The Magazine That Almost Didn’t Happen
Thirty years ago, in 1992, Marvin R. Shanken created Cigar Aficionado magazine. It was one of hundreds of magazines launched that year and the only one devoted to cigars. Few people believed it would last. The American cigar market appeared to be dying, with sagging sales, an elderly customer base and little in the way of innovation or change. But the magazine found an appreciative audience and helped spark a revival in the cigar industry, bringing newfound attention to the world of cigars. Thirty years after its launch, Shanken sat down in his corporate boardroom in New York City with his executive editor David Savona to reflect on the history of Cigar Aficionado. The interview began over Montecristo No. 2s rolled in 1993, Cuban cigars that were nearly as old as the magazine, and a copy of the original issue sat on the table. Shanken shared stories from the past, including the never-before-revealed tale of how he almost cut a deal that would have made it impossible for him to create Cigar Aficionado.
Q: What inspired you to create Cigar Aficionado magazine 30 years ago
Shanken: I went on a trip to Cuba in 1991 to do a cover story on Cuban cigars for Wine Spectator. It was one of the most exciting and memorable experiences of my life. On the airplane coming home, it just came into my head that I don’t want to die without having a cigar magazine. I never really thought through what it would be—although initially I was thinking of a newsletter. But I did want to have a publication specifically for the cigar lover, thinking that it was a small audience that I’d be catering to, but the people would be passionate, as I am, about cigars. When I came back, I talked to my team, I got them all in a room and I told them about my dream, my vision. Every person that was there said it was a lousy idea. There had never been a cigar magazine and I shouldn’t do it. I’d lose money, and I’d hurt my reputation. I rejected their consensus and decided I was going to do it. As time went on—as I shared the idea with more and more people, nobody really said to me, ‘great idea Marvin.’ I was a member of a YPO [Young Presidents’ Organization] and every month a different senior executive—there were 14 of us—would give a presentation and I decided I would present a mockup of the magazine. Every one of them said not to do it. Each man that was in the group was a cigar smoker, and every woman in the group said their husband was a cigar smoker. Some of them even had cigars in their briefcases that day. And I ended up reprimanding all of them, saying they’re not risk takers, and they don’t get it, and I was going to show them and demonstrate to them what an entrepreneur was all about.
Q: Even the cigar smokers didn’t think it was a good idea?
Shanken: They didn’t appreciate the passion that a cigar smoker has. Nor that there could be enough to support a magazine.
Q: Did any of this criticism make you question your decision?
Shanken: No, it made me angry. And I became more and more obsessed with coming out with it.
Q: Did you do any market research?
Shanken: Not really.
Q: Who were you writing for with this publication?
Shanken: Me. In all my publications, I always am trying to create a magazine cover-to-cover that will please me and turn me on. I was the target reader! Cute story: when Gordon Mott [former executive editor] was in your position, he would try and push me to do a cover on a certain category or individual and I would say ‘no, I’m not interested.’ He would try to convince me, and I would say, ‘Gordon, if you want that person on the cover start your own fucking magazine.’ You were there, right?
Q: [laughs] Yes, I remember.
Shanken: I wanted only things that pleased me. That’s why the letters section in the magazine is not ‘Dear Editor,’ it’s ‘Dear Marvin.’ It’s a very personal thing to me. And this was a very personal journey I was taking that was going to fulfill the need I had to share the joy of smoking a cigar with fellow travelers.
Q: When you held that first issue in your hand—this first issue—what did you think?
Shanken: I thought it was beautiful. I was so proud of it. [He takes the magazine from the table, begins flipping through its contents.] I was hopeful that cigar smokers who found the issue would have an emotional connection to it, as I did. And from day one, the magazine was financially successful. It’s unheard of in publishing but the first issue made money and every issue since. It’s always had great support from advertisers and incredible interest from readers. I think the print run on the first issue was an astonishing 100,000, and it went to a lot of people for free, and many of them subscribed, and it ended up having an incredible paid circulation from the very beginning.
Q: How did you build that readership?
Shanken: Having the Wine Spectator as a sister publication helped. Because a lot of guys who collected wine who had money travelled and enjoyed cigars—or wanted to learn about cigars. That helped me develop the circulation. But it really became word of mouth and it got a tremendous amount of publicity. We had a launch party that a lot of superstars attended. In 1994, I had Rush Limbaugh on the cover, and Rush Limbaugh was a phenomenon unto himself but he started talking about the magazine and me because he loved cigars too, and he and I ended up becoming very close friends. He also deserves part of the credit for building awareness for the magazine. Today, Cigar Aficionado has a circulation of a quarter million, and a total readership of one and a half million or more readers around the world. There have been knockoffs of Cigar Aficionado in different countries, as a result of our success, but none of them have reached scale.
