Smoking Like Churchill in Cuba
My last trip to Cuba—during the Habanos Festival in February—was a blur of dinners, meetings, interviews and cigar after cigar. I left many great stories in my notebook. This is one of the best.
One of the wonderful things about the annual Cuban cigar festival is the amount of free time built into the schedule. For every night with a festival event, there’s a free night that follows. That leaves time for visitors to enjoy Havana, gather with friends they’ve made over the years, and to meet new ones.
One calm, beautiful, free night during the week I joined the crew from Sautter of Mount Street, a London cigar store that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The shop was long-owned by Desmond Sautter, a gentlemen I had the pleasure of meeting many times during my years working for Cigar Aficionado. Sautter built a business that was known by cigar aficionados, and he always seemed to have a knack for finding rare and old Havanas. One of his customers was a man named Laurence Davis.
“I bought cigars every day,” Davis told me while we were puffing away on Partagás Festival Edition cigars made a few years prior, while sitting on the very spacious balcony of the Presidential Suite of the Nacional Hotel in Havana. The Churchill-sized smokes had a delicious toasted almond flavor with a faint hint of chocolate, and with a little kick of leather. “I phoned Desmond every day for 25 years, saying ‘Desmond, it’s time to sell,’” said Davis. Finally, his persistence and phone calls paid off, and in 2008 Sautter sold Davis the store.
Davis smokes cigars at an amazing rate. He told me that he puffs 14 cigars a day (!), a figure that puts him firmly in the league of cigar-smoking legends, including the near-insatiable level of smoking perfected by the late, great statesman Sir Winston Churchill. Which brings us back to this particular story.
We all know that Sir Winston smoked Cuban cigars with great enthusiasm. In our Autumn 1995 story about Sir Winston, author Peter Welsh included a Churchill quote that went like this: “…my rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them.”
The legend of Churchill (who once lived above what would become the Sautter shop, according to the store’s biography) inspired Davis to rent the Presidential Suite at the Nacional during the Festival, and he gathered his people from the store and a few guests to recreate a dinner Churchill held there in February 1946.
We sipped Pol Roget Champagne and smoked our cigars, then moved from the spacious patio into the dining room portion of the suite, with its table set for 12, to dine as the great statesman did so many years ago.
“Churchill had dinner in this suite,” said British author Nic Wing, who works with Sautter and served as our guide for the evening, as well as the event photographer. “We’re eating the same menu Churchill had on that meal.” Wing, a stickler for detail, added as a caveat that they had taken the liberty of substituting Pol Roget (Churchill’s Champagne of choice) for the Vuevue Cliquot Churchill himself had sipped back in 1946.
The food was delicious—red snapper, steak and cherry dessert, prepared by a chef in a tall, white toque, who flambéed the cherries in Havana Club Rum. The meal was followed by Johnny Walker Black. (I’m not certain the Scotch was on the original menu, but it's one of my favorite blends, so I certainly wasn't going to complain.)
Talk of Churchill dominated the evening, including one story about his shopping demands for the trip. “While he was asleep,” Davis explained, his four Cuban butlers brought in all the cigars they had bought on his instructions. “When he woke up, like a young child on Christmas Day, he went out to examine all the boxes.”
Of course, this situation demanded we smoke a great Churchill ourselves. Davis brought out a glorious box of 1997 Hoyo de Monterrey Churchills, stupendous cigars that had me filling my notebook. The wrapper was nearly flawless, pressed and silky. It was bright and lively on the palate from the first puff, with just a touch of nose spice and a leathery finish. The smoke, creamy in texture, was intense, and as it burned and burned it took on notes of vanilla bean, caramel, cocoa and coffee. I scored it 97 points for the Connoisseur’s Corner that appeared in June Cigar Aficionado.
The final act of the evening was a chance to sit at a desk where Sir Winston wrote, and pose for a photo. All in all, it was an incredibly memorable evening, one that will be hard to top.