A Lot of Chic and a Bit of Bonanza
People from Germany’s Rhineland have a reputation as being unstoppable in their appetites for enjoyment. In Düsseldorf and Cologne, tobacco specialty retailers are cultivating extra-ordinary lounge atmospheres, including hints of the Wild West.
Here the aficionado can be a man’s man – no matter with or without tie, regardless of any whim that might strike him. Like the protagonist of an American Western, he casually enters the Cigarworld Lounge of Tabac Benden via a wooden staircase, oozing Hollywood flair. The historic industrial building beckons with its 400 square meters of unlimited smoking free-dom, including a courtyard area with turn-of-the-century charm, in which you can also get away with the excitingly anarchic experience of parking your convertible anywhere you like without fearing a ticket. Our aficionado, too, might have a certain platinum-blonde beauty in his sights, quite naturally someone from the VIP scene in the Rhine and Ruhr region. She, too, savors her puro in this smokers’ refuge created by Patricia and Marc Benden. The Bendens’ array of rooms, ranging from the spectacular lobby with its soaring ceiling to the intimate Salon Rouge, are guaranteed to fulfill a smoker’s every desire – and this six days of the week until midnight. The lounge’s unconventional location only adds to the atmosphere; a roaringly loud train underpass represents the sound of decidedly cool Düsseldorf, a city proud of its liberal spirit and historic pursuit of freedom. Best of all, the capital of German state Nordrhein-Westfalen still enjoys one of the republic’s most liberal anti-smoking laws.
Welcome to the Benden siblings’ tobacco lounge and shopping paradise. Their business concept is blowing up the cigar branch’s time-honored traditions, not least those of their own family, which once ran 17 tobacco shops. This fourth generation is determined to find its own path: “Along-side the lounge and its calendar of events, we focus on online retail of fine cigars. This brings in the lion’s share of income, but individual sales do well too”, says Marc Benden.
The Amazon.com of Cigar Commerce?
Benden’s selection of premium cigars is the widest in Germany and includes many rarities like the limited Habanos editions from 2007 to 2009. This is a real draw for his cross-European clientele: “We carry around 20 top formats from Oliva Cigar, the coveted Nicaraguan brand”, says Benden. For emphasis he gestures to two 100-square-meter walk-in humidors already bursting at the seams: “As Habanos specialists, 50 out of our 450 brands are from Cuba. We aspire to offer the best of the best from all provenances of the world.” Cigarworld, founded in 1997, is considered the fore-most Internet reference when it comes to the sale of fine cigars and accessories: “Our ambition is to become the ‘Amazon.com’ of the cigar trade.” Tabac Benden is already well on its way: “When someone searches for a cigar that can’t be found anywhere else, he’ll find us through Google, guaranteed. At this moment there are over 80,000 reviews of our products on the Net.” The lounge, which grew out of the mail-order business, offers introductory seminars for aficionados as well as tasting rounds of wine and whisky. Here you might find a merry poker round in which “Puros in Your Face” are pitted against the core members of a brotherhood that represents over 120 Internet cigar freaks. The Benden siblings’ special bridge to its customers takes the form of their internal tobacco trade fair, which takes place following the Dortmund conference Inter-tabac: “The 17 most important German importers come with their rollers; they give seminars; they’re open to questions. It’s a wonderful space in which our cigar lovers can experiment”, says Patricia Benden. Here in the part of Düsseldorf known as Bilk, a contrast to other districts of elegant city, the architecturally provocative appearance fits the Bendens’ concept: it’s the perfect backdrop to a top-modern furnished “cigar ranch” with more than a touch of bonanza nostalgia. All that’s missing is the swinging saloon door, outfitted naturally – to suit the times – with a digital light barrier.
