Posted: May 6, 2008 9:13am ETSunday night was my first great chance of the spring to blow smoke on my new deck. Perfect weather. A day of yard work behind me. It’s a school night so the kids retired early. No sound but that of the cardinal that’s nested in a mountain laurel.
Then it started. Some kid with a motorbike whined by at full throttle. (I could get some tacks or some razor ribbon.) I stopped myself, didn’t light up, waited until the noise went away. Reached for my cigar, and a plane flew overhead. My congressman’s supposed to be doing something about that. (Have to fire off an angry letter.) But the plane left my air corridor, so I sat back and started again in relative silence.
I began my ritual, contemplating the head of the cigar for a moment. The deliberation continued as I started to decapitate it with my fingernail. I was about halfway around when the sliding glass door opened. It was a friend of my wife, who, over for a visit, had spotted me through the window. (Have to get curtains.) Overcome by curiosity, she’d decided she needed to know exactly what I was up to.
“Why do you do it that way? Don’t you have a cutter? Isn’t that unsanitary?”
I don’t like scatter-shot questions, but I plow ahead in order: “I like to. I left my cutter upstairs. I clean under my nails.”
She just stood there, and I couldn’t wait any longer, so I lit up and leaned back in my chair. She didn’t move, and I thought, “Maybe I should make conversation.” But what? Maybe I could launch into a lecture about the niceties of cigar cutting or discourse on the leaf blend in the Churchill I was smoking—if I only knew what it was. Too bad Savona wasn’t there.
Instead, I waited her out, all the while puffing away in silence. Just when it started to get uncomfortable, she said, “I don’t know how you can stand that smell.”
I shrugged, but didn’t answer. What do you say to something like that?
Posted: Mar 24, 2008 12:26pm ETIn the universe of Big Ideas some succeed famously, some shuffle along, and others miss the mark. A package arrived at Cigar Aficionado the other day that seemed to bestride that spectrum.
The Big Idea is Beer Chips, or potato chips made with beer. As spawned by Brett Stern, a product designer in Portland, Oregon, the idea is so big that it overflowed into the marriage of two other drinks—the Margarita and Spicy Bloody Mary—with potato chips. Mr. Stern was kind enough to send us all three, and as they arrived before lunch when we were famished, we did extensive, unscientific taste tests on all three, which will be reflected in our blood work at our next physical checkup.
The inspiration for the original product—Beer Chips—came to Stern much in the same way that Isaac Newton was hipped to the idea of universal gravitation when he watched an apple fall from a tree. Stern was eating potato chips and drinking beer one day when a chip slipped and fell into the beer. But instead of deriving a physical principle from the mishap, being a product designer, he thought "Beer Chips."
But it's not just chips that go with beer, rather chips made with beer. That may sound rather soggy, but the execution was done with something more like freeze-dried beer. Stern made thick-cut potato chips, then coated them with dehydrated beer ingredients (malted barley, corn syrup, hops and yeast) as well as salt, cane syrup and honey. (An entertaining, but purely fanciful, video of the process can be viewed here.)
But Stern, being a visionary, did not stop there. He created Chip Shots, a Margarita-flavored snack, and Hot Potatoes, the Bloody Mary version. These were achieved in much the same manner: coating chips with the dried flavors of the respective drinks. Stern says that in the snack creation game you can easily obtain "dry topical coatings" of most any flavor, which he admits "doesn't sound very sexy," but to us succeeded in at least two of his attempts.
Posted: Feb 20, 2008 11:13am ETBy my calculations, I drank about $400 worth of Scotch whisky at lunch the other day.
Before you go jumping to the same conclusion that my wife did—that I must have tied one on pretty hard—let me say that I only had a couple of drinks. It's just that those drams were something very special indeed: the latest iteration of the legendary Black Bowmore.
