Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Cigar Store Safari

There's a lot of things I miss about Kentucky, but most of all I miss the days of life in St. Matthews when I had a house with a wine cellar and a walk-in humidor for that most Floridian of fancies: cigars. Talk about your "man caves"; I camped out down there literally for days at a time, like a Franciscan in a monastery studying illuminated manuscripts. (Except my manuscripts were moldy old pulp fiction and the dusty old dregs of comicdom.)

After I moved from there to the JSH Plantation in Anchorage (Kentucky), I tried to set up a primitive cellar and humidor in the unfinished basement, but it just wasn't the same. And from there, I entered into a still-ongoing period where I constantly go out and forage for a few cigars at a time, rather than keep them hoarded at home. I don't do those little-bitty desk humidors; they're a pain in the ass to fiddle with and it's strangely far easier to keep a whole room properly humidified than a small cedar box on your desk.

In Louisville, hustlin' sticks was easy, for the most part. With Riverside Cigars just over the puddle in Jeffersonville, Indiana (Where I scored Nat Sherman, Drew Estate Undercrown and the Riverside Cigars Casa Especial), J. Shepherd's in the Highlands (where I got my Leccia Black, Jaime Garcia, Tatuaje, La Duena and Tarazona 305), Kremer's downtown (Kristoff, Ashton VSG, Quesada Tributo), Oxmoor Smoke Shop in Oxmoor Mall (Perdomo Lot 23, CAO Sopranos) and - if I was really desperate enough to pay inflated prices for poorly-kept sticks - several Cox's and Liquor Barn locations. I even came to know all the lesser-known little nooks and crannies where cigars could be found, like a place on Bardstown Road that sold glass pipes and crap like that, but also had a small walk-in stocked with goodies like the LFD Airbender. And Claudia Sanders Dinner House, of all places, had an innocuous little humidor of stogies quietly sitting off to the side in their little-used upstairs.

But now that I'm in constantly on the go in Florida, traveling for work (the great work), I continually have to re-suss the lay of the land wherever I go and try to let my nervous system's cigar-detecting antenna reach its invisible tentacles out, sniffing, feeling, searching for those elusive boxed beauties until, like a dowsing rod, something begins to twitch and quiver in recognition of its goal.

My tour of duty in Jacksonville started off with a bad omen - a great cigar store had long existed in San Marco Square, just moments walk from my house - but had recently closed down. Fortunately, I soon sought out Tobacco Cove, a great place with a bunch of great old guys loungin' around and talkin' trash. Here is where I got turned on to a lot of this year's faves, like my current all-time #1 stick, Alec Bradley Nica Puro. I got in such a groove on those, I actually had to stop tweeting my cigars for awhile because it was Nica Puro every day and got just plain redundant.

Espinosa is another brand that was new to me until Tobacco Cove, as was the Esteban Carerras Chupa Cabra.

Meanwhile, I discovered four other great places - Island Girl Cigar Bar (with three locations!), Art of Cigars, Aromas and Smoke City. I mostly played it safe at Island Girl and propped up the bar with old standbys like Alec Bradley Black Market (I still worship this cigar for some reason, even though they're often too tight and have a real vegetal quality at the very end) and Drew Estate Liga Privada No. 9. Smoke City, whose dinosaur we've already discussed, provided me with stuff like Revolution, Upper Cut, Gurkha Ninja, and Gurkha Evil. At Aromas I got a little more experimental with oddball stuff like Pura Sangre, a Ventura offering which initially smelled like a cage at the zoo but once lit, honestly was a delicious, powerful and tantalyzing spicy smoke. I miss it. Good times.

