It is sometimes wonderful when things don't go as planned. That's been the case in London, where faceless legislators imposed a nationwide smoking ban in public places in 2008. The new law had an overnight impact on public smoking in general, but eight years hence the thriving tradition of cigar smoking in clubs, hotels, cigar shops and even fine restaurants has resurfaced through the ingenuity of a coterie of clever purveyors bent on keeping the custom alive.
At first the ban seemed to deal a hammer blow to an established cigar mecca, where connoisseurs the world over could go to pick out a spectacular smoke and enjoy it with a fine rum or whisky. For American visitors, London had been a welcome venue to try the best Cuban smokes. For international shoppers, an hour or two with a good cigar capped a day of trawling London's better shops for the shirts, custom-made shoes, cuff links and other manly accouterments found nowhere else. Then one simple pleasure was eliminated, without rhyme or reason.
Flash forward and things have changed, again. Cigar stores have carved out a dispensation and some of the capital's best hotels now provide specially equipped outdoor terraces. Designed to be enjoyed in all four seasons, they are catered to by a cigar sommelier schooled in the finer points of cigar aging and the best possible pairings with quality wines and spirits. Some restaurants offer similar retreats, and a few hotels and restaurants have pioneered indoor "cigar shops" where patrons can enjoy a fine smoke without any exposure to the elements.
Not only are COSAs (comfortable outdoor smoking areas) legal, they welcome and exalt cigar smokers. After careful lobbying and common sense brought a few substantive concessions, COSAs have complied with the smoking ban while maintaining a grand tradition. If anything, the ban has had the unintended effect of sparking a cigar renaissance in the city. The selection of cigars—augmented by exclusive regional editions—is greater, the humidors have been upgraded and no penny has been spared on creating desirable places to smoke. At the top end, many establishments offer a world-class selection of cigars at a wide variety of prices. Below that, a growing number of places have simply made their outdoor spaces into legal cigar gardens that, despite fewer accommodations and poorer protection from the weather, provide access to some good cigars.
Despite competition among the titans of London's cigar trade, who vie for those rare, elusive boxes of vintage wonders that draw customers worldwide, they share a sense that they have, together, outwitted the executioner. And the spectrum of cigar-friendly sites is wide. It includes both hotels with cigar gardens and cigar shops that allow sampling, as well as freestanding cigar shops with sampling lounges and a few restaurants.
It has been in the creation of sumptuous, heated hotel smoking gardens that London has made its greatest strides in recent world cigar history. The Lanesborough, given high praise among the city's smoking cognoscenti for its ingenuity and vision, was the first to demonstrate that the smoking ban was a challenge that could be overcome. The Garden Room, opened in 2008, has already had a thorough renovation, undertaken in 2013. Any compendium of London cigar havens would have to begin there.
Hyde Park Corner • London, SW1X 7TA
800 999 1828 • lanesborough.com
The first thing you notice is the aroma. Past the hotel lobby and down a flight of stairs, the smell of fine tobacco starts, faintly, to stimulate your senses. It is coming from the humidor set in the hallway outside the Garden Room, the hotel's landmark cigar lounge. It is also one of the venues that sparked the vogue for outdoor smoking areas that has saved cigar smoking in London from oblivion.
The smell of aging tobacco is the initial impression for most, says Luca Tramontana, the young, highly trained expert who helps newcomers and regulars choose from the exquisite collection, a range of Cubans priced anywhere from £20 ($29) or so all the way up to £4,500 ($6,500) for a prized Cohiba Behike 40th anniversary. Among the extensive list of wine and spirits available are some very rare Cognac dating back to 1790—a favorite in London.
Once reached, the Garden Room is a respite from London's persistent traffic. The two impressive humidors are roughly divided between current production and more unusual offerings. The mood is often set by Sinatra on unseen speakers, and the garden that gives the room its name infuses the city air with a welcome earthly tang set off by the smell of good cigars being enjoyed as they should be—in a public place, not sequestered away or puffed on outside, exposed to the elements, which in London can be a bit harsh.
The design is ingenious: Open to the sky in terms of ventilation but cozy and snug. Every detail—down to the deco ashtrays and Vector lighters—is thought through with the smoker in mind. No one was sure the concept would work when it was launched a few years after the smoking ban, but this is the second version of the lounge, expanded to reflect its popularity.
