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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 3)

By 3 p.m. on May 19, 1993, the line to enter the first Big Smoke snaked around the circular elevator bank that soared from the street level to the eighth-floor lobby of New York’s Marriott Marquis hotel. Men in jeans and polo shirts, some in suits fresh from a day at the office and even a couple of gentlemen in tuxedos waited patiently for the event that wasn’t scheduled to start until 4:30 p.m. in the sixth-floor Grand Ballroom. Cigar smoke wafted up to the lobby atrium of the hotel, and all the way up to the more than 40 stories of rooms.

When the doors finally opened, more than 500 people were waiting to get in, and they dashed inside like an urban version of the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1893. Aisles crisscrossed the large ballroom, the tables were separated by cloth partitions with simple white signs that announced which cigars were there. And within minutes the floor was packed with cigar lovers who were pressed together shoulder to shoulder, all reaching for the samples.

Such cigars as Arturo Fuente, Ashton, Fonseca, H. Upmann, La Aurora, Macanudo, Don Tomás, Zino and Te-Amo were just a few of the 17 brands being handed out. Absolut, Bacardi, Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell and Rémy Martin, Glenfiddich and Glenlivet and 15 other liquor brands were poured. High-end luxury booths included Asprey, Breitling, Cartier, Harry Winston, Louis Vuitton and Mont Blanc. On the sides of the room, restaurants like Montrachet, 21 Club, The Four Seasons, Remi and San Domenico prepared gourmet dishes for the hungry revelers.

The crowd of 1,500 overwhelmed everyone. At the end of the night, there were no more cigars, there was no more food and the liquor guys were rolling their eyes at how many bottles had been consumed.

Simply put, it was one of the greatest adult parties that New York City had ever seen. And that wasn’t even the real story. The real story was the realization that Cigar Aficionado magazine had struck a nerve with cigar lovers, and that the crowd proved there was more than just a new magazine on newsstands, but a trigger for a cultural phenomenon almost without precedent in America.

But the saga that was to become Cigar Aficionado began in earnest when Marvin R. Shanken, the chairman of M. Shanken Communications, returned from a pilgrimage to Cuba in October 1991 with an idea: a cigar magazine. Defying all protests that it was a bad idea, he charged his art department and editorial team to come up with a design and an editorial plan. By early summer of 1992, the design was ready and the first copies arrived in the offices around the beginning of August. They were kept under tight wrap before the first unveiling at the Retail Tobacco Dealers Association convention in Chicago. The question remained: Did any one want a cigar magazine?

Milton Berle with Marvin Shanken.
Milton Berle, with Marvin R. Shanken, regaled the crowd at a Big Smoke Lunch in New York in 1995.

By the looks of the RTDA show floor, any serious observer would have said, “probably not.” At best, the mood at the convention was desultory. And, that’s being generous. The cigar industry had been suffering through at least two decades of steady decline in sales, even though in 1991 there had been a small uptick in units sold. Even with that news, there was no positive vibe. Families with generations of history in cigarmaking were encouraging their next generation to become doctors or lawyers.

The convention’s location, at least four floors down in the lowest basement level of the Chicago Grand Hyatt, only highlighted how far the industry had fallen. The booths were basic aluminum-pole frames hung with simple curtains; the fanciest had some shelves to display the various brands owned by each company. At least as many booths sold trinkets, chess sets and ashtrays as those that offered cigars; and each non-cigar booth shouted out the idea that a tobacconist needed to have an inventory beyond just cigars to survive.

“There was some new optimism because of some small sales increases,” remembers Richard DiMeola, who ran Consolidated Cigar’s premium cigar business. “But the magazine started some real buzz at the convention.”

George Brightman, who had joined Cigar Aficionado in June 1992 after nearly 20 years in the retail tobacco business, recalls that his former industry colleagues, “looked at us like we were out of out minds.” He described one industry big shot, Danny Blumenthal, taking Shanken by the arm and saying, “You do an interview with me, with Frank Llaneza [his partner at Villazon] and Lew Rothman [a big catalog retailer], and you’re done. Three issues. Then what are you going to write about?”

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.

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.

There was no smoking on the line, per the latest Nevada antismoking laws, but the crowd was chatting, reclining on the floor, leaning up against the walls, and laughing, joking and having a good old time. Inside, employees from nearly 30 cigar manufacturers were putting the finishing touches on their booths, some with elaborate designs including gigantic pictures of their respective brands. Scotch, Bourbon and rum companies were ready to pour, with beautiful young hostesses set to fill the glasses of the attendees. A huge display of the new Chevy Volt was ready to go. Restaurants from the Las Vegas dining scene, including Andres, Charlie Palmer Steak, Delmonico’s, Valentinos and Tao set up at one end of the ballroom.

At exactly 6:30, the crowd began to charge through the doors, some heading to the booths they knew would soon be mobbed. By 7:15, more than 2,000 people were in the ballroom, smoking cigars, drinking great liquors and eating at the more than 20 tables. Even with the siren’s call of gambling in the casinos, the myriad shows and spectaculars and dozens of great restaurants in Las Vegas, the floor was still crowded as the 9:30 closing time neared. As the lights began flashing to signal the end was near, the crowd slowly, and reluctantly began to move toward the exits. As many left, they also shouted out to Cigar Aficionado staffers, “See you next year.”

The party goes on.

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