luxurious outdoor cigar smoking area and some of the rarest cigars in the City, but also boasts a private humidor in their penthouse suite.
But these growing numbers of smoking enclaves aside, there are also subtle ways to win an anti-cigar war fueled by ignorance and prejudice—the two things that cannot be swayed. Rather than pointlessly argue with militant anti-smokers, we must try to win the nonsmokers over to our side. These are the people who are neither anti- nor pro-cigars. They are the middle ground and comprise the largest percentage of the American populace. If we can show them that we are more civilized than the radical anti-cigar thugs, we will have made our point. We must convince them with kindness. And courtesy. It does no good to force ourselves upon others, for we only aggravate the situation.
The Cigar Room at the five star May Fair Hotel in London’s West End effectively transformed an unused rooftop into a sophisticated ultra-modern cigar smoking environment, with steel mesh “ceilings” to comply with England’s open air requirement, and gas fireplaces and overhead heaters for warmth.
“Smokeasies,” civilized havens where people can relax with good friends, good spirits, and good cigars, have enjoyed a rebirth in modern times. In New York City and in Beverly Hills, California (pictured), the Grand Havana Room is one of the country’s most exclusive private clubs, where access is for members and their guests only, and entrance is by private, key-operated elevator.
As an example, even if I am in a restaurant or bar where cigar smoking is allowed (a rarity, I admit, but they do exist in various parts of the world), I will still ask the table next to me if they mind if I smoke, making sure they see my cigar case and know exactly what it is I am referring to. If they don’t mind, then all is well. But if they take offense, then I politely thank them for not letting me ruin their evening, and make a big show of putting all of my paraphernalia away. Sometimes the offending party ends up feeling guilty and recants. Or at least apologizes. Usually not. But at least I have shown them that I am a considerate individual and perhaps the next time they read about “rude smokers,” they may recall the incident and begin to rethink all this mass media hysteria. In this situation, I have nothing to lose. If I had gone ahead and smoked my cigar, they would have complained, thereby ruining the moment for everyone. So I simply wait for a more hospitable environment (often retiring to the welcoming sanctuary of a nearby smokeasy, or back in the sanctity of my own home), where I can enjoy my cigar with a peace and solitude that they will never know.
Additionally, whenever I encounter a restaurateur who is friendly or at least sympathetic to the cigar smoker’s plight, I always make it a point to tell him how much I appreciate his attitude. You can be sure he gets the opposite side of the argument from anti-smokers who are convinced they are being politically correct by dictating other people’s lifestyles. And if the maître d’ of a restaurant is a cigar smoker (How do you find out? You ask.), it can be mutually beneficial to offer him a cigar before he seats you. On occasion I have also sent a cigar to the chef after an especially enjoyable and well-presented meal. It is always reassuring to discover that many of these professional gourmets are cigar smokers.
Although the airlines have their anti-cigar statement irrevocably in place, I have extended my “cigar sensitivity training” when making reservations at hotels and resorts, asking if cigar smoking is permitted. Very often I am pleasantly surprised, such as discovering that the Montage Laguna Beach has ocean-view fire pits for cigar smokers, or that Graycliff Boutique & Smoking Divans has two cigar smoking lounges at, of all places, the Nashville International Airport. And not surprisingly, it is usually the cigar-friendly hotels and resorts that have the better amenities and a friendlier staff. The same applies to cruise lines, although there are very few cruise lines left that acknowledge the fact that the cigar smoker is a consumer who does more than his share to keep the wheels of commerce turning. But perhaps because of their British registry, the Cunard Lines’ Queen Elizabeth has always permitted cigar smoking on board and even stocks a fairly-priced selection of Havanas in their Churchill’s Cigar Lounge. Unfortunately, on all too many other cruise lines, the attitude toward cigar smoking ranges from “not allowed” to “only on the upper decks during a hurricane.” So if planning to enjoy a leisurely Lonsdale off the coast of Tortola or a Robusto amidst the red rocks of Sedona, be sure to check out whether or not your intended cruise line, resort, or hotel is cigar friendly. Even among the chains, some individual properties may be.
Indeed, cigar-smoking victories are where you find them. On one of my daily power walks I routinely encounter a young father puffing on a cigar as he rapidly pushes his newborn son in a baby stroller. With the wheels rumbling and all that smoke, he looks like a freight train but there is always a contented expression on his face. “It’s great to get out with your kid and enjoy a good cigar,” he once told me. Another dad wrote to me and related how, every Saturday night when the weather is right, he and his boy go out in the back yard. The father has his cigar and a snifter of cognac; his son has a snifter of apple juice and a bubble gum cigar. There is family unity and character-building bonding here that the anti-cigar people simply do not have the capacity to understand.
Whether smoking cigars with others or in the sanctity of our homes, it remains a pleasure that belongs uniquely to us. And by joining together to spread this camaraderie, we are ensuring that it remains an ongoing and viable part of everyday life. Gradually, others are starting to accept that fact. Unfortunately, not everyone. But that is a battle we must eventually win. For then and only then, will cigar smoking assume its rightful place as a publicly acknowledged entity of civilized society, and an integral ingredient for quality of life.