Like an ancient Roman holiday, every November beckons to cigar smokers around the nation to leave work, vacate their homes, take a break from their normal daily routines and come to Cigar Aficionado's Big Smoke Las Vegas in the middle of the desert. It's a cigar-smoking affair that spans over three days and this year, it landed at The Mirage Hotel and Casino.
Guests of the Big Smoke enjoy a spectacular evening of three hours where all have license to sip, puff and eat freely. But there is an educational component as well. While the Big Smoke showroom evenings are legendary affairs and tend to get all the press, the mornings and afternoons are filled with cigar seminars that are the perfect balance of the academic and the recreational.
This year, Saturday morning was a virtual institution of cigar luminaries ranging from the veterans who have set industry standards, to the edgy, newer cigar makers who are taking the cigar world into uncharted territory.
The sold-out crowd filed eagerly into the Mirage ballroom. Although the event didn't start until 9 a.m., Big Smoke attendees were lined up as early as 7:45 having mini-tailgate parties. By 8:30 the line stretched the expanse of the convention center, passed the rotunda, passed the theater, passed other conferences in other ballrooms.
Once they came in, each was handed a packet of exceptional cigars, including Cigar Aficionado's top three cigars of 2011. This included No.1: The Alec Bradley Prensado Churchill, which has been nearly impossible to find once it was announced as the Cigar of the Year. No. 2; The La Aroma de Cuba Mi Amor Belicoso, which is owned and distributed by Ashton, yet made in Nicaragua at the My Father Cigars factory; and No. 3: the Illusione Epernay Le Taureau, a box-pressed smoke made in Honduras. But there were also three more cigars, each with their own stories and unique flavor profiles. There was the Casa Fernandez Aganorsa Leaf Maduro, the Plasencia Organica Robusto and a special size of Joya de Nicaragua's CyB made especially for the event. Some lit up immediately. Others just looked at their bag, admiring cigars that have become very difficult to come by.
Executive editor Gordon Mott addressed the crowd. "It was 20 years ago that we had this crazy idea about starting a cigar magazine," Mott said. "We went to the Dominican Republic and asked everyone in the industry what they thought. And they all thought we were nuts. But many in the industry also thought that the business was dying. Now, 20 years later, after a cigar renaissance that we never anticipated, we're still here, and we owe it all to you."
The lights went dark and a retrospective video ran, chronicling 20 years of Cigar Aficionado with both funny and heartfelt video clips of the magazine and its editorial coverage of the cigar world.
Mott then passed the microphone to Cigar Aficionado's senior editor David Savona who introduced the No. 3 cigar of the year and its maker.
"Dion Giolito is very picky about his tobacco," Savona said. "When Cigar Insider rated the original Illusione brand, it was one of the highest verticals we've ever scored. Then he came out with Epernay, which is an elegant box-pressed cigar loaded with flavor."
Giolito, who started as a cigar-shop owner in Reno Nevada (and still is) took the podium, telling the audience about making a cigar and how he came about the Epernay blend.
"Walking around the humidor you wonder why people gravitate towards certain cigars. I always pondered this," said Giolito. "I like to say that everyone knows what tastes good, but they don't always know why. That is what intrigued me, so I went to Central America and learned from Henke Kelner about the olfactory, palate stimulation and about the characteristics of certain tobacco."
Then in 2005, Giolito established a relationship with the principals of the Raices Cubanas factory in Honduras where Illusione was born.
"I wanted to create a cigar that wasn't knock-out strong. Strong is easy. Balance and complexity is difficult. When I blend, I'm farm specific and lot specific. I'll find one leaf, identify a flavor in it that I like, and build a blend around it."
This concept brought him to his Epernay series, a line of smokes named after the Champagne region of France.
"I believed that those bready, sweet and floral flavors that define a great Champagne could be replicated in tobacco. This is what I was aiming for with the Epernay cigar."
The brand has made more than one appearance on Cigar Aficionado's Top 25 lists, but at No. 3 for 2011, the Le Taureau size has performed the best so far. Most of the crowd was smoking his creation before he left the podium.
