A Little Taste of Cuba owner Jorge Armenteros. (Photo by Stacey Micallef)
A Little Taste of Cuba owner Jorge Armenteros. (Photo by Stacey Micallef)

Sitting here, enfolded in the soft warmth of A Little Taste of Cuba’s tasting room, I was beginning to catch a slight whiff of understanding. In his semi-jesting “The Betrothed,” Rudyard Kipling, poetic voice of the Grand Empire, had hurled the gauntlet between the promise of matrimonial joys and that proud, glowing standard of masculine independence.

Now, as one who has been enraptured all his life by the wise and alluring magnificence of all creatures feminine, I have always held the ladies beyond compare. Surely you hyperbolize, Mr. Kipling. What exceptional sweet indulgence could hand-rolled tobacco so inspire? I decided to investigate.

And the obvious venue for this venture lay, ironically, right across the street from the Princeton Public Library at 70 Witherspoon Street; a mere few yards apart, yet a realm as far removed as a Puritan from joy. Thus, with my tobacco selected from A Little Taste of Cuba’s enticing array, I had placed down my tasting room fee and been led upstairs into the smoke-celebrating sanctum, all set to draw in its feast. Here I was discerning what a “Smoke” fully entails.

Before this moment, I had, like so many others, strolled by this haven scores of times and never considered entering. In fact, the only time I had glanced deeply past the guardian wooden Indian was in 1995 when owner Jorge Armenteros had just opened his doors. Upon learning that A Little Taste of Cuba was not a restaurant, I had scurried on. Tonight I was discovering what delight I had so long bypassed.

Earlier that day I had timorously entered the shop and announced that I would like to buy a cigar. (Like asking a Bon Appetit clerk if he’s got any grub.) I was not a novice. I was a total ignoramus. In my entire life to date, my lips had touched three cigars: two handed out by buddies who had just become fathers and one from my partner when we founded a magazine. I had never smoked cigarets or a pipe.

To my surprise, store manager Duane Dinkins responded without disdain. He merely smiled and took me into the humidor — an oak and glassed corner room toward the narrow store’s back where all the cigars are preserved and enticingly displayed. Armenteros insists on only stocking premium cigars, which he defines as those that are hand-constructed and hand-rolled and made from the entire tobacco leaf. His repeat customers define them as “simply the best smokes available.”

The cigar store Indian stands guard at the recently expanded smoke shop on Witherspoon Street.
The cigar store Indian stands guard at the recently expanded smoke shop on Witherspoon Street.

I stared blankly at the rows of beautifully mortised wood boxes, with ranks of cigars lovingly nestled in crushed tobacco packing. Many of the wrappers (the cigar’s outermost leaf) reflected back just a slight shine, hinting at the flavors within. The combined aroma in this moisture-controlled room was delightfully heady. No bitter stogie scent here. In the end, we had chosen a PG (Paul Garmirian) for its “mild and creamy taste.” In other words, something this beginner would not gag over when sharing a smoke in the tasting room. The cost, $15.24, lay within the normal $10 to $20 range, although certain premium, limited-issue cigars may run to $200. As with wine, only fools choose by price — let your personal taste rule.

Nearly a year old, A Little Taste of Cuba’s tasting room was Armenteros’ hard-won expansion that proffers gentlemen and ladies the opportunity to share their hobby in a more convivial and contemplative atmosphere. It affords smokers a refuge apart from the main floor with all its commercial transactions. “It’s also nice for new customers, who no longer feel they have to stand and display their lack of savvy before all the veteran regulars who beforehand would all gather in the main store area,” explains Armenteros, who charges as little as a couple of dollars a day if you buy an annual membership or $20 for a one-day visit.

At about 6:30, a popular time, I had mounted the steps and pushed aside the crimson curtains. The tasting room’s aura would have brought an approving nod from any of Mr. Kipling’s British contemporaries. Intimate in size, the feel of a club. Oak paneled walls bore a tastefully scant photo display of tobacco growing in fields from across the globe. The ornate, stamped metal ceiling with elaborate crown molding recalled the days of a more cigar-appreciative era. Tucked in the corner, the softly playing wall television showing the evening’s ball game offered the option of this age’s entertainment.