If you’ve never heard of Black Bowmore, it may be because so little of it was made and because in the past it has been released with such little fanfare. Its story in a nutshell goes like this: In 1963, when the whisky dealer Stanley Morrison bought the Bowmore distillery on Islay on Scotland’s west coast, he didn’t think very highly of the whisky made there. The plan was to use it for blending. In the meantime, the distillery was modernized with such updates as steam heat (instead of coal) to run the stills. The first distillate after the overhaul was made on November 5, 1964 and filled into oak casks fresh from storing a certain brand of Olorosso sherry from Williams & Humbert called “Walnut Sherry.” The casks, which were deemed to be in excellent condition, were stored in a cellar located below sea level, where temperatures were constant for slow maturation and a hint of sea spray. As time passed they monitored the casks and, noting a pronounced dark color to the whisky, figured they had something special. In 1993, some of the whisky—by then the color of Coca-Cola—was bottled as a 29 year old (2,000 bottles). The rest of the special whisky continued to age in casks. Although Bowmore knew it had something special and designed special packaging for the release, whisky appreciation was in its infancy and not too much was made of the $100 a bottle whisky at the time. In the next two years, Bowmore released a 30-year-old (2,000 bottles) and then a 31-year-old (1,800 bottles) Black. By 1995, the price per bottle was $200.
Posted: Dec 10, 2007 10:01am ETIt's about time!
This past Saturday marked the first time that spirits were auctioned in New York City since before Prohibition started in 1920. Christie's, the London auction house that also has a presence here, and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a national trade association, are to be thanked for lifting the statewide ban that stood even while prohibition had ended in 1933.
The ban as it stood forced any private owner wishing to sell prized bottles of spirits (distilled alcohol, including whiskies, brandy and rum) to go elsewhere with their prizes. Typically that elsewhere was London, an enlightened culture that holds spirits auctions every few weeks, not every 88 years.
One of the storied collections that American buyers missed out on came from Doris Duke, the tobacco heiress and celebrity. When one of her many husbands died his bottles were shipped to England. Not only did that mean most American buyers missed the auction, but that New York State missed out on the chance to collect thousands of dollars in sales tax. (The sale on Saturday brought $304,800, with a superlot of more than 700 bottles going for $102,000 and a bottle of Macallan single malt aged for 60 years bringing $54,000. Had the sale not gone off in New York, the total loss of sales tax would have been $25,542.24.)
Doesn't make much sense, but laws of prohibition rarely do. That is something that we cigar smokers are vividly aware of.
Part of the shame of it is that antique spirits are such a natural for auction as they stay relatively intact as long as they are sealed in the bottle. Spirits stop aging once they leave the casks they matured in, unlike wine, which continues to change in the bottle, sometimes not for the better.
You can open a Cognac that was bottled a hundred years ago and have a pretty good idea of what it tasted like to those who drank it a century earlier. Also unlike wine, you wouldn't need to consume the entire bottle when you opened, but could enjoy it sip by sip for years. This means spirits auctions are more conducive to enjoyment of the beverage than simply passing on collectors' bottles that will never be consumed.
Posted: Nov 15, 2007 5:05pm ETCruised the west coast of Mexico last week on Holland American with hopes of scoring some Havanas, but got a lesson in caveat emptor instead.
The ship (Oosterdam) had a selection of nice cigars—including Fuentes—and a comfortable smoking lounge, but no Cubans as the tour originated in the U.S. (San Diego). So if I were to score I had to do it on land.
The first stop was Cabo San Lucas on the southern tip of Baja Mexico, where plenty of Cubans were advertised, but none appeared to exist. Of course, Cohibas are most represented and also the easiest (for me at least) to spot as fakes. (See the Counterfeit Gallery on this site for examples.) For some reason few seem to be able to get that checkerboard pattern on the band and its colors right. Saw all sorts of variations—the bottom color too orange or canary yellow, top color bluish, badly shaped squares, squares too far apart, wrong number of columns of squares, wrong font or size of lettering—but the most egregious fakes came in a box with a Plexiglas cover with five Esplendido-size cigars, each one of which had a different-looking band. I asked them to send me the name of the customer who buys that because I'm still trying to unload some prime real estate in Love Canal.
In retrospect, I think I was visiting the town too early (9 a.m) because everyone I met seemed too hung over to direct me to the local La Casa del Habana. They were, however, able to point out pharmacies that sold, as well as cigars, over-the-counter Prozac, antibiotics and steroids. I wonder if they were Fugazis like the cigars.
I sort of breezed through Mazatlan by car and didn't see a lot of cigars advertised, but you will be happy to know most every kind of American fast food is in evidence. Why experience a different cuisine just because you happen to leave the U.S.?
