If you’ve been smoking cigars for a few decades, you’ve probably noticed that it’s getting harder and harder to find a place to light up. The first statewide ban on smoking in bars arrived in California in 1998, and the trend has accelerated since. Twenty-eight states now have comprehensive indoor smoking bans on the books. The same is true for more than a thousand American cities and counties. Would you rather smoke on an outdoor terrace? There are over 500 places that restrict this too. What should a quiet cigar smoker do? We don’t have the technology to time travel, but we have the next best thing: a vacation to Tampa, Florida, where the atavistic pleasures of cigar culture live.
Specifically, leaf lovers will want to head to Ybor City, the former Latin Quarter that earned Tampa its nickname of Cigar City. It is immediately evident that time is passing a little slower here. Your first stop might be the Columbia Restaurant, opened as a cafe for local cigar makers in 1905 and now a must-see destination for Cuban sandwiches and Spanish fare, claiming the title of Florida’s oldest restaurant.
Or you can take a break to meet some chickens.
As you walk the streets of Ybor, you’ll soon find yourself sharing sidewalks with birds you don’t normally encounter in modern American cities. Wild chickens, probably descendants of those raised by local families a long time ago, have carte blanche here. An ordinance prohibits anyone from hunting, killing, maiming or trapping birds in the city, or even attempting to do so. Be nice to the chickens otherwise.
The main street of Ybor is 7e Street. Why chickens cross this road is an eternal mystery, but the attractions for cigar smokers are pretty clear. It’s the densest congregation of cigar rooms and shops you’ll find in the United States, a few of which roll their own cigars in-house. “We call them ‘buckeyes,’ says Holden Rasmussen, historian of the JC Newman Cigar Company, the last of the big cigar factories still in operation in Tampa.“ It was pretty common in Ybor City because a lot of people had experience in making cigars. Before you could go to the Oliva tobacco factory or leave the tobacco warehouse and buy like a pound of corojo, a book of tripa [filler], and a pound of Connecticut broadleaf so you can roll your own cigars.
Julius C. Newman started in 1895 with such a small independent operation, starting with loose tobacco and a rolling table in a barn in Cleveland, Ohio, before eventually making his way to Tampa. Today, truly individual males no longer trade in their off-peak hours, a practice that ended with contemporary licensing regulations, but the tradition is kept alive in stores like La Faraona, Nicahabana, and Tabanero. . Stop by one of them to try out locally made cigars, and you can see the professional rollers at work, taking the entire cigar-making process from start to finish.
The large cigar factories that once powered the Ybor economy have also mostly disappeared. The labor-intensive process of rolling premium cigars by hand is difficult to scale in the United States, so most of that work has shifted to Latin America. You can still spot the old factories around town, often with their historic signs intact, but almost all of them have been reused (including one that is now a Church of Scientology).
The last man standing of the big cigar factories is JC Newman, whose owners are determined to keep the cigar business alive in Tampa. The large brick building known as “El Reloj” or “the clock”, now functions as both a real cigar company and a museum offering public tours. You don’t have to be a smoker to be intrigued by the tour’s dives into cigar history and production. Highlights include Julius Newman’s immigration story to America – his misspelled middle name “Caeser” was assigned to him by an immigration officer – and what is likely the last bag of Cuban tobacco before the embargo in the country.
The real action, however, lies in the live production of cigars. JC Newman subcontracts the vast majority of its manual lamination of high-end cigars to Arturo Fuente and then imports them; the El Reloj plant is located halfway between full automation and traditional production. The machines they use were produced by a subsidiary of American Machine and Foundry in New Jersey from the 1930s to the 1960s; “Hand-operated antique” is how Rasmussen describes them. “It’s not like a cigarette machine, you don’t flip a switch and walk away and it makes a million cigarettes. There is an operator there who puts every package by hand, who does the quality assurance to make sure that even though it is a $ 1 cigar, it is still the best $ 1 cigar you can buy. “
The process is fascinating to watch. Like so many others in Ybor City, it feels like stepping back in time, as operators and pneumatic machines transport each cigar through the process of packing the filling, binding, and finally packing. wrapped in pure tobacco leaf. The rolling room is buzzing and the aromas are amazing.
On the top floor of the brickyard is where a few skilled rollers still make premium cigars entirely by hand. The cigar is “the American”, the rebirth of one of its brands by Newman from 1910. Today, the cigar is distinguished by the fact that it is made entirely with American tobacco: charge of the farmers Pennsylvania mennonites and heirloom Connecticut Havana, Broadleaf binder from Connecticut and a unique Florida Sungrown cape, grown in full sun. Take a few home; it’s an earthy, nutty and wonderfully unique smoking experience.
As interesting as the tour is, you’ll probably also want to enjoy a cigar in town. Ybor offers many options, including the spacious King Corona Café and Bar where you can relax with a cigar and a Cuban coffee. But maybe you should go to church instead? Not really. One of the best places to smoke a cigar in all of Tampa is a converted 1906 church.
Tampa’s first congregational church was recently reborn as the Grand Cathedral Cigars. “Finding the cathedral was just fate,” says owner Angela Yue, who moved from California to open it. “My partner Nathan was playing cards with some of his buddies. He said, “Why don’t you go look for properties online … try 33602”, not knowing that it was the Tampa zip code. We came across the cathedral building. Jokingly I said it would be so cool to turn it into a cigar lounge. Long story short, the building owner and the real estate agent are both heavy cigar smokers and loved the idea. We were on a plane the following week to sign the lease.
Good thing they did because the catering is amazing. The old church features a beautiful wooden structure along with the original brick walls and floor, with natural light entering by day and new stained glass windows shining at night. The cigar cellar offers an extensive selection and the bar has a healthy supply of whiskeys and beers, including the local mainstay Cigar City Brewing. It’s a short drive into the heart of Ybor and easily worth a visit.
“Tampa is home to the cigar capital of the world. Cigars are a way of life here, it’s not just a hobby, ”says Yue. “We live, breathe and embody the cigar culture in Tampa. I always joke and say the day Tampa bans or bans cigar smoking is the day the whole country is smoke free. Hope this day is far away. But in the meantime, if you like a good cigar every now and then, you might want to book a trip to Tampa now to be on the safe side.
For more travel news, tips and inspiration, subscribe to Inside hookThe Journey’s weekly travel newsletter.