Inspired by THOLT2, Simon Chase, the Marketing Director of Hunters
& Frankau, who was guest of honour, wrote this article for "Cigar
From the early years of the 19th Century, London has earned a reputation as the capital of the world for cigars. At first the trade links with Havana were centred in the City, but, by 1900, the West End and in particular the area known as St. James's became the haven for cigar enthusiasts like the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, and a young Wiinston Churchill.
Today, surrounded by gentleman's hatters, grocers, gunsmiths, shirtmakers and wine traders which are the envy of the world, the cigar merchants of St. James's are thriving. These are the inheritors of a tradition based on some two hundred years' experience, which has always insisted on the selection of the very best cigars for their customers. Their demands have long been understood by generations of Cuban cigar makers to whom the term English Market Selection, or EMS for short, represents a continuing challenge for their undisputed talents.
Whether you are in search of a single cigar to follow your dinner or a supply for life, a visit to shops such as James J. Fox & Robert Lewis, Davidoff of London, Alfred Dnnhill and Sautters of Mayfair is a must for any cigar enthusiast.
They are conveniently placed in walking distance of one another and can be covered in a morning provided, that is. you are not so intrigued by what you see or so engaged by the charm and knowledge of their staff and proprietors that you linger too long.
and Tim Cox
I suggest you start at the southern end of St. James's Street, near to the bottom of the hill. Here, at No. 19, you will find James J. Fox & Robert Lewis. As the name suggests, these premises house the traditions of two great cigar firms. The one, Fox's, was founded in 1881 while the other, Lewis's, can trace its ancestry back almost another century to 1787.
The two companies came together in 1992 when the two families, the de Sola Pinto's and the Croley's, which had owned Lewis's since the turn of the century decided to pass the business on to Ronnie Fox and his family enterprise.
There is no better place to drink in London's heady history of Havanas. Some alterations have been made in recent years but nothing has been done to change the impression gained of the shop during the 1980s by the Cuban emigre author G. Cabrera Infante and recorded in his book 'Holy Smoke': "..it is most agreeable to the sight. The odour of Havanus is overpowering to the heathen but myrrh and mirth to the initiated. If I had to live in a shop I would dwell in Robert Lewis forever...."
One recent development is that of the Cigar Museum, long a feature in various locations about the premises, which has now been catalogued and contained in a dedicated room at the rear of the ground floor where it is open to public view. A glass case of Cabañas exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851 and still containing some of its original cigars, hand written ledgers containing Winston Churchill's account opening in 1900 and closing in 1964, let alone Oscar Wilde's, on which a small amount is still due, are there to be inspected along with countless other fascinating memorabilia.
In spite of serving several generations of the Royal Family, Fox & Lewis did not receive the Royal Warrant until 1997. When it came, it was as Cigar Merchant to the 97 year old Queen Mother! The nature of her supplies is, of course, strictly confidential.
The affable Robert Emery is Fox's London Director, whose responsibilities cover not only this shop but also the cigar retailing in Harrods and Selfridges. Day to day management of the store and its highly enthusiastic, well trained, young staff lies in the hands of the voluble Tim Cox, a man whose passion for his cigars knows few bounds.
You may be able to prevail upon Tim to show you another cache of treasures, which is kept in the basement - the customers' paid reserves. Tens of thousands of cigars are held here whilst they age and mature. Given that some date back to the 1930s, it seems possible that their owners may have forgotten them but they form another intriguing museum in themselves.
I must emphasise that this area is definitely not open to the public except by special arrangement. However you can always content yourself with selecting a cigar from the extensive range available for single sales on the ground floor and enjoy it seated in the very same chair that Churchill used to occupy when he visited the shop.
Next head up St. James's to the corner of Jermyn Street and the glittering premises of Davidoff of London. You could be forgiven for thinking you are entering the highest quality of jewellery store. Gone is the clubbiness of Fox & Lewis and you are surrounded by a breathtaking display of humidors, leather cigar cases, lighters and a myriad of smokers' accessories.
Judith Brathzwaite with Dougie Elliott
Sahakian (right) and son (left).
There is everything for the cigar smoker too. On the right. behind the counter are the machine made cigars. Yes. they even stock Hamlet alongside a copious range of rarer cigarillos and small cigars. But if there is a jewel at this address it is the Humidor Room.
These days the name of Davidoff is associated with cigars from the Dominican Republic rather than Cuba, but this does not stop the shop from stocking the widest possible range of Havanas.
Situated at the back of the shop, you enter the Humidor Room through a glass door to be confronted by what is probably the largest selection of great cigars, each presented in its own open box, to be found anywhere in Europe. The ease with which you can review everything that is available from Partagas, from H. Upmann, from Bolivar or Cohiba, to name but a few, is highly seductive. There will be sizes and brands you know well but there will be others you may only have heard of, or perhaps, dreamt about.
Making your mind up can be a long and sometimes costly task, but it is one which should be undertaken by all cigar enthusiasts.
The experience is made that much more pleasurable by the company you will encounter. Should you be served by the proprietor, Edward Sahakian, you will meet a man whose skill and knowledge, let alone his charm, is recognised by smokers from literally all over the world. More and more often these days he is joined in the shop by his son Eddie, who is proving to be a chip off the very same block as his father when it comes to cigars.