InterConti Shows its Colors with New Cigar Lounge
Düsseldorf’s vibrant street Königsallee, known simply as the “Kö” to the rest of the country, is a boon to the night-owl aficionados among us who like to be on the go until the wee hours. “We usually close our bar Fifty Nine when the last guest leaves,” says Frank Kappenstein, manager of the Top Cocktail Bar in the InterContinental Düsseldorf. Its director Jörg T. Böckeler, who was named “hotelier of the year” in 2009, has been a passionate aficionado for over 30 years. Thanks to his dedication, the five-star hotel will soon host a spacious cigar lounge with a large humidor, boasting an excellent selection from the world’s most important provenances. Böckeler’s initiative is sending an important signal to German hoteliers who prefer to ban their smoking clientele to outdoor terraces. “It’s clear to me that smoking a fine cigar goes hand-in-hand with the experience of an exquisite bar”, emphasizes Böckeler, drawing on his favorite Davidoff No. 2. During his apprenticeship in the famous Traube-Tonbach Baiersbronn while Zino Daviodff was still alive, he enjoyed bringing the Dom Pérignon series’ finest longfillers to customers’ tables: “A fine smoke is just as important to epicurean culture as refined cuisine”, was his lesson he took away; today he’s a hotel director who also promotes the fine arts. That’s why you’ll find in the elegantly-lit house bar, tucked between 155 different vodkas, a well-renowned sculpture from Markus Lüpertz (Lüpertz is a former director of the Staatlichen Kunstakadamie).
In the booming art and fashion metropolis of Düsseldorf, one of Böckler’s frequent VIP guests is Ralf Möller. The actor lives in the US, but likes to pay a visit to the city’s most celebrated lifestyle bar when he returns to Germany. Aficionado Möller welcomes recommendations from bar manager Kappenstein. He knows he can’t go wrong: “Our humidor is well-stocked by the Casa del Habano, located in the Kö-Galerie just a few steps away.” Art appreciator Muhammet Genç has transformed his Düsseldof casa into an unusual meeting place for aficionados. He has also established a very respectable walk-in humidor in the nearby Breidenbacher Hof. When you spend an evening in his Capella Bar & Cigar Lounge, choose from 125 longfillers from Cuba and the Dominican Republic. At the same time, marvel at the ultra-lux leather flooring and refined illuminated glass boxes in which bottles fine spirits glitter as if in jewel-boxes.
Linzbach Tobacco’s Wonderful Tradition
Linzbach Tobacco stands out during the “golden promenade” of the Düsseldorf fine smoke grand tour. The soon-to-be hundred-year-old family tradition is led by Werner Schmitz along with cousin Christina Lüdtke-Willebarnd. You’ll feel as if you’re in a venerable old library in the giant walk-in humidor that stores premium longfillers from the twelve best provenances around the world: “Take a whiff – really sniff in there”, says Schmitz passionately, gesturing toward his Brazilian selection from Bahia do Brasil, Panatela. Similarly intoxicating is the special edition 2010, made from finest Panamanian tobaccos for the John Aylesbury Group (www.john-aylesbury.de). Behind them is a collection of cigars that are manufactured exclusively for a select group of retailers. This coalition seems like a secret brotherhood with well-protected knowledge about the “brown gold” and its best blends. “My grandparents were among the Aylesbury founders”, says Schmitz warmly before showing a new client the way to the comfortable atrium lounge behind the humidor (former home to the vault of a major German bank). Schmitz spent four months with Cuban manufacturers as the sole German tobacco retailer, learning at H. Upmann as much about raw tobacco as about the rolling of cigars. With all due respect to Habanos, which make up around 50 percent of his assortment, he banks on the variety of his selection: “Germany is worldwide the nation with the widest selection of tobaccos, and this tradition of variety we want to continue.” With a mischievous smile he shows his current most expensive cigar, a Cohiba 35 Aniversario ($198); his shop is the only one in the Rhine and Ruhr region to carry it. “The trend is for smaller formats”, he says, referring to his Nicaraguan Cain Cigars. “The Oliva Sun-Grown in the Short and Torpedo formats ($11.40) sell particularly well. But my clients often ask for the Robusto Connoisseur No. 1 from H. Upmann.”