With its wood-paneled "ceiling" surrounded by hedges, Tramontana calls it "covered but uncovered. It was difficult. It had to be like this to follow the law. That's what they came up with, and it was very successful. Everyone was looking for a place to smoke a cigar. They put in screening to baffle the noise, because this is a busy street. The greenery was added. We added the music and hid the speakers. They are waterproof. Everything here has to be waterproof." A bit of rain can still come in at times, but the underfloor and overhead heating keeps smokers happy, even on cold nights.
"I don't think there is anything like London," Tramontana says. "You do have nice hotels in Paris, Rome, Berlin, Madrid, with a lot of people who smoke cigars, but London, [has its extensive] history and the legacy with cigars. So that's why it all started in London, and why in London you have the opportunity to sell a certain type of cigar and you can really find something very, very special."
Edward Sahakian Cigar Shop And Sampling Lounge At The Bulgari Hotel
Bulgari Hotel & Residences • 171 Knightsbridge
London, SW7 1DW • 44 207 151 1010
With plush, comfortable cigar terraces flourishing and specialist cigar shops taking advantage of the hard-fought exemptions they had won, it seemed the final frontier was to create indoor spaces in public places that would be so finely engineered they would meet the air purification and other requirements set by officialdom and thus allow cigar smokers to regain their rightful place at some of London's finest hotels and restaurants.
That's what happened when the stylish Bulgari Hotel opened in Knightsbridge in 2012. Working closely with the
esteemed owner of Davidoff of London Edward Sahakian and his son, who goes by Eddie, the hotel came up with an
indoor sampling lounge. Along with several others, it has added still more depth to the post-ban scene.
It's not surprising that the Cigar Shop and Sampling Lounge at the Bulgari has become a top destination for people familiar with the Sahakians' reputation for finding and caring for rare cigars. It's quiet and peaceful inside, but patrons feel part of the life of a grand hotel. They are not segregated or frowned upon, but treated with great respect. Nothing feels forced or rushed, and the hotel's festive bar and restaurant are close by, offering a jazzy background to a great smoke.
"They liked the way my father does the cigar business, so we were approached with the idea of having a haven for cigar smokers, in line with the smoking ban, that was not just a terrace," says Eddie Sahakian. "We thought about it and came to the conclusion that we could create a cigar shop inside Bulgari, but of course we had to work on extraction and the storage of cigars."
Eddie Sahakian believes the smoking ban has actually helped the cigar trade. "When the ban came in, the response was typically British: take something away that we take as personal liberty, and suddenly we're interested. Our sign of dissent is to go and do what we're told we can't do. The government says we can't smoke, suddenly people want to smoke cigars. We saw greater interest, a new generation of people pursuing cigars."
At the same time, people became more aware that cigars generally improve with age and can also become more valuable, sparking a boom in demand for the vintage cigars his family has been collecting for decades.
The humidor stocks everything from Trinidad Reyes that sell for £12 ($17) to rare sticks for £1,000 ($1,400) and up. Eddie Sahakian remains composed as he shows off the range until he comes to the extremely rare stock of Cuban Davidoffs. While describing Davidoff 3000, 4000 and No. 1 along with the Dom Perignon and the 80 Aniversario (for Zino Davidoff's 80th birthday) his voice gets husky.
"In cigars, even with the best knowledge, the best experience, you can guestimate, but you can't really predict," he says. "So the joy is unearthing a box that you couldn't believe for a moment would age as it did, and realizing it's a gem."
The Wellesley Cigar Terrace
11 Knightsbridge • London SW1X 7LY
44 207 235 3535 • thewellesley.co.uk/restaurants-bars/cigar-terrace
The Cigar Terrace at the Wellesley Hotel on Hyde Park Corner is double-fronted, meaning that most of the front of this boutique hotel is given over to the joys of a good smoke. Some of the indoor space is devoted to cigars as well—the entrance room leading to the walk-in humidor is decorated with unusual portraits: a young Fidel Castro smoking a cigar, a reflective John F. Kennedy doing the same, and—this being London—a commanding portrait of Churchill, with the background made of real tobacco leaves. All this is prelude to the humidor, where only top-quality Spanish cedar comes into contact with the impressive array of smokes.
One of the smoking areas is adjacent to the bar, which is inside, giving connoisseurs easy access to the very rare Cognacs (including some from 1789) that are a trademark of Giuseppe Ruo, who manages the drink and cigar collection with an eye toward vintage and quality. His own clientele has grown substantially in the last year, and he's seen new cigar lounges sprouting throughout London. The difference, he says, is that most of the newcomers lack the expertise and the capital to develop a unique collection.
