By Mark Bernardo
The anti-smoking zealots have it in their sights, but power, politics, and cigars are still a classic combination in the culture of our nation’s capital.
“What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.”
- Thomas Riley Marshall, U.S. Vice President, 1913-1921
We all know the quote,
but few people know where and why exactly it was uttered. The “where” is here, at the legendary Round Robin Bar at Washington, D.C.’s Willard Hotel. Smoking a cigar, sipping bourbon on the rocks, and nestled into a leather chair, I’m listening to Jim Hewes, amateur historian and longtime bartender at the Round Robin, spin the tale of the “why.”
“As the story goes, a senator is speaking, rambling on and on about what the country needs,” Hewes says, in a voice suited to narration, a voice somewhat reminiscent of Martin Sheen’s. “Riley Marshall leans over and utters that quote to another senator. Unbeknownst to everybody, the tobacco shop here at the hotel had just raised the price of his favorite smoke to eight cents. Whether or not he really said it, it made the papers, and as a result, all these boxes of cigars came flooding in to the Willard.”
The famously shoot-from-the-hip VP was not the only politician to be bribed at the hotel with cigars. One of today’s common political terms was also coined at the Willard, and attributed to one of our most famous cigar-loving chief executives, Ulysses S. Grant. A famous illustration of a victorious Grant at the Civil War battlefield of Shiloh had depicted him holding a cigar, indicating to various special interest-seekers that favor could be curried with the president via a well-timed box of good smokes. Grant, who was actually barred by his wife from smoking in the White House, was also easy to find. “People knew he was in and out of this hotel’s lobby,” Hewes relates, “and they’d try to get an audience with him when all he wanted to do was relax with a cigar! At one point, Grant was quoted saying something about protecting himself from ‘those damn lobbyists,’ for lack of a better word, and that’s where the term started.”
Clearly, the confluence of cigars with power and influence is evident here in the nation’s capital. The image of political dealings in smoke-filled rooms is still quite real here - albeit one that the usual antismoking suspects are trying mightily to consign to the dustbin of history. A comprehensive smoking ban for the District of Columbia has thus far failed to find sufficient support to pass, but cigar retailers, bar owners, and restaurateurs here are bracing for what seems to be the inevitable, and hoping (in some cases, lobbying) for exemptions that will allow them to continue to cater to D.C.’s substantial cigar-smoking populace. Tobacconists in particular are united in brotherhood against the looming threat of a ban, testifying at hearings and mobilizing support amongst their customers. This is Washington, after all - where just about any aspect of life takes on a larger political dimension. One only hopes that they succeed in preserving some of the smoke-friendly culture of this historic city on the Potomac, as my recent visit uncovered a wealth of options for the cigar enthusiast looking to experience the capital in style.
The Willard InterContinental Washington Hotel
1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20004, 202-628-9100
Just two blocks from the White House, this historic landmark is the jewel of Washington’s cosmopolitan downtown district. The site has been a hostelry of some kind since 1816, and when Henry Willard bought it in 1850, the property quickly became a major center of social and political life in the capital. It has hosted every president, either as an overnight guest or at a social function, since Zachary Taylor, and was the residence for various vice presidents until it closed its doors in 1968. Refurbished and reopened in 1986, its 341 guestrooms, including 42 suites, offer luxurious touches including marble-top minibars, high-speed Internet connections, and oversized bathrooms with telephone and TV speakers. Both formal dining, at the elegant Willard Room, and informal dining, at the European contemporary Café 1401, are available, as well as a business center and fitness center, both open 24 hours. There are over 19,000 square feet of conference and banquet facilities, and the hotel is close to golf at Rock Creek Park, tennis at East Potomac Park, and Washington’s famous monuments. Of course, no stay at the Willard is complete without a cigar and cocktail at the Round Robin Bar, which at press time was undergoing a renovation to bring it back to its stately, polished-mahogany glory.
The Ritz-Carlton, Georgetown
3100 South Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20002, 202-912-4100
The architecture of the historic incinerator once situated on this site is still evident, with the central lobby defined by a restoration of a turn-of-the-century brick structure, and a meeting room ensconced at the base of a reproduction of a towering 130-foot smokestack. Inside is all luxury. Opened in 2003, in the midst of a sprawling entertainment complex that includes fashionable shops, trendy restaurants, and a movie theater, the Ritz-Carlton has 89 guestrooms, including 29 executive suites, with views of either the D.C. skyline or a tranquil Japanese garden with reflecting pools and waterfalls. Amenities include a 100,000-square-foot fitness center/spa with an Olympic-sized pool - the largest health club in any hotel. All rooms have high-speed Internet access and outlets to charge laptops and cellphones, and any tech problems are personally attended to by the hotel’s trained “Technology Butler.” Two championship golf courses and the Kennedy Center are a short drive away, and cigars and cocktails are the order of the day at Degrees Bar and Lounge.
Also Recommended: The Omni-Shoreham (2500 Calvert Street NW, 202-234-0700) - a four-diamond resort-style luxury hotel located in Rock Creek park, near the National Zoo, and the site of several inaugural balls; The Grand Hyatt Washington (1000 H Street NW, 202-582-1234) - near the MCI Center, with a 12-story atrium, six dining options, a lagoon with waterfall, and cool jazz in the popular Butler’s cigar bar.
