Cigar makers & whisky barons

Cigar makers & whisky barons

Steve Johnstone, owner of UK cigar and whisky merchant Robert Graham 1874, is set to mark his company’s 145th anniversary. Our man finds out more...

Cigars & Whisky | 07 Jun 2019 | Issue 160 | By Christopher Coates

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What inspired this celebration?
This is my fifth year since taking over the company, which is turning 145 years old. Did Sir Robert Graham imagine his legacy would last so long? Probably not! It is very difficult to be a bricks and mortar retailer these days – never mind a retailer of whisky and cigars! If we can survive and flourish in challenging times, why not celebrate? Even better, we'll do it in a beautiful location and invite key figures from cigar and whisky companies, offering guests a unique opportunity to meet and mingle with cigar makers and whisky barons.

Do you feel whisky brands should be doing more to pair their products with cigars? And vice versa?
It’s the perfect marriage and they compliment each other amazingly well. Legislation makes it really difficult for both industries to do any form of co-promotion but if executed responsibly and to a targeted audience then yes, more can be done. We encourage this through organised pairing tasting events held monthly by all of our stores. Our staff are very well versed in pairings and at our Cambridge and London locations, where you can enjoy a cigar and dram on the premises, we suggest pairings on our whisky menus.

Have you seen a change in the type of customer buying cigars?
People used to say that cigars were only for the wealthy or to be smoked only on special occasions. What we’ve experienced in the last few years is that consumers are becoming much more diverse and willing to experience cigars from different parts of the world, perhaps in the same way that we have seen whisky lovers broadening their horizons and exploring drams from non-traditional whisky producing nations. They’re more willing to try something vastly different and give chances to lesser-known producers. This is more obvious when you look at how brands are marketing to their audience, from the graffiti-like branding of Drew Estate and hipster branding of Smokehead whisky, to the classic lifestyle messages of Joya de Nicaragua cigars and the artistic labels of House of McCallum whisky. 

You’re known for championing New World cigars, what drew you to that category? 
Like whisky, I love the diversity of the different producers. I understand the need to promote variety and we need to keep encouraging that from producers. So, if I’m seen as championing the New World makers it’s because they need an equal opportunity to have their products seen and tried.

You developed your own brand of cigars, Tobacco Lords. How did that collaboration come about? 
It’s important to stamp your own identity and presence within the market, something that sets you aside from your competition. The challenge was to find an open-minded, quality brand that was progressive. We found what we were looking for in Juan Martinez, who is the President of Nicaragua’s oldest cigar producer. I was introduced to Juan by Scott Vines of Tor Imports (the real champion of New World cigars). I told him about our brand and the direction I was aiming for and he understood straight away. I set up describing what I wanted in flavour profile and vitola range and then it took over a year to develop and bring to market. That included several factory trips to Esteli to make the selection. By May 2017 we had launched four vitolas in two wrapper finishes and last year we added Lonsdale and Belicoso in natural and maduro wrappers. In total, we’ll sell well over 25,000 sticks this year. Not bad for two years from launch, even if I do say so myself!

The Cigar Makers of the World Meet The Whisky Barons of Scotland event will take place on 13 July 2019 at Broomhall House, near Dunfermline. More information and tickets available at

Crown of Smoke

Drew Estate Undercrown Shade and Benromach Peat Smoke Sherry Cask

Drew Estate's Undercrown Shade range features an Ecuadorian Connecticut wrapper, Sumatran binder, as well as Dominican Criollo 98 and Nicaraguan Criollo and Corojo fillers. Expext a creamy smoke with notes of sour dough bread and butter, sesame, white pepper and peanut. Subtle citrus emerges in the second third, with a slight uptick in strength (to medium) in the final third, when aromas of leather and espresso emerge. The Benromach Peat Smoke Sherry Cask is a heavily peated expression that’s been matured for eight years in first fill sherry hogsheads. Notes of blossom honey and orange peel combine with subtle woodsmoke, cranberry and a seared steak note on the nose. It's peat forward with dried fruit and almond on the palate. The sweetness combines delightfully with the cigar's creaminess.

Lords and Barons

Tobacco Lords ‘Cunningham’ Robusto and Dewar’s 18 Years Old

Named for William Cunninghame of Lainshaw, a Kilmarnock-born merchant who rose to prominence as one of Glasgow’s ‘Tobacco Lords’, this mellow robusto cigar offers a mild-to-medium smoke with lashings of caramel and honey from the wrapper and a chewy rich tea biscuit note on the palate. This enjoyable and very well-priced smoke is well complimented by the balance of rich berry fruit and creamy biscuit notes that one may find in a well-aged blend, especially those with a touch of sherry cask influence. The Dewar’s 18 Years Old works well as its notes of honey, fig jam, pie crust, clove and red apple serve to offer up both complimentary and contrasting flavours. Known as one of the ‘whisky barons’ of the Victorian era, John Alexander Dewar was created a baronet in 1907 and elevated to Baron in 1916.
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