People enjoy being in the know about something or other. A ready catalogue of insidery brand names is either the privilege of a cultivated, well brought-up mind or the indicator of a charlatan desperate enough to hunt the Internet for that infuriating detail, parroted loudly the next day, that prevents his possession of a kind of special access granted to some unknown few. Here lies the border between the yearning amateur and the professional, the connoisseur.
Cigars (the idea of them, anyway) are emblematic of a certain type of clubby man. You won’t find many who smoke in private, completely indifferent to impressing others. And as with any weird club, the cigar has its numinous houses, containing some mystery in the sound of their names: Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, etc. As Karl Marx wrote, “The name of a thing is something distinct from the qualities of that thing.” It is that very separateness, the capacity of the brand to imbue a special quality to the object than could possibly make sense otherwise, that causes people to salivate (cf. fetishism).
One unusually warm autumn day, a friend and I were visiting Toronto, and decided to sit down for lunch on a Queen Street West patio. Mid-meal, a large man sat down at the table next to us, a prosperous, audacious looking guy whom I imagined to have made his money in one of those mid-‘80s Toronto synth-rock groups (“Toronto Rock Man” I’ll call him, imagining a hair-metal animatronics display at the Royal Ontario Museum). He was about the right age, it was a weekday afternoon, and he clearly had nothing more pressing to do than dig out his 12-string acoustic guitar and play a sort of formless raga type improvisation that only sounded good to us because it was such a nice day. We started chatting. While talking to us, he pulled a Churchill-sized cigar from his jacket pocket and lit up. Having only dabbled ourselves with store-bought cigars, we wanted to know, “Wow, what brand is that?” He spat instead of replying, “Brand!” As if we had insulted him. He went on a long tirade about how all the beautiful cigar brand names that held so much meaning for us were “bullshit,” even relating a fantastic story about shopping for incredibly expensive cigars in a room-sized humidor, detecting the slightest bit of dryness in one of them, snapping the cigar in half and throwing it on the ground in disgust in front of the salesman. This was a man of some gonzo distinction, we thought. Sensing a couple of pliable young brains, he scrawled an address with an exceedingly complicated map directing us to the place that would free us from what he regarded as brand tyranny (“an alleyway, a doorway, a staircase,” he wrote): the Frank Correnti cigar factory. We were intrigued. He wished us well, packed up his guitar and told us to tell “them” that Leon sent us.
It was a good thing for the map, because if someone had actually just given us the street address and name of the place, we would have walked up, found nothing, declared that “there’s nothing here,” and walked away confused. But Leon gave use good directions, and we kept his name at the front of our minds as we started the long walk up a dingy looking alleyway. After climbing the staircase we dropped his name immediately, which bought us at least a smile. Inside the place was a half-dozen or so middle-aged women, casually transforming mountains of raw tobacco on each of their worktables into beautiful little cigars. Seeing this was like suddenly realising that meat comes from cows. The odour of raw Cuban tobacco permeated everything, as did a certain level of humidity. It was magical. The second time I visited the place, an on-site masseuse was going around giving the women shoulder rubs at their workstations.
The Correnti cigar factory does have the air of a boy’s club for grown-ups. The atmosphere of the place communicates something like a hundred-year-old secret, the framed yellowed-by-age newspaper clippings explaining the Correnti mythology adorn every inch of wall, along with the inevitable celebrity drop-in photos posing with their illegal-in-the-US booty. It definitely feels like a pre-Internet decade in the place.
Since then, other cigar factories have come to my attention. There’s Lovo, on Fremont Street in Las Vegas, the proprietor of which was a Cuban-American who spoke with a touch of nostalgia about his home country. “It’s only a matter of time,” he said, no bitterness in his voice but a sort of gentle regret. Correnti Cigars in Toronto, not subject to the Cuban blockade that American cigar factories must contend with, imports its leaf directly from Cuba.
Some time ago, a friend and I wandered into Martinez Cigars on 29th Street in New York. The place is a storefront essentially, with a guy rolling cigars behind the counter. Very amiable place. We bought our cigars and later on went to the Merchant Club basement lounge, one of the few places left seemingly in the world where a person can smoke indoors. Not to mention that they make an excellent martini.
There are other little factories out there, I know, that are keeping this low-tech approach to the enjoyment of tobacco alive. Like tailors, they’re outnumbered by machines and “outsourcing,” but their pride in keeping a certain handmade touch about their trade is worth a bit of effort. Looking back on my encounters with these places, I feel that Leon’s initial condemnation of brands was a little harsh. A Cohiba is after all also hand-rolled, and simply because you don’t buy it on site doesn’t diminish its quality, and even a Century Sam can have its charm when you’re drunk enough. But to visit a shop at which cigars are put together and to see such artisanship in real time is a unique experience. The process of choosing a fresh cigar, squeezing it like a fragrant little loaf of squishy bread, was completely novel to my friend and me, who had become used to exclaiming pleasure over the smoke of dried out husks, probably full of illegitimate filler. After the cigar factory, we are suddenly in the know. And a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.