was written in 1989, and first published in Cigar World the trade
magazine of Hunters & Frankau Ltd.
How to Organise a Cigar Tasting
In wine circles, Wine Tastings have heen commonplace for longer than anyone can remember and prohahly date back to the Romans or Greeks. Cigar 'I`astings, on the other hand, are apparently very new.
The first record of such an event appears to have been last year in August 1988. Not surprisingly it was inspired by a doyenne of the wine trade journalist Jilly Coolden of BBC TV's Food & Drink Programme.
At a party over the previous Christmas. she had become involved in a conversation about the present state of the Havana cigar. "They haven't been the same since that chap Castro took over" was one comment. "Bought a box ahroad the other day and it wasn`t up to much" was another.
Although her husband Paul is a keen cigar man. Jilly realized that the amount she knew about cigars would hardly cover the face of a twenty pence piece, so she decided to find out more. At this stage she discussed the idea of turning her investigation into an article with the Sunday Times and they agreed that if she found a good story they would run it in their Magazine.
The logical place to start was at the country's oldest established Havana importers Hunters & Frankau, where she put her questions to Simon Chase, the company's Marketing Director.
He explained that the methods of growing and aging tohacco and of hand making Havana cigars were exactly the same today as they had been before the 1959 revolution and had indeed remained unchanged for centuries. However. to set her investigative journlist's mind at rest, he suggested a tasting to find out for sure.
He assured her that he could find not only a selection of pre-1959 cigars but also a panel of experts who, along with Jilly, could smoke the cigars.
Whilst they were at it, he recommended that they should also smoke imitation Havanas, which are mostly to he found in the USA against the real thing and machine-made versus hand-made Havanas.
She agreed, so on the night ol August 4th 1988 a group of cigar enthusiasts includding Nicky Kerman of Scotts Restaurants, Simon Parker-Bowles of Greens Restaurant and Oyster Bar. David Lewis of Hambros Bank and Desmond Sautter. cigar merchant of Mount Street gathered for the "world's first cigar tasting."
As their job was to differentiate between pre and post revolution cigars, genuine Havanas and fakes, hand made and machine made products, it had to be a blind tasting.
The bands were carefully removed from each cigar and replaced with coded strips of white paper. Each panelist was provided with a sheet on which tasting notes could be made and a large ashtray .
Whereas the etiquette of wine tastings is well established with spittoons and cheese to cleanse the palate and steady the head, there were no rules available to guide H & F.
In the event it was decided that a glass of champagne or white burgundy was the correct accompaniment for the proceedings in part because their delicate flavour would not challenge that cigars, but particularly to assist the jollity of the occasion.
Once smoking commenced the overiding commitmentof the participants became to see who could produce the longest ash. It is true to say that a long, smooth ash is a sign of a well made cigar and therefore gives an indication of the cigar in question's merit, but as numbers two and three were lit-up, panelists began to resemble jugglers running out of hands.
The tasting which was originally scheduled to last 1½ hours and ran well into its 3rd hour was enjoyed by all.
The results which were published in a three-page feature in the Sunday Times Colour Magazine just before Christmas, showed a split decision on pre and post revolution cigars but clear majorities for genuine hand made Havanas versus imitations or machine made cigars.
Marking the 30th Anniversary of the Cuban Revolution in January, another tasting was held but this time exclusively for journalists. The objective was different too because it made sense to let them taste Cohiba, the very latest Havana cigar that was bom as a result of the Revolution.
The knowledge and experience of the journalists involved could not be relied upon, so it was decided to give them a short course in cigars before asking them to give an opinion on Cohiba.
Examples of popular machine made cigars and hand made Havanas were torn apart before their eyes to show how cigars are made and how, for example, a Montecristo differs from an Agio Meharis. With this information fresh in their minds the subject turned to Havanas alone.
The two major influences on the taste of Havanas were explained; the blend of the filler leaves, which characterises different brands, and the colour of the wrapper that varies from cigar to cigar.
The first tasting, where each participant smoked 6 cigars,
revealed that the tastebuds of even the most ardent enthusiast were dulled by
the experience, so the number was reduced to three. Examples of three brands
with differing flavours were chosen: an H. Upmann for its light flavour; a
Montecristo for its medium flavour; and a full flavoured Ramon Allones.
Again tasting note forms were provided together with a glass of champagne. The event over-ran once more and judging by the reports that appeared in the press, it was considered enjoyable and worthwhile.
Each journalist was given a Cohiba Corona Especiale to take away and smoke at his leisure.
Not surprisingly the verdict on Cohiba varied from man to man. All appreciated how well made it was but whether it fulfilled their dreams of what they wanted from a Havana was a matter of personal taste.