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Where There's Smoke

Shaun Tolson

Mauricio Córdoba fidgets in his seat at a corner table of his cigar club. Ice cubes in his glass of ginger ale clink softly as he returns it to the white linen tablecloth, and for a moment he lets his gaze divert from the guests at his table. Scanning the room, the 54-year-old general manager takes note of patrons reclining on various leather couches or seated at a dozen or so candlelit tables—tables that recast the main gathering space of Manhattan’s Club Macanudo (www.clubmacanudo.com) into an upscale dining room as much as the leather couches transform it into a relaxed cocktail lounge.

Billows of cigar smoke slowly waft upward from a group of businessmen seated at a couch in the room’s center and also from a jovial dinner party laughing around a large circular table positioned near the far wall. Córdoba shifts in his seat again. He’s been uninvolved for too long. There’s an energy stirring in the club—conversations are beginning, introductions are being made, and Córdoba yearns to be surrounded by them. But for the charismatic Spaniard, it’s not a matter of wanting to be a part of the action. Instead, Córdoba wants only to welcome it.

Love and passion. They are, as Córdoba will tell you, the two elements by which he runs the club. “This is my life; this is my passion,” he says of the club, gesturing to the groups of cigar smokers and diners socializing throughout its various rooms. “This is what I want it to be.

“This is who I am,” he adds, flashing a charming smile and pulling open the unbuttoned lapels of his jacket. Relaxed and casual—it’s the message he wants to convey—but the pressed dress shirt, vest, and tie convey another. They allude to Córdoba’s commitment to elevate the club’s level of service, and that’s the factor that the club’s regular patrons and private members appreciate more than anything else. “He makes you feel that you’re part of the family,” says Michael Cuadra, a patron of the club since 1999 and a humidor holder since 2006. “It’s like visiting family but with all these wonderful assets on top of it.”

Club Macanudo opened its doors near the corner of Madison Avenue and East 63rd Street in April 1996, and it immediately reaped the rewards of a cigar craze sweeping over New York and the rest of the country. The club is open to the public, although a membership program ($850 per year, $1,400 for two years) provides access to private humidors, preferential seating, and invitations to a handful of members-only events with cigar and spirits manufacturers over the course of the year. Owned and operated by General Cigar Co., the club welcomes a broad range of patrons. That diversity is something regular guests enthusiastically support and that the club continues to encourage. “We have clients who are captains of industry, and of equal measure we have people who are more blue collar in nature, whether they’re policemen or firefighters,” says Victoria McKee of General Cigar. “When they’re at the club, there’s really no difference between them. Cigars are a great equalizer.”

New York City began enforcing a smoking ban in all bars and restaurants in 2003, but because Club Macanudo had a long-standing history, it was granted an exception. That exception makes it the city’s only cigar club with a full liquor license and dinner menu that also is open to the public. But where some newer Manhattan clubs lack that full package of services, they make up for it in other areas—most notably, exclusivity.

Beyond The Velvet Ropes
Since strict smoking bans took effect around the country in the early 2000s—and with some cities like New York recently launching outdoor smoking bans in parks and on beaches and pedestrian plazas—tobacco retailers have been forced to dedicate shop space to the creation of relaxed and comfortable environments for the consumption of their products. Nat Sherman (www.natsherman.com) pioneered such a philosophy—long before it seemed a necessity—so early, in fact, that many other retailers dismissed its importance. “It was forward thinking by the Shermans to see that the retail experience extended to the consumption experience; that the concept of the brand included the product and the experience,” says Michael Herklots, the company’s executive director of retail and brand development.

In 2007 the company took that approach further when it moved into a new townhouse near the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 42nd Street. Completely gutting the building—formerly a Chinese takeout restaurant—the Sherman family dedicated the lowest level to the Johnson Club Room, a 1,700-square-foot, members-only lounge, complete with a walk-in, climate-controlled humidor partitioned into private lockers. Backlit by a neon orange “Cigars” sign over a four-person bar (which can operate when the club holds private, catered events), the club room offers members leather armchairs and couches and a glimpse into the history of the brand, thanks to the many pieces of nostalgic Nat Sherman memorabilia on display.

Membership costs $3,000 per year, and that payment serves as credit for anything for sale in the store. While membership in the club provides a level of exclusivity, access to a private conference room, humidor lockers, and first access to limited-edition cigars and accessories, Herklots says the club really shines by being an extension of the retail experience that the townhouse provides. “Our team has incredible knowledge about the many different cigars we offer in order to make the most appropriate recommendations to our guests,” he says. “That moment of advice and guidance about our products is what ensures that the experience in the club will be positive. It doesn’t matter how nice your club is if the cigar you’re smoking isn’t the experience you’d hoped for.”

