Young Aficionados

Cigar Smoking Is Hot with the Twentysomething Crowd, Which Agrees: It Is More Than a Fad
| By Paul Chutkow | From Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

What to make of Tammy Fogler?

Fogler, 24, is in her second year of law school at Northwestern University in Chicago. She is bright, energetic and, like many young people today, extremely health-conscious. She eats carefully, never smokes cigarettes and works out regularly, both at the health club and in the ring, sparring a few rounds with men who share her enthusiasm for muay-Thai, an Asian form of boxing. After a grueling final exam, though, or after a stressful session preparing for the Illinois bar, what Fogler enjoys most is a fine cigar.

"For me, at the most basic level, it's an easy way to relax and unwind," Fogler says. "After finals, I always have a cigar evening. I treat it as a sort of retreat. That's my time to sit and unwind, or to have a great conversation."

Is Tammy Fogler some sort of rebel, a swaggering iconoclast out to jam a stogie in the eye of Chicago's legal establishment? Hardly. Today, with fine cigars enjoying a wave of popularity across America, Fogler is just one of a growing legion of young aficionados who are sweeping away the notion that cigar smoking is a pleasure confined to middle-aged men in stuffy clubs or disreputable saloons. Indeed, from Northwestern to Dartmouth, from Yale to UCLA, fine cigars and cigar clubs have become the rage on many American campuses. Likewise, among many young, twentysomething professionals from Manhattan to San Francisco, fine cigars have become high chic, an emblem of sophistication, good taste and an independent spirit.

"Cigars are on a huge upswing," says John Rucci, the beverage manager at the elegant Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. "Young people in Beverly Hills, and in Los Angeles in general, are very attuned to what's hip and what's trendy, and cigars have become very big. The trend now is young people and women. Women are smoking a lot of cigars today, good cigars. In fact, I'd say that for many young people, cigars have become the social accessory of the '90s."

For the young today, cigar smoking surely is wrapped up with what's hip and trendy. But in scores of interviews with young cigar smokers and observations at the establishments they frequent, the phenomenon apparently has deeper, more complicated roots.

"It seems that for many people of my generation, cigars have become a kind of counterculture thing," says Markus Funk, one of the founders of the Cigar Aficionados Club (no connection with this magazine) at Northwestern University School of Law. "In a place like law school, cigars can be a real ice-breaker, socially, and cigar clubs enable people with an individualized taste to get together and do something they like."

Fogler's experience with cigars is in many ways typical. She did not grow up in some fashionable corner of Manhattan or Los Angeles. She grew up in Middle America, in the quiet, conservative town of Bloomington-Normal, in central Illinois. Her grandfather smoked a pipe, and an uncle and an aunt smoked cigars. Fogler never took to smoking, either in high school or in her first years at Illinois Wesleyan. Senior year in college, though, she found herself drawn to cigars. "What drew me was the smell," she says. "The smell of the tobacco gave me good feelings and associations." After a long day of classes and studying, she would often go onto a dormitory roof at night and smoke a cigar: "I found it very calming, very peaceful."

During her first year of law school, Fogler met Funk when he was starting the cigar club. Members of the club would gather at a bar or restaurant near the campus, smoke cigars and talk about the law, what they planned to do with their lives, or just about the Chicago Cubs or Bears. The club had no political or social agenda, though some of its members shared a common antagonism toward political correctness on campus. "Generally, it was just a very nice mingling of people," Fogler says, and when word of the club spread around the law school, many other women eagerly joined.

"People make the assumption that cigars mean white guys sitting around in fancy clubs with overstuffed chairs," says Funk. "But the Aficionados Club is not at all like that. It's whites, blacks, men, women, liberals, conservatives, whatever. It's really a hodgepodge. It's one of the [few] nonpolitical clubs on campus."

