March 14, 1997 Features & Images » Feature Story

feature 411 

Sssmoking!: blowing (cigar) smoke up the mountains By Don Anderson I have to admit right here, right now that I do not enjoy smoking cigars. The smell is not overly appealing, the taste just doesn't do it for me, and I can't foresee shelling out $20 to $30 for an hour's worth of bad breath. But for many Whistlerites, and many more of the resort's visitors, cigars are all the rage. They are sexy, they go well with ice wine and port, and they are cheaper than a BMW or a Porsche. The man largely responsible for the profusion of smoke rings blowing around town is André St. Jacques, general manager of the Bear Foot Bistro. Respectfully referred to as "The Havana Kid," St. Jacques introduced Whistler to North American's smoky trend when he began selling Cubans and pre-Castros out of the restaurant more than a year ago. Whistlerites, always the skeptics, were particularly critical of this brave marketing move. That was late 1995. St. Jacques now boasts monthly sales of upwards of $40,000, proving that he wasn't just blowing smoke. "Everybody was criticizing me, 'What are you crazy? Cigars? Everyone couldn't believe it," he says, in between puffs on his favourite Cuban blend. "I knew it was already hot, when I was in New York it was hot, when I was in Los Angeles it was hot, and in Toronto it was starting to come on strong." Aside from the Chateau Whistler's Mallard Bar, no rooms in Whistler were cigar-friendly at that time. There are now at least 20 establishments which welcome the aroma of a good cigar, from the hip haunts of the Savage Beagle to the Crab Shack's shucking shanty. The cigar room at the Bear Foot was the first fully ventilated den of its kind at the resort. It boasts four sets of loungy twig chairs, a collection of restaurateur Joel Thibault's and St. Jacques' framed cigar bands on the wall and a humidor sporting, among others, Montecristos, Pre-Castros, Cohibas, double Coronas and the Bear's own brand, a curious blend of Cuban, Dominican and Mexican leaves. There are probably more Central American nations represented at the Bear than all of Vancouver. "I love smoking cigars," says St. Jacques, a regular smoker since 1991. "I had an opportunity to open a restaurant and do whatever I wanted at carte blanche and I love cigar smoking." The public's recent fascination with the cigar has much to do, he says, with the arrival of one very important marketing device: a 500-page magazine entirely devoted to this inexplicable craze, the Cigar Aficionado. Launched in 1992 by entrepreneur Marvin R. Shanken, the magazine has been directly responsible for the phenomenal increase in sales of cigars in North America. Roughly 20,000 copies of the first edition were produced; today the magazine's distribution is around 600,000 copies, five times a year. Much of Aficionado's success lies in its reliance on the Hollywood masses. Cigar-toting celebrities such as Demi, Arnold, Jack and Bruce regularly don the mag's glossy cover, promoting the stogie's star and sex appeal, much in the same way the bright lights of motion picture of the ’30s and ’40s (Clark Gable, Orson Welles, Bette Davis), television in the ’50s (Jackie Gleason) and politics of the ’60s (John F. Kennedy) achieved. The public, seemingly engrossed by the cigar's renewed sex appeal, have bought into the scene, making it a multi-billion dollar industry whose sales continue to soar. Much of that success is attributable to the impression that it is a past-time that is no longer restricted to the elite. Anyone can light up a $20 Cuban and feel like they're a millionaire. Add a glass of port and now you're talking. "And it costs less than a Mercedes," says St. Jacques. "You can smoke a Cohiba and feel like you have arrived, and it doesn't cost you $60,000." In the mid-80s and early ’90s, the majority of cigar smokers were well-established, wealthy and affluent. Today's nouveau chic aficionados are in their late-20s, early-30s and equally divided among the sexes; there are just as many women lighting up these days as men. In Whistler, the dominant smokers are Americans who, due to an embargo against Cuba by the U.S. government, are unable to obtain many of the finest cigars shipped out of the Caribbean island. "If (you) are ever caught selling Cuban cigars in the States you can get up to a half-million dollar fine or five years in jail," says St. Jacques. "It's pretty serious." Welcome to Whistler, where the most discerning aficionado can obtain a Pre-Castro #1 for $250 a stick, or a Romeo Y Julieta Clarines for about $10. "You can't find a restaurant anywhere in North America that is actually selling the selection I have," says St. Jacques. The Bear Foot, and St. Jacques extensive list of distributors throughout Whistler, offer a selection totalling literally hundreds of varieties of cigars. Americans, enticed by the Aficionado's regular reviews, are most apt to purchase Cubans, a.k.a. "the forbidden fruit." "Cuban cigars are always the ones that score the highest... there is obviously a strong demand," says St. Jacques, who recently travelled to Cuba to partake in Habano Sa's 30th anniversary gala celebration of a cigar specially made for the country's president, Fidel Castro. During the tour The Havana Kid actually met and shook hands with The Havana King. "It was actually quite moving... because he's history, he's part of history and although he's supposed to be such a tyrant he did not come across like that whatsoever," he says of the experience. St. Jacques is confident that the public's new-found love of smoke will last well into the latter part of the decade and into the year 2000. This isn't about hula-hoops, narrow ties or mood rings. This isn't a fad, really. "In 1997 the consumption of cigars will probably go up to 400 million sticks a year," forecasts St. Jacques. "We came from 100 million to 400 million in five years... we haven't peaked yet."

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