A Touch of Class for an ancient pleasure.
Don Waddell loves the smell of tobacco. It’s early on a sunny spring afternoon, and the owner of The Cigar Room on University Drive pauses to trim his Cohiba. He lights up and leans back on the outdoor sofa. Life is good.
The Cigar Room has been open since 10 a.m., but only a handful of aficionados can be found in either the expansive inside smoking lounge or the outside patio lounge. It’s quiet now, but Waddell says by 4 p.m. it will be packed with an assortment of cigar and pipe smokers representing a cross section of the Rocket City. He calls his cigar lounge a social leveler. “We get all types in here: government employees, Army guys, police officers, firefighters, lawyers and businessmen. It’s a social thing.” He says they congregate to talk politics, the military, guns, golf and sports in general.
And, of course, cigars. To the uninitiated, the complexity and variety of cigars can be astounding.
Across town, on South Parkway, somewhat inconspicuously tucked along the service road just south of Bob Wallace, The Humidor enjoys the distinction of being Alabama’s oldest cigar shop and lounge. In business since 1960 when Huntsville’s small but blooming population consisted largely of the military, the smaller, cozier Humidor has a reputation of being the lounge where everyone feels welcome, a true neighborhood melting pot, like the 1980s TV sitcom Cheers “where everybody knows your name.”
The Humidor has always attracted an eclectic clientele. “Our clients range from those making millions each year to those barely making ends meet,” says manager Chuck Facemier. “We get some lively conversations going here. We save the world several times a day.”
Cigar smokers vary almost as much as the cigars they enjoy, says Facemier, “but you have two basic types. You’ve got those who just want something to puff on while cutting the grass or playing golf. But the connoisseurs want to really enjoy the smoking experience. They want a cigar to challenge the palate.”
But more than anything else, it’s all about the camaraderie. Robert Salinas knows that well. The semi-retired ex-military PR specialist, who does freelance audio work and serves on the board of the Huntsville Ballet, frequents the Humidor and several of Huntsville’s other cigar lounges around town.
“Cigar smokers will talk about almost anything, but most really love to talk about cigars. You see someone smoking a cigar and the first question asked is ‘what are you smoking?’ There’s a socialization aspect of it. Cigar smokers will often offer you a cigar you’ve never tried. I’ve even had women come up to me and offer me a cigar.”
Women are, by the way, showing up in increasing numbers in local cigar stores and lounges. The percentage of women smokers is still very small – only about 2% of U.S. women – but has grown rapidly from the fraction of a percent that smoked as recently as the 1990s. Perhaps celebrity smokers such as Demi Moore, Claudia Schiffer, and Angelina Jolie have had an influence. As the female market has grown, cigar makers are marketing flavors such as honey and mocha, designed for the feminine palate.
They make up a growing percentage of Vintage Cigar Lounge’s clientele, says Vintage general manager Alka Chain. “It’s a new experience for women who want to enjoy the finer things of life,” she says. “They come in here and find a new, non-intimidating experience.”
Smoking a cigar is a sensory experience, and Madison County’s array of cigar lounges offer a variety of ways to enjoy it. The Humidor, a Huntsville icon, long ago staked out the neighborhood lounge position. Vintage Cigar Lounge in Bridge Street anchors the higher, “clubbier” end of the spectrum. The other three – the Cigar Room in Madison, Nick’s Ristorante, and SIP Bar downtown – each have their own unique offerings.
Cigars vary widely in price. Smokers can choose from low-priced smokes in the $2-$5 range all the way up to premium cigars selling for $35 or more. Facemier does a lot of business in the $6 to $9 range. Local aficionados seem to agree that very good cigars can be had for $10-$20, with smokes that carry exotic Latin names like Arturo Fuente, Partigas, Macanudo, Cohiba, Hoyo de Monterry, or El Rev de Mundo. The price, Facemier explains, depends on the quality and scarcity of the tobacco used, how well it has been primed, and how long it has aged. Cigars can be flavored with fine liqueurs, brandies, and whiskies, added to enhance the smoking experience.
Cigar enthusiasts wax eloquent over the vast and subtle differences of their favorite smokes. Phrases like “hint of wood and coffee, delicate spice and nutty core” roll off their lips as easily as the phrases used by drinkers of fine scotch or bourbon to describe the alcoholic objects of their affection. In practical terms, says Facemier, the more expensive the smoke, the higher the quality of the tobacco. “There’s almost no similarity between cigar tobacco and cigarette tobacco. Fine cigar tobacco is primed and aged, and there is always a scarcity of the very best tobacco.”
