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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

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The cigar phenomenon, or “fad” as it was called, defied explanation. In 1996, the Big Smoke schedule included six different cities including Washington, D.C., Chicago, Dallas, New York, Las Vegas and San Francisco. Each one drew at least a thousand people, and the first Big Smoke Weekend in Las Vegas attracted more than 3,000 people. People in other cities clamored for a hometown event, and at every city in which one was held, people traveled from nearby states just to take part.

Cigar bars sprang up in every major city. In New York, almost overnight it seemed as if there were dozens of places to smoke. What amounted to a classified ad section at no-charge in Cigar Aficionado for cigar dinners listed hundreds around the country every issue.

The magazine also began to hold charity dinners, such as the Night to Remember that became one of the biggest fundraising events for CapCure (now called the Prostate Cancer Foundation). In 1994, the Dinner of the Century was held first in Paris, as a charity event for Cuban Medical Relief, and then in London the following year.

The cigar business was booming right along with the magazine. The annual imports of cigars, which had remained at about 100 million units a year through much of the 1980s, finished 1993 with a 9.7 percent increase to 117.8 million units and 1994 with a 12.4 percent increase to about 132 million units. Then, the craziness began in earnest. Annual increases of 33.2 percent, 66.7 percent and 42.3 percent in 1995, 1996 and 1997, brought the imports to a total of nearly 418 million cigars. Those increases created distortions at nearly every level of the industry.

“We were competing for everything,” says Manuel Quesada, the owner of SAG Imports based in the Dominican Republic and the producer of Fonseca and Casa Magna cigars. “Wood for boxes, tobacco, rollers. Everything.” He recalls that tobacco was planted and cultivated in places in the Dominican Republic that had never before seen a tobacco plant.

However, in the underpinnings of incredible boom lay the beginnings of its end. By the end of the 1997, the incredible demand for cigars produced a frenzy of new cigarmakers who couldn’t get high-quality tobacco, didn’t have qualified rollers and didn’t understand the market. They dumped hundreds of thousands of mediocre cigars on the market that ended up sitting on shelves or were heavily discounted. Within months of that peak, dozens of cigars companies disappeared, many of which had been advertisers in Cigar Aficionado.

Despite the brief downturn, the foundation of a wide-ranging international cigar community had been established. In the years following 1997, the magazine went through one major redesign, shifting from a large Cigar, small Aficionado as the magazine’s logo, to a small Cigar, big Aficionado. While taken by some readers as an abandonment of cigars, the shift actually returned the publication to its original mission of being a window on the good life, with a special emphasis on cigars. In fact, the editorial ratio of cigar to noncigar content, which had been falling off, actually increased after the logo change and has remained steady ever since–with about 30 percent cigar coverage in each issue.

The magazine’s refocus on the Best of the Best brought a new opening section, the Good Life Guide, exploring 10 categories, from cigars and cars to liquor and fashion. Our larger features would include “Confessions of a Weekend Golfer,” the Editor and Publisher Marvin R. Shanken’s personal golf diary, stories on the ongoing changes in high technology, insider takes on the automotive world and unique angles on phenomena affecting our culture. The magazine reported on the worlds of gambling and sports, writing about everything from the continuing renaissance of Las Vegas to an annual NFL preview, with our Super Bowl pick. The covers during the 21st century have highlighted some of the most interesting people in the world, not just such top film stars as Sylvester Stallone and Daniel Craig, but sports figures like Tiger Woods as well as Jay-Z and Brad Paisley from the music world. We’ve even profiled such influential types as Hollywood film producer Arnon Milchan and the creators of television’s “Homeland” who are not as recognizable, but still cast long shadows. And our Cuba coverage also burgeoned, culminating in our biggest and most comprehensive travel guide to Havana in late 2011.

Once the surplus of the boom years had been sold off, the cigar market began to grow again, continuing to show healthy—as well as stable—increases for most of the first decade of the twenty-first century even as smokers’ tastes turned to more full-bodied smokes. Today, sales remain vibrant, and Cigar Aficionado, which weathered the great recession of 2008-2009, thanks in large part to the cigar industry, continues as the standard-bearer for men and women who love cigars.

So flash forward almost two decades from our first Big Smoke and the scene is very similar even if the year and the venue have changed. By 3 p.m., the hallway outside one of the biggest ballrooms at the Venetian Hotel, the ceilings soaring to nearly 25 feet across its football field length, was already filled with more than 300 people awaiting entry to the 2011 Big Smoke. Security men filed down the line using electronic readers to take everyone’s tickets and prepare them to go in at the stroke of 6:30. As the afternoon wore on, the line lengthened, stretching back and forth down the hallway,  and as the hour approached, more than a 1,000 people were already in line.

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