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Gordon Mott

Big Smoke Nirvana

Posted: Nov 12, 2012 12:00pm ET

After more than 100 Big Smoke notches on my belt, you might think I could never be surprised by the event. But the Big Smoke Las Vegas this past weekend was another amazing couple of nights, bringing together cigar lovers from around the globe and the United States.

In the middle of the Friday night extravaganza, held this year in a gigantic ballroom at the Mirage Hotel in Vegas, I stopped to speak with a pair of gentlemen. One of them had traveled all the way from Australia to attend. I also spoke with people from Texas, Alabama, New York and California, and I had conversations with folks from Mexico and Canada. I'm sure if you surveyed the room, there were people there from almost every one of the 50 states, and many more countries than the ones I found.

But the most amazing thing was the turnout. We had more than 4,000 people there for the two nights, so many more than we anticipated that we actually had to post a Sold Out sign; that's a first in the history of Big Smokes.

The Saturday seminars, which sold out within a couple of weeks of tickets going on sale this fall, were another revelation. Well, it wasn't exactly a revelation because my observations weren't new. The curiosity, and the sophistication, of the questioners were enough to send me back to the classroom again to be sure the answers I was giving, and the questions I was asking, lived up to the high standard of knowledge shown by the attendees.

Was a good time had by all? Well, I hope so. I usually have a rule of thumb—if I'm having a good time then I figure most everyone else is having a great time because they don't have to worry about anything else. I had a great time.

The crowds stayed until the lights dimmed. They drank great spirits. (I stuck to my usual choice—Zacapa 23-year-old rum.) They smoked a selection of cigars that may have been better, or at least as good, as any Big Smoke we have ever held. And, the food was outstanding with stations set up around the room by the hotel, as well as booths manned by chefs from restaurants such as Delmonico Steakhouse, Tao and Lavo.

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Twenty Years Ago

Posted: Aug 20, 2012 12:00pm ET

It is a little hard to describe the pride we feel here at Cigar Aficionado. Twenty years ago, the world kept telling us that it was a bad idea to launch a cigar magazine, that there was no future in it. But thanks to Marvin Shanken’s vision and passion, he ignored all the naysayers and plunged ahead with the project. Today in 2012, we have enjoyed an incredible two decade run of success, all the while having a lot of fun and remaining true to our original mission of educating the world about the pleasures and joys of not only a good cigar, but the good life too.

We began with a simple prototype, the product of an outstanding design team working with an equally simple mission—make it beautiful, the best-looking magazine you can design. We reviewed dozens of magazines, always keeping in mind that we wanted a magazine that epitomized the good life and stayed true to a couple of key words—simple elegance. We have always felt that we achieved that goal.

The 20th anniversary issue of Cigar Aficionado will be arriving on newsstands or at your tobacconist or in your mailbox over the next few days or weeks. You will find a first-ever interview with Mr. Shanken taking you from his early days as a cigar smoker, to the realization of his dream to create a cigar magazine. You’ll hear from some of the people in the cigar industry who have been along for the entire 20-year ride, and you’ll read about the thoughts of some our cover subjects and why they were thrilled to be on the cover. And we will take you behind the scenes of our tasting process as well as some thoughts from our editors. Throughout the planning of this special issue, we wanted to focus on the people behind the magazine’s success, personal recollections of an incredible experience that has defied all predictions.

We hope you enjoy reading this issue as much as we enjoyed producing it. We spent long hours reminiscing, going through back issues and back note books, remembering some of the good times we have had. In the end, we realized that the one thing we appreciate more than anything else is the community of cigar smokers that has been created since the launch of Cigar Aficionado. For that, we thank you. Enjoy the memories.

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Posted: Jun 1, 2012 12:00pm ET

I wrote an editor’s note for the July/August issue of Cigar Aficionado wondering about the implication of a proposed regulation for New York City apartments that requires them to have a written smoking policy. Of course, it opens the door for smoke-free buildings, and I suggested, given the track record of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s three terms in office, that it was only a matter of time before this “optional” written policy outlining a building’s rules would lead to an explicit indoor smoking ban in all apartment residences. That’s just the nature of the fight against tobacco today.

But I also warned that there is a slippery slope in these kinds of umbrella regulations. If a government feels like it can get away with telling you what you can and cannot do inside your own home, even if the activity is completely legal, then where does it stop? Too much ice cream in your freezer? Excessive purchases of red meat? Haven’t gone to the gym in two weeks? Shame on you, you are a public health risk. Here comes government telling you how to live.