The seating, the lighters, the ashtrays, the ambience of the dual terraces is designed to make time spent smoking a treasured break. The humidor offerings are quite unusual, including the Don Candido Selección No. 506 that Ruo considers perhaps the best vintage smoke in the world.
"We have the Davidoff Dom Perignon from Cuba in 1982, with the provenance that everyone dreams of—it comes straight from the Davidoff family. What we sell has to be good or excellent. We don't sell any average quality cigars," Ruo says. "For me it should burn in the right way and keep the right flavor."
The collection includes a wide variety of current-production cigars sold at reasonable prices. This is a place where you can drop £10,000 ($14,400) on a centuries-old Cognac and rare cigar, or spend £45 ($65) for a fine Cuban and delicious brandy. Either way, as in the other wonderful places to indulge, the aficionado is cocooned from the world outside, able to relax and enjoy, all London's pleasures at their feet, but kept at bay for a time of peace and pleasure.
The Corinthia Hotel Garden Lounge
Whitehall Place • London SW1A 2BD
44 207 930 8181 • corinthia.com/hotels/london
Manu Harit is one of the youngest cigar sommeliers on the London scene, and he manages the cigars at the Corinthia, one of the newest participants in the upscale hotel sweepstakes. But that doesn't mean he's inexperienced. Harit, 23, has already earned the rare "master of Havana cigars" designation and has been mentored by both Edward and Eddie Sahakian and other luminaries.
Under his guidance, the Corinthia has quickly become a destination for cigar lovers. The Garden Lounge only opened in June, but the hotel's history with cigars can be traced to the days when it was the Hotel Metropole and King Edward VII smoked here, and then to the years when Winston Churchill had his offices here while the building was in the hands of the Ministry of Defense.
Harit remembers how well he was treated when he first walked into Edward Sahakian's Davidoff cigar shop with very little money in his pocket to spend—and he's made sure the extensive collection includes not just expensive vintage smokes like Partagás 109s from the 165th anniversary collection but also tasty Cubans that sell for £16 ($23) and current-production cigars with a bit of age that he can sell in the £20 to £30 ($29 to $43) range.
"This sounds really normal," he says, pulling out a box of Hoyo de Monterreys from 1999 and opening the lid with evident pleasure. "But they are smoking so good. It starts like Hoyo de Monterrey but then there are a lot of almond and nutty flavors that are very strong, and it finishes with a gentle kick. Every puff was like a journey, a true journey. That's why I love Cuban cigars. You never know what you are going to have in a box of cigars. These are £28. That's my thing. I'm looking for underrated cigars that are smoking fantastic."
Another example, he says, is the Bolivar Corona Gigante from 2003 that he's selling for £33 ($48). He also makes sure he has good Cubans like the Por Larrañaga Petit Corona to offer at a reasonable price. "I strongly believe when you discover the world of cigars you are not willing to spend £50 on a cigar, so my selection is very wide," he said. "If someone comes to me and says I have never smoked, but I want to discover, I'm going to give them a short smoke that will give you the true Cuban taste that I want you to enjoy, for £16, to be accessible and to share my love of cigars."
The Corinthia's ingenious cigar terrace is set just off the main tea room. It's an unusual mix of indoors and out, open to the elements, but protected from wind and traffic noise because it is completely surrounded by the hotel, giving it the appeal of a fully enclosed, extremely comfortable courtyard. There are soothing woolen blankets for nights when a chill descends, two robust fireplaces, and dramatic heaters with impressive flames shooting skyward (enclosed, of course, for health and safety reasons).
It is a quiet, calm place, not precious or overdone, with orange couches and umbrellas and chairs giving it an easy feel. The lounge is so well designed that there is no sense that smokers are being isolated in any way—it feels, instead, like an integral part of the grand hotel.
Ten Manchester Street Hotel, London
10 Manchester Street • Marleybone, London, W1U 4DG
44 207 317 5900 • tenmanchesterstreethotel.com
Ten Manchester Street defines what a boutique hotel should look like. From the outside, it offers an elegant, impassive brick facade, with no indication whatsoever that it houses a fine hotel. The only signage discreetly says "No. TEN" but the word "hotel" is intentionally left out. You have to be in the know, otherwise you'll walk on by. Those who step in quickly find that it has been designed with cigar lovers in mind.