When asked by an audience member how an outsider was able to form such relationships with growers and rollers in Central America, Giolito answered: "The same way I learned to swim, my grandfather just pushed me into the pool."
The Illusione Epernay gave smokers something to enjoy during the next seminar, which focused on a few of the cigar veterans of the industry. When that seminar concluded, it was time for the second cigar break and Savona returned to the stage to introduce Sathya Levin, vice president of Ashton Distributors, owner of The No. 2 Cigar of the Year: La Aroma de Cuba Mi Amor Belicoso.
"The goal was to create a cigar that strikes a balance between strength, balance and finesse," said Levin. "For most people, that means a medium-bodied cigar."
La Aroma de Cuba started as a discontinued vintage brand that Ashton resurrected. At the time, it was made in Honduras at another factory, but a meeting with cigarmaker José "Pepin" Garcia prompted Sathya and his father, Robert Levin to reconsider the brand. Garcia expressed admiration for the cigar's classic lithography and said: "One day, I'll be inside that box."
Levin continued: "The meeting was very encouraging and my father and I knew that we had found our partners. By 2009, we reblended and relaunched the brand, now made in Nicaragua by the Garcias."
Renewed interest in the cigar prompted the creation of the La Aroma de Cuba Mi Amor, which was a box-pressed smoke blended with hearty Nicaraguan filler but defined by its flavorful Mexican San Andrés wrapper. The Belicoso, which many in the audience were already smoking, garnered the No. 2 spot in our Top 25 list.
"Being the No. 2 cigar of the year was an honor," said the young Levin. "And I'd like to dedicate this honor to our late vice president of sales, Manny Ferrero. Some of you may have had a drink or two or three with him. He knew how to enjoy life. But to me, he was like a second father, and I will never forget him."
Many in the crowd did indeed know Ferrero, and the applause segued into the next seminar, which was a reprise of the Industry Veterans panel. This lead to the introduction of the No. 1 cigar of the year: The Alec Bradley Prensado Churchill. But, unlike the two cigars before it, brand owner Alan Rubin could not be present due to surgery. However, in true rock star fashion, he prepared a video which addressed the crowd as though he were in the room. The lights dimmed and Rubin began.
"I want to apologize for not being here. I had to have some surgery and by the time you see this, I should be recovering. Before Cigar Aficionado magazine, no one had ever heard that term before. I never did. But now, it is part of every smoker's vocabulary. Either you were an ‘aficionado' or you aspired to be. One of the things I remembered about the first issue was the Editors' note and its mission statement about The Good Life. You could take that same note and plug it into any issue today, and it would be just a relevant. Cigar Aficionado did to cigars what Google did to the Internet. It gave cigarmakers a platform and a voice. And it feels great to be in a room with so many people who share our pleasure. We couldn't do it without you."
Rubin told the crowd how in 2009 he set out to make a box-pressed cigar, as a box-pressed brand was something that his portfolio was lacking. When he built the Prensado blend, he drew much tobacco from two farms in Honduras, one was called Trojés and the other was called Membraño. This distinct tobacco was wrapped in a Corojo 2006 cover leaf and made at the Racies Cubanas factory in Honduras.
Before the video ended, Rubin introduced his executive vice president, Ralph Montero, who was present and took the podium once the lights came on.
"When we first found out that we won Cigar Aficionado's Cigar of the Year, that was a crazy moment for us," Montero recalls. "The feeling in the office was surreal. But I've been around tobacco since I was 17 years old. The most important thing is to shut your mouth and listen to people who know. I want to make it to 85 years old and when I do, I want to have a cigar in my mouth."
This generated massive applause from the smoke-filled room. Some were already on their second cigar, others their third, and some had not even touched their packets at all, which of course is OK, too. There are no set smoking rules for the Big Smoke seminars, which were far from over. A panel of experts on Nicaraguan tobacco, agronomy and blending were slated to take center stage, followed by the annual Big Smoke lunch, which included a three-course meal, and, of course, more cigars.
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