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Smoke signals: a cigar tour of London

22 May 2023
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19 May 2023
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22 May 2023

Moments to Savour

London is home to some of the world’s finest cigar shops and several of the best can be explored at leisure on a tour of Mayfair and St James’s

C igar smoking, as any aficionado knows, is very much a matter of taste. Few people realise that better than Edward Sahakian who, for more than 30 years, has managed the famous Davidoff store at 35 St James’s Street in London’s historic St James’s district.

‘Every cigar has a time and a place,’ he says. ‘I’d smoke something different on a cold, wet day in London, for example, than I would on a warm afternoon in Havana – with a Mohito.’

Given that Sahakian’s shop contains at least 220 different cigars – at the last count – that’s plenty for his customers to be getting on with. And many of them, like him, like few things in life quite as much as a good cigar.

‘I’d say the process of enjoyment all starts when you open the box,’ muses Sahakian. ‘There could be 10 or 20 cigars in there, but one of them will catch your eye; because of its colour, or its shape, or something else. That’s where the attraction all starts.’

I have dropped in to see Sahakian in the company of Nick Wing, himself something of an expert, who runs a walking tour based on Cuban cigars and their history in the capital.

Wing tells me Davidoff numbers among its customers some of the world’s most famous cigar smokers, but for those who are slightly less au fait with the intricacies of the art Sahakian prides himself on the advice he and his colleagues provide.

‘If someone comes in and says that they just want a cigar, we’ll find out more about when they mean to smoke it. Will it be right now with a coffee? After lunch? After dinner? Then we’ll ask what they’ll be eating, what wine they’ll be drinking, how long they’ll have to enjoy it. The more information we get the more we can narrow it down until we can say: “This is the cigar you need.”’

Well-established as Davidoff is today, however, it is a veritable newcomer in comparison to its neighbour, James J Fox and Robert Lewis. This store can trace its origins back to the 18th century and is perhaps most famous for its long-standing relationship with Sir Winston Churchill.

With its long counter, fragrant aroma and well-stocked walk-in humidor, the shop would probably still look fairly familiar to the great statesman if he was to stroll in off the street today.

Downstairs there is an eclectic and eccentric collection of memorabilia, much of which is related to Churchill. On prominent display is an order book which records the great man’s first purchase, made on 9 August 1900. Judging by the frequency and volume of his purchases, he must have been a highly valued customer.

The ledgers on display also record the purchases of Oscar Wilde who, the eagle-eyed will notice, still owes the shop some money

He was far from alone, however. The ledgers on display also record the purchases of Oscar Wilde who, the eagle-eyed will notice, still owes the shop some money. Other customers included the likes of the Earl of Antrim, Lord Cecil, the Scottish Club and the officers’ mess of the Royal Horse Guards.

The gentlemen of the latter establishment certainly enjoyed their cigars. A glance at the yellowing pages shows that on 30 April 1890 they purchased 500 (for cash). By 16 May, however, they had presumably finished those and bought another 500, before on 3 June deciding to stop doing things by half measure and purchasing a further 1,000.

Other intriguing highlights include the leather armchair in which Churchill sat when he came to sample cigars here; it is not as comfortable as it once was, one presumes. There is also a letter sent by the elder statesman to the shop in 1963, asking if they would send to his grandson, ‘a box of cigars of good quality, but not quite as good as the Romeo & Juliet…’

For a place to enjoy a cigar in a rather more comfortable chair and with a remarkable view, we turn left out of JJ Fox and walk downhill to Rothmans of Pall Mall. Recently refurbished, the shop is as modern and minimalist as JJ Fox is traditional and eclectic. While the selection of cigars on offer is not as great as that of its neighbours, it has a remarkable red-walled sampling room, complete with yielding white leather armchairs, where it’s possible to enjoy a cigar overlooking St James’s Palace.

Whether Churchill would approve is a subject for debate, but a place that combines fine cigars and the great buildings of State might well have appealed to his sense of theatre.

As a young man, he lived a few streets north of here, at 105 Mount Street. At that time, although still only in his twenties, he was already a member of parliament, having made a name for himself as a journalist during the Boer War.

The flat to which JJ Fox delivered his early cigars is still there, opposite the five-star Connaught Hotel and, if he was living here today, he would have an even more convenient option for purchasing his favourite Havanas – Sautters of Mayfair.

The Dunhill shop is a quintessentially British showcase for the brand

This enigmatic little shop has been at these premises since the 1970s, when it was founded by Desmond Sautter. It has a reputation for its selection of collectible cigars and cigar-based paraphernalia, and in the 1990s is reputed to have had a stock of over 100,000 pre-Castro Cuban cigars.

When we visit, we are shown various recent acquisitions. Among them is a very rare 19th-century cigar cabinet that would once have hung in the billiard room of a large house. Most of its cigars are still intact, each type bound together and positioned under a hand-painted name. Some of these, I’m told, are so rare as to be unknown today.

From the treasure trove of Sautters, it is a short distance to Davies Street and Bourdon House, home to the flagship Alfred Dunhill store. Its founder, Alfred Dunhill himself, knew a thing or two about cigars and was a pioneer of the humidification process, perfecting the technique in the early 1920s.

Dunhill was also a supplier to Churchill – as well as to many other statesmen of the era. In late summer 1939, indeed, he was visited by the German air attaché, who bought 1,000 Partagas cigars for Herman Goering, head of the Luftwaffe. The latter had, it seems, anticipated a potential problem with sourcing his regular supply of Cuban cigars.

Today, the Alfred Dunhill shop is a quintessentially British showcase for the brand and its basement humidor is both state-of-the-art and also a vault for cigar smokers and collectors. Just outside, two large cedar cigar cases provide a reminder of Dunhill’s heritage. These would have each contained 10,000 cigars and could have been bought for £950 – in 1927.

To muse on this and my other recent cigar-based knowledge I walk back to St James’s Street and the Stafford Hotel, tucked away just opposite JJ Fox. Its American Bar has been attracting discerning customers since the 1930s and, by happy coincidence, it also has one the finest cigar terraces in London.

Words: Staff

London's Cigar Shops

This article was originally published in Halcyon magazine in 2012

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