Friday, August 13, 2010

Review: The Federal Cigar

I’m not a cigar connoisseur. I can’t pick out the cherry-notes in a jar full of pipe tobacco. But even with my lack of smoking sophistication, I love a good smoke shop.

Growing up, I associated smoking pipes and cigars with a comforting sense of security. No one I knew smoked regularly; on the contrary, this vague impression seems rooted in only one real-life and one fictional encounter. I can still see my grandfather smoking a cigar while lighting our Fourth of July sparklers. I still remember Valerie Tripp’s description of the vanilla-pipe-scented chair in the American Girl book Changes for Molly.

Marrying a casual cigar-smoker (and gaining some tobacco-enthusiast friends) brought me into closer contact with these unique shops. After picking up cigars everywhere from the Mall of New Hampshire’s Hudson News to Harvard Square’s Leavitt & Peirce, The Federal Cigar in Portsmouth, NH is the place I most like to visit. With a heady smell that floats out to the cobblestone sidewalks, its polished wood interior, barber-shop chairs, and old-fashioned hanging sign fit in perfectly with the historic surroundings.

A relatively small space, their large humidor is the centerpiece of the store. Wall-to-wall boxes are packed tightly from the floor to far above my head. The Federal Cigar carries plenty of new, vintage, and rare brands that you won’t find at your local newspaper stand. Most importantly, their cigars come in a good price-range; you can pick up an Oliva for around $4.50 or a Griffin for around $10.00, as well as much more expensive options that I don’t even look at.

You’ll find the staff helpful if you smoke once a week or once a year. Passionate and knowledgeable, their employees are not shy about offering suggestions. With a comprehensive understanding of their inventory, they act like personal shoppers; they ask questions about your tastes, what you want to drink with it, what other cigars you loved or loathed, and with confidence will pluck a cigar from the wall and proceed to explain why this cigar is the cigar for you.

I also appreciate that, as a woman, I haven’t yet had the “Buying for your husband?” assumption thrown at me. Sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not. I prefer pipes to cigars (and by prefer, I mean smoke three times a year), and I enjoy lingering over the options of locally-mixed tobaccos. The last trip I picked up the fantastic “Burley and Black” Cavendish, my choice made easier by the hand-written descriptions of each blend. A 2 oz bag is $6.50, which I consider to be a fair price.

Their old cases are filled with pipes, tampers, lighters, cigar-cutters, and other paraphernalia. By the door, they stack empty cigar boxes which they sell for only a dollar or two. I use a small “La Aroma De Cuba Edicion Especial No. 1” box as my desk organizer. I love its smooth wood, fancy sticker wrapped around one edge, half of a clasp, and noticeable dovetailing on the edges; it’s perfect for what I use it for—and I got it for just a dollar!

A charming shop in a charming town, Federal Cigar offers an impressive array of options at all price points. These tobacco specialists will be able to help you pick out some tobacco for a special occasion or expand your horizons with something new.

The Federal Cigar (also known as Federal Tobacconists: they have two signs)
22 Ladd St
Portsmouth, NH 03801


  1. The Federal Cigar gives off a affably rich, ambrosial aroma as it burns. It has candied wood, leather, cocoa and coffee notes.

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