Coverage of Smoke Inn’s The Great Smoke 2021

Did you make it to Smoke Inn’s first virtual The Great Smoke 2021(TGS 2021)? Well, if you had to work, were relegated to babysitting duties or your honey-do list was just too long, we have some of the highlights for you. It’s obviously not the same as attending in person, so really we were just along for the ride. There are no interviews or spontaneous hijinks to report as we participated from the comfort of our office over 1,300 miles away. There was a limited VIP ($350) option to attend the live broadcast in person, but we opted for the virtual broadcast which was offered in two formats: YouTube and Facebook Live. There was an estimated 5,000+ folks who joined virtually and apparently most chose the YouTube option. We chose the Facebook Live broadcast and the count of viewers present at any one time never exceeded 300, so if Smoke Inn’s estimate is correct, clearly YouTube was the place to be.

TGS 2021 Home Page / Copyright Smoke Inn Cigars

Before we ever fired up our Macbook Pro and monitor to join Smoke Inn’s annual hootenanny, us Texans (and many others across the Midwest and South) had to endure the worst winter week in over 30 years. While many up North are probably rolling their eyes, I will simply say we’re just not built for this, but we managed and got through it. Unfortunately, the combination of extreme weather, power outages and icy roads delayed the delivery of our “TGS 2021 Party In A Box”, which we didn’t receive until 3 days after the event. The package arrived no worse for wear and once we cleared the packing peanuts, all the items were accounted for, including a diverse and impressive array of cigars (40 count). Considering the total package was just a nickel under $170 and even if you don’t count the TGS-branded items or other products like the cool Montecristo-branded cigar band bank, the cigars average out to a respectable $4.25 a piece.

Show Time

Late Saturday morning, quite a few folks (I counted about 67), including yours truly, decided to jump on the Facebook broadcast early to make sure everything was working. Almost immediately, the comments and “stickers” began firing from excited participants. The pre-show music and spinning TGS 2021 marquee were interrupted from time to time by live shots of the crew going through last minute preparations and a late announcement, before they lost audio (again), from the “Director” giving the audience a big “thank you.” Almost at the stroke of 11am (CST), TGS 2021 was live with good video and audio and we were immediately introduced to our hosts, Smoke Inn Proprietor, “Honest” Abe Dababneh and former Nat Sherman VP/Ferio Tego founder, Michael Herklots.

Abe Dababneh & Michael Herklots / Copyright Smoke Inn Cigars

The two cigar icons introduced their roving reporters, Instagram influencers, Kim (@Shmokini) Keeney and Melanie (@Lilciscokid) Cisco, the former announcing she had just inked a deal to launch her own cigar distribution that includes United Cigars and Cavalier Cigars. The set was well done, set-up like a talk show with Abe at the big desk and Michael on a nearby couch set behind a coffee table. The background of a sun-baked skyline (Miami?), while colorful, gave the impression that something in the back was on fire as “Great Smoke 2021” banners and signs dotted the set. By the time intros, ‘thank yous’ and ‘welcomes’ were complete, I counted 210 in our virtual audience and we were treated to a number of personal video messages from a who’s who in the Cigarverse, like Jon Drew, Jorge Padron, Lisette Carrillo, AJ Fernandez and others.

Michael Herklots, Kim Keeney & Melanie Cisco / Copyright Smoke Inn Cigars

A semi-regular segment took us to an in-house bar set up where the show featured bartender, Ashley Garcia, making 3 special drinks for the event. They rolled video of Garcia making each cocktail – one was the mouthwatering “Avorita” – and the ingredients used so those of us at home could whip one up as well. The audience was encouraged to make the drink and post it to Instagram/Facebook with the tag #TGSCOCKTAIL for a chance to win a bottle of the primary booze used, e.g. Ezra Brooks’ 99 Bourbon.

Bartender, Ashley Garcia / Copyright Smoke Inn Cigars

One of the big features of TGS 2021 was the special guests: Rocky Patel, Tatuaje’s Pete Johnson (via live stream from the My Father factory in Nicaragua), Carlito Fuente, Nick Perdomo, Steve Saka and Aganorsa Leaf’s Terence Reilly. The talk-show shtick worked well and like many late-night shows, as the show went on, there was plenty of improvisation and shenanigans. I have to say Michael Herklots was a primo choice as co-host as he showed that he could easily transition into showbusiness with his confident delivery, cool demeanor, snazzy style and improv abilities – he had people eating out of his hand.

Abe, Rocky Patel & Michael / Copyright Smoke Inn Cigars

Each guest – first up was Rocky Patel – would chat with the hosts about any number of topics for 20-30 min and then they would introduce a special-for-TGS-2021 limited cigar. The highlight of the interviews (I did not stay on long enough to see the Terence Reilly segment) was by far the chat with Carlito Fuente. From reminiscing about the first Opus X releases to Herklots recounting a time chatting with Carlito’s daughter, Liana, which led to Carlito’s passionate, near tearful, monologue of the Fuente family’s (and foundation’s) efforts to combat breast cancer (Carlito lost his mother and sister to breast cancer).  After some back and forth on how interconnected and supportive the cigar industry can be, Fuente concluded with another passionate display on how the cigar community is truly family. On the lighter side, a masked Fuente would later crash the Saka interview, during which he surprised everyone by nonchalantly walking onto the set and picking up the large version of the famed “Sakasquatch” statue that was being raffled then disappearing quietly into the audience.

