SITTING back on a luxurious sofa with a glass of fine champagne in one hand and a cigar in the other, I'm among a group of around 25 men and a couple of women sending up a merry fug of smoke and good cheer into the Marylebone air. Technically we're outdoors, but it doesn't feel like it. There's a roof over our heads, the furniture is sumptuous, and a trio of mega-heaters the kind that upset the eco-conscious is ensuring that, while it's one degree out tonight, we're positively toasty.
This is the cigar terrace of Ten Manchester Street, a recently-opened boutique hotel a few minutes' walk from Oxford Street, and it's the latest evidence of one side effect of the smoking ban a rising interest in cigars. If you're going to go to the trouble of removing yourself for a puff to the smart, dedicated smoking areas upmarket bars and hotels are increasingly developing, why waste it on a grubby old fag? Cigar smoking, as Winston Churchill and Alfred Hitchcock knew, is smoking with a bit more elan. Even lighting one has ceremony snip off the end, post the cigar in the flame, rotate it, wave it in the air, pop it in your mouth, draw in the flame and puff away.
In opening its cigar terrace, complete with a humidor full of Cuban stogies, Ten Manchester Street is following the lead of places like the Scots-themed restaurant and bar Boisdale of Belgravia and The Lanesborough Hotel. At the former, diners can reserve armchairs on the cigar terrace along with a cosy cashmere blanket, if you please to retire to after eating; earlier this year The Lanesborough launched the Garden Room, an inner sanctum for smokers with a walk-in humidor and even lockers for your personal cigar collection.
It'd be wrong, of course, to suggest that regular cigar smoking is anything less than a long-term invitation to the most rotten health problems. It's a bad idea. But if you're going to take that risk, there's fun to be had, for it is a connoisseur activity. The origins, vintages, blends and flavours of cigars are as multitudinous as those of whiskies or fine wines. And like whiskies and fine wines, to really make the most of cigars you need an expert to introduce you to the subject.
Back in the clubby atmosphere of the Ten cigar terrace, 1999 bubbly. It seems the acidity of champagne actually brings out the flavours of cigars even more. As a former cigarette smoker and someone whose previous cigar experience amounted to the odd cheapo cheroot from behind the bar when the pub fag machine was empty, I'm beginning to see what Chase means. While smokers often have their palates ruined by the chemical muck in cigarettes, fine cigars organic, rolled by hand from five different types of leaf, with a tobacco fermentation, curing and maturation process that can take three years or even longer have a lot more to them. And since you don't inhale, the pleasure is in the rush of flavour in the mouth, rather than of nicotine to the lungs.
that's where Simon Chase comes in. A dapper gent in a tailored suit, he's a representative of Cuban cigar importer Hunters & Frankau, here to tutor us in a pairing of cigars and champagne. Yes, champagne. The notion that cigars only go with cognac or port is old hat, and fine cigars can be found to go with pretty much any tipple the latest thing in Cuba, according to Chase, is pairing them with tequila. But doesn't the smoke kill off a fine drink's delicate flavours?
"Absolutely not," says Chase, "because taste is what cigars are all about you smoke a cigarette but you taste a cigar. You can look for cigars in which the blend of f lavours compliments those of a particular drink."
Terms like fruity, earthy, mellow and "the taste of leather" get bandied about as we drag on our fat El Rey Del Mundos and sip some very fine Vintage Duval-Leroy
Of course, like any connoisseur object, they cost. The mild but fulsome El Reys we're trying are £12.80 a pop, but really good Havanas can cost a lot more.
At The Lanesborough, bar manager Giuseppe Ruo-oneofthe country's leading cigar authorities from a special limited edition going for £1,500 each. He got them nine weeks ago, and of 40 cigars,
half are already gone. "What I'm looking for in a well constructed cigar is a blend of tobacco that gives you a deep and long finish on your palette, something that will stay for long enough to make you really understand your cigar," Ruo enthuses. "You need a little knowledge and a lot of passion to appreciate it properly."
Ruo says that even if you have the perfect cigar, if you don't have the right environment in which to sit back and enjoy it, it will be ruined. For cigar enthusiasts like him and, I've a feeling, like me London is an increasingly good place to be.