Sunday, June 07, 2009

Winston's, Downtown Kalamazoo

by Zinta Aistars

“It’s the ritual of it,” I said to Sherie. “It’s like a meditation. You pick the cigar, unwrap it, cut it. Draw in the scent. Light it, slowly, turning it in your fingers… like this.” I slowly twisted the Macanudo in my fingers, holding the tiny flame of the cedar match just beneath the head.
Life glowed. A thread of smoke lifted from the cigar.

Sherie watched me, then lit the second Macanudo that I had given her. We were sitting in the cigar lounge of the new Winston’s, downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan. What a grand not-quite-summer evening... finale of a Friday, Art Hop, with all downtown opening its doors to art of every medium. Paintings, sculpture, jewelry, woodwork, stained glass, music.

Kalamazoo hops in art the first Friday of every month, but I’ve been far too busy to go hopping along. This is a too rare pleasure. Friday, a warm evening, old friendship, a fine cigar. After listening to the wonderful, honey voice of Alfrelynn Roberts in the old Kraftbrau building, Sherie and I walked through town to find a good place for a meal and a moment of respite. We found Webster’s.

Kalamazoo’s newest bar, found at 224 East Michigan beside its shared kitchen with Arie’s London Grill, specializes in scotch and whiskey. Winston’s is named after (of course) Winston Churchill, the English politician known for the cigar forever in the corner of his mouth. Art was still the bigger draw when Sherie and I strolled in; the place was empty. Only the bartender’s face, wreathed in smiles, greeted us. He waved us in, invited us to make ourselves at home, and we did—although first walking through the entire place and checking it out.

The front room was an inviting space with windows on East Michigan, green and off-white and yellow walls decorated with large and sassy quotes by Winston Churchill and bright, jazzy prints. The bar was richly stocked with bottles of whiskey and scotch, and passing the bar, the hallway led, almost like a secret, to a cigar lounge in back. We peeked inside. A few tables and chairs, black leather armchairs, flat screen television tuned to ESPN (Must they? All cigar lounges? As I find this eye-rollingly typical, that all are tuned to sports stations when I first walk in!) But Winston’s, about 2,000 square feet of space, had a touch of class, a bit of a British air with Irish on the side (bartender in red plaid), and Churchill’s spicy whimsy on every wall. I liked it here.

Sherie and I sat down at the bar. Our attentive bartender, having yet no other distraction, told us delightful stories about the scotches and whiskeys, handed me a cigar menu after I handed him my business card: The Smoking Poet, editor-in-chief. A lift of his eyebrow. Cigar reviews? Did I know my stuff? I do, both literary and cigars, and I pointed out to him that Hemingway, the name of an author and a cigar, was misspelled on his menu with two m’s. He blushed. I laughed. I was having fun not making this easy.

Still, he would shine. He poured tiny amounts of three scotches for Sherie to try, as she explained herself to be a martini connoisseur and not the scotch type. I had already ordered by 15-year aged Glenlivet single malt, enjoying the slow burn. Sherie savored each of the three: Aberlour, Old Pultney and Highland Park. Being the good friend that she is, she pushed a sip toward me. Aberlour was my clear favorite. Highland Park my least. And by the time we were served dinner—Guinness Beef for me, Chicken Curry for Sherie, the place had filled, every seat.

The food was out and out delicious. We expected as much, being already acquainted with Arie’s London Grill next door. Wiping the last from our lips, the two of us retreated to the cigar lounge in back. Where we sat now… ribbons of smoke curling above our cigars, leaning back in the leather chairs, watching the occasional horse and carriage clop by through the tall, narrow windows. Now and then, a group of curious males popped in, inevitably a little taken aback to find two women with cigars. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. On one hand, I enjoyed the surprise. On the other, I sighed at this separation of what the two genders are supposed to enjoy. The cigar industry is infamous, after all, for its objectification of women. CAO has its Flavorettes, each woman not a person, but a flavor to pop in your mouth and flame. Cigar magazines are full of ads dripping with sex for sale, the cigar a phallic symbol in her lips. I am the first to defend the right of men to have their own retreat and women theirs… the occasional separation is meaningful, I believe, and good. But can we ever achieve mutual respect?

Two more men entered the lounge. Saw us and smiled with surprise and obvious delight. One confirmed, “Hello, ladies! Oh hey. Got to love a woman with a cigar! Enjoy…” and they left again, leaving the two of us to discuss, not babies or fashions or our nonexistent husbands, but current events in politics, global warming, and how quickly the planet might recover should humankind disappear tomorrow.

This piece also appears in the summer 2009 issue of The Smoking Poet, Cigar Lounge.

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