Driving in my Car, Smoking my Cigar

February 22, 2012 · Posted in Cigar 101, Deep Thoughts · 2 Comments 

Allison Krauss’s haunting voice is singing Trampled Rose, the windows are down and the speed of my car is increasing. It may be sunset but this is Southern California where the yins and the yangs are extreme opposites. Sure, the taxes are murder but the weather is amazing.

If I lived in Minnesota or some other place that is in the running for a scenic “White Christmas” photograph I couldn’t do what I do most days after work: smoke in my car. It may be a little impractical and I definitely am not getting the best out of the cigar but that misses the point. Smoking a cigar on my drive home from work is pleasurable; a ritual that brings a little bit of joy to my heart.

This certainly isn’t for everyone. If you have a nice car that you do not want to despoil or you have to chauffeur people who cringe at the mere thought of the smell of finely aged tobacco then you probably shouldn’t be smoking in your car. People with short commutes, an inability to multitask and those who “feel a need for speed” may also want to think twice about lighting a cigar before they start their car. Oh, and those poor bastards who start their mornings by scraping ice off their windshields may also be excused from smoking a cigar in their car.

I’m not going to BS you and say that I’m smoking great cigars while driving, far from it. There’s no reason to do that because your mind should be at least nominally on the road and not on your cigar. Why smoke an Opus or an Avion 11 when you can’t dedicate more of yourself to it? It just doesn’t make sense emotionally or financially.

By no means am I suggesting seeking out crappy cigars to satiate your vehicular smoking habit because there are some very respectable cigars that are very cheap. Recently I’ve been smoking a lot of Diesel Unholy Cocktails, Nestor Miranda 1989s and Joya de Nicaragua Antano Machitos on rides home from work (and while walking the dogs, but that’s another story). These are solid cigars that are a joy to smoke sitting at home while listening to music or reading a book. They are also strong enough to withstand the elements.

Even though this is Southern California and the weather is great it can still get a little cold. Some nights it feels like the temperature drops all the way down to the high 50s when I have my windows rolled down! Weak, pathetic cigars won’t offer much under ideal circumstances but when you add in the wind, the (relatively) cold temperatures and the fact that you are driving a vehicle they just aren’t worth the trouble. By all means, if you accidentally came by some really awful cigars that you dread smoking then you can smoke them while driving or, better yet, “gift” them to somebody you don’t like.

Another tip I have for this would be to smoke a cigar that you are familiar with. Familiarity is great in this circumstance because you won’t have to devote much brainpower to deciphering the flavors of the cigar; you already know the recipe. It’s also a good idea to smoke cigars with good smoking characteristics: i.e. a good draw and burn. It takes a modicum of skill to correct a recalcitrant burn line while cruising down the 5. (Alright, it takes more than a little skill to do that and doing just that almost ended up with me rear ending somebody. Incidentally, the smell of burnt rubber doesn’t go well with cigars.)

Driving in my car while smoking a cigar is a ritual I have come to really enjoy. It may not be for you but, then again, you may find out that you really like it.

The Vicissitudes of Cigar Ratings

January 8, 2012 · Posted in Cigar Community, Deep Thoughts, The Perfect Draw · 1 Comment 

With the Top Cigar List season coming to an end (it officially closes once I have published my list at some undisclosed date in the future – so check back regularly) I have been giving some thought to how cigars are rated. What really got me thinking about this was a conversation with a good friend of mine about the rating process followed by cigar reviewers. Take Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 List, which has some surprises and some really big surprises. How exactly did they come to their conclusions? How do any of us?

In Cigar Aficionado’s case they sampled over 700 cigars over the course of the year to come up with their Top 25. What this entails is the sending of their purchasing guy all over the place (e.g. New York because when you live in New York “all over the place” is limited to the Big Apple) and he (or, I suppose, she) procures Cuban cigars somehow. How they get Cuban cigars (do they smuggle them in via cigar mule or do they take the bus up to Canada to legally smoke Cubans?) is a wrinkle I haven’t completely figured out but they have so that should suffice for now. I’m guessing the purchasing guy/gal will also search out other popular cigars but I’m not sure of that.

