Alex Wong is perhaps the world's greatest cigar collector. Along with his father, George, the 30-year-old Hong Kong resident has been purchasing cigars for about a decade and has amassed close to 5,000 boxes.
The cigars are stored in a walk-in humidor in their office that resembles a fine cigar shop more than a storage room. The Wongs also have a cigar-smoking room in the building that features part of their vast cigar collection as well as an impressive array of art and wine. Many of the cigars featured in Cigar Aficionado's Connoisseur's Corner have been drawn from smoking sessions with the Wongs, including the 100-point Grisel Bolivar Chatelet featured in the August issue.
Earlier this year, I sat down with Alex Wong in Hong Kong and discussed his passion for the leaf and his amazing cigar collection. Alex and his father run a family business, The Hong Kong Parkview Group Ltd., that develops major residential and commercial complexes in Hong Kong, Beijing, Taipei, Singapore and London. They also have a financial interest in Pacific Cigar Company Ltd., the key agent for Cuban cigars in the Far East.
Cigar Aficionado: Do you remember the first time you smoked a cigar?
Alex Wong: Well, I can't really remember the first time, but I remember the first great cigar that I smoked was a Dunhill Malecon, and this is when my father came to London and took me to Dunhill. It was when they were selling some of the stock from the lockers of some of their customers.
CA: So you smoked some of the pre-Castro stuff then?
Wong: No. They were mostly Dunhills from the 1970s. That is when I thought, "Wow, this stuff is amazing."
It is easy to start in London. Back then there was so much access to old cigars. Everywhere, [there were] old cigars. And talking to Desmond Sautter, you learned a lot. I also went a lot to Davidoff and spoke to the owner, Edward Sahakian. And then Christie's started to have auctions of cigars as well.
CA: What is it that you like so much about cigars, then?
Wong: I enjoy the complexity and the different tastes that you get from different cigars, and also the experience of letting yourself go and relaxing with friends. It's great!
CA: You have a great wine collection as well. Is cigar smoking a different experience from drinking fine wines?
Wong: Yes. It is very different. I find when I smoke cigars I am more relaxed.
CA: If you had to give up wine or cigars, which would you give up?
Wong: I would give up wine. I know I shouldn't say that, but…I got to know a lot of people [through wine], and a lot of people know me more for wine than cigars, but I always think of myself as a cigar guy. You know, I always enjoy cigars more. But it is hard to compare the two and luckily I don't have to make the choice.
CA: Are there a lot of guys your age and in their late 20s and 30s who smoke fine cigars in Hong Kong?
Wong: I think cigars have really picked up in the last few years. A lot more cigar bars are open now. More and more people my age are trying to understand cigars. They don't want to go to the shop and simply buy Montecristos. They want to know what they are smoking and they want to pick out the good stuff.
CA: How did you amass your collection? You seem to have just about everything.
Wong: Buying in auction, buying in Europe, mostly London. But I think how the collection started was when my father was part of the purchase of a big parcel of cigars from a famous collector in the United States.
CA: I think I know who that was, but I shouldn't say.
Wong: He was from Chicago or somewhere like that. We bought the cigars from Gerard in Geneva. That is how it all started and we sort of built around it. We buy cigars from Pacific Cigar as well.
CA: Your family has an interest in Pacific.
CA: What are some of your favorite cigars?
Wong: I think with cigars, it is the occasion and the time of day that are important when you smoke. But some of the greatest cigars that I have smoked are things like the Dunhill Cabinetta, Cohiba 30th Annivesary, Dunhill Estupendos, 1492 and Partagas 150.
CA: Wow. Man. Those are all 100-point cigars or very close to that and they are super expensive. Anything for mere mortals?
Wong: I am finding that the quality of the cigars has recently picked up from Cuba. So I think that the Cohiba Siglo VI is a great cigar. The new Montecristo Edmundo and Petit Edmundo are great cigars as well.
CA: I am with you.
Wong: I like Hoyo de Monterrey Petit Robustos. And I have been trying some of the regional releases, and they are pretty good.
CA: How about Limitadas?
