2023 Big Smoke Meets WhiskyFest Seminars: Marvin Shanken Makes Surprise Appearance
What was supposed to be a Big Smoke seminar with the cigar industry’s heaviest hitters ended up being a bit of a roast, and nobody was spared. “No speeches! These two are crazy. They should have been professors. Or basketball announcers,” said Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado magazine, as he cut off Litto Gomez and Rocky Patel. They attempted to wax poetic about their starts in the cigar business, but Shanken wasn’t having it. It was one of many sarcastic quips and playful jabs as he unexpectedly stepped up on stage and took over moderation of the Cigar Stars seminar of Big Smoke Meets WhiskyFest. Original host David Savona, the magazine’s executive editor, was as surprised as anyone on the panel.
The seminar was a lineup of the biggest names in the business, all of them members of the Cigar Aficionado Hall of Fame: Carlos Fuente Jr., Litto Gomez, Jorge Padrón, Rocky Patel and Ernesto Perez-Carrillo. They were there to reminisce about their time in the industry and Savona and senior contributing editor Gordon Mott were supposed to lead the seminar. But Shanken’s appearance was an unscripted twist that changed the entire tone of the afternoon, as he hadn’t come to a Big Smoke in over a decade. On this day, he not only attended the seminar, he crashed it—and the results couldn’t have been more entertaining.
“Can you please put their faces up on the video screen when someone is talking?” Shanken demanded as he looked up at blank screens. “Why the hell would you have a static screen when people of this importance are talking? I obviously need to be here more often.”
The comedic ire was aimed at the Cigar Aficionado staff and the event’s A/V department, but the droll touch clearly amused the audience, who laughed at all the skewering.
“I’m going to give you the hook because you have no balls,” said Shanken after pressing Perez-Carrillo to name his favorite cigar made by another manufacturer. Perez-Carrillo was understandably non-committal in his answer. It’s a tough question, especially if you don’t want to offend other cigarmakers, but this didn’t fly with Shanken. Either answer the uncomfortable question or get razzed for it. “Litto, show these boys how a man speaks” Shanken said.
Gomez, who stared La Flor Dominicana in 1994 after leaving the jewelry business, gave a quick answer: “Inch from EPC and Don Carlos from Fuente.”
Many of the cigarmakers came back to Fuente. “Carlito’s Don Carlos,” said Jorge Padrón.
“I get tired of smoking my own cigars,” offered Rocky Patel. “I smoke a lot of Litto’s, but my absolute favorite? Fuente Añejo Shark.”
Shanken turned his ribbing back to his own editors. “David here has about nine pages of notes and prepared questions, and I didn’t let him ask a single one,” Shanken said to an audience that was clearly enjoying the spectacle. “I’m a tough boss. And I’ve fired them both. But you know what they said every time I’ve fired them? They said ‘I’m not leaving.’ If not for Gordon and Dave, this magazine would not have had the success it’s had over the past 30 years.”
But it wasn’t all ridicule and insults. There were plenty of serious moments when the cigarmakers recalled the struggles of their families and enduring the decades of consistent and gradual declines in the cigar industry before Cigar Aficionado sparked the Cigar Boom of the 1990s.
“The industry was in bad shape,” Perez-Carrillo recalled. “Marvin walks into my store in Miami and started talking about a cigar magazine. This was back in 1991. I couldn’t believe what he was saying. I thought he couldn’t be serious. We were a dying industry. But just before he left, he said ‘I’m going to make you cigar makers all rock stars.’ And he left with that. At the first Big Smoke, people actually wanted to meet us. This is the power of Cigar Aficionado.”
Fuente added a story of his own: “In the 1970s we were working in Tampa in two shifts. My father asked me to call such-and-such account to collect his bill early just so we could make payroll. The writing was on the wall. I met Marvin and I remember him asking if I was familiar with the wine industry. That was in 1991 and back then, there was no wine culture in the Dominican Republic, just rum and beer. He said: ‘I’m hoping to help the cigar industry the way I helped the wine industry.’ I’ve met so many people. I owe that all to Marvin.”
Shanken praised Patel for his initiative in the early 2000s when he’d arrange to bring retailers down to Honduras and show them, first-hand, all that goes into making a handmade cigar. This was before the advent of cigar festivals.
“It was important to show the artisanal quality of the cigars,” Patel said. “And how labor intensive it is. When people came down there and saw the amount of love and passion, they had a greater appreciation for the product, and they would tell others.”
When asked what Gomez was seeing in the industry today, he answered that we are in the “golden years” of cigar manufacturing. “The level of quality that’s coming from all manufacturers is incredible,” he offered. “And for ourselves the quality of materials grown in other countries it just keeps getting better.”
Padrón was posed a rather probing question. “Jorge, what can you do that your father couldn’t?” Shanken asked. “And what did your father accomplish that you never will?”
Padrón answered that his development of the Serie 1926, Family Reserve and other aged, upper-echelon cigars were the result of his vision. His father preferred to keep the cigars in more affordable territory.
“I pushed my father to do that,” Padrón said. “I don’t know if these would have come to fruition if I wasn’t around. But he was born on a farm, so he knew the farming side of the business inside out. He could walk onto any farm and know exactly what’s going on. If you’re not there and part of a program, you’ll never have that knowledge.”
Shanken, who started the magazine in 1992, talked a bit about the history of the Big Smoke itself, which started in 1993.
“I used to get beat up verbally by women saying that cigar smoke stinks,” Shanken told the audience. “So, I thought I have the perfect name: The Big Smoke,” he said. “I didn’t know if anybody would come. Then 3,000 people came the first year. At one point we did ten Big Smokes around the country a year. Then we started the seminars and it’s taken a life of its own. And I’m glad that women have come into the market. Not enough, but we appreciate it that they enjoy smoking cigars.”
There were indeed plenty of women in the audience, and not just tolerant wives accompanying their husbands, but true fans of cigars and its attendant culture. The seminar wrapped up and it was only the beginning of Big Smoke, as more seminars—and more cigars—were to follow.
See The Complete 2023 Big Smoke Meets WhiskyFest Coverage Below
2023 Big Smoke Meets WhiskyFest Seminars: The Fuente And Padrón Cigar Project
2023 Big Smoke Meets WhiskyFest Seminars: Rocky Patel And Jack Daniel’s