As the executive director of retail and brand development, Herklots spends much of his time refining the Nat Sherman product and working to create new cigar blends. However, as he explains, the club’s greatest benefit isn’t something that can be purchased. “Luxury describes an experience, not things,” he says. “Having the chance to take 20 minutes out of your day to smoke a cigar is the luxury. The cigar itself isn’t a luxury, whether it costs $10 or $100. The moment of enjoyment is the luxury.”

A Smoker’s Safe Haven
Upscale cigar clubs with varying atmospheres, demographics, and membership rates exist all across the country (See “Hot Spots” in this month’s issue of Robb Report to learn more).However, regardless of location, ambience, or structure, every club shares one feature—they bring divergent people together through a common love of cigars. “When you’re in a cigar club sharing a cigar, there are no titles or financial strata,” says Mark Dycio of Fairfax, Va. “You’re just a couple guys enjoying a cigar.”

In many respects, that was the vision that Stanley Shuster adhered to when he opened the Grand Havana Room (www.grandhavanaroom.com) in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 1995. He wanted to create a space where friends and associates could gather and enjoy a cigar, a place that cigar aficionados would love to build into their home. “In my opinion, a good cigar is a good cigar, no matter if you’re smoking it on a park bench, a patio, or in your bedroom,” he says. “But I wanted to create a paradise, a place where I could kick my legs up and smoke a cigar.”

For many members, like Peter Weller, the 10,000-square-foot club is just that. “In a city like New York or Paris or London, a guy who likes a cigar can find many places to stroll and smoke,” he says. “L.A. is not a city of strolling, so this [club] is a godsend for us who want to wind down at the end of the day, sit out on the terrace, and enjoy some good food and a cigar.”

The club offers plenty of comfortable places to sit, upscale Italian fare courtesy of the Drago family’s restaurant Via Alloro, private humidors, and a selection of the best cigars and spirits, but according to Weller, the club’s greatest attribute is the serenity, tranquillity, and privacy that it creates. “The thing that really enforces that is that Stan is here maintaining the dignity and the cachet and the elegance of the place. But it’s not a scene,” he says, explaining that the club isn’t viewed as a venue to mingle. “People who are looking for a scene…they’re not going to get it.”

With a long waiting list already in place, those seeking membership—which costs $5,000 and an additional $275 each month—will have to be patient. Weller considers it well worth the wait, both for the safe haven that you can retreat to and for the people you will meet—people who might share many of your same passions. For Weller, such a person is Mark Hime, the proprietor of a local antiquarian bookshop. “[The belief that] in L.A. you can’t find culture can sometimes be true,” says Weller, who joined a week after the club opened. “But the opportunity to come here and smoke a cigar with Mark and talk about the origin of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers or Botticelli paintings is a godsend for me. I can cut loose with him and discuss cultural values of the world.”

Preserving A Lifestyle
While the Grand Havana Room is one of the oldest members-only cigar clubs in the country, CXIII Rex (pronounced one-thirteen rex; www.cxiiirex.com) in historic Old Town Alexandria, Va., is one of the newest. Though they operate on opposite coasts, the two members-only establishments share more similarities than can be discerned at first glance. Set within a historic building in one of the oldest seaports in the country and characterized by exposed brick, wooden beams made from 200-year-old American walnut, and the visible remnants of an old iron lift that—poetically—used to haul bags of tobacco up from the ground floor, CXIII Rex never could be mistaken for Shuster’s California paradise; and club owner Noe Landini will be the first to admit that. “Nothing here looks like Grand Havana Room,” he says. “But operationally, it [Grand Havana] contributed to how we operate here—the service, how you can order a cigar and a drink, and how you can sit down and have a good meal.”

Landini, along with his father, also owns Landini Brothers, an Italian restaurant next door. The concept for CXIII Rex took form when the Landinis learned that Virginia would pass its own smoking ban in December 2009. Prior to that, a specific dining room in their restaurant allowed cigar smoking, but the younger Landini recognized that the room offered much more than an opportunity to smoke a cigar. It represented a lifestyle, and he wasn’t about to let that disappear. “We were sitting on a golden opportunity to do something really great,” he says. “We’ve never done anything half-assed before and we weren’t about to start.”

