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  • Writer's pictureVivian Li

Cigars: All About Community

It was a hot and slightly humid afternoon in early May, as I made my way up to Burn by Rocky Patel cigar lounge in Atlanta at The Battery. By surprise, Trina Griggs, a friend that I made through our cigar smoking hobby was sitting comfortably at a table. Her eyes lit up and a smile appeared on her face when she saw me walk through the double doors. “Hey, [Viv]! It’s so good to see you. It’s been a couple months, no? How you been?” After we spent an hour or two catching up with all of our life’s happenings so far, she told me that she was there for the Lady’s Cigar event that LouAnn Steffens was hosting, that night. And through our conversations, she walked me through what happened at the 3rd-anniversary event she attended the week before as well.

“There were about 200 to 230 people that attended that event,” Griggs said. “They had champagne, cake and great cocktails, but the cigar experience was almost like any other. Which, in my opinion, was a little disappointing.”

I recall the General Manager Christina Knight telling me about the event and had said, “it would be the biggest Burn event yet.” However, when I asked about the cigar side of the operation, she furrowed her brow, gave me a puzzled look and said she didn’t know. She had told me to ask Steffens, who was the Humidor Manager and in charge of the cigar side of the event.

“Rocky didn’t care as much for the community as much as I thought he did, and this is evident in the lackluster effort he put into the 3rd-anniversary event,” Pablo Nunez, a friend and the owner of La Casa del Tabaco, that also attended the event, said.

I started smoking cigars when I was 19 in Switzerland. It started as a one-off experience at Christmas back in 2016, and it gradually grew into a hobby over the years. Through my experiences in Hong Kong, Switzerland and Atlanta, I’ve found that there are more similarities than differences. However, the biggest difference has to be about the people and the ritual of cigar smoking. The first difference is that Cuban cigars dominate the market in both Hong Kong and Europe, whereas they’re not allowed in the U.S. at all; and the second biggest difference is the idea of community.

In Atlanta, cigar retailers will visit other retailers as friends, which is the case with Nunez. “I go to Burn a few times a month to visit LouAnn and my other friends that work there,” he said, and described Patel as “lazy” because “he could have done more for the cigar community at the event.” He also talked about how the anniversary event wasn’t advertised as much as it should have been. Griggs agreed and added “since Covid seemed to be over, for now at least, Rocky should’ve done more for the cigar smokers,” she said. “Also, I didn’t know about the anniversary event until [Viv] told me about it.”

“All we cared about were the people and the cigars — the place is called ‘Burn by Rocky Patel’ for a reason,” Nunez said, as he points at the cigar he was puffing on. The gesture emphasized that this was the reason why he was here and illustrated his words even more.

Cigar rituals vary from person to person, and this includes cigar selecting, cutting and lighting. No matter how you pick, cut or light the cigar, the way someone starts and ends their cigar experience is a ritual. In both Asia and the U.S., people normally use torch lighters because they are faster, handy and more reliable; especially when it’s windy. But, personally, I prefer matches over lighters because it’s slower, softer and you savor the time it gives you. I smoke cigars because I want to slow down and relax, as life is already so fast-paced all the time, I enjoy taking my time with it. It’s part of my ritual.

And even though we can smoke on our own, “cigars are about people and community,” Wanda Garneaux, an ex-military plane engineer said. “To my Native American brothers and sisters, smoking tobacco is a social event. So, nobody smokes alone.”

Cigar smokers are a close-knit community and because it’s such a small niche interest, after a while in my experience, you tend to recognize people very quickly, and you bump into the same people everywhere you go.

The main difference I find between Cuban cigars and cigars rolled from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras is the taste. Cuban cigars are more earthy, woody and floral. They may have coffee, cocoa and fruity notes too, but these flavors are more subdued. The closest relative to the Cuban cigar is Dominican. Brands like Davidoff, Arturo Fuente and Ashton cigars are great examples and are best known for their aged mellow quality. A lot of people will consider them mild, but the ones who love them appreciate the “refined, luxurious and creamy” consistency.

And the cigar community, “in my opinion, is the least judgmental subculture there is because you can smoke something that I hate, but I’ll still be happy for you because it makes you happy,” Garneaux said. “Perfection is in the eyes of the beholder, as they say, right?”

“An anniversary blend would have been a nice touch,” Nunez said. “Or collectible items that were only available at the event, like cigar bands and special edition accessories, like cutters and lighters.” Nunez’s eyes lit up while his arms waved in the air, trying to convey how much he wished Patel should have put into his own empire, and said, “that would’ve been amazing!”

In any industry, there are no promises, especially from the last two years of Covid. “You could be here and gone tomorrow, as they say,” Griggs said. “Sure, you could say you may have your 4 or 5 anniversary, but what if you don’t?” Nunez nodded in agreement and said, “You won’t get another 3rd anniversary ever again, that’s for sure.”

In the cigar lounges in Hong Kong, the community is almost nonexistent. Everyone is in their own little bubble. They’re watching the news, or some sport on the TV, or listening to music on their headphones, while they’re puffing away. Unless you brought a friend, or you knew someone personally at the cigar lounge, it would be very quiet. People keep their heads down or head up, but they’ll never talk to anyone there. It’s “cold” and “isolated” in a way — which is neither good or bad, but it’s a lot harder to make friends at a cigar lounge in Hong Kong. However, in Atlanta, it’s totally different. There is a strong sense of community in the cigar culture here, and as Garneaux put it, “with your next cigar, you never know who you’ll meet.”

Nunez also said that Burn should’ve done more for that event by giving what their cigar smokers wanted, rather than leaving the “best for next time.” Griggs who celebrated her birthday at the event said, “we wanted to celebrate the community, rather than the brand or the business,” she said.

“Because community is what smoking cigars are all about.”

Read the story on Medium by clicking the link here

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