It’s not unusual for Sean Williams to have a lit cigar clenched in his teeth, even as he’s in the process of rolling a fresh one. Such was the scene on a recent Saturday night in Santa Barbara, as he hand-rolled stogies for those gathered at the opening party of Cohiba’s new cigar lounge at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara.
Cohiba is a hand-rolled cigar brand that was once Fidel Castro’s private label brand, and considered by many to be the greatest brand in the space — their partnership with a luxury player like the Ritz Carlton feels intuitive. And though the image of a smoker rolling a cigar while puffing on one himself feels amusing, Williams, who is the founder of El Primer Mundo Cigars and currently works as the brand ambassador for Cohiba, insists that hand-rolling is part of what connects him to the smoking experience. “A lot of cigar brand owners don’t actually know how to roll cigars, or aren’t necessarily interested in that,” Williams tells InsideHook. “It’s not an inextricable part of the process, but it’s a skill I acquired over time to be more hands-on and really understand everything. There’s something about the tactical experience of layering the tobacco together that gives me a better appreciation of each cigar.”
Williams didn’t even smoke his first cigar until his mid-thirties, but on a New Year’s Eve cruise with some lifelong buddies, a friend brought a few and he fell in love with the experience right then and there. After that, he returned to Atlanta and launched a cigar smokers’ group called the Atlanta Cigar Society — and eventually, a small cigar brand of his own. After a few years, Williams decided to let his own brand go dormant and started working with Cohiba, mostly because of the quality of their product and because of the luxury experiences the brand strives to pair with their cigars.
“It’s called the Cohiba Experience, not the Cohiba Lounge,” Williams explains. “Because cigars are supposed to be an experience. We wanted to make the connection that this is about taking a break, finding a bit of a vacation in a cigar, but also coupling it up with great life experiences. We do a lot of things that connect the dots between incredible cigar experiences and life experiences, and that’s what really sets Cohiba apart.”
For instance, how many cigar lounges have an al fresco setting and ocean views? While private cigar clubs often crop up at hotels of this caliber, few — if any — are outdoors, and even fewer boast a direct sightline of the Pacific Ocean and Santa Barbara’s pristine coastline. As the first permanent Cohiba cigar lounge in North America, the new outpost at the Bacara is purposefully labeled as an “experience” and not just a lounge, and the ocean view is definitely part of the appeal.
This new lounge also comes with a special, highly curated menu of premium spirits, a custom, cedar-lined humidor and fire pits scattered across the space, making it the perfect setting for enjoying a smoke at golden hour or later in the evening. Located at the very end of a large outdoor terrace, all the way past the lobby-side restaurant, ‘O’ Bar + Kitchen, the club is only open Wednesday through Sunday. Entrance is free for guests 21 and older; a membership program that allows members to store their own cigars in one of the humidor’s 24 private lockers will launch before the end of this year.
As for the cigars on offer, there are several mainstay selections from Cohiba in Boite Nature authentic boxes, including the Spectre 2021, the Royale Toro and Connecticut Crystal Robusto, all of which are non-Cuban offerings. Other options on the opening menu include Macanudo, CAO, La Gloria Cubana and Partagas, though the plan is to regularly rotate the cigar selection. Inside the humidor, the temperature and humidity are digitally controlled, and boutique cigar cutters and lighters are available.
Williams is still based in Atlanta, but plans to return to the Bacara quarterly to host events, cigar seminars, activations, release parties and other programming. And though he’s intimately familiar with plenty of other smoking venues around the country, this Santa Barbara location has quickly risen in his estimation since it opened this past summer. “It’s a year-round outdoor experience,” Williams says. “Especially if it’s at dusk, and you’re watching the sunset over the beach, with a cigar going and your favorite spirit in your hand, that’s just sexy. You have everything: nature, creature comforts and exquisite service.”
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