That set in motion an 18-month process to create the club, which cost almost $2 million when all was said and done. Membership costs $10,000 and new members require referrals from at least one of the 260 existing members, though Landini himself can refer prospective members, once he gets to know them. Electronic membership cards open the door out front, activate the members-only elevator, and allow members to open their private humidor-lockers, but Landini has incorporated many important service details as well. Complimentary iPads, Skype phones, and purse stands are the norm, while special requests for off-menu dishes or personalized cocktails are fulfilled frequently. “We try to bring in all of those little things, even the things that don’t cost anything,” Landini says. “It’s a better experience for the member, but it also says a lot to the member’s guest. It’s an opportunity for the member to show off, and it allows the member’s guest to be impressed.”

Some members have joined the club specifically for that “wow” factor when they want to entertain. “I know a lot of businessmen who are sometimes cigar smokers who say that they’ve joined the club because their clients like coming here, even if they’re not cigar smokers,” says Tony Makris, one of the original members of the club. “It’s that kind of an environment.”

For James Moore, the club has “texture” and an intimate ambience despite being almost 6,000 square feet in size. Beyond that, there’s a camaraderie that develops among club members, which leads to a desire to share new discoveries. “There are a lot of new things that are passed along,” he says. “A Cuban may show up on a doorstep here and there. You have around-the-world tastes [with the variety of members], and that truly is part of the beauty of it.”

Southern Hospitality
At the Smith House (www.smithhousenashville.com) in Nashville, Tenn., Joshua Smith dedicates himself to fostering a sense of community as well, and he’s done so by creating a specific cigar society within the club. Open to 50 people and costing an additional $50 per event, the society meets once a month and introduces passionate cigar smokers to one another, as well as to various cigar makers who visit the club.

Spread out over three floors of the city’s last historic townhouse, the Smith House feels more like a speakeasy than a typical cigar club. Membership costs $3,300 per year and requires referral from two existing members. More than that, it requires a specific attitude and philosophy. “It’s a private club for ladies and gentlemen who appreciate fine wines, fine food, and fine cigars and who are dedicated to the advancement of Nashville and their fellow members,” says Smith. “It’s not about how much money you have. There are plenty of people that can spend $3,300 that aren’t a good fit and don’t adhere to that mission statement.” And yes, Smith has revoked memberships when he deemed certain members were a detriment to the spirit of the establishment.

While Smith is serious about the character of members who join the club, he’s just as serious about creating an atmosphere that is relaxed and fun, even quirky. Take the wall by the bar covered in signatures. To earn the right to sign the wall, a member or guest first must take a shot of a North Korean grain alcohol. But there’s a catch: the bottle of alcohol contains the body of a dead adder, one of the world’s most venomous snakes. The ritual began as a $300 bet between two members, but it quickly evolved to the current wall of fame. The alcohol isn’t hazardous to your health, but the challenge isn’t easy. Those who have signed the wall will tell you the liquor is the most foul-tasting that you’ll ever find.

Other quirks within the club include a trapdoor on the first floor and a secret poker room accessed by a hidden door in the third-floor office. “You should see the grown men turn into 12-year-old boys when they open the door and see it,” Smith says of the secret room. “They just go nuts. You can see the wheels turning; they’re thinking, ‘I need to get me one of these!’”

A Cultural Journey
For the past 15 years, Rocky Patel has dedicated himself to the craft of cigar-making, always striving to perfect complex blends of tobaccos from various regions of the world. In many respects, Patel’s flagship cigar lounge, Burn (www.burnbyrockypatel.com), in Naples, Fla., mirrors the individual cigars upon which his reputation is built. “People have a vision of cigar clubs as a bunch of old men sitting around smoking a cigar and drinking a Cognac or a single malt and that it’s very stuffy,” he says. “When you’re at Burn, we say that you’re transcended on a journey. It’s much more fun.”

To create a cigar lounge and club that rejected conventional cigar-club elements, Patel looked to his travels around the globe. Moroccan and Turkish chandeliers hang throughout the 3,500-square-foot lounge; a candlelit wall inset with gold from Indian palaces accents the VIP area; and Jerusalem-excavated stones adorn the floors. The finished product is an eclectic, vibrant cigar lounge that offers patrons a relaxed environment in which to smoke during the day, but creates a dynamic and energized nightclub environment in the evening. “Rocky has made cigar lounges hip by opening Burn,” says Mark Dycio, a regular patron at the club. “It doesn’t do anything better than other clubs, but it brings in a completely different element of people.”

Much like Club Macanudo in New York, private memberships, which range from $2,500 to $5,000 per year based on the size of the humidor requested, provide members with preferential treatment and seating. But unlike the Manhattan club, Burn offers a scene infused with more action. “If my wife comes to Burn, she can dance and I can enjoy a cigar,” Dycio says. “I can do all the things that I would ordinarily do with her, but I can also enjoy a cigar.”

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