In Puerto Vallarta, we walked down the Malecon that skirts the waterfront and saw all manner of stores touting cigars (none real) as a sideline. You can buy clothes, drugs and food alongside your cigar purchasing experience. One place even hawked cigars as some sort of bait and switch to buy a timeshare. So I've got that to look forward to one week of every year.
Posted: Oct 29, 2007 5:10pm ETSaturday night I attended a pre-Halloween party with costumes optional. The host dressed as a very convincing Groucho Marx, complete with a pith helmet and a—shall we say—unfortunate cigar that he waved around as a prop. I was wearing a less remarkable outfit (smoking jacket with ascot), but it fit into the general cigar motif, and I asked if a smoke were permissible.
Cadwalader, my host, answered, "Certainly," and added that he planned be to light his up soon. In that case, I suggested he join me with one of the Cubans I had brought in case such was the case.
Here's the where the question arises: Cadwalader gladly accepted my cigar, but said he would smoke it later and stashed it away. In the meantime I had clipped mine and had no choice but to smoke it right away. So while I had envisioned sharing this great bonding experience over prized cigars together, I smoked mine alone and my host lit up his less memorable smoke. Presumably he has yet to smoke my gift. I guess I shouldn't mind, as the cigar was a gift and his to do with as he pleased. On the other hand, it sort of let the air (or smoke) out of the situation.
What is the proper etiquette here? Should the recipient of a gift cigar in such a social situation feel bounden to smoke it with the gift giver? Of course, if he weren't planning on smoking at the time, it would be perfectly proper for the recipient to stash the proffered cigar for another time. However, there was something slightly chaffing to me about his lighting up the lesser cigar right in front of me.
Then again, many people bring a bottle wine as a gift to the host at a dinner party and he is under no obligation to uncork. After all it may not go with the meal and it might be an imposition to imply your own taste in wine onto an otherwise well-thought-out dinner plan.
Any thoughts on this?
Posted: Oct 25, 2007 12:27pm ETI have recently stepped out of a hell that every knowing homeowner has either experienced or dreads: home renovation. Two years have passed from the day my wife first uttered the fateful term until now when my life is back to the near normality that I can probably call mild disarray.
Last night I realized it was all worth it when I sat in the newly created alcove built off the kitchen and lit up a ballsy perfecto with total comfort and impunity.
Granted it was an unseasonably warm evening, but I can see this spot is destined to serve me well in this capacity even in the coming cold months. It has three walls and a ceiling and opens on a view of the woods behind my backyard. Unless it is brain-freeze cold, my problem with smoking on a deck is not the temperature, but the wind. While I can always bundle up, I've found even a mild breeze can throw off the enjoyment of a great cigar by causing it to burn poorly. It either burns unevenly or too fast. Either way it's not the optimal condition for smoking. (Don't get me wrong. I'll smoke in a gale if I crave a cigar. It's just not the best.)
Bonus: one of the walls has a sliding glass door that peers into the family room at the big screen TV. Last night I could leave the door open a crack and hear the sound, but I realized there will have to be a Phase B of the renovation: a speaker for the alcove.
Then again, once I get the basement room finished and outfitted with an air cleaner, a full bar and a pool table, I won't need the alcove. But that would entail calling back the contractor for more renovation wars. Maybe that is Phase ZZZ.
Posted: Sep 20, 2007 10:58am ETSometimes something good comes from a sour situation.
Have been reading Stephen McGinty’s excellent book Churchill’s Cigar, which as the title suggests is a look at one of the twentieth century’s greatest figures through his life in smoking.
Well-written and humorous, it uses sources like interviews with Churchill’s family and friends as well as records of his cigar purchases to piece together the subject’s lifelong (90 years) love affair with the leaf. The book reveals how Churchill’s spirited mother bribed him to give up cigarettes as a school boy with the promise of a horse and a gun. Happily, his parents were not as successful at keeping him from cigars. Deployed in his twenties into the restive Cuba of the 1890s, he started the pursuit there in earnest, very quickly becoming a valued customer of some of the best purveyors.
