Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Day 24 - Cuban Cigars and Cuban Rum


I have never tried Cuban rum or Cuban cigars. Living in the United States makes these two things unusually difficult to obtain given the illegal status of most, if not all, Cuban products in the country. As a result, I have never seen Cuban rum or cigars to date, let alone had the opportunity to drink and smoke them, respectively. When I learned two of Cuba’s most renowned products are readily available in Canada, I decided to keep my eyes peeled for both. After all, it is not likely I will soon have another chance to try either. Additionally, I figured acting on the opportunity would provide an easy, yet interesting “I have never…” event; even if doing so was not high on my list or priorities. After stumbling upon a unique shop today, the pieces of the puzzle needed to experience Cuban rum and Cuban cigars for the first time came together, and my “I have never…” event for the day was set.

The opportunity to try a Cuban cigar and some Cuban rum started with the discovery of a unique shop located in the hotel at which I’m staying. When walking through the sprawling building during our conference lunch time today I wandered passed the hotel lobby and down an extended hallway leading to a side exit. The hallway was wide with doors sporadically appearing in the long, smooth walls. The majority of these doors were designated for employees only or led to other parts of the hotel. At first glance, there was nothing special about them or the purposes they served. However, that changed when I came across three glass panels displaying a room containing fine furnishings and walls laden with tobacco pipes.

Julius Vesz Pipesmith Store

I looked through the glass windows trying to make sense of the discovery. The placement of the room seemed very out of the ordinary, and I wasn’t quite sure what purpose it served. I took a step back and looked toward the top of the windows to find the words “Julius Vesz Pipesmith” printed in wide gold letters. Intrigued, I took another look at the glass panels before me and found a small handle jutting from one of them. Realizing it was a door, I grabbed the handle and pulled to make entry into this unique little space.

The smell of tobacco immediately struck me as I walked into the room and saw an older man with white, thinning hair sitting behind a small counter. “Good afternoon” He said without hesitation in a unique, obviously foreign accent. I raised my hand in a mocked wave to acknowledge his greeting as I looked around the room taking in the ornate pieces of furniture, wall fixtures, and display cases. Rows of wooden and ivory tobacco pipes lined three massive displays on the room’s left and back walls. A glass display cabinet in the corner of the room had rows and rows of small metal figurines in painted forms of various types of soldiers and battle scenes. Mounts of different trophies of hunts from around the world spotted the walls overhanging curved, red leather chairs and sofas in the center of the room. It became immediately apparent I was in a place unlike any other I had been before.

I took a few steps across the small room to get a closer look at the pipes displayed on the wall. Above them a price of $169.00 or $199.00 was displayed on small white placards. “Wow!” I said in response to reading the tag for the first time, which prompted the man behind the counter to explain to me that he handcrafted each pipe on display. In an effort to justify the price, he described how the process required drying the root of a rare tree, carving it, and putting together the components of the pipe. The beauty of the pipes and the process the man was describing made me recognize the fact I was before a true artist who worked in a dying art form. Impressed, I continued working my way around the room, taking time to look at the detail of each unique pipe. Turning back to the first display, I noticed a glass door below the larger displays of pipes on the walls. I walked toward the displays and leaned forward to get a better viewing angle of their contents. Inside were small wooden boxes open for display. Each box contained rows of cigars with small white banded tags reading, “Hand rolled in Havana.” Without effort I had stumbled upon Cuban cigars.

Recognizing the opportunity before me, I opened the case doors and picked up a cigar to confirm the language printed on the band. I rolled the cigar across my hand to read the full line of text, and realized it did, in fact, read as I originally saw it. I glanced back at the box from which I had pulled the cigar to find the same text branded into the interior of the lid on the wooden case. “Are these the real deal?” I asked as I turned to the man at the counter. “Oh, yes, of course.” he said without a change in his expression.

Receiving the confirmation I needed, I turned to the case once more and grabbed two of the cigars before closing the wood and glass door. Cigars in hand, I walked toward the man and set the cigars on the counter. “You’ll take these?” the man asked. I confirmed my intent to buy them, explaining my inexperience with Cuban cigars up to that point. The man responded in an understanding tone when he learned I was from the United States. “You will like these” he said with confidence, “they call them the best for a reason.”

Unreal...

Throughout the rest of our brief transaction the man continued to explain the background of the cigars and his background with pipesmithing. He told me of his roots in Austria, where his relatives had made pipes for Austria aristocrats during a long since past era. He casually took a pipe packed with the remnants of burned tobacco from his front pocket and placed it in his mouth as he continued telling his story. It was clear he was proud of his heritage, and I could understand why given the quality of the work surrounding me. “Have you ever smoked a pipe?” he asked as he handed me a small bag containing the cigars I had just purchased. I replied I had not. He smiled and said, “Well, there it’s not as easy as it looks. You want a lesson you come see me, ok?” I told him I would strongly consider his offer, time permitting, before thanking him and leaving the store. I walked back to the hotel lobby reflecting on the experience I had moments earlier. I thought about how the store, the man, and the craftsmanship I had just encountered were enough to make a great “I have never…” experience for the day, but I knew I was only halfway to obtaining the materials I needed to complete my goal for the day. As a result, I pressed forward to track down some Cuban rum.

