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Last Friday I got a haircut in Denver. While smoking a cigar.
How cool is that? When I was a kid in Parma, Ohio, Frankie Scicchitano would cut my hair to the sound of Frankie Valli and Frankie Avalon, and many of his customers were also named Frankie. Most were smoking. Now it’s a rarity.
I was in town to keynote the Independence Institute‘s 10th annual “Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms” party. If you’ve never been to this event, consider it in 2013. It’s a lot of fun. Cam Edwards, the host of NRA News, will be next year’s keynote speaker.
But first I needed a cigar — and a haircut, since C-SPAN’s cameras were coming. I found both at Cigars on Sixth in the Mile-High City. A burly, muscular Gary Audi showed me around, and we enjoyed the Litto Gomez Diez Americano 2012, a full-bodied toro by La Flor Dominicana.
This cigar hit me like a sledgehammer. I think the only La Flor I’ve tasted that as strong is the Double Ligero. But more about that later. (RELATED: The complete “Cigar Hunter” series)
Audi’s shop, owned by the self-styled “Moral Compass” of Denver, Dan Dunne, is a masterpiece of old-world atmospherics. Every piece of artwork, every fixture — even the paint on the walls — seems calibrated to relax. Some of the customer seats are actually old barber chairs. And the lights are mercifully low.
It’s all about making the clientele comfortable, he said.
“We really try to build the shop around relationships,” Audi explained. “Some shops aren’t as warm, they focus so much on retail transactions, or they’re too big, really. They’re sectioned off to the point where you really can’t have a conversation. You just hide out in the corner.”
No one was hiding out while I was there. About a dozen customers — half of them “regulars,” Audi told me — were smoking, reading, and Web surfing on iPads. (Cigars on Sixth, like most shops I’ve seen lately, offers free Wi-Fi.) They were an eclectic mix of old, bearded bikers and business-suited office rats, and an African-American 20-something sporting a spiked mohawk.
“We have a little saying here,” Audi said, without a hint of a grin: ‘We don’t care what color your skin is, as long as it’s tough.’”
Some of those toughies rent humidified cigar lockers, and a peek into one storage closet earned me a look into them from the back. I saw as many liquor bottles as cigar boxes.
“You can’t come in here drunk,” Audi explained, “but you can leave a little drunk.”
Which is interesting, considering Colorado’s 18-year tobacco age limit and the 21-year drinking age. Much of the relationship-building that goes on at Cigars on Sixth targets young cigar smokers who are just getting their feet wet. For the record, I was in the shop at 3:30 p.m. on a Friday and I didn’t see anyone mistaking the time for Happy Hour.
“What we’re trying to do with the inventory is bring in a draw of younger people — between the ages of 22 and 30. they’re really starting to crave cigars and be interested in them. But we find they like a more mild cigar, or flavored cigars. Their big drivers are Punch, Macanudo and ACID.”
Training wheels cigars?
“Exactly,” he said. “We always make sure they keep the band of whatever they’re smoking and bring ‘em back. And we grade them up through a natural, more mild cigar like the Rocky Patel Connecticut, the San Cristobal by Ashton, or any of the better Ashton cigars.”
“Some of my best conversations are with the younger people,” Audi explained, “where I get to watch them go into the humidor, and then they grab a cigar that’s wrapped in plastic, and they put it under their nose and sniff it.”
“And I say ‘You know what? It smells even better when you take that plastic off.’ Like, you see the novices come in, and it’s fun to help them and make them feel comfortable. Because it can be very intimidating to come in here.”
What was definitely not intimidating was the hum of the shop’s many conversations. It was quiet, murmured, pleasant. Despite the tattoos in the room, no one ws looking to brawl. Audi said Cigars on Sixth has considered banning cell phone conversations during certain hours, like many of Denver’s coffee shops have already done. It didn’t seem necessary.
We lit up Mr. Gomez, and the 5-3/4 x 46 smoke didn’t disappoint. It’s an aggressive smoke that never gets acrid. The shop comped me on the cigar, and I didn’t argue.
The Litto Gomez line dates back to 1999 when La Flor decided to try and make a tenth anniversary cigar solely from leaves grown on its own plantations in the Dominican Republic — including the wrapper. That’s no small feat.
It’s hard to think of many truly good cigars in this category. The Fuente Fuente Opus X comes to mind, and the La Aurora 100 Años. But most everything you buy these days has at least one ingredient from Nicaragua, Honduras, Connecticut, Ecuador or Cameroon.
“We tested this blend month after month for three years,” the company says of the fermentation process. The tobacco is aged for four years, and the shade-grown wrapper leaf is warm and chocolatey. “Toothy” wrappers — those with lots of raised pimples that contain oils — are usually associated with sun-growing, so this was also a pleasant surprise.
The cigar itself was firm and the draw excellent, but the burn was uneven. Ash dropped off when I least expected it, and it needed relighting a few times. Audi and I smoked for about an hour and a half, and mine still had two inches to go.
The predominant flavors were earth, cedar wood and spice, but the tasting library was broader than that. By halfway through, the spice was stronger and the smoke was everywhere. This is a very aromatic stogie, and while I wouldn’t call it a “smooth” or creamy cigar it mellowed out — temporarily — in the second third.
“What I like about this cigar is that it’s got a little bit of an earthy taste to it,” Audi said. “When you get into it, it smooths out, but it still leaves a peppery taste in your mouth. It’s a great late-afternoon cigar.”
The LG Diez is for smokers who want their palates challenged by a steady rotation of flavors. Mine caught caramel, orange and cinnamon, but never for very long. By the final third, it was mostly black pepper. But unlike the Double Ligero, there was no caustic aftertaste.
Audi is big on situational smoking. He said he chose the strength of the cigar he offered me based on the time of day.
At 10:00 in the morning, it would have been an Ashton maduro #5. “My favorite breakfast cigar,” he grinned. At noon, the La Flor Dominicana Cameroon. “It’s rich. It’s right in that medium category.”
Our mid-afternoon Litto Gomez wasn’t the only option. “Another nice one would be an Ashton VSG, or even a Padrón Imperial.” And after dinner, he concluded, “we would be having a Rocky Patel Decade, a Julius Caesar, or any of the other Diamond Crown full-bodied cigars.”
I mostly enjoy strong, darker maduros and cigars with oscuro wrappers. So do many of Audi’s customers.
“Liga Privada No. 9 is our number one asked-for full-bodied cigar,” he confirmed.
“I see people – there’s a big presumption about maduro wrappers, that the cigar will be full-bodied. But I tell them about the Ashton maduro. It’s one of the best mild cigars we have.”
He also sells a lot of robustos and Churchills to his more rough and tumble customers.
“It’s a matter of how much time you have and what kind of style you want to show. I have some guys who come in here and won’t touch the long, skinny cigars. They just won’t go near ‘em.”
After Audi and I said our goodbyes, I got my haircut. Straight razor along the neckline and great conversation with Tony Loiacono, who has been wielding both scissors and a New York-Italian accent since 2009.
“It’s ok,” he said. “You can smoke. There’s an ashtray in the arm of the chair. They all used to be like that.”