Drew Estate: A Destination for cigar smokers

If you like to light up a stick more than occasionally, it’s time for you to consider a “cigar safari.” This unique experience, offered by Drew Estate, which manufactures both traditional and infused cigars, is available up to 16 times a year at its factory in Esteli, Nicaragua. Spend four days and three nights soaking in the pool, sipping cocktails in the on-site lounge and sampling the entire Drew Estate line, from Acid to T52.

Many cigar manufacturers are offering tours for their end-consumers these days. Camacho, Rocky Patel and Pepin Garcia’s My Father are among the companies that have taken this giant marketing leap forward. With Drew Estate, however, there is a touch of a resort feel. The guestrooms, limited number, feel more like a hotel than the barracks style available at some of the factories, and the guest-to-bathroom ratio isn’t bad.

Upstairs is the sort of cigar lounge that makes smokers salivate, with plenty of couches, flat screen televisions, a bar and even a poker table (games are held regularly with guests). The lounge opens onto a balcony (soon to be furnished) that offers stunning views of the Nicaragua countryside. Back on the ground, you can have a drink prepared and sit by the pool – or slip into it to cool off for a while.


Only a short walk away is the factory, where you’ll become acquainted with the process by which the stuff on which you puff is made. The Drew Estate team will introduce you to the various infused and traditional lines it offers, and you’ll get the chance to see the company’s unique manufacturing process in action, from tobacco just being brought in the door through rolling, packaging and, yes, smoking. The guys on site are quite knowledgeable and will be able to answer all your questions thoroughly … except one.

Drew Estate stays mum on its infusing process and is quite committed to keeping the secret sauce secret. Somebody always asks, and the answer is always the same: NO. You also won’t be taken on a tour of that part of the facility. Fortunately, there’s plenty to experience already, so you’ll hardly miss the chance to eye some trade secrets.

On your visit to Drew Estate, be prepared to smoke. The point of the trips is to acquaint cigar smokers with the brand, sot eh company is always putting it at the center of the experience. Cigars, along with meals and beverages, are included in the nominal fee of $450 (you’re responsible for your own airfare).

Pack your cutter and your lighter (but not if you use a torch), and get ready to relax with a cigar in your hand for four days. Unlike most cigar trips, you can book this one on your own, rather than have it arranged through a smoke shop. Keep in mind that there is only a limited number of trips every year, and they do fill up quickly.

Six ways to enjoy Madison Square Park

Manhattan has a lot of great parks – but a handful tends to hog all the attention. Central Park is what it is; there’s just now way to compare it to anything else. Bryant Park has live performances and exhibitions (not to mention a starring role in Fashion Week) and is only a block from Times Square. And, there are others that would come to mind before you work your way down the list to one of my favorite open spaces in the city: Madison Square Park.

Don’t be misled – this park is nowhere near the “garden” of the same name. It sits between East 23d Street and East 26th Street and between Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue, in a small pocket of New York that most visitors tend to skip. So, catch the R or W train to the East 23d Street stop, and get ready to enjoy Madison Square Park in six different ways.

1. Take care of two buildings at once
The uniquely shaped Flatiron Building is right across the intersection from the southwest corner of the park, where Fifth Avenue and Broadway meet. What you may not realize, though, is that the northwest corner of the park (East 26th Street and Fifth Avenue) provides a great view of the Empire State Building. Crowds tend to form, for some reason, during morning rush hour (which sucks for the locals). Also, avoid lunch hour and evenings, as people who work nearby will get in the way of your shot.


2. Watch some television – live
It’s not unusual to find camera crews in and around Madison Square Park. Plenty of shows shot in New York use the space. So, while you wander through, you may be lucky enough to bump into one of your faves.

3. Go to the bathroom
If you aren’t fortunate enough to spot a celeb, drink some water. This will have the predictable effect and send you to one of only a handful of self-cleaning public toilets in the New York City. It’s on the southeast corner of Madison Square Park, and a quarter buys you 15 minutes. That should be plenty of time to take interior photos of the device that guest-starred on CSI:NY.

4. Enjoy some art
There’s always a public art display of some kind in Madison Square Park. Right now, it’s Markers, an installation by Mel Kendrick, a Boston-born artist who’s now a resident of New York. This project consists of five pieces reflect the “rippling surfaces contain the fossil memory of the actions taken over time.” Like almost all the public art in Madison Square Park, Kendrick’s installation is definitely worth a look.

5. Grab a bite
Sure, it’s tempting to head over to the storied Shake Shack in the southeast corner of Madison Square Park (near the toilet/TV star/murderer). But, if you’re looking for a substantial, enjoyable sit-down meal, go up to Ben & Jack’s Steakhouse, a few blocks north on East 28th Street and Fifth Avenue. Definitely make the ribeye your meal (it was amazing), but you’d be nuts not to start with the seafood platter. Take your time, and rest your feet for a bit, especially if you’ve been wandering around the city all day. The staff is attentive and accommodating, and they will not rush you. This is a great alternative to the long waits and hope-you-can-pull-it-off reservation situations at the steakhouses in mid-town. And, the dark-wooded interior drives home the insider feel that makes any steak dinner in Manhattan complete.