Then came Clearwater. Not so good. Once again, I found there had recently been a cigar store - very close to where I was living - on Fort Harrison Avenue, but it had given up the ghost. I quickly determined there to be a number of cigar shops over the bridge in Clearwater Beach but they mostly specialized in hand-rolled stuff - and just between you and me and the microphone in the potted plant, dear reader, I'm a real snob about my hand-rolleds and hard to satisfy. Fusion Cigars carried a decent line of name brands but unfortunately they don't open until 3pm and I usually stepped out to fetch my fineries in the mornings. A little joint in a strip mall called Smoker's Paradise turned out to be my primary smoke source while in CW, and they got me obsessed with Nish Patel's XEN cigar, which is a creamy-tasting Connecticut-wrapper "breakfast cigar" that puts off a lot of billowy smoke with a real ass-kick to it.

Finally, my cigardian angel led me to a place way out Highway 19, called Smoker's Den who showed me the San Lotano love and the ways of Asylum 13 as well as stocking my XENs. But aside from a rack of My Uzi Weighs A Ton baitfish packs at Smoker's Paradise, there wasn't a serious Drew Estate to be had in the whole damn city. Mark my words, there's a real market void waiting for someone to fill it: there needs to be a serious cigar shop that sells the good high-end collector's stuff right in downtown Clearwater, preferably on Cleveland Street.

Now I'm on Siesta Key, that wacky party-island off the coast of Sarasota, learning the ropes all over again about where to find the rope-a-dope. For the third city in a row, I found a shut-down cigar store that had been right at the top of my street, practically. These are apparently tough times for the stick-store business; watch yourselves, boys, keep sharp.

As luck would have it, I soon found a hip liquor store called Siesta Spirits that has a goodly humidor full of can't-go-wrong crowd-pleasers like Arturo Fuente Hemingway and Drew Estate Natural Clean Robusto. Over on the mainland, I discovered Mardo's, a place run by a guy who was very knowledgeable in some ways (he could rattle off the entire history of many of the companies and knew the exact composition of every cigar he stocked, right down to the country of origin of the filler) but then said some baffling things too (like, regarding several new upstart companies I mentioned, he muttered dismissively, "Ehnh. All those places get their cigars from Oliva and put their own band on it, who needs it?")

Most recently, I was relieved to find Bennington's on St. Armand's Key (who also stocks my local snooty-grocery, Morton's, with their cigars) carries the XEN and a boatload of other good stuff including some new to me, such as Giacomo's and Flor de las Antillas. And then there's Norman's Liquors way out Clark Road - they have a way deep walk-in with an old favorite of mine from back in the Kentucky days, Perdomo Patriarch. But it's Sarasota's Maduro Cigar Bar that takes the prize for the place to go - crazy-complete selection of sticks and a dark cozy atmosphere, where a man can hibernate, drink craft beer, and ponder his sins. When I saw they had cans of Drew Estate's Papas Fritas I knew the hand of providence had placed me right where I belonged.

Papas Fritas are an exercise in audacity that not many other than Jonathan Drew might have attempted - selling an expensive product that is openly admitted to be a recycled short-filler amalgamation of leftover table sweepings from construction of Liga Privada cigars. But these Frankenstein french fries really are tasty.

Other cities I find myself often in include St. Petersburg, where I recently discovered the joys of Central Cigars, a really dark can't-see-my-cigar-till-I-light-it saloon with one whole wall of smokes going off practically into the vanishing point. In several visits to St. Augustine, I've learned where every cigar is to be had - but usually go to St. Augustine Tobacco, hidden deep in the labyrinth of the Colonial Quarter. Ybor City, of course, is such the cigar capital that you can't throw a rock without hitting a tobacconist.

And then there's Orlando. Well, the less said about Orlando, the better.

Sooner or later my Steampunk Tiki-Bar concept, the Pulcova Club, will be up and running and then once again I will have a wine cellar and walk-in humidor to lord over, like an evil genius in his doomsday fallout shelter. You're welcome to join me... until then, I'm out there on the hunt, constantly vigilant, searching the seaside for the sweetest sticks, day by day, hour by hour, to help serve the cause to which we all are so devoted.

Stay tuned; developing.

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