W. Curtis Draper
640 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20005, 202-638-2555
One of the oldest tobacconists in the city is located a few blocks from the White House and caters to a largely affluent crowd that includes congressmen, FBI agents, court justices, and local business leaders. Founded in 1887 by William Curtis Draper, who owned it until 1946, the shop is now co-owned by John “Duke” Cox and John Anderson.
Draper’s is a store of firsts. It’s one of the original Davidoff appointed merchants. It was the first to introduce Macanudo to the U.S. in 1970, and once gave out samples of the Fuente Hemingway to drum up interest in the then-soft-selling new line. It was one of the first in the country to carry Savinelli pipes. Nowadays, the Davidoff family of cigars - Avo, Zino Platinum, Griffin’s, and the flagship white label line - is still popular here along with Fuente, Padrón, and Ashton. Tony Borhani’s Bahia is also a draw, so much so that the store has a devoted Bahia merchandise cabinet in the small lounge area. “This is a very white-collar town, and people who have money want to spend money,” reports Matt Krimm, soon to be the newest partner in Draper’s, buying in after Cox retires later this year. “We do much better with cigars $8 and up. We only carry one bundle brand, and that’s because two customers specially requested it.”
Accessories in the “super-high-end” range also tend to be Draper’s forte, like S.T. Dupont lighters, Ashton humidors, and humidors handmade by a well-known local artisan, Michael Dixon. And Draper’s is still a place where the pipe enthusiast feels welcome, with pipe tobacco and pipes under $100 still moving well. “We probably picked up some customers during the cigar boom because other shops didn’t have what they wanted,” Krimm speculates.
The shop is adorned with wall-mounted cigar boxes, autographed by industry luminaries who have come to Draper’s over the years, and animal head trophies from loyal, regular customers who hunt. With the friendly staff, impressive selection, and casual atmosphere, it’s no wonder the venerable shop has been referred to as “one of the last gentlemen’s tobacconists.”
3144 M Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20007, 202-338-5100
Though it’s a cab ride away from the seat of power in the capital, the fashionable quarter of Georgetown is actually the oldest part of the city, named for England’s King George and formally established in 1751 - the former site of some of the colonies’ earliest tobacco plantations. It is appropriate, then, that one of the city’s most important tobacco dealers is here.
Georgetown native David Berkebile opened the shop in 1964. “I wasn’t what you’d call an aficionado; I didn’t have a burning desire to get into the cigar business,” he admits now, “but I had a wife and kids and needed to make a living and it seemed like a good idea.” Berkebile, who smoked a pipe in the navy, counted on his employees and customers to educate him on good cigars and tobacco, and now is widely regarded as one of the most respected and influential tobacconists in the area.
His 1,200-square-foot store caters to a wide variety of clientele, chiefly tourists and locals employed in the political arena. It has welcomed some famous customers, including California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. U.S. Presidents have also procured their smokes from Berkebile, albeit indirectly. Gerald Ford visited his old store in Alexandria (now closed down), and Bill Clinton sent couriers to pick up his cigars from the Georgetown shop.
The cigar lineup is impressive, featuring a huge Davidoff selection, most of General Cigar’s lines, many difficult-to-find C.A.O., Fuente, and Ashton products, and special editions like the Camacho Liberty. Berkebile, something of a collector, also uses the store to showcase and sell the work of area artists and vintage posters from the 1800s. Not an advocate of large lounge areas for customers in his stores, the looming threat of an indoor smoking ban has Berkebile mulling over adding to his existing sitting space. “Right in the corner when you come in, there are two chairs,” he points out. “If it turns out people can’t smoke in restaurants, I’m sure we’ll have to expand that.”
Tenleytown: 4936 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20016, 202-237-5172
Union Station: 50 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002, 202-289-2559
Browsing the glass-encased humidors lining the walls of President Cigars in Tenleytown, two blocks from the Maryland border, a sharp eye will notice among the well-known brands a few boutique cigars from Venezuela. A novelty and local favorite, the cigars hint at the heritage of the store’s owners. Venezuelan native Senen Semidey decided to retire in America, wholesaling some Venezuelan cigars as a sideline. When that venture didn’t go smoothly in the post-cigar boom glut years, Semidey tried a different tack: rent a kiosk at Washington’s legendary transportation hub, Union Station, dealing cigars to weary travelers. It proved to be the right decision, even though the retired mechanical engineer had to learn his new business from the ground up. “I don’t even smoke,” he says with a smile in the backroom of the shop.
President Cigars is a fully family-run operation, with Semidey’s daughter Yanet now managing the Tenleytown shop, and his son-in-law running the Union Station location. With her non-smoking father largely behind the scenes, Yanet has taken the responsibility of tasting every new cigar that arrives in her store in order to be knowledgeable about the wares for customers, who come from both Washington and Maryland, mostly for premium cigars. (The Union Station kiosk shop gets more tourists and carries more cigarettes and low-end tobacco products.) “People are becoming more educated about cigars,” she says. “I think one of the things that attracts people to our store is that we dedicate time to teaching them about blends, flavors, sizes, and how to smoke them.”
The Semideys have plans for expansion, specifically adding a cigar lounge space to the Tenleytown shop and eventually opening eight more stores throughout D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.
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