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The Story of Cigar Aficionado

Twenty years ago, Marvin R. Shanken had a dream to launch Cigar Aficionado, and that dream triggered one of the most unexpected cultural fads of the 1990s—the renaissance of cigars.
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Cigar Aficionado's 20th Anniversary, September/October 2012

(continued from page 1)

Two weeks later, Cigar Aficionado held its official launch party at the St. Regis rooftop in New York City. The guests included nearly every top person in the cigar business, including Zino Davidoff, the legendary owner of the Swiss-based brand. Philippine de Rothschild, of the winery Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, was present, too, and was given the first, and only, Cigar Aficionado Man of the Year award. Beyond from the festivities, the black-tie event signaled that there was a new luxury lifestyle magazine that wasn’t going away.

From the beginning, Cigar Aficionado defied its critics. The first issue was mailed to more than 100,000 people. It had articles on Dominican Republic and Cuban cigars, a tasting of robusto-sized cigars, a profile on Gregory Hines, a wonderful essay by award-winning journalist Gay Talese entitled “Walking my Cigar,” and articles on gambling, Port, Lalique glass and a back-page feature dubbed Great Moments that had White House press secretary Pierre Salinger writing about his assignment to buy 1,000 H. Upmann Cuban cigars the night before President John F. Kennedy signed the Cuban Trade Embargo into law.

The articles established what would be an almost standard mix of cigar-related articles, with stories about things that would interest an affluent cigar smoker. The first editor’s letter stated it best: “Cigar Aficionado is about taste. But it is not limited to the taste of a great smoke. This magazine intends to awaken and explore many of the pleasures that drive successful men … we do dream about creating a very special magazine for the individual who wants the very most out of life.”

The magazine focused as much on cigar lifestyle topics, as it did on cigars. From the beginning, only about one-third of the content was directly related to cigars. The covers, in an attempt to differentiate the magazine on newsstands, had still life photos of cigars and cigar accessories, or artistic renditions of such storied cigar smokers as Groucho Marx.

In the spring 1994 issue, the decision was made to put a living cigar-smoking celebrity on the cover: Rush Limbaugh. That issue sold nearly 60 percent of the copies that had been sent to newsstands when a solid industry benchmark—the so-called “sell-through” rate—was about 35 percent. Up to that point, the magazine’s sell-through rate had languished in the 25 percent range.

The President Fidel Castro cover on the Summer 1994 issue marked the beginning of a real sea change in Cigar Aficionado’s history. First of all, it highlighted how bipartisan the magazine was by putting one of the world’s last remaining communist dictators on the cover immediately following one of America’s most renowned conservative pundits. More importantly, the Castro interview, conducted by Shanken, created a wave of publicity with literally hundreds and hundreds of stories in newspapers and magazines covering virtually every country.

Those first two celebrity covers also marked the beginning of an incredible string of covers: Bill Cosby, who let the camera lens click 11 times and said, “you got it” before walking off the set; George Burns, in the last big interview he gave before suffering a stroke; Ron Perelman, the infamous corporate raider; and then Jack Nicholson, looking the part of the devilish cigar-smoking rogue.

Big Smoke March.
More than 1,000 people joined in the Big Smoke March to highlight a demand for more cigar smoker rights. The crowd gathered in front of the White House on March 1, 1995, on the day of the Big Smoke.
The magazine’s circulation boomed during that same period. The first official ABC audit occurred with the Spring 1995 issue, and was reported at 167,560. By the Fall issue, it had risen to 193,495, and with the Nicholson cover (Winter 1995), Cigar Aficionado rocketed past 200,000 circulation to 241,301. A year later, for the Winter 1996 issue, with Danny DeVito on the cover, the audited circulation was 413,000, and the newsstand sales reached 220,000, an extraordinary newsstand performance for any magazine, let alone a fledgling, niche publication about cigars.

More impressive, was the outpouring of advertiser support for Cigar Aficionado. The DeVito issue hit 544 pages, the largest issue to that point. In part because such big issues were unwieldy, Shanken declared that the magazine would switch from a quarterly publication schedule to a bimonthly frequency. But that didn’t slow down the boom in 1997, as the magazine’s ad revenues continued growing while circulation remained relatively steady. The November/December issue, with Pierce Brosnan on the cover, topped out at 586 pages, the largest issue in the magazine’s history.

By any reasonable assessment, the 1995-1997 period was extraordinary, both for the magazine and for the cigar industry. One of the highlights in those years was Shanken’s purchase of the JFK Humidor at the Jackie Onassis estate auction at Sotheby’s in New York. The magazine’s editors joked that before the purchase, people’s reaction upon hearing the title Cigar Aficionado, “Cigar, Fish and Auto, what’s that about?” had quickly changed to, “Oh, the magazine from the guy who bought the humidor.” The event also triggered another wave of incredible publicity, garnering mention in everything from Time and Newsweek and the New York Times to virtually every major publication in every country on the planet.

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