Smoker's Paradise - The Cigar
London Portrait Magazine 12-1983
Cigarette smokers and the tobacco industry have taken a bit of a bashing in recent years but the mystique of the cigar lives on. CHRISTOPHER LONG examines the eternal allure of a fine cigar.
All the best adventure stories used to start in the smoking-room after dinner. The hero, Arbuthnot, would throw another log on the fire, settle back in a deep arm-chair and take out his favourite pipe. There would be a long pause while he lit up and then he'd say to his companion: 'Did I ever tell you how we caught up with that German spy, Richter?'
There was something ritualistic and reassuring about that pause while he lit up. Whatever the thrills and spills along the way he was still alive to tell the tale and to take a deep puff before he did so.
The club was almost certainly in St James's and equally certainly there was a copy of one of the most famous and evocative advertisements of all time on a wall in the street outside. A lonely and mysterious figure was pictured smoking a cigarette, silhouetted against the night sky beside a lamp post. Underneath were the famous words 'You're never alone with a Strand'. Arbuthnot's pipe and Strand cigarettes would have little romance or glamour in today's 'no smoking' world.
But there might well be some magical allure if today's hero were to be smoking a fine Havana cigar. For some reason the cigar has survived as a potent symbol. Its aroma still lingers in Arbuthnot's club; men still draw comfort from the ritual of selecting, storing, cutting and smoking it. What's more, all around St James's there are cigar merchants who have made no concessions whatever in their efforts to provide their clients with smoking perfection in the time-honoured fashion.
Oldest established of all is probably Robert Lewis of 19 St James's Street, SW1, established in 1787. In four years' time they will be celebrating 200 years in business, on the same site, as cigar importers and manufacturers of cigarettes and tobacco.
With a regular stock of over £500,000 worth of cigars in their basement, Robert Lewis can justifiably claim to carry one of the largest and widest ranges of cigars anywhere. Inevitably they find Cuban Havana cigars are the best-sellers, but also supply cigars made in Jamaica, the Canary Islands, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland and elsewhere.
Michael Croley is the third generation of his family to own the business, and maintains that the standard of personal service is as unchanged now as the shop itself, which has scarcely altered since it was founded. The walls are lined with cigar boxes while the Dickensian counter displays a huge selection of smoker's accessories.
Perhaps the first step in understanding the timeless appeal of the cigar is to appreciate the pleasure one might get from merely choosing a cigar in such reassuringly comfortable conditions.
In their sitting room the firm receives special customers where they can sit and discuss their needs.
Three customers who must have been particularly well-recognised were Edward VII, Sir Winston Churchill and Groucho Marx. Churchill bought most of his cigars there from 1900 to 1964, while Napoleon III presented the firm with a plaque, and Edward Vlll bequeathed them his own cigar box. Interestingly, Robert Lewis believes the English prefer their cigars dry, very brittle and about five or seven years old. Accordingly they don't stock humidors to store them in.
Humidors take us on to another important aspect of cigar appeal ritual. Like food, religion, marriage, death or politics, man quickly clothes most of his activities in ritual if he possibly can. This has been developed to a high art among smokers from the days of snuff-taking to the present day.
At a traditional cigar merchants such as James J. Fox in Burlington Gardens, Old Bond Street, W1, all the essential accessories are available. Fox's Cigar Rooms have been in business supplying custom-made British, Dutch and Swiss cigars for more than 100 years. They promise a comprehensive range carefully matured and kept fully humidified in perfect conditions.
Like Robert Lewis they provide a personal storage service for their customers' own cigars, but, unlike Robert Lewis, Fox believe in humidors. And, alongside the beautiful burr walnut or mahogany and amboyne cases, which regulate the humidity exactly, are a huge range of leather pocket cases, cigar scissors, cutters, cigar holders and lighters.
Among the cigars on offer are time-honoured brands such as Macanudo, Punch, Hoyo and Laranaga, but a woman would no doubt find it easy and fascinating to pick out a luxurious accessory for the man in her life confident that it will be ritually used and appreciated for years.
But tradition, history and ritual are not enough on their own. Man is above all a dissatisfied and curious animal. Fortunately two other famous names among London's cigar merchants offer variety and novelty.
Davidoff opened at 35 St James's Street, SW1, almost four years ago. Designed to emulate the famous Davidoff shop in Geneva, the London branch offers a huge range of cigars made specially for them in Havana. In terms of size, range and sophistication their stock, coupled with superb service and cosmopolitan aroma, must make them almost unique. From throw-away pipe lighters at 99p to ebony and gold humidors at £14,750, their huge range of smoker's 'requisites' make a trip to the shop like a smoker's tour of wonderland.
There are crystal and silver ashtrays, lighters by Dunhill, Dupont and Cartier, flawless briar pipes with hand-cut ebonite stems and cigar humidors in exotic walnut, mahogany, macassar and thuya veneers. In addition to private lockers for customers, they also provide an elaborate gift-wrapping service.
So, while the eternally dissatisfied smoker turns to Davidoff in his pursuit of excellence, the curious will no doubt be heading up the road to Dunhill in Duke Street, SW1, where the most famous smoker's store of all this month sees the birth, for the first time, of their own range of Havana cigars.
Richard Dunhill, the founder's grandson, says it was always his grandfather's intention to produce 'the very finest of Havana cigars' under the Dunhill name. This Christmas he may have done it with a range of eight sizes which ends up with a massive 9.25 inch Havana Club which may be the most expensive in the world at £11.50 each supplied in its own, individual cedar-wood box.
Another crucial factor in the allure of cigar smoking must be romance: and nowhere can there be a more romantic name for a cigar than the best-known of all, Romeo y Julieta. It is largely thanks to Knight Brothers, of Upper Thames Street, EC4, that this famous Cuban name has dominated the cigar world. They were so named by arguably the greatest Havana manufacturer, Rodriguez Fernandez 'Pepin' in 1903.
The Knight Brothers' partnership was founded in 1863 when a railway engineer working in Cuba sent cigars to his brother in England, who at first simply gave them away to a tobacconist, John Brumfit, in Sevenoaks. The tobacconist soon wanted more supplies and the present business was formed almost by accident.
'Pepin', the Cuban manufacturer was a great showman and philanthropist, with a genius for promotion which married well with the Knight Brothers' merchanting, fuelling the booming cigar trade in Edwardian England. The partnership is now carried on by John and Peter Knight, with part-time help from their brother David and operates very successfully, specialising in just the one famous brand, a few large accounts and no salesmen apart from themselves.
They, of all the cigar merchants in London, maintain a close present-day, romantic and ironic link with Cuba the archetypal Communist state that depends upon its export of cigars to the West, where the cigar is a symbol of capitalist success and the epitome of 'decadent' elitism!
Between them, London's cigar merchants supply and satisfy a strong, specialised and deep-rooted need among cigar connoisseurs. No doubt Freud could have expounded at length on what that precise need really is. Meanwhile, the cigar smokers will tell you that it's all quite simply a matter of taste and enjoyment. As a mere cigarette smoker I envy them, because they really do enjoy puffing away and because their cigars clearly offer a familiar, reassuring pleasure all wrapped up in mystique, ritual, romance and filled, perhaps, with a little adventurous exploration along the way.
One thing's for certain: Arbuthnot would have understood.
© (1983) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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