Across the country cigars are enjoying a vogue on many other college campuses. In the East, at Dartmouth, cigars have become an integral part of the weekend party scene. According to Gabriel Schlumberger, a junior studying film and political science, the pinnacle of undergraduate chic today is ordering fine cigars by the box from high-quality specialists like the Owl Shop in New Haven, Connecticut. "I see it at Dartmouth and many other campuses on the East Coast," he says. "And this summer I saw it at the University of Texas in Austin. Everyone there seems to be into cigars."

Catherine St. John, owner of the Owl Shop, confirms the trend. "Young people, and especially women, are now smoking fine cigars," she says. "We get a lot of students from Yale and a lot of faculty." Students from other universities, she says, order boxes of cigars by mail or by phone, and they are not ordering cheap cigars. "Even students are buying $4 and $5 cigars," says St. John, who has been at the Owl Shop for 62 years. "There has definitely been a change in mores."

Mark Grossich, the co-owner of Bar and Books, a group of upscale cigar lounges in New York City, agrees, and he says the shift in mores is quite visible among young professionals in their 20s. "Our clientele tends to be people in their late 20s and up, but the crowds are getting younger and younger," Grossich says. "And we are seeing more and more young women smoking cigars. We had 125 women at a smoker in June." At his cigar lounges, such as The Cigar Bar at Beekman Bar and Books, Grossich offers 14 brands of high-quality cigars, along with a selection of fine Ports, Cognacs and single malt whiskeys. Like Funk at Northwestern, Grossich sees a diverse group, all drawn together by their common interest in fine cigars. "We see young, old, male, female. What we're seeing is people all enjoying cigars for pretty much the same reasons."

Adam Cohen is a typical case. Cohen, 26, works at Q104.3 FM, a hard rock music station in New York City. Like many of his friends at the station and in the music world, he was drawn to cigar smoking because it was trendy. "In the beginning, cigars were the nouveau, 'in' thing to do," he says. "Now, six months later, I'm an avid smoker simply because I enjoy it. The more I learn about cigars, the more I enjoy tasting different makes and varieties, trying to see what's bigger and better. In that sense, cigar smoking is a lot like wine drinking."

Whoa, now. Cohen belongs to a generation that is extremely savvy about health, nutrition and exercise, a generation that for years has been bombarded with warnings, from President Clinton on down, about the dangers of smoking cigarettes. Cohen, furthermore, lives in a city where smoking is not just frowned upon, but banned in many public places. As Cohen and every other cigar smoker knows, antismoking sentiment in New York runs so high that if you light up anywhere in public--even at Yankee Stadium or strolling through Central Park--you may well be accosted by strangers demanding you stop at once. So what gives here? Is Adam Cohen an angry rebel? Or self-destructive?

Hardly. "I would never consider smoking a cigarette," Cohen says. But few of his friends balk when he lights up a cigar; they find the ethos, ethics and smell of cigar smoking by no means offensive. Most of the women he dates do not complain either: "I'm going out now with women who light up themselves and are eager to try a fine cigar."

Young smokers like Cohen translate into good business for Manhattan cigar shops like Arnold's Tobacco Shop on Madison Avenue. "We sell a lot of cigars to the twenties group," says owner Bruce Goldstein, whose grandfather started the business in 1911. "That's our future. These young people are joining the market, they like it, and they're interested in quality cigars. Five years ago, the trend didn't exist."

According to Goldstein, today's young aficionados are well-educated about cigars and usually buy individual cigars, so they can experiment and broaden their knowledge. "They'll buy 10, 15, even 20 cigars at a time. Different brands, different sizes, different shades of wrapper," Goldstein says. "They're experimenting and they're not as set in their ways as cigar smokers used to be. They're the future of our business. You're planting the seed for the next five or 10 years."

San Francisco may be on the other side of the continent, but the attitudes driving young cigar aficionados there are remarkably similar to those on the East Coast. Michael Pelusi, manager of the Alfred Dunhill shop just off Union Square, is seeing the same cigar boom among young people, especially young professional women. Last August, Pelusi sponsored a "Women Only" smoker in his shop to help raise money for a local shelter for battered women, and he drew 35 professional women, many of them lawyers and many of them avid cigar smokers. San Francisco, like New York, has placed heavy restrictions on smoking in restaurants. Additionally, there is an aggressive antismoking strain running through many sectors of San Francisco society. But you'd never know it from that night at Dunhill's.

