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Published:  23 July, 2008

Cigars, it seems, never go out of style. But like any consumer item, they are vulnerable to trends, peaks and sales troughs. Joanne Simon speaks to the UK's premium cigar purveyors to find out what's currently setting the stogy market alight

The cigar. There can be few more evocative symbols of privilege, prestige and power, and yet the most desired brands are produced in one of the world's few remaining bastions of Communism. It's a delicious irony, and just one of countless facts that make cigars so much more than the perfect after-dinner drinking companion. As the comedian George Burns put it: A good Martini, a good meal, a good cigar and a good woman or a bad woman, depending on how much happiness you can stand.' After decades of declining sales, the end of the last century saw an explosion of cigar culture. One reason may have been the increased publicity from Hollywood and images of supermodels and other celebrities smouldering behind clouds of cigar smoke. Or perhaps it was a backlash against the health-consciousness, self-improvement and everything-in-moderation of the early 1990s. Either way - and whether or not the boom is now coming to an end - cigars have totally shifted their image, from the preserve of ageing politicians and City fat cats to a younger, hipper crowd. And it's great news for the cigar industry, previously under threat of extinction as its customers literally died off.

A new golden age? Hunters & Frankau, the UK's biggest importer of cigars, sells 20 million cigars a year. It goes up and down with the economic climate,' says marketing director Simon Chase. At the moment, the market is a bit depressed and we're waiting for an upturn. But it was the same in the early Nineties, and then came the boom. I'm happy that we are getting back to a new golden age of cigars.' Hunters & Frankau is in the mass market in a small way', with exclusive rights for Agio and Panter cigars from Holland, as well as Villiger, the German cigar. Its premium portfolio also includes cigars from the Dominican Republic and Honduras. But the company's major focus is as the exclusive distributor of premium, hand-made Cuban cigars, of which it sells 3.5-5 million sticks' each year. They make up about 85% of the volume of our premium cigar portfolio, where they represent about 90% of our revenue,' says Chase. He believes more people would be lighting up if it weren't for the UK's high rate of tobacco duty. It renders a cigar a super-luxury item, which it is less so in other markets. It means most people really have to be in a celebratory mood to torch up.' In the UK, the price of a hand-made Cuban cigar ranges from about 4-40, with medium-price' cigars like the Montecristo No. 4 selling for around 7.50. On average, cigars from the Dominican Republic cost 15% less than Cuban cigars, while those from Honduras are about half the price. But despite being cheaper, there's no real sign of massive growth. Cuban cigars still make up 70 to 75% of the premium UK market,' says Chase. He is also concerned that the new Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill will have a marked impact. Our fastest growing customers are Internet retailers, and they may be constrained by the new legislation. But we'll continue with our cigar dinners and so on -to ban groups from going to cigar dinners would, arguably, be a bit odd!' Chase says 73% of Hunters & Frankau's sales are to retailers. After all, if people acquire the pastime - some might say "habit" - of smoking cigars, they will tend to buy their cigars from shops rather than bars or restaurants. However, the catering industry - which accounts for the remaining 27% of our sales - is also very important, because it is where most people will come across cigars in the first place. So we like to work with hotels, restaurants and bars to make sure that they have a decent range of cigars that is well displayed. And most of the 2,600 people we train [at merchants and other outlets] each year come from the catering industry.'

Post-prandial profits Among those working very closely with Hunters & Frankau is the Hotel du Vin hotel and restaurant group, the brainchild of founders Robin Hutson and Gerard Basset MW. As the name suggests, a strong wine theme runs through each of the five hotels (including the latest venture in Brighton, opening in November, complete with walk-in humidor) and the group started to focus on cigars almost six years ago. I suppose personal folly was part of the reason,' laughs managing director and chairman, Hutson. But we also thought cigars would be something different; a selling point; an integral part of the whole country hotel experience of good food and wine at reasonable prices.' Each hotel now has between 30-100 different styles of cigar, and the group's annual turnover from cigars is now around 130,000. I don't know if cigar smoking is booming, exactly, but 130,000 on the bottom line is evidence that there are quite a few people smoking cigars these days,' says Hutson. It's certainly no longer the preserve of the crusty old Englishman with his glass of Port!' He attributes the widening appeal of cigars to the fact that they are seen as being a little healthier' than most other things smoked. Hand-made cigars go through an involved process to remove nicotine, tar and other harmful trace elements and, besides, roughly 90% of smokers don't inhale. And it's a different mind-set,' adds Hutson. Cigarette smoking is a nervous activity, where you take lots of drags and flick lots of ash. Cigar smoking is more relaxed - the action can build up for five minutes before you even take a single puff!' He agrees with Chase that knowledgeable staff are essential. We've done a fair amount of training with Hunters & Frankau, as well as some internal courses. And we've taken several people to Cuba - partly as a "well-done treat", but also partly as a training exercise.' Whereas some 20% of Hotel du Vin's cigars are non-Cuban, Che, the restaurant, bar and cigar lounge in St James's Street, London prides itself on having only Cuban cigars - and no less than 86 different styles, at that. Neatly positioned near those great London cigar emporiums of JJ Fox & Robert Lewis, Davidoff of London and Alfred Dunhill, Che is the brainchild of self-styled American entrepreneur and cigar aficionado Hani Farsi, ably supported by bar manager Neil Millington, a published authority on cigars. Millington - whose fascination with the stogy began when he was kicked out of university and got a job at Selfridges that just happened to be in the cigar department' -believes more younger people are smoking cigars simply because there are now more young people working in the on-trade. It's easier for a younger person to order a cigar from someone who is roughly the same age, than from some little old man. Then, the important thing is to take the time to speak to the customer and find out exactly what they want. It's all very well selling a 50 cigar to someone, but you'll probably never see them again. And size does matter - not everyone has the time to chug through a Churchill. In fact, a big, fat cigar will probably put a first-time cigar smoker off for life.' Millington says that Che sells up to 10,000 worth of cigars a month. But more importantly, a cigar after a meal can take up to an hour and a half to smoke, in which time a customer can easily order three or four Cognacs or coffees. If you have ten people around a table, well, that translates into a lot of money.' Back at the bar for a post-prandial puff, there is no doubt that cigars are enhanced by a well selected tipple, which depends on personal taste, but can also vary according to the occasion. The most popular traditional drink with fine cigars is Cognac, whose crisp, clean flavours keep the palate alive for the smooth flavours of a hand-rolled cigar. The sweetness and alcoholic power of Vintage Port blend well with a full-bodied smoke, while the strong tannins in younger Vintage Ports or the woody characteristics of aged Tawny Ports stand up nicely to a spicier smoke. Single malt Scotch or small-batch and single-barrel Bourbons have the necessary complexity and depth of flavour. But Millington is an aged rum enthusiast. Given that rum and cigars are produced in the same area, it makes sense that they should go well together. Rum is smoother than Cognac and not quite as fiery, but it's got all the complexity, which is why it's perfect with cigars.' And then, of course, there's wine, whether you're after the depth of a Bordeaux-style blend or the spiciness of Rhne varieties like Syrah, Grenache and Mourvdre.

