Interview with Mark Neff

Today we bring you a conversation with Mark Neff, owner/operator of Cigarmony.com a fantastic online store for cigar accessories and apparel. We’d like to thank Mark for taking the time to sit down with us and answer these questions.

SR: As you mentioned in the “Smoking in your vehicle” article published here on Stogie Review, you have been smoking cigars for 16 years. What got you started in this hobby?

MN:
To be honest, it’s hard to remember – LOL!

It’s really going on 16 years. I was 21 and had my first “real” job with a salary, insurance, etc. Being a young buck, I decided to celebrate by buying my first new car (my first car was a rusty yellow 1973 VW Super Beetle that I had to tow home, restored it and drove it for 6 years). I was going out to take my girlfriend at the time out to dinner and as I was driving my new car home, I came to a stop light where I saw an older guy in a Porsche smoking a cigar. I noticed he would take a draw and then turn the cigar sideways and look at it with enjoyment.

So, I headed over to our local mall’s tobacconist to pick up a cigar. I was totally lost and grabbed the first name that I recognized. A Montecristo. I couldn’t tell you what the vitola was but it was a perfect end to a great evening and I have associated that cigar with celebrating life as a whole.

It was a great memory and every time I light up a cigar, I get the same nirvana. Smoking a cigar to an “outsider” may seem like a disgusting habit or as being trendy but to cigar connessieurs, it is our way taking a moment in time to relax and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Just me, a beverage and a fine cigar and on occasion some good friends. No cell phones, no emails, no worries of life for a brief moment.

SR: What was your “go to” stick 16 years ago, and what is it now?

MN:
At the time, I didn’t have a go to. After smoking that first cigar, I continued to try everything under the sun. On my honeymoon 12 years ago, I smoked my first Habanos and I have been exclusively “dark” for about 9 years.

SR: Compared to what you used to smoke 16 years ago as opposed to now, how do you think your palate had developed? For example, Can you discern new flavors that you wouldn’t have dreamed of being able to taste in the past?

MN:
Definitely. The key reason for refining your palate is to aide in picking up the subtleties in your smokes. With some guidance from more vetern cigar smokers over the years, I have come up with a few tips over the years that I believe helped me refine my palate quite a bit.

The #1 thing would be to SLOW DOWN. Smoking a cigar too fast causes it to get too hot which can easily turn a cigar harsh and bitter. This is particularly important when smoking smaller ring gauged smokes as they tend to heat up quicker with large “gulping” draws instead of small “sipping” draws. Imagine the difference between drinking through those drinking large straws you get with a drink from a fast food restaurant and drinking through one of those thin mixing straws you find in a bar.

Also, if you are smoking to quickly, you don’t have a chance to savor the flavors and don’t concentrate on them. Try to stick to the old “one minute rule”, waiting at least 1 minute between draws. This definitely helps you slow down.

Also, a “refined” palate doesn’t come over night and isn’t available to everyone. Genetics has a lot to do with it as well, so don’t get discouraged. The main thing is to try a WIDE variety of cigars and to concentrate on them when smoking. Don’t be working on your car or mowing your lawn, actually sit and concentrate on what you’re tasting.

“Nose smoking” also helps out a great bit and I have been doing it every time I smoke a cigar for years and years. After taking a draw and expelling the smoke, take some air in through your nose and mouth (at the same time if you can do it). By drawing air through you mouth and nose you pull some concentrated flavors across your olfactory senses and can usually pick up a ton of subtle flavors this way. You don’t have to do it every time you take a draw but doing it a couple of time throughout each 1/3 of a cigar will help you pick up a lot of missed subtleties.

Drink water. Try not to drink anything that will over power or effect the flavor of your smoke. As you get good at discerning what flavors are in a smoke, you can then pair beverages that will compliment those flavors. (Rums, scotches, coffees, etc…)

Read reviews. Smoke a cigar that has been reviewed and try to follow along with the reviewer. You’ll be amazed at how smoking along with someone else’s notes will help you pick up flavors that you couldn’t put your finger on.

Take notes for yourself! Break the cigar down into thirds (first 1/3, second 1/3, final 1/3). Most cigars change flavor in these areas so it’s a good general rule to follow. By taking your own notes, you slow down and concentrate on the flavors.

SMOKE SLOWER! – It is worth mentioning twice.

Try new cuisines & beverages! Foods & beverages are a great way to develop a palate. Concentrate on each bit and try to pick up the herbs, spices, etc…

I was smoking a small stick one time on my drive home from work and it had a certain flavor that I just couldn’t relate to what it was. I was driving my crazy! So when I got home I opened the spice cabinet and sniffed through (and tasted) them all. Couldn’t figure it out. A week later, I was enjoying dinner at one of our favorite places and BAM! I tasted the flavor in my meal that I had tasted in the smoke. Dried Apricots!

