By J. Eric Eckard. Photography courtesy of The Country Squire Pipes & Cigars
Henry Ford’s assembly line approach to building cars in the early 20th century helped push the United States into a mass produced society. Today, everything from plastic cups to faux wood furniture is built in some far-off factory.
But in the past few decades, there’s been another trend afoot – an almost anti-automation movement.
“The world’s technology is changing so fast that people are looking for something to anchor themselves,” said Jon David Cole, owner of The Country Squire is Jackson, Miss.
For many people, Cole said, that anchor is a nice cigar. “Cigars represent an opportunity to slow down and connect with another way of life,” Cole said.
Mike Mando, purchaser and inventory specialist for The Cigar Shop in Biloxi, Miss., said nostalgia also plays a big role in the resurgence of cigars from its heyday in the 1990s.
“Younger people today might remember their grandfather or uncle smoking cigars, and that’s what attracts them,” Mando said.
The cigar boom peaked in 1997 when imports topped 400 million, but then the market was inundated with inferior products, and imports dropped below 250 million just two years later. The cigar industry has been slowly making a comeback, and in 2012, cigar imports topped 300 million for the first time in more than a decade. In 2014, the U.S. imported 310 million cigars, according to the Cigar Association of America.
“A lot of folks are beginning to appreciate the small batch artisan creation,” Cole said. “In some cases, hundreds of people might work on one cigar.”
Opened in 1970, The Country Squire is the oldest tobacco shop in Mississippi, said Cole, who ran the Jackson business for six years before buying it in 2016. He said he has about 300 different cigars in the shop.
“Folks who enjoy cigars are not people who are smoking to get a fix,” Cole said. “They’re enjoying the complex flavors and the nuances of the blends.”
And if this sounds like what happens at wineries, craft breweries or boutique distilleries, that’s not a coincidence. “Cigars can be as complex as wines,” Mando said. “And we want to educate cigar smokers – especially new ones. “Different countries have different flavor profiles.”
The Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras make up most of the imports to the U.S., but numerous other countries throughout Central America and South America ship cigars to the U.S.
Both Mando and Cole said they would typically introduce a novice cigar smoker to something from the Dominican Republic because those usually are milder. Nicaraguan cigars tend to have a fuller body, so they would steer more experienced smokers in that direction.
Many cigar shops hold events to educate those in the cigar smoking community – and those who want to join that club. Pairing events with chocolates, coffees, liquors and food are common events throughout the country.
“For example, Scotch has such a nuanced taste, you don’t want to pair a robust cigar with it,” Mando said. “And there are certain foods that a robust cigar would overshadow.”
A premium, hand-rolled cigar typically will fall in the $8-$15 range. But some can cost as little as $2, while the price for others, such as Davidoff from the Dominican Republic, could soar to $100 or more.
The cigars at the bottom end of the price range usually are reserved for grooms looking for groomsmen gifts or new fathers wanting to announce whether it’s a boy or girl.
As the price goes up, the quality rises, as well. Mando said his average sale price in his shop, which has about 900 different cigars, is about $12.
But what about the Cuban cigar? Does its storied reputation have any validity? Since the 1960s, an embargo prohibited Americans from getting Cuban cigars in the U.S. But for years, many people smuggled them into the country illegally.
“The mystique behind Cuban cigars is that they were hard to get,” Mando said. “I don’t think they’re better; they’re just different. A Cuban (cigar) does have a unique flavor. The problem is the lack of consistency in production.”
Cole said many of the other cigar-producing countries caught up with Cuba after the embargo was enforced.
“The hype about Cuban cigars might have been accurate 30 years ago, but modern farming technology is so much better now,” Cole said. “But in Cuba, those modern farming techniques never materialized. So without things like crop rotation, Cuban soil is not what it used to be.”
The allure still is alive for Cuban cigars though, and now that the embargo has been partially lifted, many American cigar smokers can smoke these once-illegal stogies out in the open.
Cuban cigars still can’t be imported for resale, but travelers to Cuba can bring back an unlimited assortment of cigars for personal use.
Mando said cigar smokers typically make up a close-knit community, especially at his shop, where a regular group frequently comes to enjoy cigars. Cole said his shop also has its own regulars.
“Cigar smoking builds a unique community,” Cole said. “Cigars can be really meaningful to people. A lot of them feel like they can recover a sense of humanity with cigars.”