While the book gives detailed accounts of Churchill’s smoking throughout his life, particularly interesting are the years of the Second World War when the British Secret Service jumped through hoops to ensure the cigars that the prime minister was receiving weren’t poisoned by the Germans. Least concerned, seemed to be Churchill himself, who sometimes smoked gift cigars received even before the verdict on toxicity was in.
One great anecdote comes from 1941 while Churchill was Canada. Photographer Yousaf Karsh was given exactly two minutes for a portrait of the busy English leader. Churchill arrived with a cigar in his mouth and kept with it. The photographer knew better than to ask him to remove it for the portrait. Instead he yanked the cigar from Churchill’s mouth while snapping way. The maneuver elicited a scowl and captured one of the most celebrated images of the prime minister.
Ultimately, Winston was good natured about the affront, commenting to Karsh, “You can make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.”
Posted: Sep 13, 2007 11:39am ETLillet, the Bordeaux-based maker of wine aperitifs, recently introduced a limited-edition bottle that reprises a classic image from its collection of advertising poster art: the 1937 image of a woman reveling in a flowing white dress, bottle of Lillet in one hand, cocktail in the other, with grapes vines in fruition in the foreground. The 70th anniversary "Roby" bottle celebrates the 70th anniversary of the poster by Robert "Roby" Wolff, which is the highest selling in Lillet's history.
I mention this for a couple of reasons. The first is because I so enjoy that style of art (check out Lillet's website www.lillet.fr for more examples) especially in a time when we are being barraged with ugly, noisy advertising images. Second is that it allows me to segue into other topics near to my heart: Martinis and James Bond.
Lillet is the brand of aperitif that Bond substitutes for Vermouth when he invents his famous Vesper cocktail in "Casino Royale."
"Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel."
Purists would bemoan that that order opened the floodgates for the vodka Martini and worse savageries, but it was an iconic moment and served to make an important point about the Martini: the choice of aperitif counts. Even though he was ordering a dry martini, the secret agent was specific about what it should be mixed with—and none of this just whisper Vermouth bravado. He knew the Martini as a mixed drink and not a glass of chilled gin. Every ingredient was important.
If you're mixing along at home, however, be aware that the Lillet he called for (Kina) is not available any longer. Kina indicated quinine, and it was a bitter mixture that was phased out in 1985 as tastes changed. So have portions. Bond it ordered in a deep Champagne goblet with this reasoning:
Posted: Aug 27, 2007 11:11am ETGot an interesting slant on smoking politics yesterday from Lewis Shuckman, who when not purveying caviar and other fish delicacies as owner of Shuckman's Fish Co. & Smokery is a guerilla warrior in the struggle for smokers rights in the Louisville area. Phone chatting with Lewis always involves an update on the absurdities of the legislative attempts to banish cigars. Yesterday, he relayed a discussion he'd had with a local councilwoman who is spearheading an attempt to ban smoking in Louisville restaurants and who—ironically— also represents Shuckman’s ward.
The conversation went something like this: Lewis suggests smoking should at least be allowed in designated areas in restaurants with Smoke Eaters. Councilwoman says, no, because smoke could still get in the kitchen and do its evil undocumented second-hand harm. Shuckman first reverts to sarcasm—"shudder to think that cigar smoke would somehow get onto some of the smoked turkey in the kitchen or some of my smoked salmon"—then forbids the councilwoman to comment on something of which she is evidently ignorant: the food service industry.
While that conversation devolved, ours didn’t. Lewis went on to say that apparently local landmark Churchill Downs will get protection from the law because a ban would make it hard for the home of the Kentucky Derby to compete with gambling venues just across the river, in Indiana, that allowing smoking. Lewis wondered why the same wouldn’t be true about restaurants that also must compete with eateries across the Ohio River. Hmmm…
Then he got to the heart of the matter. The ban, as with other similar legislation throughout the country, would compel owners of restaurants to enforce it. Now, Lewis ponders, why is a restaurateur required to police his patrons’ use of a legal substance, when he doesn’t bear the same onus with illegal substances or acts. A customer uses a forbidden drug in his restaurant and the owner won’t get fined, but light up a cigar and he is in legal jeopardy. You wouldn’t think of asking a restaurateur to disarm someone who carried an illegal weapon, but you would expect him to force someone to put out his cigar.