Anyways, after the purchasing is done the impartial purchasing man/woman will take the bands off each cigar and put new bands on for identification purposes. The tasters (side note: they have pretty cool jobs) receive the cigars and then smoke them. From what I’ve seen/read they will smoke each cigar under basically the same conditions; e.g. smoking in the office around the same time of day.

Ratings are given and then the process of whittling those cigars down begins. There are probably a few rounds of tastings that go on and this will eventually lead to a ranking of the Top 25, which has to be agreed upon by a committee of tasters. As far as I understand it that is their process.

For others, and by “others” I mean yeoman bloggers, the process is a different. Tastings aren’t blind, lists aren’t done by committee and the sample size is usually significantly smaller. Take me for example. I may smoke around 800 to 1,000 cigars in a year but I know what I’m smoking and the number of unique cigars is probably somewhere around 100 to 150 or so. Of those there are a number of “dog walk” cigars that don’t really stand a chance of winning any prizes. Taking that into consideration there are something like 60 to 90 (less are actually reviewed by me) cigars that are up for my Top 10 lists (2010 and 2009 lists for your reading pleasure).

With either system there are pluses and minuses. But that’s not what’s important here. With either system there are a number of potential pitfalls. Here’s a list:

Time Spent in Retailer’s Humidor: Even if you are the Cigar Aficionado boy/girl you have no way of knowing for sure how long cigars have been eagerly awaiting their emancipation from the B&M’s walk-in humidor. Maybe that Opus X has been resting comfortably for two years while that Fausto arrived last week. I could be wrong but I don’t think there’s a way to correct for this with much certainty.

Reviewer’s Mood: We all have good days and bad days. If I’m having a bad day that’s going to hurt the score I give to a cigar. That’s part of the reason behind my, and most other cigar bloggers, policy of smoking multiple examples of the same cigar before delivering an opinion. That doesn’t happen at Cigar Aficionado unless the cigar makes it past that first round.

Environment: Cigar Aficionado probably does a better job at controlling for this than most others but there’s no getting around the fact that the environment in which you smoke your cigars plays a significant role in what you think of that cigar. Cigars that you think are great on a warm June evening can become merely good when smoked on a brisk autumn evening. That’s especially the case if your baseball team has just missed the playoffs for the second straight year.

Storage: Even Cigar Aficionado and other such “official” cigar publications must run into this problem because there’s no other way for them to taste all those cigars other than having to store them on premises for a period of time. Once you do that there will be changes, however limited, to a cigar’s performance. If a reviewer stores their cigars in multiple humidors they will be stored in different environments. The differences may be small but there are still differences.

Cigars Previously Smoked: If you are smoking more than one cigar a day each subsequent cigar after the first cigar will be effected by the previous cigars you have smoked. You can cleanse your palate and do a rain dance but your taste buds have already been affected. At least my taste buds are affected for a couple of hours after smoking a cigar, which leads me to reviewing a cigar with as fresh of a palate as possible.

Food/Beverages Consumed: Smoking a strong cigar on a light stomach does nothing good for that cigar. Conversely, a big lunch will mute the impact of a milder cigar. Factor in the different flavors you get from food and drinks and there will be some effect on your taste buds.

Non-Blind Tastings: Cigar Aficionado and the like have this over on most cigar bloggers because they do blind tastings (that’s what they say and I believe them). Unless you are able to be completely unbiased there will be some kind of a bump given to brands we already like and demerits given to those cigars we haven’t liked before. Even though this is probably true to some extent I think we do a pretty good job of keeping our biases out of our ratings.

These were the factors that I was able to come up with but I’m sure there are others that I have overlooked. All in all, I think all of these top cigars of the year lists are true barometers of what reviewers objectively perceive as being the best cigars they smoked during the year. As cigar consumers it is our job, nay, pleasure, to find reviewers who share a liking for the same kinds of cigars that we like and use their lists and reviews throughout the year for purchasing ideas.