Swilling and spitting On the subject of wine, it's hardly surprising that many wine merchants branch out' into cigar sales. For a start, making good cigars is very similar to making good wine. The type and quality of grapes and tobacco depend on the soil in which they grow, the weather conditions in each year, and the production process used. Like fine wine, premium cigars can improve with age, if stored correctly at 70% humidity. And finally, just like the wine taster, the smoker swills the smoke around his mouth to experience all the richness and flavour, then blows it out (and descriptors like earthy', golden', nutty', or smoky' wouldn't be out of place on a WSET tasting note). You can liken cigars to wine in many ways,' agrees John Gauntley, owner of wine merchant Gauntleys of Nottingham. It's the same principle - this plantation, that plantation, rolled by the finest rollers, the blend, a variety of aromas and flavours... The best cigars are unique hand-made products and I don't think they should be bracketed with the rest of smoking. I used to get my biggest kicks out of hand-selling fine cigars, because you can't just pull the cork out of a bottle of wine and say to the customer, "smell that". But with cigars, you can carefully get this wonderful ribboned bundle of cigars out of the cabinet, and you can tell that the person is thinking, "My God, I want that!".' But however effective the personal touch might be, Gauntley says a lot of his very healthy' cigar sales are coming through mail order - and mail order, these days, usually implies the Internet. Importer and distributor Cigars Unlimited, established in 1995 by proprietor Adrian Lesley, has gone online in a bid to offer our clients unrivalled service, choice, quality and value' in cigars and cigar accessories, while a separate website featuring the company's bespoke, fitted or freestanding humidors is currently under construction.

A lifestyle accessory Choosing a cigar of the right strength can really only be achieved by experimentation, an almost endless journey of surprise and delight', to quote Theo Rudman, author of Rudman's Complete Pocket Guide To Cigars. For the novice, the tobacco temples of St James's can be downright scary, and not everyone can pop down to Tomtom Cigars in Belgravia, where Tom Assheton opened his more relaxed' shop in December 1997 to bring the pleasure of cigar smoking to the younger customer, moving away from the old-fashioned St James's image'. Browsing online in the comfort of your own home, on the other hand, is easy, convenient - and second nature for today's more modern, computer-savvy cigar smoker. But online Cuban cigar merchant C.Gars, whose staff have all been trained by Hunters & Frankau, warns that there can be pitfalls when it comes to buying cigars from merchants whose Internet business is merely a sideline. [Because] you can't see the cigars you are purchasing, you leave yourself open to being sent the lousiest looking cigars from [your merchant's] inventory, whilst [he] keeps the best-looking cigars for his retail shop customers.' Retailers which operate exclusively online can, in theory, keep their prices low because they have no overheads. Meanwhile, to guarantee quality, the good people at C.Gars are prepared to decipher date and factory codes and select wrapper colour. If you require, we'll even smoke one from the same batch and provide you with tasting notes it's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it!' Others, like Simply Cigars, have designed their websites bearing in mind that cigar smokers are a special breed' who savour and enjoy the experience, rather like the pleasure you derive from a good wine' and therefore cover everything from choosing a cigar and judging quality to finding cigar-friendly restaurants across the UK and learning about cigar etiquette. According to Zino Davidoff's protocol for cigar smokers, outlined in 1967, cigars should be held between index finger and thumb, and anything more than a puff a minute is excessive. Cigars should not be chain-smoked, clenched between the teeth, chewed or slobbered on. They should certainly not be dunked in Port or brandy, a habit attributed to Winston Churchill. And finally, they should not be smoked more than halfway. In the words of Davidoff himself, they should be allowed to die a dignified death. Just like this article.