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Recollections

These friends of Cigar Aficionado were there at the beginning in 1992, and they are still working with cigars today.
From the Print Edition:
Cigar Aficionado's 20th Anniversary, September/October 2012

When Cigar Aficionado was launched in 1992, the premium hand-rolled cigar business was in the midst of a slow decline that had lasted for more than 20 years. Since then, the industry has been through a boom, the end of a fad, a slow stabilization and then the start of a long period of sustained growth that has created a vibrant culture built around the enjoyment of a great cigar.

The contributors to this section represent the veterans who’ve been with us through the entire saga. Some are manufacturers. Some are growers. Some are retailers. There are many, many others who have come and gone. And, there are a few, mostly outside the United States, who aren’t represented here. But we chose these people with great care and thought, as well as a real appreciation for their support over the years.

Ricardo Alarcón

As president of Cuba’s National Assembly for the last 19 years, Ricardo Alarcón has seen the shift in attitudes in smoking cigars inside his own country. But cigars are his constant companions. It’s been that way for 60 years. “The first cigar I smoked was a Bauza,” he says. The 75-year-old government official says he laments the widespread restrictions on smoking and recalls that there were days when diplomatic receptions included cigar smoking, but not anymore. One of his favorite stories occurred in Canada, when a Cuban friend of his commented that he couldn’t believe the number of streetwalkers lurking outside buildings. He had to tell him that they were not prostitutes, but smokers who had been banished to the sidewalks to smoke. To this day, he is a lover of a great cigar, as he smoked throughout a recent interview. He says he loves to have friends who smoke over to his house to share cigars and a good Scotch. Alarcón also is virtually the last high-ranking Cuban government official who attends every Festival de Habanos, the big annual cigar event in Havana. “I always find those events very interesting to talk with people about cigars.” —Gordon D. Mott

David Berkebile

David Berkebile has worked around cigars for 48 years, but he wasn’t always an expert. “It was mostly a pipe business when I started. When I opened up I had very few cigars, didn’t know much about them,” says the owner of Washington, D.C.’s, Georgetown Tobacco. At the time that he opened, pipes made up half of  his business, but now that’s dipped to 10 percent. Cigar sales have dominated. Berkebile has seen a dramatic change in the role of the cigar shop owner in the past 20 years. “The real growth is in cigar lounges. People that get in the cigar industry today better be a restaurateur.” Instead of simply purchasing a cigar and leaving, people tend to buy and linger, as there are fewer places to smoke. And as antismoking legislation has grown in recent years, Berkebile has seen the cigar industry gather together on the political front, quite unlike in the past. “In the old days, we couldn’t find a handful of people to go to Washington,” he says. —David Savona

Curt Diebel

“If you take my best 12 months, from July 1995 through June 1996, I literally doubled my business every month,” says Curt Diebel, the owner of Diebel’s Sportsman’s Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri, adding that he resorted to hiding his inventory so he could save cigars for regulars. The irony is he had previously closed two stores in the four-store family operation he joined in 1975, diversifying into gifts and dropping the word “tobacconist” to entice customers who wouldn’t normally venture into a cigar store. “All of a sudden, ’92, ’94 comes around, and I say I’m the dumbest guy in the world—I don’t have ‘cigars’ in my name,” says Diebel with a laugh. No matter—customers came in droves. Sales are far more relaxed now, and while they aren’t booming, they are steady. “The base that grew out of the boom never really eroded,” he says. —D.S.

José Abel Expósito Díaz

José Abel Expósito Díaz has seen a steady stream of celebrities visit the cozy, low-ceilinged, wood-paneled VIP lounge since he started in 1993 at the Partagás Factory store, a shop that he’s managed since 1995. He remembers Jack Nicholson coming in to smoke four days in a row during one trip to Havana. Gerard Depardieu spent a New Year’s Eve day in the lounge and kept buying cigars to win the prize for the biggest purchase of the day. He remembers his biggest single sale on January 16th, 1998—$132,000 worth of cigars. But he says his most memorable moment in the cigar business came in 1999 when he was given the Habanos Man of the Year award for Commerce. Cuban President Fidel Castro was present for the gala dinner at the Festival de Habanos. “It was very emotional for me,” says Abel, as he is known. “I’m not famous though. Cigars are what are famous.” —G.D.M


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