Smoker's Delight

Our six hand-picked aficionados share a fine meal and swap the finer points of lighting up with style.

Handmade cigars are not now, nor were they ever, rolled on the thighs of Cuban women, though generations of men have entertained that fantasy while staring through wine-heavy eyelids into the white haze from fine cigars.

Except for the sparkle of gold and silver jewelry, the women wear black: chic dresses that showcase a phalanx of slim legs. The guys are well turned-out in dark suits. It's a stylish crowd, rendered more so by that conspicuous consumable of the fin de siecle, the handmade cigar -- a product that says of its user, "I have money to burn and I know how to burn it."

To take the pulse of this pricey and hedonistic trend, I've invited eight seasoned, savory smokers to Patroon for a nutritionally incorrect dinner of meat, alcohol, and tobacco. They're all standout businesspeople who know how to work hard and play hard: the world's leading restaurant and hotel designer; two of America's most resoundingly successful restaurateurs; a go-go investment banker; the marketing genius who imprinted the Absolut silhouette on the collective subconscious; a literary agent just off the plane from a meeting with Bob Dole; a television producer specializing in comedy from Jerry Seinfeld to Milton Berle; and a beautiful, glib, Harley-riding retail-design consultant.

Our mission: to cut through the billows of hype that shroud the art of cigar-smoking, and to share our knowledge on the identification, acquisition, and consumption of the top-of-the-line, handmade cigar.

While we drink a pre-prandial scotch (Macallan's 18-year-old is the group's universal choice), proprietor Ken Aretsky calls for a round of cigars. Inasmuch as the house cigars are proffered and lit by the Keeper of the Humidor Room, Christina Lahara, most of us accept one of her Canaria D'Oros, a Dominican Rep. maduro whose dark wrapper belies a sweet and mild smoke.

"Unspeakable shit," pronounces architect/designer Adam Tihany, deftly opening our discussion of who smokes what -- and why.

Cuba, Si?

"Given the choice, would you smoke anything but a Cuban cigar?" I ask the group. A full answer to that question, it turns out, goes straight to the critical questions of taste, availability, price, and quality.

"There are very fine Dominican and Honduran cigars," says Tihany. "But if you go to the first-class lounge of American Airlines in London or Geneva, you'll see guys peeling the labels off of Havanas and stuffing them into their luggage so they can get them past U.S. customs. What better endorsement is there for Cuban cigars?"

As any serious cigar smoker will tell you, Cubans are available in the United States. You just have to know who to ask and who to trust, because you could easily wind up puffing on a counterfeit. Fake Cubans are like fake aristocrats at a rich debutante's coming out: they look good, but their stories don't check out.

Design consultant Jeanette Bronée has a trustworthy source: her Cuban-born, world-traveling husband. Like many women, Bronée started smoking during the past year, as the cigar vogue really caught on. Her decision to light up was, at first, a social one. "The guys would smoke after dinner and the women would just leave," she says. "I wanted to join in on the fun, so I asked for a cigar and I liked it. And I like the hanging out part."

To her left, restaurateur Drew Nieporent, a Friar Tuck of a man, passes around an unlit Onyx No. 852, a Dominican Rep. cigar. It stinks like a manure heap on a hot night. Once lit, however, it has a sweet and silky aroma.

"I can't tell you how many times I've been disappointed by Cuban cigars," he reflects with the ex cathedra air that seems to naturally emanate from a cigar guy caught in mid-puff. "All I care about is a well-made cigar. Nothing frustrates me more than an expensive cigar that goes out when you put it down because it's too loosely rolled. Cohibas (Castro's favorites) have the opposite problem. They're often too tight, too hard to draw: you have to suck and suck."

"Well if the brand isn't a guarantee," I interject, "then how do you know if a cigar is any good?"

"You don't, at least not definitely," Nieporent replies. "Still, you can get a feeling. You look at a cigar like you look at a loaf of fresh-baked bread. It has an edge, a patina. It looks sharp, like a good Punch or a Davidoff -- really well made cigars at their peak."