SR: More and more I see new cigar smokers reaching for the high priced sticks as their first few cigars. Personally I would recommend getting started with the decent quality sticks on the low end of the price spectrum. If you bumped into a new cigar smoker at a local B&M reaching for their first cigar, what advise would you give them on choosing that first cigar?

MN:
I would agree. A lot of the price in the high price cigars are solely to pay for the extensive marketing campaigns that the companies use to draw smokers to their cigar. With literally thousands and thousands of cigars on the market, I don’t blame them. Also, many people think that if it costs more it must be better.

I would recommend some of the premium smokes that we all know to be great smokes. Yes, I am contradicting myself a little by suggesting the PAM64, Ashton VSG, etc. but once they smoke these they will want to continue on “the journey” and discover on their own that great smokes don’t have to cost a fortune.

The most appealing tobaccos to me, that are not Cuban, are the Nicaraguan puros. As a generalization, I would suggest those. Love the Tatuajes but they are such a limited production smoke, they may be hard to find and pricey. “Pepin” Garcia smokes are a no brainer. He is one of the most, if not them most talented, non-cuban blenders. There are a ton of inexpensive smokes that he developed that are great.

SR: As many of our readers know, you are the man behind Cigarmony.com. When did you first consider starting this business and how has it developed over the past year? (Happy anniversary by the way!)

MN:
Thanks! It’s been an interesting 14 months to say the least. Someone once told me, “the best way to ruin a hobby is to turn it into a business”. LOL! At times I find this to be true but every day is a learning experience and that is what builds character as well as having great dinner party stories. (Although, I haven’t had much time for dinner parties in the last year or so).

What spurred me to start Cigarmony is that I have, like everyone, purchased tons of cigar accessories from various vendors through the year. I smoke, on average, 1-2 cigars a day and have used a wide variety of accessories.

Through those years, I (and many others) have figured out what products are the “best of the best” in cigar accessories. Well, in September 05′, I got a friend of mine into smoking cigars. He got hooked pretty quickly and wanted my help in buying a cutter, lighter and humidor. We went to one of those bargain cigar accessory websites to pick him up some items.

After spending about 1 hour sifting through all of the inferior product to find those items I knew to be the best (and there were a lot inferior products to get through), we placed his order and he was like a kid waiting for Christmas. About two days later, he called to tell me that 2 of the 3 items were on “back order” and would take weeks to get. They asked if he wanted something else instead.

Needless to say, he was very disappointed. I then realized that through the years, we cigar smokers have come to accept this kind of customer service in the hobby. That’s when I decided to try something different. Start www.Cigarmony.com and actually try to provide customer service to cigar smokers – novel idea right? LOL!

Prior to starting, I wrote down a mantra of sorts for what I wanted Cigarmony to be.

1.) Provide the best customer service I possibly can.

2.) Carry only “the best of the best” in each category. This is through years of use and collective information from other cigar smokers. The idea behind this is that anyone can be rest assured that any product they purchase from Cigarmony.com has been time tested and they don’t have to sort through the inferior products to find the ones they know to be the best.

Any new product added to site is tested for an extended period of time before being added. Several aspects are examined, including price, quality, warranty and the mfg’s customer service.

3.) Everything that is on the site is in stock and ready to ship! Nothing bothers me more than the “on back order” b.s. If something goes out of stock, it is removed from the site until it is within 2 or 3 days of arriving. Occasionally there is overlap between customer orders that screws this up sometimes but for the most part, it goes fairly smoothly.

SR: Are there any new products you are planning on releasing before the holidays?

MN:
The new Palio cigar cutters will be available VERY soon! You guys may not know that I was the first vendor account for the new owners of Palio. I hounded them 1 ½ years prior to them re-releasing the cutters so when it came time to start getting them out to consumers, I was graciously given account #1.

The new Palios will be available in a Carbon Fiber finish and Burlwood finish. I saw them at a dinner I had with Palio during this year’s RTDA and they are beautiful! So, I am excited about those.

The new Colibri Tranzpacks are great for holiday traveling as well. It’s the first lighter case that has been approved by the DOT to allow for butane lighters to be transported in your checked luggage on domestic flights. The best part is that it’s fairly inexpensive at $14.95.

SR: In addition to Cigarmony, you are also the creator of The Puck humidifer. How did you come up with the idea for this product and how long did it take from the time you came up with the idea until you were able to market it?

MN:
I actually have been using the device for years and years. It wasn’t until I was at a herf a few years ago that someone said “That is sweet! You should patent that.”

