Cigar Industry

Great Smokes

The editors recall some of their finest cigar-smoking experiences
| By CA Editors | From Michael Jordan, November/December 2017
Great Smokes
Photos/David Yellen

I had my first cigar when I was a student at the great University of Miami in the 1960s. I went on a day trip to the Bahamas. While I was on the boat, I noticed somebody was smoking a cigar, and he offered one to me. It had a wooden tip—a Hav-A-Tampa Jewel. I later bought a five-pack, which cost me 25 cents. After that, I began smoking bigger cigars, especially Partagás No. 10s. They were real, handmade cigars as opposed to ones that were made by machines.

I had an office in London in the 1980s, and that’s when I became good friends with Edward Sahakian, who owns the Davidoff store. It was there that I began buying Cuban cigars. My favorites were some of Cuba’s best, Montecristo No. 2s as well as Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas.

I used to go to various bars, and my favorite was the one at the Four Seasons’ Inn on the Park, which was upstairs. Smoking in bars was welcomed at the time, and I was usually there alone. But any time another gentleman would be there smoking a cigar, we would become instant friends, because we were linked by the fraternity of the cigar. Cigar smoking has always been a way for building friendships wherever I travelled. 

-Marvin R. Shanken, Editor and Publisher

I dabbled in cigars as a younger man, but I began smoking them regularly in college. I’d have one on the weekends, or maybe on a lazy Thursday night. It was easier to smoke indoors back in those days, so my preferred smoking spot was the smoking lounge on the floor of my dorm, a spartan room with white cinderblock walls, a razor-thin blue carpet and industrial wooden furniture built for durability rather than comfort. It sat at the halfway point of the floor dividing the men’s section from the women’s section. There were plenty of cigarette smokers who would venture in, but I was the sole cigar smoker.

My cigars then were simple things, convenience-store smokes. My favorites at the time were machine-made Muniemaker Breva 100s that were affordable and pleasant. But I experimented. Cheap cigars with wooden tips, green cigars that I bought once and never again, and the 50 mail-order smokes that were delivered for the amazing price of $15. But that was a lot of cigars, more than a semester’s worth. To store them, I transformed one of my dorm-room drawers into a humidor, which failed miserably. 

When I started working, I could afford fancier cigars. I bought some handmade smokes, found a better humidor at a tag sale and began making my way through cigar stores. The cigar shopping was intimidating—this one’s too strong, that one’s too bitter, that one is too bland—before I found a copy of Cigar Aficionado and began using its scores and tasting notes as a buying guide. Little did I know that those early cigars and that magazine would lead to a rewarding career.

In the summer of 1995, I sat down with Marvin R. Shanken at his home in Long Island for what would become my final job interview. I was nervous—I really wanted the job, but I was trying to play it cool, to show the right amount of desire without looking too anxious. The business magazine I was working for at the time was going nowhere, was available on only one newsstand. The idea of working at a magazine about cigars and the good life, something I truly enjoyed, seemed too good to be true. And it was a winner. I wanted that job more than I had ever wanted anything before in my life.

We sat down on his patio. It was one of those perfect East Coast summer evenings, the rare ones where the humidity is low and the air is perfectly comfortable. He brought out two cigars, bigger than any cigar I had ever smoked before: Punch Double Coronas. They were gorgeous.

We lit up, and began talking. The flavor and complexity blew me away, and about halfway through the cigar I realized I had the job. We kept on speaking, and kept on puffing. In the end, there was only a tiny bit left. We shook hands and I walked to my car—more than a little woozy from that amazing smoke—and I drove home, excited about the new job. That was more than 22 years ago. Best cigar I’ve ever smoked. 

-David Savona, Executive Editor 

I was a young, and very green, foreign correspondent in 1978 covering the Sandinistas’ guerrilla war in Nicaragua to topple the regime of Gen. Anastasio Somoza. During the day, I was dodging bullets and, after sundown, guzzling prodigious amounts of Jack Daniel’s whiskey. Every day, I consumed at least two packs of John Player Specials cigarettes.

