Posted: Jun 8, 2009 11:15am ETI attended my 35th college reunion last week in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a small college known as Harvard, which celebrated its 358th graduation. I will spare you the pictures of me in a top hat, tails and a white tie, which I put on as part of my duties as a Commencement Day Class Marshal. My wife and I have attended four reunions now, and we always come away with a newfound appreciation for the diversity of our classmates' lives, and the pleasure we get from sitting down, however briefly, with old friends.
But I actually had to work last Thursday too. The marshals are assigned to the afternoon ceremony, when the keynote speaker gives his address (Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu) and the honorary degrees are handed out; this year’s honorees included jazz great Wynton Marsalis, film director Pedro Almodóvar and author Joan Didion. The marshals help guide the procession into Harvard’s Tercentenary Theater, a mammoth tree-filled quadrangle framed by Widener Library, Memorial Church, Harvard Hall and Sever Hall, a classroom building. In the morning, there were 35,000 people packed in there for the graduation exercises, and the area was largely filled in the afternoon too for the speakers.
My assignment was to help the 50th Reunion Class (1959) find their way to their gathering point for the procession into the ceremony. The 50th is one of the last “big” reunions for the college, and it was well-attended. I simply stood along a sidewalk in Harvard Yard and answered questions and got people to stand in line. One gentlemen—I’ll just call him Stu—was wondering how long they’d have to stand there, and I said, well, it could be up to an hour, and what we needed was a cigar.
He laughed and said he’d love one, and that began a conversation about my job as the executive editor of Cigar Aficionado, and my own love of cigars. But the talk of cigars triggered a memory for Stu; he recalled how he had been at Harvard when Fidel Castro visited the college in 1959, part of his post-revolutionary victory tour of the United States. Stu had been prompted by his professor at the time to ask a question about when would Castro consider holding democratic elections. Instead of a calm response to the question, he said Castro banged his fist on the podium and said the Cuban people had already voted with their blood during the revolution. Stu said it was an illuminating moment.
Posted: Jun 2, 2009 1:57pm ETIt’s been a rough few weeks. I came down with one of the worst head colds that I’ve had a long time, and then I gave it to my wife—oh, yeah, I wasn’t exactly the most favorite person in the house. It’s been more than three weeks now, and there’s been one round of antibiotics and more than few boxes of Kleenex consumed. The worst was over in about five days, but the aftereffects have lingered for more than two weeks, with the added complication of intense seasonal allergies. Gee, I sound like a basket case, don’t I? But why I am boring you with the current state of my sinuses?
It’s pretty simple. When you smoke for a living like we do here at the magazine, a head cold is more than just a nuisance, it is a serious impediment to getting your job done. I managed because, thanks to the good organization of the tasting coordinator, we were pretty far ahead in smokes for the magazine when I fell ill. And on the good days I was able to smoke a few cigars to keep up with my responsibilities for Cigar Insider. But you may have noticed I haven’t filed a lot of blogs in the last month—haven’t had a lot of material to work with.
In recent years, I’ve also come to love that one, sometimes, two cigars on the weekend. I may enjoy them on the golf course, or sometimes, on my back terrace. There’s no rush. There’s no tasting sheet or note taking. And, there’s often an adult beverage in my hand at the same time; despite rumors to the contrary, that’s not something we do during our normal tasting routines at Cigar Aficionado—I mean there are limits to how much fun we have here at work.
So on Sunday, as I was walking off the 5th tee with my good buddy Paul, a Cuban cigar lover, the aroma of his Churchill-size cigar wafted over the fairway, and I turned to him and said, “That smells magnificent.” “It’s a Romeo,” he said, “I got one for you if you want.” The words were like a dagger to my gut since Romeo y Julieta Churchills are one of my favorite Cuban brands. I paused, took a deep breath, and said through a still stuffed up nose, “No, I’m not smoking this weekend. Still got a cold.” Apparently he had noticed the weekend before when I also turned down a smoke, and he quickly added, ‘Yeah, you really had it bad didn’t you?” I could only nod.
Posted: May 4, 2009 9:40am ETThe hand signals across the crowded dining room were unmistakable. Two fingers held up to my friends’ lips—the gesture that clearly asked, “Are we going to have a smoke?” As I stood up and began working my way across the Grill Room at my country club, several more guys asked if I was headed to have a cigar. By the time I reached the doors to the patio, I knew I wasn’t going to be alone.
It was the Opening Day dinner for the 2009 golf season. I didn’t count, but there must have 60 or 70 people who joined the evening’s festivities that included a rundown of the upcoming season’s events, a report on the club’s operations and plenty of just good old camaraderie with people who in many cases have known each other, and played golf together, for years.
