This Article was written in 1991, and first published in ‘Cigar World’ the trade magazine of Hunters & Frankau Ltd.
It is reproduced by kind permission

Wets Triumph in Cabinet Battle

Humidification in the 1990s

If there is one issue that has dominated the Havana cigar trade over the last fifteen years, it is humidification. In the mid 1970s there were two or possibly three Havana retailers in Britain who kept their cigars humidified, today there are literally hundreds. Cigar World has investigated this phenomenon by delving into history and interviewing present day retailers who have invested in equipment to keep their cigars moist.




There is a long tradition in Britain of smoking dry Havana cigars, whereas the reverse is true on the continent of Europe.

In his Geneva shop opened in the late 1930s. Zino Davidoff displayed a sign assuring customers that all his cigars were humidified to 72%. A similar sign in the window of a contemporary London merchant like Robert Lewis would have drawn hoots of derision. It was common practice too in those days for the British importers to place their cigars in drying rooms before delivering them to retailers.

The unique feature of the British trade was that they aged their cigars before permitting them to be sold to smokers, usually for a minimum of five years. It is as true today as it was then that to gain the full benefit from ageing and maturing, Havanas must be kept at a significantly lower humidity, no higher than 50%, and be allowed gradually to lose some of the moisture content which they contain when they are first imported.



The Maturing Room at Dunhills in the 1920's

The Maturing Room at Dunhills in the 1920's

To understand the way in which Havanas were treated in the early years of this century we turned to Ian McCormish, the guardian of all that is sacred at Alfred Dunhill Limited. From his priceless archives he produced the 1923 Dunhill Catalogue. Here, the story is told of how the original Mr Alfred conducted "exhaustive researches" in conjunction with the National Physical Laboratory into the effects of varying temperature and humidity on "fine Havana leaf'.

Started before the Great War and finished just after it, these led Dunhills to set up a complex system of three condition controlled cigar rooms.

First, the cigars recently imported from Havana, which were judged too "green" to smoke, were placed in "The Maturing Room" and allowed to recover slowly from the rigours of their journey. Then they were transferred into either "The Keeping Room" where they were maintained at a comparatively low level of humidity, or into "The Humidor", which was described as a "giant edition of the humidors so familiar in America" where the "humid warmth of the Cuban climate is scrupulously reproduced.

Thus it is clear that, even in 1920s Britain, the debate existed over whether Havanas should be smoked wet or dry. Also it seems certain that the wet school originated in the USA as opposed to Switzerland as is often claimed. Dunhills have operated a humidor ever since at 30 Duke's Street and for the last thirty years all their cigars have been kept humidified.

There are those who mourn the passing of the traditional British dry cigar for, fully aged and matured, it offered a refined delicacy of flavour that is not generally available today.




The reasons for its demise were largely commercial. After all, these days who could afford to sit on their stocks of valuable Havanas for five years before selling them? However, the smoker played his part too. The explosive growth in foreign travel in recent years introduced even the most dyed-in-the-wool British smoker to wet cigars and in the end he decided that he preferred them.

No doubt he was also influenced by the spread of central heating during this period to nearly every home, office and shop in the country, which threatened to dry out his precious cigars to a much greater extent than was ever intended by Alfred Dunhill and the like. The British trade responded slowly to the change in consumer taste. Most shops were content to leave their Havanas unprotected on open shelves in the belief that the cigars were drying out in the way that customers wanted them. There was of course a world of difference between the classic British dry cigar, which had been aged and matured under controlled conditions, and those that had simply been left to desiccate at random. Smokers soon made this clear.

From the end of the 1970s retailers started to install humidors, and those who did prospered.



Desmond Sautter's Humidor Room

Desmond Sautter's Humidor Room at Mount Street

One of the first was Desmond Sautter in his Mount Street shop opposite the world famous Connaught Hotel. This shop now boasts three separate humidified areas, but the first was a glass walled room sited opposite the entrance, which was installed in 1979. Cigar World spoke to Geoff Mairis, Desmond's fellow director, who has worked at the shop since they took it over as a small, run-down concern and turned it into the vibrant, popular business it is today.

"The humidors have been very effective in helping the transition. The aroma is superb when people walk in and even despite the recent recession, our sales are in line with two years ago," Geoff explained.

"I would say that 98 per cent of smokers prefer their cigars to be humidified. It does not alter the flavour, but it makes the cigars slightly pliable and springy -- much more manageable, that's the key.

"When cigars dry out, they can crack and break up and although the flavour is often not impaired, it affects most people's enjoyment of them."

Sautters went straight to the ultimate in humidification, a room, which made sense, given their prime London location.




The Wine Merchant's Humidifed Cabinet

A Sheffield Wine Merchant installed a floor-standing humidified cabinet just six months ago.

He reckons that business has jumped by between 20 and 30 per cent since making the switch from ordinary counter display cabinets.

The tall, freestanding, wooden cabinet which blends in with the existing shop fixtures has attracted a great deal of interest from customers at the Ecclesall Road shop in Sheffield's socalled Golden Mile area.

"To people who are serious about their cigars, it does look very impressive. It makes people feel their cigars are being looked after well and gives them confidence in spending a bit more money than perhaps they usually would." he said.

The improvement has allowed him to keep a stock of between 2,000 and 2,500 cigars and his biggest line is Montecristo.

He has found the humidifier very simple to look after and says it is the perfect way to keep his cigar stock in tip-top condition.

"About once a month I top up the water level in the tank which supplies the humid atmosphere,and that's it. It's very simple and I'm delighted," he added.

Whereas he is an independent specialist Wine Merchant, who has decided to invest in increasing his range of humidified Havanas to the extent that he now qualifies as a specialist Cigar Merchant too, the national groups of multiple Wine Merchants have played a major role in extending the availability of fine cigars in good condition throughout the country.




A Humidifed Counter Cabinet in a Bottoms-Up branch

The last five years has seen an explosion in the number of better quality Wine Merchants like Oddbins, Bottoms-Up and Wine Rack

Two-hundred-and-one-year-old cigar importers, Hunters & Frankau, who have advised on virtually all the humidified installations of any size in the country, pioneered the development in the mid 1980s of a specialist counter humidified cabinet, tailored to the needs of Wine Merchants.

Modelled on the size of a typical wine bin, it is designed to display a range of up to six flavanas for sale singly in humidified conditions.

Several hundred of these units are now sited throughout the country where they have earned their keep by making Havana cigars available to the new generation of "bon vivants" who are keen to entertain at home with as much style as they are used to when they eat out.

"When we started to deal with the multiple Wine Merchants, we were concerned that they would have problems in keeping their untubed Havanas in perfect condition," explained Simon Chase, Hunters & Frankau's Marketing Director.

"Our fears proved unfounded. The sales of untubed cigars have matched those of tubed ones in most shops and we think that the eye appeal of the natural cigar, properly humidified, proves very tempting to smokers."

Hunters & Frankau believe that the spread of distribution of a limited range of fine cigars in the wine trade has helped to reintroduce the appreciation of Havanas to a wider market.

They feel that this benefits the trade as a whole because once a smoker realises that there is as much fun to be had in finding the perfect cigar as there is in finding the perfect wine, he will pursue his interest with the specialist Cigar Merchant.

They claim that there is ample evidence for this already, because the specialist's share of the market has steadily increased over the last five years, but only in shops which have decided to invest in keeping their cigars in good, humidified condition.