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Members Only: Cigar Clubs

The Privileges of Membership
Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94

(continued from page 1)

It's a bit hard to find (the local cops don't even know where it is--all the better), but after a few passes and the right directions, descending the stairs into the Caribou Club is just like going to a speakeasy. There's no name on the door outside, and the underground club has a partially obscured entrance, so club members remain undisturbed by any potential riffraff trying to talk their way inside. That gin-joint feeling disappears upon entering. The Caribou Club is labyrinthian: there are luxurious dining areas, private function rooms, a giant, sunken living room with a massive fireplace, and at the back, the Whiskey Bar where, along with a collection of Cognacs, Ports, Armagnacs and, of course, whiskey, there is a humidor. The cigar selection is pricey but vast and often well aged.

Jimmy Yeager, general manager of the Caribou Club, says that a typical club member might be a local small-business owner or Arab royalty. And many "Hollywood types" are members--the tanned and beautiful set love to clog Aspen's streets and slopes during Christmas and New Year's. (There's a wait, but membership is relatively cheap: $1,500 for the first year and $1,000 for each subsequent year. Membership can also be purchased on a weekly basis.) According to Yeager, there are many members, especially the locals, who join so they can smoke cigars.

Strictly speaking, the Caribou Club is not a cigar society, but it does host cigar dinners (the most recent dinner helped raise $2,400 for a Colorado-based charity for terminally ill children), and it is the only gathering place in town where cigars are legal. On any given evening, at least one cigar smoker can be found at the Whiskey Bar, relaxing and lighting up in "safety." Or so it seems, until one notices that all four walls depict enraged Native Americans, blurred as they seem to rush at the viewer--Custer's Last Stand, painted from Custer's perspective. It's not a bad metaphor for the state of cigar smoking in Aspen.

Half a continent away, in sunny California, there is another club born of expediency and one man's shrewd business sense. Les Amis du Cigar and the George Sand Society are upscale cigar associations created for men and women.The owner of Remi restaurant in Santa Monica, 56-year-old Givan Tabibian, started with simple cigar dinners back in 1992, and then he soon realized that his was one of the only cigar-friendly restaurants in town. Like Aspen, Santa Monica restricts all public smoking (there may soon be a statewide ban in California), forcing restaurateurs to disallow smoking entirely or to create private rooms for cigar smoking.

Now Remi has cigar dinners every week and boasts the only American cigar club devoted to women. However, Tabibian makes sure that all club events are coed, because, "men alone are always a variation of the same old locker room, no matter how many tuxedos they wear. Women have a civilizing influence."

Unlike the Caribou Club, there's no formal dues structure at Les Amis and George Sand, though, ironically, the very legislation that sought to restrict smoking has made Tabibian's club an even more popular cigar haven--to the point where he may have to limit membership. "It's the latest twist on declining yuppie culture. But that's OK, as long as people enjoy themselves, it's great."

Though Remi and the Caribou Club provide refuge for the cigar smoker, they are not, technically speaking, cigar clubs. And, though Cigar Camp might be defined as a club, Mark Adams admits that he's also doing whatever he can to attract new cigar sales. That's perfectly fine. Every cigar smoker is happy to have a place to smoke with friends, and most aficionados would gladly pay dues, buy dinner (or even a cigar) or walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon to find a place where other people enjoy his passion. Still, genuine clubs start from the ground up. The Cigar Society at Florida State University, in Tallahassee, is a good example of cigar-club evolution. The society, founded by Charlie Barley, a 21-year-old junior at the university, started by accident.

A few days after an argument erupted between him and his roommates, Barley brought cigars back to the apartment as a peace offering. "We didn't know what we were doing," Barley recalls. "We bit off the ends, spit them on each other and lit up." That night they opted to sit on the back porch with the cigars instead of going out to party. "That was the best cigar I ever had, and I knew that it was the stogie that broke the ice between my friends and me," says Barley.

In January, three months after the first cigars were hoisted in group salutation on Barley's back porch, 13 people were crammed into Barley's small apartment living room to smoke cigars. Barley and pals knew they were on to something and, in one heady night, they drafted a charter and submitted it to the university. The charter rather boldly states as a goal "the education of members about" the finer pleasures in life, including tobacco and alcohol. But there's a twist: "[The cigar society will be] an oasis in a society which tends to abuse and not appreciate such great pleasures." To that end, part of the charter includes the right to ban any member for misusing alcohol or drugs.

Still, Barley admits that official university recognition may take some time--and heavy politicking. But current membership dues are a paltry five bucks, and Barley says that there is a growing interest on campus. This fall he hopes to have Bobby Bowden, the coach of the national champion Florida State Seminoles football team, speak at a Cigar Society and Alumni dinner.

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