Q: Was it always going to be called Cigar Aficionado?
Shanken: No. I think we had a working title of ‘The Humidor,’ which didn’t turn me on. And I was reading an old column—I had started writing a column on cigars in Wine Spectator [in 1984] called ‘I Love A Good Smoke.’ And in one of the sentences in the article I wrote something about being a cigar aficionado. In those days, most people had no idea what aficionado meant. When I saw ‘cigar aficionado’ I said ‘that’s it.’ People said they couldn’t pronounce it, they couldn’t spell it and they didn’t know what the hell it was, but I loved the name because we are cigar aficionados and it stuck.
Q: Did you advertise? How else did you build the magazine?
Shanken: I did everything. In 1993, I started an event called The Big Smoke. I had no idea if anyone would come. It was supposed to have one session, at the Marriott in New York. I ended up having two sessions, 3,000 people, all smoking cigars, drinking whisky and having a good time, completely sold out. We took that event all over America. There was a lot of publicity about the magazine. We promoted to all the cigar shops. The Internet really wasn’t available then. It rose very quickly. It was like a moment in time, and it really accomplished a great deal in a short period of time. After a few years, many people knew about the magazine’s existence even if they didn’t smoke.
Q: What got you into cigars?
Shanken: I went to the University of Miami, and I had a professor who was Cuban, and I became fascinated with the country. I would go to her home after school and sit there and she would tell me stories about her home country. She would talk about tobacco and cigars. I had been smoking Hav-A-Tampa Jewels, machine-made cigars with a wooden tip. They were five for a quarter. To me, that was cool. Once in awhile I would have a Royal Jamaica, which was handmade. Later, as I travelled internationally, whenever I would go to a bar, have a drink, relax, if there was a fellow there that was smoking a cigar invariably we’d start talking. There was a kinship, a friendship that developed—unlike if you were just two guys sitting there. If you had a cigar, you bonded. That made me love cigars even more. It was a gateway to expanding friendships with strangers from other countries.
Q: You found that cigars fostered friendships—what was the reaction when you would smoke a cigar in the office before you created Cigar Aficionado? Were you welcomed in the office much like you were welcomed in the bars with other cigar smokers?
Shanken: Um—probably not [laughs]. I had my own office, I had vents, an exhaust system and walk-in humidors. I used to smoke in my office and in the conference room, and I used to get reports that I’m stinking up the whole office. A lot of the employees objected to it. But I thought in those days it was OK, and they’d have to learn to live with it. And if they didn’t like it, it’s a free country. But I wasn’t going to give up cigar smoking. Today, I am much more sensitive to others.
Q: You mentioned a walk-in humidor—you had one in our previous offices on 387 Park Avenue South.
Shanken: I moved there in ’87, and we built out the space, I think the floor was 15,000 square feet. And in the board room I had built a walk-in humidor.
Q: This was unusual—not everybody has a walk-in humidor.
Shanken: Very few people. So when the office on 387 Park was being built, one day I go to check out the construction and there was a white-haired man in my boardroom without my knowledge or permission, looking in the humidor, which was set up with the drawers, but we hadn’t moved in yet so there were no cigars. I said, ‘excuse me, who are you and what are you doing here?’ He introduced himself, he said ‘my name is Edgar Cullman Sr., I own the building, and I also own a company called General Cigar, which is the largest cigar company in the United States’ [laughs]. And we became good friends. In fact, I negotiated the lease with a guy named John Fletcher. When I was ready to sign the lease, this very detailed document, I negotiated as part of the deal 25 boxes of cigars a year. And John thought I was joking, he said ‘sure,’ and when we were ready to sign I said ‘where is the clause?’ He said ‘you’ve gotta be kidding.’ I said ‘if I don’t get the 25 boxes I’m not signing this lease.’ He then added the clause.
Q: This is 1987, so this is prior to Cigar Aficionado. The other day you told me of something else that happened in 1987—you took a trip to the Dominican Republic.
