Our trusted British cigar bloke navigates us through the top smoking spots in town.
by Nick Hammond
THERE was a time when London was an indisputable cigar Mecca, second perhaps only to Havana itself. Those were the days of grand cigar divans; dark, cool vaults in which wardrobe-sized humidors aged their precious cargo; when gentlemen laid down cigars as often as they did wine. While times have certainly changed in the metropolis, the heady scent of burning cigar tobacco still drifts along famous streets. Rest
assured, London remains a cigar city. You’d be forgiven for thinking a midweek evening would be quiet, even in Mayfair. But of course, it isn’t.
As sunlight dips on Green Park, it’s still thronged with people making the most of a day of uninterrupted sunshine. Traffic seethes
ceaselessly along Piccadilly; pedestrians flow relentlessly between the traffic lights, accompanied by kamikaze bikers swerving and
swooping through the crowd.
The Arts Club
Stepping into The Arts Club just up Dover Street is a temporary escape from the madness – but don’t expect it to be sedate in here,
either. This elegant townhouse is packed from basement nightclub to rooftop sushi bar with those who know how to have a good time. And tucked in the airy courtyard, torching yet another guest’s handrolled cigar, is Manu Harit.
Manu is cigar mad. Trained, as every good Frenchman surely should be, in the finer points of Champagne, he discovered a new passion – as so many others have before him – when introduced to cigars by Edward Sahakian. Edward is the King of the English cigar scene, founder of the London Davidoff store on St James’s Street and an all-round gentleman. Along with his son Eddie, he oversees the famous cigar shop with decorum and good taste. And after tutoring from this famous cigar man, Manu was hooked.
Starting his career at The Corinthia Hotel (another fantastic spot for a well-kept cigar) Manu was snapped up by the canny operators at The Arts Club to head their cigar division. Tonight, we find him in usual sparkling form, assisted by his colleague Martin Kemlin and serving both vintage Billecart- Salmon Champagne and vintage cigars with aplomb.
“We wish to offer the very best cigar service in the business to our Members,” he tells me as we smoke in the covered, heated section of the courtyard reserved for cigar lovers (one can also enjoy a stick on the balcony of the fantastic Kyubi Japanese restaurant on the top floor).
St James Humidor
“That means the best prices on current production cigars and a collection of aged and vintage cigars which they can choose from. I’m lucky to be in this position and excited about what is coming.”
That includes a series of tastings, pairings and talks from a fascinating variety of guests, from Savile Row tailors to London gunmakers, jewellers, sportsmen and beyond. Manu is curating a cigar offering like no other in the city.
While you could be forgiven for tucking up at The Arts Club and barely leaving the building, it would be a mistake – for London still has so much more to offer.
Just a short walk through the masses takes you to the aforementioned Davidoff store. Now’s your chance to spend some time in one of the city’s great establishments. Oldfashioned service and some serious luxury goods await you and if you find Edward or Eddie in the house, you’ve struck gold. Choose a stick from the walk-in humidor, take a seat in a leather armchair – and enjoy one of the great cigar experiences.
You’ve reached Nirvana.
The JJ Fox Store
A few more paces down St James’s Street is the legendary JJ Fox store; wood panelled, history-soaked and yet another place to while away an hour or two in contemplation of days gone by. Of course, you can sit in Churchill’s chair, see the ledger where he signed for his cigars, wonder at the bill that Oscar Wilde left unpaid or peruse the Royal Warrants on the walls. But you’ll probably be too keen to check out the lounge upstairs which overlooks the clubs of St James’s. Here you can read a paper, help yourself to (free) coffee and Wi-Fi and of course indulge in one of the vast choices of cigars from the keeps.
Roll a few feet further down the street and hey presto! It’s another cigar store! This one is the home of Dunhill Tobacco and a fine, understated retreat. Robert Emery, ably assisted by Tom Randall, runs a tight ship here and while the excellent tasting room (free coffee and Wi-Fi) gets busy in the afternoons, if you time it right, you can enjoy a moment of real solace in the heart of Mayfair. That’s not to say busy afternoons aren’t fun, because they are – a parade of characters drop in here. Some keep a locker, others select from the range on sale. All know how to have a good time. Try it. You’ll see.
The Montague on the Gardens in Bloomsbury
Red Carnation is another name worth looking out for on your travels through the Metropolis. This range of high class hotels is urbane in the extreme and as well as comfortable beds, great service, impeccable kitchens and some seriously good bars, several of them are cigar friendly too. The Montague on the Gardens in Bloomsbury holds regular cigar dinners on its delightful covered terrace overlooking manicured lawns; and the Five Star Milestone makes a killer Old Fashioned. In fact, it’s worth working making the effort to come here just to watch its preparation.
With a mix of peated Scotch and Bourbon at its core, the drink of course includes orange peel and bitters. But it’s when a glass bell jar and an electrical pump are brought out that things really become interesting. Orange flavoured molasses are burned and the smoke pumped into the bell jar, under which the cocktail sits. After a final blast of citrus smoke, the Old Fashioned is served with a flourish. The best in town, for my money.
If you want your cocktails and cigars mixed with live music, then it’s to Boisdale you must head.
The Canary Wharf restaurant is a monster, with incredible live jazz and blues cabaret style each night, shellfish station and a huge whisky bar serving more than 1,000 different offerings.
But for my money, Boisdale’s Belgravia restaurant is hard to beat. Intimate like all the best jazz clubs, it serves sensational, seasonal, Scottish-based food and the bar and its contents are to die for.
The icing on the cake is the cigar terrace upstairs. Heated and covered (including tartan blankets if it gets really cold) it’s always the beating heart of the place, with a well-stocked humidor and table service too.
Boisdale Cigar Terrace
The Wellesley Hotel in Knightsbridge has to be seen to be believed. The humidor is a work of art, built by Massimo of DeArt and electronically controlled by sommelier and cigar maestro Giuseppe Ruo. A lugubrious Churchill stares at you from one commissioned painting; two frontage cigar terraces are warm, comfortable and boast full table service until late. Cool, cultured and classy, this is the place to be seen.
And I could go on and on, for there are other worthy spots in this great city too. But we’ll save those for another day.
For now, I’ll just say that London remains a cigar lover’s dream, if you know where to look. And now you do.
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.