Deeply ensconced in conversation and the plush, black leather chairs that filled the room, Tommy and Kevin took note of this stranger’s entrance and motioned me to come join them. With easy confidence, Tommy offered me his cutter and lighter. ‘Tis part of the anticipatory ritual, akin to examining the wine’s color or admiring the tea cup at the start of the tea ceremony. Cleanly snipping off the end of a cigar allows a fine, even draw of smoke through its length. Lighting is achieved by holding the cigar above the flame, rotating it between finger and thumb and seducing the flame toward the tobacco with a few short puffs. Or do whatever feels good to you. This is, after all, your own indulgence.

Open the old cigar box: Owner Jorge Armenteros has created a place to retreat with your cigar. (Photo by Stacey Micallef)
Open the old cigar box: Owner Jorge Armenteros has created a place to retreat with your cigar. (Photo by Stacey Micallef)

One of the best signs of a shared experience is that you find yourself swapping intimate stories, winding through mazes of intellectual thought, and truly getting to know one another, without ever a word concerning each other’s profession. After a day’s hike or paddle, I have spent countless blissful evenings around campfires staring into the flames with compatriots who easily revealed their deepest dreams and never mentioned such mundane matters as the source of their income. Tonight I returned to that setting.

Tommy and Kevin, veterans of several smoking rooms around the state, worked for a firm that frequently brought them close enough for an evening of companionship over a good cigar. Tommy drew gently on his favorite Drew Estate Liga Privada No. 9, a robustly flavored award winner that was reviewed as “meaty, earthy, and complex.” It was also thick — cigars are measured in ring sizes with each ring equal to 1/64th of an inch. Tommy’s cigar was a 54 ring size — close to an inch in diameter — as opposed to the Paul Garmirian’s 40.

The topic under discussion centered around the fact that both Tommy and Kevin were about to become first-time fathers. We pondered the plight of children today. Kevin lamented the lack of independent action currently allowed youngsters. Pickup games, after all, build better character than excessively coached traveling teams. Tommy and I hammered out solutions for battling the overwhelming invasion of technology. We shared fond tales of our fathers. Someone noted how essential it was for a child to see Dad as an independent person who chose his own activities and lives his own life. Slowly, contemplatively, we wrapped up and patched up the challenges of child rearing. And Tommy was coming to the nub of his Privada. We bid each other adieu.

Later on I chatted with Ed, one of the regulars who revealed to me the latest architectural happenings in New Brunswick and other good-hearted tidbits. Then, towards evening’s end, I and my cigar sat pensively alone. A good cigar will last from half an hour to an hour and a half. Like sipping a fine single malt Scotch, draughts are periodic; in my case about two a minute. Since one doesn’t inhale cigar smoke, part of the fun is taking a brief savor over the tongue and then puffing out a thick wreathe into the air and studying the swirl. Like most good tasting rooms, A Little Taste of Cuba has invested in high quality, markedly quiet air filtering systems that eliminate completely the dreary haze of the smoke-filled room.

I began to see why Tommy held up his cigar and with a thoughtful nod stated, “This is my meditation.”

A Taste of Controversial Success

For its owner, A Little Taste of Cuba is a passion, run very deftly as a business. Jorge Armenteros’ family came from their native Cuba, settling in the eastern U.S. between the 1940s and 1960s. “Cigars were just part of my life,” he recalls. “I remember my grandfather every night after dinner. He would go out onto the porch, have one beer, and smoke a cigar. These were some of our closest times together.”

His cigar infatuation got rekindled when, as a sophomore at American University, Armenteros walked into a neighborhood cigar shop called Georgetown Tobacco. Sensing both the enjoyment and opportunity, he began scribbling a business plan for a retail cigar store. It was the 1990s and cigars were, as if in response to a booming economy, taking a giant leap in popularity. Since the 1960s cigar smoking had taken a sharp and steady decline. Then, shaking off its doldrums, the cigar got rediscovered. U.S. imports of premium cigars, which had held dropped to 99 million by 1992, shot up to 125 million by 1994. The newly launched magazine Cigar Aficionado was thriving.