Abe, Michael and Carlito / Copyright Smoke Inn Cigars

Let’s face it, almost as popular as the guests themselves were the TGS 2021 limited edition cigars being offered for sale at the end of each guest’s segment. These are one-offs folks in an ultra-limited run of 1,000 cigars each (one edition was just under 1,500). After the limited cigar’s introduction, Abe would announce the cigars were available for sale through a special portal that only TGS 2021 ticket holders could access. Not only were the cigars usually sold out in minutes, but each time, the site crashed as potential buyers frantically hit refresh and patiently waited for browsers to reload for a shot at these limited-run goodies. We were lucky enough to score from three of the iconic cigar makers: Pete Johnson’s CQ2 TGS 2021 Edition (10-pk), Steve Saka’s EX-38 TGS 2021 Edition (10-pk) and the crown jewel, a box of 10 Fuente Opus X TGS 2021 Edition Churchills. Stay tuned for future reviews.

At the top of every hour, there were three prize raffles where names were randomly selected, through a unique algorithm, from the list of virtual and in-person ticket holders (if you bought a ticket, you were entered) as winners of a wide variety of cigar accessories and cool accoutrements – even a rolling Camacho-branded grille! You could always increase your chances of winning by visiting the TGS 2021 store to stock up on stogeys at a special 25% off as each separate purchase added an additional chance of winning.

Event Store and Limited Release Page / Copyright Smoke Inn Cigars

Of course, there was scheduled between-segment entertainment which included musical performances from both professional and amateur musicians, the highlight of which was the duet of Abe’s daughter, Petra (violin), and J. C. Newman’s Alan Goldfarb (acoustic guitar) who performed the Animal’s classic and fan-favorite, “House of the Rising Sun.” The show also featured some comic relief from a couple of amateur comedians whose routines roused some friendly “virtual” heckling on the Facebook Live broadcast, which in and of itself added another layer of entertainment.

Guitarist, Gyorgy Lakatos / Copyright Smoke Inn Cigars

The esteemed TGS hosts often turned to their roving hostesses, Kim and Melanie, to get up close and personal with some of the studio audience. The questions were often the same:
 “whats your name?”
“where ya from?”
“How long have you been attending TGS?”
It was clear people came from far and wide to attend and some audience members have been attending the annual TGS event since its inception fifteen years ago. Unfortunately, it was also clear the hostesses were nervous, as initially their mannerisms were stiff and their deliveries stilted making the whole process feel awkward and unnatural. Melanie seemed to also have a tough time with the timing and positioning of the microphone, but as time went on, they relaxed and hung in there and their interviews became more entertaining.

The show often checked in with several watch parties, including the Smoke Inn-Boyton Beach location (Saka was there earlier in the day) as well as those from various cigar clubs, all featuring plenty of great food, drinks and plenty of personalities. The studio did try a last-minute virtual meeting where a limited number of virtual attendees could enter and be broadcast on a large monitor with which the hosts could interact, but it was clear there were some bandwidth and timing issues and the hosts decided to drop it.

Throughout the show, the “unplanned” entertainment from Facebook Live viewers’ comments and messages often competed with the on-air exploits, but it was nothing disparaging or rude and many were objectively hilarious. Underscoring the closeness of the cigar community, it was great to see so many viewers who knew one another including some in the audience.

That’s A Wrap

At a time when large, virtual get togethers are still evolving and digital event platforms like LabRoots and WordPress are still teasing out best practices and fixing bugs, it is truly remarkable, and unprecedented, what Abe and the TGS 2021 crew were able to pull off. Was it perfect? No. There were minor glitches here and there, and I’m sure Abe and his team feel they could have done more or done some things better.

Yet they managed to not only reset the bar for this type of programming, but also proved it could be done at a high level and quality. It’s also apparent Abe spared no expense in putting this on as it required teams of video and audio engineers, IT pros, and professional folks to organize, develop, script and manage a 7-hour+ program, just to name a few. Abe, at one point during the broadcast when the store site crashed during a limited release sale, mentioned that they even planned ahead by adding three additional servers which aren’t cheap and that’s just for the store. Abe humbly and repeatedly apologized to patrons and viewers for the repeated crashes.

In the future, I’m not sure going virtual would be Abe’s preference, or anyone else’s for that matter. But I think if you polled the attendees, you’d get a rousing, positive vibe as it was a fun, entertaining and truly unique experience and one I’m sure they’ll not only remember fondly but also enthusiastically say they’d do again. Abe has said previously their plan is to return to an in-person TGS format in 2022, and I’m sure many Smoke Inn patrons and fans are already making plans. Until then…In Fumo Pax!

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