Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Owner Clay Carlton sells his hand-rolled cigars to customers, runs one of the few smoking lounges in Denver, and plies his trade at more than 100 events annually.
On Larimer Street in Denver, there's an old redbrick building with a cigar-store Indian standing outside of a smoky bar, suffused with a mellow ambiance. Someone might be sitting at an outdoor table, enjoying a beer in the late afternoon sun, while puffing away on a cigar.
And looking inside through a window, you might spy Carlton behind his bench near the front, facing Larimer Street, but gazing down, focused on his craft. First, he'll take a variety of tobacco filler leaves and roll them together; next, he'll add binder leaf to hold the interior together; then he'll put those pre-cigars into a mold and use a press to tighten them. After they've aged a few weeks in a humidor ("marrying the flavors," he says), Carlton adds the icing on the cake: the richly flavored wrapper leaf.
"You're in your own world," he says of his work. "It's like therapy."
Carlton has been rolling his own cigars for about 15 years. He became enamored with cigars while working as a barber in Silverthorne, and then in Dillon, supplementing his income from haircuts by doubling as a tobacconist within the same space. His shops became spots to socialize, and Carlton enjoyed discussing the cigars with his customers.
It led him to a realization: "I felt like I could only make so much money with my hands working behind the chair, whereas if I got my lines of cigars going, that could go national." He apprenticed to "a master Cuban roller" in Austin, Texas for a time, he says. Now, he considers himself to be a master cigar roller -- someone who has rolled cigars daily for at least 10 years.
In 2005, Carlton opened Palma Cigars & Wine Bar in downtown Denver. Nowadays, there are only a few bars where someone can smoke as well as drink. When Colorado's smoking ban went into effect that same year, Carlton's place was one of the few that was grandfathered in. "I just got lucky," he says. Carlton cites a couple of other cigar bars that used to be in the vicinity, but they went out of business or had to discontinue selling cigars, since they were now legally required "to [achieve] 5 percent [of their] overall sales in cigars or lose the designation."
Carlton, 70, describes Palma as "a very chill place." Jazz plays in the background, as he speaks. While there might be sports on the TV, the volume's muted. Numerous overhead lamps with different-colored shades hang down from the ceiling, yet the place remains dimly lit. Leather chairs allow people to hunker down comfortably. If a pack of Millennials wanders in and starts getting loud, acting as if they're hooting it up at a LoDo nightclub, chances are a regular will tell them to pipe down. Carlton's bar definitely feels like it's from a different era.
Also within Carlton's lounge, there's a walk-in humidor featuring his line of Palma Cigars prominently on display, ready for sale individually or by the box. (There are also a couple dozen other cigars for sale, made elsewhere. )
Within Carlton's line, there are seven different blends, which incorporate different combinations of filler leaves from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Peru. The wrapper leaves, which provide 75 percent of the the flavor, come from places like the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Ecuador -- and even Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Regarding that latter New England state, Carlton says, "That's some of the most sought after tobacco in the world." The cigars come in classical shapes, and varying thicknesses and lengths: robustos, coronas, toros, and torpedos (with pointed tips).
Carlton describes his mildest cigar as a "blend of Dominican filler [leaves], two years aged. It has a Connecticut shade wrapper, which is synonymous with a nice creamy-nutty flavor. And it's a very nice, smooth cigar. It's one I would smoke like with coffee in the morning." Then there are special orange label cigars, incorporating tobacco aged for five years -- a blend of five different types of leaves hailing from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Honduras -- as well as a corojo wrapper from Ecuador, which gives the cigar a "nice, cinnamon-nutmeg flavor. It's very good. It's my most popular cigar, by far."
Those orange label cigars are popular, indeed -- and the labels are orange for a very specific reason. The Denver Broncos recently bought a thousand of them in order to celebrate the Pro Football Hall of Fame inclusion of their late owner Pat Bowlen and retired cornerback Champ Bailey.
For several years, sales at Carlton's shop doubled every year, before eventually evening out. But there's another source of income for Carlton, as well: being paid to supply cigars at a variety of events, such as corporate functions, gold tournaments, and wedding receptions. Carlton presently schedules around 120 appearances per year, charging as much as $1,000 for four hours of his time. Some might be local shindigs; but, since Carlton is the only Master Cigar Roller in a five state radius, he also gets called on to work at events in places like Jackson Hole, Park City, and Santa Fe.
Whenever Carlton works an event, he plays Mr. Answer Man to cigar buffs who've never had the chance to ask an expert questions about the topic. And he brings along bunches of his pre-pressed and aged cigars, removes them from their molds, and then rolls the wrapper leaf onto them for attendees. Carlton calls it rewarding to produce "something you can set down on the table, and [guests] can pick up and enjoy right on the spot. Smoking a fresh hand-rolled cigar like I make is, like, the epitome of cigars."
Challenges: Carlton calls the state's 40 percent tax on tobacco sales "prohibitive" and says it leads some cigar smokers to make their purchases online to avoid the fees. Carlton says, "If I didn't have the bar to back [me] up, if I didn't do the events, if I didn't have a barber shop up in Vail that I still work at every Monday, then I couldn't sell enough cigars in [here to sustain myself]. I would have folded many, many years ago."
Opportunities: "I think the biggest opportunity is surviving, for me," says Carlton. "Because now, there's so few that do what I do. People come [to Denver] and find us. That's huge. And that's put a lot of value on my store."
He says patrons sometimes discover his place by researching cigar bars online, and then stop in after being at the convention center all day, unwinding with a cigar and a cocktail, while finishing up work on a laptop computer.
Needs: Tax relief: "We could use some help [from legislators]."