By graduation day in 1995 at American University, the 21-year-old Armenteros had chosen his career, he just needed to find a location for his store. His father, working in the retail food industry, was being transferred north and needed to find a place to live in the New York metropolitan area. Jorge scouted the area and discovered Princeton. The town, he says now, “was ideal and has been very good to me. People here want excellence, and they want to make their own choices. It seemed a perfect fit.” Borrowing his family’s money and his parents’ devoted labor, Armenteros launched A little Taste of Cuba in September, three months after he graduated.

Open the old cigar box: Owner Jorge Armenteros has created a place to retreat with your cigar. (Photo by Stacey Micallef)
Open the old cigar box: Owner Jorge Armenteros has created a place to retreat with your cigar. (Photo by Stacey Micallef)

For most entrepreneurs, getting one under-funded shop off the ground would be an adequate venture. But Armenteros held a larger picture. New Jersey was an open frontier. When it came to retail tobacco stores, the Garden State ranked fourth lowest per 100,000 residents in the nation. “I wanted to capture the market and make a presence,” says Armenteros. So a mere 18 months after opening in Princeton, he began constructing his second A Little Taste of Cuba in New Hope strategically centered on South Main Street. “I remember overseeing the construction up there at night, sleeping on the floor, then returning to Princeton and opening up in the morning.”

One has only to listen to Armenteros to sense his appreciation of cigar artistry. In late 1996 he made his first pilgrimage to Cuba and studied the process in depth, learning from farmers, packers, and even Cuba’s director general of tobacco.

There lies artistry in the field, letting just the right amount of sun touch the leaf — perhaps placing the crop under gauze. In the factory, the blending process rivals fine wine. The filler (that inner core leaves of the cigar) may come from the top of the plant for flavor, or lower down for better burning. The binder, (which embraces the filler) must have the right qualities of pliability. And the wrapper, ah the all important wrapper, which produces the majority of flavor, must be vein-free and endlessly argued over.

Cigar appreciation has historically been shared by many. Back in 1933, the Henry Clay and Bock Company opened up in Trenton employing up to 2,000 residents, mostly women, to hand roll its La Corona and other cigars. Working in an atypically air-conditioned factory, the ladies would often, as a matter of artistic pride, slip their names into the box they had just created. Occasionally gentlemen would return letters of appreciation, thanking them for the experience.

With the advent of machine-processing, Henry Clay and Bock closed in 1967, followed swiftly by the remaining cigar manufacturers in the Capital City.

“Following trips to Cuba and elsewhere, I decided that there was such a great body of cigar knowledge that needed to be shared and preserved,” says Armenteros. When Armenteros was still a child his father was working for the McDonalds organization, where employees got advanced training at “Hamburger University.” He saw a similar opportunity in the cigar industry and founded Tobacconist University in 1996. It recently ramped up and now serves and certifies interested smokers, retail tobacconists, and professional wholesalers. His store manager, for example, is a “certified retail tobacconist.” There is even a Certified Cigar Sommelier Tobacconist degree for those in the hospitality industry ever seeking new ways to better their clients’ experiences.

Owner Jorge Armenteros created a ‘Tobacco University’ so that employees like Duane Dinkins, left above, and Manny Barrera can become knowledgeable about the art and science of cigar production. (Photo by Stacey Micallef)
Owner Jorge Armenteros created a ‘Tobacco University’ so that employees like Duane Dinkins, left above, and Manny Barrera can become knowledgeable about the art and science of cigar production. (Photo by Stacey Micallef)

The university and A Little Taste of Cuba now even sport their own brand, appropriately named R&D, which Armenteros has packaged so that the smoker may sample the entire cigar, plus a smaller array of the individual tobaccos that combine to form the whole cigar’s smoking savor.

Vilifying Tobacco. With the recent move toward normalization of relations with Cuba, you might think that the country’s namesake store in Princeton would soon start offering some of those once highly prized Cuban cigars. Not so fast, says Armenteros. First the recently lifted embargo on cigars and rum only permits the importing of products for personal use, not for commercial sale. Second, Armenteros says, those newly available Cuban cigars may not be as good as one would imagine.

“It’s a poignant question,” he says, “because there is no brand in general that holds greater cachet than the Cuban cigar. We still have customers who will tell you that Cuban cigars are the best, but a centrally planned economy cannot make great artisanal products. Ninety-five percent of the time it just doesn’t work. The best cigars,” he says, “are made by maniacs,” and maniacs aren’t always nurtured in a dictatorial environment.