Yes, you could accurately chastise me for using some hyperbole in trying to make a point. Well, guess what. Since I wrote that article, Mayor Bloomberg has proposed a plan to limit the size of soda and other sugary soft drinks that can be sold in the city. And, again, if you think it stops with commercial establishments like restaurants and delis, think again—it’s only a matter of time before you won’t be able to find a soda or soft drink container anywhere larger than 16 oz. sold in New York City.

Now, we can all agree that obesity is a national crisis, and soft drinks may be one of the contributing factors, especially in young children. And, we can all agree that eating too much fat, in any form, leads to health problems that are becoming epidemic in this country. We also can all agree, too, that smoking three packs of cigarettes a day leads to health problems that affect us all, a fact that has been widely accepted for more than 50 years.

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The Gathering

Posted: Apr 9, 2012 12:00pm ET

Spring’s early glories were in full bloom under a crystal clear blue sky. The forsythias, dogwoods and cherry trees dotted the landscape with their yellows, pinks and whites, and the first tinges of green laced the canopy of trees with small, just emerging buds. But the vibrant hues of spring clashed with the solemn blacks and grays of the suits and dresses worn by the men and women waiting in line at the small Episcopal Church in the rural community north of Philadelphia.

What set this weekday morning apart from the normal memorial service or funeral was the sweet aroma of cigar smoke filling the parking lot and wafting across the somber line of mourners waiting to pay their respects. The cigar world had gathered to pay respects to one of their own, Manny Ferrero.

I write this blog not just to pay my respects to Manny—yes, he was a friend of mine—but about the world that he moved in, the world of cigars.

Suzanne Levin, the wife of Robert Levin, the owner of Holt’s and Ashton Cigar Distributors where Manny worked, spoke eloquently about the moment of his death, on the dance floor at the Tobacconist’s Association of America annual meeting, twirling his wife, Rosemary, around him in a joyous celebration. “They gathered,” she said, talking about the place, a luxurious resort on Cabo San Lucas, and then relating how they sat in a small chapel the next day recalling the life of one of their own, and how he had touched each of them with his humor, his love of life and his often characteristically blunt way of speaking.

“They gathered.”

Those words have stuck with me now since the funeral, spending a few hours at a lunch and a reception with Manny’s fellow cigar cohorts, and people from other parts of his life—his private social world, his colleagues from his former life as a Philadelphia policeman and friends from his community. But also in the crowd were people in the cigar business I have known for 20 years—manufacturers, retailers, distributors and competitors, all gathering to pay their respects.

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Festival Fair

Posted: Mar 28, 2012 12:00pm ET

If you’ve ever been to, or heard about the IPCPR, you know there are endless aisles packed with booths from cigarmakers, pipe dealers, humidor and accessory manufacturers and various sundries that are essential to the operation of tobacconists around the country. The trade show at the Festival de Habanos is a mere shadow of that scene, and in truth, is a showcase for various Cuban government enterprises and a smattering of foreign companies conducting business in Cuba. A generous guess would put the number of booths at 50.

It is housed in the Palacio de Convenciones, or PALCO as it known to attendees. There are two small levels of booths, the majority of which are filled with artisan goods—paintings, wood products, some jewelry and a seemingly endless array of antique items. If you dawdle, the trip through them might take an hour.

The unavoidable centerpiece is a grand booth from Habanos, filled each year with the cigars being released for the Festival and beautiful photographs of factories, fields and other cigar-related scenes. We shot a little video of the fair (see below).

The Festival’s real draw is the seminars and programs that are held throughout the week. There are tastings of cigars with various spirits. There is a “Habanos Sommelier of the Year” contest with entrants from around the world; a Mexican won the prize this year.

One of the best-attended events was the rolling seminar, run by Arnaldo Ovalles Brinones, the general director of the El Laguito factory where the majority of the big sizes of Cohiba cigars are made. More than 400 people packed the room with the requisite tobacco leaves to make a cigar. (Most were making cañonazos, or Siglo VI cigars, as the schedule promised, while we found others who were making more diminutive Siglo Is).

Unlike some seminars that I’ve seen where the amateur rollers are given a completed bunch and just asked to put the wrapper leaf on, the participants here started with stacks of leaves to make the blend, a binder leaf and a wrapper leaf. If you’ve ever tried to roll a cigar yourself, you can imagine the results, most of which look nothing like a handrolled cigar. But the crowd was completely enthralled and did their best to duplicate Sr. Ovaldo Brinones.