The group generally agrees that apart from innate good taste, the connoisseur of cigars learns to rely on suppliers as much as instinct. If your dealer knows your tastes, you've got a better chance of finding a high quality, well-made cigar.

Steve Crawford, a rail-thin banker with the preppie grace of the captain of the lacrosse team, characterizes the world of cigars as a marketplace: a seller's market for the name brands, leaving undervalued opportunities for the canny shopper. He too decries uneven quality, blaming it, paradoxically, on the soaring popularity of fine cigars.

"I've been smoking for five years, and I'm struck by how inconsistent the quality is in general," Crawford remarks. "A few years ago, the Licenciados Toro (a marvelous Dominican Rep. that achieved an Olympian 93 rating in Cigar Aficionado) was a reliable smoke. Then the marketing machine got hold of it. Demand soared, outstripping supply. The result? It's not the same cigar anymore."

Crawford has a point. There are too many smokers all clamoring for the output of a few thousand acres of prime tobacco land, most of it in Cuba's Vuelta Abajo and most of the rest in the Dominican Republic's Cibao River valley. It's as if all the drinkers of fine wines were competing for the global output of an area no larger than Napa Valley.

"It's not just the Cubans whose quality is affected," says Tihany. "It's as difficult to get a Fuente OpusX or a good Avo (Dominican Rep.) as it is to find a Cohiba or a Montecristo. There is simply not enough product. Cigar Aficionado has a lot to with it. They publicize a brand and the public snaps it up. But in the end it's the tobacco. You can't grow that much great tobacco on an island the size of Cuba or the Dominican Republic."

The waiter sets before us bowls filled with steaming risotto, shot through with slithery golden chanterelles and covered with thick shavings of white truffles, the color of honeyed marble. They smell like autumn in Tuscany. Something in the mix, or the conversation, summons forth a reminiscence from Michel Roux, who's smoked great cigars since his days as a paratrooper in the French Army.

"A few years ago I was at a dinner given by the U.S. Marines, and I offered the commanding general a Cuban cigar," Roux recalls. "He lit it and began to smoke. I asked if smoking a Cuban didn't make him feel just a bit unpatriotic. He replied, 'When I was a young officer my commandant told me that the first thing you do to your enemy is you burn his crops.'"

How Much Should I Pay?

The cigar smoke, a beautiful 1994 syrah from Ojai Vineyards, and the ambrosial truffles combine for a few moments of sensory overload.

Then Steve Crawford resumes his explanation of the market dynamics of mondo cigarro. "The frenzy over the brand names isn't all bad. The people who are driving up the cost of brand-name cigars are the same people who go into the humidor and pick cigars based on price. That leaves a good selection for the rest of us, because price and value aren't the same thing." He expels a gray puff of smoke from a Griffin's Robusto, which at $6 a stick isn't cheap. Even so, it doesn't approach, say, a $16 Davidoff Aniversario No. 2.

Literary agent Mark Reiter, Crawford's neighbor at the table, has been smoking cigars for the past 10 years. "When I first started smoking," he recalls, "I wouldn't let myself spend more than $3 for a good cigar. Five years ago you could do that. Then the Cigar Boom hit. A good cigar now runs at least $5 or $6. The $3 cigar still exists. It's just harder to find."

My brother Bob's experience is similar. While he smokes only occasionally, he plays golf in L.A with a number of dedicated puffers. "These guys have a lot of money," he says. "They can afford to smoke anything at any price. But when a $5 cigar becomes an $8 cigar becomes a $20 cigar, even they refuse to pay those kind of prices. It's not the money, but it is the money."

I raise a point that came up in conversation earlier in the week with Andrew Paul, sportsman and legal counsel to financier Paul Tudor Jones. "When 28-year-old bankers have $30 to blow on a cigar and a fussy drink," said Paul, "there's way too much money around. I'd say it means the market is about to blow out."