“Cigarettes are a habit, but cigars are an experience,” says Nick’s Ristorante owner Nick Mikus. “It’s an experience to be shared with a drink or a fine meal.” And unlike cigarettes, cigar smoke is almost never inhaled. He demonstrates what cigar smokers know as retrohaling: “You don’t inhale the smoke, just taste it and let it out through your nose. You want to enjoy the taste.”
In a hurried world, the cigar lounge offers a place to relax, unwind, and get to know the person sitting next to you. The very act of smoking one requires slowing down and relaxing. “When you light a cigar, you’re looking at spending anything from a half hour to more than an hour smoking it,” Salinas says. “It’s just something that can’t be hurried.”
Central to every cigar lounge is the humidor. To be maintained for maximum smoking pleasure, a cigar must be stored at a constant 70 degrees and 70% humidity. “We call it the 70/70 rule” says Waddell. Just walking into The Cigar Room’s large humidor, or the ones at Humidor or Vintage or SIP, can be a sensory delight. You find yourself surrounded by sights and smells of thousands of cigars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But it doesn’t require a large humidor to make a great cigar lounge. The humidor at Nick’s Ristorante occupies only a small space at the end of the bar, but it’s central to the atmosphere of the restaurant’s cigar image. “Our patrons will come in here and keep a dozen or so of their favorite cigars here, so they know they them when they come,” Mikus explains. “You’d be surprised just how often they offer one to someone else, especially a smoker they’ve not met before.”
Salinas makes the rounds to all of Huntsville’s cigar lounges, often showing up at Nick’s. “The experience of being able to sit in the bar while enjoying a great cigar is just wonderful,” he says. Nick’s bartenders will often recommend a particular scotch, bourbon or wine with a cigar. “It’s called pairing,” says Salinas, who explains that from time to time Nick’s will hold a pairing event, charging a small fee for particular cigar and liquor combinations.
Among all of Huntsville’s cigar lounges, the Nick’s Ristorante Mafia Club offers a unique way to prepay for various levels of food, drink and cigars. Club members buy memberships ranging in price from $300 to $2000 and lasting from 60 days to a year. All club members get a 25% premium: for example, a $1000 Red level membership for six months gets a member $1250 in club credit. “It’s a unique way to pay yourself forward,” says Mikus.
Clubbiness can be part of that experience. For those wanting an almost country-club experience, Vintage in Bridge Street strives to offer customers a premium smoking environment: not only selling cigars and designer drinks, but offering customers a luxurious venue in which to smoke them. A walk through the cigar lounge or the expansive humidor is an encounter with fine leather chairs and dark burnished wood. Patrons can choose between a large outdoor smoking area or the large indoor smoking lounge. It clearly caters to smokers who want to spend several hours with their favorite cigars.
Located in the heart of downtown and styled like a 1920s speakeasy, SIP offers both a general cigar lounge, and an executive lounge for members only. The Silver level $450 annual memberships provides the opportunity to smoke while hanging out with an exclusive group, while the Gold level $525 membership adds the use of one of twelve Spanish cedar-lined cigar lockers.
Bar manager Patrick Brisco knows most of the executive group members by name. “It’s a small, congenial group where all members love the cigar experience. It’s an experience they love to share,” he says, adding he’d like to be a fly on the wall when some of the conversations get really spirited, like late at night.
He says it’s common for one of the members to bring in a box of premium cigars and offer them to all members of the club.
Clients come to places like SIP and Vintage not just for the cigars but also for exotic drinks. “We’re known for our mixology,” Vintage’s Chain says, “such as our craft cocktails that we pair with certain cigars.” SIP is also into exotic drinks, and boasts perhaps the best assemblage of spirits.
Vintage strives to maintain high standards – there is even a dress code. “I would term it business casual,” says Chain, “but we do allow jeans, but no tank tops or halters. We want our members to respect each other.” For those wanting to avoid the tinge of cigar smoke when going home, Vintage also offers smoking jackets.
Annual membership fees range upwards from $550, getting members various levels of cigar and beverage privileges. But regardless of the membership level, each member gets access to the lounge, with its leather chairs, card tables, three TVs and other amenities.
So there you have it. Ready to light up in Huntsville? There is a wide selection of places to go to get out of the house and share your cigar experience with others of like-mind.