A World Class Pairing Trial

by Nick Hammond | photos by Hunters & Frankau

Our British brother of the leaf, NICK HAMMOND, is invited to join a roomful of experts in a Champagne and Habanos pairing trial. Tough gig…

The offer of Champagne is enough to garner my attention.
The offer of a cigar ensures it.

But combine the two and I’m all yours, all day, all night, wherever you may be headed.

So when I received an invite to join the Masters of Havanas – all those Havana cigar specialists in the UK who have passed an exacting examination invigilated by UK Cuban cigar importer, Hunters & Frankau – who are gathering en masse for a Havana and Champagne tasting, you couldn’t see me for dust.

Many of these specialist sommeliers – employed in fancy hotels, restaurants, cigar bars and lounges the length and breadth of the land – are friends of mine, and we don’t often get the chance to catch up. Still more are nodding acquaintances, and I like to get to know as many new faces as I can.

These are the cream of cigar specialists in the UK. They’re able to pair a Montecristo Open with a suggested beverage, or give you the precise measurement of an obscure Limited Edition release.

The gathering at No.10 Manchester Street Hotel in Marylebone gives me the chance to catch up and carry out some high-quality research by pairing cigars and Champagnes from legendary chateau Pols Roger. All in all, not a bad day’s work, in my book.

Hunters & Frankau marketing chap Jimmy McGhee is Master of Ceremonies, ably accompanied by James Clarke of Pol Roger. And while the event is a great excuse for these enthusiastic young cigarophiles to meet during their busy working lives, it’s also a good chance to secure some pairing knowledge from a host of expert palates.

Tasting sheets, Champagne glasses and ashtrays at the ready.

On arriving, my cup overfloweth when I discover the very first cigar of the day is to be my beloved Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No.2. Light, delicate, dreamy—this is such a beautiful cigar, and I accept it gratefully from Jimmy, and things warm up.

The Epi in turn is paired with Pol Roger Pure, Brut Reserve and Rich, each of which has increasing levels of dosage or sugar. It will be interesting to see how they interplay.

As you can imagine, the heady hit of tiny Champagne bubbles and perfectly cured cigar leaf soon takes effect, with the room buzzing with loud chatter, laughter and a canopy of fragrant, blue smoke.

As morning wears into afternoon, the Hoyo is exchanged for a medium-bodied Romeo y Julieta Short Churchill; later, a hefty, fullflavoured Partagas E2. The level of cigar talk is stupendous—these guys really know their stuff. I sit quiet for the most part, trying to commit these pearls of wisdom to memory for future recall.

Gathered Masters of Havanas give their considered opinions.

Fortunately, we’re handed crib sheets to record our thoughts, opinions and tasting notes. I’m pretty sure after this afternoon, my RAM memory may not be entirely trusted…

I sit and compare notes with Paola Paollilla, the only lady “Master” present; Mike Choi, formerly of the Sahakian Cigar Lounge; and Calum Conn of Chester’s Casa del Habano– all friends, and all a lot of fun.

Slawomir Bielecki is the star turn of the whole event. The former cigar sommelier at London’s The Churchill Bar was runner up in this year’s World Habanosommelier Competition held in Havana. After a gruelling testing process of suggested pairings and a searching examination of his memory, he had to prepare a unique sensory cigar and spirit combination.

His chosen Pol Roger Sir Winston Cuvee 2004 vintage with the Partagas Serie E No.2 was recreated for us at No. 10, and was sublime. The added touch of genius was a roasted coffee bean dusted in cocoa powder. Very clever, working across the palate on all fronts. Bravo Slavo.

Inevitably, talented individuals such as these lead busy lives; before long, they start to drift away back to their jobs, next assignments and everyday tasks. But a few of us hang behind.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always felt very bad about leaving good cigars half-smoked. Having seen the effort, love and no little amount of skill which goes into every stick, I do my best not to try and leave good cigars half dead in the ashtray.

At tastings such as these, you often have several cigars on the go at the same time; it appears sacrilegious at first, but it really is the only way to conduct true pairings and comparisons.

However, dear reader, I didn’t let the side down on this occasion. Once the tasting and comparing was over, and with my head a little lighter thanks to the flight of Champagne, I ordered a glass of water, and then and enjoyed each of the three chosen cigars down to the nub.

On the hotel’s cigar terrace, you are surrounded by famous faces.

By then, it was just myself and the Hunters & Frankau contingent: Jimmy and Director Sean Croley, an old sparring partner and long-term friend of UK cigar lovers. Slawomir joined us as we eventually emerged blinking into the sunlight, and headed 100 yards up the road to the nearest pub.

A couple of ales later, and we were happily doing what cigar people do: talking cigars and everything to do with them. This stretched on until we found somewhere to grab a bite to eat and, post oysters and venison, it was a gnarly little Partagas Presidente that proved to be the final smoke of the day. It was just right; mellow and ‘colorful’ with enough flavor to survive an admittedly jaded palate.

Days like these are priceless. Not just because they are rare; there are still less than 50 Masters of Havanas in the UK, and most of them were in attendance today. But it is unusual to get them all together to share their expertise. I was honored to be the only non-Master invited.

When the remaining hardcore team finally parted ways, a long but memorable day was over, and night was stealing across London. The findings of the Champagne and cigar pairings were interesting in their ambiguity. Out of nine possible cigar and

It’s a hard life.

Champagne combinations, eight of the combinations got at least one vote. The Hoyo paired with the Pure wasan emphatic non-favorite with the gathered experts; I think we would all agree that a little dosage goes a long way in assisting the successful pairing of a premium Champagne with the smoky, terroir-influencedcharacteristics of fine Cuban tobacco.

My thanks to both Hunters & Frankau and Pol Roger for their hospitality, and to the gathered Masters for their bonhomie.I’m already looking forward to the next one.


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.

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