The men with the Royal Jamaicas hadn't quite made it to the last row before one could hear the distinctive crackle of plastic, then the scratch of matches.
Then it hit. Hot and heavy, sweet and sharp; the stench of 85 burning cigars. Thick blue smoke curled to the ceiling like a gaggle of freed genies, clouding the chandelier and seeping into the seams of suits and dresses -- even the wallpaper.
For the men and women attending the recent "Cigar and Brandy Experience" at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Dana Point, Calif., the smoke and the smell signaled pure nirvana.
It was a celebration of stogies. Fat ones. Cigars.
"A good cigar is something wonderful, but you can only explain it to someone who has actually enjoyed one," said Henry Schielein, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton and the man many credit with reviving the art of cigar smoking.
"How do you explain sex to someone who hasn't had sex before?"
Long considered the smelly, rude uncle of the slim, white cigarette, cigars are enjoying renewed popularity among a legion of young converts.
While overall cigar sales have dropped dramatically -- from 9 billion a year in 1964 to 2.2 billion this year -- sales of premium cigars doubled in the decade ending in 1985. And they've been climbing steadily by about 5 percent a year ever since, according to Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America in Washington.
While there are no numbers to support the increase in actual cigar smokers, those in the industry say they are seeing more public puffery than ever before.
"There's definitely been a spurt this year," said Richard DiMeola, executive vice president of the Consolidated Cigar Corp., one of the nation's largest cigar importers. "Cigar smoking has just mushroomed."
Mr. DiMeola and others attribute the rise to a number of things, but most notably to an increased awareness of the pleasures of cigars.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Jordan clench cigars in their magazine-cover grins. Larry Loretti, winner of the Senior U.S. Open golf championship, smokes while he strokes.
Earlier this year, New York publisher Marvin R. Shanken launched Cigar Aficionado magazine, a glossy tribute to the stogie packed with equally slick ads for fine cigars, fine cars and fine cognac.
The trend, many say, was started by Mr. Schielein, who has become known nationwide for his efforts to extinguish the stigma of public cigar smoking.
In 1984, while general manager of the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, Mr. Schielein sponsored the first annual "smoker," where 40 cigar enthusiasts paid $100 to dress in black tie and gather for a fine meal followed by cognac and cigars. Lots of cigars.
"Everyone thought I was crazy," said Mr. Schielein, who smokes three cigars a day. "People didn't think cigar smoking was the most popular thing to do. But my firm belief is that I have to provide an opportunity for my guests to enjoy their favorite pastime."
Mr. Schielein brought the smoker tradition with him to Orange County in 1986, and last year 165 men -- and a few women -- attended. Comedian Milton Berle is a regular.
At the same time, more restaurants are opening their doors -- and windows -- to cigar smokers, setting aside certain nights or seating areas where blue smoke is welcome.
Between 6 million and 8 million American men smoke an average of 12 cigars a week, said Mr. DiMeola, who described them as a group of "dog walkers and patio dwellers in the wintertime."
And while those millions have traditionally been concentrated between the ages of 45 and 65, there are more young cigar smokers than ever before.
"It's a phenomenon," said Rick Hacker, of Sherman Oaks, Calif., who is writing "The Ultimate Cigar Book" for September release. "The new rise is primarily from men 35 to 50 years old who are smoking fewer cigars than older men, but better ones."
Some are finding their way to Teri's Cigar Company in Santa Ana, Calif., where owner Pablo Frias spends his days hand-rolling cigars that cost an average of $1.50 each.
They are piled on counters, packed into cardboard boxes and standing in wooden containers in a glass enclosure along one wall. If there is a system here, only Mr. Frias knows it. Only Mr. Frias can find his way around.
"Every year," Mr. Frias says, "things get a little better. You make a good cigar, you sell it."