6. Grab a cigar (for those inclined)
For many, the only way to finish a hefty steak dinner is with a cigar. Go local with a stick from Martinez Cigars, a few blocks away on West 29th Street and Seventh Ave. Grab a maduro, and go back to the park (while you can still smoke there). If nobody’s around, chill for a bit on the new pedestrian area just west of Madison Square Park.

New York’s Secret Cigar Shops

When you set foot in Manhattan, you have plenty of cigar choices. Davidoff has two stores in the city – not including De La Concha, which it also owns. There are a handful of Barclay Rex stores, and downtown’s Wall Street Humidor is a must if you have jury duty (it’s closer to courts than it is to Wall Street). Limiting your cigar-smoking to these major retailers, though, is like visiting only the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and Times Square. The city has much more to offer.

Dotting Manhattan are small cigar shops that focus on their own brands, often rolled on the premises while you watch. Some carry a few major names supplement their own stock, while others stick strictly to the store brand. Dig into this side of the city’s cigar culture, and you will find some hidden gems.

Taino Cigars, on 9th Ave (between W 38th St and W 39th St), offers a wide selection of house brand cigars – from light and mild to a maduro that blends leaves from several countries and offers a fair degree of complexity. The store itself is decidedly austere. It’s easy to miss from the street, and inside, there are only a couple of chairs in which to sit. But, the cigars are incredibly inexpensive (corona-sized tend to be around $5), and the discounts for bundles of 25 cigars are generous.

Martinez Cigars is another diamond in the rough, on W. 29th St (between 6th Ave and 7th Ave, closer to the latter). Again, the small storefront is easy to pass by, so look carefully. Inside, you’ll see cigar rollers at work, and a small display counter up front offers you a decent selection consisting only of the store’s brand. If you like a fairly full-bodied cigar, go with the Martinez Pasion 750. In general, they tend to cost less than $10 a piece. Taking them for the road is your best bet (smoke them in Madison Square Park, which isn’t far away), as seating is quite limited. This is a destination strictly for cigars (like Taino). Part of the reason for the low prices is the salient lack of overhead.

The small hand-roll shops do stack up well against major middle-of-the-road brands. They are constructed well enough and do offer some interesting flavors. But, they still don’t compare to top-tier cigars like the upper-end Davidoff, Padron and Fuente cigars.

If you’re visiting New York, pick up a bundle from a small, local tobacconist. You’ll have a great conversation piece when you get home.

[Map shows Taino’s exact location]

Smoke and eat in New York – at the same time

There are two types of attraction in New York. The surface stuff – like a visit to the Empire State Building and a walk through Times Square – show up in just about every guidebook you can imagine. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find the array of experiences that appeal to both locals and visitors, the destinations and events that often escape notice. The cigar dinners at tobacconist De La Concha fall into the latter category. If you’re a cigar smoker and you find yourself in Manhattan when one of these experiences is being held, make time for the quintessential New York smoking experience.

De La Concha is among the oldest cigar shops in the city, and it is probably the most famous. On any day, you’ll find a broad spectrum of characters, from the regulars, who don’t let a day pass without viewing the world trough the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall front window, to the first-timers from out of town to the occasional celebrity who stops by for a fix. Former mayor Rudy Giuliani and former presidential candidate Al Sharpton (stop laughing) come by occasionally, and TV and movie stars not only pick up cigars for the road but occasionally sit down to relax … just like the rest of us.

The store’s general manager, Ron Melendi, decided last year to extend the store’s reach. What started as one cigar dinner, to experiment with a new idea, has grown into a quarterly affair, in which he features a specific cigar brand and sometimes a unique, unusual or relatively unknown liquor. Past cigars have included the Davidoff Millennium line, Ashton Virgin Sun Grown series and the creations of Don Pepin Garcia, who rolls De La Concha’s house cigar, the Grand Reserve.


Meals and the bar (both included in the ticket price) are supplied by De La Concha’s neighbor, restaurant Rue 57. Each course is carted down the 6th Avenue sidewalk with deliberate precision, almost as if every step is scripted by the army of waiters that supports the effort. Tables are brought into the store specifically for the dinners, with two-tops scattered across the store, and the lounge’s three fixed tables converted to boardroom seating. For a change, one can smoke a cigar before, during or after eating with impunity.

The events vary in price. A dinner with a full menu will generally cost between $100 and $150, with rarer or more expensive cigars pushing the ticket to the higher end of the range. For those on a budget, De La Concha‘s “cut and light” events skip the meal and offer a few hors d’ouevres and a limited open bar to accompany the featured tobacco. Usually priced at around $40, the cut and light experiences are much more accessible.

