A little more than 20 years ago, Marvin R. Shanken conceived an idea: he would start a cigar magazine, a guide for those with a passion for cigars and the Good Life. Many said it couldn’t be done. Fast forward to Wednesday when about 200 people gathered in New York City’s posh Grand Havana Room for the twentieth anniversary celebration of Cigar Aficionado magazine. It’s safe to say the critics were wrong.
In addition to toasting 20 years of success, Shanken, the editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, inducted nine stalwarts of the cigar industry into Cigar Aficionado’s Hall of Fame during an awards ceremony. With the addition of the Class of 2012, the total number of members in the magazine’s Hall of Fame is now 15.
The evening kicked off at 6 o'clock with cigars and drinks. Grand Havana Room staffers served hors d'oeuvres while attendees smoked a fine selection of cigars and enjoyed a number of premium wines and spirits.
The men who represent the Hall's Class of 2012 had supplied the party with cigars. Attendees, which included luminaries of the cigar industry and their counterparts from the world of wine and spirits, were free to choose from a variety of brands, such as Ashton Cabinet Series, Casa Magna, Davidoff Series Aniversario, San Cristobal, E.P. Carrillo, La Gloria Cubana, Fuente Fuente OpusX, Partagás 1845, Macanudo Crü Royale, and Padrón Anniversary.
The attendees included former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and his wife, Janet, retired pro baseball player Gary Sheffield and Herb Kohler, chief executive officer and president of the Kohler Co.
Expertly crafted cocktails were served at the bar, which also poured fine wines like Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, Mer Soleil Silver and Conundrum Red. For fans of brown spirits, Zacapa 23 and XO were on hand.
The combination of drink and smoke and fine food eased the comfort level of the room, and soon the space was filled with lively conversation and mirth as old industry friends caught up with one another and new faces were introduced.
Shortly after 7 p.m., guests funneled in the back of the space to watch Shanken present his Hall of Fame awards to the Class of 2012.
“This is a very special moment, a very special evening,” said Shanken to the tightly packed crowd.
Shanken started his speech by thanking executive editor Gordon Mott, saying the magazine’s success “couldn’t have happened without him.” He went on to offer a few highlights from the magazine’s twenty years, beginning with the popular Big Smoke events.
“We’ve done [Big Smokes] for 20 years,” said Shanken. “We’ve done them in 16 different cities, and over the years, more than 250,000 people have attended.”
Next, Shanken spoke about his charitable affairs, in particular his Night to Remember charity dinners and Els for Autism pro-am golf tournament he created with pro golfer Ernie Els. He said the Night to Remember dinners have raised more than $20 million for prostate cancer research, while Els for Autism has taken in $4 million to help fight autism.
The microphone was then handed over to former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani offered an anecdote about how he first started smoking cigars, a story that involved his father forcing him to smoke a White Owl in an attempt to get him to stop smoking, which drew plenty of laughs. The mayor then said some solemn words about the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, and recalled the time when Shanken put him on the cover of Cigar Aficionado, which was only a few months after the tragic events.
After Giuliani concluded his speech, Shanken then moved on to “some serious business:” the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Before starting the ceremony, though, Shanken wanted to mention Carlos Fuente Sr., the sole-surviving member of the original Hall of Fame class, which was inducted in 1997.
First up was Carlos “Carlito” Fuente Jr., president of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia, the maker of more than 30 million cigars in the Dominican Republic, including the highly-acclaimed Fuente Fuente OpusX brand. Shanken spoke about Fuente’s cigar accolades, which includes being the first cigarmaker to successfully grow wrapper leaf in the Dominican Republic and having the Cigar of the Year in 2005. Fuente received his Hall of Fame plaque and spoke briefly, thanking Shanken and the crowd.
Hendrik “Henke” Kelner, president of Tabadom Holding Inc., which produces Davidoff and Avo cigars, was then honored. The head of the ProCigar association took to the stage and recalled the story of when he first met Shanken in 1987. Shanken acknowledged that his time with Kelner played a key role in the inspiration of the creation of Cigar Aficionado.
It was then time for Robert Levin, president of Ashton Distributors Inc. and Holt’s Cigar Co., to receive his plaque. Shanken introduced Levin, telling the audience how Levin started his career in the industry at the tender age of 11 sweeping the floors of his father’s cigar store. Shanken also noted Levin’s tireless political efforts working with the Cigar Rights of America organization to protect cigar smokers’ rights.
Shanken then introduced the Cuban-born Benjamin “Benji” Menendez, the senior vice president of General Cigar Co. Shanken spoke about how Menendez has rolled cigars in nearly every cigar-producing country, from Cuba, Nicaragua and Honduras, to the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Brazil and the Canary Islands. Shanken remembered his first interview with Menendez in which the latter talked about how Fidel Castro seized his family’s holdings.
After Menendez kindly accepted his award, José Orlando Padrón, the chairman of Padrón Cigars Inc., was then honored. Shanken told the crowd about Padrón’s accomplishments, including being the first three-time winner of Cigar Aficionado’s Cigar of the Year. Padrón then gave a heartfelt speech in Spanish while his son Jorge translated. The elder Padrón said the “history of Cigar Aficionado is one of the most beautiful histories he knows” and gave credit to Shanken for revitalizing the cigar industry.
Next up was Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, the owner of EPC Cigar Co. and the former owner of the La Gloria Cubana brand. Shanken started to tell the story about the first profile on Perez-Carrillo that he published in the second issue of the magazine. At the time, Perez-Carrillo was rolling La Gloria Cubana in a small factory in Miami. Shanken had visited the factory and fell in love with the brand. After the magazine ran the profile on Perez-Carrillo, the cigarmaker told the crowd that he came to his booth at the industry trade show the next day only to see a line of eager retailers ready to buy his cigars.
It was then time for Nestor Plasencia, the owner of Plasencia Tobacco, a cigar empire that Shanken said spans Nicaragua and Honduras, to receive his plaque. Shanken spoke about how Plasencia emigrated to Nicaragua from Cuba with his tobacco-growing at the age of 15 after losing the business to Castro. He talked about how Plasencia helped re-build the family business, which now employs 5,000 people who roll more than 25 million cigars for some of the industries biggest names.
Shanken then honored Manuel “Manolo” Quesada, the owner of Manufactura de Tabacos S.A., owner of Casa Magna, the 2008 Cigar of the Year. Shanken talked about how Quesada was the first cigar manufacturer to work out of the Santiago Free Trade Zone when he built his factory there in 1974. Quesada received his award, but not before crediting Cigar Aficionado with creating the cigar boom of the 1990s.
The last Hall of Fame recipient was Josè Seijas, retired vice president and general manager of Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd. in the Dominican Republic, considered to be the largest cigar factory in the world. Shanken highlighted how Seijas was responsible for many innovations in that factory, which produces famous brands like Montecristo, H. Upmann and Romeo y Julieta, including the idea of dividing workers by the brands they roll.
After the ceremony, the crowd spread back out into the rest of the Grand Havana Room. Drinks were refilled, cigars were relit, and the revelers continued the celebration into the wee hours of the night.