Given the sheer variety of vitolas (shapes and sizes) and the different tobaccos, deciding on cigar to enjoy can be an endless journey. This isn’t a bad thing — I am a fan of constantly trying out new cigars — but it can be to the detriment of one’s budget, not to mention taste.
In addition, when looking to pair one with a drink, be it whisky, cognac, rum, coffee or even tea, finding the sweet spot can be daunting. The reality is most cigar afficionados don’t care for the rigmarole of trawling the internet for insider knowledge. They simply want to be able to cut, light, sit back and submerge themselves in a good cigar.
But with cigar smoking still a niche pastime in SA and across the continent, finding a guide can be difficult. There’s nothing worse than going into a tobacconist or restaurant and having someone clueless sell you a cigar. In this modern, connected world, recommendations drive much of our consumption: the food we eat, the places we shop or the wine we drink.
We want someone to be able to guide us with an understanding of our tastes and our palate. We want someone who can suggest when to use a ‘V-cut’, a straight cut or a punch. We want someone who, because we perhaps like a touch of sweetness in our cigar, will recommend something with a dark, maduro wrapper.
Enter the cigar sommelier. Just as a sommelier or wine steward is the foremost expert on a restaurant’s stock, keeping track of trends, managing the cellars and so on, the cigar sommelier is responsible not only for recommending and managing an establishment’s supply, but also for pairing.
A course such as the Cigar Sommelier Certificate from International Association of Cigar Sommeliers (IACS), which is also available online, takes one through all aspects of the cigar. That includes the history, the manufacturing process, anatomy of the cigar, cold tasting, cutting, lighting and, of course, pairing.
The IACS has been providing certifications for almost 25 years. With the certification also comes exclusive access to their learning platform and membership.
As a sidenote, one of the best pairings I have experienced was a Partagas Serie D No 40 (if I remember correctly), with espresso and dark chocolate. The sequence of consumption is also important; getting it wrong can be messy. While the pairing was in a cigar smoking lounge, it was four of us experimenting after one too many cognacs.
There is also the Tobacco University (which I have my eye on) that provides courses for everyone from retail tobacconists and salespeople, to consumers and aspiring sommeliers. There are even a couple of cigar courses on Udemy, the online platform.
As more and more hospitality spaces start to provide cigars as an added value, it’s going to be important for them to ensure they have someone knowledgeable enough to guide their patrons. Otherwise, enthusiasts will continue to bring their own cigars or even shy away from those venues. I generally choose restaurants on the basis of there being whether there is a space, that isn’t dingy, to enjoy a cigar after my meal. Otherwise it’s simpler and easier to my favourite cigar spot instead.