The rest of the day moved quickly as I looked forward to my first experience with Cuban cigars. Once our conference wrapped up for the day, Justin and I immediately took to the streets to find the closest liquor store. We wandered through the bustling streets of Old Toronto at the end of a workday keeping our eyes peeled for any signs of a location to buy the Cuban rum I was searching for. After walking several blocks, we stopped to reassess our location. We had determined a liquor store was no more than two blocks from our hotel before leaving, but there was no indication it was where we expected it to be. Confused, we asked some passersby for some assistance locating the store. A young man obliged our request, pointing behind him and explaining we had to walk into one of the towering skyscrapers, head into the underground, and follow the signs for Central Station to find the liquor store we were seeking.

Acting on his advice we walked into the building and down a flight of stairs. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, we were caught by surprise by an elaborate spread of retail stores and underground passages. Around us people hurried from one location to the next, following signs for various subway terminals. Acknowledging the scope of the space around us, I looked at Justin and said sarcastically, “I’ve never been in an underground city before.” He smiled and said, “Yeah, this is pretty unbelievable” as we continued walking down the winding passageway. Several minutes later, we found ourselves blocks away from the building from which we accessed the underground mall around us. Ironically, we found ourselves under our hotel when we finally came upon the liquor store we were attempting to find. We entered and quickly located a bottle of Havana Club seven year aged rum. Step two was complete, and I was ready to taste Cuban rum and cigars for the first time.

After paying for the rum, we exited the liquor store and continued following the signs displaying “Royal York Hotel” hanging from the roof of the underground passage. A few minutes later, we reached a set of stairs climbing back toward ground level. We walked up them and continued down a small hallway to find ourselves at the base of the large spiral staircase that was a main feature of the hotel lobby.  Climbing the stairs we were back in our hotel. Baffled by the fact we had just walked through half of downtown without stepping foot outside, I let out a little statement of disbelief as we walked toward the elevators and climbed toward our room.

The day's haul
Upon getting back to our hotel room, my excitement led me to ask Justin if he wanted a drink immediately. He said he could partake, so I opened the bottle of rum and poured the light brown drink over ice into two lowball glasses I found in our room. I screwed the cap back on the bottle of liquor and set it on the table. “Here we go!” I said as I turned to Justin and held out a glass for him to grab. We tapped our glasses together before taking a sip of the rum. I let my first sip settle before I swallowed it down. It was strong, yet light and smooth. It tasted more or less like any other rum I have tasted before, but I noticed it wasn’t as rough to drink straight. It was good, which meant a lot to me given my usual indifference toward rum.

After drinking our glasses through, Justin and I headed to dinner with the rest of the participants in our conference. We decided we would take the cigars along with us to have after dinner. Our meal was run of the mill Italian food at a chain restaurant near our hotel. It was nothing special, but I found myself enjoying the food none-the-less. Perhaps it was the excitement building over the forthcoming new experience smoking a Cuban cigar, or perhaps it was the Cuban rum I drank earlier.  Whatever the reason, I was carrying a particularly positive spirit and I was looking forward to the rest of the night.

Up close...
After dinner our group split and went to various locations to round out the evening.  After grabbing a drink at a nearby pub, several members of our group, Justin, and I started making our way to a recommended live music bar several blocks from our hotel. Realizing it meant, at minimum, we would be walking five blocks, I decided to partake in my first Cuban cigar on the walk over. I grabbed the cigar out of my pocket and asked around the group for a light. Against the strong evening breeze a member of our group extended his hand cupped around a slender sliver lighter. After several attempts, the wind finally relented long enough to permit us to light the cigar. I began puffing away to until smoke and embers started to consume the tip of the tobacco and the Clairo leaf wrapping. My concentration moving from lighting the cigar back to continuing our walk, I realized I was officially smoking my first Cuban cigar. The smoky, robust bouquet flavors filled my mouth with each draw off of the roll of tobacco. I was surprised at the strength of the smoke as it filled my mouth, but I did not find myself encountering the rough, suffocating feelings that often come with smoking.

I puffed away as we walked, eventually taking a quick glance at the cigar some time after it was lit. In little more than four blocks I had whittled the cigar down to nearly half its original length. Feeling the smoke linger in my mouth, I decided it was probably time to put out the cigar and save the rest for a later time. As we approached the music venue, I snuffed out the tip of the cigar on a brick wall and tapped the end to check for temperature before tucking it in my pocket. My first experience with a Cuban cigar was over, but the sweet taste of the tobacco stayed with me through the music and drinks that came with the rest of the night.

Today’s events gave me an opportunity to experience something that would have otherwise flown under my radar had it not been for my trip to Canada. The series of events leading to my first taste of Cuban cigars and Cuban rum was more a result of luck and coincidence than careful planning, but I’m glad it occurred. While I doubt, for a variety of reasons, Cuban cigars and Cuban rum will become a routine occurrence in my life, experiencing both is something to which I’m glad I can lay claim. It was another day of new experiences in Toronto. With one day left, I’m curious as to what surprises lay in store before my trip back to the states.

A good night for a walk

6 comments:

  1. I'm jealous of this one. I haven't yet had the pleasure of a Cuban cigar. I do love road trips, tho.. So maybe one day I will have to head to the great white north..

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    Replies
    1. I actually thought of you when I stumbled upon Julius Vesz's store, Chris. You would love that place! It's practically a massive humidor with an ornate den in the middle of it. If you ever make your way up to Toronto (it's actually not that far away... one hour and 30 minute flight), I highly recommend visiting Julius. His store is just off the lobby inside the Royal York Hotel downtown. Totally worth it.

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  2. I Hope you brought me one back. Sounds amazing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I wish I could have done that for you. Julius was very clear we shouldn't make an attempt to take them home with us... and I wasn't about to risk some jail time for the sake of an exotic smoke.

      Delete
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