The neighborhood is quiet and upscale at the same time, with a variety of restaurants, bars and galleries close by. There is nothing schlocky here, no spillover from the Madame Tussaud's crowd that is only a short walk away. The smoking lounges—designated as Cigars at No. Ten—are completely integrated into the design of the hotel, occupying prime spaces off the main lobby, not added as an afterthought. There are two smoking spaces: an outdoor terrace that offers a smart variation on the COSA theme, and an indoor sampling shop completely protected from the elements. In between the two is the carefully constructed humidor, with wonderful things inside.
The outdoor space features steel mesh curtains and Japanese-style fabrics to set the space apart from the building next door. The dark wicker chairs and tables have flair, and the five powerful overhead heaters provide comfort when the cold wind howls. Each table has an elegant ashtray and a Japanese bonsai tree. The brick walls are lined with oil paintings taken from photographs of stars indulging in a good smoke: Not just the males you would expect (Clark Gable, Michael Caine, Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery among them) but also Julie Andrews puffing away and Madonna with a cigar provocatively poised between her cherry-red lips.
The care taken in the design is what makes this such a fun place to smoke. The same is true of the slightly more formal sampling room, with comfortable padded chairs and still more portraits, notably oversize paintings of Alfred Hitchcock and Mark Twain, wearing his trademark white suit and smoking what looks like a double corona. There is a warm feeling here as well, and it's hard not to be drawn to the humidor. The cigar list includes 16 types of Cohibas, most with reasonable price tags. Among the pricier offerings are a Behike BHK 52 for £48 ($69) and an H. Upmann No. 2 Reserva Cosecha 2010 for £90 ($130). A Partagás Lusitania Gran Reserva Cosecha 2007 sells for £170 ($246), but there are plenty of good cigars in the £20 range and a wide variety of limited-edition smokes.
35 St James's Place • London, SW1A 1NY
44 207 491 4840 • dukeshotel.com/cognac-and-cigar-garden
Dukes London hotel is a hidden gem of St. James, hard to locate on a side street, but beguiling when you finally find the place. This is the heart of old-style, clubbable London, where the shops have changed little in 100 years. London is justly known for its unique hotels, and Dukes is a perfect example.
The area given over to cigars is relatively small, but the Cognac and Cigar Garden has ample charm and style. Instead of a low-hanging roof with open sides, a tent-like structure provides weather protection and privacy. Adjacent to the tea room and restaurant, it has no obvious hints of its true function save for a discreet "Havana cigars sold here" sign in the middle of a cabinet displaying fine crystal decanters and shot glasses. There is ample heating, of course, and candles on the tables. The garden is intimate by design, with only two small tables and one sofa and seating arrangement, accommodating about 10 people. Dukes is better known for its stellar Martinis, but its comparatively small humidor contains Cohiba Behikes along with many Partagás, Montecristo and other smokes.
The Churchill Bar And Terrace,
Hyatt Regency London—The Churchill
30 Portman Square • London, W1H 7BH
44 207 486 5800 • london.churchill.hyatt.com
The Hyatt Regency—The Churchill is an establishment that considers cigar smoking to be part of its heritage. A popular destination for connoisseurs before the smoking ban, it has retained its place in the firmament with the outdoor terrace, with its life-size bronze statue of the younger Churchill seated at one of the terrace sofas.
The Churchill theme has shaped the cigar selection in the humidor, with an emphasis on Churchill-sized cigars (stately smokes that measure 7 inches long by 47 ring gauge) and on cigars named after the prime minister, says sommelier Slawomir Bielicki. But the range goes far beyond that, with a number of Reserva and Regional Editions available.
The outdoor terrace is connected to the Churchill Bar and offers blankets and very British hot-water bottles. It's popular with Portman Square regulars who stop by after dinner for drinks and a smoke, and with American tourists drawn to the bar's reputation for splendid cocktails and cigars. Bielicki's goal is to bring newcomers into the world of cigars, and he's tried to keep prices down so that his rare cigars actually get smoked. A series of cigar events and Regional Edition launches have been designed in part to pique the interest of newcomers.
"What is great is when you have someone who a couple of months ago had no idea about cigars has started to learn, started to read, started to try," he enthuses. "You have to try them, and smoke them."
