It’s a delicious irony that Prohibition, which set out to free us from the evils of alcohol, gave rise to perhaps the most enduringly fashionable model for a bar ever created – the speakeasy. Skip to the 21st century and it seems that there’s a new spirit of subversion, this time in response to the smoking ban. Not content with huddling in freezing doorways like their cigarette-smoking counterparts, cigar lovers and the bars they frequent have been finding ever more creative ways to get around the ban, establishing a growing number of cigar terraces that are not only legal but often rather luxurious, too.
There is a kind of wicked romance about a cigar terrace – whether it’s a frosty night, or a balmy evening, the good ones seem to capture something of that speakeasy frisson. Ally this with the fact that they tend to go hand-in-hand with a superb drinks selection and you have the recipe for a bar that’s something of a destination, whether you are a smoker or not. (Please note that while some bars allow you to bring your own cigars, others ask that you buy them on-site, or require a minimum spend, so do check in advance.)
This year sees a spate of new cigar terraces opening in London, starting this month with the launch of London Syon Park, a new Waldorf Astoria hotel in Richmond. Its cigar terrace promises to be a comfortable seating area with leafy views of the hotel’s herb garden and courtyard. The drinks list will feature cocktails, craft beers and champagnes, each with recommended cigar matches developed in collaboration between the Gorgeous Group (whose recent projects include the two bars at the revamped Savoy) and cigar importer Hunters & Frankau.
Among the cocktails, an absolute winner is the Chesterfield (£18), a cherry and cognac sour with a pleasingly aromatic, slightly bitter finish provided by a dash of syrup infused with tobacco and lapsang souchong leaves. Cigar matches include the harmonious, slightly sweet notes of the Romeo y Julieta Wide Churchill (£24), the woody, flavoursome Cohiba Siglo VI (£32) or, if you like your cigars on the fuller side, the spice and earth tones of the Montecristo No4 (£14), which frames the rich cognac flavours beautifully. For champagne lovers, choices will include Krug and – a popular choice among cigar aficionados – Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé. “A Montecristo is very good with Laurent-Perrier Rosé,” says Simon Chase, who, as former marketing director of Hunters & Frankau and something of a cigar demigod, is consulting on the Syon Park project. “For a champagne cigar you want something light and dry; I would also recommend the El Rey Del Mundo Choix de l’Epoque 2009 – it has wonderful, delicate flavours that really set the champagne alight.”
But there is one further ingredient that is essential to extracting the maximum pleasure from a cigar, and that, says Chase, is time. “Time is critical. The first third of a cigar can be misleading about what it is capable of – unless you allow yourself the time to reach the final third, you are missing a trick. One of the most important decisions you make is what size you can do justice to.”
It was Chase who, in response to the 2007 ban, invented the acronym Cosa – Comfortable Outdoor Smoking Area – which is now common parlance in the cigar world (find a directory of dozens of recommended Cosas around the UK at www.cigars.co.uk).
Perhaps the biggest Cosa to open this year will be Boisdale of Canary Wharf, a spin-off of the already popular Cosa and whisky restaurant Boisdale of Belgravia. Expected to open in April, it promises to re-create much of that clubby feel – think wood panelling, lacquer-red walls and live jazz – but with the addition of a vast 172sq ft humidor housing every cigar manufactured in Cuba, plus a heated 1,000sq ft smoking terrace, 250-cover restaurant and a cigar and wine shop (cigars from £10).
Also in Canary Wharf, the Plateau bar and restaurant – whose smaller private dining room was a dedicated fumoir until the ban – will be returning to its cigar-smoking roots from March to May, when its terrace will be transformed into a pop-up Johnnie Walker Blue Label bar which is set to host cigar evenings.