In year’s past, before New York State passed its own draconian anti-smoking legislation, the cigars could have and would have been lighted right at the tables. But those days are long gone, not only in New York but across the nation. While there may be more than a little nostalgia for the Good Old Days, most people are resigned to the current rules and laws and are more likely to get charged up by finding ways around the law to enjoy their cigars.
Fortunately, it was a beautiful night last Friday. The sun had come out late in the day, and the air temperature was still quite warm. The cigar smokers gathered around a large table on an outdoor patio and by the time we all lit up, there were at least 10 people there. We compared smokes. There were lots of stories about local school and club sporting events since several dinner attendees were headed off the next morning to watch their sons or daughters play in soccer, baseball or lacrosse games, and were not going to be able to attend the opening day tournament. And there was some good-natured ribbing about the competition the next day.
Best of all, there was just an atmosphere of shared pleasures: a cigar, a good libation and the friendship of everyone around the table. It never gets old.
Posted: Apr 20, 2009 9:54am ET
The first Big Smoke at MGM Grand at Foxwoods had ended last Saturday night, April 18th. More than 1,100 people had sampled nearly 30 great cigars, sipped everything from Glenlivet to Ron Zacapa and eaten from the hotel’s grand buffets. They had chatted with Rocky Patel, Manuel Quesada, Orlando Padrón, Carlos Fuente Jr., Carlos Toraño, Alan Rubin, Robert Levin, Litto Gomez, Sherwin Seltzer, Mike Giannini, Jose Oliva, Alejandro Turrent, Pepin Garcia, Tim Ozenger, Pete Johnson and baseball legend Luis Tiant. When it was over, the crowd drifted into the two hotels’ casinos, both at Foxwoods and the MGM Grand, and with their cigars in hand, kept on smoking into the wee hours of the morning.
Two young men sat at the casino floor bar in the MGM Grand. As I walked by, they stopped me. “Mr. Mott, we just want you to know what a great night we had. We love cigars. We may only be 21 years old, but we love everything about them. Thanks.” Young, but clearly in the know and about 20 years ahead of me in terms of really learning and understanding the joys of smoking premium handrolled cigars. I just smiled and said, “You guys have got a great start on life.”
Any new cigar event is worth a celebration today. With the wave of new and more restrictive smoking bans across the United States, it has gotten harder and harder to find places that allow smoking, especially the kind involved in a Big Smoke. More than a 1,000 or 2,000 people lighting up at the same kind can present serious challenges for any hotel or party space. So, when we find accommodating locations like the MGM Grand at Foxwoods, we can only be grateful, and with an eye toward next year, let everyone know what a great night we had there.
The ballroom is huge, not quite as big as the ones we use in Las Vegas, but with high ceilings and a great ventilation system. The hotel, although a little off the beaten track, is less than 90 minutes by car from Boston, and about two hours from New York City. There are two great golf courses on the property at the Lake of Isles club, two casinos and a number of outstanding restaurants. In other words, if you want to get away for the weekend from the big East Coast metroplex, take in some fresh country air, gamble the night away and eat great food, without going to Las Vegas or Atlantic City, it’s hard to beat Foxwoods.
Posted: Apr 15, 2009 12:34pm ETUsually by this time of year, I’ve got a few cigar-related tales from the golf course to share with you. Lighting up for the first time with the green grass under my feet is one of the noteworthy moments that I like to document every year. It’s kind of an unofficial declaration that winter is over, and spring is here.
Well, I’ve played golf five times in the last month. Twice in Florida, and now three times here in New York. In each round, the lightest steady wind was close to 20 miles an hour, and during two rounds the steady wind was 25 miles an hour plus with gusts of more than 35 mph. Now, you might guess (and you’d be right) that playing in conditions like that reveals the depths of my addiction. But I actually look at it as a sign that my addiction is moderating; the other three weekend days in New York when I could have played it was colder or rainier than the three weekend days I did play. As a result, I stayed inside those days that were the worst of the two, but I still had to get out to swing a club.
Ok, so I’ve played five times and no cigars? No, that’s not true either. I have smoked a cigar during every round, except one in Florida when I wasn’t quite feeling myself. But I haven’t really tasted them, or had a chance to savor the aroma, or for that matter, during one round, been even able to hold on to it because my hands were so cold—42 degrees with a 30-mile an hour gusts can do that, even if it is sunny. I’ve probably wasted a few good cigars too; a Tatuaje Taino, a God of Fire by Don Carlos, a La Aurora 100 Años. What was I thinking?