"These people have clearly made their decisions in life," Pelusi observes, as the women eagerly sampled Macanudos and Temple Hall No. 3 Trumps. "They've decided what makes them happy and they are not going to give up the pleasure of smoking cigars because of any antismoking legislation or attitudes."

The Dunhill smoker attracted several twentysomething women, and they were warmly welcomed by more experienced smokers like Tanya Neiman, a San Francisco attorney. "Face it: there are certain things women have traditionally been excluded from, and cigars is one of them. This," Neiman says, waving her Macanudo, "is very liberating for women."

Jennifer Hernandez, a local attorney who helped organize the smoker, agrees, and she is delighted that young women today can smoke a cigar without arousing shock or facing social stigma. It was hardly that way when she began smoking cigars a few years ago. "I began smoking cigars when I was working for a firm that represented Playboy and Penthouse," she recalls. "One day I walked into a big meeting with a cigar in my mouth. The men were shocked. It was a good career move."

Jeanette Etheredge applauds the current cigar vogue among young people and women--but for a very different reason. Etheredge owns and runs a celebrated San Francisco institution called Tosca's, an adamantly antichic watering hole that, over the years, has been a second home to Francis Ford Coppola, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and many other artists, poets and musicians who hang out in the city's North Beach section. Etheredge, who is as colorful and iconoclastic an institution as Tosca's, has never catered to the antismoking crowd. And she is not about to start.

"Since the restaurants stopped allowing smoking, my business has gone up 20 percent," Etheredge says. "Instead of staying out at a restaurant for an extra coffee, people come here. And older people who want to smoke come here before dinner so they can smoke and then they come by again after dinner." Over the past year, young people smoking cigars have become an important part of her business. So now, Etheredge keeps a well-stocked humidor right on the bar. Throughout the week, young people also crowd into her back room to smoke cigars and play pool under a formidable array of old movie posters.

On one recent night, Cheré Burnett, a twentysomething interior designer, was one of the women joining the men at the pool table, cigar in hand. "In the beginning, I thought cigars were a man's thing and I felt so intimidated," Burnett says. "I also thought it was gross to kiss a guy who's smoked a cigar." Soon, though, she developed a taste for cigars--and for men who smoke them. She now attends the many cigar dinners being sponsored by San Francisco's premier hotels, restaurants and cigar shops. In recent months, these smokers have become quite the rage in San Francisco; in one week in August, there were at least four high-profile smokers around town.

Cigar smoking, in fact, has become a prominent part of the young social scene in many parts of San Francisco society. Rich Peterson, 27, president of an informal group called The Bachelor's Club, says that he and many of his friends in the club have become avid cigar smokers, either at parties or on the golf course. "I think cigars, by their nature, stimulate conversation and camaraderie," he says. "It's a way to bring people together. It relaxes people and I think adds a touch of style."

Like many young men around the country, Peterson says that smoking cigars, at least in his case, is not a way of making any political or social statement; it is just a pleasure he enjoys, especially among friends. "Some people think cigar smoking projects snootiness or your class," he says. "I think if you want to read that into it, that's unfortunate. [It] is just a way to have fun."

The Bachelor's Club has become so serious about its cigar fun that it maintains a locker at Dunhill's. Cigars were also prominent at the club's annual black-tie ball. Were young women at the ball put off by cigars? Quite the contrary, says Peterson, who develops new business for Dryer's and Edy's Grand Ice Cream. "One very lovely young woman actually came up to me and asked for a puff of my cigar," he says. "It broke the ice--and very quickly!"

