Democracy in the Tobacconist’s
From the December 16, 2013, issue of NR


Jonah Goldberg

“If I cannot smoke cigars in heaven,
 I shall not go!”

– attributed to Mark Twain

If you have read my articles for this magazine, or if you perused my last book, you may have detected the vague scent of tobacco wafting up from it. That is because I can often be found at my office away from the office: the cigar shop (specifically, Signature Cigars in Washington, D.C., the capital’s best tobacconist). When not there, I can often be found on the twelfth-floor balcony of the American Enterprise Institute, also with stogie in hand. A friend and former colleague and I gave this balcony a nickname, “The Remnant,” in homage to Albert Jay Nock’s notion of an irreducible sliver of right-thinking humanity separate and apart from the “Neolithic” masses.

Nock’s was a thoroughly elitist conception, which is ironic, since smoking cigars may be the most democratic thing I do. At the cigar shop, the clientele is mixed in nearly every way, though you wouldn’t say it “looks like America.” A large proportion of the African-American regulars are D.C. cops. In terms of professions, the crowd leans a bit too heavily toward lawyers (as does the nation’s capital). But there’s no shortage of contractors, manual laborers, college students, and retirees.

Politically, there are all types. As far as I can tell, the most ideologically conservative regular (me included) is a federal employee. The gender mix is thoroughly lopsided, of course. Women do occasionally come into the shop, but when they do, all eyes go up as if a unicorn had sauntered into a library. Dennis Prager, another gentleman of the leaf, has written that cigar shops may be the last place in America where men can congregate and talk as men. It’s not discrimination, mind you, it’s just that cigar smoke tends to have the same effect on the fairer sex that it has on mosquitoes.

What unites us all is a fondness for — or craving for — cigars, not tobacco per se mind you, but cigars. It is generally frowned upon to smoke cigarettes in a cigar shop. Pipes may be welcome (I for one think they have the best aroma), but I don’t think I have ever seen one smoked in a cigar shop, even though nearly all good tobacconists sell pipes and their associated sundries.

In football (a subject of near-constant discussion at the cigar shop) there’s a saying, “Watch the ball, not the man.” With cigars, something similar is at work. The camaraderie follows the leaf. On the road, I will often be seen outside my hotel preparing for a speech or writing a column with cigar in hand. Invariably another cigar smoker will catch the scent and, at a minimum, nod his appreciation. Often he will strike up a conversation about what I’m smoking or where there might be a good cigar shop in the area. One thing he will never do is ask for a cigar. Cigars are things of real value, emotionally and financially, and when they are given away, it’s as a gift. Cigarettes are filthy commodities shared among a lesser genus of addicts. There’s a reason it’s called “bumming a cigarette.”

Indeed, the similarities between cigars and cigarettes are more limited than you might think. For starters, you don’t inhale the smoke from cigars, at least not intentionally, which is one reason why the risks of lung cancer for cigar smokers are tiny when compared with those for cigarette smokers. Sadly, this fact often causes cigarette smokers to take up cigars, only to discover that they can’t kick the habit of inhaling, a practice that horrifies cigar aficionados and doctors alike.

So, what defines a good cigar? Frankly, I am the wrong man to ask. The best short answer to that question is, “Whatever you enjoy.” As with anything of beauty, much depends on the tastes of the beholder. But everyone agrees on a few hallmarks of an excellent cigar, just as everyone agrees on what makes a bad one (commonly referred to in the trade as a “sh*t stick”).

A good cigar must be well constructed and consistent. A well-constructed cigar is one that burns properly and draws well. If it is not rolled properly, a cigar will burn unevenly and it will be hard to draw smoke through. I’ve had a few cigars that were so poorly rolled I nearly gave myself a hernia trying to pull flavor out of them. Consistency is also important: As with a fine single-malt Scotch (there’s no such thing as a fine blended Scotch, if you ask me), each pour must meet your expectations.

What makes cigars enjoyable? Speaking only for myself, I think it is both the yin and the yang. There are few more relaxing things in life than reserving an hour or so to enjoy a fine cigar. But unlike alcohol — against which I have no brief, in moderation of course — nicotine is a stimulant. It heightens my concentration and allows me to focus on whatever I am reading, saying, or writing. It is the combination of these two effects — steadying the nerves and electrifying them at the same time — that makes a cigar so agreeable.