By 1:15 on Friday afternoon a queue had already begun to form outside the doors to the convention center at the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, home to this year's Big Smoke Las Vegas Evenings. It's a new record, in fact. The 18-year-old, weekend-long smokers' festival put on by Cigar Aficionado has always drawn long lines for its famous evenings, when patrons have the chance to meet dozens of cigar stars, consume food and top-shelf beverages as they collect a bevy of incredible cigars. But this year participants lined up more than five hours early to be the head of the line, which eventually stretched through much of the hallway leading to the convention center.
At 6:30 p.m. the doors swung open and, with a well-mannered horde mentality, thousands from across the United States and around the world (guests came from as far as Australia) flooded the grand space, darting in different directions to light up handrolled, premium cigars and be first to meet the folks behind the brands.
After nearly two decades, patrons of Big Smoke Las Vegas aren't just showing earlier, they're also working smarter. A significant number of guests in groups strategized on how to maximize their efficiency, and many split their tickets in order to gather their smokes more efficiently.
"We just gotta share our tickets," said Calvin Hudson, who came in from Houston with several friends. "We've got a little table where we're gonna meet back and split them up."
Another growing tradition at Big Smoke is the group uniform. Oja, California, natives George Conrad, Mark Happach, Gene Berban and Chris Williams dressed alike in black shirts printed with the name of their hometown.
Tatuaje brand owner Pete Johnson has a long history in Vegas—all 18 years to be exact. "I used to come to the Big Smokes early on and pass out cigars for the Fuentes, the Ashton group, but officially my own cigar? I think this is my third year," said Johnson, who stepped away momentarily to autograph a canvas bag for an admirer.
Johnson says the best part about the Big Smoke is actually talking to the smokers. "Having people who come by and say ‘This is my favorite booth' or ‘I love your product'—that's the best. And aside from that it's really just coming to hang out with the other manufacturers, because it's one big family, and we all have a good time seeing each other."
Patrons broke between cigar-collecting rounds to find sliders and snacks provided by the Mirage—pasta stations, trays filled with iced bottles of water, and a pastry bar that included bacon maple cupcakes kept stomachs full as everyone wound their way through lines that, in some cases, stretched back 50 heads or more.
One of those lines formed in front of the Alec Bradley booth, where vice president of marketing Sam Phillips once again broke out his forehead-mounted GoPro and worked the enthusiastic crowd with giveaways.
Short breaks allowed everyone to marvel at timepieces from watchmakers Carl F. Bucherer, Hublot, Bremont, Oris and Arizona Fine Time. Humidor maker Daniel Marshall was on hand with a selection of his handmade products, as were the folks from Boveda humidification and Rabbit Air air purification.
The cigar aficionados in the ballroom washed down their food and cleaned their palates with cocktails and product ranges from whiskey makers Ardbeg, Bulleit Bourbon, rye and 10-year, Crown Royal, three blends of George Dickel, Glenfiddich, five blends of Glenmorangie, a wide range of Johnnie Walker Scotch, including the new Platinum, Michter's Bourbon, rye and sour mash. There were vodkas from Belvedere Vodka, elit by Stolichnaya and Crystal Head, which was served from an artful bar carved from ice, and rums from Zacapa and Zaya, plus Carpano Antica vermouth, a range of Guinness beers, Maestro Dobel tequila, Sandeman Port and Sledgehammer wine.
Rocky and Nish Patel, along with cousin Nimish Desai, drew long lines as patrons clamored for photo ops and a chance to meet the men behind the famous brand. Carlos "Carlito" Fuente Jr. of Tabacalera A. Fuente signed autographs for the crowd, and Cigar of the Year family members Jaime, Janny and Pepin Garcia from My Father Cigars also signed autographs as they handed out cigars.
The American Club's Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run golf courses sponsored a video golf-swing clinic, imaging the swings of anyone brave enough to step up to the tee and let pros analyze their style.
Glynn Loope and the crew from Cigar Rights of America also had a booth where patrons could sign up for the organization's membership, donate to the cause, and get information about protecting their rights to smoke in their home states and across the country.
Jorge Padrón said for him, the Big Smoke Las Vegas is a chance to shake hands with the fans of his product in person. "Coming here to the Big Smoke is really important for us," he said as he passed out Padrón 2000 cigars and shook the hands of excited smokers. "We get to meet all the customers—you know, there's a lot of consumers out here—and you get to talk them, get feedback on the cigars. Just meeting people—it's a very important thing for us."
At the Ashton booth, Robert Levin and daughter Meera handed out tubed Marquis cigars from their La Aroma de Cuba line, shredding handfuls of sheets from those now-famous ticket books each patron is given as they enter the showroom.
Those tickets littered the floor behind the booth of cigar star Jonathan Drew of Drew Estate cigars who worked the crowd along with Willy Herrera of Herrera Esteli, passing out Acid and Undercrown sticks to the waiting hordes. Herrera cracked a joke about making snow angels in the growing pile of hundreds of redeemed tickets.
The cigar lovers who went to the Big Smokes on Friday and Saturday night left with Cigar Aficionado bags brimming with cigars. The full list consisted of Acid, Aging Room, Alec Bradley, Arturo Fuente, Asylum, Aurora, C.A.O., Cain, Casa Fernandez, Casino Gold, Diamond Crown, Don Pepin Garcia, Dunhill, Foundry, H. Upmann, Joya de Nicaragua, Kismet, La Aroma de Cuba, La Flor Dominicana, La Gloria Cubana, La Palina, Macanudo, Montecristo, Nat Sherman, Oliva Serie O, PDR, Padrón, Partagas, Psyko Seven, Quesada, Rocky Patel, San Lotano, Sublimes, Tatuaje, Toraño, Undercrown and Villiger.
It was a smoker's paradise. Across the sold-out event, which spread over two nights, more than 4,500 cigar lovers crossed the threshold and joined the fun. But don't worry if you missed out on this one: Big Smoke New York is right around the corner.