But among the foreign press corps, there were a few people who smoked cigars, mostly Joya de Nicaragua, which in those days was owned by the Somoza family. One of the most notable, and easily recognized, was Alan Riding, a New York Times correspondent. I honestly can’t remember if he and a cigar were inseparable, but in those late evenings in a hotel bar, I remember the picture of him with a big double corona Joya sticking out of his mouth. And, of course, like any aspiring young reporter, I looked up to Mr. Riding.

The actual moment I picked up, or was offered a cigar, has been lost in the mist of those Jack Daniel’s infused nights. But I do recall that it was a Joya de Nicaragua Churchill size. Since I didn’t keel over and pass out from trying to smoke it like a cigarette, I also have a vague recollection of being taught a few of the fundamentals. I do have a clear memory that the wrapper on that big cigar was a beautiful reddish-brown, a classic colorado, and it was smooth and even. My love of cigars began that night in Nicaragua in 1978.

I have been blessed in my life, in more ways that I can even begin to count. But one area where I have been truly lucky is in my career writing and reporting about cigars. I have met great people, many of whom are close personal friends. And I have smoked so many great cigars that to pick the best one is virtually impossible. 

There was the 1992 Partagás Lusitania given to me by Max Gutmann of Mexico. There was a 1986 Davidoff No. 1 Especial, given to me by Edward Sahakian. Montecristo No. 2s with 20 years age. Cohiba Lanceros from the 1980s. A Dunhill Don Candido handed over to me by Ajay Patel. My first Cohiba Behike, in 2010, which was our Cigar of the Year.

But like so many things, a great cigar can be enhanced by when and where you smoke it. So, my best cigar was a 1492, a special cigar produced by the Cubans to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas. And, fittingly, the cigar was given to me by Marvin R. Shanken, my employer of 26 years.

The setting was perfect. I was in the Canadian Rockies, at a backcountry outpost called Lake O’Hara Lodge. It was a cool but clear evening, and the year was 2000. I had finished a lovely dinner with my wife, Donna. I asked for a glass of Port, and I retired to a small outdoor porch, wearing a fleece to ward off the evening’s chill. The spot has an unfettered view of Lake O’Hara surrounded by the peaks of Mount Huber, Mount Victoria and the Yukness Ledges. The late glow of dusk lit the snow-covered peaks. 

I lit up the 1492, which isn’t a big cigar, but rather a corona gorda size. From the very first puff, I knew I was smoking something special. The balance was perfect.  And, the flavors highlighted the best of the great Cuban cigars—pungent, earthy, but balanced off with some dark cocoa bean notes. A truly great cigar. 

And, given the setting, worthy of my personal tag: My Best Cigar.

-Gordon Mott, Senior Contributing Editor

My first cigar was something of a fizzle. It was the late 1970s, and I was living in Berkeley, California, of all places, which at the time was on the vanguard of regulating personal liberty. On my way home from work one day, I passed a tobacconist and was curious about the exotic wares (pipes, cigars and other paraphernalia) within. So I entered and chatted up the manager, who told me that a groundbreaking new law was about to make places like his establishment the only venues in the city in which one could smoke. Even as I didn’t smoke at the time, the anarchist that lurked within me was rankled at just another encroachment on choice. So I let the purveyor romance me with tales of luxurious tobacco grown on sunny Caribbean isles or under shade in Connecticut—despite that at the time my customer profile would have leaned toward buying rolling papers or a pipe. Ultimately, he suggested a cigar for me, which he said was a good introductory smoke: not too strong, but still flavorful. The cost? The then grand sum of $2. 

I took it home and pulled it out in front of my roommates, who I had assumed would admire my choice with fascination. Instead I was faced with derision. Some of my housemates were the sorts of poseurs who smoked fancy, stink-bomb cigarettes imported from France. I’d always put up with their smoking, even while silently being repulsed, but ironically they all complained of the smell of my innocent cigar. When I’d had all the haranguing I could take, I took it outside. Today, I don’t even remember the brand—just the banishment.

