When you were growing up in Apulia, Italy, did the older men in the village smoke cigars?
In my village, I used to observe the older men smoking a typical Italian cigar called Toscano. It struck me how sophisticated they looked and how passionate they were about their cigars—they gave off a sense of prestige.
When and where did you smoke your first cigar?
My first introduction to the world of cigars was in 2001. I was at a bar exhibition where I met a Cuban roller at the Hunters & Frankau stand. He gave me a freshly rolled cigar, and after I smoked it, I understood the passion for Cuban cigars that people have in this business.
Then, while I was working at The Park Lane Hotel in London, one of my guests was cigar expert Edward Sahakian. Mr. Sahakian gave me a cigar, a Davidoff Number 1 Cuban Edition, and told me to smoke it and then come back to him in two weeks and tell him how I felt about it. That was when I truly fell in love with cigars.
Is there something a gentleman should never do while smoking a cigar?
Cigar etiquette is very personal. There are a few basic rules to keep in mind, such as always cut the cigar with a cutter and do not tap the ash, but instead let it fall down by itself. Also, always take the cigar band off because you do not want to show what exactly you are smoking.
What is the ideal way to smoke a cigar?
The ideal way to smoke is sitting in a very comfortable armchair in a place with good ventilation and good company without rushing and sipping the appropriate drink according to the time of the day.
To inhale or not to inhale?
Everyone has different preferences and tastes for smoking. Generally, you don’t want to inhale—the smoke is very alkaline and strong, which will make you cough. It’s best to take a puff and keep it in your mouth for just a few seconds so that the tobacco and flavor settle.
How should the gentleman who is new to cigars begin training his palate? Any specific types or brands to start?
For beginners, I recommend they try Cohiba Siglo, H. Upmann Half Corona or Montecristo No. 5. The smoker usually knows after two puffs if they like cigar smoking. If they like the sensation, I suggest they try three or four different types of cigars. This will help them acquire the taste and get the feel of the cigar.
After a smoker decides they like cigars, they will try various smokes. Some like long smokes and some like short. A long drag would mean to inhale for at least two seconds and a short drag would be to inhale for two seconds or less. It takes time to know what you like, but you won’t know until you try. I encourage guests to try everything, if possible. Some people really like non-Cuban cigars (from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua or Indonesia, for example) and you will only learn what you like if you are open to all experiences.
Do tobacco type, terroir, preparation and size all affect cigar taste?
Yes. Cigars hand-rolled with Cuban tobacco are the highest quality. A thin cigar is very aromatic and light, and a thick cigar is heavier and more intense on the smoke. Storage is also very important—they should be stored in a humidor with a humidity of 67 to 70 percent and with a temperature below 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
What accessories should you purchase before you embark?
Every cigar smoker must have a humidor, butane gas lighter (S.T. Dupont is the best) and a very sharp cigar cutter.
Even people who know very little about cigars believe that Cubans are the best. Is it a well-deserved reputation?
Cuban cigars are so famous because they are the absolute best. Cuban cigars are made with tobacco that is grown on the island; tobacco grown in the most western region of the island is best for cigar growing. The Cuban climate, soil and irrigation all contribute to a premium Cuban cigar.
Other cigars can be made with various types of tobacco. Some smokers may not mind this, but a true cigar aficionado will recognize immediately if it’s Cuban tobacco or not. Cuban cigars have an aroma that derives from their high quality.
Do you expect that the recent changes in U.S. relations with Cuba will affect imports of Cuban cigars in the U.S.?
Eventually, yes. As of right now, Americans can only import $100 worth of products back to the U.S., so they cannot take that many high-quality cigars. There are a lot of legal issues to be sorted out, so I think it will be a long process before large quantities can be imported.
What are some cigars made outside of Cuba that you enjoy?
Davidoff cigars from the Dominican Republic and Padrón from Nicaragua are also both nice. Toscano is another excellent cigar brand that can be found in Italy.
What are your favorite cigar and spirit pairings?
I personally like a Cohiba Siglo 6 with Rémy Martin XO. Before dinner or lunch, I indulge in a glass of Krug champagne with a Cohiba Behike 52; after a meal, I prefer a glass of Sassicaia with a Partagás Salomónes.