I am in Mayfair, but backstage Mayfair. The basement corridor is characterless – wide enough to accommodate trollies and pallets of goods. We stop outside a locked, heavy steel door that makes a grinding noise as it opens. The lights blink on and suddenly the drab corridor is a memory. Instead, I feel the sort of emotions that Howard Carter must have experienced when he stumbled upon King Tutankhamun’s tomb.
The electric light reveals a room lined with beautifully finished wooden lockers that rise from floor to ceiling. In the centre of the space I see a large table – more of an altar – crowded with some of the rarest cigars ever rolled by human hands. This is the ageing room of the Birley Cigar Shop, one of the more impressive features of the fashionable members’ club 5 Hertford Street. Members who buy their cigars here are offered the chance to store their purchases in their own “keep” at an annual rent of £1,000. There are cheaper bank vaults, but I have never seen one this beautiful, and certainly not with this level of climatic control.
I could dilate for pages on the technology that maintains optimum relative humidity, temperature and airflow – monitored through 18 sensors around the room. The rotary air vents are positioned according to a 3D airflow model to ensure an even distribution of the eight-times filtered air. Moreover, each keep has a slide vent, an electronic hygrometer and a motor fan to regulate speed of airflow and relative humidity (all, of course, controllable via an app). It is 5 Hertford Street’s proud boast that the air is 98.8 per cent pure – apparently, if the NHS wanted to perform surgery here, it could (the designers of the air-quality control system also build operating theatres).
Right now, the newest thing in cigars is age. In essence, ageing is a gentle continuation of the fermentation of the tobacco that began after harvesting and curing in Cuba. There are few cigars that will not benefit from a year or two of climate-controlled rest: the ammoniac tang of a cigar that is too young dissipates; harsh flavours mellow; woody, earthy notes come to the fore; and the flavours of the tobaccos (from different harvests and matured and fermented for different lengths of time) harmonise. For instance, the blend of the Cohiba Limited Edition of 2014 (£400 for a box of 10) was all over the place when it first appeared, but it had the structure necessary to age and the past two years have seen it settle down to become an enjoyable cigar with the potential to improve further. At a more specialised level, certain cigars no longer in production – for instance, the La Flor de Cano Short Churchill from the late 1980s, or any Davidoff from the 1970s and 1980s – are commanding greater attention and ever higher prices from an international group of collectors.
It’s a long way from what septuagenarian Simon Chase, director at cigar importer Hunters & Frankau, recalls when he joined the trade in the 1970s. “The cigar merchants of St James’s were almost like bespoke tailors. There were not many cigars to be seen, until you went to the hallowed inner sanctum and saw rows of boxes with labels showing dates and the name of the customer.” Laying down cigars was a West End ritual for a wealthy few, who would send their sons to their cigar merchant when they came of age. Curiously, says Chase, ageing cigars was a phenomenon restricted to English and Swiss markets. “There was no culture of ageing cigars in Cuba.”
But even as Chase was introduced to it, the tradition appeared to be vanishing. “It is hard to explain how pessimistic those times were,” he says. “Many in the industry thought cigars had had it and we were playing the last few cards in the hand: in the 1980s, cigars were not the thing.” The early 1990s brought more travails in the form of the euphemistically named Special Period, when, with the collapse of the USSR, Cuba experienced hardship. Production sank and harvests were disrupted by shortages of basic items, such as string. “Stocks were depleted and merchants used their reserves to see themselves through the famine.”
It was also around this time that Davidoff moved production of its cigars from Cuba to the Dominican Republic, and this gave an idea to Edward Sahakian, owner of Davidoff of London and the Edward Sahakian cigar shop at London’s Bulgari Hotel. An industrialist who left Iran in the late 1970s, he had opened his shop in 1980 because cigars were a passion and he wanted to keep busy until the revolution in his country blew over. Thirty-six years later and the revolution is still in situ, which is just as well for cigar lovers as, since the early 1990s, Sahakian has been selecting cigars, beginning with Cuban Davidoffs, to put aside for the future in his vaults.