That original cigar experience paled in comparison to my best cigar moment. That came some 20 years later as  an ah-ha moment with tobacco. When I came to work at Cigar Aficionado I was hired for my editorial experience with non-cigar subjects, not for any expertise on cigars—I’d only sampled a dozen or so at the time. The cigars that I’d smoked up to that point were not of any great consequence—the sort of machine-rolled cigars that guys pass out to celebrate a birth or to puff on at poker games to keep the distaff population down. But I wanted to learn, because, well, I was working for a cigar magazine and it seemed like a bad career move not to know about cigars, even though it wasn’t in my official job description. 

My instinct was to go to the tasting department and bum smokes. Unhappily, the person in charge of the supply gave me only subpar cigars to smoke. As much as I tried I wasn’t making much headway in terms of cigar appreciation. One day I was puffing on one of those Flor de Nobodies when David Savona walked into my office and looked at me, appalled. He turned on his heels and returned momentarily with a Padrón Anniversary Exclusivo. Handing it to me, he said, “Here. Smoke a real cigar.” It was the thing that turned my smoking life around. As its melange of flavors expanded on my palate I had an epiphany: “I really am tasting nuts and toast, chocolate and leather. This is it. This is the real thing.” From that moment on I never looked at cigars the same way. 

-Jack Bettridge, Senior Features Editor

I’m often asked what got me into cigars. It’s the second-most asked cigar question I get, after “What’s the best cigar?” to which there is no answer. There was my first cigar, of course. It was a Cuban Cohiba, and it was probably an Esplendido, but looking back I’m not so certain about the size. I do know that I enjoyed it. 

A friend of mine who joined the Coast Guard had returned from Cuba and handed me a cigar with a yellow-and-black band. I knew immediately that this cigar was supposed to be one of the best in the world. Back in the mid-’90s I remembered cigars by their color scheme. Fuente was red and green with gold in the middle. Montecristo was a beanish shade of brown. Cohiba was black and yellow, and easy to remember because both the logo and the word looked remarkably like Toshiba, font and all. 

It was a large Cohiba, so I can only surmise that it was an Esplendido, or something pretending to be an Esplendido. I kept it in my pocket and waited until the bar I was working at closed that night. It was an indoor/outdoor kind of summer place, right on the water, and by the time I was done it was about 5:30 in the morning. The sun had already come up and some of the bartenders had cigars of their own. There were cutters and lighters available, because the bar sold cigars as well as cigarettes. We all lit up and I was intrigued immediately. Each puff made me want to take another. This was where I discovered the third dimension of flavor. Food is the first, drink the second. And it also made me want to smoke again. Anything. Machine-mades, Philippine cigars, Don whatevers.

Cigars didn’t become a full-fledged hobby until I found out that one of my close friends was actually a cigar connoisseur. I had no idea. We’d known each other since junior high and all these years I never knew he smoked cigars. Not seriously. As it turned out, he’d go to Spain on vacation and come back with bags full of Cuban cigars. When he saw that I was interested, he gave me a Churchill-sized Cuban La Gloria Cubana Taino, and with it, an issue of Cigar Aficionado magazine. “Read this,” he said. It was the issue with JFK on the cover. At that point, he became my cigar mentor and cigars for me went from being an enjoyable pastime to a passionate hobby. This was probably the most pivotal, transformative moment in my smoking history. Was it my best cigar? Tough to say, but it was the most memorable. I didn’t just simply enjoy the smoke. It was the first time I actually thought about each puff.

-Gregory Mottola, Senior Editor

My very first cigar, a puff or two from a Macanudo my father let me try, was memorable for its transgression, but that’s about it. My first real smoke was in college, where so many first-time cigar stories seem to begin. A friend of mine had returned from winter break with a Ziplock bag of choice sticks that he had swiped from his old man’s stash. I can’t recall what he smoked, but I grabbed a Joya de Nicaragua Antaño 1970, and we headed to the dorm’s stoop to light up. Being January in New York, it was cold, but not freezing. We both cut way too much of the head off our smokes and lit up using cheap convenience store matches. The smoke was plentiful, but most important, those cigars facilitated a moment where my friend and I could share our ambitions for our last semester in school before being thrust into the real world.

