While it might be foreign in both culture and production; the world of cigars is rooted in family, art, and a vibrant community that has found its way to Mountain Brook. In a delicate and tedious hand making process, the real beauty of a cigar is found in the people who make them and enjoy them. Vitola Fine Cigars, right in the heart of Mountain Brook, has captured the pleasures and pleasance of what makes this art form of the past so amazing today.
The tobacco industry in America has been one of the longest standing forms of production and trade since the first settlers came to this country. Although tobacco wasn’t popular in America until later years. Cuba was the main hub of mass production for cigars in the 1500’s after Christopher Columbus discovered the materials and use of cigars in Cuba during his 1492 voyage to America. Columbus brought this knowledge and materials with him back to Europe, until Columbus and his men took over Havana, Cuba and appointed governors from Spain to be in charge. The Spanish used Cuba as a mass production base, and ruled the tobacco industry in the Caribbean.
In 1868, tobacco farmers began a revolution against the Spanish occupation over Cuba and the war led major tobacco plants and factories to come to America, specifically in Key West and Tampa. American cigar production rose nearly 300%, and with new technology, cigars were no longer needed to be made only by hand. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, cigar prices in America plummeted, and the industry was nearly bankrupted. Cheaply made cigars were now the only thing available, as no one could afford fine Cuban cigars. Finding this luxury became even more difficult in 1959 when Fidel Castro completed the Cuban Revolution, and imposed a trade embargo on the United States, restricting all Cuban goods from reaching America’s shores, thus cutting off all supply of Cuban cigars to the United States for good.
The fascinating history of cigars in the United States is continuity developing, but rather slowly. Jim Warlick, manager of Vitola Fine Cigars in Mountain Brook, describes the tobacco industry as “slow evolving.” He says, “We never look too far ahead. We like to keep our expectations open, and focus on year to year growth.” Perhaps some people are more keen on this slower moving lifestyle.
Vitola offers an in-house lounge area for people to relax and conversate and explore different cigars. Many of Vitola’s frequent visitors enjoy long hours, sitting in large leather chairs amongst the hazy smoke, and telling stories of days long past. Warlick often sits himself amongst the regulars, learning about life, and hearing stories of wiser and longer lived men. “We have TV’s on in here, but most of the time no one is watching.”
The tranquility and ambiance of Vitola is felt when customers enter through the glass doors. Immediately, you are met with a wall of beautifully handcrafted cigar boxes that stack to the ceiling, and the smell of tobacco filling your nostrils. For the regulars, it’s a smell that keeps them coming back. Vitola is one of the only in-house cigar lounges in the Mountain Brook, and they make you feel like it’s home.
I scanned the three layered shelves that lined the inside of their glass humidor, looking for one cigar that would catch my eye. It can be daunting, trying to pick just one amongst the hundreds that lie before you, especially when your previous knowledge of the subject is incredibly limited. I picked out a San Lotano Toro cigar and sat myself amongst the smoke cloud, taking in what it would be like to be an aficionado of such a niche thing. The one feeling that came over me, sitting in a chair that Andre the Giant would not fill, was relaxation. I felt comfortable and happy, knowing that those all around me were there for the same reason, and enjoyed the same thing. This niche that the cigar world holds, creates a very real sense of community for everyone.
Robert Whitaker, a five-year regular of Vitola, was blind to what the world of cigars held in store. But after immersing himself in the community, he has found a new passion that has brought him peace he did not know before.
“I smoked cigarettes for years and all my friends hated it. They’d get mad about the smell and yell at me to put it out. My grandfather was always a big cigar smoker, and he was the one who actually suggested I give Vitola a look, and ever since then I’ve been coming back. The people I’ve met and the conversations we’ve been able to have, it’s all just been wonderful.”
With a rich and vibrant history, rooted in handcrafted labor, the world of cigars is still unknown to people. Vitola provided a gateway for me, and through the staff and wonderful people who frequent the store, I have been able to discover and immerse myself in a brand new world and hobby that is evermore appealing the longer I am a part of it. When you are in it, you don’t want to leave it.
“People will come and spend hours here, just sitting and listening. There’s no rush of coming and going.” As life in the 21st century continuously moves faster, it can be nice to slow down every once in a while.