San Francisco now offers a wide array of places catering to young cigar smokers. Stars, long a popular Bay Area restaurant, organizes cigar dinners and other events through a private club it founded, the Stellar Cigar Society. The Cypress Club was another favorite meeting place for aficionados--before smoking was banned in the city's restaurants. Since then, the club has closed its humidor, but it remains cigar friendly (you can still smoke at Cypress' bar). "We've had cigar dinners ever since we opened," says John Lancaster, the club's sommelier and bar manager, "but they were never as popular as they have become in recent months. In a time when some rights are being taken away, cigars have become immensely fashionable."

The Occidental Grill is another San Francisco gathering place that has made cigars a prime attraction. After a long day at the nearby Pacific Stock Exchange, young stock and bond traders gather at The Occidental to smoke, eat and unwind. To keep up with demand, co-owners Curtis Post and Don Helton keep a large supply of cigars on hand, and every so often they organize a fabulous gourmet dinner, specially conceived for aficionados. One recent dinner opened with the house special, an Absolut Blue Martini, followed by seared wild salmon, warm rabbit loin salad, smoked quail with black currant sauce, a veal chop grilled over mesquite, and ci-gars between courses--all for $105.

For the ultimate in cigar chic, young San Francisco aficionados with the means to splurge gather at the bar of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, on the slope up to Nob Hill. Judy Rowcliffe, head of public relations for the hotel, says the cigar boom has doubled, and in some months tripled, the bar's revenues from sales of cigars and drinks. "It's just gone crazy," Rowcliffe says. This past April was typical. With the bar crowded with cigar smokers nearly every night, the hotel registered $3,190 in cigar sales and $14,550 in beverage sales. During the summer, the boom hit a snag: Diners in the hotel's adjacent gourmet dining room complained about the cigar smoke, and the hotel temporarily halted smoking in the bar. With so much revenue at stake, though, the Ritz-Carlton management is planning to outfit the bar with a new ventilation system, hoping to appease the dinner crowd without giving up the lucrative cigar trade in the bar.

In Los Angeles, too, cigars are now high chic, especially among young men and women, and cigar clubs and lounges are sprouting up everywhere to cater to young aficionados--and to cash in on the trend.

To get a fix on the L.A. cigar scene, an appropriate place to start is at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Little Santa Monica, an intersection dominated by the artful building I.M. Pei created for Creative Artists Agency, the most powerful talent agency in Hollywood. Two blocks north of Wilshire, on Little Santa Monica, two chic spots cater to young cigar aficionados: Hamilton's, a refined wine and cigar lounge co-hosted by actor George Hamilton and Dennis Overstreet, and Philip Dane's Cigar Lounge, a bright, cheerful new place designed expressly for the twentysomething crowd.

With its exposed wood beams, rustic furniture and stacks of old magazines, Philip Dane's is designed to feel like a cozy lodge, a lodge that just happens to sport a big walk-in humidor, an antique Coke machine, and a flashy new espresso machine. The humidor offers a wonderful selection of cigars: Dunhills, Paul Garmirians, Avos and a wide assortment of other fine cigars from the Dominican Republic, Honduras and farther afield.

Dane, 28, clearly knows his cigars and his target clientele. He has made his lounge comfortable and inviting, and with an eye toward novice smokers who might feel intimidated buying cigars, Dane has lovely young women advising customers. He has put them through cigar seminars and had them read Richard Carleton Hacker's authoritative guide, The Ultimate Cigar Book. The effort has paid off: His young saleswomen know their stuff. But they do not use the often imposing vocabulary you hear in the more traditional cigar shops. One saleswoman, recently guiding a hesitant customer through the humidor, pointed to an Aliados Piramides and opined: "This is one honker cigar. It takes so long to smoke!"

Three blocks south on the other side of Wilshire is The Peninsula Hotel, one of the most fashionable spots for young aficionados to gather. Late in the afternoon, especially on Thursdays, the bar fills with young smokers: agents, producers, music and video sharpsters obviously on the make, eager to be seen with a $20 cigar jammed in their lips. Still, the Peninsula is a joy, an island of taste and refinement in a town not otherwise known for subtlety or grace. For anyone interested in high chic, impressing a date, or in just taking time out to enjoy a fine cigar, this is the place.