Online vs. Brick & Mortar Cigar Shops

April 26, 2011 · Posted in Cigar Industry, Deep Thoughts · 1 Comment 

A couple weeks back I had a conversation with one of the proprietors of StogieBoys.com, which is an online cigar retailer. He mentioned that he would like to write a piece about online versus brick & mortar cigar shops and I liked the idea. It’s a very thoughtful piece of writing and presents both sides of the debate well. In the end, there is a place for both. (By the way, if you place an order on StogieBoys.com during the rest of this month you need to put in the code “perfectdraw” to get 10% off of your order.)

Over the past several years a great deal of anxiety has developed over the retail channels used to sell premium cigars.  The angst has largely centered around online cigar retailers and brick and mortar shops.

For many decades, cigars, like nearly every other consumer product, have been sold throughout the U.S. via brick and mortar stores – mainly local cigar shops.  Over the past 15 years or so a new sales channel has begun to make considerable progress in the retail cigar market – online or internet retailers.  This success that has been enjoyed by internet cigar retailers mirrors the increasing success online retailers have had in nearly every retail category throughout the U.S.

As online sales of premium cigars have grown, brick and mortar supporters have increasingly expressed their dislike for the internet cigar channel.  The argument is generally that there is not a level playing field between traditional brick & mortar shops and online retailers, and that the online retailers put downward pressure on pricing, which makes it difficult for brick and mortar shops to compete.

The competitive pressures between internet cigar retailers and brick & mortar shops are very similar to the competitive pressures between retailers in nearly every other retail category.  Each channel and type of retailer is pressed to find a way to stay relevant and deliver value to its target constituents in order to grow and thrive.

It is no secret that retail sales via the internet in general have grown much faster than any other retail channel in recent years and this trend is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.  Consumers are becoming more comfortable buying online and from catalogs, and increasing capital is being invested in online advertising and technology to facilitate these transactions.  Forrester Research projects online retail sales to increase 10% each year for the next 5 years, exceeding $280 billion by 2015.

Below is a brief examination of the future of premium cigar retail sales and, more specifically, the divide that is perceived between internet retailers and traditional brick and mortar shops.  Internet cigar retailers are clearly here to stay, but brick and mortar shops are as well, at least the shops that adapt and compete effectively.

What are cigar smokers looking for in a cigar retailer?

Cigar enthusiasts are consumers like any other.  When they purchase premium cigars, like when they purchase any other consumer item, they look for convenience, value, quality and service.  They desire a simple, hassle free shopping experience and they want access to products that meet their needs and desires, at a good price.

With premium cigars, as with many other consumer items, there are a myriad of brands, sizes and products, and finding what you want or what meets your objectives is often a daunting task.  Cigar smokers are generally becoming more discriminating and more information hungry as they attempt to choose their brands and cigars from the long list of choices available.  As a result, many cigar smokers appreciate quality product information and assistance to make their selections easier and more meaningful.

What do premium cigar retailers need to do to compete?

Cigar retailers, like any other retailer, need to understand what drives cigar smokers to make their premium cigar purchases and they need to effectively meet those drivers to win the customer’s business.  They simply need to adapt and aggressively meet the needs of the cigar smoking consumer, and they need to do it in a cost effective manner.

Some of the drivers mentioned above are more significant than others in the eyes of cigar smokers, but retailers can use any or all of them to differentiate themselves and compete effectively.

What advantages do cigar shops have over internet retailers?

Local cigar shops have served and met the needs of lovers of the leaf for many decades.  They have built strong, loyal relationships with their customers and delivered excellent service and value. Below is a list of several significant advantages that these local shops have over internet retailers:

  • Ability to deliver highly personalized customer service to individual customers
  • Ability to build and maintain strong personal relationships with customers
  • Access to premium brands not available to internet retailers
  • Ability to deliver product to the customer immediately & no shipping/delivery costs to get the product to the customer
  • Ability to discuss, make recommendations and pass along relevant product information personally
  • Ability to provide a place for cigar enthusiasts to smoke and enjoy the camaraderie of other cigar smokers
  • Opportunity to display physical products to customers rather than photos and descriptions

What advantages do internet retailers have over local cigar shops?

