The Path to Enlightenment

Neil Ridley charts the rise in popularity of the dedicated cigar lounge and gets the low down on the best liquid pairings from those in the know
By Neil Ridley
To anyone partial to the distinctive waft of aromatic smoke, which only handmade Cuban cigars can produce, the 1st July 2007 must have seemed like a very bleak day indeed. As the smoking ban bit, the UK's hospitality industry began to back away from handmade cigars and it was not an uncommon sight to see well-dressed diners shivering outside with a fine Corona, trying in vain to enjoy what was fast becoming an obsolete post-prandial pastime. But thanks to the ingenuity and foresight of a few establishments, a new home has emerged for the beleaguered cigar smoker and today the cosy, purpose built lounge and heated terrace are the perfect place to spark up a vintage stick."The first thing to remember," points out Simon Chase, one of the UK's leading experts on Cuban cigars, "is the time it takes to smoke a quality handmade cigar. Even the smallest takes about 20 minutes, whereas larger sizes can take around three hours to properly do them justice. Designated cigar areas were almost born out of the draconian nature of the legislation, which tarred all tobacco products in the same way."Boisdale in Belgravia was home to one of London's very first dedicated cigar terraces and has built up a formidable reputation among cigar connoisseurs, by organising monthly cigar tasting events and pairing vintage and rare examples with a wide range of spirits, wines and cuisine. Today, it's no surprise to see the very latest addition to the Boisdale empire, a vast complex in Canary Wharf, which is characteristically designed around the Cuban cigar enthusiast.As well as boasting 600 single malts behind the bar, Boisdale Canary Wharf has gone a step further to heighten the experience of the top end cigar aficionado with an eye-watering range of more than 200 vintage and 'antique' cigars. "We have worked hard to bring our guests a range of totally unique cigars from the prerevolution era of Cuba," explains Boisdale's cigar sommelier, Victor Ferreira. The vintage treasure trove includes examples from the powerful Bolivar brand, dating back to 1902. Victor explains: "The youngest in our vintage range will be pre-Castro from 1956, so for the collector or those smokers wanting a once in a lifetime experience, our humidor is the place to visit."Similarly, The Lanesborough Hotel situated on the corner of Hyde Park was one of the first establishments to recognise the potential for the upmarket cigar lounge with their 'Garden Room'. The hotel has created an opulent outdoor cigar smoking paradise, replete with leather armchairs and an open fireplace, giving the space a distinctly cosy 'indoor' feel. It's a far cry from the hastily assembled shelters the average cigarette smoker currently inhabits. "Before 2007, London was considered to be a church for the cigar smoker," explains Giuseppe Ruo, who until recently was the man responsible for maintaining the Garden Room's extensive list of fine cigars and equally impressive list of single malts. "But after the ban, there was only really a few hotels who specifically decided to give an opportunity to the smoker by creating outside areas for them to continue their passion. It is the future for the cigar business."Ruo believes that the key to success is to provide something bespoke and unique to cigar enthusiasts, especially those travelling to the UK from overseas. "People are limited by time and a great cigar takes time to get the full enjoyment from, so enthusiasts are choosing richer, heavier more intense styles of cigar, as well as really thinking about what drinks to pair with them." To highlight this, Giuseppe brought together a heavenly pairing of the extremely limited edition Partagas 165 vintage and Hennessy Louis XIII Cognac. The cigar's powerful but spicy aroma pairs extremely well with the swathes of floral and soft fruit notes from this now legendary spirit. Giuseppe also suggests matching The Macallan 18 Years Old Sherry Wood Cask with a Cohiba Siglo VI "The spiciness and sweetness of the whisky is a perfect compliment with the rich spice of the cigar.""Dark spirits such as single malt whisky, aged rums and Cognac have always traditionally been the perfect accompaniment to handmade cigars," points out Mark Jenner, bar consultant and spirits connoisseur, previously tasked with developing the exceptional bars found at the Connaught Hotel and London's Arts Club.Jenner recommends the Hine Cigar Reserve, paired with a fullbodied Montecristo Sublimes, or The Glenrothes 1985 vintage single malt, which delivers hints of dried fruit and woody spice, pairing perfectly with a powerfully flavoured Partagas Serie P.But with such variety in the strength and flavour department of Cuban cigars, you're likely to find some of the most unusual pairings often produce exceptional results. "Usually you'd pair Cuban cigars with quite heavy, digestive spirits" explains Jimmy McGhee, from UK cigar importers, Hunters & Frankau. "Now the sales reflect that the summer is an important part of our business so, you've got people asking us to organise tastings with Champagne, white wines, and bespoke cocktails, not generally something that would have been the first thought a few years ago." Victor Ferreira agrees. "In a lighter style of cigar, I would recommend a Hoyo De Monterrey Epicure No. 1, which is mild-medium in flavour and gives smooth, subtle and delicate flavours - and by that, I don't mean bland" he laughs."If I could have a perfect drink with this on a warm sunny day, it would be a glass of chilled fruity, floral Gewürztraminer from the Alsace in France."For added richness, try pairing it with a particularly fine Hungarian Royal Tokaji, such as the Mezes Maly 2003 vintage."One of the things I've learnt over time," suggests Victor "is that when the subject is taste, there are no real rules. Except the rule that if something pleases you, it is the best!"