Cigar enthusiasts from around the world lined the corridors of the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas last weekend for a Big Smoke 20 years in the making. When the doors opened at 6:30 on Friday night, chatter gave way to friendly handshakes and pats on the backs of strangers and friends alike, and the eyes of the crowd took on the proverbial "kid in a candy store" look once again. The inaugural evening of the 20th anniversary of the Big Smoke Las Vegas was under way, and the rush was on for guests to fill their bags with as many premium smokes as possible.
"I wasn't expecting to get so many cigars," said Adrian Laing, who celebrated his 60th birthday by traveling to Vegas all the way from Melbourne, Australia. "I don't think they'll let me back [into Australia] with all of them. I've got a lot of smoking to do before I go home."
More than 4,000 cigar lovers attended the Big Smoke evenings on Friday and Saturday nights. This year, attendees were treated to a variety of great smokes from Aging Room, Alec Bradley, Arturo Fuente, Ashton, A.J. Fernandez, CAO, Diamond Crown, E. P. Carrillo, Foundry, Gurkha, Dunhill, Drew Estate, Imperior, Joya de Nicaragua, La Flor Dominicana, La Gloria Cubana, La Palina, Leccia Tobacco, Macanudo, Montecristo, My Father Cigars, Nat Sherman, NUb, Oliva, Padrón, Punch, PDR, Quesada, Rocky Patel, Romeo y Julieta, Sublimes, Ted's Cigars, Ventura Cigar Co., Villiger and Zander-Greg.
Cigar aficionados can't get enough accessories, and some of the exhibitors showcased items that go hand-in-hand with premium cigars. Daniel Marshall Humidors displayed his line of handmade humidors at his booth, alongside his namesake cigars. Humidification company Boveda helped attendees keep their cigars fresh by giving out large bags with humidipaks. Rabbit Air, makers of state of the art air purification systems, was also on hand to showcase its portfolio.
Many brands, such as Oliva, NUb and Ashton, provided medium-bodied blends (Serie O Toro, Connecticut 460 and La Aroma de Cuba Monarch, respectively) in order to appeal to the flavor profiles of all cigar-lovers. Other brands went in the opposite direction, catering to cigar smokers with bolder taste. Rocky Patel Cigars offered its Super Ligero cigar, while Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana dished out his full-bodied 1994 blend. Padrón had two cigars for each attendee, a milder Padrón Damaso and a fuller bodied Padrón core line.
Arturo Fuente cigars came to Vegas with a unique offering of the Rosado Magnum R Churchill, a vitola made exclusively for the event.
But of course, what fun is collecting a bag full of great cigars if you don't have friends to enjoy them with? For many, like James Deane and Kirk Papazian of Los Angeles, who have been friends for more than 40 years, and father-and-son duo Larry and Patrick McGuire, who attended for the first time on Saturday, this is what the Big Smoke is all about.
"There's nothing better than coming together with good people and enjoying a cocktail, a laugh, and a cigar," said Bradley Williams from Palm Beach, Florida, as he stood around a table with friends Eddie Clemons and Byron Marbley of Houston, Texas.
For many, the Big Smoke serves as a venue for annual reunions. On Saturday evening, the Kiowa Lodge clan, a 12-man task force medical unit who were brought together while on tour in Iraq, reunited at the Big Smoke for the fifth time. Each year, they travel from all across the United States to meet in Las Vegas and reunite over cigars. "In the desert there are no women and you cannot drink, so we bonded by smoking cigars," said three of the group's members, completing the credo in unison like a barbershop a capella group. In the fashion of true military men, they've developed a strategy for scoring as many cigars as possible: divide and conquer. By assigning a member of the group to each booth, they stood in line confidently, knowing they'd be able to take advantage of all that the Big Smoke vendors had to offer.
And of course, the most prevalent connection between the groups of attendees was also the most obvious.
"We just all love cigars," said Rufus Trent from Charlotte, North Carolina, when asked how he knew Carolina compatriots Willis Winslow and Ron Lawson. Often a love of smokes is the only commonality necessary to form lifelong bonds between friends.
