1996 Las Vegas Big Smoke

Well, I just got back from Las Vegas and I have to tell you, if you want to attend a Big Smoke sometime next year, this is the one to go to. Coming from someone who knows a little bit about them, I think this one was the quintessential Big Smoke. A weekend of fun, friends and cigars.

The space available was unbelievable. There was so much room in that place (Bally’s) it actually didn’t look like there were 1500 people there Friday night, but there were -- both Friday and Saturday night. During the day Saturday, one could attend any number of special seminars, ranging from a question-and-answer panel to how the rating of cigars is done by the Cigar Aficianado staff. Then on Saturday night, we joined in the fun again for another Big Smoke. Sunday morning we once again had the opportunity to attend a variety of specialty seminars.

Let me take some time here to discuss each of the events, because this was a unique weekend. First of all, the Friday Big Smoke. As I said above, I thought the space used for this event was outstanding. After attending all of the Big Smokes except for three since they started, I think I have a right to discuss the accommodations. Folks, this room was built for the Big Smoke! Unlike most of the rooms used, this had a seating area which was great. People sat around talking, smoking, sorting and examining their goods. What a great place to meet and make new friends. The gang was all there. All the major players seemed to make it to this weekend. There were only a few missing this time. Sometimes because of their busy schedules they can’t attend all of the Big Smokes. There were new manufacturers there along with the regulars. It was truly a great time.

Saturday morning and afternoon offered something very special for those of us who attended. In the morning we had three different programs. The first one was presented by George Brightman who is the Director of Business and Marketing for Cigar Aficionado. Not only is he good at this job, but he is truly one of the most knowledgable men in America about premium cigars.

George worked in the retail business of cigars for many years before joining Cigar Aficionado. He is, without a doubt, a man who truly knows what he is talking about when it comes to cigars. I have had the privilege on several occasions to sit with him at his office or over a meal and enjoy his company, and most of all, his love and knowledge of cigars.

On this occasion, he addressed the issue of purchasing premium cigars in today’s competitive market. If anyone knows and understands the shortage of cigars, it would have to be George. George offered ideas about getting through these days of empty shelves and back orders by buying intelligently. He pointed out the need for loyalty to our tobacconists as well as patience in understanding what we are all going through since this boom of cigars has begun. George reminded us that there are many brands out there which we should be trying from time to time when our favorites are in short supply. In addition, he wisely encouraged us to purchase our favorite cigars in numbers that we could store for those dry days ahead. He spent most of his time fielding questions from the crowd which was made up of a cross section of cigar related people, i.e. retailers, manufacturers, aficionados, etc. As I listened to the questions, it became obvious to me that more and more people are getting stressed by the shortage of cigars. In fact, there was an article in last week’s Wall Street Journal addressing this very issue.

The second speaker was Carlos Fuente, Jr. His topic was what makes a cigar great. As I have said before, if you ever get the chance to listen to him speak, you really need to make the effort to get to it. This man is as pumped up as I have ever seen anyone get about cigars! I thought I could get pumped up, but after listening to Carlos, I don’t come anywhere close to how excited and pumped he gets. In every word he spoke, one could get the sense of his deep passion and love of the cigar. His voice would echo with excitement and enthusiasm as he told us of his love of the cigar which has been handed down to him for four generations. He spoke about those things we often fail to consider when we are relaxing and enjoying our favorite cigar. Things like the soil, the land itself, the wind, the sun, the hands that love the tobacco leaves into the premium cigars. All of these things and more were wonderful thoughts about what makes a cigar great. But there was one thing that came across loud and clear. That was the fact that all of those natural components are lacking in potential if the tobacco farmer and cigar maker do their work without passion, love and consistency.

In fact, Carlos mentioned the soul once. It was obvious that the level of love and passion for this kind of work must rest in one’s soul if they are going to be successful for any length of time. It was clear to me that this passion is deeply rooted in his soul. About a hundred years deep in fact. That’s when his family began making premium cigars.

The third program in the morning was an interesting look at techniques used for comparative tasting of cigars and how experts rate cigars. This presentation was facilitated by Gordon Mott, the Managing Editor of Cigar Aficionado magazine. On the panel with him were several other experts: Hendrik Kelner, the president of Tabacos Dominicanos, which makes such brands as Davidoff and Avo; Benjamin Menendez, the Vice President of Operations for General Cigar Company, which makes such brands a Macanudo and Partagas; and James Suckling, the European Bureau Chief of Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator magazines.