The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver led me to my finest cigar moment. The United States was slated to play Canada in the Gold Medal game. Both rosters were stacked with NHL talent ready to play their hearts out for their respective countries: It would be a game no hockey fan could afford to miss. The Cigar Inn, at the time run by the Fakih brothers, was having a party for the game, so I headed there to watch. I was smoking a Padrón Family Reserve No. 45 Maduro. The place was packed, the game was on all of the televisions, and there was plenty of food, drink and cigars. I can still remember all of us chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” after scrappy Zach Parise tied the game up with only seconds left in regulation to force overtime. The boys in blue would end up losing that day, but what a game it was. 

-Andrew Nagy, Associate Editor

I was 18 years old. Graduation day from high school. I remember leaving the ceremony and saying goodbye to my parents and stepping out into the parking lot with my friend Charlie.

“Let’s get out of here,” Charlie said.

We made it to the car and drove off. There were graduation parties to attend, but not until later. We had time to kill and cigars in the glovebox. There was no cigar cutter, so we used our teeth. We didn’t know the first thing about cigars, only that we wanted to celebrate. The windows were down and we lit up and smoked. 

I remember barreling down the long and winding Connecticut back roads, woods all around us, thinking about the upcoming year at college, thinking about the end of high school, driving fast and blasting out from under the tree line where the sky opened up to farmlands and green fields. Sunlight gleaming off the hood of the car like a crazy knife. The Rolling Stones were on the radio and the world stretched out before us in all directions. We were high-school graduates, and life seemed full of possibility. We laughed, turned the radio higher, puffed at the cigars. I felt like a giant. It was the first cigar I’d ever smoked.

Flash forward to my second year at Cigar Aficionado. I went to Massachusetts for a long summer weekend. There’s a small island off the coast that’s speckled with beach cottages. My parents own a cottage on the island, and every winter it’s battered by ugly ocean storms—salt water, sand and razor-sharp winds. The spring and the summer months are for repainting, repairing and beating back the elements.

I was helping my dad with the yard and the house. With the hot sun pouring down, we ripped out old boards that had rotted away from the side of the cottage. We cut new wood, hammered and nailed, repainted. Then on to the yard, mowing, weeding, trimming back the rose bushes. We worked all day. 

When we finished the sun was setting out over the ocean. Seagulls wheeled overhead and there was a warm breeze coming in off the water. We got the grill going and cracked open two cans of beer. I told my dad that I’d brought some Cuban cigars from work. 

“We should smoke them,” my dad said.

I went into the house and grabbed the cigars. They were Montecristo No. 3s. I took out my cutter and lighter and handed them to my dad. We lit up and sat on the porch and stared at the ocean. We took one half of a sun-bleached clamshell, about the size of a fist, and used it as an ashtray. It felt good to sit there, muscles aching, sunburned and tired with a can of cold beer and a cigar. Just sitting next to my dad looking at the water with the sound of the waves coming in. It was the best cigar I’ve ever had.

-David Clough, Assistant Editor/Tasting Coordinator

I’ve always enjoyed cigars because of the environment they bring. Whether walking the golf course, wading a stream—with my fishing rod in one hand, a cigar in the other—or puffing alone on a late night stroll around New York, it wasn’t so much the taste of a cigar I appreciated at first, but the relaxing moments they seemed to complement so well. Truth be told, it wasn’t until I began working at Cigar Aficionado that I first learned to appreciate good tobacco and the taste of a well-blended cigar. 

There is one cigar in particular that sticks with me, an Ashton Virgin Sun Grown Torpedo given to me by my colleague, assistant editor David Clough, during my first month at the magazine. On a lazy Sunday afternoon I smoked it to the nub while sitting in the backyard of a friend’s apartment. Almost immediately, I was able to tell that this cigar was superior to the others I had tried. The construction was pristine, the draw smooth as butter, and the smoke had a rich, distinct flavor. There have been many cigars since then—some better, many worse—but it’s that lone Ashton that I come back to again and again, resonating in my mind as the best cigar I’ve ever had. 

-Blake Droesch, Assistant Editor

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