We all give a whistling-past-the graveyard laugh and move on to our steaks.

I Paid A Lot. Is It Real?

Michel Roux has a cache of vintage wine and cigars that far exceeds his capacity to consume it in a single lifetime. He also has the air of a man who appreciates the good things in life so deeply that you don't begrudge him his treasures. Instead, you instinctively want to consult him as a pleasure guru.

"You can spend fair market price for a Cohiba or a Montecristo," he interjects (even if "fair" is the monthly salary of a platoon of Cuban cane cutters), "but are you getting what you pay for? There's a tremendous amount of counterfeiting out there. If people hear that Romeo y Julieta is best, then they want Romeo y Julieta. The guy in the cigar store knows this and tells you he has a private stock in the back. This appeals to you as a connoisseur, but so many people really don't know enough about the taste of a good cigar to know if it's the real thing. "

Roux quickly adds that he's not saying that every cigar store owner who says, "Psst, I've got Cuban cigars" is a counterfeiter. Many of them will supply you with legitimate black-market cigars. "But I really wonder," he says as if he doesn't really wonder at all, "how many shops who sell Cohibas are selling the real thing?"

Nieporent looks up midway through his steak, his aspect very much like John Belushi's in Animal House -- just before he stuffs an egg in his mouth to start the food fight. "Cohiba is probably the most counterfeited cigar," he says. "How can you tell? Check out the band. A fake Cohiba band looks about as real as a counterfeit dollar bill with Reagan's picture on it."

Battle of the Brands

Michel Roux can smoke anything he wants. So I ask him, "What does the guy who can smoke anything choose when he wants a great cigar?"

Roux replies with the assurance that all Frenchmen naturally posses in affairs du couer, (and cigar smoking, like a love affair, is a matter of desire and affection).

"You know, it's something of a paradox that on the one hand everyone talks about the scarcity of good cigars, and on the other hand there are more and more expensive brands than ever before. It's very confusing. I've been to the Avo plant, I've seen them made, and I have confidence in them. Don Linos are always reliable. I also like a cigar made in Honduras, Flor de Florez. In the end, though, I'm prejudiced towards my friends' cigars," he adds aphoristically. "It's a sign of true friendship when someone gives you a cigar. It's a great gesture -- unless of course it's a King Edward."

Point taken. We've all brought cigars to pass around. This profligate cigar-swapping is a trade-nexus as effective and widespread as blanket-giving among the Kwakiutl Indians of the Northwest Coast. As a giver, you acquire a reputation for the munificence of your gift. The recipient acquires a great variety of goods. Gift-giving probably accounts for cigar smokers not evincing the brand loyalty of cigarette smokers. Wine drinking is a better analogy: there are a few wines that you like very much. You'll be offered many others. Some of these you'll really appreciate.

While the group has expressed a sense of not being taken in by the mystique of Cuban cigars, in the end it all rings as hollow as a beauty contest judge who carries on about "inner beauty." ("Inner beauty never got anyone a prom date," Erma Bombeck once told me.) Case in point: as the waiters set dessert before us -- which after all the alcohol, meat, and tobacco just had to be a cholesterol-rich crème brulée -- Tihany produces a handsome humidor.

We gather round as he opens it. The smell of rich tobacco emanates from within, in the way that I imagine miraculous light would pour forth from the Ark of the Covenant. Rather than Holy Writ, there are cigars in all shapes, none of them with labels. Though we have the whole world of cigars to choose from -- those we've brought as well as Patroon's considerable store -- we're all a bunch of cigar sluts when confronted with Tihany's top-of-the line Havanas.

I push back from the table, pat my expanding stomach, and join my fellow smokers in a haze of bonhomie. We're moving on to the next part of the classic program -- the jokes.

Nieporent begins. "So this eight-year-old millionaire walks into a whorehouse ... "

Peter Kaminsky (pkaminsky@aol.com) writes the Outdoors column for the "New York Times" and the "Underground Gourmet" column for "New York" magazine.

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"Light Me Up"

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