The soundtrack to our lives can sound like the buzzing of a mosquito on a hot summer’s night, in the dark, as you attempt to fall asleep. It is non-stop, incessant, as so much of our lives have also become. There is rarely respite from the constant drive to do more and be more, to change our circumstances and to create a decent foundation for ourselves and our families. Throw the amount of information coming our way from media – social, traditional and otherwise – into the equation, and each minute can be overwhelming.
But, there is hope for a different reality. Puerto Rican actor, Raul Julia, once said: “Maybe it’s like becoming one with the cigar. You lose yourself in it; everything fades away: your worries, your problems, your thoughts. They fade into the smoke, and the cigar and you are at peace.”
Cigar stereotypes can be off-putting. Yet, there is so much more to a good cigar than simply being an expensive hobby for rich old men or a way of showing off one’s newfound wealth. As with wine and whisky, there’s a craft to cigar-making that stems from the land and the climate within which the tobacco is grown, and is reflected in flavour, smoke time, aroma and the like.
While it is not that easy to find a place to smoke a cigar, other than in the comfort of your home, there are some specialist cigar lounges to be found.
It all starts with the seedlings being grown indoors, before being replanted out in the fields. Tobacco leaves are then harvested and air cured in a shed or barn until they dry and turn brown. These are sorted, packed into stacks and left to ferment, all the while taking into consideration the type of tobacco leaf, colour, size, what part of the cigar it is intended for, aroma, flavour, etc.
There are three parts to a cigar: the wrapper, the binder and the filler. The filler is usually drawn from any part of the tobacco plant, with the leaves at the top of the plant having the stronger flavour. Cigar fillers from different parts of the plant help create a certain balance and taste.
The binder simply binds the filler together and has no real role, particularly from a flavour perspective – and so it is usually from the bottom of the plant. The wrapper is what you see when you are purchasing your cigar. To ensure that the wrapper is smooth and not too thick, with minimal veins, tobacco that is going to be used for this purpose is grown in the shade. A great deal of the flavour you get when you smoke comes from the wrapper.
The process of growing, curing and ageing tobacco, and rolling and packing it, is one that requires skill that the Cubans have made their own for decades. But tobacco farms and brands have spread through various parts of the world, particularly in Latin American countries such as Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. And, while Cuba is still considered the standard, there are great cigars from all around the world.
At the end of the day, the proof is in the smoking. There is a wonderfully meditative quality to smoking a cigar. Because they come in different lengths and ring gauges (thickness), you cannot really pop out of the office quickly for a couple of drags. It is all about how much time you have, and finding the right space.
While it is not that easy to find a place to smoke a cigar, other than in the comfort of your home, there are some specialist cigar lounges to be found. Pedro Portia, a cigar and champagne lounge in Cedar Square, Johannesburg, is the gold standard for lounges. It was built with an understanding and sensitivity around cigar smoking that is unmatched. It helps that owner José Ramos, with his son Pedro, also run Amano Cigars, which is a key cigar distributor in South Africa and supplies numerous tobacconists, hotels and restaurants.
There is something about walking into Pedro Portia, exploring the expansive humidor and making your selection before settling into a chair, sitting back and lighting your cigar without worry. There is an extensive menu of cigars, including Alec Bradley, Padron, El Septimo, My Fathers, Gurkha, Partagas, Daniel Marshall, Cohiba, Olivia, Trinidad and Montecristo.
Pedro Portia marries this cigar abundance with a great Mediterranean-inspired menu, a bar selection from cocktails and rum to champagne, and a comfortable grown-and-sexy ambience. A cigar forces you to sit back and chill; to savour the flavour, as you swirl the smoke in your mouth, and start to identify and experience the evolution of taste as you enjoy the cigar.
Even in the company of others, there are those moments of silence as you drift off into the smoke, into your thoughts, into the world beyond what you see, with the cigar as your guide. If you are going to smoke in a public space, it is important that you are allowed those moments because, ultimately, that is what a good cigar is about: an experience, on your terms.