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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."

Bruce Goldstein, the proprietor of Arnold's on Madison Avenue in New York City, was a little more optimistic. "I still remember that day. I was talking to Lew Rothman at JR Tobacco about it, and he commented on the Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication, and added that if anyone could be successful with a cigar magazine, it would be Marvin Shanken. But what happened after that was completely off the radar screen. Never in a million years did I imagine the kind of business we did for three or four years in my little 810-square-foot store."

The response from the industry's trade organizations wasn't much more optimistic at the outset. Norman Sharp, the executive director of the Cigar Association of America, says he recalled asking the question, "What are they going to write about after the first few issues?"

But Bill Fader, the executive director of the RTDA, and a cigar shop operator in Baltimore until a few years ago, was more than ready to believe that the magazine could succeed. "It was obvious with his expertise in magazines that he could be successful," Fader recalls. "He's lived up to that expectation, and fulfilled everyone's hopes."

On the manufacturer side, the best spin that can be put on the prevailing attitude at the time might be dubbed "wait and see." But whatever the degree of initial skepticism, it's been lost in the subsequent years of booming business.

Theo Folz, now the president and chief executive officer of Altadis U.S.A., and a presence in the cigar business for more than 40 years, says, "I never heard any person in the industry say they saw it coming, or that they had anything to do with the boom." Folz has never been able to figure out what exactly caused the boom, although he knows the magazine made "a significant contribution...that was a great service to the industry."

Robert Levin, the owner of Holt's Cigar Holdings and the Ashton brand, remembers how exciting the boom days were. Levin's family has been in the cigar business since the 1950s, and Holt's itself has been in business for more than 100 years. "Our business went absolutely bonkers, from 1992 into 1997, when it finally leveled off," says Levin. "It was really exciting to be a part of that."

Carlos Fuente Sr., of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., was one of the first people to hear about the plans for Cigar Aficionado. "Crazy or not, I thought it was a good idea. I'll never forget the first time I met Marvin. It was a depressing time. Everybody was trying to sell out, and sales were coming down every year. But the magazine gave a boost to the industry, and our business is more than two times as big as it was before. And, we're still trying to get orders out the door to our customers."

If initial skepticism and doubt dominated the people most potentially affected by the magazine's success or failure, the response from the public flew in the face of any reasonable predictions or expectations. In 1992 and 1993, the magazine's circulation stayed around the 100,000 level. But in 1994, the number jumped to 137,000 and then climbed rapidly until several issues in 1997 exceeded 400,000, with a readership of more than 1 million. Several issues surpassed 500 pages.

The American media also got on the bandwagon. Editors and reporters nationwide were fascinated with the countercultural nature of the cigar phenomenon. They couldn't stay away from the story of a successful cigar magazine in the midst of some of the most strident antitobacco messages ever seen in America. Thousands of stories appeared in newspapers and magazines. The headlines showed the level of fascination: Clouds of Joy, The Power of Positive Stinking; Burning Desires. Smoke Gets in Their Lives. Light My Fire. The newspapers included The New York Times, The Oakland Tribune, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, The Miami Herald, the Chicago Tribune, in other words, all the major newspapers in the country. Shanken appeared on the "Today" show, and television stations in every city where a Big Smoke was held flocked to film the crowds of cigar-smoking men and women.

Cigars suddenly began to appear in major media campaigns. Donna Karan fashions, Ebel watches and Bijan ran extensive ad campaigns in which cigars were prominently featured. Cigar Aficionado magazine also attracted a roster of top-tier luxury goods advertisers that responded to the reality that the average cigar-smoking man was well educated and very affluent.

Hollywood also revealed itself to be a hotbed of cigar smokers. Although the first living celebrity to appear on the cover of Cigar Aficionado was Rush Limbaugh, the conservative media commentator, in short order, the magazine had cover stories with Bill Cosby, Jack Nicholson, Tom Selleck, Danny DeVito, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Demi Moore. The latter was the second celebrity woman on the cover; the first was model Linda Evangelista. With the celebrities puffing away on the covers, cigar smoking became more and more accepted in the United States. Even Bill Clinton acknowledged that he liked a cigar from time to time, although his publicity machine insisted that he only chewed them and didn't light them.

Two new developments in the cigar market also fueled the boom. The first was that younger and younger men began to experiment with cigars. An old axiom in the cigar business was that men didn't start smoking cigars until they were almost 40 years old. But in the mid-'90s, men in their mid-20s began to show up at Big Smokes. Cigar retailers around the country reported that these young men became fixtures in their shops, and avid smokers. The second, even more unexpected, trend was the arrival of significant numbers of female smokers. The magazine's debut did trigger a small surge in thank-you notes from women who claimed to have been cigar smokers for years, but always in private. But then women started frequenting Big Smokes. Once cigar bars were launched in major cities around the country, many women became regulars if not outright cigar connoisseurs.

By 1996, the cigar renaissance was in full swing. In April of that year, an event took place that elevated Cigar Aficionado from its small niche into a worldwide news event. At the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis auction in New York City, Shanken purchased a humidor that had been given to President John F. Kennedy by Milton Berle. The price: a staggering $574,500. It was the highest priced item on the first day of bidding, which was covered as a major media event. Within 24 hours, Shanken had appeared on television programs around the globe, every major newspaper had run a story about his purchase, and the weekly news magazines also covered him and Cigar Aficionado magazine. By the end of that week, Cigar Aficionado went from being a curiosity to a household name.

