The meal at La Guarida, Havana’s best private restaurant, was over, and everyone’s thoughts turned to cigars. We asked to see the cigar selection. Marcelo Leonel Rodríguez approached the table with a wooden tray with dividers, each section filled with cigars: Montecristos, H. Upmanns, some Romeo y Julietas and a few Cohiba Siglo IIIs and IVs. His first question explored if we were regular smokers or not. The former Festival del Habano sommelier contestant asked what we had eaten for dinner, and what we wanted for an after-dinner drink. When I said I wanted an aged rum, preferably a Santiago 11-year-old, he pondered for a minute and suggested a Romeo y Julieta Wide Churchill. Being particular about my cigar, I declined his offer to light it, but the service was readily available.
While not as ubiquitous as wine sommeliers are today, the cigar waiter is more and more common in Cuba, and in some major cities like London, Dubai and Hong Kong. Their arrival on the fine-dining scene isn’t just by chance. The Cuban government is supporting a training program, created and overseen by Fernando Fernandez, one of the country’s leading cigar and spirits experts. Up to now, the sole professional cigar training was given by the Master Sommelier program, but it constituted a small part of their program.
“We are trying to enhance the tourist experience with Cuban culture,” says Fernandez, puffing on a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2. “And, tobacco is part of our culture. We wanted professionals educating people about it.” He said that there are many restaurants in Havana that have cigar sommelier graduates including La Guarida, Castropol and El Templete, a government-run seafood restaurant where two women oversee the cigar service.
The Habanos Sommelier program started 15 years ago. The original program was designed by Fernandez, a gregarious, loudly opinionated man who loves cigars, and loves to talk about the best way to enjoy them. He earned a Wine and Spirits Education Trust diploma years ago. But he said he realized no similar teaching text existed for cigars. Using the same basic format of WSET’s program of lectures, tastings and hands-on experience, he designed a sommelier course for cigars.
The entire course takes between 18 months to two years to complete, because most students have other jobs and the classes are given in sections. Each graduate receives about 480 hours of instruction, Fernandez says. He estimates that fewer than 25 percent of the students who begin the program, finish it. There are tests at each stage, which deal with all aspects of wine, spirits, tobacco and cigars, the latter divided into brands, service and beverage accompaniments. For instance, in 2016, 61 students began the program in April, and by October, only 23 were left, Fernandez says, and the course still had more than a year to go. Since inception, the program has graduated about 300 people, with more than 250 of them living and working in Cuba. He expects Habanos to begin offering the courses in other countries around the world, but for now, if a foreigner wants the official Habanos training, he must come to Cuba. And, there are several distributors around the world—including Hunters & Frankau in the United Kingdom—that train people using materials based on the Habanos course.
“First, we train them as a wine sommelier,” Fernandez says. The students take classes in wine appreciation, wine service and restaurant operations. The detailed courses even show what type of glass to serve each type of wine (or spirits) using Riedel stemware. The training then shifts to tobacco. Fernandez says the students visit fields and farms, getting to know growers. They also are allowed entrance into factories that normally are closed to outsiders, where they smoke cigars with rollers and top tobacco men. “We teach them about how difficult it is to make a good cigar, and what goes into the construction,” Fernandez says, “and then we teach them how to taste a cigar.”
The next step, Fernandez says, is to study—“in depth”— all Habanos’ brands. “There are 289 vitolas in 27 brands, and they have to know everything about each size,” Fernandez says. “And, there are new ones every year that they have to learn about.” He says the training includes the cutting and lighting of a cigar and how best to marry the cigar with a particular spirit.
“They have to know the difference between say, a short cigar, like a robusto, and a double corona, the time of day to smoke a particular strength cigar, and then the preference of the smoker,” Fernandez says. “If they are occasional smokers or regulars, or if they are a female, all that can make a difference in deciding which cigar to suggest, and then recommending a drink to go with it.”
Fernandez says the Habanos Sommelier program is now taught regionally inside Cuba. Each year, the program brings the best students from each region for a competition to represent Cuba in the annual Festival del Habano sommelier contest. Cubans have won the contest at least three times since its first year in 2002, and there is always a Cuban representative among the contestants. A panel of international judges, which includes Fernandez, observes the contestants in preliminary rounds where they must identify two cigars and five spirits, all presented blind. They then present their own beverage and cigar and discuss the merits of the pairing to the panel. The judges select three, sometimes four, persons to take part in the final round on the closing day of the Festival. In that final round, the judges present the candidate with a specific scenario, with two live actors posing as cigar smokers. In 2017, a Chilean, Felipe Rojas, who had taken the course in Cuba, won a tight verdict.
Darius Namdar, a graduate of the Hunters & Frankau master cigar sommelier program, earned the title of Habanos Sommelier for 2018. He is also the general manager of Mark’s Club in London. “Both of my guests in the competition said they liked full-flavored cigars,” Namdar said. He chose a slim Partagás 8-9-8 and a Partagás Serie P No. 2, a figurado, from the humidor on the stage. For the 8-9-8 smoker, who wanted an aged dark rum, he paired the cigar with a Havana Club Selección de Maestros, and for the other man, a Scotch drinker, he picked a Glenlivet 18-year-old. “I’ve been surrounded by cigars all my life. My father was a big cigar smoker,” said Namdar. He entered the Hunters program after taking over Marks Club, and realizing that his patrons wanted someone with serious cigar knowledge to help make their selections. He said he would celebrate with a Trinidad Fundadores from 1998, but since this expert doesn’t actually drink alcohol himself, he said he would probably pair his smoke with a cup of tea.
In 2017, Slawomir Bielicki, a crowd favorite who represented the United Kingdom, finished second in the competition. “Every experience, every cigar served, was always a different approach due to the occasion, personal preferences, meal or drink which accompanied it and it always revealed an interesting character or story,” said Bielicki, a former cigar sommelier at the Churchill Bar & Terrace in London. “Every cigar has a different story.”
In the end, Fernandez said that the cigar sommelier program is building on the tradition and culture of cigars worldwide, and there is no better place in the world to learn the craft. “If you want to learn Samba, you go to Brazil. If you want to learn about cigars, you come to Cuba.”