Cigars: Now & Zen
Like so many times before, I draw inspiration for this article from, among other things, reading other’s articles who share their personal stories on the what, when, where and why of smoking cigars and the subsequent epiphany of so this is what they mean by Zen. The perfect moment. The Zen realized. In case you couldn’t tell, cigars are a passion for me. Like music or mosaics to some or whiskey and wine to others, cigars offer a lifestyle, a personal way to interact with the world and savor its rewards. It’s not just about special occasions, being trendy or socializing. And it’s not just about a weekend foursome on the lynx. Don’t get me wrong, all those aspects of one’s life are important and are very cigar-worthy indeed. But, to the newcomers out there just getting around to dipping their toe in the sea of cigars, I would say look beyond status, the superficial image and the pressure to be cool or hip. Educate yourself, carve your own path, and listen to the cigar.
[The top picture is a painting of a “floating cigar” by Michael York]
It all began for me back in high school in the ‘80s. Plenty of mullets, parachute pants and black and white checked Vans (ok, maybe an earring or two). I fondly recall some fishing/camping trips with my friends where we’d grab some Swisher Sweets from a local ice house (what we call convenience stores in Texas), some Southern Comfort or Evan Williams from our upper classmen friends and then sit around a campfire and awkwardly try to appear as if smoking cigars and drinking whiskey at 15 was something we normally did. We all knew of course, the first guy to gag, choke or cough would be pelted with a barrage of “what a wimp!” Unfortunately, too many times I was that kid. This was just boys being boys out for some harmless fun and I had a blast. But outside of that I had no interest in smoking anything. I watched my Grandmother die of emphysema. I grew up an asthmatic kid in a family of cigarette smokers and a world of second-hand smoke. Good times.
It was 1997 when a friend of mine and I took a camping trip to Laguna Seca in Monterey, California to watch the MotoGP races. Along with a cooler filled with beer and leftover tacos, we stopped to pick up some stogies. Essentially, this was just an extension of my high school exploits, but instead of Swisher Sweets this time there were Cohibas, Punchs and Padrons. Did we know what we were doing? Not a chance and the salesmen saw us coming. Everytime I walked into a cigar shop, it always felt like a scene out of American Werewolf in London
when David and Jack first go into the “Slaughtered Lamb”. As we walked in, the din of laughter and talking immediately halted and everyone in the joint turned to look at us with a perceived disgust and mild amusement etched on their faces. Another important difference was this time it was oddly enjoyable regardless of how naive I was. Perhaps the alcohol was playing keep away with my intelligence, but there was that cool, manly factor and the way the cigar felt in my hand…and laughably, how I looked. The taste wasn’t entirely repellent and overall I came to a simple conclusion: I knew I would smoke them again.
Over the next 10 years, I would occasionally smoke a stick, you know, for a special occasion here and there. Someone would share a Montecristo at a graduation or a God-knows-what at a wet t-shirt contest. All the while, I was learning bits and pieces of the cigar world, but truly not paying much attention. I knew I liked it, knew enough to be dangerous, but just hadn’t zeroed in what the attraction was. Hell, I wasn’t even looking. I didn’t know a vitola from a viola, but I was the only person in my family who smoked cigars, and at least by all appearances enjoyed cigars and, good or bad, that made me special. I would occasionally hit the local humidor for a handful of sticks, because I was, after all, the family aficionado. Of course, I’d stick with what I knew, the usual suspects Padron, Cohiba, Punch and Montecristo. Like Animal House’s Flounder requesting ten thousand marbles, when asked to see their Montecristo collection the bemused humidor sales folks would turn me on to something new like an Ashton or a Macanudo. Nonetheless, it was still the same ‘ol theme of smoking cigars for the sake of just… well… smoking a cigar. Because I sure as hell couldn’t tell you anything about it other than maybe it wasn’t Cuban and that it was brown. I’d say to myself, ‘all tobacco comes from South America, right, so who cares’. Sure, I learned what a Churchill was and the difference between a cutter and a punch. By the way, do I really need to light this cedar thingy?
I figured I had arrived when I received my first humidor – a gift from my long since divorced wife. Season to 70%? Check. Calibrate the hygrometer? Pain in the ass, but check. Fill the humidifier with distilled water? Check. Shit, you mean I have to continually fill the damn thing? Check. A toro is Spanish for bull, right? Oh yeah, I had a humidor full of cluelessness. I may have gone full retard, but I was living large, looked cool and didn’t care. At least I was broadening my interest in other brands like Rocky Patel and Drew Estate all the while impressing my friends with my smoking skills and cigar etiquette – whatever the hell that meant.