Stratton Street • London W1J 8LT
44 207 769 4041 • themayfairhotel.co.uk
It is no surprise that the cigar terrace at the May Fair Hotel is one of the most imaginative and stylish in its design, as the hotel plays an important role in London Fashion Week and traditionally draws a chic clientele. The Cigar Room has an exotic, sexy feel quite different from many other smoking terraces and expensive private clubs that cater to elderly gentlemen who want a glass of Port with their Daily Telegraph. It feels more like a slightly decadent Middle Eastern bazaar, with shimmering mesh curtains that set it off from the rest of the hotel and the sometimes bleak outdoors. Floor level lighting gives a golden tinge to the mesh, which is also draped overhead, adding drama. A touch of mystery comes from the hanging chairs and the loveseats that can be enclosed in curtains. The plan has also taken what could have been a nondescript space and given it a shot of glamor as the mesh disguises a rather dull view of a featureless brick building.
A quiet heating system buttressed by three fireplaces keeps things warm. There is no hardship in smoking here. The unusual design doesn't mean the cigars take a back seat. The humidor offers a wide array of current production, well looked after and reasonably priced, including Cohiba Behike 52s and Partagás Lusitanias for £35 ($51) each. Smokers can choose from Hoyo de Monterreys, Trinidads, Romeo y Julietas, Bolivars and H. Upmanns as well.
The smoking ban also challenged the British capital's many august cigar stores, including some—such as James J. Fox on St. James Place—with histories that date back two centuries and more. The ban stopped clients from sampling the goods before plunking down a hefty amount for a box or two of smokes. Trusting customers were asked to take home goods with no assurance of quality or distinctive flavors. Just as important, the stores would quickly lose their status as cigar destinations if no one could light up.
But the cigar industry fought this off, banding together to gain a special exemption that allows certain specialty tobacco shops to permit its clients to sample cigars on premises. Along with a giant sigh of relief in the air came some fine blue smoke.
Davidoff of London
35 St James's Street • London SW1A 1HD
44 207 930 3079 • davidoff.com
Even if the cigar selection weren't so remarkable, a stop at the Davidoff of London shop at the corner of Jermyn Street and St. James's Street would be worthwhile. It's in a neighborhood where you may well need a place to sit down and sample a cigar after clothes shopping. Nearby establishments include the storied men's boutiques on Jermyn Street, including custom-shirt makers Hilditch and Key, Turnbull & Asser, Harvie and Hudson and others. The venerable John Lobb shop on St. James's fashions perhaps the world's finest custom shoes. Savile Row is also not far.
This intersection calls out for a world-class cigar shop, and Davidoff fits the bill. The sampling area is not extensive, but it has a "center of the world" ambience. The main draw is the walk-in humidor. Overseen by owner Edward Sahakian, it has long been an attraction for cigar smokers from around the world. Despite its cache, there is no snobbery here: The range starts with machine-made Cubans for about £6 ($9) each and go up through a selection of rare Davidoffs of unquestionable provenance.
The sampling chairs are in the center of the store, and it's impossible for the eye not to wander. Some of the world's best accessories are for sale here, including rare walking sticks designed by retired master Keith Cowie, handmade Fox umbrellas and a selection of beautifully made French humidors. Then there are the acoustic guitars, made with empty cigar boxes. Only in London, only at Davidoff.
James J. Fox
19 St James's Street • London, SW1A 1ES
44 207 930 3787 • jjfox.co.uk
This classic store, known simply as J.J. Fox, is said by manager Dirk Seyfried to be the oldest cigar shop in the world. And anyone who shrugs off the claim as boastful should take a look at the mid-19th century Cubans in its unique museum.
The smoking exemption, received in 2007, has been a godsend for J.J. Fox, which recently renovated and expanded its upstairs sampling room. It now handles 20 to 25 smokers at a time, with up to 60 fitting in for special smoking nights. People are even allowed to sample cigars in the basement museum, which features the extraordinary bound cigar ledger of Winston Churchill, who started buying cigars here in 1900 and continued until shortly before his death in 1965. Churchill was known for stretching his credit to the limit, but paying up just before the 90-day limit. Oscar Wilde was not so honorable, stiffing the company for £43 ($62) for cigars—worth about 100 times that today.