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A Cigar Dinner Extravaganza

Posted: Mar 5, 2012 12:00pm ET

Riveting! No other word describes Habana Compas, the dance troupe clad in black jumpsuits, long hair swirling, lithe bodies gyrating and the pounding percussion from their drumsticks on the wooden chairs they carried pulsing through the 1000-plus attendees in tuxedos and suits and flowing long gowns.

The dance group, one of the featured performances at the Festival de Habanos closing dinner last Friday night, highlighted an evening celebrating the brand Romeo y Julieta. Instead of the black on gold decor of several recent gala dinners, the banquet hall was vividly outlined with snow-white floors, bright red walls and splashy silver cursive lettering of one of Cuba’s signature brands.

A who’s who of the Cuban cigar universe joined in the festivities. Alison Cooper of Imperial Tobacco, Fernando Dominguez of Altadis S.A. Habanos, Habanos co-presidents Buenaventura Jimenez Sanchez Canete and Jorge Luis Fernandez Maique and vice president Ana Lopez Garcia, one of the longest serving executives of Habanos, and Javier Terres, also a Habanos vice president, were all at the head tables.

There were Habanos distributors from around the world, including David Tang from the Asia-Pacific region, Max Gutmann from Mexico and Jemma Freeman of the U.K’s Hunters & Frankau (who also received the Habanos Business Award of the Year). There were also Casa del Habano shop owners such as Christoph Wolters from Germany and Ajay Patel from England. In fact, they were joined by Casas del Habanos owners and Habanos distributors from virtually every country or region around the world.

One of Cuba’s leading political figures, national assembly president Ricardo Alarcon, also attended the dinner, and he was joined by several government ministers. Hirochi Robaina, one of the country’s most celebrated cigar tobacco growers, also was there. And, the crowd was filled with plain old cigar lovers, from the United States, Mexico Canada, South America, Europe and the United Kingdom, the Middle East and the Far East.

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Cigar Magnet

Posted: Mar 2, 2012 12:00pm ET

I feel like some super-conductor magnet, attracting just about every loose cigar in a country overflowing with a lot of cigars. When I arrived, there was the question in my mind about where I would find my first Cuban smoke, and what it would be. My friend, Max Gutmann from Mexico, answered that worry with an Edmundo Dantes Conde 54, a beautiful cigar made especially for the Mexican market. Quite a way to kick off the week.

Then, I passed through the Casa del Habano in the Meliá Cohiba, and figured I had better buy some smokes so I didn’t run out over the next couple of days. I bought two Montecristo No. 2s and two Romeo y Julieta Churchill Tubos to keep me stocked up.

After those purchases, it seems everyone is worried about me having enough cigars. First, there were two special house cigars given to me by Osmany Rios and Carlos Robaina at the Quinta Avenida store. Haven’t smoked those yet. Then, when I got back to my room, there was a gift box of 10 Cohiba Magico Maduros. I’ve had those in my pocket for the last 24 hours, but something keeps getting in the way.

At the 520th Anniversary dinner where Jim Belushi sang the blues, I decided to tackle the Cuaba Bariay, a huge diadema size double figurado. It turned out to be one of the best Cuban cigars I have smoked. Then, I moved on towards the end of the evening to light up the Montecristo Edición Limitada 2012, a big 55 ring gauge that is just at the beginning of its life—it will be much better after a couple years of box age.

Thursday starting slowly, but as we hit the Casa del Habano owned by Enrique Mons, I was starting to hanker after a smoke. After all, it was almost 10:30 in the morning. Out came a Monsdale, a pigtail head cigar that is made there at the shop. That lasted until lunch with Ajay Patel, the owner of London’s only Casa del Habano. We got through lunch, and then out came a 1992 Partagás Lusitania—read my tasting notes in last year’s May-June issue of Cigar Aficionado’s Connoisseur’s Corner. He also handed an old 1992 Cohiba and a Partagás Serie C No. 1, neither of which I’ve smoked yet, because … I kept running into other cigars.

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According to Jim

Posted: Mar 1, 2012 4:30pm ET

The sharp drum downbeat pounded out over the crowd, and the unmistakable chords of a Chicago blues song rattled the walls and shook the glasses on the tables. Jim Belushi, his Blues Brothers’ persona intact minus the hat and the dark sunglasses, but with a lit cigar between his fingers, wailed on his harmonica, belting out Little Walter’s She’s So Fine.

The central courtyard of the Museo de Bellas Artes, the setting for the 520th anniversary celebration of Columbus’s discovery of the Americas, was suddenly alive with the pulsing beat of an American blues standard. Within milliseconds, executives from Habanos S.A., the Cuban cigar monopoly, owners of Casa del Habano cigar shops worldwide and an army of cigar lovers from every corner of the globe were on their feet swaying to the music. They crowded around the stage, snapping pictures and shouting out encouragement.