"Cigars are a good business for us right now," says Peninsula beverage manager Rucci. "I can sell 20 or 30 cigars a night, and it has picked up just in the past six months. We have always been a cigar milieu, and we were well-placed when cigars really took off." As in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, "the big thing now is the women," Rucci says, and women are very particular about the style and atmosphere of where they smoke in public. "The environment has so much to do with it," he says. "If the cigars are good, the room smells good, and for women that's very important."

The Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey has a similar appeal, along with something more: a cigar-friendly terrace overlooking the marina, an ideal spot to smoke a cigar and watch a sunset. As in San Francisco, the Ritz-Carlton here has turned cigars into a major commercial attraction. At a cigar tasting in August, the hotel attracted 30 aficionados, many of them women, at $25 a pop. At a full cigar dinner in June, some 50 people paid $65 for a gourmet meal complete with cigars and a moonlit view of the Pacific.

After cocktails and a cigar at The Peninsula or The Ritz, young aficionados have a broad choice of cigar-friendly dinner spots, no matter where in Los Angeles they care to go. One favorite of the L.A. smart set is Rockenwagner's in Santa Monica. The restaurant features elegant European cuisine, leisurely dining, and a congenial bar with a well-stocked humidor, handcrafted by owner Hans Rockenwagner. He also features cigars as part of his regular "stammtisch," a community table he likes to put together for friends and simpatico clients. "The 'stammtisch' is an old, respected tradition in southern Germany," Rockenwagner says. "The word means table, but it also means the stem of a tree or tribe. Good food and good conversation were always part of the tradition. And now cigars are part of the tradition, too."

The Beverly Hills Pipe & Tobacco Co. is another hot gathering spot for young aficionados. Formerly known as The Tinder Box, the shop is a cluttered cubbyhole with an established clientele dating back 22 years, to when cigars were still an all-male bastion. Judging from one recent afternoon, it is still predominantly a guy place, although owner Todd Kornguth says he is seeing more and more female customers. Kornguth, a 26-year-old entrepreneur who took over the shop from his father, does some of his biggest business on Saturday afternoons during football season, when his shop fills with young guys who like to smoke a good cigar and watch college football on TV. During the week, Todd does a brisk trade with local firemen and policemen who, after their shifts, like to come in for a smoke. So much for the notion that the present cigar boom is confined to upscale yuppies and wanna-bes.

"More and more people are smoking cigars," Kornguth says. "It's definitely a trend right now, a status symbol. And the people coming in here are smoking big cigars, expensive ci-gars. They have little interest in a $3 cigar." Even the cops. On a recent afternoon, one patrolman came in and bought an $11 cigar. "It's amazing what's happening here," Kornguth says. "I've got the whole Beverly Hills fire station smoking Macanudos. We also get a lot of women smoking, and not petites either. They're smoking Churchills and Presidentes."

Gus's Smoke Shop, in the San Fernando Valley, has been catering to serious cigar smokers for 68 years, and owner Jimmy Hurwitz prides himself on being anything but hip and glitzy; he and his clientele were cigar devotees long before it became fashionable. But Gus's, too, has seen a major influx of young smokers, both in the shop and in the private club he runs for aficionados. Long before it became chic, Gus's ran regular cigar dinners on Monday nights; today the back room remains the way gentlemen's clubs used to be: full of mahogany, deep leather chairs and the smell of fine cigars. With an annual membership fee of $500, and a charge of $10 per guest, the club offers everything from coffee and snacks to full-scale dinners, with fine wines, liqueurs and, of course, fine cigars.