The history of cigars is reflected here by the display of royal warrants from Queen Victoria, King George VI and others, but it is the contents of the large, walk-in humidor that draws today's international clientele. The stock includes a wide range of current production smokes but also vintage cigars. Some are extremely rare and priced accordingly, others are
designed to be easily affordable.
High on the vintage scale is a rare box of 50 Bolivar Amados, dating to 1974 and selling for £10,000 ($14,400). They are described as full-flavored smokes without the pepper and harshness of their early days. Far less expensive is a 2001 El Rey del Mundo Choix Supreme, priced at £25 ($36), just £6 ($9) more expensive than current production of the same model. The goal is to give visitors who may be new to the world of aged cigars the chance to compare a modern smoke with a vintage one.
La Casa Del Habano, Teddington
76 High Street • Teddington TW11 8JD
44 208 977 3793 • havahavana.com
The world of fine cigars extends beyond central London to the lovely riverside town of Teddington, an easy 35-minute train ride from Waterloo station, where La Casa del Habano is a cultured oasis of cigar lore with a spacious downstairs sampling room, where the rich smell of Cuban cigars permeates the air.
The proprietor is Ajay Patel, well known for tracking down Cuban cigars. Like all Casas del Habano the shop enjoys its privileged relationship with Cuban suppliers, but it's also helped by Patel's willingness to hop a plane on a moment's notice to buy rare cigars.
Patel has played a leading role in introducing customers to the joys of vintage. "Once you get the taste of vintage, you don't want anything else," says Patel, enjoying a Partagás Lusitania in one of the leather chairs in the sampling lounge. "Cigars that have been aged well will give you a sense of history. Vintage cigars will give you floralness, cinnamon with nutmeg, minty taste. Some will give you white pepper."
He offers very special Cubatabaco boxes, which mark important anniversaries, and has seen prices paid for individual vintage sticks continue to increase, some by £1,000 ($1,400) in just a year or two. Some cigars he simply won't sell, at least not for now.
"London's cigar scene is probably number one in the world, because we look after our cigars and because of the range," he says. "People come here and they'll buy cigars they can't get back home and bring them back."
The Den At 100 Wardour Street
100 Wardour Street • London W1F 0TN
44 207 314 4000 • 100wardourst.com
The Den at 100 Wardour Street—until recently, simply called Casa—is a different type of sampling shop and smoking lounge right in the heart of Soho, London's buzzy entertainment district. There is less ceremony here, it's darker, not as formal, more a nightspot than a retreat, its walls lined with slightly racy photos in line with Soho's slightly racy reputation. The windows look out over the busy street, but the jazz and blues playing in the background keep the city sounds at bay. The mood, set by the photos and decor, mixes 1950s Havana with the swinging London of the '60s, an intersection that oddly works. The old black-and-white framed photos capture a naughtiness in the air in both places that seems almost quaint today.
The walk-in humidor is a treasure, with a wide variety of mid-priced wonders looked after with care and affection by rakish cigar sommelier George Frakes and his colleagues. This is not a place to seek out rarities and one-of-a-kind offerings, but an easy place to enjoy a splendid choice of current production Cubans. The Den has a welcoming, indulgent feel to it, as if you really shouldn't be here, but have no intention of leaving.
Frakes says the ambience is casual by design. He's been turned off by some of the stuffier smoking lounges in London, and he doesn't want anyone to feel intimidated by The Den, even if they amble in off the street looking for a first-ever puff. He doesn't want this to be a place of pomp and circumstance that would be completely out of character in this part of town.
"This area has quite a history with nightlife, and cigars have always been a part of that," says Frakes as he enjoys a short Churchill from the humidor, which includes some limited editions, including Bolivar Super Coronas for £24 ($37) and some nicely aged 1999 Hoyo Churchills for £22 ($32). "There are regular customers who've lived and worked in Soho since the '50s, the late '40s, they've said there were always some sort of cigars here. This was a cigar shop, and you could smoke them in the bar. They were not happy with the ban. So sampling shops have been a good thing, they're pretty happy here. It's a sociable thing. People come in here and feel comfortable, and it's easy to talk with the other cigar smokers. You're never closed off."
Sautter Of Mount Street
106 Mount Street • London, W1K 2TW
44 207 581 5898 • sauttercigars.com
Sautter of Mount Street represents tradition that goes back more than half a century. It's not fancy, not trying to make a style statement, and little changed by the passing years—save for the cigars themselves, which are aging in the excellent humidor. The shop, and its newly opened sister store in Knightsbridge, enjoy "sampling room" status.