Wong: Limitadas? I am not convinced of them all of the time. Some of them are good. Montecristo Robustos are great. I also like the Partagas Serie D No. 3.
CA: I thought you were a big fan of Davidoff Cubans as well?
Wong: Of course. I enjoy Davidoff cigars as well. 5000. Dom Perignon is good during the day. Very refined. Well, I like to try all kinds of cigars. Recently, I have had Romeo & Julieta Cazadores from the late 1980s. But nowadays, it gets harder and harder to find these old cigars. It is almost impossible now. And you have to really be careful of the quality now.
CA: You mean you have to be careful how these old cigars have been stored?
Wong: Yes, in terms of how it has been stored. Sometimes in auction you have to be careful. Now that I am not in Europe as often [as I used to be], I can't really go and check out the cigars all the time before they are sold at auction. Every once in a while you find some interesting boxes. But it is not like before when you could find 15 boxes of Dunhill here and 30 boxes of Davidoff there. Now, it is one box here and one box there.
CA: If you had a friend who was thinking of starting to collect cigars, what advice would you give? Would you tell him to buy young cigars and store them like bottles of fine wine?
Wong: Oh definitely. I think that is the way to go…to buy the cigars young and to taste the difference with age. If you have a box of cigars, you can try one now, then you can try one in a year's time, then try one in two years' time, and so on. Then you know when it is the best time to smoke your cigars. Then you can smoke the whole box! It's fabulous. You get such enjoyment out of that.
CA: What is the humidity and temperature that you keep your cigars at?
Wong: I like to keep them a little bit dry so you don't run into too many problems. So I like a humidity of about 65 and a temperature of about 19 to 20 degrees centigrade [66 to 68 Fahrenheit].
CA: Have you ever had a problem with weevils or beetles in your humidor?
Wong: Touch wood—not so far. One or two boxes here and there, but nothing too bad. You have to keep them cool all the time, and I go through the cigars every now and then to check the boxes. I am not too worried about the old cigars if the bug has come out already. But it is the new cigars you have to be careful about. The new stuff, you have to go through it.
CA: What sizes would you buy if you were just starting out? Robustos, double coronas?
Wong: I think it is a personal preference. Sometimes I am not too keen about all these new releases being 50, 52 ring gauge. Sometimes you do enjoy a corona or petit corona. Sometimes you don't have the time to enjoy a big cigar.
CA: What time of day do you enjoy your favorite cigar?
Wong: In the afternoon. Unfortunately, I don't smoke too much at work now.
CA: And do you drink something with a cigar?
Wong: Coke always. Coca-Cola. It is the best cigar drink.
CA: Is it? You're joking, right?
Wong: Yes, it goes well.
CA: Because of the sweetness?
Wong: You know, that is all I drink now. Rum and whiskey are good, but Coke is my favorite.
CA: Well, you are a wine collector, so what do you think of wine and cigars?
Wong: Wine and cigars for me? Well, they don't go so well together. So you have to enjoy the wine first and then just relax with the cigar. That is the best thing to do.
CA: Probably one of the best moments for you is just kicking back and hanging out with your dad and smoking a cigar, right?
Wong: Yeah, all the time. We always have casual meetings in his office and we will be puffing away.
CA: Do you smoke at home?
Wong: Well, right now no with the baby and stuff. But I don't need to smoke at home anyway. I usually smoke after dinner [during] karaoke with some friends.
CA: Do you smoke in the morning with coffee or not?
Wong: Every once in a while I do. In the morning, maybe once a week. I like to smoke something with a bit more kick to wake me up, like a Davidoff Haut Brion. It gets you going.
CA: Didn't you once tell me you smoked in bed when you were in university in London?
Wong: Yeah. Yeah, I used to smoke in bed.
CA: What did you do? Or maybe I shouldn't ask. Were you reading and smoking in bed?
Wong: When I was in London I smoked a lot. I smoked like six cigars a day.
Wong: Yes, five or six cigars a day.
CA: And now?
Wong: Now? One or two a day. But I still enjoy it.
