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A Decade to Remember

Against all odds, Cigar Aficionado magazine launched in 1992 and triggered one of the most unexpected cultural phenomena of the '90s: the cigar renaissance
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
10th Anniversary Issue, Nov/Dec 02

The sixth-floor atrium of New York's Marriott Marquis was jammed. It was about 4 p.m. on May 17, 1993, and 400 or so men were waiting patiently, more than two hours in advance of the doors opening to the first-ever Big Smoke. They were jabbering away with each other, smoking cigars and enjoying one another's company. Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken surveyed the scene, and could only shake his head in disbelief. "I had no idea whether or not anyone was going to show up or not. I had no way of knowing when the idea started," Shanken says nearly 10 years after looking out over that sea of humanity. "But it was then, in the lobby outside the ballroom where we were getting ready to hold the first Big Smoke, that I knew we really had something going." That night, more than 1,400 people showed up for the Big Smoke.

When the doors opened, it was the Oklahoma land rush all over again, with people running into the Marriott Ballroom, searching for their favorite brand and pushing and shoving to get at them. Along the aisles, more than 30 cigar manufacturers handed out samples of their brands, a wide range of Bourbon, Scotch, rum and Cognac producers poured their top spirits, and a number of New York restaurants served everything from steak to pasta to fancy desserts. In the end, the attendees had stripped cigarmakers of every cigar they brought, the restaurants were out of food, and the liquor companies had emptied more bottles than they thought possible. The first Big Smoke was history, and it was an overwhelming success.

If the Big Smoke was a sign, it buttressed one of the most unlikely, and in the end, one of the most successful magazine launches of the 1990s. The magazine debuted in August 1992 to a chorus of people who were skeptical that a publication devoted to cigars could ever get beyond its first year. Not only was the United States still recovering from a significant economic recession that had flattened advertising revenues across the board, but the antitobacco crusade in America was at a fever pitch. No one, including many of Shanken's closest friends and advisers, believed the new magazine had a chance. By that night of the first Big Smoke in May 1993, the evidence was piling up that every one of the skeptics was just plain wrong.

By any measure, the cigar business in the United States in 1992 was stagnant. The best statistic for the premium end of the market, the hand-rolled cigar, was an import number compiled by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The number of imported cigars had been virtually flat since the early 1980s, at approximately 100 million units a year. Many retailers in big markets were happy if their business declined only 2 or 3 percent a year. If they experienced a year with increased sales, it was often because a nearby competitor had gone out of business. They encouraged their children to learn new trades, in full expectation that when they were ready to retire, they would either sell or close the business. Among manufacturers, the same attitude held sway; if a top company had a flat year, the executives were happy.

Furthermore, it was an industry steeped in the tradition of conservative, family-run businesses; there was little incentive to be creative when the industry believed most smokers chose a brand, and never switched. Advertising was almost nonexistent, with some estimates ranging as low as $1 million a year for the hand-rolled cigar business.

In the fall of 1992, however, a dramatic shift occurred in the primary measure of cigars, the Department of Commerce statistic regarding cigar imports. In that first quarter after the magazine launched, the imports of cigars started to increase for the first time in years, and the upward climb remained unbroken through 1997. The magazine apparently gave people the license to try cigars; it educated them, as well as opening the door for people to appreciate the enjoyment of a good smoke. Above all else, Cigar Aficionado created a community of cigar smokers that had never been brought together.

The numbers were staggering. In 1993, total premium cigar imports, which included some higher-priced machine-made cigars, rose nearly 10 percent. In 1994, 12.4 percent. In 1995, 33.1 percent. In 1996, 66.6 percent and finally in 1997, an unbelievable 76.8 percent for a total in that year of nearly 520 million cigars imported into the United States. Even though imports declined significantly from 1998 through 2000, Cigar Aficionado estimates that in 2001, imports rose again by 1.3 percent, to 253.3 million. The import statistics, which now have been adjusted to eliminate all machine-made cigars, are on track for a double-digit increase in 2002, leaving the market more than two and a half times larger than it was in 1992.

The mood at the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America convention in Chicago in 1992 was sullen at best. The manufacturers had unimaginative, simple booths. The retailers looked and acted like small shop owners, trying to find the right mix of nontobacco products, from German beer steins to chess sets, in hopes of augmenting their stores' revenues.

That was the milieu in which Cigar Aficionado was first introduced. In the beginning, the magazine was met with a mixture of hope and extreme skepticism within the cigar business. It was the first true cigar magazine ever published. A high-profile public relations campaign, run by the Cigar Association of America, had failed in the mid-1980s to stimulate any broader interest in the media about cigars, or for that matter, among the public at large.

"Pipes and loose tobacco were bigger than cigars back then," recalls David Berkebile, the owner of Georgetown Tobacco in Washington, D.C. "My first thought was, ëOh, no, a cigar magazine.' I seriously wondered if it would make it past the second issue."

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