By Tad Gage
Beyond all the basics, there is a "certain something" about cigars and fine tobacco that captures our interest and passion. A cylindrical roll of well-aged leaves and the drifting blue smoke of a fine stogie tell part of the story, but not the full story. In the end, tobacco is as much about enjoying the moment and making memories, as it about the smoke itself. Not every cigar or situation will yield a memorable moment, but if you keep your eyes, ears and taste buds open, it’s surprising how many times a fine cigar can also yield a fine memory.
Fine dining is similar, which is why, I think, the words "dining" and "experience" are so often used together. I recall one meal where I asked the waiter to compliment the chef on my appetizer, and received in return a delicate pair of rabbit livers (not on the menu) along with my rabbit-venison-quail entrée. The company was good, the restaurant top-notch, but getting that rabbit liver "thank-you" is a fond memory that has stayed with me for 20 years.
Enough about food. Well, except for a fine meal Cigar Chronicles Associate Editor Greg Pease and I had in San Francisco years ago where we picked apart a delicious meal like food critics – another fine memory.
[Editor’s note: Our senses of taste and smell are tied together. (Think of a time you had a cold or stuffed up nose and couldn’t taste anything.) Keep in mind that Flavor = Taste+Aroma. The power of an odor to trigger memories and emotions is remarkably strong. In fact, signals from our olfactory region (in our nasal cavity) travel directly through the limbic system, which is the part of our brain responsible for memory and emotions. For this reason it appears, smells can prompt amazingly vivid memories and trigger extreme emotional responses from people …Read more at Tobacconist University. Keep this in mind while you read about Tad’s fond memories and recall your own.]
My first cigar was smoked in Toronto at a banking convention in 1982. Tubed, machine-made H. Upmanns were handed out. Nothing special, in retrospect, but I’d never smoked anything before, so it was a new experience. Confident I would hate it and would probably get sick, but eager to try, I spirited my cigar, a box of wood matches and a cheap plastic cutter to my room after dinner. It was heaven. It took several years of sorting through cheap cigars to arrive at a better place. At the same time, I worked my way through cheap pipe tobacco and mediocre pipes, searching for a similar first experience of Nirvana. My father-in-law smoked and loved his pipes, but with his cheap pipes and pipe tobacco, he was in no position to school me on quality tobacco.
Once I latched onto fine tobacco after several years of floundering around, clueless, there was nothing to stop me! I was finally able to match and exceed the quality of that first cigar (there’s never anything quite like your first, though, is there?). At the same time, I added new memories that are etched into my memory.
I immersed myself in fine cigars, fine pipes, and fine pipe tobacco. My memories of some of those cigar moments are as sharp as if I had them burned on a DVD.
Breakfast at a small restaurant in the Dominican Republic, sipping café con leche, smoking a lean and elegant Cuban Cohiba Lancero. The morning coffee complemented the creaminess of that Cohiba, and truly made breakfast unnecessary. I made up for it with subsequent meals.
Sampling a roughly rolled cigar made from air-cured but as-yet-unfermented tobacco outside a tobacco barn at one of the fields from which A. Fuente Company regularly harvested. This is a process growers and manufacturers routinely use to determine how the harvested leaf tastes, how it will dry and age, and how good the quality is. Like vintners who can taste a grape and know just what it needs to be developed into a fine wine, It takes quite a palate to make the leap from tobacco in this form to a fully cured, fully processed and aged leaf: but that’s what makes these folks so good.
The sun shone brightly and despite the heat, the breeze was cooling. The rough cigar was remarkably sweet, more like aged Virginia pipe tobacco than cigar leaf. As a crowd of ever-present Dominican chickens clucked around me, I enjoyed myself immensely, until, about a third of the way through the cigar, I was pounded by the nicotine and resins and nearly fell off my bench in a sweaty, nicotine-induced coma. Carlito Fuente and others around me had a hearty laugh, and I got a first-hand lesson in the skill it takes to create a fine cigar from start to finish.
Last winter, I heartily enjoyed the ship’s cigar lounge during a Caribbean cruise. The financial manager from New York; the entire wedding party enjoying cigars (including the bride-to-be) and getting stoked for an island wedding later in the week; the trio of youthful cigar smokers who were deejays and songwriters, anxious to learn more about what makes a good smoke; and a few guys taking a much-needed respite from seemingly endless shopping excursions with their spouses.
All great experiences I would never have had without the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of the leaf.
The cigar memory doesn’t have to be exceptional. While I too often take this for granted, I greatly enjoy puffing a cigar in my own home, with my wife enjoying and commenting on the quality of the aroma. She has told me a cigar smells wonderful, and she has also told me when a cigar stinks and I need to take it outside or put it out. And damn, she has a good nose, because in most cases when she tells me a cigar stinks, I am not really enjoying it, either. Perhaps you’ve had a great smoke in the garage, or on the deck, playing the most pathetic golf game of your life, or while walking the dog.
I recall a "street smoke" with my wife, and an old friend and his wife. We couldn’t smoke inside, but it was a lovely evening and we all enjoyed a smoking stroll following a fine Italian meal. My old friend and I haven’t talked lately, if for no other reason than we’re just incredibly busy, but the memory is mine, for as long as I wish.
Enjoying a new (to me) brand of cigar in a local cigar lounge, surrounded by friends and watching the PGA, drinking and sharing Scotch whisky brought by an old friend. Discussing and analyzing that cigar until the cows come home. Having a simple cigar at a smoke shop in an unfamiliar city, by myself, while watching other people I don’t know having a grand time sharing their thoughts about their cigars, their work, and their lives.
I wish it was still possible to enjoy a good cigar after a great meal at a steakhouse, as I’ve made many fond memories smoking fine cigars and having stimulating conversations with good friends after a meal.
Part of making new memories is making new friends. A great place to do this is a cigar lounge or even a modest sitting area at a smokeshop. I almost always try to make a new acquaintance or two. Sometimes it’s a one-time chat, and sometimes it leads to a new friend or a familiar face the next time I’m in the lounge. This is one thing pipe collectors do exceptionally well; cigar smokers less so. Whether at shops or shows, pipe smokers will often strike up a conversation.
What’s exciting about enjoying fine tobacco with others is that it can bring together people who would never otherwise meet. We frequently move in our social and professional circles, which by their nature tend to exclude fascinating people who move in other circles. I’ve built friendships with musicians, teachers, doctors, psychologists, sales reps, computer technicians, construction foremen – people from all walks of life whom I never would have otherwise encountered. And we often find a great deal of common ground once we get talking. Many of these folks have become long-time friends.
Although fond memories and friendship technically have nothing to do with cigars, they also have everything to do with cigars. No wonder "primitive" peoples (and I use the term loosely, because while they didn’t have computers, they do things like hunt and gather to feed their tribes, and that’s more than I can do!) considered tobacco sacred and used it as an important vehicle for ceremonies, celebrations and bonding.
I invite you to comment and share your great cigar memories, and, as your Cigar School homework assignment – keep an eye out for making new ones.
|Tad Gage is the author of the best selling Penguin Books "The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars," in its second edition. The book has sold over 40,000 copies worldwide, in three languages, and is available in stores and online distributors. Tad has made cigar connoisseurship accessible to beginners and veteran cigar smokes alike. He is delighted to answer questions through CigarChronicles.com. Just comment below.|