Ammo & Gear Reviews

Cigar Hunter: Paul Garmirian the calm contrarian, part 1

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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.”