CA: Have you ever been to Cuba?
Wong: Once, in 2000. For the millennium gala dinner.
CA: I forgot.
Wong: You were there.
CA: I know.
Wong: Cuba is an amazing place. That is the first [place that] I have been where at 7:30 in the morning, everyone is smoking a double corona. I thought it was great. And in the afternoon, everyone is sitting on the terrace at the Nacional and smoking a cigar and drinking Mojitos.
CA: What do you think of non-Cuban cigars?
Wong: I like non-Cuban cigars too! Padróns are some of my favorites.
CA: Do you like the light wrapper or the dark wrapper?
Wong: I like the dark wrapper. And sometimes when you smoke these non-Cuban cigars, you realize how well they are constructed, how well they are made. The ash always burns through well. And I smoke Ashton VSGs as well.
CA: Where do you buy most of your cigars now? Here in Hong Kong?
Wong: Well, the new cigars, definitely Hong Kong.
CA: You can get everything and the prices are not too high anymore?
Wong: Yeah. Pretty much. We have never really had a problem with tobacco and duty before. Prices are normal. And the quality is very good now. As far as young cigars, you don't really need to buy them anywhere else but here.
CA: So when you see new releases, you like to try them and see what they are like?
Wong: I try them first.
CA: Is there anything that you have smoked recently and thought, "Wow!"?
Wong: You mean new cigars? I was saying before that Montecristo Edmundos are great. Montecisto C's are smoking very well now. And recently I have been smoking a lot of Hoyo Petit Robustos. I like the size. I also like the new Montecristo Petit Edmundo. It's strong. I just remembered what one of my favorite cigars was. I have been smoking the Cohiba Lanceros from 1991. They are amazing. I have them in cabinets of 50 with the old label.
CA: In the past, you had problems with the draw with Lanceros.
Wong: With our old ones you never had a problem.
CA: So do you think Cohiba is worth the extra money?
Wong: Some of them I do. I'm not too sure about Siglo I or II or something like that, but the VI, IV, Lanceros, Robustos, Espléndidos and Corona Especials are very good.
CA: Any other smokes you are impressed with at the moment?
Wong: Recently, I found that cigars from 1998 are smoking fabulous now. Really good. I didn't buy anything after that until recently. There were too many problems with construction. They didn't draw.
CA: Do you buy cigars on the Internet or from merchants you know?
Wong: I only buy from merchants I know. It just so happens that some of the merchants sell on the Internet. But I don't buy on the Internet. You have to buy from somebody you definitely trust. There are so many fake cigars around.
CA: Have you had any problems with fakes?
Wong: Well, I have had a couple of boxes. Cohiba Espléndidos mainly. Ah, but you know, actually they are not hard to spot. As soon as you smoke one, you know.
CA: Do you keep all your cigars in your walk-in humidor or do you also use small humidors that hold a few hundred cigars?
Wong: I keep most of the cigars, almost 95 percent of the cigars, in [the walk-in]. I keep some at home. Some in the office for everyday smoking. I like the condition to be constant so I can see how they are developing. I think you can get a lot of fulfillment aging your own cigars, if you age them properly.
CA: What do you think of pre-revolution cigars? Is the hype over cigars from the 1950s and older true?
Wong: I think in general you can find some good pre-revolution cigars. Sometimes it is about picking the right box. I mean, it is hard because the cigar has been around for so long. For me, pre-revolution cigars are more of a collector's item. Sometimes you do get a lot of enjoyment smoking them. But it is just something to have.
CA: Why are the Chinese some of the biggest cigar collectors today? Is it something unique to the Chinese mentality for finer things in life?
Wong: I wouldn't say it is the Chinese mentality. In Hong Kong, we enjoy the finer things in life. Cigars are one of them. Cigars, wine, watches…they are all part of the lifestyle. I don't think necessarily it is the Chinese, but I guess in a way the Chinese people are more thorough. They are very keen to learn and enjoy.
CA: Do you think there is anything else you need to learn about cigars?
Wong: Of course! [He laughs.] I am learning. I am learning all the time!