Cigars & Whisky

Cigars & Whisky

Exploring the long association between Glasgow and tobacco

Cigars & Whisky | 21 Mar 2018 | Issue 148 | By Christopher Coates

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Glasgow has a long association with the tobacco trade. Following the Act of Union in 1707 a number of Scottish merchants began to take interest in importing this coveted commodity from the now-accessible English colonies, especially those in Virginia. This coincided with a general growth in trade through the port burgh of Glasgow, which had a particular advantage over its southern competitors as its position afforded easy access to the transatlantic trade winds. Some accounts suggest that crossings to America could be as much as 20 days shorter if the departure point was Glasgow rather than London. This resulted in tighter turnaround times for merchants looking to sell on their cargo and swiftly launch another ship. Another boon landed in the city’s lap in 1747 when it was granted a monopoly on the supply of tobacco to France. Incredibly, this trade even flourished while Britain and France were at war.

During the mid-18th century, a small group of Glasgow tobacco merchants became so successful that they came to be known, on account of their aristocratic lifestyles, as the ‘Tobacco Lords’. Their ruthless and hands-on management style came with significant risks, rich rewards, and a terrible ethical cost; tobacco was, after all, a key component of the Atlantic ‘triangular trade’ that depended on slave labour.

The Glasgow merchants’ business hinged on the clever manipulation of plantation owners, to whom they would offer cheap credit on luxuries and goods procured from Scotland’s burgeoning iron and linen industries, with the next year’s harvest taken as collateral at agreed prices. Soon enough the tobacco producers became used to this arrangement and would take out increasingly risky loans. This was when the Tobacco Lords would strike.

Around harvest time, when the debtors were due to pay up, the Scottish merchants would suddenly drop their offered price per pound of tobacco. As around half of Europe’s tobacco was being traded through Glasgow at the time, the plantation owners had little alternative but to sell up at the new price to avoid complete financial ruin. Some historians argue that this manipulation played a key role in fanning the flames of the American War of Independence.

With the proceeds of their convenient cartel, the Tobacco Lords began ambitious architectural projects across Glasgow that still stand today. Many streets are named after the Lords (Buchanan Street, Ingram Street, Dunlop Street) or relate to the trade (Virginia Street, Jamaica Street). In fact, the Queen Street mansion of one of the most successful Tobacco Lords, William Cunninghame, is today the home of Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art.

Christopher recommends

Trade winds and icebergs

Tobacco Lords ‘Cunningham’ Robusto and The Shackleton Blended Malt

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 is a nod to his influence on the history of the city and the tobacco industry. Flavour-wise, expect a mild-to-medium smoke with lashings of caramel and honey from the wrapper and a chewy rich tea biscuit note on the palate. As this enjoyable (not to mention competitively priced) smoke is on the milder side we’re free to pair with a lighter, more floral dram.

The Shackleton blended malt fits the bill perfectly. Introduced this year by Whyte & Mackay, it’s intended as an homage to the Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky that was discovered in 2007 by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust. Those famous, 100-year-old bottles were found under the ice at the Antarctic base camp of the Nimrod expedition led by Ernest Shackleton in 1907. Although not intended to be a replica of that historic liquid, this new blended malt nevertheless nods its head to that traditional Highland style. Expect a sweet and fragrant dram with some pleasant grassy notes on the nose and a honey-led palate.

Matthew recommends

Sweet, Sweet Harmony

The Aging Room by Boutique Blends Rondo Robusto M356ii with Balvenie 14 Years Old Caribbean Cask

The Aging Room marque is a subset of Miami-based producer Boutique Blends and is led by Rafael Nodal. The company cut its teeth producing the mass-market Oliveros brand that was popular during the 90s cigar boom, but more recently refocussed on high-end cigars.

The Aging Room range is produced in very limited quantities using quality, aged tobacco of which there isn’t sufficient supply for mass release. Named for the day the blend was created (Monday, 22 December 2008, the 356th day of the year), the tobacco in this exquisite cigar is all Dominican and is fermented in small batches, which delivers a fruitier style of smoke with a somewhat sweet palate.

The tobacco’s age really shows in its rich flavour and incredibly smooth smoke, which matches perfectly with the equally velvety and characterful Balvenie 14 Years Old Caribbean Cask.

This much-loved dram boasts sweet dark fruit and caramel notes that set off the toffee and stewed fruit palate of the cigar. Both have delicate, but potent and sweet flavours that complement each other perfectly. A match made in heaven or, more accurately, the Caribbean!

Where to smoke

Hotel du Vin Edinburgh

This hotel has a solid whisky offering and a small but concise cigar selection. However, the real attraction is the outdoor ‘cigar snug’ (with heaters) that is one of the few such places in the capital where smoking is permitted. The location is also handy, as it's within a stone’s throw of Robert Graham’s Canongate store and other Edinburgh Old Town attractions.

11 Bristo Place, Edinburgh, Scotland, EH1 1EZ
Telephone: +44 (0) 131 285 1479
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