Cigarticle: Remembrances of The Boom:
Recently a newer member of Cigar Weekly's forums, Javier (Big Cubano) started a thread in the Smokin' Post room asking older members "I hear about the boom all the time. Can any of you enlighten me on the history of the cigar boom?" This is a compilation of those answers he was given, re-written as a panel discussion. It will not be in the exact order as the posts on the thread; however the content is taken from there.
If you wish to read the original thread, please follow this link to the Smokin' Post.
"It was a period in the late 90's that was at its peak in 97-98," said Tom DeGraw (daggo66.) "A bunch of celebrities decided smoking cigars was cool and the public caught on. Around that time Cigar Aficionado magazine came out. They actually take credit for part of the boom." Cigar Aficionado (cA) magazine is always a topic that generates lively debate on Cigar Weekly's forums, and - to be fair - they deserve proper credit as being one of the catalysts of the "cigar boom" and the legitimacy the magazine's publication and success gave to cigar smokers.
In fact, cA DID help launch the boom. What was a minor fascination in trendy cities was then reflected in cA which made its appearance in 1992.
When they started, they got a good bit of notoriety. It fed off of itself, and demand began to increase. Cigar bars came onto the scene, lots of new brick and mortar shops opened (sadly, many if not most have since closed). Regular Joes and Janes began smoking cigars as people were smoking everywhere, all over the country. I won't say it was a simple fad, because a fad doesn't last for five or six years.
Then Rush Limbaugh--whose show reaches 22 million listeners per week--discussed his enjoyment of cigars, his reading cA, and which cigars he preferred on the air. Naturally, this fed the interest in cigars even more. Another product of the Boom and cA, was Smoke, the Smoke This! radio show, and lots of books for sale in bookstores and other non-traditional outlets.
"Every Tom, Dick and Harry also Susan and Betty smoked cigars. There were a million and a half brands of cigars all costing $9," remarked long-time member Herman Merino (Mustard,) "Most of them tasted like crap, a lot of under-fermented and under-processed cigars. JR cigars stopped taking new customers. A lot of investors were arriving at the Dominican Rep. with a suitcase filled with money looking to invest in cigars but not knowing what a wrapper leaf is from any other plant leaf. These were some of the negative effects of the cigar boom."
I offered my own experience as a new smoker during the boom: "I was an anti-smoking Nazi since I was three when my Dad had his first stroke. I had heard Rush Limbaugh talking about cigars and how cigars seemed to be everywhere. I remember Restoration Hardware, in the mall, selling ash trays, and Cigar Guides....so I started reading them whenever we went shopping.
I figured they weren't cigarettes so they couldn't be bad, plus they had a storied past and approached gourmet status, and I like to eat good food. So I broke down, in 1997, while traveling between New Orleans and Baton Rouge every day for four summers, working on my Masters degree. I tried them; purchasing my first at the grocery store; my neighborhood supermarket which had installed a small humidor in the wine section. I wasn't put off, for the most part, so I kept on. I waited about two or three months before I admitted it to MrsTommyBB, though.
I found CW in 1998 when I was reading for information, and DanB (founder of CW, Daniel Bienkowski) was offering free cigars. I got lucky and was chosen for a review in August of 1998, and that's why I have all those stars."
Demand increased dramatically during the boom, and cigar production followed suit. Just how much did demand increase? See Roger Farnsworth's (ElkTwin) Cigarticle about La Gloria Cubana. Many who enjoyed cigars thought they could make a buck off of cigars, so they got into the business. Every possible square inch of the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, Ecuador, Brazil, Sumatra, Cameroon, and Indonesia....all went under the plow. Suddenly there was tobacco everywhere, and yet demand for it still wasn't met.
This means that lots of bad tobacco was getting purchased, and a lot of Don Somebodies and La Somethings were all of a sudden making cigars. And sadly, due to demand, and the prices of more established brands, many of these new tobacconists got hold of these fresh-off-the-turnip-truck cigars.
Long-time tobacconists were insanely busy. Credit goes to Lew Rothman, at JR Cigars; he tried and fairly succeeded in keeping his costs down. To accomplish this, JR didn't take new customers for years. "Our company ceased taking new customers for approximately 19 months," said Rothman, "I felt that taking on new customers, while being just barely able to take care of the needs of our old customers would be disgraceful. Nor for that matter did we raise our profit margins, even though we could have made twice the profit. However, when the Boom finally came to an end, we emerged with a tremendous market share. Our policy has always been to make a new customer without losing an old one."
In 1999, however, lots of the people who'd picked up on smoking began to stop. They did it to be trendy, and after smoking bad cigars for years (due to price point) they'd had enough. Pressure from anti-smokers, and smoking bans also took a toll. Many of these cigars were left in storage and eventually liquidated. Many of the new shops began to close down.
As Lew Rothman remembers it, "The boom ended in November 1997 when manufacturers started receiving cancellations of backorders from retailers everywhere. By that time they had had 5 solid years of incredible demand and had enlarged both their tobacco inventories and their manufacturing facilities. With a reduction in orders they found themselves woefully overstocked and with excess capacity.
As most of you realize, Mexican Cigars are not in demand today (and I'm using this just as an example), yet, during the boom years there were 30 factories operating in San Andres Tuxtla alone!"
All of the demand for cigars extended towards those not legal on these shores as well. It is accepted by many smokers around the world, that Cuban tobacco and Cuban cigars are superior. In fact, in many places in the world, non-Cuban cigars are simply unavailable. There is no demand for anything else. Combined with this was the mystique of the Cuban Embargo, effectively making Cuban cigars "forbidden fruit." The result was EVERYONE had to have them. Tobacco production was increased without letting fields lie fallow.
