I started smoking cigars as an undergraduate. I know that sounds unbearable, but it was a small town and thanks to a regular influx of American tourists we had three decent cigar shops. I saw myself as an in utero sybarite, a trainee on the green slopes of decadence.
After a dinner, a cigar can be a wonderful digestif. It can also act as a wonderful prop if, like mine, a lot of your post-prandial moments involve speechifying. Lighting a cigar, looking like you know what you’re doing, and enjoying it, contribute to a splash of style that is hard to beat.
When I was a student, smoking was still allowed in pubs, bars and restaurants – autre temps, autre moeurs – though fellow diners must have hated me. Now smokers are refugees, seeking out ever-fewer safe havens to indulge their habit, and it is difficult to find a place where you can relax and enjoy a cigar the way it deserves. A proper hand-rolled stick is not a cigarette to be sucked into your lungs in a five-minute toilet break but a sensuous experience of taste and scent in which you should revel.
Of course there are places. Boisdale in Belgravia, owned by the irrepressible and inimitable Ranald MacDonald, is always a safe space for smokers, with a comfortable and heated terrace as well as a formidable stock of cigars. The Garden Lounge of the Lanesborough Hotel is a pampering and soothing experience with excellent staff. Ten Manchester Street has smoking facilities inside and outside, and will sell you everything you need for a relaxing stogie.
Some people, however, find the whole business of cigars dauntingly impenetrable. Expensively dressed men (and, increasingly, women) talk of the smoothness of the draw, the origin of the wrapper compared to the binder, coronas and panetelas and robustos, and it can seem like a tightly sealed club. It really isn’t. So here are five gentle pieces of advice for beginners, those who might be ‘cigar-curious’ but find it all confusing or cumbersome.
1) Start modestly. If this is your first cigar, don’t pick a thick toro or a formidable double corona that will keep you occupied for well over an hour. A petit corona is a good place to begin: four-and-a-half inches long with a ring gauge of 42 (so 42/64 of an inch), you will get good flavour and taste but won’t have to commit hours to the experience.
2) Cubans are not always best. People think immediately of Havana when they think of cigars, and certainly Cuba is home to some of the best cigar houses in the world, but note the word “some”. The legendary status is at least in part due to the US embargo on Cuba, which began in 1962 (though not before JFK had stocked up on more than 1,000 of his favourite Upmann’s). Cuban cigars have a rarity value and a certain illicit cachet in America, which has a much more active cigar culture than we do. There are, however, excellent tobacco growers throughout central America: Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Brazil all produce very fine leaf, and, consequently, some first-class cigars.
3) Find a friend. Cigars, much more than cigarettes, are a social experience, and sharing a good smoke (and perhaps a carefully chosen drink) with friends who are similarly inclined is a glorious thing. You can compare notes on the flavours of the tobacco — no two people will taste the same thing — but there is something elusively meditative about the experience of inhaling, savouring and exhaling repeatedly. Through some bio-chemical wizardry, nicotine acts as both a stimulant and a relaxant, giving you a mild, pleasurable buzz. If it goes well, you will find yourself both relaxed and suffused with good-feeling towards the world. (I also find it stimulates the creative parts of the brain, but I can’t guarantee that for everyone.)
4) There are no rules except your own. The stereotype is of a plutocrat enjoying a thick cigar after a sumptuous dinner, and certainly it is a great way to end a meal, but some smokers like a cigar with their morning coffee, or as a kind of alternative to a siesta in the afternoon. Several Hollywood stars enjoy a cigar on the golf course: Jack Nicholson attributes his formidable handicap to switching from frenetically inhaled cigarettes to the slower rumination of a cigar. Find out when you prefer smoking. You may want to do it all day, and, if you have the bank balance for it, no-one will stop you.
5) You get what you pay for. Cigars are not cheap: let’s be upfront about that. A decent hand-rolled stick of any reasonable size will leave you no change from £10, but realistically you’ll be paying £30 and upwards more often. There are bargains to be found from mail-order suppliers and from lesser-known tobacco houses (Rebellion Cigars are very good in this respect; they stock a smallish range but sell good-quality cigars for competitive prices). That’s fine if you are approaching cigars as an occasional treat; £30 or £40 twice a month will be lost in the background noise of everyday expenditure. As Gene Hackman counsels Denzel Washington after the latter’s first smoke in Crimson Tide, “Well, don’t like it too much. They’re more expensive than drugs.”
If you think you might like a cigar, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. The staff at Davidoff London on St James’s Street are hard to beat: no-one will mock you for asking ‘stupid’ questions. Just tell them what you want, explain your tastes, and they will do their best to find something from their extraordinary stock to suit your needs. They’ll show you how to light it, how to keep it lit. Find somewhere quiet, maybe put on some music or open a book, and smoke your first cigar. It might be a revelation.
• Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point