So, we get into the 2010s and now I’m imparting my growing, but still limited cigar wisdom on friends. My problem was I wanted to smoke cigars but wasn’t interested in cigars. I was inexperienced and lazy and didn’t consider there might be aspects of cigars I would enjoy, other than simply lighting one on fire and passing the time. It was just something to do. Sometimes, it felt adventurous or cool – perhaps even avant-garde. Was I simply doomed to relive the high school camping trips over and over, like Bill Murray in Ground Hog Day?
The scene: You’re having a good time, sitting around the fire pit with your friends putting a dent in that tub of Arrogant Bastard. You’ve up’d the ante by taking a few shots of Don Julio and now you and your friends have just finished shredding the lyrics to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. All of sudden, you say “hey, let’s grab a stogie” thinking to yourself, ‘this will be fun.’ How exactly was this going to make the evening better? In my mind, by this time smoking a cigar was simply a way to extend the adventure without fully realizing that, like homemade French toast at Grandma’s, it would also manifest itself as a snapshot inextricably linked to a memorable evening shared with people you care about. Conceptually, sure, this is one of many ways cigars can enrich our lives, but at the time a subconscious one to me at best. So, two things helped bring the whole cigar mojo home: some simple, sage advice and some guy by the name of Litto Gomez.
It was early Winter. My wife and I decided to go check out a cigar tasting at one of our local B&Ms. They were offering free beer, deals, swag and a La Flor Dominicana (LFD ) rep was going to be there. My wife had recently given me a couple of LFD special editions for my birthday that I “enjoyed”, so I was interested to see what else they had. We dragged a couple of our friends along and made an evening of it. I picked up a dozen or so sticks and we made it a great evening ending up back at the fire pit filled with music, Tequila and good times (you see a pattern developing?). I found I was fond of two popular and critically acclaimed sticks, but alas, my interest seemed superficial. I was barely scratching the surface and that bothered me.
Fast forward a couple of months, and for the first time I was actively doing some cigar research online. In researching one of my recently acquired LFDs, I read a review by a patron of the site. Three words stuck in my head. Don’t rush it. Hit me like a ton of lead. I promised myself the next cigar I lit I would soberly do my due diligence, take my time and see what happens. That weekend, I sat out on the back patio alone with one of my new LFD’s. It was midafternoon on a beautiful, cool early-Spring day. I looked at the cigar, admiring it’s oscuro wrapper and long, tapered perfecto body. The composition was tight and compact. I took a whiff of the foot and it was a rich, wonderful bouquet of aromas. I took out my Firebird and lit her up. That was when it happened.
Bingo…Bam…Hooya. That proverbial ‘A ha!’ moment, kinda like when you figured out the ‘hammer-on’ technique in a guitar riff. That first puff was a silky smooth burst of complex flavors. Don’t rush it. Let it burn for a minute or so. Now, another drag. Wow. After a few minutes, I admired the nice even burn. Don’t rush it. Another drag. Hmmm, notes of nuts, coffee and toast with some hints of cedar. As I was enjoying myself, I just began to enjoy the day. Had some good tunes on. I thought about how green everything was becoming. All the trees gently swaying in the breeze. The blissful sounds of country living. The blue sky. The Roses, Amaryllis and Impatiens beginning to bloom. I went somewhere else. Time slowed way down. I wasn’t thinking about anything anymore. I was totally relaxed, at peace. Holy shit! – is this what people mean by Zen? I went back to my LFD and just observed it in my hand. There was a single ribbon of smoke from the foot, waiting for my command. I resisted the temptation to suck that thing down like a straw in a Long Island Iced Tea. It was delicious – the whole experience was – and I wanted more. Don’t rush it. I stuck to my guns and was rewarded with silky, floral clouds that danced around me. But wait. It wasn’t a special occasion. It wasn’t a party or celebration. It wasn’t a lubricated pub crawl. Its just a plain ol’ Saturday afternoon and it was just me and a cigar created by Litto Gomez. It all came together – a good cigar, patience, a desire to be inquisitive and the right atmosphere. I took a picture and texted it to my friend because, I mean, I had to share this moment with someone! Life would never be the same. After those awkward high school camping trips and 20 odd years of random cigar huffing, I no longer just smoked cigars. I became a student of cigars. Life is good.
Kudos to those who have found ‘it’ and you know when it hits because you won’t look through your humidor like a kid in a candy store… it’s actually more like a wolf in a butcher shop. To those who haven’t, be patient. It will come. To those who don’t care, well, by all means continue converting oxygen to carbon dioxide. Regardless of where you are in the cigar continuum, when you bore the shit out of your friends, co-workers and loved ones talking about cigars – no, no, no…not like nerdy gamer types – do it in a very cool, Steve McQueen kinda way. Yeah… we’ll go with that. –In Fumo Pax!