Peter Heinrich’s Customers are Friends
In the neighboring Rhine metropolis Cologne lives the founding rock of German tobacco retailers: the much-lauded Peter Heinrichs. It houses not only an excellent Casa del Habano, but in the store next door the world’s largest collec-tion of pipes – a whopping 97,000 pieces. Pfeifen Heinrichs is grounded in a hundred-year-old tradition. In the elegant display rooms, located on the pulsing Hahnenstraße, you’ll come across Germany’s first walk-in humidor. The store grew opulently, according to the taste of the times. “Here we have the coveted Opus X from Arturo Fuente. We carry 30 cases of this rarity”, Heinrichs says. “My customers come here from throughout Germany. But we also get many Americans and Russians in the store looking for hard-to-find premium cigars.” The 28 employees of the Cologne retailer are home-grown talents, learning the cigar business from the ground up in-house: “We have our own philosophy”, emphasizes the 64-year-old. “And it’s about being different.”
Millions of cigars are stored in his humidors, among them the complete Davidoff product range. As a Habanos specialist, he is always up-to-date with the newest ediciónes limitadas. But there is also a series of the finely composed Peter Heinrich’s Cigar, which grew out of many years’ trial and error. “In its flavor nuances it resembles a Davidoff”, says Heinrichs, but for his house brand he decided to use tobacco with some color error to consciously keep prices low. “One of these cigars costs only four Euros, but its quality of blend and flavor is worthy of a label that costs four times as much.”
Peter Heinrichs likes to deploy an imposing show truck, complete with a cigar lounge and many originals, for trade fair activities. It’s also a physical memory from Peter Heinrich’s intensely-lived American Dream. In the early days, Peter Heinrichs traveled a lot in the States; in 1984, he even built up his own tobacco-franchise operation in San Francisco, later starting a mail-order business in Vermont: “Today the people there still call me ‘the lovely boy from Germany’”, he mentions casually. For all his astounding sense of marketing and intuitive sense of the best products to launch, Heinrichs is still a glowing “sonny-boy” with a forever-young heart. “At our place, the customer isn’t king, but he is a friend”, says Heinrichs, revealing the business’s perhaps most endearing motto. Coming from his mouth, it doesn’t sound like a stock phrase. “I love life, I love people, that’s all there is to it,” he adds: there’s the real secret to his incredible success. You can’t help but believe him as you stand amidst his tobacco empire, swathed in a fragrant cloud of smoke from the best cigars in the world.
Sensual La Galana cigars from Cologne
If you want to find an authentic piece of Cuba in the lively Rhine city, you’re guaranteed to find it at La Galana. Only a few minutes further on from Peter Heinrichs, Annette Meisl runs her own small cigar manufacturer. Under the strict supervision of an otherwise charming master roller from Cienfuegos, extravagant hand-rolled longfillers emerge one by one. “Our special editions are in high demand”, says Meisl, who produces the majority of her goods in Nicaragua. Rollers in tow, she attends cigar events as far-reaching as the United Arab Emirates. Don’t miss a visit to the small and lovely “Café del Tabaco” directly opposite the manufacturer. It radiates the flair of Old Havana. “My mentor here was Reynaldo Creagh, star of the famous Vieja Trova Santiaguera”, recalls the one-time tour manager for celebrated Cuban bands, proudly displaying the photograph of Reynaldo over the entrance to her café. The “good spirit of the house” is today well over 90 years old, but still smokes his puros undaunted: “By the way, [he smokes] a very good brand,” says Annette Meisl. As a good-bye token, she recommends a chocolate cigar, in which notes of cacao mingle with tobacco essence and a hint of rum – typical of the unique elegance à la La Galana, handmade in Cologne, Germany.