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The Cigar Sommelier

The Cigar Sommelier

First Class Service or Smoke and Mirrors?

First Class Service or Smoke and Mirrors?

British author NICK HAMMOND is of the opinion that you’d better look before you leap before joining the growing ranks of a new and unusual off-shoot of the hospitality industry…

Even the term itself is controversial, with many believing that it’s nothing more than a cynical marketing ploy to create something mystical from a straightforward set of skills.

Others, on the other hand, recognize that this is a crucial and underplayed hospitality role – one that requires genuine breadth of knowledge and both a trained and seasoned palate.

In recent years, the term Cigar Sommelier has crept up on us. Recognizing a value in driving interest and excitement in a job that’s been around as long as cigars have been sold, Cuba in particular pushed its promotion. A Cigar Sommelier is (or should be) someone who’s an expert in their field. He or she must possess a very large foundation of knowledge on the cigars that are available in his or her market and what each and every one has to offer.

He or she exists professionally to enhance customer enjoyment and choice and as such, needs an exceptional palate and memory. He or she needs to be able to recommend certain types of cigars to certain types of people dependent on a vastly shifting interplay of circumstances. What have they eaten? What time of day is it? What are their preferences? Where will they be smoking?

British author NICK HAMMOND is of the opinion that you’d better look before you leap before joining the growing ranks of a new and unusual off-shoot of the hospitality industry…

Even the term itself is controversial, with many believing that it’s nothing more than a cynical marketing ploy to create something mystical from a straightforward set of skills.

Others, on the other hand, recognize that this is a crucial and underplayed hospitality role – one that requires genuine breadth of knowledge and both a trained and seasoned palate.

In recent years, the term Cigar Sommelier has crept up on us. Recognizing a value in driving interest and excitement in a job that’s been around as long as cigars have been sold, Cuba in particular pushed its promotion. A Cigar Sommelier is (or should be) someone who’s an expert in their field. He or she must possess a very large foundation of knowledge on the cigars that are available in his or her market and what each and every one has to offer.

He or she exists professionally to enhance customer enjoyment and choice and as such, needs an exceptional palate and memory. He or she needs to be able to recommend certain types of cigars to certain types of people dependent on a vastly shifting interplay of circumstances. What have they eaten? What time of day is it? What are their preferences? Where will they be smoking?

For a while, until Covid intervened, there was a very popular Cigar Sommelier competition organized by Habanos SA, the finals of which were held at the Habanos Festival each year. Competitors would be tested on their knowledge of marques and vitolas across the entire Habanos portfolio and would also be scrutinized by a panel of judges while performing a “live” scene of hospitality–meeting a “customer” and serving up the ideal stick for the concocted occasion. This performance even attracted an audience as part of the annual Habanos Festival in Havana.

I have conflicting opinions when it comes to the term Cigar Sommelier. On one hand, some of the most exacting and knowledgeable cigar people I know carry the title. On the other, companies boasting “qualifications” are churning out “sommelier” with little more knowledge than having learned how to cut and light a cigar. Let me assure readers that if the life of a cigar sommelier appeals to you–first do some homework of your own for free.

“The role itself is quite niche,” says Syafiera Rosidi, Cigar Sommelier at the world-famous Annabel’s of Mayfair, London, and a Master of Habanos in her own right.

““Where there are many voices, many teachers and many students, the cigar world is far smaller in comparison. You need to open dialogue with those who work and thrive within the industry, find your way and understand how the market works. It’s all a learning curve at the end of the day, but what a pay off! You become part of a tight-knit community. Those that appreciate cigars come from all walks of life, and it’s with hard work that you become part of that.”

It’s easy to be seduced by the apparently glamorous lifestyle of a sommelier. Imagine, lighting cigars for interesting and important people! Working in fabulous surroundings! Getting great tips and free cigars! And getting paid for it!

If this is your view of the job, let me sober you up at once.

To become a seriously good Cigar Sommelier (What’s the point of being any other kind?) you need to immerse yourself in your subject like a professional chef would in food, flavors, textures, colors and tastes. Here in the UK, Hunters & Frankau, the sole importer of Cuban cigars, runs a prestigious qualification known as the Masters of Habanos. It’s a seriously strenuous thing to pass. Would-be Masters must learn a bewildering array of sizes (the actual sizes in millimeters, not just a “robusto extra” type hazarded guess). They must know, by size, shape, look and taste, all the current production and Limited Editions likely to be found in their market (and very often in others, too). They must know and understand the strength and flavor profiles found in each different brand and size. And, on top of that, they need to work in an industry that’s known for its grinding pace, hours and relentlessness.

“Of course, you need to really love cigars,” says Antonino Lo Iacono, Cigar Sommelier at The Beaumont Hotel in Mayfair, which boasts a covered cigar terrace and a stunning DeArt humidor inside.

“The cigar world evolves every day and if you think it could become a career for you, I would say, take your time, don’t rush it, enjoy different cigars together with different drinks–and, of course, good company is very important.”

You’ve never worked behind a bar or in a kitchen if you think hospitality looks like fun. Sure, it is fun at times. But it’s also bloody hard work, tough on any social/family life and probably, if truth be known, not very good for your health in the long run. As far as I’m concerned, the “coalface” of the hospitality industry; for those chefs working day in, day out; for those waitresses pounding the tables night after night; and for those cigar sommeliers coming home 14 hours after leaving and being unable to sleep; is a young man or woman’s job.

Having said all that, if you come into it with your eyes open and with a true and hard love of cigars in your heart, then the opportunities are there for you to explore a fascinating career.

Many of those Masters of Habanos in the UK who studied ceaselessly to learn how Cuban cigars are made across all those different factories have now moved on to prestigious jobs in the industry. Like Syafiera and Antonino, they are now recognized worldwide among those who can sincerely claim to be true Cigar Sommeliers with an incredible knowledge and passion for their subject. They are not called Masters for nothing.

I have nothing but respect for these amazing people and am proud to call many of them my friends. I would suggest that if you fancy this truly unique way if life, you’ll find a wonderfully individual (some would say eccentric) group awaiting you and a lifelong journey to enjoy ahead.

Just get yourself a really good pair of comfortable shoes, because you’ll be on your feet all day and night! And make sure that you study with the right sort of organization to truly understand what the cigar world has to offer.

The best of British to you!

Nick Hammond is the UK’s premier cigar writer, a winner of the inaugural Spectator Cigar Writer of the Year Award and a regular contributor to cigar publications around the world. He also writes extensively on travel, luxury, food, drink and the good life. His new book, Around the World in 80 Cigars: The Travels of An Epicure, is a must read for every cigar lover and world traveler.

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