The cigar has long been a symbol of status, sophistication and fine taste. Famous cigar smokers are many and count amongst their number everyone from major political players such as Winston Churchill, Fidel Castro and, er, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to effortlessly cool Hollywood types like Jack Nicholson, Harrison Ford and, er, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Mitchell Orchant is director of world-leading cigar merchant C.GARS Ltd, a multi-million pound business that owns a quarter of the country’s specialist tobacconist shops, and that has experienced an incredible 20% growth in the last year alone. As the company’s resident cigar expert, Mitchell is responsible for testing and selecting the products on sale: “I smoke them all day every day, for quality control purposes!”
I can testify to this; as I walk into the cosy (some might say poky) shop on Broadhurst Gardens, open since Christmas 2009, I am warmly greeted by Mitchell, lit cigar in hand, and his friendly and hospitable store manager Lucia. Mitchell explains that this shop, as a specialist tobacconist, is one of a handful of stores in the country which has an exemption from the smoking ban, allowing him and his customers to smoke in comfort.
With smoking being seen as an increasingly dangerous and anti-social habit (I did leave with my clothes smelling quite pungently of smoke), I wonder who it is that is providing him with such massive business growth. “We get a lot of novice smokers,” he tells me, “young guys, with an average age of 20 – 30. So we get both experienced smokers looking for somewhere to buy and select for themselves a nice cigar, and also new customers looking to try the product maybe for the first time.”
Mitchell is quick to distance his products from your common cancer-stick: “Smoking normal cigarettes, chances are you’re going to kill yourself from lung cancer. You won’t kill yourself from having a Havana cigar; you might fall off your chair relaxed, but because you don’t inhale at all, and it’s a completely natural product, there are virtually no health issues connected with a Havana cigar.” Many other cigars do contain chemicals in the leaves and the fertilizers used in production, but not, he claims, the Havanas sold in his stores.
He leads the way into the shop’s cool-air walk-in humidor. We are greeted by shelves upon shelves of cigars, of varying brands and sizes. For an uninitiated cigar smoker like myself, it can actually be an intimidating sight. So courtesy of Mitchell, here’s a quick beginner’s guide to the Havana cigar:
“In terms of quality, Havana has a unique combination of sun, soil and skill that can’t be replicated anywhere but Cuba. It is the Rolls Royce product of Cigars – nothing comes close.” He says that it’s difficult to describe the exact taste sensation but, basically, “you’re looking for sweet flavours, woodsy flavours or spice flavours; you can detect notes of coffee and caramel, and you get these nuances of flavour all over the palate of your mouth, without having to inhale.”
Best introductory: Montecristo no.4. At 5 inches in length and with a ring gauge of 42, this is the most popular size for a cigar, from by far the most popular brand in the world. It is where everybody starts, and is packed full of flavour – tasty and woodsy, but not too strong. Price: £8 each.
Best on a budget: Jose L Piedra Conservas. Similar size to the Montecristo no.4, these are machine rolled and hand finished, keeping costs slightly down, but quality up. “They’re a good smoke for the money,” according to Mitchell. Price: £5 each.
Best premium: Cohiba Siglo VI Gran Reserva 2009. This is the ultimate top-end product – a limited edition range, with only 5,000 boxes produced, this is for the discerning cigar smoker only. Price: £85 each – “worth every penny because they are magnificent.”
You can always opt for an entirely machine made Guantanamera (hey, like that song!) for £3.40 a pop. These are made using shreds of tobacco, as opposed to the whole leaves used in hand made ones. Consequently, they burn differently and taste different. Mitchell describes the difference as that between a Coke and a supermarket own-brand Cola: “They’ll both quench your thirst, but one’s a lot tastier!”
But if you’re still unsure, just head in and have a chat with Mitchell or Lucia yourself, and you’ll experience the old-school level of customer service that the company prides itself on. If you’re not already a smoker – like me – and have no real interest in starting now – again, like me – you’ll be pleased to know that they also stock a range of award-winning own-brand whiskeys, as well as chocolates and other luxury foodie goodies.
Remember, smoking is bad for your health, but can make you look seriously cool.