For something a little more intimate, you might wish to seek out Dukes Hotel in St James’s, which boasts a charming Cognac and Cigar Garden in a small interior courtyard. Housed under a cream canopy hung with antique mirrors, this cluster of wicker tables and chairs strewn with cushions would be ideal for a romantic tête-à-tête. The cigar selection (from £25) is equally bijoux – a dozen or so, chosen with care by bar manager Alessandro Palazzi, who, as former manager of the Hemingway Bar, used to select cigars for the Paris Ritz.
Just around the corner from Dukes is the Davidoff shop, where owner Edward Sahakian and his son Eddie are a mine of fascinating information. Along with one of the best cigar selections in London (from £6-£500, which you are legally allowed to smoke for “tasting” purposes), the shop also stocks a small selection of cigar-friendly spirits. A highlight is the voluptuous Hine Cigar Reserve cognac (£96) which, in the words of Eddie Sahakian, “works on the palate where the cigar is not, and acts like a vessel for the smoke to be enjoyed.”
An aged tequila can also make a splendid match for a cigar, according to cigar sommelier Felix Hartmann. He should know, having clinched the cigar world’s highest accolade, Habanos Sommelier World Champion, by pairing a Montecristo Petit Edmundo with an Extra Añejo José Cuervo Reserva de la Familia tequila (aged for at least three years in oak) in 2009. “Tequilas carry certain aromas and flavours because of their wood maturation, and these can also be found in fermented and aged tobacco leaves,” he explains.
While Hartmann is now based in Dubai, he reserves some of his highest praise for London’s most luxurious Cosa, the Garden Room at The Lanesborough. This low-lit sunken garden has a cigar selection that is, in his opinion, “unrivalled”, particularly for its rare Cuban and sought-after pre-Castro cigars such as a 1958 Hoyo de Monterrey Dunhill selection (£150 each) and a Romeo Y Julieta Piramides No1 (£350 each).
Director of bars Giuseppe Ruo is a regular at cigar auctions round the world, and travels to Cuba at least three times a year to ensure that his walk-in humidor remains stocked with exclusives. “It is very labour-intensive,” he laughs, “but if the cigar is rare, we have to have it.”
One of Ruo’s most highly prized treasures is a humidor of the Cohiba Behike 2005, a cigar of exceptional power and smoothness that has been described as the finest to emerge from Cuba for a decade (hence the price tag of £2,000 a cigar). Ruo’s eyes mist over as he recalls a unique tasting he arranged for a guest, which paired a Cohiba Behike 2005 with a sequence of three drinks that not only matched it for rarity, but responded to each stage of its evolution (aficionados, as we’ve seen, tend to talk about a cigar’s flavour in terms of the first, second and final third).
“For the first, and lightest, third, I served a Krug 1995 Clos d’Ambonnay with light floral notes and a good fizz that really brought the aromas up. As the cigar became more personal and heavy, with notes of grass, coffee and cacao, I served a Château Margaux 1982, full of complexity and viscosity, with the body of aged red berries. For the final third, when the cigar is very powerful, you need something to help you explore it in all its beauty – and a Macallan 1953 Single Cask, with its spiciness, citrus notes and marzipan finish, matched it perfectly.”
A little more modest, but just as popular with those in the know, is the Cosa at Ten Manchester Street Hotel. It’s regularly full of cigar-lovers enjoying the spoils of a shopping trip to the JJ Fox shop in Selfridges Wonder Rooms, where Cuban cigar expert Magali de la Cruz exerts her irrepressible charm and expertise.
And towards the end of 2011, we’re told to expect a new smoking den in Mayfair in the form of a club called 5 Hertford Street. Masterminded by Robin Birley, son of Annabel’s founder Mark Birley, it’s set to include a cigar shop fronting onto Shepherd’s Market, and a plush cigar terrace housed in an internal courtyard.
The ban, it seems, has done little to extinguish the capital’s love of cigars. On the contrary, says Simon Chase, “London has always had a special place in the cigar firmament, so maintaining that tradition after the ban has been challenging, but it’s now really coming back. There is a return of a thirst for knowledge combined with a surge of political incorrectness – a sense of ‘I’m jolly well going to show them!’”