Counter-intuitively, the recession and the smoking ban are turning London into the cigar capital of the world. And swanky new smoking rooms are filling with women, as well as men, says Charlotte Metcalf
Until recently, the spa was one way of luring non-resident customers into London’s five star hotels. Now, as a symptom of a more decadent, hedonistic mood, top hotels are resting their reputations on the calibre of their cigar terrace, witness the just-opened Wellesley in Knightsbridge that now claims London’s largest.
Before the smoking ban in July 2007, smoking rooms were rarely glamorous. Cigar rooms were resolutely male environments and those for cigarettes alone were invariably dismal and smelly. Cigarette smoking may be on the decline but in the capital, cigar smoking has never been so fashionable, with cigar bars opening weekly. ‘If you really want to see how popular cigars are, just hit the terrace at LouLou’s,’ David Lewis, Chairman of Hunters & Frankau, said to me recently at a party.
The smoking room at the Wellesley
Davidoff Ladies' Masterclass
Like a lot of women, it had never even occurred to me to smoke a cigar until last autumn when I was invited to a Davidoff Ladies’ Masterclass in London’s MayFair Hotel off Piccadilly. Intrigued, I went. In the Cigar Room were 20 women, including an architect, a City manager, two actresses, a film producer, the Events Manager at Prada and a jewellery designer with her daughters.
Draped in steel chain mail curtains and doused in pink and blue light, the sleek, contemporary space with its louvred walls and canopied day beds was the antithesis of the wood-panelled, leathery environments of the past. This was more a Zen retreat than gentleman’s club.
A man sang at a white grand piano and we were offered Exquisito Longfiller Cigarillos, the smallest ever hand-rolled cigars, flutes of champagne or rosewater and lychee Martinis. Vincent Kremble, International Brand Ambassador for Davidoff, had flown in from Geneva to give a presentation designed to initiate us into the world of cigars. He taught us how to choose, cut and light a cigar and we learnt the first and fundamental rule: one does not ‘smoke’ a cigar, one ‘enjoys’ it.
For Geneva-based Davidoff, London was the obvious city in which to launch its Ladies’ Masterclasses. ‘It’s because London is now undoubtedly the capital of the cigar world,’ Mitchell Orchant tells me confidently.
The smoking room at MayFair Hotel
The Man Behinds Cigars' Soaring Popularity
Mitchell Orchant is viewed by many as being responsible for the cigar’s soaring popularity. He set up C.Gars Ltd in 1997 and it’s now, Mitch says, ‘the biggest cigar retailer in the UK by a mile.’ We are in the humidor of C.Gars Ltd.’s headquarters in West Hampstead and Mitch is telling me why cigars bearing the EMS (English Market Selection) stamp are so renowned.
Hunters & Frankau are Britain’s sole importer and distributor of Cuba’s finest cigars and every box that arrives here is opened and inspected. ‘EMS-stamped boxes are perceived to contain cigars of far higher quality and provenance as they can be traced directly from Cuba to Hunters & Frankau. In most other countries cigar boxes are sealed but when you buy a cigar in England you know you’re getting a thoroughly quality inspected box and you can select the wrapper shade that suits personal preference,’ Mitchell says.
Mitchell began selling cigars on-line as a hobby in 1994. ‘I cut down on everyone else’s margins by around 20% so I was very busy and very popular overnight,’ he laughs. Then in 1997 he set up C.Gars Ltd. and started buying up prestigious but fading old stores like Turmeaus Tobacconists in Liverpool, founded in 1817 and the second oldest cigar merchant in the UK, and Robert Graham in Glasgow, established in 1874 and the oldest cigar merchant in Scotland. Today C.Gars Ltd. has a huge warehouse in Norfolk and stores in London, Cambridge, Liverpool, Chester, Glasgow, Edinburgh Chester, Dublin and Hamburg.
Four years ago Mitch was joined by Brian Ebbesen, a Christie’s auctioneer, and now C.Gars Ltd. now runs the only independent cigar auctions in Britain.
Inside Boisdale Canary Wharf
Their seventh auction was held at Boisdale in Canary Wharf. Originally a Belgravia restaurant specialising in Scottish food and whisky, Boisdale’s popularity and longevity is due partly to the fact that it was one of the first establishments to provide a welcoming, heated terrace for smokers after the ban. The Canary Wharf branch opened in 2002 and has the signature scarlet walls and tartan upholstery but feels like New York or Shanghai compared with its cosy sister restaurant. It spreads over two storeys with an enormous cigar terrace looking out over skyscrapers.
In its auction room an international crowd has gathered to bid on 301 lots. Brian Ebbesen is swift and energetic but even so the bidding goes on for over two hours. An Asian man spends over £136,000 on 104 lots, spending £8,800 on one lot alone, a Partagas 155th Aniversario Humidor of 155 Vintage 2000 cigars. As a cigar novice, I am astonished that someone would spend so much, given £135,000 could buy a flat in East London or a 2012 Bentley 6000 cc Continental Supersports Convertible.
‘I’ve never seen him before,’ says Brian Ebbesen, who’s looking wan after his stint at the podium. ‘There are only about 200 to 300 people round the world who regularly buy vintage cigars so I’m used to seeing the same old faces at auctions.’
By now, we are all eating mini haggis and drinking aged Balvenie on the terrace. Almost everyone here is a regular at C.Gars Ltd.’s auctions and some have come from as far as California and St. Petersburg.
Mitchell, in a pin-stripe suit and gold jewellery, dispenses cigars. Of the mystery bidder, he says, ‘He’s indicative of how dramatically the trend has changed. My buyers used to be from Europe but now most are from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore or Malaysia.’
Brian Ebbesen says, ‘Cigars of the quality you’ve seen tonight haven’t been produced since Castro kicked all the main producers out of Cuba in 1989. The supply is literally drying up. It’s why they can command such high prices.’
At the more affordable end of the market, producers are now selling their non-Cuban cigars to a new younger market that includes women. ‘Ladies’ palates are much more refined and delicate and they don’t necessarily want the big punch of a Cuban cigar,’ says Salvatore Calabrese, world-renowned cocktail ‘maestro’ and ‘mixologist’. Tonight we’re talking in the Garden Room, the Lanesborough Hotel’s cigar terrace with open fire and a ‘floating’ ceiling, a space Salvatore was instrumental in conceiving and designing.
Brand new this January, is the Garden Room’s menu that pairs cigars with cocktails and, after advice from the Cigar Sommelier, I am enjoying a San Cristobal La Fuerza and sipping a concoction of aged rum, cinnamon syrup and chocolate bitters. The Lanesborough was the first (in 1997) to have a cabinet with a serious collection of vintage Cuban cigars and now the Garden Room, described by the Lanesborough as ‘expertly tailored decadence’, draws celebrities like George Clooney, John Ford, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Beyonce and Jay Z.
‘It’s a sign of the times – like prohibition,’ says Salvatore. ‘Give Londoners a ban and they’ll find ingenious ways of circumventing it.’ Reinforcing his point, I arrive home to find invitations to a live music session in the MayFair Cigar Room and to the opening of Voltaire, a new Cigar Terrace in Blackfriars. ‘A cigar shouts affluence, generosity and luxury,’ says Mitchell Orchant and, as an antidote to recession, London is embracing it cheerfully.