Laurence Davis bought the shop, sometimes called Sautter of Mayfair, from the late Desmond Sautter, who opened it in 1961. Davis used to stop in each day to buy his cigars and pester Sautter about retiring and selling him the shop. When Davis finally did buy it, he decided to keep the space simple—"I want people to feel like they are smoking at home," he says—even as he expanded into Knightsbridge and experimented with special Cognac blends to add to his range.
Housed in a building in which Winston Churchill lived upstairs as a young war correspondent when the venue sold jewelry, not cigars, the shop claims the first walk-in humidor in London. It serves an international clientele looking to buy full boxes of hard-to-find cigars. The sale of single sticks has dropped, but this falloff has been more than compensated for by the increased demand for vintage smokes.
Among the expected entry-level cigars are some extremely rare ones, including a chest of H. Upmann cigars imported in 1892, but rolled at undetermined date. They aren't just novelty items, says Davis, who recently fired one up. "They say a cigar is at its best 15 years from production," he says. "I'm not sure I agree. I used to think that. But I smoked one of these, and it's never been in a humidor, and the cigar was magnificent."
1A St. James's Street • London, SW1A 1EF
+44 20 7839 6795
Once a popular gentlemen's club in one of London's oldest and most exclusive neighborhoods, the location at 1A St. James's Street is now the elegant home of Dunhill Tobacco, an excellent place to purchase and sample a wide variety of good smokes. This part of town is devoted to pleasure, and it's easy to spend an untroubled afternoon or evening here immersed in the finer pursuits. There is no pressure or stuffiness, just freedom to relax and enjoy. The blocks surrounding the shop have a royal, timeless feel, with St. James's Palace across the way and one of the world's oldest and finest wine shops nearby.
One of the draws here is the presence of Robert Emery, a veteran on the London cigar scene with more than three decades in the field. He has been named United Kingdom Cigar Retailer of the Year and holds a rare royal warrant for having provided cigars to Clarence House, home of the late Queen Mother and now the residence of Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla. Emery is a natural at helping first-timers understand the culture of cigars, and he holds frequent classes on the subject for more avid smokers.
The Humidor Room is the prime attraction, however, and it's here that the shop stands out. Some lucky customers who have become regular patrons have personal humidors that line the walls, keeping their private collections in optimum conditions, but the cigars on sale here are in prime shape as well, and quite reasonably priced. There is a wide variety of Dunhills from the Dominican Republic, of course, but the shop also offers some of the best that Cuba has to offer. The sampling lounge is a treat, with comfortable chairs and an easy ambience, and the shop regularly hosts special tasting events including some that offer instruction on the best way to pair cigars and certain spirits. There are also demonstrations of cigar rolling technique and visitors are often given a chance to visit the Master Blender's room to handle top quality tobacco up close and to learn about the remarkable plant, its origins, and the way it is best blended for cigars.
Turmeaus, 1 White Horse Street
Shepherd Market, Mayfair • London, W1J 7LB
+44 (0) 207 495 7330 • cgarsltd.co.uk
There are great places to sample cigars in several parts of London, and indeed in other parts of England, under the C.Gars Ltd. banner. The long established specialist operates Turmeaus in the lovely, timeless Shepherd Market section of Mayfair. The cozy shop, which dates back to 1817, has acquired a graceful, London-only patina of age that is only enhanced by the aromas drifting up to the shop from the sampling room. The walk-in humidor offers a tremendous range of Cuban cigars, with a focus on Montecristo, Partagás and Cohiba, as well as a broad selection from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and other countries. It's also introducing the Inka range, made completely of Peruvian tobacco and exclusive to C.Gars Ltd. and the associated Robert Graham Ltd.
The downstairs sampling room, with black padded chairs and lockers for individual clients, is a fine place to sip a single malt scotch neat while testing one of the cigars for freshness and flavor. And this is a one-stop shop, with leather cases, humidors, special cigar ashtrays, clippers, and all of the other things that make the familiar ritual so much fun.
Kingsgate Place • London, NW6 4TA,
+44 (0) 207 372 1865 • cgarsltd.co.uk
C.Gars Ltd, which also operates as an online supplier through several different websites, welcomes customers to sample cigars at the group's main London headquarters in Kingsgate Place. It's best to make an appointment to make sure there is someone available to show you the walk-in humidor and the special vintage sticks available. Spending time in the well-appointed sampling area gives the smoker a chance to indulge in all things Cuban, with a wide choice of old cigar books, ledgers, catalogues and the like. And, of course, some whisky and rum is available.
