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Part One: Big Smoke Evenings Las Vegas

Nov 13, 2007 | By Gregory Mottola
Part One: Big Smoke Evenings Las Vegas

If you're a sports fan, you know the collective endorphin rush that comes from being part of a huge audience when the home team wins a major victory. There is an undeniable energy that builds and peaks with the crowd's enthusiasm. For cigar smokers, the Cigar Aficionado Big Smoke is like the Super Bowl, the World Series and a heavyweight boxing title fight all rolled up into one weekend -- but in this case there are no losers.

The 12th annual Las Vegas Big Smoke was held this weekend at the lavish Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino, a palatial destination grandiose enough for the largest good-life gathering in the country. Hours before the first Big Smoke evening on Friday, one could tell by strolling the marble corridors of the Venetian that a cigar event was imminent. As early as noon, it would not have been odd to see Jorge Padrón, Carlos Fuente Jr. or perhaps Rocky Patel circulating through the hotel. Nor would it be odd to see groups of people holding cigars by the fistful, longer-than-usual lines at the Davidoff shops within the hotel, or unlit cigars in people's mouths.

Rudolph W. Giuliani with Marvin R. Shanken on the event floor.
Unlit, because unlike last year, a smoking ban has befallen Sin City, but this has not stamped out the enthusiasm. How could something like a silly smoking ban blunt the kinetic energy of 6,000 cigar smokers gathered in one hotel? The smell of cigar smoke wafting through the colonnaded halls before the show was missing, but once visitors approached the grand ballroom and joined the beaming cigar crowd, the anticipation became somewhat of a marvel. Literally thousands of people lined up hours before the show, cigars in hand, waiting to enjoy the festivities of the evening.

When the doors opened at 6:30 p.m. and people began entering the huge room, it was as if they had jumped right onto the pages of Cigar Aficionado magazine.

Eager attendees show their evening session passes before heading inside.
They were surrounded by all the elements of the good life: premium cigars, gourmet food, high-end spirits, fine cars and the type of women one might find accompanying a sultan. Each attendee received a canvas bag and a complimentary issue of Cigar Aficionado as they walked in the door, then headed into the 80,000-square-foot room.

Presidential hopeful Rudolph W. Giuliani, a longtime cigar lover who once appeared on the cover of Cigar Aficionado magazine, was among the attendees striding the floor. He walked with Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, meeting many of the cigarmakers in attendance.

Ten-year smoking veteran Michael Mehringer of Los Angeles has been coming to Las Vegas Big Smokes for three years, but this is the first time he brought along a lady. Usually a guys' weekend, this time he decided to expose his fiancée, Andrea Chen, to the world of premium cigars.

Michael Mehringer of Los Angeles with his fiancé Andrea Chen.
"It's more than just a three-hour night of cigars, it's a whole weekend of smoking and getting to meet other serious cigar smokers," said Mehringer. "This time I brought my fiancée and I think she's having just as good a time as I am."

Most patrons chose to go straight for the cigars, eager to meet the personalities behind the tobacco, as much of the premium cigar industry was present to fill their canvas bags. Attendees received cigars from Arganese, Arturo Fuente, Ashton, Aurora 1495, Bolivar, C.A.O., Carlos Toraño, Challenger by Alec Bradley, Cuba Aliados, Cuesta-Rey, Cusano, Cuvée, Dom Rey, Don Tomas, El Rico Habano, Flavours by C.A.O., Helix, Hoyo de Monterrey, La Aroma de Cuba, La Caya, La Flor Dominicana, La Gloria Cubana, Maxx, Oliva Serie G, Padilla, Padrón, Pioneer Valley Especiales, Rocky Patel Premium, Te-Amo World Selection, Zino Classic and Zino Platinum. Many of the cigars were handed out by the brand owners themselves, and people lined up for a handshake and for autographs.

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Others began with the food, where there were two options. There was a hot and cold hors d'oeuvres table offering heavy nibbles like cured meats, cheeses and an osso buco (lamb shank) filled tortellini. And there was a sort of restaurant row within the Big Smoke where participating restaurants, mostly from the Venetian hotel, gave out samples of their food. Emeril Lagasse's Delmonico Steakhouse was offering a goat-cheese stuffed white fig wrapped in prosciutto; Charlie Palmer's Aureole passed out small pulled pork sandwiches; Asian restaurant Tao had a seared tuna sashimi roll; and Pinot Brasserie offered a vanilla bean chocolate ganache crème brûlée for dessert. A wine bar next to the food serving wines from the Moët Hennessy USA portfolio made for a perfect pairing, and about half a dozen shadow booths featured female dancers gyrating to the music as their forms were perfectly silhouetted against a colorful background -- signature entertainment of all Big Smokes.

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The Big Smoke is thirsty work, and plenty of fine libations were being served: Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Jack Daniels (in several varieties), Clontarf Irish whiskey, Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey, Crown Royal, Knappogue Castle whiskey, Martin Miller's gin, Partida Tequila, Tommy Bahama rum, Yamazaki Suntory single-malt whisky, El Mayor, Flor de Caña 18-year-old Nicaraguan rum and Cardenal Mendoza. For those in need of a cold brew, there was frosty Budweiser Select and Negro Modelo.

Aaron brothers Christopher and Thomas from Los Angeles have been showing up to the Big Smoke for seven years now. This time they brought along their cousin, Damon Mack, to show him what this cigar weekend is all about.

"It started as a brothers' night out," said Christopher Aaron, "but it came to the point where we've gotten up to 40 people to come out with us."

Dean Zarbaugh from LeGrange, Ohio, has been to six Big Smokes, and now that his son, Dean the second, is 21, they can both enjoy the smoking and drinking.

"No matter how much you think you know about cigars, you always learn something new," said the elder Zarbaugh.

Jeff Marks, Joe Hernandez, Isaac Ysais and Jason Hernandez at the Cigar Aficionado booth.
With food, booze, dancers and cigars, many parts of the typical male mind were stimulated. Especially the part of the brain that lights up when a guy sees a car, and there were many of them parked in the center of the show. They ranged from the sporty to the stately to the outright intimidating. A reptilian green 2008 Dodge Viper, for example, seemed to say "even if you had the $85,000, you wouldn't know how to drive me." And there is no question that many of the attendees were plotting to drive off with the sleek 2007 Corvette Z06, a 505-horsepower eye-catcher, or the mean-looking, jet-black Mustang Shelby GT-H convertible. The rest of the stunning lineup included a Jaguar, Buick, Saturn, Cadillac and Porsche.

By the time that most of the cigar smokers had finally decided against hijacking the Corvette, filling it with cigars and dancers, and making for the Mexican border, the night ended. So much sensory stimulation makes three hours pass like three minutes. The only consolation is that you are leaving with a bag full of cigars and enough memories to last until the next Big Smoke.