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Jack Bettridge

Finally--A New York Spirits Auction

Posted: Dec 10, 2007 10:01am ET
It'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.
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Smoking Down Mexico Way

Posted: Nov 15, 2007 5:05pm ET
Cruised 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.
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A Question of Cigar Etiquette

Posted: Oct 29, 2007 5:10pm ET
Saturday 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?
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My New Place To Smoke

Posted: Oct 25, 2007 12:27pm ET
I 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.
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Of Churchill and Strangers on a Train

Posted: Sep 20, 2007 10:58am ET
Sometimes 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.”
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James Bond's Secret Formula Revisted

Posted: Sep 13, 2007 11:39am ET
Lillet, 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:
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Smoking Politics

Posted: Aug 27, 2007 11:11am ET
Got 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.
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Going Mad Men

Posted: Aug 13, 2007 9:48am ET
Anyone watching “Mad Men”? I don’t mean the current presidential campaign, but the new series on AMC centered on the advertising industry circa 1960 (Thursday at 10 p.m. also on demand with TV Encore).

It’s pretty well done. Very good art direction (feels like the era) and a pretty punchy plot (if a little soap opera-ish). Producers take pains to emphasize how different the era was: no political correctness, indifference to safety issues, a gulf between men and women in the work place, lots of style and everyone smokes and drinks—all the time.

I was a only kid at the time, but that last part seems pretty accurate, except that it seems to me that cigars are a little under-represented on the show. My memory was of lots of cigar advertising and shops and a pretty good assortment of guys who smoked cigars or pipes. The one time I have seen someone smoking a cigar on the show, it was set up wrong (coming as a segue from a line about how they can smoke cigarettes as much as they want).

Of course, the ad agency that the show is set around has a cigarette account (they supposedly come up with Lucky Strike’s catch phrase “It’s Toasted” in the first episode, ignoring that the slogan really predates 1960 by more than 40 years), so maybe that explains the cigarette emphasis. But does anyone remember different—that there were way more cigars?
 
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The Cigar and Cognac Conundrum

Posted: Jul 31, 2007 3:43pm ET
Sometimes this antismoking dementia gets in the way of my doing my job.

The other night I was invited to a dinner hosted by Remy Martin. The point was to show off its 1738 Accord Royal, technically a VSOP, but the company characterizes it as being a notch above that premium level, even while its not old enough to be termed XO. Standard Remy VSOP sells for $36.99, the 1738 version for $49.99. Like all Remy products, it’s a blend of eaux-de-vie that comes strictly from the Champagne crus of Cognac (so called for their especially chalky soil and not to be confused with Champagne region and its sparkling wines). In this case, the Cognac is 65 percent Grand Champagne and 35 percent Petite Champagne. The name, 1738 Accord Royal, stems from an eighteenth century degree from Louis XV that allowed Remy to extend its grape production in an era when new plantings were prohibited.

Now here comes Bettridge, who always natters on about how the Cognac accompaniments for a cigar should be XO level or above (see the video currently on the Cigaraficionado.com web site for more on that). So I taste the Cognac, and yes it is notably richer than the typical VSOP. My knock on lesser Cognacs is that they don’t have as much complexity and therefore fewer notes with which to harmonize with a good cigar.

This 1738 version seemed to be an exception to my rule, with a depth and width of flavor uncommon at this level. There was plenty of nuts and spice with round chocolate notes and orange and apple on a long finish.

That’s all great, but I still don’t know how it goes with a cigar. Why because the pleasant restaurant we were in (BLT Steak) is in Manhattan and in New York you can’t smoke in restaurants anymore -- even in a private room, which this was.

So I’ll have to get back to you later on how the 1738 worked out with a cigar. Any smoking suggestions?
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A Smoke After A Smoky Meal

Posted: Jul 20, 2007 2:53pm ET
Normally, the news that my livery car is running 15 minutes late doesn’t make me happy, but last night was an exception.

Savona and I had just left dinner very pleased, having been the guests of Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue (ward.uat.dminsite.com/) of Kansas City, Missouri, which was hosting at the James Beard House in lower Manhattan. It’s always a great place to eat (former home of the iconic American chef, home to the foundation of the same name), but this meal was particularly satisfying. My penchant for barbecue is well enough known that I don’t have to go over that. But think of this: Hors d’Oeuvres included Hickory-Smoked Salmon with Toast Points and Rémoulade, Berkshire Pork Medallions with Spicy Barbecue Sauce and Mini Hickory-Smoked Kobe Prime Rib Sandwiches with Horseradish Sauce. Kobe beef BBQ? Oh my God!

At dinner we dined on Kobe Beef Burnt Ends with Grilled Asparagus, sampling Rancho Zabaco Sonoma Heritage Vines Zinfandel 2003. Then we moved onto Denver-Cut Smoked Lamb Ribs with Villa Mt. Eden Grand Reserve Zinfandel 2003. The lamb blew our minds. The finishing entrée was Crown Prime Beef Short Ribs, but alas we had to leave before the Bread Pudding with Vanilla–Rum Sauce.

As we stood waiting for the car, a call came in: “15 minute delay.” Did we go back inside with our tails between our legs to wait it out. No! Thanks to Savona, we had the ultimate capper to such a meal: cigars. But not just any cigar, the Arturo Fuente Short Story. Just the right amount of smoke for our small window of opportunity and more than enough flavor to stand up to the bodacious meal we just had.

I woke up thinking cigars and food are a pairing combination that often is overlooked and given short shrift. What do you think?
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