Over the course of a third of a century Sahakian has accumulated some real treasures. As well as a world-class selection of Cuban Davidoffs, he has Cohibas from the Laguito factory dating from the 1990s, Cohiba Sublimes, Cohiba Double Coronas and Cohiba 1966s, plus a few La Flor de Cano Short Churchills and Diademas. Most recently, he has built up a range of desirable Trinidads, from the criminally discontinued Robusto Extras (a delicious cigar) to examples of the Gran Panatela from the first year of release.
“Chinese, Russian and Middle Eastern customers have taken to collecting – they want to acquire a mature collection and will pay a good price for a well-stored box of cigars with provenance,” says Sahakian’s son Eddie. “The newer collector is much more scientific about which cigars are enjoyable and desirable and is particularly attracted by the confluence of age, rarity and collectability in a Cuban Dunhill or Davidoff.”
Collecting old cigars has also captured the imagination of a new generation of cigar smokers, most of whom were not brought up with a paternally transmitted tradition of the art. But once they discover it, they find it engrossing, as Mitchell Orchant, managing director of cigar specialist C Gars, explains: “The pleasure of dealing with long-gone brands, the challenge of having to research brands and vitolas (size and shape) and the pure joy of sampling aged Havanas, such as the rarest Davidoffs, Dunhills and Pre-Embargo cigars, is something I never tire of.”
By the second half of the 1990s, Orchant had a successful mail-order cigar business but was bored, as he puts it, “of selling Montecristo No 4 all day, every day.” He started attending every Christie’s auction in London and Geneva. “At some sales I was literally buying 30 to 40 per cent or more of the lots,” he says. Twenty years later, he holds regular cigar auctions of his own at the Bulgari Hotel in Knightsbridge. These sales have become much anticipated events in the cigar calendar: information about lots is flashed up on the big screen in the hotel’s private cinema and bids come in from all over the world.
The growing interest in aged and vintage cigars has inspired the Cuban cigar industry to explore the concept of ageing at source. Its Limited Edition examples use tobacco that is a minimum of two years old. Meanwhile, the excellent Reserva cigars have an age threshold of three years for the tobacco and the Gran Reserva five years. However, using aged leaf to make cigars is not the same thing as ageing an entire cigar, not least because cigars such as Reserva and Gran Reserva already tend to smoke beautifully when they arrive at the cigar merchant.
In 2008, Hunters & Frankau began releasing cigars with a second band printed with a vintage – these were old stock that had been in the warehouse for at least a decade. And then, in 2015, Habanos released two new Añejados, cigars aged for between five and eight years: a Montecristo Churchill (£659 for a box of 25) and a Romeo y Julieta Pirámide (£595 for a box of 25). This year has seen the release of two more Añejados: a Partagás Coronas Gorda (£489 for a box of 25) and a Hoyo de Monterrey Hermoso No 4 (£437 for a box of 25).
These cigars have not been greeted overenthusiastically, which, says Chase, “leaves a bit of a question mark over what the effect of ageing in Cuba really is.” Although I would happily recommend the Hermoso No 4 as a light, fragrant, slightly grassy cigar that captures the Hoyo spirit with elegance, the uneven reception does show one of the fundamental truths about ageing cigars: for all the science being applied to the subject, it remains mysterious.
“Upmann has aged well, Montecristo not so well,” says Chase. “Partagás has a generally deeper flavour, so there must be more development that can take place over a long period of time; the same is true of Ramon Allones.” Very light brands like El Rey Del Mundo and Rafael González have matured surprisingly well. It is all a matter of degree: left to mature too long, cigars can decline just like old wine – and ageing will not improve a bad cigar.
So, even in the impeccably climate-controlled keeps of the Birley Cigar Shop, the end result is far from certain. Science can achieve much, but only time will tell. Still, with its legendary air purity, the space could always be turned into a conveniently located operating theatre for members.