Shanken: This, I don’t think anybody knows: I was so obsessed with cigars, my original dream was to own a cigar brand. I was going to have produced, by a cigar factory, a handmade cigar that was blended to my taste. A friend who was a marketing genius in the spirits industry, Michel Roux, who created Absolut Vodka, was going to partner with me. I think we registered the name Tabacalera Imports or Trafalgar Square Imports, I don’t even remember. We flew down to the Dominican Republic, and we had three appointments with cigarmakers, one in particular, who I’m not going to mention, but he’s still alive, to taste their cigars and strike up a deal, and then figure out how to import and sell them. And I was going to advertise them in Wine Spectator. We landed, I think it was on a Monday. I get to the hotel and I get on the phone and I call my wife Hazel, and she said ‘you have to come right back.’ I said ‘I just got here, we have appointments.’ It turns out it was Black Monday, October 19, 1987, when the stock market crashed. It was the largest one-day-decline, over 20 percent, in the history of the stock market. We had a six-month-old child at home, Jessica. Her nanny called in sick. Hazel was a stockbroker, and she had to call her clients regarding margin calls, which means call her customers, people who had bought stock on margin had to send in cash immediately or their stocks would be sold out at a loss. So she had to go to the office. I had to fly back—I never, ever, got to the cigar factories. And the dream of having my own cigar brand ended. Had I had my own cigar, I never would have had a cigar magazine, because that’s a conflict of interest. You can’t produce wine and have a wine magazine, you can’t produce cigars and have a cigar magazine. Because I didn’t import and distribute a cigar brand—I was a publisher—when I went to Cuba for the first time that’s when I decided OK, I’ll express my passion for cigars not by blending a cigar but by creating a magazine for cigar smokers.
Q: So if not for that stock market crash this magazine may never have happened?
Shanken: For sure. It would not have happened, I can tell you as a fact. A lot of my friends in the cigar industry are going to be surprised to read this story. I’ve never told this before to anyone.
Q: Let’s talk about some of the groundbreaking things about this magazine: Cigar Aficionado has always reviewed cigars. Was that always part of the plan?
Shanken: Yes. What’s crucial to understand about the process is that all of our reviews are done blind. It’s following the technique that we also use in Wine Spectator. By tasting and rating blind, a reviewer is not influenced by the brand name, the price, or anything else. It was obvious that that had to be the technique for Cigar Aficionado. In the beginning, there was a lot of controversy because nobody in the cigar industry wanted me to review Cuban cigars. One of the major cigar companies, the president was adamant about not advertising if I was ‘supporting Cuban cigars,’ by reviewing them. I was just trying to guide the reader to try and find cigars that were worthy of his enjoyment. And I later learned he had never, ever smoked a Cuban cigar. I just wanted a level playing field. There were a lot of Cuban cigars that got great scores, and others that did not. But to me, all cigars deserved to be treated equally.
Q: What did the Cuban cigar industry think of the process?
Shanken: They were just happy to be included, because they weren’t getting any press. Cuban cigars, then and now, weren’t legal [in the U.S.] I would get them basically from London where I used to go all the time, and had an office, or on the many trips I went to Cuba over the years. You and I are right now smoking Montecristo No. 2s from 1993, which are from my collection. One of the great benefits from launching the magazine is I started getting phone calls from people who had older boxes of Cuban cigars they wanted to sell. In those days, a box of Cuban cigars might be worth $50. They didn’t know what to do with them, so they would call me, and quite often I would buy them. One day I got a call from the ‘21’ Club. New York had just changed the law and prohibited cigars from being smoked in restaurants and the club owner said to me ‘do you know anyone who would be interested in buying our cigars?’ I used to go there all the time. They had a great humidor with a lot of cigars from famous people that would keep their cigars there. And I said ‘hang on, I’m interested and I’ll come over.’ They had a humidor room with over 10,000 cigars. I identified 3,750, mainly Cubans, quite a few pre-Castros and a lot of boxes had the name of famous persons who were now dead. The oil barons, the railroad barons, ‘21’ was a club where a lot of famous, rich people went. I calculated what I was willing to pay for them and how high I was willing to go. I started at a low number. It was a lot of money, but it was low, with the idea he would negotiate with me to a higher price. He said to me ‘that sounds fair.’ It was a lot of money, but it wasn’t a lot of money for what I was getting. I said, ‘OK, I’ll send a truck over tomorrow.’ I couldn’t wait to get my hands on them. I’ve smoked many, but many are still in my collection. It was an extraordinary moment—had I not come out with a cigar magazine, the guy never would have called me, and if I heard about it after the fact and someone else bought them, I would have gone into a deep depression.
Q: Are you still buying cigars?
Shanken: When you’re a collector, the limit is how much can you afford to buy. I never said no to a great cigar deal. And therefore my inventory is quite substantial. I’ll never be able to smoke them in my lifetime, but it’s what happens when you’re somebody who’s passionate about something.
Q: You’re also a collector of humidors—do you want to share stories about some of those special humidors behind us?
Shanken: The most famous, not necessarily the most valuable, is the JFK humidor, which I bought some 25 years ago at Sotheby’s, when they were selling the Jackie Onassis collection. When you add the sales tax, and the commission for the auction house, that humidor cost me $650,000. Don’t ask me where I got the money, but my wife Hazel, who was sitting next to me, looked at me like I had lost my mind. And I had!