In the next 18 months, the magazine regularly exceeded 400 pages, culminating in its biggest issue ever in December 1997 with 582 pages. At that point, Cigar Aficionado reflected the frenzy in the cigar market. New manufacturers and brands were appearing faster than anyone could keep track of them. Retailers clamored for the best brands, and frequently, companies found that their cigars were not available in the market. They had all been bought up. Cigars were rushed into the inventory pipeline, and imports topped out that year at more than 500 million cigars.

The cigar renaissance had completely altered the business side of cigars. New companies started up, launching brands with expensive and extensive advertising campaigns. The big manufacturers, Consolidated Cigar (now known as Altadis U.S.A), General Cigar and Arturo Fuente saw demand for their products explode. One large company slated a 30 percent increase in production for an entire calendar year, and was out of cigars by July; it had to increase production using tobacco that had been reserved for use in the following year. Unhappily, the boom led to vast plantings of new tobacco in the primary countries that grew the raw material for cigars; areas were used that were not suited for cigar tobacco.

Although no one in the industry wanted to call the cigar renaissance a fad, the exuberance in the market clearly was being driven by more than just the regular cigar smokers around the world. New people were trying cigars, and getting their friends to try them, too. The huge spike in apparent demand created the seeds for not only the end of the boom, but a long period of readjustment in the cigar market.

Because hand-rolled cigars are an agricultural product, it takes years of planning, and then years of proper care, to reach the perfect moment when they can be brought to market. When demand skyrocketed in 1995, the tobacco designated for use that year had been planted in 1992 and 1993, years that saw some of the smallest amount of tobacco ever planted in the Dominican Republic. In an attempt to catch up, or even meet demand in 1995 and 1996, manufacturers and brand owners tried to use tobacco that was not up to the usual quality standards. In some cases, tobacco was being used in cigars without proper fermentation, and certainly without any aging. By the time those 500 million-plus cigars flooded the market in 1997, many of the cigars were inferior, plus they were expensive because raw tobacco, a commodity, had soared to record prices. Those commodity prices increased despite the largest crop in the history of tobacco growing in the Dominican Republic, more than 52,000 acres in 1997.

On top of the agricultural problems, the surge in demand for premium cigars, which are handmade, led to a shortage of skilled labor. That meant that manufacturers had to rush to train new people in all the basic skills of cigar making, from tobacco selection to rolling to even the apparently more simple tasks of box making and packing. As a result of having to use many inexperienced workers, especially rollers, just to keep up, manufacturers ended up with poorly made cigars that had bad, or improperly prepared, tobacco.

The collapse of the market was even more dramatic than the boom had been. After five years of uninterrupted and unprecedented growth, the decline was abrupt. Dozens of cigar manufacturers disappeared; in Santiago, the Dominican Republic's largest center of cigar making, there were around 140 factories at the peak of the boom; by the end of 1998, there were fewer than 60. Today, there are about a dozen. Where there were once thousands of acres under cultivation, today fewer than 5,000 acres are being produced. And, hundreds of retail cigar shops closed across the United States.

Just as the seeds of the market's collapse were created during the boom, however, the end of the boom laid the foundation for the current golden age of cigars. During the boom, tobacco growers found the perfect places to plant, either confirming locations they already knew about or finding new, even better ones. In the factories, the best newly trained rollers were kept, in some cases replacing veterans who weren't as good. The decline in demand allowed manufacturers to properly age their tobacco, returning to the preboom standards of at least 18 to 24 months in bales. The drop-off in business forced many fly-by-night operations, led by people who were looking to make a fast buck, to go out of business. And, the glut led to significant, across-the-board price decreases, bringing the value/quality equation back into some degree of balance. In other words, today's cigars are better than ever.

More importantly, the cigar boom altered the perception of cigars in the United States, and perhaps around the world. Theo Folz, the Altadis president and CEO, says that the cigar went from "some kind of Edgar G. Robinson image with the cigar stuck out the side of his mouth, to a thing of elegance. It became the in thing. It was hip and fashionable." He believes that evolution also helped open the market to more people. "I believe there are at least twice as many, maybe even three times as many cigar smokers today in the United States than there were in 1992," Folz adds.

Levin, the Holt's Cigar Holdings owner, says that despite the tremendous fall-off in demand after 1997, "business is real good. We may not be seeing a lot of new customers, but we have a strong base. People are enjoying their cigars."

It was October 1991. Marvin R. Shanken had just returned from his first trip to Cuba with James Suckling, a Wine Spectator writer, having spent a week there working on a story for Wine Spectator magazine. On board the plane coming home to America, Shanken decided that he wanted to publish a cigar magazine. He walked into my office the following week and said, "How you'd like to work on a cigar magazine?" In subsequent years, I've said a thousand times that I thought he was having a bad day. But nine months after his question, the first issue of Cigar Aficionado was finished, a 158-page issue filled with stories about cigars, a great article by Gay Talese about "Walking My Cigar," and a range of stories from a profile of Gregory Hines to collecting Lalique crystal.

The magazine was well received. But even now, 10 years later, Shanken remembers that he would have been happy to have "20,000 readers like myself, who loved cigars."

There will never be any way to know exactly why the cigar boom happened. Cigar Aficionado magazine? The desire of human beings to find ways to relax and enjoy themselves? A backlash against years of harping by the health police? The vision of one man who saw a niche for something that he had a passion for. Who knows? What is clear is that the boom has secured a place in American culture for the cigar. While new taxes and stringent antismoking rules may make it more and more difficult to find public places in which to enjoy a cigar in the years ahead, there will always be a place for a good cigar in the United States.

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