  • Convenience of 24/7 shopping without customers having to travel to a store
  • Lower overhead and infrastructure costs for merchandising and selling, which may result in:
    • Ability to price products lower
    • Lower barriers to entry in terms of opening stores (minimal infrastructure investment)
  • Ability to carry a larger selection of brands and products
  • Opportunity to reach and sell to a larger, more geographically dispersed target audience
  • Ability for consumers to easily compare products and prices, and get relevant feedback from other consumers on specific products

Is there room for both online retailers and local shops in the premium cigar retail market?

There is plenty of room for both types of retailers now and in the future.  Both must be creative in meeting the needs of cigar smokers and differentiating themselves.

Each of these retail channels has meaningful advantages over the other and the strengths of one generally represent the weaknesses of the other.  The ability of each retailer to capitalize on their strengths and differentiate themselves from the other will determine the kind of success they enjoy.

What can local shops do to effectively compete with online retailers?

As noted above, brick & mortar shops have several advantages over online retailers.  Strong local shops that adapt to the changing market and the new type of competition that is being brought by online retailers will continue to be very relevant and will continue to thrive.

Some of the things that local brick and mortar shops can focus on to compete effectively include:

  • Deliver highly personalized service that is not available from online retailers – cigar lockers onsite, ability to try a cigar before buying, large selection of products that can be touched and seen before buying
  • Give customers good reasons to frequently come into the store and create more of a social destination
    • Possibly club type atmosphere
    • Provide a comfortable place for customers to smoke
    • smoking events, entertainment, manufacturer visits, etc.
  • Add other products that are complimentary to cigars, such as hookah, beverages, etc.

Cigar lounges are becoming increasingly popular among cigar enthusiasts.  They represent an excellent venue for cigar smokers to enjoy their favorite cigars in a comfortable atmosphere, along with other people who share their affection for good cigars.

Lounges represent an excellent opportunity for brick & mortar cigar retailers to develop a stronger bond with their customers and create frequent opportunities to get them back to their establishment.  They are also serving to get more people interested and involved in cigar smoking, which will increase the ranks of cigar customers in the future.  These lounges are also being well supported by cigar manufacturers, which has helped to mitigate the capital required to develop them.

In addition, increasing anti-smoking legislation is actually having a positive effect on cigar lounges across the country.  As the laws become more aggressive in limiting the places where cigars can be smoked (legally), cigar lounges provide one of the only public venues for cigar smokers to enjoy their smokes.

Cigar lounges should and will play a large role in the local cigar retailer’s future and will make them tremendously competitive.

Conclusion

Online cigar retailers are here to stay and they play a meaningful role in the premium cigar retail market.  Many cigar smokers are becoming increasingly comfortable with purchasing items online and they are naturally extending this to premium cigars.  They enjoy the convenience and some of the other benefits of purchasing their cigars online, including competitive pricing.

Local brick & mortar shops are here to stay as well.  They will take full advantage of some of the leverage they have to maintain strong relationships with customers and they will deliver facilities and events that will keep their customers entertained and coming back to smoke and enjoy the company of cigar smoking comrades.

I, for one, will look forward to enjoying both of them for many years to come.

The Case for Cigar Lounges

April 7, 2011 · Posted in Assault on Cigars, Deep Thoughts · 1 Comment 

I just got done reading this impassioned plea for… No, that’s not right. I just got done reading this inane plea for continuing to outlaw cigar lounges in the state of Washington (HERE). It’s written by a couple of guys who serve on Boards of Health for their respective counties, so you can guess at their motivation for writing this.

Before I jump into the inanities of their editorial piece let me provide some background on that dreary, cold and wet state they call a home. You can’t smoke in a car, you can’t smoke in a bar, you can’t smoke there or anywhere in Washington (unless you are at home and all your children and pets are wearing gas masks).