Q: The world went nuts for that.
Shanken: The media attention from that was incredible. That purchase led to a phone call from a lawyer representing the estate of Winston Churchill. He said the family had a remarkable humidor that was given to Winston Churchill from the Cuban government in 1941. It had only been in Churchill’s hands, and was owned by his family following his death. His heirs were interested in selling it privately. So a lawyer representing the family came to see me, and he showed me pictures of it. The plaque on the front of the humidor says ‘To the honorable Winston S. Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain, from the Democracy of Cuba.’ An extraordinary piece of history. They rejected my first offer as too low. It took five years to negotiate the purchase. They finally agreed to my original price. There’s also an autographed humidor of Fidel Castro, who I interviewed in 1994. So on the row, is Fidel Castro, Winston Churchill and JFK. The only room in the world with those three humidors! Pinch me.
Q: Castro appeared on the cover of Cigar Aficionado in summer of 1994. The magazine was not even two years old—and you get an interview with Fidel Castro. How did that happen?
Shanken: My dream was to interview Fidel. In his 60 years I think he gave a total of three interviews. I explained the benefit to the Cuban government officials. There were four important products of the Cuban economy: nickel, sugar, tourism and handmade cigars. The first three were commodities, and the only luxury product was cigars. I wanted to have a discussion of the importance of cigars to Cuba. And they came back and said OK. And I flew down a few times, and they would tell me, ‘It’s going to happen, wait in your hotel room and they’ll come get you.’ I went down at least three times. I had been going on a regular basis to do articles and research, and to visit the tobacco fields and the cigar factories. After a few trips, I got very frustrated. Then, someone high up in the government said, ‘We’ll make it happen.’ So, again, they told me to go to my room, wait in my room, it was late at night, really late, it was dark, it was rainy. There was a knock at my door, and they came to get me.
Q: Who came to get you?
Shanken: It was a representative of the Cuban government. And they brought me downstairs, there was a group of people waiting for me. They put me in an old Mercedes, driving in the middle of the night, and they took me to the Palace of the Revolution, which is this huge administrative building. They drove me into the basement, where the garage was. I get out, and they led me to an elevator, and the elevator takes me up I don’t know how many floors. I get out, and there’s this anteroom where they search me. Then, they take me down a long hallway, and on either side are soldiers in uniform standing at attention with rifles and bayonets, like I’m in a war zone. I go down this long hallway and there’s a door on the left, and there is the office of the president of Cuba, in his army uniform, sitting at his desk, he stands up and greets me.
Q: What’s going through your mind?
Shanken: I’m so excited I think I died and went to heaven. It was a real coup. So we ended up having this long, friendly discussion. I made jokes, we had fun. I did not feel intimidated. We went through everything, cigars, policy in Cuba, to the Russian missiles in Cuba and on and on. He answered every question. The entire interview was taped, but some parts were never published. I was told he was not going to pose with a cigar, because the Minister of Health didn’t want to have photos of him smoking a cigar in public anymore as he was setting a bad example. Cuba had a serious smoking problem especially with cigarettes. I brought a box even though I was told not to, and I was determined to get a picture of him with a cigar. I had my own photographer there. I brought a box of Cohiba Esplendidos. And this is near the end. So I put my face in the box. [Opens a box of cigars, begins inhaling dramatically.] And I stuck my face in it. [inhales] ‘Oh! It’s like being in a cigar factory! The aroma, the bouquet. It’s fantastic!’ And I took one out and I said, ‘Here, just smell it!’ And so, he grabbed it, he loved cigars, he put it to his nose—my photographer snapped it, one frame, one shot. He said, ‘You tricked me!’ And then he laughed. And that one frame became the cover of the magazine. It was the shot of a lifetime!
Q: Was he mad?
Shanken: No, he was—I think he was amused that I was unrelenting in my desire to have him with a cigar.
Q: What kind of impact did that have on Cigar Aficionado?
Shanken: It was written up everywhere. There was a full-page writeup in the Sunday New York Times, among many others. There was so much controversy going on with Cuba, and here this literally unknown little hobby magazine was getting something so extraordinarily exclusive. Years later, I was on a shuttle flying from Washington, D.C., back to New York. And by circumstance I ended up sitting next to, in the back of the plane, Michael Wallace, who was one of the anchors of ‘60 Minutes.’ We started talking, and he said, ‘I hate you,’ with a smile. I said ‘What do you mean you hate me?’ He said, ‘You stole from me. I had been working on the interview of Fidel Castro for 10 years. Ten years. I couldn’t get it. You got it. I have three copies of that issue in the bottom drawer of my desk at the office, and whenever I look at it I get sick.’ I must admit that conversation made me feel very proud.