For the makers of these premium cigars, the camaraderie between themselves and their consumers is what keeps them coming back year-after-year. "We love coming here. We love to support Cigar Aficionado and love putting cigars directly into the consumers' hands ourselves," said Jorge Padrón of Padrón cigars.
And the feeling is mutual among consumers, especially for inquisitive cigar enthusiasts like John Griffith of McAllen, Texas. "When I come here I'm always interested in asking the cigarmakers questions. That's what's great about this: the consumer has a chance to speak directly with the makers of the product. It's something that's very unique to this industry," said Griffith, who enjoyed speaking with Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana and the folks at Aging Room cigars about his theory that younger, less-fermented tobacco adds a particular spice to the smokes he enjoys.
Many cigar enthusiasts share this profound admiration for the cigarmakers and value the chance to meet them. Andre Artero from Guam, who endured a 24-hour flight to attend the Big Smoke as a retirement present to himself, said he didn't light up a single cigar during the evening. Why not? To quote Henry Hill from the film Goodfellas, "It was out of respect."
"I didn't smoke [during the evening events] because I didn't want to be smoking other cigar brands while in line to meet different cigarmakers," said Artero, who said he's considering making the 6,000-mile journey again.
For others, attending the Big Smoke is an opportunity to discover cigars they might not have thought to purchase on their own.
"Every year you find something new that you didn't know you liked," said Steve Glaser from Pleasanton, California, who developed an appreciation for Oliva Cigar Co.'s NUb cigars after discovering them at last year's event.
"Last year I tried several new cigars that I ended up buying boxes of when I got home," said Rob Milholland of Maine, who attended with his brother-in-law Tom Passalaqua from Massachusetts and their friend Dan Strube from California.
And while cigars were the main focus of the event, there were also plenty of libations to enjoy as well. Guests savored Glenfiddich and Johnnie Walker Scotches, Crown Royal whiskey, Don Julio Tequila, Ron Abuelo and Ron Diplomatico rums, elit by Stolichnaya vodka, Greg Norman's Shark wine, Guinness Blonde and Nitro IPA beers.
These drinks were enjoyed alongside a selection of fine foods hearty enough to satisfy the cigar-smoker's appetite. Emeril Lagasse's Delmonico Steakhouse set out bites of steak tartare on lavash bread, Texas de Brazil offered a dish of mashed potatoes and flank steak, and the popular Las Vegas restaurant LAVO made prime rib panini sliders with Swiss cheese and Italian pepper mayo.
The Mirage also served up a variety of dishes arrayed throughout the room, including carving stations with immense (and rare) barons of beef and a variety of sliders, from Portobello mushrooms and Vienna beef to barbecue pulled pork and turkey, complementing dishes of Focaccia, macaroni and cheese, rigatoni with sausage and bocconcini and tomato basil sauce. Guests looking to pair their cigars with something sweet were treated to a dessert display of cream puffs, maple bacon cupcakes and coffee éclairs.
While cigars were smoked, libations savored and foods feasted upon, many guests took to gazing at luxury watches displayed by Oris and Carl F. Bucherer and golf equipment from Parsons Xtreme Golf. Also on display were automobiles from BMW, showing off its 2016 M6 Gran Coupe and newly redesigned 750i xDrive sedan, and Porsche, exhibiting its 911 Targa 4S and Panamera GTS. But the talk of the evenings was perhaps the custom-made Cigar Aficionado 1965 Ford Mustang restored by the folks at AutoCraft. (Check back to CigarAficionado.com soon for more on this.)
Among the attendees the first night was Byron Marbley from Houston, Texas, who attended the event with a network of 35 cigar smokers from various cities across the nation.
"The best part about this is being able to talk to people who love cigars; it brings us all together in one place," said Marbley, reminding us that while indulgences cover the value of the ticket price, the true reason most attended the Big Smoke is priceless.