Robert Graham Ltd.
4 Broadwell Parade, Broadhurst Gardens
West Hampstead • London NW6 3BQ
+44 (0) 207 624 3351 • www.cgarsltd.co.uk
The C.Gars Ltd company is associated with Robert Graham Ltd., another venerable concern, the original company having been founded in 1874 by Robert Graham, the treasurer of Glasgow, Scotland, whose first four shops sold newspapers, books and fine tobacco products. It still has an emphasis on Scotland, with three stores there, but now offers excellent cigars (Cubans and many from other countries, including the Peruvian Inka) and a pleasant sampling area in the West Hampstead neighborhood of London. There is a spacious walk-in humidor, and in season the outdoor patio is a perfect place for a hand-picked, hand-rolled cigar and some of the company's specially made Scotch.
A number of restaurants have also decided to turn outdoor terraces into smoking lounges, and a few have met the letter of the law while creating luxurious surroundings. They do it by opening a cigar shop and sampling lounge that lets them qualify for a smoking ban exemption if they meet certain conditions.
Boisdale Of Canary Wharf
Cabot Place, Canary Wharf • London, E14 4QT
44 207 715 5818 • boisdale.co.uk
Boisdale of Canary Wharf is a large, two-story establishment set among the office towers that have turned this formerly forgotten area into an approximation of lower Manhattan, complete with a high-tone nightlife and restaurant scene. Boisdale is known for its astonishing collection of over 900 Scotch whiskies—managing director Ranald Macdonald hails from Scotland—its nightly live music and its cigar sampling room. It also offers cigar lovers a choice of venues with a COSA on the outdoor terrace and a private members section on the terrace.
The innovation here is The Cuban Library and Shop, a cigar lovers' hideaway where they can smoke in a luxurious environment, with late 18th-Century wingback chairs and red-tinted walls set off by an unusual collection of Havana photographs and rare Cuban memorabilia curated by Macdonald, for whom the lounge is clearly a labor of love. The spacious, no-expense-spared walk-in humidor is a work of art, filled with a wide array of vintage smokes and current production.
"This is a one-stop shop for everything that I love," says Macdonald. "If you like a combination of cigars, great food, whisky and live music, we have it all happening in one place."
The smaller Boisdale restaurants in the Belgravia and Bishopsgate neighborhoods also offer cigar terraces, and a wide variety of Scotch whiskies and other spirits. Macdonald says it was crucial for him to be able to open the terraces and sampling room. "Cigars are a big part of our business," he says. "They are the cherry on the cake. The ban has probably been quite good for us because it's focused cigar smokers on the places where you can smoke."
2 & 3 Threadneedle Walk, 60 Threadneedle Street
London, EC2R 8HP • 44 203 327 7770
M Threadneedle restaurant, in the heart of the City of London financial district, has brought in a standalone humidor and opened a heated outdoor smoking terrace. It's ideal for long, languid summer nights when the outdoor terrace is bathed in lingering sunlight, but it's accessible in winter as well, with several outsized heaters to cut the chill.
Cigars aren't the major draw here, and the humidor shies away from super-pricey vintage cigars in favor of a wide array of current Cohibas, Partagás, Montecristos and others, but they are an important part of the restaurant's overall allure. Head bartender Balint Kovacs says a growing number of patrons like to cap off a good meal with a single-malt Scotch or Cognac and a fine cigar.
"More and more people are interested," he says. "There's a need for it. It's not an everyday thing, but on special occasions. It's enjoying a fine wine, a rare Cognac, and cigars as well. For us it's the finish, the after dinner experience." He says the restaurant's high-rolling financial types tend to go for big cigars, although short Churchills have a following as well.
The restaurant is a modern pleasure palace, and the smoking terrace allows the party to spill over into the streets, where centuries-old, perfectly preserved buildings mix with statement skyscrapers. It's a place where bartenders are proud to innovate, using the freshest of ingredients, and to take risks, even coming up with a smoky Negroni—the smoke is flavored with applewood and white oak chips—that goes perfectly with a good smoke.
Gregory Katz is a contributor to Cigar Aficionado.
To find cigar-friendly locations in London and the U.S., visit Where to Smoke.