Q: Was the Castro interview one of the biggest things in the history of Cigar Aficionado?
Shanken: Absolutely. We didn’t have the circulation and the readership we have now. When I came back, there were a number of Cuban American people who were really upset. In fact, there was one Cuban chef in a restaurant a few blocks from our office. I was having lunch there. He has the issue of the magazine, he throws it on the ground next to where I was sitting, eating lunch, and called me a traitor. Weeks later, he called me to apologize. The older generation of Cuban Americans were upset, but their children were not. They wanted to see an opening up of relations, and they thought that their fathers’ approach hadn’t worked. The problem was not between the people of Cuba and the people of America—it was between the governments. Both are obstinate in their own positions, and it’s easy to understand America is trying to get rid of the communist regime. The Cuban people are stuck with it—it’s not their fault. The hope is that someday, one day we can be friendly with our neighbors, and the country of Cuba can move on and become a democracy. I, personally, have had only good relations with the Cuban people. They are well educated, hard-working and kind in my mind.
Q: Cigar Aficionado’s Cuba coverage has been controversial—what if you had bowed to the pressure of those who didn’t want you to include Cuban cigars?
Shanken: I would not have published the magazine. It’s like when I took over Wine Spectator, it had only written about California wine. I immediately changed it. Wine is wine. And I wanted to cover quality wine from anywhere in the world, and to be able to educate my reader, whether it’s wine, cigars, whiskey or anything else. So I have to have a level playing field and I have to be able to evaluate whatever is produced. Otherwise we’re just promoting one wine region—or one cigar region—and that’s not journalism. That’s something else.
Q: Compare the cigar market in 1992, when you started Cigar Aficionado, to the cigar market of today.
Shanken: The market itself in America was going through a slow death by 1992. Handmade cigars were steadily declining in sales. The people who smoked cigars smoked the same cigars, there was no experimentation, there was no discovery. Through the magazine, cigar smokers were exposed to other cigars. Let’s say there’s somebody who smoked a Dominican cigar. They found out about other Dominican cigars. Then they found out about cigars from other countries. And over time they began to experiment and explore, and they would read about a cigar, seek it out and buy it. Now, you go to 90 percent of all the cigar smokers’ humidors today and it’s not one, it’s six, or 10 different cigars. It’s a 180-degree reversal. Now, the big complaint is I can’t buy it, or maybe it’s too expensive. People today don’t smoke or drink one narrow category. They want to be able to enjoy and grow through the appreciation of tasting different products.
Q: How have cigar shops changed?
Shanken: For the most part, most of the cigar shops 30 years ago were smaller, and they had a limited selection. They were very small businesses. Today, the stores are much bigger, if you don’t have a smoking lounge and TV you’re at a disadvantage. They have special events for their customers. They have special offerings of cigars. Occasionally, a cigarmaker will visit. Today, cigar shops are fun to visit—a great place to meet and make new friends. And for those who want to venture out, we created an adult Disneyland, The Big Smoke. People walk around this huge ballroom, thousands, and are able to try different cigars and whiskeys, meet new people, become friends—and it’s a lifestyle. We do it in Florida and Nevada. It’s great for the cigarmakers, because they get to meet their customers and make new friends, and the Cigar Aficionado reader gets to try a breadth of cigars we write about. It’s a win-win for everybody.
Q: In 1992, there were 443 magazines launched. Most are gone. Why is Cigar Aficionado still here?
Shanken: Because cigar smokers appreciate it. My hope is that if somebody subscribes to the magazine, or buys it on the newsstand, they take it home and they set it on the table and they wait until the weekend when they have more leisure time, take the time to enjoy the magazine. With Cigar Aficionado, I think people make an emotional connection. They may not read every page but they’re interested in what’s on every page. And they have a thirst to learn more. I’ve always said I’m not in the publishing business, I’m in the education business. As long as my reader wants to learn, we’re there to serve.
Q: Cigar Aficionado surprised a lot of people. Did it surprise you?
Shanken: The truth? It didn’t surprise me. I really didn’t have any expectations. I was doing it for me. It’s an obsession I had. Sure, I hoped it would reach enough people. The first magazine got out there, but the question was would they subscribe? Would they send a check? I’ve always said in publishing, it’s like politics. There is an election every year, and the reader votes. If they vote yes, they renew. If they vote no, they don’t renew. Every year we’re up for reelection. If we do a bad job they’ll vote us out of office. So far we’re winning every election.