A non-smoker wanders into a gathering of cigar enthusiasts to see what the fuss is all about
I’m not just a non-smoker; I’m a non-smoker who grew up as anti-smoking campaigns revved to a climax, and Brooke Shields appeared in television ads saying, “Eeew, if you smoke anywhere near me, my hair will smell gross.” I bought her line. I can account for maybe 10 minutes of my life spent experimenting with cigarettes, and I’ve found the unpleasantries to outweigh the benefits.
I acknowledge that whichever celebrity appears on the cover of Cigar Aficionado magazine in a given month is certain to look ultra-cool wielding the leathery stick of rolled, brown leaves with one end aglow. But still, I’ve never really understood the appeal of smoking tobacco. Especially cigar smoking.
My policy, however, is not to officially knock something until I try it. On a recent afternoon, I found it no trouble at all to roust a handful of members of a local cigar club to leave their offices by 3 o’clock and assemble on a friend’s black leather couches to give me the lowdown on what, in fact, is so fantastic about lighting up a stogie. The Wednesday Afternoon Cigar & Strategy Group was formed in 1998 by a bunch of guys in a collective bad mood skipping out of work on a bad day with a mission to kill an entire bottle of Cuervo Reserva de la Familia tequila. At some point, they sobered up enough to file LLC papers. The company’s mission statement says something about the group’s commitment to liver abuse and the pursuit of leisure. But mostly what it does is maintain the Web site at www.cigarweekly.com, hold weekly get-togethers and organize an annual gathering of cigar enthusiasts.
“Cigars are one of life’s pleasures, really,” says Paul Sonia, a mortgage broker and active club member who’s dressed for business in an ironed shirt.
David Dehls, managing editor of the Web site and designer of broadband systems, is becoming one with the couch. Whatever concerns the world has in store for him on a daily basis seem to have evaporated for the moment once he and his pals have lit up. For the moment, there’s all the time in the world to muse over every cigar-related detail one could think of: how and where the tobacco is grown; how different humidity levels yield different properties in the leaf; the ins and outs of wetting, fermenting and bundling the tobacco. There is a seemingly infinite amount of information to be collected about cigars, and the guys take great pleasure in discovering it, churning it and savoring each detail.
The gents unanimously decide a mild Macanudo 1997 Petit Corona would make for an appropriate introduction. Rick Saling, a car salesman in a long-sleeved Street Vibrations T-shirt, hands me a cigar after cutting off its tapered end.
“Heat up the end first. Hold it at a 45-degree angle,” says Dehls, a large guy with a voice as calm as a psychiatrist’s. He’s eager to share his knowledge with even the greenest of amateurs.
“Now you put it to your lips,” says Sonia.
“Just like you’re drinking out of a straw,” adds Dehls.
Dehls notices my cigar is not evenly lit. He moves his leather-covered chrome lighter around to compensate.
The accoutrements hold a lot of appeal. Dehls’ shiny chrome travel case holds three cigars and matches his lighter. It’s beautifully crafted and contemporary but hearkens gently to an indulgent, Art Deco aesthetic. It’s much like the polished-wood humidors, the cutters, the graphic layout of cigar magazines. Sonia pulls out a small butane torch of the sort chefs use to carmelize the tops of crème brulee. His buddies tease him, but just a little; they all delight in its excess. Of course, there’s the aesthetic pleasure of the cigar itself; its color and texture rival those of chocolate and fine paper, and a close look at the cut end of a cigar reveals fanatical commitments to horticulture and product design.
I haven’t been smoking fast enough, and my cigar is going out.
“Just draw on it,” Dehls advises as Saling shows off his aptitude for blowing smoke rings. “You just put the smoke in your cheeks and around your tongue. The thing to remember is you taste with your tongue, not your lungs.”
“Go like this,” adds Saling, taking a hearty puff and swirling smoke in his mouth. “Kind of like you’re gargling with the smoke, then you can taste it on the edges of your tongue.”
I accidentally inhale. I conspicuously drop a little ash on my black T-shirt. My cigar needs to be re-lit a couple more times. Eventually, I get the hang of it and get what I think is probably the right-sized mouthful of smoke. It tastes earthy, leafy and strangely humid. I’m not hooked, but I understand the fascination. Fussing over the details about taste and texture, comparing a flavor to hundreds of flavors you’ve had before, strikes me as a perfectly good way to spend one’s time: This one tastes like that sunrise at Pyramid Lake; that one, acquired by the case, is to be smoked on the anniversary of Mom’s death; this other one goes great with diet cola.
Cigar smoking is a sensory experience combined with a social experience. It’s similar to enjoying and discussing a good bottle of wine. Comparisons to wine tasting come up frequently, in fact. Some of the descriptors for cigars’ flavor subtleties—“spicy,” “peppery,” “nutty,” “cedary”—will ring familiar to wine drinkers. Not only do cigar smokers, as a group, tend to relish life’s other pleasures—www.cigarweekly.com’s million-plus discussion threads range from food to Scotch to photography—but cigar smoking is largely about connoisseurship. There’s much delight to be taken from the details of a cigar’s vintage, its origin, who smoked which with whom on which special occasion.
It’s also an excuse for camaraderie and community. Club members gather regularly to wager their most prized cigars over the poker table. On a larger scale, they’re in the process of amassing several hundred donated cigars to send to troops serving in Iraq.
That was Steve Lewis’s idea. He’s a slender guy with a buzz cut, wearing a red plaid shirt buttoned to the neck. As a Navy social worker who’s gone on several week-long missions to assist troops serving in Iraq, he’s found that carrying a stash of cigars makes his job easier.
“The troops aren’t really excited when a mental health worker comes by,” he says. “There’s a stigma to seeking help. So I always bring a stash of cigars. I use them as an ice breaker. … And it’s something to do in the evening to give us a bit of a break out there.”
Cigar smoking seems to be as much about the ritual as the actual smoking. Cigars do deliver a nice, mild tobacco buzz, but the smokers I met get more of a kick out of purchasing and collecting cigars and assembling friends to ignore the concerns of the world outside their club (or, sometimes, embrace them—arguing politics is a favorite pastime).
It’s a lot like whatever might transpire when a group of friends quests for the perfect cup of French roast coffee, a fancy pot of Japanese tea or a well-crafted microbrew.
As for me, though, I think I’ll take Brooke Shields’ advice and let my hair smell more like shampoo and conditioner than burning plant matter.