It was almost 12 years ago when I first had an Avo Uvezian cigar. I was on a business trip in downtown Chicago and ordered it from a cigar menu after dinner back when restaurants in the Windy City still allowed you to smoke and actually provided table side cigar service. I even convinced the waitress to ring it up on the bill as dessert so that it wouldn't look questionable on my expense report when I got home. This, of course, was before I worked for Cigar Aficionado. I recall it was a Domaine Avo Robusto. Believe it or not, I still have the band. Yes, I collect bands. Call it a form of philately combined with a generally geekish instinct to collect things. No matter.
That evening, I was dining alone, as I often do, and drifting a bit while smoking. Back then, even though I was a cigar smoker, I didn't know the story of Avo Uvezian's musical career and certainly never thought that nearly 12 years later I'd be dining with the man, much less celebrating his birthday. But that's exactly what I did last week. Uvezian turned 87 years old (or years "young" as Avo insisted) on Thursday. And, as has been the custom for Avo since 2001, he released a limited-edition anniversary cigar in honor of his birthday. The party was 39 stories above ground level at Manhattan's Grand Havana Room and even though there were plenty of Avo cigars being passed around during the celebratory dinner, I was really holding out for the Dominant 13th, which was the main cigar of the evening. Named after a complex jazz chord, the Dominant 13th is a 6 inch by 52 ring smoke made by Davidoff with mostly Dominican tobacco, a bit of Peruvian leaf and an Ecuadoran wrapper.
The dinner in New York kicked off Uvezian's promotional tour. Even at 87, he'll be visiting five more cities until May, but this is always the grandest event and actually falls right on Avo's birthday.
Jim Young, the North American president of Davidoff, took the microphone and announced to the room of about 75 people that the Avo brand is Davidoff's second best-selling cigar after the White Label. Avo makes up 20% of the company's cigar sales. I didn't know that, but it makes sense. There are plenty of smokers who have the taste for Davidoff cigars, but not necessarily the budget, so it seems to me that the Avo brand satisfies that demographic without sacrificing quality. Still, Avo Uvezian is by no means a cheap cigar.
Glynn Loope, executive director for the CRA (Cigar Rights of America), offered everyone at the dinner a free one-year membership to the organization and warned that cigar dinners such as this could be a thing of the past if cigar smokers aren't more politically active. He may have brought some preachy fire and brimstone to the evening (especially with his southern accent), but sadly Loope is right. By my observation, John Q Cigar Smoker isn't really an activist by nature. He's just a guy who likes to smoke in peace and always has been. Conversely, antismoking groups are very organized and well practiced in activism and zealotry. This leaves the cigar smoker two options: take up the cause, or lose the right—an unfortunate decision, but that seems to be where we're heading.
High above 5th Avenue, puffing away in the Manhattan skyline, we as smokers are still not completely safe. Even Avo seemed a bit annoyed. "What the hell is going on here in New York where you can't even smoke in a park," he asked indignantly after taking the microphone. I don't think it was bluster either. He was genuinely incensed but only briefly, and snapped back into a festive mood. At 87 years "young" he looked good, and is very pleased with the Dominant 13th.
Believe it or not, Avo prefers thick ring gauges over thin ones. I always thought this as more a modern taste, but during dinner Avo told me the he believes the thick ring gauge acts as a filter, making the cigar taste better. I'm not sure I exactly grasp the physics of that concept, but he's the one who has been in the cigar business since the '80s, not me.
Dinner was appropriately tasty: Saffron marinated shrimp with grilled polenta followed by filet mignon in peppercorn sauce, truffled mashed potatoes, crisped horseradish—both courses scored by Chappellet Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Chocolate truffle cake was dense and fudgy. In between cake and a Domaine La Tour Vielle Banyuls Rimage Port, I lit up the Dominant 13th and asked Avo what he thought.
"I draw from bales and bales of very aged tobacco. It's very expensive to blend a cigar this way and only a few companies can afford to be sitting on so much valuable tobacco," he said. "As soon as I tasted this last year, I knew it was good, but needed time to become great. I've already tasted the 88th for next year. Mind boggling."
I wanted to tell Avo about my first experience with his cigar. About the angst I had traveling just two months after September 11, 2001, and the angst I had in general, and how smoking his cigar that November diffused some of that anxiety. But I didn't. They rolled in another cake for Avo despite serving dessert and after his speech about traveling the world as a musician, he was busy signing cigar boxes and shaking hands. So I just took the band off the cigar and put it into my pocket. I'm saving this one.