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Vegas cigar lounges roll out the welcome mat

Las Vegas takes its smoke seriously. So seriously, in fact, that recent changes in the state's smoking statutes have sent tavern brass to court and mall-walking tobacco lovers to the nearest smoking-allowed lounge, which is all good news to the city's elegant and aromatic cigar bars.

You will find dozens of smoke dens throughout the valley. Places such as the Tinder Box and the Whiskey Attic sell the usual brands of sticks and stogies with a sofa or two for those who want to smoke on site.

But precious few spots cater to the aficionado who likes his or her tobacco from the Dominican Republic or the Canary Islands, aged at least six months and rolled just so, accompanied by a fine blue Scotch, good conversation and the memory, still on the palate, of a spectacular meal.

The summit of cigar bars in Las Vegas might be Casa Fuente at the Forum Shops at Caesars. It joins an elite group of fine cigar-focused lounges that can be found at such places as the Hard Rock, Planet Hollywood, Paris and JW Marriott.

They tend to be small, intimate nooks with dark wood paneling, a well-lighted humidor and a scantily dressed cigar concierge at the ready to answer questions and offer up matches. Casa Fuente may be the only bar in Las Vegas that allows smoking in a public place — specifically, a bistro-style setting along the passage of Forum Shops foot traffic.

On a casual Saturday afternoon, just about peak time for Forum browsers, the tables at Casa Fuente seem to disappear under a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke and the clink of specialty drinks such as the Old Cuban or Hemingway's Epitaph, made with Montecristo rum, lime and Angostura bitters.

You also can get a Rémy Martin Louis XIII here for $150 a glass, best accompanied by an Opus X or limited-edition 2006 Forbidden for $200 each.

Casa Fuente prides itself on selling the status stogie brands of Arturo Fuente, made in the Dominican Republic and known for handcrafting some of the finest and most sought-after premium cigars in America.

This is where you go for your A. Fuente, Fuente Fuente Opus X, Ashton, Diamond Crown, Cuesta Rey, Montesino and Bauza brand cigars — not to be outdone by its Caesars casino shop, which sells pre-embargo Cuban cigars — including 1926 Quo Vadis and 1940s Ramón Allones. Aficionados often select their cigars with a fussiness that wine connoisseurs might display when choosing their labels. Attention is given to the geography of the tobacco, the year it was picked, the way it was rolled, the weight and length, the company that created the box, whether it was a particularly special and exclusive production, and then just the tastes and preferences of the smoker.

The chance to puff on a patio under the changing hues of a simulated ancient Roman firmament is a rare moment indeed in a city that, as of January, tamped out butts just about everywhere, except casinos and casino bars, enclosed no-food bars and the great outdoors. Clubs, such as Tao at the Venetian, or taverns, such as the Monte Carlo Brew Pub, discreetly put out ashtrays after 11 p.m. when the kitchens close.

Those who may want to smoke and chill during the day and not pay a fortune for a rum-laced beverage at the Forum can grab a cushy chair at Havana Republic, a cigar store in the Miracle Mile (formerly Desert Passage) shopping promenade surrounding Planet Hollywood.

There, a spacious cedar-lined humidor doubles as an enclosed smoke lounge. It's BYOB here and you can even bring your own cigar — or try one of proprietor Cesar Ramirez's hand-rolled works of art.

Ramirez cut his teeth, and no doubt his hands more than once, rolling cigars since childhood at the Romeo & Juliet factory in Havana. In the early 1990s, he floated his way to American citizenship aboard a handmade tire raft during the Mariel boatlift, which landed him in Guantanamo.

Many months later, he found himself in Las Vegas rolling his way to a new life at Don Pablo Cigar Co. At the small Strip-side factory, about 200 cigars per day are rolled by a small cadre of Cuban refugees — hence allowing for the advertising of Cuban cigars, but the description of where it was rolled has somehow gone missing.

Ramirez rolls his own cigars now and sells them for $10 a pop at Havana Republic. He knows just where to buy the aged leaves, and his experienced hands have just the right density and weight to create the perfect smoke.

He boasts that George Hamilton and Dana Carvey are among his customers. On this night, it's three customers from Los Angeles who have stopped by for a bachelor send-off before one of them gets married the next day.

The future father-in-law takes a deep draw and gives a smile of approval. His life has been full of true Cubans, and this specimen toes the line.

Havana Republic sells other brands: Diamond Crown Robustos, H. Upmanns, Romeo & Juliet Churchills. But people come for Ramirez's personal handiwork. And they keep coming. In walks a man from Philadelphia and then a woman from Dallas. Both had been bowled over by these specimens the last time they were in Vegas and have come back for more.

Ramirez puts the cigars in baggies and chats with each of them like a long-lost cousin. Business has been all the more brisk since the smoking ban, which left cigarette and cigar smokers with nowhere to go.

Still, Ramirez does not know whether this store will be around in six months or whether he will be in it. But he does know he will be producing his well-sought smokes, which he calls Bariay 1492, after a village on the northeast coast of Cuba that saw the confluence of the Old World and New with the landing of Columbus.

"This is Vegas," he says. "Things change."

What hasn't changed of late is the sight of young men having mojitos and cigars in riotous conversation at such places as Cuba Libre at the Hard Rock or Houdini's at Monte Carlo.

A more sedate scene can be found at Napoleon's along Le Boulevard at Paris or Gustav Mauler's cigar bar at JW Marriott, created by chef Mauler and featuring Partagas, Arturo Fuente, Cohiba and Gustav Mauler hand-rolled cigars.

Those who like to huff and puff can pay homage or cash to the kings of the tobacco in Las Vegas: Michael and Robert — the Frey Boys.

Besides their large ownership stakes in Casa Fuente, they operate several well-placed and luxuriously supplied outlets at Caesars Palace as well as the Rio, New York-New York, Monte Carlo and the Smith & Wollensky steak house on the Strip. Patrons can come away with a $7 Nicaraguan house brand or an $85 pre-embargo Havana Short Story and walk it to the smokers-wanted destination of their choice.

Those who are really into cigars — for the smoke and only the smoke — can find like-minded peers at the Big Smoke, coming to the Venetian on Nov. 9 and consisting of three days of seminars, smoking and tasting. No Tiparillos here.

Naturally, such a weekend of true indulgence does not come cheap. Expect to pay $520, even before making room reservations. And best to make those reservations early if a smoking room is part of the order; they're becoming as scarce as single-deck blackjack tables on the Strip.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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