Cigar Hunter: Paul Garmirian the calm contrarian, part 1

David Martosko | Executive Editor

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Part one of a two-part series

An American tourist goes to Mexico. He sees this fisherman. An old man, all crinkled up.

“Do you work by yourself?” he asks the old-timer.

“Yes,” comes the reply.

“Why don’t you hire a couple of kids to help you?” the tourist inquires. “And then you could catch more fish. And eventually you’d hire more kids and buy a little boat. Then after awhile you’d have a fleet.”

“And then, you know, you grow. When you grow you sell the company. You go to New York, you stay at the Plaza — and when you want to have a vacation, you can come back here and enjoy yourself.”

“Yes,” comes the reply, “but I am already here.”

Paul Garmirian told me that story to illustrate why he’s clinging to the old ways of making and selling cigars. Why sell more cigars when you’re already where you want to be?

Poker fans can think of Garmirian as the Doyle Brunson of tobacco. Like “Texas Dolly,” he literally wrote the book on his passion — “The Gourmet Guide to Cigars.” The two men are equally charming, patient and avuncular.

While his book may be a bit dated, and a new guard has come along with all the bling and showmanship of Joe Hachem, Daniel Negreanu and Phil Hellmuth, Garmirian isn’t going anywhere. He’s doing what he does best — putting out a modest supply of P.G. Cigars from an equally modest shop in McLean, Virginia.

He’s been making small-batch tobacco since long before microbrews were cool. He’s worked with the same growers, the same buyers, the same rollers for more than two decades. And he doesn’t advertise.

Garmirian told me about his “very small” sales numbers. “The highest year was 1996, which was 720,000 cigars. Since then — I think we are around 250,000” per year. By comparison, Rocky Patel, who has been in the business only about half as long, makes and sells upwards of 20 million cigars annually, according to a 2011 CNBC profile.

The two men are clearly going after different market segments. If Rocky fancies himself the latest Corvette, Garmirian is a niche-market Aston Martin — just like the understated roadster sitting in his parking space when I met him. (I’ll let you guess whose cigars cost more.)

Controversies and infighting aside, of course, it’s the end product that matters. And Garmirian’s cigars are, in a word, fantastic. The only people I’ve ever heard saying anything disagreeable about them are sales reps from other cigar companies.

I had the good fortune to catch up with Paul at his shop in August. What was scheduled for a 90-minute chat turned into a 4-hour discussion. He’s a fascinating perfectionist, a signpost to what cigar culture used to be.

“I just came back from the show,” he said, referring to the annual International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers trade show. “Its overwhelming. We had three booths — very elegant, very understated. And you see people with 16 booths, motorcycles hanging from the ceiling.”

“This product, traditionally, has some dignity. Then you vulgarize it. You start infusing it. You start making fancy packages. You start — I just got the catalog that has the people who make Liga Privada: They are making cigars for the drug stores! Grape, orange.” [Editor’s note, Sept. 19: Drew Estate informs me that this is not true.]

“They don’t care.”

Who doesn’t care, exactly?

“There’s a magazine article that came out two weeks ago,” Garmirian explained, “that had all the, I call them ‘The Looney Club.’ All the loonies. You know: Tatuaje, Drew Estate, Don Giolito [from Illusione Cigars]. All these — This is crazy. Who are these people? [It’s] hip-hop, where they have bastardized cigar smoking to a level of being a la vogue, being cool.”

“You know, what’s funny for me is that when I started I was in my forties. And I felt I was young. Now they look at me as antiquated even though I’m only 68 — actually I just turned 69.”

Compared to those other guys, the ones on the cover of the latest issue of Cigar Press, Garmirian is definitely the old guard. (RELATED: ‘Tempus’ devours everything, said the Romans)

“I don’t want to say I admire the people for what they are doing, but I admire their energy level. I do not like what they are doing, the rest of the industry — I don’t admire their methods, but I admire their energy. It’s almost like an obsession.”

That obsession, he said, is about commercial success. But it can come at the expense of gentility and sophistication. “America is a great place,” he said, almost ruefully, “because it’s so easy to establish instant credibility.”

“I don’t want to antagonize the publishers, but you know, my cigar is the only cigar that has never been advertised once. I have never advertised. How can you advertise when the demand exceeds the supply? And then I’ve never had [sales] reps, because what the rep does is that he sells and sells and sells — puts pressure on me. I have to put pressure on the manufacturing. And what happens then?”

“It’s the integrity of the product. It suffers.”

But supply-and-demand aside, what’s wrong with cigars becoming more of an “everyman” sort of thing?

“From the point of view of the market … The fortunate thing is that cigar smoking has been democratized in America,” Garmirian allowed. “Because in Europe, it’s the wealthy — traditionally, in the history — aristocrats, kings, and moguls, movie stars, gangsters.”

“But sometimes –”

He takes a breath, and the former international relations professor slips into his classroom mode.

“Aristotle used to describe democracy as — [it] could be one of the worst forms of government because it degenerates into mediocrity,” said professor Paul.

“So what happened in the last 22 years is that it started with an air of elegance and finesse. And I’m not against it. I don’t want to be like the immigrant who closes the door behind him. Everybody and his cousin is in it, which is fine and dandy, but the emphasis is more on packaging, on gimmicks, on advertising with bikini-clad girls, than on the essence of what a cigar should be.”

That essence, I learned from talking with him, is a sort of re-creation of the Cuban cigars the Armenian-American enjoyed as a young man in Lebanon.

“I associate cigars within my frame of reference,” he said, “with what they ought to be. And I fancy everybody has a role model. I fancy myself as a cigar merchant in the latter part of the 19th century in London: You have quality products and you don’t go nuts.”

“The most important thing is a frame of reference,” Garmirian insisted. His latest cigar, the “Symphony 20,” is the result of 51 years of recollections. Even some of the sizes, like his improbable 3.5-inch x 46 “bonbones extra,” are historical throwbacks.

“When I smoked a Cuban cigar from the age of 16, which would have been ’58-’59 — then it makes an impact on your memory and on your brain. So when you are blending [tobacco], you are automatically seeking, comparing. When you have new manufacturers who have been around for 2 or 3 years and they are in it for commercial purposes, they don’t have the frame of reference.”

His own cigar line, he concluded, “gives me the taste, the balance, the richness, the depth, the smoothness of the Cuban cigars I grew up with in the ’50s.”

“If you’ve been smoking for 52 or 53 years, you have a library in your head. It’s a very abstract, very subjective thing.”

My own verdict: Garmirian isn’t a snob. He’s the smarter of your two grandfathers on his most well-meaning day, more about teaching than alienating. It doesn’t always work, but again it’s the cigar, not the attitude, that counts most.

And the P.G. Symphony 20 is without a doubt smoother than the Cuban Montecristos and Partagas cigars my Moroccan hosts presented me with this summer. (RELATED: Havana comes to Northern Africa)

It’s like smoking air, but not in the sense that it lacks flavor. It just lacks the harshness and other “ick” factors that sometimes turn off first-time smokers.

“It’s the absence of certain properties,” Garmirian told me, that defines his cigars. “The absence of the major negatives, which are salt, acidity, acridity, bitterness. All these things are negatives. So when I smoke a cigar I don’t look for what’s in it. I look for what’s not in it.”

Try one. You’ll see.

This is part one of a two-part series. The second installment explores the practical side of Paul Garmirian’s contrarian cigar credo. You won’t want to miss his unconventional views on lighters, cutters, “vintage” cigars, flavor notes and wine pairings. (Spoiler alert on pairings: “There is no such thing.”)

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