All I know is that spring is coming here in the Northeast, and the golf season won’t just be a promise, but it will be here, and I won’t have to choose between playing one day in 40 degrees and sunshine, or 48 degrees and rain. It will just be warm and hopefully without too much wind so I can savor a great cigar on the links.
Posted: Feb 25, 2009 9:36am ETI spent last week at the South Beach Food & Wine Festival in Miami. It’s a four-day extravaganza of wine, food and, whenever possible, cigars. This year, Jorge Padrón hosted a cigar lounge following a banquet for the King of Spain, Juan Carlos I. Accompanied by sherry, some Spanish Brandy, and the great outdoors at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, more than 150 people enjoyed his Padrón Serie 1926s. Next year, I hope we can do more events like that.
Why? It was a revelation to be in Florida in February, sitting on restaurant terraces watching people light up. Yeah, you Floridians have it really good. While your state has one of the most restrictive indoor smoking laws in the country, it’s still possible to light up outside, and restaurants that have outdoor spaces are more than happy to accommodate you. One restaurant owner in the Design District told me that he doesn’t mind having cigar smokers on his patio out back; he did say if people complain he will ask the smoker to let it go out until the diners are finished, but after late seatings in Miami, there’s usually no problem.
We’ve been stymied in recent years at SOBE’s wine and food gig because of a lack of terraces, or a worry that a rainstorm could wipe out any attempt to have a big outdoor smoking event. However, my realization this year is that same worry applies to every event that is held on the beach under the tents, or on hotel rooftops. So, we’re looking for an opportunity to take that chance, and with any luck, we’ll plan it so anyone can attend it as a stand-alone event, just another part of the overall festival.
Keep your fingers crossed, but I believe it’s time to show the world of wine and food that cigars are part of the good life, and part of the fine-dining experience.
Posted: Feb 12, 2009 2:55pm ETDave Savona and I hit the Davidoff Columbus Circle smoking lounge this week. It was a quiet Wednesday afternoon, and we were helping Jack Bettridge finish off an upcoming video for cigaraficionado.com. Like all big-time film talent, we showed up and were just sitting there, twiddling our thumbs in the Stone Rose bar, watching Jack learn the finer points of Martini preparation from Nicole, the sun-kissed bartender. We could tell it was going to be awhile before they were ready for our cameo, so instead of watching the traffic whirl around on Columbus Circle below the bar’s floor-to-ceiling windows, I said to Dave, 'let’s go hit the Davidoff store.'
We walked in, were greeted by David and Kevin, and we asked if we could smoke in the lounge. We both picked out a Don Pepin Garcia corona, (which happens to be one of David’s—not Savona, the other David—favorite smoke these days) and went into the lounge to find the Three Amigos sitting there with another shop employee, Ron Zeligzon. Some “hellos” and nods of the heads greeted us, and it didn’t take long to figure out that the boys in the room had known each other for awhile. Conversation jumped around from the public debacle of Chris Brown and Rihanna to A-Rod, to the current state of one guy’s dream of being a writer. Dave, in his innocence, asked the aspiring writer if he worked near the shop, before quickly realizing that at 2:30 on the Wednesday afternoon, there was a pretty good chance work wasn’t on his agenda. There was a pause, and then a quick, “I’m between jobs right now.” Oh well, nice try, Dave.
Dave and I started chatting about our video and, we were quickly asked what we did, and whether we worked around there, and we gave a quick reply about our roles in Jack’s video, and how our offices are downtown, so we don’t get up to Columbus Circle that often. That got the nod to Cigar Aficionado from the buddies gathered in the small living room-size lounge. The coronas were burning down, and it was time to get back to the shoot. It was all friendly and relaxed, We’d been welcomed for a few minutes into a little cigar clique, which apparently shows up most afternoons by their own admission. It was a pleasant break, and a great way to spend the time waiting to go on camera.
Posted: Feb 9, 2009 2:54pm ETYou don’t normally see a retail store’s entire network of loyal consumers inside the shop all at once. Think about your local grocery store if everybody showed up at the same time; there wouldn’t be any parking spaces, and the lines at check-out would be snaking back down the aisles. Well, I got a taste of what that scene would be like at The Cigar Inn’s grand opening celebration on Saturday night in Manhattan. Apparently, every customer of the Fakih brothers—Bass, Billy and Gus—were there for the festivities, along with lots of their customer’s closest friends. Let’s just say that the crowd estimate would be in the hundreds.
It was a great night. By eight o’clock, the official start time for the party, the store was packed, and you couldn’t take a full step in any direction without running into somebody. But it was a totally friendly and relaxed atmosphere. And, it was a wonderful showcase of the new Cigar Aficionado Lounge, the first of its kind anywhere in the world. There were great spirits and fine wines available, catered food, and sushi, and, of course, cigars.
