The typical Liberty smoker is a man, somewhere north or south of middle aged — no surprises there; but gender and age aside, cigar smokers are a quirky, iconoclastic bunch, and in any smoke-shop gathering, one is likely to find a maverick or two. One of the more distinctive I’ve met is “Cabbie Chris,” a Liberty regular. Chris, a 40ish fellow with a long, blond ponytail, drives a taxi for a local company and smokes cigars (Cuban when he can) at a prodigious rate. If you shoot the breeze with him long enough, he may confess that someday (triggering event unknown), he plans to move to Cuba. Apparently, he has a 16-year-old girlfriend there, but more importantly, in Fidel’s steamy “worker’s paradise,” Chris will be able to smoke all the Cubans he wants, on the cheap and without fear of U.S. Customs confiscation.
Just down the road from Charlie’s domain, Excalibur Cigar and Wine Lounge, though junior by many years (and somewhat bereft of warmth), attempts to compete by offering wine, beer, and a lot more luxury. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much, but, belying its Clairemont Mesa Boulevard setting, it’s upscale in feel. Owner Tom Kalasho, a curt Middle Easterner, has gone all out to fill it with overstuffed leather chairs and dark wood, nicely appointed in a “man-fort” way. It also claims San Diego’s largest walk-in humidor (an attribute of no small import to cigar buyers) where 10,000 or so smokes wait in pleasantly damp, Spanish cedar–lined repose.
No matter the setting, Tom, Charlie, Sam, and every other tobacconist worth his maduro wrapper wants you to know that while cigars aren’t without hazard (certainly, the risk of oral cancer goes up), moderate cigar smoking (we’re talking non-inhalers here) isn’t particularly harmful. It’s also damn relaxing. And, for what it’s worth, San Diego’s cigar lounges count among their frequent guests a surprising number of physicians, not to mention a scattering of professional athletes. Still, an inevitable question hangs in the air like the sweet smell of a Cohiba Siglo III: Is cigar smoking compatible with the sort of super-fit lifestyle many San Diegans profess to lead?
I asked a handful of local puffers — perhaps a representative sample, perhaps not: Can one enjoy cigars even as one leads a genuinely healthy, even athletic existence? Do the protestations of “public health” types — the killjoys who constantly issue fatwas against everything from meat to fast driving — have any merit? Getting down to specifics, will cigars (again, not inhaled, mind you) “cut your wind,” rendering each step of a mundane 5K run progressively slower until one comes to a standstill? As it turns out, there are a surprising number of serious runners and other accomplished exercise devotees who dig these hand-rolled bundles; I spoke to several men whose athletic prowess seems to dispel (or at least cast doubt on) the nasty notion that cigars — whatever their other drawbacks — might inhibit cardiovascular health or performance in sports.
Unless he told you while strapped to a polygraph machine, you’d never know that Marty Twite was a cigar man; I mean, for God’s sake, here’s a guy who has run a 10K race in 36 minutes, a time that placed him a lot closer to the top than the bottom in his age group.
At 50, he swims 3000 yards a day. Twite, an engineer with several patents to his credit, is lean, tanned, and lithe — every bit the picture of a SoCal endurance athlete — hardly the classic portrait of the portly, sedentary fat-cat stogie-chomper sitting at the dark end of a saloon. But smoke cigars he does, albeit only occasionally. He says, emphatically, that cigars have never hindered his performance; “It’s just not an issue.”
As I nosed around San Diego’s cigar lounges, I also spoke with several accomplished tennis players, a competitive bodybuilder, and even a fair-to-middling triathlete. Largely white-collar types, 25–50 years old, they all told me that they take fitness seriously but see no reason not to enjoy cigars. The triathlete, who, for obvious “image” reasons prefers to remain anonymous, laughed when I asked if he’d ever smoked a cigar before an event. “That’s a little over the top, but hey, after the race, I deserve a cigar and a six-pack. Just don’t tell the other guys.”
If cigar smoking doesn’t exclude the healthy, does it by chance exclude the less than wealthy? Thumbing through the slick pages of Cigar Aficionado, one might think so. “CA,” as it’s known — the best-known and certainly most opulent (some would say, most pretentious) media showcase for cigars — speaks reverently of a cigar “lifestyle,” replete with Ferraris, $15,000 tourbillion watches, $500 designer ashtrays, and museum-piece cigar cutters. But does this “lifestyle” exist — or is it just a fatuous notion, an advertiser’s pipe dream?
For most of the San Diego cigar smokers I encountered, the touted accoutrements, even those labeled “indispensable,” are just as remote and unattainable as they would be for the average cigarette smoker — laughably unrealistic. Sure, the cigar-smoking denizens of Rancho Santa Fe and La Jolla are more likely to own a walk-in humidor than the folks in, say, Clairemont, but even the most plebeian of locals can afford a good five-dollar cigar now and then. Many smokers at Liberty (the savviest and most value-conscious of San Diego cigar smokers with whom I spoke) pay less. Willing to overlook tiny, cosmetic blemishes that often trip up big-name smokes in quality-control drills, they find “seconds,” like the ones made by H. Upmann and others, more than adequate at around two bucks a stick.
Even if outlandish accompaniments aren’t commonplace, it seems that San Diego’s cigar buffs aren’t reluctant to shell out cash for high-end cigars, a fact borne out at Cigars Vera Cruz, which sells a surprising number of expensive handmades. When I asked Sam what his best sellers were, he answered, without hesitation, “Padron Series 1926 and 1964, especially the #9.” I’d never before associated San Marcos with the “high life” (save Miller, perhaps), but the popularity of these Nicaraguan Padron puros (single-country-origin tobacco), at $12–$25 a pop, gave me pause.