• U.S.

What This Country Needs

5 minute read
James Willwerth/Laguna Niguel

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS AT THE sumptuous Ritz-Carlton hotel in seaside Laguna Niguel, Calif., a string quartet played Bach as 157 men in black tie — and three elegantly dressed women — gathered around a long banquet table to indulge in their shared passion. Among them were company presidents, politicians, entertainment celebrities and Marine Corps generals. The champagne, lobster ravioli, rare filet mignon and ripe cheeses they savored were but pleasant distractions from the evening’s true purpose. Sealed from the hotel lobby and society’s opprobrium beyond, these “lovers of the leaf” were happily turning the air blue with the smoke from their premium cigars.

A good cigar was an accessory of manly success for at least a century. Prominent puffers included Winston Churchill, Al Capone, Groucho Marx, Jack Kennedy, even Sigmund Freud and Vladimir Lenin. Then came the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on the perils of smoking and a sea change in American attitudes toward tobacco that eventually pushed sales into a steady decline. Cigar fans faced not only dirty glares but also signs and waiters telling them to butt out of public places.

But premium cigars have somehow remained aloof and lately have been staging a clandestine comeback. High-priced brands are selling at twice the levels they were 15 years ago. According to the Cigar Association of America, annual sales of cigars costing $1.25 or more have jumped from 50 million in 1974 to 100 million.

Much of this success can be explained by the same demographic phenomenon that has helped so many other luxury products: the emerging class of wealthy baby boomers who have apparently concluded that fine cigars complement the country house and the wine collection. And as luxuries go, even the classiest cigars are a lot more affordable than, say, a new BMW. In addition to the boomers is a core group of veteran smokers who simply like the rich experience a good cigar provides them.

While the general public and the Surgeon General still hold their nose, savvy marketing men have taken note of this trend. Marvin Shanken, publisher of the successful Wine Spectator, plans to launch a quarterly magazine, Cigar Aficionado, and fill it with ratings, taste tests and snob appeal. What evidence does he have that it will succeed? “I’d like to tell you I did serious market research,” he admits. “But I’m a cigar lover. I just decided to do it and hoped I could find 20,000 guys out there like me.”

Preliminary data suggest numbers that are even better. About 38% of upscale cigar buyers are also millionaires. Better than 4 out of 5 own at least two cars; nearly two-thirds collect antiques; 60% wear a $500-plus watch, while 90% traveled abroad in the past year. This type of demographics can lure a lot of upscale advertisers.

The cigar’s lineage goes all the way back to Christopher Columbus, whose sailors took a liking to West Indian tobacco, rolled into palm or maize leaf, which they then took back home. Spanish nobles picked up the habit, and merchants spread it to the rest of Europe. By some accounts, Spain took more wealth out of the New World in tobacco than in gold and silver. In the American colonies, the cigar became a symbol of winner-take-all capitalism and flinty frontier grit.

While tobacco was the cash crop of choice in many parts of the New World, 20th century smokers singled out Cuba as the prestige producer of quality cigars. When the U.S. placed an embargo on Castro’s communist economy in 1962, the forbidden Cuban premiums took on mythical qualities. For the truly devout, the mythic Cuban cigar has a heavy and rich aromatic taste that generally milder and sweeter cigars from the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Jamaica cannot match.

Sadly, Cuban cigars fell victim over the years to socialist mismanagement. The island’s wrapping handicraft declined, and its tobacco fields produced inferior leaf because they were no longer properly fertilized or allowed sufficient time to lay fallow. So uneven is the yield that two years ago, Switzerland’s Davidoff company, which profited handsomely for decades from Fidel Castro’s crop, pulled up its Cuban stakes.

Cigars have a tobacco “filler,” an internal “binder” and an outside “wrapper.” Low-priced stogies are made of chopped tobacco filler, machine wrapped with rolled sheets of pulverized leaf, water and natural gums. Around 2.3 billion machine-made cigars are sold in the United States, down from 9 billion in 1964, when Americans briefly substituted cheap cigars for cigarettes in the wake of the Surgeon General’s report.

Premium cigars, unlike machine-made cigars, are constructed of whole tobacco leaf compressed by hand into the “long” filler, which is held together by whole-leaf binders and wrappers. Serious smokers debate tobacco blends and cigar construction almost as passionately as wine lovers worry about tannin content. Consolidated Cigar executive vice president Richard L. Dimeola offers some tips to the novice: if it draws too easily, it was “underfilled,” and the air pockets will cause a fast burn and a hot smoke. If possible, check the cigarmaker’s “leaf inventory.” If the company isn’t stocking enough tobacco to skip a bad harvest, its smokes will be uneven over time.

Secure as they are among their own kind, cigar worshippers must suffer in a world increasingly hostile to their habit. Even if you’re smoking a good cigar, observes Dunhill executive Dickson Farrington, “you can’t walk into a store in New York off the street or get into a cab. I’ve heard about company presidents whose wives won’t let them smoke at home, so they volunteer to walk the dog.” The standoff probably suits both sides. Endangered male traditions continue to endure behind closed doors, allowing the rest of the world to breathe easier.

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