This presentation started off with Gordon discussing the proper way of clipping and lighting a cigar. He then discussed the techniques of rating cigars by the Aficionado tasters. He pointed out the language that they developed in the recognizable tastes of various cigars, as well as the times and places they rate them. These details included such things as time of day, number of cigars tested in a given time frame, how the palate was neutralized before smoking again, what they would drink between cigars like water and coffee, how the tests were actually done blind, and how they gave their overall impressions of the cigars. Each of the panelists were given ample time to respond to various questions about the tastes of cigars from the side of manufacturing them. In other words, what things influence the taste of cigars while the tobacco is being grown, aged, fermented, and actually used to roll cigars. To say the least, this was truly an interesting discussion. Once again, with each new event, one could get a deeper and deeper appreciation for our love of cigars by all the continued information that was being made available to us.

After an incredible lunch buffet, and I do mean good, we returned to the presentation room for the last event of the day before the Big Smoke evening. This was a panel of people in various levels of the industry. The questions were moderated by Marvin Shanken, the man behind the Big Smoke itself. If you didn’t already know it, Marvin is the publisher of Cigar Aficionado magazine.

Many things have happened in the last few months and years in the cigar world. Many of you who are just getting started may think that this cigar boom has been going on a while. Not so. Cigars were a thing in this country enjoyed by those of us who have smoked for a while without all the media. I, for example, have smoked premium cigars for about twenty years now. Most of the people smoking cigars today did not start till just recently. Most have become interested in cigars because of what Marvin did back in 1992. At that time he took a big risk by publishing this new magazine called Cigar Aficionado. As a result of his publication, all of a sudden the cigar world was a new thing, something very different than the last fifteen or twenty years. Believe me, I know about that part of it; I was smoking cigars in the 70’s and 80’s already. The next thing you know, there is this huge cigar boom in our country.

Many people have taken advantage of this renaissance and are riding the wave of success on it. I’ll be the first to admit that I myself am one of them. However, I think it is only right to acknowledge the person who is really responsible for this cigar renaissance, and that is Marvin Shanken. Therefore, before you start thinking that cigars have always been like this in our country, think again. Marvin has done more good for the industry, the consumer and our society in accepting cigar smokers in public, than anyone in recent history. So, if you are like me and you are getting to ride the wave of cigar success, just remember who that person was that got the wave up and running to begin with.

As I started to say, Marvin moderated this panel which consisted of the following people: Ernesto Perez Carillo, who owns and manufactures La Gloria Cubana; Edgar Cullman, Jr., the president of Culbro/General Cigar Company, who manufactures Macanudo and Partagas; Diana Silvius Gits, the owner of the Up Down Tobacco Shop in Chicago; Nicholas Freeman, the chairman of Hunters and Frankau in London, which exclusively distributes Cuban cigars in the U.K.; Richard DiMeola, the president of Consolidated Cigar Corporation, which manufactures H. Upmann and Montecristo; and Curt Diebel, the owner of Diebel’s Tobacco Shop in Kansas City. Needless to say, this was a fun-filled afternoon. There were questions everywhere. Each of the panelists had opportunities to answer questions and to add comments to any of the points that were raised. Marvin would often ask additional questions to get greater detail from the panel on various matters. All in all, this was a very informative session. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough time to get to everybody’s question.

On Saturday night we had the second Big Smoke evening. Let me tell you, this was just as good as the first on Friday night. Again, lots of room and lots of great people! There was something confirmed for me at these Big Smokes while in Las Vegas. When Cigar Aficionado wrote an article about me in the last issue, the author Terry Fagan noted that now-a-days, the high point for me at the Big Smoke is seeing all my friends, the Cigar Aficionado staff, and the Cigar Manufacturers. I have to tell you, this weekend certainly confirmed that fact. I missed seeing all these people over the summer months. The fun, the friendship, the stories, the time we get to spend together. It was sure nice having that back.

Sunday morning we once again could choose any number of presentations we wished to attend. The list of available topics was overwhelming, making the decision difficult at times. There were four sessions: 9:00 to 9:50, 10:00 to 10:50, 11:00 to 11:50 and 12:00 to 12:50. The list to choose from was as follows: Lands that grow tobacco, Coffee tasting, California Cabernet Sauvignon tasting, Poker and Blackjack, Humidification, Cognac tasting, Hunting, Golf Lessons, Vintage Port tasting, Casino perks, Craps, Buying a custom suit and Single Malt Scotch tasting.

Now that is what I call a Big Smoke weekend! As I said at the beginning, if you are wanting to go to a Big Smoke, this is one that you should put on your calendar now. It’s more than simply an evening with cigars and friends. I was really impressed by the events staff people that made this happen. Let me tell you, I go to enough of these to know the inside scoop. I also know how much work these people put into making something like this fly. The Las Vegas Weekend was way beyond the normal scope that these people provide at an average Big Smoke. But I have to say, it was, without a doubt, the best Big Smoke experience I have ever had.

I hope you get the chance to go to one in your area, but if you can, this one is a must if you really love cigars! If any of you are reading this these next few days and are planning to attend the Big Smoke in San Francisco, be sure to stop me and let me know. I hope to see you all at one of the future Big Smokes!

Keep Your Smoking Holy!