Though traditionalists like Hurwitz have little time for the glitz, Hollywood remains Hollywood, and the stars have gotten into the cigar act, adding visibility and glamour to the boom. Arnold Schwarzenegger, an avid cigar smoker for years, features a well-stocked humidor (out on the patio) at Schatzi On Main, his restaurant in Santa Monica. The big news in Hollywood cigar circles, though, is the Grand Havana Room, an exclusive smoking club above the trendy restaurant On Canon. The club features a 1,700-square-foot walk-in humidor, complete with customized lockers for individuals or companies to store their stocks of cigars. (At Hollywood prices: individuals pay $2,000 for a membership and $150 a month to rent a locker; companies have to pony up $5,000 to get in and $300 a month for a locker.)

"We try to be a sanctuary for serious cigar smokers, a place where stars can come and smoke without having a photographer stick a camera in their face," says Russell Shinn, manager of the Grand Havana Room. The buzz (this is Hollywood, after all) is that on any given night at the club you can run into Schwarzenegger, Robert De Niro, Dennis Franz from TV's "NYPD Blue," Andy Garcia, or Sylvester Stallone. That kind of buzz is clearly good for business and for attracting the well-to-do in the young, hip crowd.

The Grand Havana and the Ritz-Carlton may be a bit pricey for many young aficionados, but there is no shortage of young, hip clubs that cater to the twentysomething crowd and welcome cigars. The Viper Room is a case in point. Every Thursday night The Viper Room puts on "Mr. Phat's Royal Martini Club," a theme night styled after a 1940s nightclub, complete with a mirrored ball bending light over the dance floor, nostalgia-drenched oldies-but-goodies from Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Louis Prima, an old-fashioned, high-kicking dance troupe, and, as a finishing touch, a crew of cigar girls canvassing the room with humidors. "It's a great night, everyone gets dressed up, and cigars fit right into the '40s mood," says Dean R. Miller, who helps promote the room and serves as DJ. When it comes to cigars, Miller knows of what he speaks: In his day job, he works at Davidoff.

The exotic L.A. nightclub scene, of course, is a far cry from young aficionados like Tammy Fogler in Chicago. But the cigar phenomenon is clearly broad enough to embrace them both. It is also broad enough to embrace different generations and different corners of American society. As Fogler reports, the boom has even reached into small rural towns in the American heartland: "I have an aunt and uncle who live in Thorp, Wisconsin, just a tiny little cow town. And you know what? They've been going out to cigar smokers! They are quite the affairs, too. My aunt and uncle get all dressed up and make a real evening of it, and so do their friends."

Judging from the reports of many young aficionados, it would be easy to conclude that these young cigar smokers constitute some sort of high-toned cultural and sociological trend. You could even make the case that the trend represents something of a backlash against political correctness and against all of today's public and parental campaigns against everything from smoking and drinking to not eating enough broccoli. But such sweeping generalizations can easily be overdrawn; indeed, today's boom derives from young people with vastly different tastes and vastly different reasons for taking up cigars. Their degrees of indulgence vary dramatically as well; Markus Funk smokes upward of six small cigars a day, while Tammy Fogler will only smoke one large Dunhill every couple of weeks.

Among all the young aficionados with whom I spoke, though, there was one common, unifying refrain: pleasure. In these troubled times, when young people across the country see their lives and relationships strained by economic uncertainty, political division, racial tension, urban violence and the threat of AIDS, cigars offer them one small, reliable moment of pleasure, to be enjoyed alone or with friends of similar spirit. As Funk learned with the Aficionados Club at Northwestern's law school, cigars can forge convivial bonds among people who might not otherwise be drawn together. And as Fogler learned, smoking cigars is a pleasure that can calm you down and make you feel, however briefly, that everything is right with the world.

"Once you light up a cigar, you have to sit down for a while to smoke it," Fogler says, in words that echo the sentiments of many young aficionados. "You have time to relax, to meditate, or have a really good discussion. I think that, especially in a profession that tends to be high-powered and high-pressured, cigars are ideal. They force you to sit down and relax, and come down off stressful times."

Paul Chutkow is a freelance writer based in northern California.