Why do we celebrate with cigars? If you venture out to The Kentucky Oaks or The Kentucky Derby this weekend you’ll find people smoking cigars all over the place. It’s a tradition to smoke cigars when you are celebrating. Many people still hand out cigars at the birth of a baby, and when I went to my sister’s Air Force Academy graduation ceremony several years ago everyone was lighting up as soon as the caps were tossed in the air. There’s just something about a joyous occasion that calls for a good cigar.

Cigars are meant to be an enjoyable experience- something to be savored. When you’re hanging out at Churchill Downs there’s a lot of down time between races, so smoking a cigar can be a great way to pass the time while waiting for the next call to post. Even if you aren’t at the track, smoking a cigar while you’re hanging out in the back yard with your friends listening to the race on the radio can be just as much fun.

Derby Season Is Cigar Season In Louisville

Many local tobacco shops experience a serious uptick in cigar sales as it draws closer to the first Saturday in May. Some have special events to draw customers in. Even many of the distilleries get in on the action of selling cigars in their gift shops.

Jason Shepherd, owner of J. Shepherd Cigars on Bardstown Road, says he sells as many cigars during Derby week as he does the entire month on January. “We find a major uptick in all brands, but notice that we sell a lot more high end Padrons. Most novices will ask for Macanudos, but then we give them an E.P.Carrillo and they never go back. Fuentes, Rocky Patel, Oliva, and Drew Estate are solid as they are marketed extremely well. True aficionados, like most bourbon pros, are always looking for something new or different. I would equate small batch bourbons to so called “boutique” cigar brands like Caldwell, Matilda, Illusione, Tatuaje, Viaje, etc.,” he says.

“Our biggest request all around this year has been our Distiller’s Blend cigars,” reports Shepherd. “We will have a limited edition Derby cigar seasoned with Four Roses, and should have a few hundred Mint Julep cigars available for Oaks and Derby Day. Copper & Kings will have their Butchertown Brandy cigar available at their Distillery. Matthew [Landan] has three private blends available at the Haymarket Whiskey Bar, and Bourbon Raw has a few blends available.”

So Why Do We Celebrate With Cigars?

There’s something about a joyous occasion that makes you want to kick back with a good bourbon and a fine cigar and just enjoy the moment. During the Kentucky Derby whether you are winning or losing you are there to have a good time. It calls for a great cigar, and choosing the right one for the occasion depends on what you like the best.

“Taste of course is paramount,” says Shepherd, “but you know as well as I do that the tools, accessories, the ritual and preparation, is all a part of the experience. [Even] smoking alone on your back porch and enjoying the taste, aroma, the feel of it all. You can completely lose yourself in thought. Or just the opposite, cigars smokers attract each other like no group of people I have ever been around. A close second, but still second, would be my brethren in the Bourbon industry. “

Above all else, cigar smoking during a celebration is a social event, says Shepherd. “More to the point, we celebrate to have fun, be social, do things together that we would rather be doing that what we normally do. We drink bourbon, and what better way to celebrate than with a good cigar with that bourbon. Cigars after all are a luxury item.”

How Do You Choose The Right Cigar?

As with choosing the right bourbon, choosing the right cigar is all about personal preference. In Kentucky we have an embarrassment of riches bourbon-wise, and that embarrassment of riches is mirrored in our premium cigar availability in the Metro Louisville and Southern Indiana areas.  We have access to store exclusives and limited releases. Local shops prepare for the influx of out of town visitors by bulking up their inventories, and the locals are the ones who reap the benefits. You can find almost any cigar you want around Derby time in Louisville.

“We are so spoiled here today in the U.S. as far as the availability of cigars. Cigars were for dignitaries, heads of state, the rich an affluent. They are a symbol of wealth and success,” says Shepherd. “So, you have your fascinator, or your seersucker suit, and a bourbon in one hand. But you are not fully donned for Derby unless you have that cigar in the other.”

In short, smoking a cigar is as much of a part of the Kentucky Derby as the hats and the bourbon.

Obviously Not Derby Day

Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl and Public Domain/WikiMedia Commons