Now that I have brought you up to speed, let me dive into the inanities. First off, what they are talking about is a cigar lounge. So that “$628″ spent by each household (which is, I’m sure, the average. If they wanted to figure out what the median amount paid by each household is it would be a significantly lower number.) to pay for “smoking-related health care” does not apply here because a cigar is not a cigarette.

Lumping cigar smokers together with cigarette smokers (and chewing tobacco users for that matter) is unfair for a number of reasons. First off, cigar smokers in general smoke less frequently than cigarette smokers do. Many cigar smokers will have a couple cigars a week, many less often than that. In addition to that, cigar smokers almost never inhale cigar smoke, which makes getting lung cancer from smoking only cigars a bit tricky (Yes, cigar smoking can cause other types of cancer like throat or mouth cancer).

Alas, that plucky Health Board duo who wrote this article does not make a distinction between the different groups of smokers. If I had to guess, I would say that of that “$628″ that each family has to spend for smoking related illnesses less than $10 is spent on illnesses caused by cigars. Actually, strike that, it’s probably less than $1 because cigar smokers, especially those who smoke enough cigars to approach the danger zone of getting cancer from cigar smoking, are usually wealthy and will be paying their own hospital bills.

“But what about those poor bastards who can only find work at a cigar lounge?” In an effort not to forget about those brave souls who are victims of second and third hand smoke I will present you with this observation: Most of the people who work at brick and mortar cigar shops and cigar lounges seem to also [wait for it] smoke cigars!

Oh, sure, the writers of the editorial that got me so worked up love to pull at the heartstrings. I guess their line of reasoning is that if they can’t fool someone with their intentionally misleading statistics they will get them by regaling them with sob stories about how Timmy’s mom took a job at the Smoke Shoppe (because that was the only job she could find during these difficult economic times) and then died later that week from a “smoking-related” disease. If you think I’m kidding about the one week thing you need to read this.

Alright, I think we can all agree that the cases against cigar lounges as articulated by the boys from the Board of Health from such-and-such counties are bull. Now lets get into the case for cigar lounges.

First off, they’re awesome. At a cigar lounge you will probably have access to a variety of cigars and, in all likelihood, some libations as well. You get to sit and smoke and drink and talk to your heart’s content. So that’s a plus.

Secondly, more cigar lounges means more jobs. The duo from the Board of Health tried to dismiss this by saying “…a 2010 study found that within two years after the Clean Indoor Air law went into effect [outlawing smoking in any public space in Washington], sales in Washington bars and taverns were higher than expected.” That’s such a neat turn of phrase: “than expected.” What exactly was “expected” of bar sales? My money is on there being an easily discernible inflection point for bar profits right when that law was passed. And second: WE ARE TALKING ABOUT CIGAR LOUNGES NOT CIGARETTE LOUNGES!!!!

Even though those knuckleheads who wrote that article gloss over the jobs created angle I won’t. More cigar lounges means there will need to be more jobs. Owners of cigar stores will get to reopen their lounges, which leads to more foot traffic, more revenues and that all leads to more jobs.

But it doesn’t stop at just those jobs that are directly created by the legalization of cigar lounges. There are the ancillary businesses that will be bolstered by legalizing cigar lounges: new furniture will be needed, ads will have to be placed, more books will need to be kept, more gas used, carpenters will be called on to rebuild lounge areas, painters will be needed and so on.

Then there are the jobs that will be created in the cigar industry since more people would be smoking cigars if cigar lounges were legalized in Washington. The humble torcedors deftly crafting premium cigars, proud farmers who fertilize their crops with their passion, not to mention the legion of marketers, accountants, lawyers, salesmen and others who are needed to navigate the cigar market all would be enriched if Washington would approve the legalization of cigar lounges.

My last reason for supporting the legalization of cigar lounges in Washington is that it is the right thing to do. I know it might sound old fashioned but I think that grown ups should be allowed to take responsibility for their lives.

I’m completely aware of the fact that smoking cigars is not the ideal way to keep care of my body. But if you could please lift your gaze a little and look down the “ideal” road a little ways you will see some pretty horrifying things. It’s a road that is strewn with the poor who are made poorer because their legislature thought they should be taxed more for smoking cigarettes.

