When I asked Vasil Dergunov, owner of Ashes Cigars, how long his business has been open on Main Street in Manayunk, he gave me a very specific answer.
“One year, 10 months and 21 days,” he responded.
In his line of work it pays to be specific, because cigars are very particular things. A plant-based product, its flavor is influenced by a number of factors ranging from the sulphur levels in the soil where the tobacco is grown, to the length of time tobacco leaves are left to cure before manufacture.
No, a cigar is not just a cigar.
Dergunov offered cars as an analogy to help understand cigars in their seemingly infinite varieties. There are your luxury vehicles, your Mercedes Benz smokes. Then, there are your jalopies.
The jalopies of the cigar world tend to be machine-made as opposed to hand-rolled and composed of short-filler — the scrapings, veins and butt ends of inferior tobacco plants — instead of the whole tobacco leaves used to fill premium cigars.
Time from farm to humidor
“On average, your premium cigar — from the time that it was picked at the farm to the time it gets to the humidor — is about three years,” Dergunov explained. “Some cigars are much longer; less of the premium cigars are shorter. It just depends on the manufacturer, the quality of the tobacco and the blend they’re trying to achieve.”
It’s apparent that Dergunov knows the product he sells.
He relayed the specifics of tobacco growth and cigar manufacture with the razor-sharp Jedi focus of a smoke-shop Obi-Wan Kenobi.
His knowledge of cigars has its roots in a series of journeys from Philadelphia to Virginia with his brother, long rides during which they would smoke cigars to help pass the time.
“That’s just when the iPhone first came out,” he explained to offer chronological context, “so we would use the phone to find cigar shops along the way, with the map feature, and then every time we stopped by, we would chitchat, talk to the owners.”
A shop of his own
That chitchatting eventually led to the idea to open a BYOB cigar lounge.
Prior to the road trips, Dergunov had dropped out of college with the intention of starting his own business. He’d calculated that college cost him $66 a day, and that it would be more cost effective for him to teach himself, buying $20-30 books and studying on his own, than it would be to remain at school, which he didn’t particularly enjoy.
After the road trips, he “spent a solid year of reading and more reading” while he tried figure out how to create a longue with an atmosphere that would appeal to everyone, not just “hardcore cigar smokers.”
A Main Street man cave
Atmosphere is of the utmost importance at Ashes, the owner said. It’s calibrated specifically to welcome cigar novices and aficionados alike.
With its low lighting, impressive poker table, 52-inch plasma TVs and plush leather seating, the lounge reads man cave in many respects.
Throw in the baby grand piano, which Dergunov occasionally plays, and walk-in humidor with one wall constructed entirely of glass, and it’s just elegant enough to woo female patrons.
“There’s tons of cigar lounges out there but they don’t necessarily provide the right atmosphere for the person,” said Dergunov, who attributes the lounge’s “dynamic” atmosphere to the broad range of people who visit, people as unique and specific as the cigars themselves. “It’s a mixture of the younger, the older, the white collar, the blue collar — it’s very interesting. It brings everybody together.”