Groucho Marx slouches across the silver screen, a Dunhill 410 crooked out from beneath his signature mustache. Churchill holds his fingers up in a “V” for “Victory” as he chomps his cigar in a grin. Marlene Dietrich’s eyes smolder as she blows out smoke and informs Orson Welles: “We’re Closed.” John F. Kennedy squints into the sun as he draws a puff on his Cuban Corona.
Our culture has a wealth of iconic images and rich lore surrounding cigars. They have symbolized many things, including prosperity, culture, politics, glamor, infamy, celebration, and taboo. Tobacco has had a prominent place in our history, from the very first contact between Europe and the Americas to our own local community. The love of cigars brings together people from all areas of the world and all walks of life, and one local tobacconist strives to foster those connections.
Located at 225 E Pikes Peak Ave, Old West Cigar and Tobacco Co. is a family-owned retail shop and smoking lounge offering an impressive collection of cigars, pipes, tobacco, and accessories. It was started in 1996 by Georgie Lee as an expansion to their family’s home brewing supply store, Old West Homebrew. They eventually established it as a separate business and moved it next door.
As Georgie’s son, Mike, grew up around the business, he became an aficionado. He developed a passion for the artisan craft behind cigars and the relationships with vendors and customers that the business fostered. “It’s just a lot of fun,” he says, “you get to meet a lot of interesting characters every day. Everyone is really relaxed when they walk in, and if not, then they are when they walk out.” Mike now runs the business with Georgie and serves as the resident expert on all things tobacco.
The shop has a calm and inviting atmosphere, with the retail portion of the business towards the back of the shop and “Mike’s Cigar Lounge” in the front. An impressive humidor is on display, the room lined from floor to ceiling with shelves packed with a carefully curated variety of cigars.
There’s something for everyone. Beginners who want something fun without blowing their budgets have a choice of affordable cigars, some infused with sweet flavors such as vanilla or cherry. There are best-selling brands, including Padrón, Romeo & Julietta, and Rocky Patel. For those searching for luxury quality, options such as Montecristo or Ashton will impress. Old West Cigars also boasts selections from exclusive producers that are highly sought after and hard to acquire, such as RoMa Craft, a small boutique maker whose cigars are sold in only one other location in Colorado. Nearly all the cigars in stock are handcrafted premium cigars with whole-leaf tobacco.
When a new customer arrives at the shop and doesn’t know where to start, Mike and Georgie are ready and willing to help. Mike says he asks questions to narrow down what the customer may enjoy. Have they smoked before? How used to tobacco and nicotine are they? What foods and drinks do they like? Are they looking to pair the cigar with something like coffee or whiskey? Questions such as these help him identify the customer’s palate and what flavors they should try.
Each cigar has its own unique flavor. Some are milder, some woodsy, some spicy. And these nuances come from every aspect of the cigar’s production. The seed type significantly impacts the flavor, as does the soil in which the plants are grown, how shaded the leaves are, and how the cigar is aged and rolled. Numerous subtleties in crafting a cigar can influence the final product and how it tastes to a customer. And even then, the experience is subjective. “I tell people all the time: if you and your friend are smoking two of the same cigars that you purchased from the same location, cut in the same way, and you taste completely different notes, you’re not doing anything wrong. You still taste what you taste,” says Mike.
Potential aficionados can start their journeys on the shop floor with the full range of accessories. Customers can equip themselves with a choice of cutters, quality lighters, ashtrays, and implements to keep cigars properly humidified. Everything a budding connoisseur needs to care for and enjoy their cigars is available.
And Mike is happy to offer guidance. He demonstrates how to cut and light the cigar and get it going. He gives advice about how to puff - draw in the smoke like you are sucking a straw. Let it linger in your mouth to enjoy the flavor, but don’t inhale it unless you want a very bad time. When is the cigar finished? He shrugs and says, “when you no longer enjoy it.” To Mike, savoring a cigar is a very individual experience. There’s no one right way to do it.