Lift your gaze a little bit higher now and you will see that there are now many thousands more who are incarcerated because they did not yield to their country’s ever stricter enforcement of laws against this or that foible.

If you lift your gaze just a little more you will see the death and destruction that necessarily follows the criminalization of people who are otherwise good people. Here you will see whole towns laid to waste by organized crime syndicates Hell bent on controlling their slice of the now illicit trade of tobacco.

Now raise your gaze up to take a glimpse of the end of the road. Here you will see the most disturbing image. It’s an image of a nation full of slaves. The people here, if you can still call them people, no longer are told what they cannot do but what they have to do. All freedoms have been traded in for a bit of security. The people toil for their despots from cradle to grave ignorant of the freedoms their ancestors once had. And the most frightening thing of all is that they are all smiling even though their masters are lurking in the shadows with their whips at the ready.

How to Effectively Fight for your Right to Smoke Cigars

May 30, 2010 · Posted in Assault on Cigars, Deep Thoughts · 1 Comment 

One of the most awe inspiring historical events is the last stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae. At that narrow pass, 300 Spartans (plus some other lesser known Greeks) held off the combined might of the Persians, which purportedly numbered in the millions, long enough to let the Greeks regroup and launch a proper counterattack. Due to the bravery of those brave few, democracy survived Xerxes onslaught.

Fast forward to today and we have a story that is kind of, sort of similar to that famous last stand. Every day you smoke cigars. These cigars are carefully made by skillful artisans in far flung lands that you have probably never visited. In fact, according to Jose Blanco from La Aurora, which happens to be the factory I recently visited, over 200 people are involved in cigar making process. Honestly, when you consider the gigantic operation it takes to take a cigar from seed to your humidor it is mind boggling.

And let me be clear, when I say that over 200 people are involved in the cigar making process I mean over 200 people come in direct contact with the tobacco that comprises your premium cigars. That is 200 lives that are improved by the mere fact of taking part in making your cigars.

Like the fabled Sword of Damocles, cigar taxes and bans threaten these people’s livelihoods. With each new assault on cigars, more and more of these humble craftsman lose their jobs. We are reaching a tipping point where, due to the religious fervor with which politicians attack our noble pastime, these people are losing their jobs.

Cigar factories have almost completely disappeared from America. I fear that with the zealous advance of cigar taxes and bans both here in America and internationally that there will come a time when many of the people who are now employed in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and many other countries in Latin America will eventually lose their jobs.

It does not take an immense imaginative leap to claim that with the loss of relatively lucrative jobs working in a cigar factory that these people will have to find well-paying jobs elsewhere, like in America. Now, I’m not one of those “open borders” people but I can definitely appreciate the fact, and it is a fact, that desperate people will risk a lot to improve their lot in life.

So, if they lose their cigar factory jobs in the Dominican Republic, they are likely to move to someplace where the job prospects are better; like America. Now, I know that you, my fellow Brothers of the Leaf, don’t need any more convincing that cigar taxes and bans are stupid. But others might need a little nudge to oppose these draconian measures against cigars.

Here’s the point. The next time you have one of those nattering nay-bobs  pouncing on you for smoking a premium cigar you need to come at them with a different tact. Instead of using the all-too legitimate standby of cigar smoking being a right you need to come at them with the negative economic impact that cigar taxes and bans will thrust upon the world.

Tell them that each time the government suppresses cigar smoking, jobs will be lost abroad and domestically. Tell them that whenever another city bans cigar smoking in a bar they are eliminating jobs domestically and internationally. And that those lost jobs in Honduras will lead to those displaced workers plying their trade in America. Do those proponent of cigar bans really want more people flooding across the border? Didn’t think so.

It is actually quite simple. Whenever you encounter someone who is all for another cigar tax or ban just tell them of the economic repercussions of their stance. The whole “rights” argument just doesn’t penetrate their bigoted minds. You have to hit closer to home. Make it personal for them.