If Cuba is ever allowed to export cigars in quantity, it will have to take its place in line at the FDA approval pipeline. ‘It takes three to five years to make a really good cigar.’

In addition Cuban cigars will have to face the same set of regulations that all cigars sold in the U.S. will soon have to face. Recently the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has extended its jurisdiction to cover cigars, hookahs, electronic cigarets, and pipe tobacco. Under the new ruling, all cigar manufacturers must submit samples of each product (all sizes and varieties and brands) to an FDA examination process which, it warns, may take up to three years for approval. While the exact timeline on this approval system’s taking effect remains vague, the new scrutinizing system including all products made since August 8 of this year should come into full swing in about a year.

“This will be the death of the premium cigar business in the country,” mourns Armenteros. “All those small companies that artistically hand roll and create new types of cigars won’t be able to pay the FDA processing fees or endure the wait. They will get gobbled up by the huge, machine-manufacturing companies that mass-produce the low-level items. Quality and creativity will be crushed by this law.” For the giant tobacco companies that produce 12 billion generic cigars annually, it will be a boon. For the legion of small manufacturers who carefully craft and sell the 315 million hand rolled premium cigars each year, it may spell the end.

If Cuba is ever allowed to export cigars in quantity, it will have to take its place in line at the FDA approval pipeline. “It takes three to five years to make a really good cigar,” says Armenteros. “You won’t see Cuban cigars for a very long time.”

Last year there was more bad news at the local level for A Little Taste of Cuba. Princeton’s Council voted to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco products from 19 to 21. Armenteros and some other retailers spoke out against the ordinance, citing the example of Princeton University students who have purchased cigars to mark a particular academic accomplishment. “We’re not selling addictive products, per se. We’re sharing special moments that people celebrate,” Armenteros told the town council, which obviously did not buy the argument.

On the state level, however, New Jersey legislators are bringing cigar bar owners some good news. Legislation was introduced that will allow newly opening cigar lounges to gain exemption from the New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act of 2004. Under current law, only lounges that opened before 2005 — such as A Little Taste of Cuba — gain this exemption. If the new ordinance takes effect, cigar bar entrepreneurs would still need approval from the municipality and the local health department. They must also meet several restrictions, primarily that the tasting room exists distinctly apart and on its own from any purveyors of alcohol or food. In cases of local acceptance and demand, the cigar bar has been given a reprieve.

Americans are remarkable for selectively labeling certain activities as vices and then legislating against them. Alcohol, several high risk sports, the cocaine that made Coca Cola famous, bathtub-mixed Lysergic acid diethylamide have all felt the bane of legislative ban. Likewise, naturally growing marijuana, mushrooms, and tobacco have been labeled pernicious threats to public safety. They are deemed vices.

American legislators have traditionally defined a vice as any freely chosen activity that non-participants insist will shorten your life. Accordingly, Class VI whitewater kayaking, rock climbing, football, wrestling, drinking, mountaineering, falling out of tree forts, spontaneous sex, and standing up against large foes may be listed among my potentially destructive indulgences. But the length of one’s span on this terrestrial orb has never been my measure of a life well lived.

Back in 1905, when seven out of ten American men smoked a cigar when they could get one, Sigmund Freud was puffing through a 20-cigar-per-day habit. It was an excess that would kill him at the age of 83. Father of psychoanalysis, the Oedipal-oriented Freud is famed for noting, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Today, the generally accepted findings state that two un-inhaled cigars per day, (more than the habit of A Little Taste of Cuba’s average clientele) will cause no significant health risk. Arguments on both sides are available by the truckload. Read and decide.

As for me, I personally disagree with Mr. Freud, but also with Mr. Kipling. The ladies shall forever remain ranked at the apogee as a source of my delight. Still, a good cigar is indeed an enjoyable experience. Taken either socially or in solitude, it encourages contemplation and conviviality. Will I return to A Little Taste of Cuba? I’m not sure. I only know that the choice is truly mine.

A Little Taste of Cuba, 70 Witherspoon Street, 609-683-8988.