In response to the sharp increase in demand, Cuba developed the Habana2000 wrapper leaf to be resistant to disease and parasites. It ended up being resistant to fire, as well. Jackie Kylander (Smokin_VI) added "actually, H2000 turned out to be a damn fine wrapper-it just had to be worked differently than "traditional" leaf. Once the cigar manufacturers figured it out, it's been good (see Peruvian Montes)."
Brian Gardener (briandg) also noted "[That is due to] Nestor Plascencia, isn't it? He owns the trademark, if I remember correctly. He learned that the wrapper was so heavy that it needed extra fermentation, and that it just gave out before it reached complete maturity.
To repair this issue, H2000 leaves are added into fresh bulks of tobacco, and the additional cooking that they get scattered through the newly composting pile of leaves finishes the job.
I cannot imagine the difficulty of dealing with a bloody twenty foot long pile of bunched tobacco, keeping it rotated properly to keep the internal temps and fermentation correct."
Production was greatly increased, demand kept aging times short. The cigars coming out of Cuba by 1999 and through 2001 were nearly unsmokeable. They were harsh, nasty or - worse, completely unsmokeable due to construction issues. Some of these are just beginning to come around now according to many Habanos smokers. The 2004-05 crops have been given the attention they deserved and are now fully fermented.
These same smokers did not begin to see an improvement until late 2001 or 2002. This is attributed to the fact that "in September 2000, the parent company (Altadis) completed the purchase of 50% of Habanos, S.A. Habanos is the owner of most of the Cuban trademarks in the world, the franchiser of the Casa del Habano shops and owns parts of its distribution network."* Perhaps a stricter quality control standard by a multi-national company is preferable to those of a third-world economy.
"JR never bought a single Boom Time cigar until after the Cigar Boom went KA-BOOM!" said Rothman, "Then we sold the stuff for next to nothing - which was exactly what they were worth."
"The good that came out of the boom was Padron Anniversario, Opus X, Hemmingway series, Puros Indios(they were excellent cigars in the late 90's) etc.," Herman Merino (Mustard) said, "Lots of cigar bars were you would witness Susan trying to smoke a jeroboam. A lot of cigar related parties, again seeing Susan attempting to smoke a jeroboam was worth the price of admission. The Big Smoke was truly a "BIG" event: a lot of cigars and a lot of free booze."
"My thoughts are that the boom was more negative than positive," Brian Gardener recalls, "During it, there was next to nothing positive about it, except for the discovering smokers, and what they got out of it was almost all a bad example of what cigars are today.
When the boom was winding down, demand was decreasing and a better crop was being released for use. Cigars got better. Since the end of the boom, the companies have either fallen, or struggled to stay in business, and part of that struggle was to create good products once again. Since the end of the boom, as was said, some of the greatest makers have risen to prominence, and have survived the bloodshed that was the early years of the 21st Century: Toraño, Perdomo, CAO (which has been in the pipe business since the late 1960s, only began making cigars during the boom.) Some others, Bahia by Tony Borhani and Graycliff are thriving. Some manufacturers have created extended lines, courting the newly developed taste for variety and quality. One Montecristo, for example, was fine before we got a taste of different things, and now we have a dozen variations on that old name. These companies are going to build the better mousetrap to earn our dollars until another market changing upheaval occurs, whatever that will be.
In short, there was a boom, and there was very little good about it for anyone; rising prices, dropping quality, and lack of available products that the established smoker was used to. The new smoker was ridden over by the carpetbaggers, and that was not good either. As it ended, what I prefer to call a cigar 'renaissance' began, and efforts shifted from shoveling out Don Poopoos to making and selling a tenth of the volume at better quality vs. price. The renaissance continues, as you see at every RTDA meeting.
Without the boom, there would have been no renaissance, so at this point, for us, the boom was the greatest blessing we could have asked for. It ended a sort of stagnation, and brought about great things; you can make an educated and informed purchase."
"I hated the Boom Years," remembers Lew Rothman, "Cigar smokers were being raped, and the number of phony assed importers and their ridiculous claims about their cigars and their history in the business at each RTDA convention would turn my stomach.
Today, 9 years after the Boom, the industry is again turning to a war of bullshit at the consumers' expense. There are so many false claims about "new" cigar products that consumers are once again being bilked out of their money. Let me just say this: adding more names onto the end of a cigar brand name doesn't make it better; it just makes it more expensive. Virtually everything with a "limited production" is bullshit. Any cigar that says it's being made with 10 or 15 year old tobaccos is bullshit.
The cigar industry is 500 years old. The invention of all these rare cigars, $20 cigars, etc. is comparatively brand new. Work as hard spending your money as you had to earning it."
We would like to thank Cigar Weekly Members Tom DeGraw (daggo66), Herman Merino (Mustard), Brian Gardener (briandg), Jackie Kylander (Smokin_VI), Jeff Lackman (grtrx) and Lew Rothman (Owner of JR Cigars) for their contribution to this piece.
*("The History of Altadis U. S. A., Inc. formerly Consolidated Cigar Corporation and Hav-A-Tampa, Inc." Altadis U.S.A. 2006. http://www.altadisusa.com/company.asp Accessed July 23, 2006.)
Thomas Bender (TommyBB) is a moderator and contributing editor of Cigar Weekly. He hails from Greater New Orleans where he resides with his family and contributes his share of the air pollution of the area with cigar smoke as well as running his mouth online more than any human being should. He enjoys gathering with friends and family to partake of good cigars, good food and camaraderie when not coaching youth sports, or playing Church music. He's also been known to wear a good hat from time to time.
Contributing Editor and CW Executive Chef Jason Clabaugh (BigO) hailed from New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and has settled in a suburb of Atlanta. With the addition of a new baby to his family he's refocused his energies on fatherhood and a new project bringing his famous mango-habanero salsa and unique barbecue sauces into commercial production.