This is kind of funny because over the 14 years that my wife and I have been together, I have come up with all kinds of inventions. Whenever I would present the idea or device to her, she would give me the old “that nice” or “interesting”.

When I showed her The Puck humidifier, she said “Ok, you really should patent that.”

So I did a TON of research on how to submit a patent and had a fellow cigar smoker, who happens to be a patent attorney, review it prior to submitting.

Since marketing The Puck humidifier, I have received unbelievable support and positive feedback from people who were having trouble stabilizing their relative humidity. I get approximately 3-5 emails a week from people who bought The Puck humidifier or the RH Beads try and were amazed at how easy it is to finally get their RH stable.

I know how frustrating it can be getting your RH straight, so knowing that people are enjoying something that you have made is by far the most gratifying thing about the whole process.

SR: You showed “The Puck” at this years RTDA convention, how did things go for you in Vegas?

MN:
You mean besides having a competing humidity control manufacturer file a temporary restraining order just 3 days prior to leaving for the RTDA? LOL!

That was, quite possibly, the most stressful (and costly) 3 days of my entire life. The company was clearly trying to block me from attending the RTDA but all they did was strengthen my resolve to see this through. I would love to tell you exactly who it was (a very popular humidification packet company) but I don’t want them to get any publicity out of it. Good or bad. I am a firm believer in karma and what comes around, goes around. So, we’ll leave it at that.

Besides that, the RTDA was great. We had better than expected enthusiasm for our product. It was very exciting. So much so that we invested in completely redesigning the retail packaging once we got home and shipped the RTDA orders in September.

It’s a great feeling to have something that you developed from its infancy and seeing it come to fruition. It’s very rewarding indeed.

SR: Are you planning on attending next years event in Houston and are there any plans on rolling out any new products for the show?

MN:
We will definitely be at the RTDA in Houston and are considering the InterTabac Tobacco expo in Europe as well. Maybe this time I will manage to get away from the booth and walk around more but I doubt it – LOL!

We are currently developing several new & exciting products that will be ready well ahead of the RTDA.

SR: What are your hobbies away from Cigarmony.com?

MN:
Well…cigars – LOL

Up until starting Cigarmony, I used to road race motorcycles (when I say “road race”, I mean on a closed track with lots of turns). I did that for about 6 years and was by far the most fun I have ever had. We would travel to a different track every other weekend and spend 2 full days track riding.

The wife and I decided to start a family, so last Fall, I sold everything motorcycle related in anticipation of having a child. I wouldn’t feel comfortable riding at 150+mph if I was a father. But here it is 14 months later and no kid – LOL!

I have also been into Hold’em for about 6 years. I used to play in tournaments every month but now it’s every few months. I am not as good I think I am but have had a few top 5 finishes. I just wish I had more time to play as you get “rusty” if you don’t play often and expand your game.

SR: Aside from inventory, how many personal humidors do you own? Do you have a favorite for any reason?

MN:
Well, I finally managed to get rid of the 6 “coolerdors” that I had set up. I now have a 150 count desktop at work, a 200 count Dunhill desktop that I picked at a Christies auction for dirt cheap, a wine chiller converted to a humidor and (2) Avallo cabinet humidors – one of which was an extremely generous gift by some botl’s a few years ago. It is still by far the most amazing gift anyone has ever given me. Every single time I walk by it, I think “unreal” and that was two years ago!

I do prefer the Avallo humidors. They have a great humidity monitoring system call the Accumonitor that makes maintaining your RH level in a large cabinet very easy. I also place ½ pound of the RH Beads on each shelf to eliminate RH “pockets” throughout the cabinet.

SR: What are your feelings on aging? Do you age enough cigars to smoke only aged ones?

MN:
In my opinion, aging is a must. Virtually any cigar can benefit from aging. The marrying of flavors really comes out in the aging process. Actually, I feel that aging a box of cigars is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the hobby. Sampling a box twice a year to see how they “develop” provides for just another level of satisfaction to cigar smoking. Keeping a Cigar Dossier is great way to keep and compare notes on how a cigar ages as well. I highly recommend aging cigars and all you need is a “coolerdor” & RH Beads to do it.

I have managed to painstakingly aged quite a few but there is still nothing like starting the process by cracking open a fresh box for the first fresh sampling.

A fine gentleman told me once, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”. Such sage advice has never held more truth than how that applies to cigar smoking. Take your time, learn and enjoy.

Mark, thanks again for taking the time to answer these questions. I hope our readers enjoy reading this interview as much as we did. The Stogie Review recommends anyone looking for fine cigar accessories and superb customer service visit Mark at Cigarmony.com.