Among the cigar world celebs in attendance were Robert Levin of Ashton, Rocky Patel, Avo Uvezian, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, Peter Baenninger, and I know there were others in the room but I never ran into them. Other New York cigar stars were there, including some with lounges; one of them who oversees a private club lounge turned to me in the middle of the evening and said, “I predict that this turnout shows that we are at a turning point in this economy and with cigars.” We all smiled, and hoped it was a message from his lips straight to God Almighty.
By 9 o’clock, the crowd had spilled out onto the sidewalk of 3rd Ave., thanks to the first night in New York in more than 40 days when the temperature wasn’t below freezing. In fact, it felt down right spring like, and kept the crowd inside to manageable concentrations. You could tell by the faces of people walking by on the sidewalk that they wondered what was going on; they hadn’t smelled that much tobacco smoke in a public space in years in Manhattan. One of the young guys who works for me said he got off the subway about three blocks away, and caught a strong whiff of cigar smoke. All of Midtown must have known there was a cigar party going on.
Posted: Jan 9, 2009 10:55am ETCasa Magna! I know you're all surprised. We were too after our initial round of Top 25 tastings. And, then, that cigar just kept holding its spot among the top five cigars. In the end, the other factors—price, availability, intangibles—that we consider when making our final choice proved to be the tipping points in favor of the Casa Magna Colorado Robusto.
Let me respond to some of your questions and comments. Everyone has noticed that certain cigars in the Top 25 have higher scores than cigars ranked higher in the final list. There's no mystery or mistake there. We do not base the final selection for the Top 25 on scores alone. If we did that, then we wouldn't even bother to hold a special tasting for it; we'd just go down the scores given during the year and rank the cigars from one to 25. But gee, what fun would that be? We really do consider everything from price to country of origin to production quantities and that word intangibles, which boils down to whether or not we find something unique about the cigar that sets it apart from other products in the market today.
The NFL or NBA Playoffs are a good analogy for the Top 25 tasting. Teams make the playoffs based on their performance during the regular season. But once the playoffs begin, it's a whole new season. About 45 cigars qualified for the final "taste-off," based on scores of 91 points or better in Cigar Aficionado or Cigar Insider during the issues published in 2008. Even in that selection, if there are multiple cigars from the same brand, we'll just choose the highest rated one for our final test. Then, we begin smoking. The test is conducted just like all our blind tastings for the magazine; cigars are purchased in the marketplace, the bands are removed and replaced with a simple white numbered band and placed in each of the taster's humidors. The Top 25 tasting panel included me, Dave Savona, Jack Bettridge, James Suckling and Marvin R. Shanken.
Posted: Jan 6, 2009 9:01am ETI’m sitting here back at my desk after being away for nearly two weeks. It was a glorious holiday season with lots of time spent among family and friends, eating great meals and drinking outstanding wine and, perhaps most importantly, just relaxing. Like all of you, this past fall was a tough season with the economy imploding, the non-stop banter and uncertainty about presidential politics, and in the case of magazine, more smoking to do than normal. We had our normal tasting for the Jan/Feb issue, but on top of that, three elimination rounds to choose our Cigar of the Year. Oh, and I almost forgot, two Big Smokes in November. As a result, I needed some time away from smoking.
That’s right. Not smoke. Of course, like James Suckling pointed out yesterday, it’s not the easiest time of the year in North America to have a cigar if you don’t have an indoor smoking venue. But I wasn’t worried about a place to smoke, I needed to let my palate clear out a little bit and take a break. It was a truly a case of too much of a good thing, and you all know the easy antidote to feeling that way, whether it’s about playing too much golf, eating too much rich food or imbibing a bit too much of adult beverages--get away from it for awhile.
That brings us to yesterday. My first day back in the office and the decision of the day: What do I smoke? Trust me, I was more than ready. I'd been thinking about this moment since New Year’s Eve when I was in a non-smoking household, and the outdoor temperature was 4 degrees with a minus-15 degree wind chill.
Now I had some choices. Cigars were already resting in my humidor for the March/April issue of Cigar Aficionado. I had finished up some cigars for that tasting before the holidays, so I was ahead of schedule, but new ones always appear. But I also knew it wouldn’t be fair to the tasting process if I were to jump right back into fray with a blind-tasting cigar. No, I wanted to know what I was enjoying so I could relish every puff. There were some Connoisseur Corner cigars in my humidor, given to me by a good friend from Latin America, but again, I wanted to have some benchmark smokes under my belt before tacking a classic Cuban cigar. And somebody, (I haven’t asked who yet), left me a small selection of Cuban lonsdales, some of my favorites, in my humidor over the holidays.