Cigars & Whisky

Benchmark Champion

We sit down with Jimmy McGhee, head of communications and training at Hunters & Frankau
By Christopher Coates
How the cigar industry landscape changed over the years?

I think tobacco legislation has had a huge influence over the UK market during my time in the business. The recent display ban in UK shops was a big challenge for us and taxation has also caused tobacco to become more expensive. However, in response, a lot of retailers have really focused and raised their game when it comes to the customer’s buying experience.

The cigar smoker has also changed. The ‘impulse purchase’ is a more complicated subject in a ‘dark’ market, but people also now want to talk to an expert before making their decision. The consumer has become far more educated and focused on the production process and traceability of what they buy – Havana cigars fall neatly into that market. In the spirits category, consumers are drinking ‘less but better’ and the same seems to be true of cigars. People don’t smoke cigars habitually like cigarettes – it’s an occasion – and very few people are interested in the back-story, or production techniques for Silk Cut or Lambert & Butler because a cigarette isn’t an occasion, it’s a space filler. A cigar is an event; a treat, even.

While cigarette smoking is in decline, the cigar has evolved to become part of the vocabulary of how people have a good time. As a result, events have become a big part of what we do – the experience is key.

So, cigars are purely a luxury item?

It depends what you mean by luxury, and it depends on what kind of cigars you’re talking about. Remember, 98 per cent of cigars in the UK are still machine made. We are, in the main, talking about Cuban cigars rolled completely by hand.
For me, ‘premium’ is based on a perception of value and worth, it’s ‘here’s what you get for your money’. Luxury, on the other hand, is about an experience, a feeling, and about appreciating the heritage and craft of a product. It’s saying, ‘here’s what it costs to make the very best product we can’. But nowadays a luxury experience doesn’t always mean wearing a suit and tie! We’re moving away from that fusty, buttoned-down perception of luxury toward something far broader, which can often include the informal.

That shift is making cigars more approachable and, more and more, we’re engaging people who aren’t the ‘traditional’ cigar smoker. For example, though women are still a comparatively small segment of the consumer base, the idea that cigars are a man’s product is well past its sell-by date.

Cuban cigars get a lot of criticism in some circles and, even in the UK, interest seems to be growing in ‘non-Cubans’. What are your thoughts?

Cuba has historically held the lion’s share of the market for hand-made cigars, and continues to do so. That position creates its own pressures, responsibilities and, inevitably, criticism – often from those who don’t have quite the full picture.

I am, obviously, quite defensive of Cuba. They do incredible things in quite a difficult set of circumstances. The complexity of the production process really is quite hard to appreciate and, when you visit, even those with good industry knowledge will come away having learned a great deal of new information about the processes involved. Everything is done in a particular way for a reason. But to the layman, it just looks like tobacco lying all over the place!
Reading a book on the cigar-making process, even a very good one, and thinking you understand the whole industry would be like showing Richard Branson a Thomas the Tank Engine book and asking him why his trains don’t have faces! At the end of the day, Habanos are the benchmark to which all other cigars are compared – and for good reason.

What do you make of the current trend for larger ring gauges?

I think it’s cyclical. As the number of small ring gauges diminishes, that scarcity will drive interest and I think we’ll see the market respond to that.

CIGAR & WHISKY PAIRINGS

Just Dhu It

Tamdhu 14 Years Old Ámbar and Por Larrañaga Petit Corona

Established in 1834, Por Larrañaga is one of the oldest Cuban brands and was once one of the most famous, though throughout the 1990s it became less commonplace. Reputedly the first Cuban factory to produce machine-made cigars (in the late 1920s), since 2002 all cigars bearing the brand’s instantly recognisable gold band have been produced ‘totalmente a mano’ (completely by hand), though some vitolas apparently use short-filler tobacco. The Petit Corona (5 1/8”, RG 42) is a light and quite simple smoke, with a creamy character accompanied by a little wood spice and peanut. This delicate canvas provides the perfect foundation upon which the GTR-exclusive Ámbar can build, with its American and European oak sherry cask notes of orange and lemon zest, honey, stewed green apple, and vanilla.

Watching and Waiting

Tamdhu Gran Reserva and Trinidad Vigía

Once reserved for diplomats and other important visitors to Cuba, the Trinidad marque has long been held in high esteem. Since being released to the public in 1998, however, it has become one of the most prestigious names in the cigar world, despite at first having only one vitola – the long and thin Fundadores (7 ½” RG40). The Vigía, on the other hand, is quite the opposite at just 4 3/8” and a girthy RG54. It is named for the elaborate watchtowers in the Cuban city of Trinidad, which overlooked the sugarcane plantations. A distinct leathery note, with hints of dark chocolate, truffle, and oak characterise the Vigía, which is perfectly complemented by the GTR-exclusive Gran Reserva’s notes of toffee, orange zest, butterscotch, ginger cake and chocolate. This profile is the result of all Gran Reserva spirit being fully matured in first-fill Oloroso sherry casks.