“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.”)