Cigars & Whisky

The song of the virtual whisky community

The new night out: there are ways to come together, even when you can’t do it in person
By Nick Hammond
You don’t have to be an extrovert to be part of a community – although it helps. I love a knees-up, but I’m a bit of a loner too and perfectly happy in my own company. But in these last tumultuous months, community – or, in some places, a lack of it – has been shown in stark relief. As I took my part in an altruistic Saturday ‘night out’ organised by Steve Johnstone of whisky retailer Robert Graham 1874, the overarching theme of community stood out for all to see.

Since lockdown, Johnstone and his team have held a regular series of ticketed online events, which have attracted a community all of their own. It was a natural evolution, as the Robert Graham crew have become well known for their popular live events. These started out as small and infrequent cigar and whisky pairing sessions held at venues close to the company’s bricks-and-mortar stores, but grew to become regular tastings that have a real ‘club’ feel to them. They’ve even gone as far as holding an event that felt almost like a cigar, whisky and music festival in miniature for the company’s 125th anniversary back in 2019, when the team arranged a summer garden party at Broomhall in Fife.
Cinco Decadas

After the move to online-only events in 2020, it took a little time for things to fall into place and for people to become comfortable with this new at-home experience. Over the months, however, a well-honed entertainment machine begun to purr – disguised as a load of folks having a good time. This most recent gig, dubbed ‘The Song Circle Live Music Show’, was a departure from the usual format as, rather than focussing on cigars and drams, the emphasis was on the music.

Things kicked off with live music from Beach Crows, a Scottish guitar-wielding duo. Their folky, bluesy, rocky riffs soon had the audience toe tapping and pouring a couple of fingers of their chosen dram to kickstart proceedings. It’s interesting to note how many folks choose to keep their cameras on these days during the event. Many were a little self-conscious in the earlier days of online events but, like so many of us, the regulars seem to have arrived at a ‘take me or leave me’ school of thought and here they now sit – many of them in their back gardens, by their fire pits, in their sheds, even – so they can also enjoy a fine, hand-rolled cigar with their drams while listening to music.

These Robert Graham online events have been a perfect marriage of drams and sticks; manufacturers from across the cigar-making world, Zooming in live to the front rooms of folks the length and breadth of the UK. There have also been live-streamed tours of Scottish distilleries and New World cigar factories. And, in what must be pretty much a first, anywhere in the world, both the cigarmaker and the whisky distiller have been encouraged to speak to each other. There are synergies left, right and centre and it’s become apparent that both speak the same language: the language of flavour.

When you enjoy yourself, you tend to seek the experience again. It’s been heartening to see the numbers attending these events creep up. There are always some new faces but, increasingly, it feels very much like the ‘club’ atmosphere of the live events is taking hold. Humans are quick to adapt and to make home wherever they lay their metaphorical hat. Many of you reading this will know that the world of whisky could also be accurately described as a community. The cigar industry, smaller and more focussed as it is, certainly has that ‘big village’ feel to it too.

When I go to trade shows (those were the days) here in the UK or overseas, it is heartwarming to catch up with old faces, many of whom started as colleagues and who have gone on to become close friends. The cigar world is very close knit. It looks after its own – and it has a massive heart. A few years ago, I was commissioned to write a book for the 50th anniversary of Joya de Nicaragua – that country’s oldest and arguably most respected hand-rolled cigar maker. The commission involved spending some time in that fine country getting to know, in a small way, what makes its people tick. Nicaragua made a great impression on me, as did its people. I loved my time there, none more so than the long days spent interviewing and filming at the Joya factory in Estelí. The staff are nothing short of inspirational and, under the leadership of Juan Martinez, executive president, and his father, Dr Alejandro Martinez Cuenca, chairman, they have seen off the kinds of challenges that boggle the mind.

Nicaragua is a poor country, so Joya quietly commits to sending a monthly grocery basket to each and every one of its retired former employees – just basic essentials, but very gratefully received, nonetheless. The tales these remarkable people told me during those busy, sun-splashed, cigar-flavoured days in Estelí will always stay with me. I was reminded a little of them during the Robert Graham Song Circle event, although it’s dark outside and a damn sight colder.
Song Circle

There have been a lot of people hit awfully hard by the pandemic and largely unreached by government efforts to make reparations for lost earnings. Not least, musicians; and that’s where we come full circle – full song circle, if you like – for this particular event had been organised entirely to benefit them. Guests were asked to buy a ‘gig’ ticket for a fiver and, if they wanted, they could top up with drams and cigars. After that, all they had to do was sit back and enjoy the musicians doing their stuff. Alongside Beach Crows regulars Tom and Al performing singly, there were the gravelly sounds of Jack Cade.

As the night rolled on, each of the artists was given the freedom and space to play one song, have a chat about their background and influences and pass the baton to the next. And so went the song circle for well over two hours. By the end, the ‘crowd’ had unmuted and were calling for more. Every penny taken ‘on the door’ went to the musicians and other Song Circle events are in the works. Even if you’re not an extrovert, you can still join a community – without ever having to leave the house.