People don’t just shop for themselves. Cigars have always been a traditional gift to congratulate someone on big milestones. Mike and Georgie love how helping customers choose gifts for loved ones has allowed them to be a part of celebrations of all kinds. Weddings, graduations, promotions, and new babies are just some of the joyful experiences in which they get to take part.
Cigar lovers are not the only tobacco enthusiasts who can find what they need at Old West Cigar Co. There is a beautiful selection of traditional pipes on display. Briar pipes, Peterson and Savinelli pipes, Greek and Italian pipes, and even corn cob pipes are all available.
Especially eye-catching are the intricately carved Meerschaum pipes from Turkey. Made from a white porous mineral, they are true examples of handcrafted artwork. One pipe is carved in the shape of a Viking head, another resembles a mermaid, and others are covered with delicate patterns. The shop also offers a variety of traditional, aromatic, and English tobaccos as well as anything else a pipe lover may need.
The lounge is a truly inviting space, filled with cushy chairs, tables, and even a fountain filled with Koi fish. The purpose of the lounge is to offer cigar and pipe smokers a place to relax, meet new people, and get involved in the local cigar community. For a small yearly fee, members can bring their laptops to get work done or enjoy coffee and snacks from nearby shops while relaxing and relishing their favorite smoke. “Sometimes they’ll sit there quiet and not talk to anyone,” Georgie says, “and other times they’ll just socialize, depending on how much work they have to do.” It’s also an ideal space to laugh with friends, meet new acquaintances, and bond over a shared passion.
As it has done for hundreds of years, the love of cigars brings together people who would never normally encounter each other and gives them common ground. Mike and Georgie say they have hosted everyone from company presidents to truck drivers and military personnel.
But interactions with customers are not the only relationships they get to cultivate. Fine cigars are overwhelmingly made by family businesses and passed down through generations of artisans. And the involvement Mike and Georgie have with the producers is a very special and personal connection they treasure.
The yearly trade show is their chance to strengthen those bonds and cultivate new ones. The younger members of the families, often reaching into third generations, are starting to take the reigns in the companies. Mike says, “when I go to the Padrón booth, you look at everybody’s name tags, and everybody’s last name is Padrón.” It’s not like ordering from impersonal corporations. It’s ordering directly from families.
And these families take care of their communities. Every job is done by hand. The seeds are planted by hand. The leaves are picked and bunched by hand. Boxes are made by hand. “When we asked one of the vendors,” Georgie says, “well, how come they don’t have, you know, a machine? He goes, ‘Because they wouldn’t have a job.’ A lot of them have their own doctors on staff, so they don’t have to go wait in the community hospital.” The jobs are passed down through generations of local workers from the lowest to the highest levels of the companies. Parents often train their children for eight to ten years in the art. Members of their communities have not only job security for themselves but for their sons and daughters as well.
The techniques these creators pass down reach back to the origins of the trade. In those old iconic images of Churchill, Groucho, and other historic icons, the cigars were mainly from Cuba, where the industry began. For hundreds of years, the best cigars came almost exclusively from Cuba. Both Groucho and Churchill’s favorite cigars were Cuban, as were Marlene Dietrich’s. Even Spencer Penrose, a figure that looms large in the history of Colorado Springs, exclusively smoked a Cuban brand called Por Larrañaga.
To this day, people believe Cuban cigars to be the holy grail of the tobacco world. But when Kennedy placed the embargo on Cuba in 1962 (after snatching up all available stock for his own personal hoard), the industry in Cuba was gutted. Growers and producers took their precious seeds and fled to Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Honduras, and other nearby countries. People still seek out Cuban cigars because they are considered the ultimate forbidden fruit. But Cuban cigars are widely considered to be sub-par in quality compared to the products created by transplanted families, such as the Padróns.
Now, the world’s finest cigars come from villages scattered across Central America. The families who fled their homes with nothing have now expanded their heritage into a global infatuation. The proud traditions and high-quality products that have become their legacy are shared with the communities that they have created. And through the multi-generational family business of Old West Cigar Co., that community experience extends to the city of Colorado Springs.