Like with wines, the experience of smoking a cigar is personal. Each person’s palate is different. I could have a different experience from a cigar that someone else experiences from the same cigar.Just like a more traditional sommelier would recommend a wine to complement a fish or meat dish, I do the same with drinks and cigars.There is no point in smoking a cigar if you’re in a rush. One needs the right environment—such as a cigar lounge or on a holiday. Cigar smoking is an experience to be savoured and enjoyed, not rushed.
To get to know and understand cigars, one needs to work with cigars; to hold, smell and smoke them. I also follow the cigar market, to educate myself and find out what’s new to the market, such as limited editions.I worked at The Lanesborough hotel (London) from 2000 to 2005 and Salvatore Calabrese, perhaps the most celebrated cocktail maker of all time, was my mentor at the hotel’s Library Bar. Through Salvatore I learnt the art of mixing and gained a passion for cocktails, vintage spirits, [such as] whiskies and cognacs.
There wasn’t a smoking ban in place back then and you could smoke anywhere. I had a good selection of Cohíba Cuban cigars and that’s when I got to know the world of cigars. After The Lanesborough I spent some time working in the city and I went back to Salvatore at Fifty St James club. By the time I started here, at The Ritz Club, three years ago, the smoking ban had already been in place for a few years.
I’m the bar manager at The Ritz Club and I also look after the Cigar Shop, Tasting Room and Smoking Terrace. We mainly offer Cuban cigars, as they are generally the best. Although, I admit, I like Dominican, Nicaraguan and cigars from other parts of the world, too. But Cuban cigars are special. Why? Because of the soil, Cuban cigars are the best cigars on the market, which means they’re also more expensive.
Cuban’s soil is different from that in say the Dominican Republic, which makes the tobacco leaves richer and gives them specific characteristics that make them standout. The island is special. The tobacco plant has been there for so long and they say that Christopher Columbus went to Cuba in 1492 and found local people rolling tobacco leaves and smoking them, even back then, over 500 years ago. That’s a lot of history.
Interestingly, one of our Cubans, the Trinidad, a favourite of Fidel Castro, wasn’t released for public consumption until 1998. Until that point, Castro would keep them back exclusively for visiting diplomats. The first box to leave Cuba was very expensive. We had it at The Lanesborough; a £500 cigar and people bought them. The story behind it and its exclusivity certainly attracted people to buy the cigars. Whether you want to spend £20 or £500, London is a great market for cigars.
Like with wine, there is a fermentation process involved with making cigars. But with cigars—unlike wine—every year is a good year. Special leaves are sometimes left for six months, a year, two years, and that’s what makes a special edition cigar.One of the most common things said to me in the Tasting Room is “I’m not a cigar smoker, what should I smoke?” For me, it depends on the circumstances; what you eat or have eaten, what you drink, influence what cigar I would recommend. If I’ve had a really good supper, for example, I would prefer to have a heavier cigar, whereas the creamier ones I could enjoy at anytime of day.
When I’m recommending a cigar for guests, I like to offer an experience; [I will] find out how much time they have [and] if they’re going to stay for longer than half an hour or an hour, I might suggest something bigger. I’ll find out what flavours they like—woody, chocolate, spicy. I’ll also ask what kind of spirits they like and then recommend a drink to pair it with.
A light cigar wouldn’t work with a full-bodied wine, such as a shiraz, for example. The wine would be too powerful. And the same applies when you’re smoking a heavier cigar. A cup of tea, for example, wouldn’t work with a heavy cigar; however, a full-bodied rum or whisky, or even a green tea if you prefer something non alcoholic, works well because it has more body and can hold the cigar.
When you change the drink around, the experience is completely different—smoke a Cuban cigar with a green tea and you experience one flavour. Change to a Cognac and the flavours and experience will change, just the same as with food.
I see smoking a cigar almost as a form of meditation. It is relaxing and offers time to think and contemplate.
Macallan 25 Years Old Single Malt Whisky + Romeo y Julieta Wide Churchill (5.1 inches)
This is a great single malt whisky, with a caramel taste that is a smooth experience. Aged in sherry casks, this whisky should be enjoyed with delicate sips. Flavour wise, there is a lot of fruit. As the 30-year is now no longer available, the 25 year old is currently the top Macallan whisky, but is also becoming quite rare now, making it an exclusive one to drink. I would recommend drinking this one on its own, with a spot of cold water, which ‘opens up’ the whisky or with an ice cube. I chose a Romeo & Julieta Wide Churchill, which has a 55-ring gauge, to pair with it, which is a beautiful cigar brand. They released this cigar last year called Wide, which is not too strong but has a fantastic flavour—creamy with a spicy finish, which works well with the Macallan.
Louis XIIIde Rémy Martin+ Cohíba Robustos Supremos Edicion Limitada 2014 (5 inches)
A deluxe blend of Cognac, the Louis XIII is full-bodied, but it’s also smooth with an almost chocolate finish and a sweet taste. Because of the richness of the drink, I wanted to pair it with an exclusive cigar—a Cohíba, probably the most well known brand of Cuban cigars. This is a special limited edition, the 2014 Robustos Supremos and with a 58 ring-gauge, it’s a very special. The outer leaves of the cigar are darker and it has been aged for two years so it has more flavour than the regular leaves. The Robustos Supremos also uses the top leaves from the tobacco plant, which has much more depth of flavour than the bottom leaves. Cohíba has always been classified as a medium flavour, but with this limited edition range there is more character, giving it a fuller body.
Hennessy Paradis Cognac + Trinidad Vigía (4.3 inches)
Hennessy Paradis is one of my favourites. It’s a delicious sweet and smooth Cognac that it’s not too aggressive, as some Cognacs can be. It has a nutty finish at the end and a sweetness, which runs through it from start to finish—it is an experience to enjoy and savour and is a great finish for after dinner, especially if you’ve eaten a heavy meal or say French cuisine, such as foie gras.
I pair it with a Trinidad Vigía, which has a 54-ring gauge, making it thicker than earlier Trinidads. It is actually classified as a medium-bodied cigar, but I would call it light. I tested it when it came out, which was about six month ago. The members here love it.It’s a shorter cigar; often people think that it will burn quicker, but it actually burns really nicely and doesn’t overpower the smoker with it flavour nor does it overtake the sweetness of the Paradis. The sweetness of the Paradis complements the Trinitad well.
Ron Zacapa 23 Years Old + E No 2 Partagás (5.5 inches)
This is a lovely rich 23-year-old Guatemalan dark rum. It is not a rum that you would mix (such as with cola). You could add one or two ice cubes, but you don’t need anything else. The characteristics of the rum are chocolate and thick, and so it’s really sweet and powerful. The Ron Zacapa really needs something strong—a really full-bodied cigar. And so I’ve paired it with a Partagás. Boom! It’s also rich and powerful—matching the rum—and, uniquely, Partagás, as a brand, don’t name their cigars, instead they pair numbers with letters (E No 2, for example). There’s D No 4; D no 2; a P No 5. I don’t usually smoke a Partagás, but when I do it’s an E No 2 (54 ring gauge) and I’ll always drink a Ron Zacapa with it.