Not once, but twice, Belushi asked the crowd if they wanted to hear one more, and each time, the crowd screamed “Yes!” Joined by Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music on guitar, Belushi, the Cuban cigar’s newest favorite fan, gave a great rendition of Let Me Love You Baby, a Buddy Guy tune; the crowd responded to the chorus in unison, especially when he tossed the word Cuba into the mix. Belushi ended the short set with a simple straight blues jam which he topped off with his trademark back flip.

The story behind Belushi’s performance began nearly 10 months ago when I asked my old friend if he’d be interested in being the international celebrity guest, officially hosted by Habanos, for the 2012 Festival de Habanos. We had talked several times over the years about arranging a trip for him on his own, but he jumped at the idea and immediately blocked out the dates on his calendar, even before an official invitation was issued. In short order, Habanos executives said they, too, were interested in having Jim attend the Festival. By early summer, the arrangements were being made and by the fall, the deal was done. Jim Belushi was going to Cuba.

Jim Belushi onstage at Habanos festival.
Jim Belushi, left, jammed with Phil Manzanera last night at the festival.
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Havana Retail Royalty

Posted: Feb 29, 2012 4:30pm ET

He approached me with a smile, and a warm embrace. Enrique Mons, of the Casa del Habano at Club Habana in Miramar, looked like a man reborn after a lengthy bout with an illness. He was attending the morning seminars at the Festival de Habanos, which is taking place this week in Havana. He was walking around like a man in his domain, the world of Cuban cigars.

Mons said he was thinking about retiring, but used a term in Spanish that amounts to something more like a working retirement. He said he wanted to concentrate on the things now that really gave him enjoyment, like smoking cigars from all over the world.

“I say all the time that tobacco is tobacco. You have to smoke everything. I have respect for tobacco from everywhere,” he said, clearly drawing on his 50-plus years in the cigar business. “Each tobacco is different, and each has its own characteristics. But you have to try them all.”

He said one of his dreams is to visit Nicaragua and visit the tobacco farms there. We talked about the beauty of the tobacco lands there around Estelí and Jalapa, and he said he really wanted to see them first hand. I told him he would be pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the land, the richness of the soil, and by the tobacco.

Later, we stopped at the Casa del Habano at Calle 16 y 5 Ave, known by everyone as the Quinta Avenida shop. The shelves were packed with a great selection of cigars, everything from the three sizes of Behike (my favorite the Behike 52 for about $210) to Punch, Cohiba and all sizes of Montecristo. Carlos Robaina greeted us and said he had been signing copies of our November/December issue of Cigar Aficionado for customers from all over the world.

Robaina and the other prinicipal of the store, Osmany Rios, said sales had been brisk this week, with people wanting to try the great selection on the shop's shelves.

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Cuba Questions

Posted: Feb 28, 2012 12:00am ET

The feeling is always the same, and it usually hits me at the same time. The plane leaves the dark greens and browns of the Florida Everglades, passes over the azure Florida Straits and then, on the horizon, a small brown strip appears—you know you’re headed back to Cuba.

The plane often zigzags across the straits—instructions I’ve been told from Cuban Air Traffic Control—and then, it crosses over the coastline, usually with the buildings of Havana out the right side of the airplane.

The feeling? It is a mélange of excitement, uncertainty, a little buzz in my gut. What causes it? Maybe it is knowing that things won’t be as they seem, or for that matter, for what they really are. But the familiar sensation means I am back in Cuba.

What do I expect on every visit? First of all, I look for that signature cigar, one that will mark my visit and provide the experience for all Cigar Aficionado readers to appreciate. Will there be any new releases from Habanos? Will the same people still be running it. Then, there are the questions about what new restaurants and clubs have opened up. And, then, finally, there’s the realization that I still have so much to learn about this place, the people here, and that I will never have enough time on this trip to accomplish everything I want to do.

I learned as a young journalist that feeling never goes away. A veteran foreign correspondent, an award winner for a major U.S. newspaper, met me for breakfast one morning on his first day in Mexico. He was almost in a state of high anxiety, the result he said, of “Not knowing what the hell I’m going to write, what I’m going to find, what I’m even going to do.” He peppered me, a resident correspondent, with questions about everything from the local gossip about the government to the weather.

A few weeks later I saw his dispatches—a wonderful kaleidoscope of snapshots of what was happening in Mexico. And I thought that part of what made his stories so wonderful was driven by his anxiety about getting under the surface, of finding out the real story, of relaying the reality of where he was and what he was doing.

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