Dougie Elliott is another man to look out for. In his seventies, Dougie has spent a lifetime in the trade, first owning his own shop but now happy in his retirement to continue serving the cigars he loves in these twenty first century surroundings. And if you prefer the woman's touch, feel free to surrender to the charms of Judith Brathwaite. She has been at Davidoff since its doors first opened, and has a knowledge of cigars that is the envy of many mere males. All the staff are fully trained and ready to act as your guide when choosing a cigar.
From Davidoff turn right up Jermyn Street, cross the road and walk to the junction with Duke Street, St. James's. Alfred Dunhill of London occupies the whole corner site where it has been since 1907, although the present building was erected after the Second World War, during which its predecessor received the unwelcome attention of the Luftwaffe.
If Alfred Dunhill's was a restaurant it would described as the best of Modern British. Entering from Jermyn Street you pass amongst serried ranks of suits, shirts, ties, sports jackets and blazers all solicitously attended by immaculately turned out men and women. Everything here is quintessentially British. Should the fancy take you, you can kit yourself out from head to toe in classic fashion that would put James Bond to shame.
Your quest, however, is for the Humidor
Following a magnificent £3 million refurbishment of the whole shop early in 1997, this hallowed haunt of cigar lovers is now to be found atop the elegant staircase which sweeps up from the ground floor to the mezzanine. Your goal becomes visible as soon as you reach the summit of the stairs, to your left behind a glass wall.
Before setting foot inside you may notice a stately row of tall, cedar cabinets ranged behind the leather armchairs and mahogany desks. Picture here Llewelyn Hill and Edward Bullough guard the 'Keep' at Dunhills. Once these were a standard packing you could buy from Alfred Dunhill's containing no less than 10,000 cigars each. Yours for a trifling £950 in 1927. Today they serve to display more humble boxes of 25 or 50 cigars: and each major Cuban brand has its own cabinet.
On entering the Humidor, the climate changes. The air is moist throughout the room. It was Alfred Dunhill himself who pioneered humidification for cigars, starting just before the First World War and perfecting the technique early in the 1920s. Originally this involved a complex system of three different stages - the Maturing Room, the Keeping Room and the Humidor but advances in technology have now reduced it to just one. Suffice it to say that today the Humidor at Dunhill's is state-of-the-art.
An imposing iron gate can be seen on your right. It guards the Keep, the inner sanctum where customers can store their cigars for aging in anonymous lockers identified only by numbers. Upwards of 50,000 cigars are stored here awaiting the day when their owners will call upon their services. One can be yours if you buy 10 boxes.
The staff at Alfred Dunhill's is always young and enthusiastic. In part this reflects the fact that the famous store acts as a training ground for the industry as a whole. Llewelyn Hill and Edward Bullough are two young men to look out for when you visit but, no matter whom you see, you will find them well prepared to look after you needs.
Now for the last and longest part of your morning's stroll. Cross Piccadilly and head north for Berkeley Square, Mount Street leads off from its north west corner and at No. 106 you will find the last port of call Sautters of Mayfair.
This is the smallest shop on your tour but its size in no way diminishes the worldwide reputation it has gained over the last twenty years as a major landmark for Havana smokers.
Desmond Sautter is a natural host and he is ably assisted by his fellow director in the business Geoff Mairis. Actors, diplomats and tycoons from the world over regularly beat their way to Desmond's door to join in the cheerful banter, which charactenses his store. I would always recommend a visit on a Saturday when Mount Street is a quiet backwater and time stands still as you catch up on the latest developments in the world of cigars.
On one such visit I recall the entrance of an American tourist. He had never been to the shop before so Desmond inquired where he had heard about it. "l'm glad you asked," came the reply "it was in the men's room at the Pentagon."
Part of the secret of Desmond's success is his ability to spot sizes and brands of Havanas, which are smoking particularly well, before they attract the attention of the cigar press. An example some years ago was the Bolivar Royal Corona, a Robusto sized cigar. It was Just at the time that Robustos, particularly Cohiba's, were becoming all the rage. However the Royal Corona remained obscure. He invested in substantial quantities, recommended them to his customers and they loved them. A year or more later Cigar Aficionado gave the cigar a rating of 95 out of 100, the highest score it has ever awarded to a Robustso.
Another reason why a visit to Desmond can be especially rewarding is to see his collection of vintage Havanas. There was a time when old and rare cigars were comparatively easy to come by and he would offer them for sale. But now they are so rare that he prefers to hang onto them.
Sometimes it appears that every cigar merchant in London must have dealt with Winston Churchill. I mentioned Fox & Lewis. Alfred Dunhill certainly did so too and you will find pictures of the great man in virtually all the city's shops that sell Havanas. In fairness though, he was a smoking legend, who consumed the best part of 200,000 cigars in his lifetime.
Desmond makes no claim to have served him. Nevertheless he is happy to relate that back in 1900 a young journalist, who had recently returned from reporting on the War of Independence in Cuba where he had acquired a love of cigars, moved into one of the flats above the shop. You've guessed. his name was Winston Churchill.
Now it's lunchtime and your cigar odyssey is complete. It's time for a good meal followed by some of the booty you have acquired on your tour. Two superb 'cigar friendly' options are close at hand. Cross the street from Desmond's and to the right is the Connaught Hotel and, to the left, Scott's Restaurant.