Of course, there is no limit at the upper end. In December, De La Concha hosted a dinner for pipe smokers, in partnership with Dunhill. This was the first Dunhill pipe dinner held. Ever. Anywhere in the world. So, the ticket was a bit pricey at $195 … but a bargain when you add up what it covers. The usual Rue 57 dinner and bar was enhanced by a Dunhill pipe and a unique pipe stand (in the shape of a hand) that is unavailable for purchase.


“We try to make our dinners unique,” Melendi says. The Dunhill pipe dinner’s statue and pipe are at the extreme end, but many dinners have included cigars that either had not been released yet or generally are not allowed to be given away at cigar dinners. “Few stores have been able to hold dinners the way we have,” he continues, “and the fact that we’re the busiest store in the city gives us a bit more leverage to go the extra mile for our guests.”

It was this spirit at work in October, when Melendi held an event at the city’s Grand Havana Room, Manhattan’s exclusive private cigar club. The luxury event, which cost a princely $450 to attend, was catered by the Grand Havana Room, included upscale God of Fire cigars and benefited the Dominican Republic‘s Cigar Family Charitable Foundation. The centerpiece was the auctioning of a bronze Prometheus statue created by artist Julio Aguilera and supported by his patron, Nik Renieris, CEO of coffee equipment manufacturer Soltazza.


Without a doubt, New York’s cigar culture is vibrant.

As you can see, Melendi sees the need to keep the concept fresh, and this was most evident at the November cigar dinner. Without telling any of his guests, Melendi announced with a smile that the guest of honor, Pepin, was donating five boxes of cigars to the charitable organization Cigars for Soldiers, which sends sticks to military personnel serving overseas. David Wells of NYC Cigar attending the dinner on a whim, quietly agreed to donate five boxes, as well. All in, our troops will benefit from close to 7,500 minutes of uninterrupted bliss, despite the turmoil around them in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, you never know what you’ll find at a De La Concha cigar dinner. The cigars change, and the causes vary. But, the environment stays the same. Step into Manhattan’s cigar oasis, and light up the cigar of your choice (mine happens to be the store’s Grand Reserve). Dig into a steak frites at the dinners, or sit back in the lounge with an espresso in the middle of the day. Forget about smoking bans for a while. “Just join us, and enjoy the good life,” Melendi suggests.

Light Up in Montreal

Most cigar smokers know what they want when border-crossings are involved: Cubans. Stepping through customs onto foreign soil, you can feel the pull to the nearest tobacconist. Maybe you drop your bags off at the hotel first, but that’s about it. As our nearest neighbor-at least from my part of the country-Canada is the top destination for Cuban cigars. In Montreal, go to the right shop instead of the closest one, and you will actually enjoy the results. La Casa del Habano should be at the top of your list.

Montreal is a world-class city, with top-tier dining, luxurious accommodations and a festival scene that includes independent film, comedy and the fine arts. If you’re on your way to Canada, Montreal should be your top priority, even beyond Vancouver and Toronto. There is a draw beyond illicit cigars, but for the cigar smoker who “just happens to be in town,” the fellowship of the leaf is a powerful force.

You have to be careful with Cuban cigars in Montreal. Counterfeits abound north of the border, and unfortunately, many smokers rush to the nearest cigar seller-specialist or not. The cigars may snap, burn unevenly or unwind … but who cares? They’re Cuban! Right?

If you’re a vanity smoker-showing off the label rather than enjoying the tobacco-then just hit the Duty Free store before you leave Dorval Airport. But, if you appreciate the complexity of a well-blended, property constructed stick, be patient. Grab a quick shower and a bite to eat before heading over to La Casa del Habano, Montreal’s premier smoking lounge.

Unlike most shops, which may have a few chairs along a wall, La Casa del Habano offers the full cigar-smoking experience-in a way that most jurisdictions in the United States don’t allow. Pick up a few sticks and settle into a comfortable lounge with a Cohiba Siglo VI or a Vegas Robaino. Sip on a glass of port. Relax. In addition to the full bar, the shop’s walk-in humidor is managed carefully. Whichever cigar you choose, it will not crackle in your fingertips. The lounge is designed to be an oasis, with soft leather chairs and couches offering plenty of comfortable seating. Ventilation is sufficient to ensure that you’ll enjoy every draw, without having to suffer those expelled by the other guests.

I’ve found that in cigar shops across Quebec, selections tend to be limited. The old stand-by brands are all available-Monte Cristo, Cohiba and Punch-but there is little depth. Fortunately, this is not the case at La Casa del Habano, which carries an array of Cuban cigars that would rival non-Cuban selections at the top retailers in the United States in terms of variety and desirability.

Too often, we have to compromise. At La Casa del Habano, this will not be necessary.

During the summer, La Casa del Habano is a brisk walk from Old Montreal-or a short taxi ride. If you happen to be up north on business, you’ll probably be right around the corner. La Queu de Cheval, Montreal’s premier steakhouse, is only a few blocks away. Bring a cigar with you to enjoy after dinner-or take one from the restaurant’s humidor. Either way, light up, and enjoy the fact that you have options.