A Scottish Tour
When tobacconist brothers Nigel and Iain Graham organised their most recent cigar dinner 110 people signed up for a night of fine dining and stogies at Yes restaurant in the heart of Glasgow. As cigar dinners go, that is an impressive number. So impressive that the restaurant was closed for lunch the following day to allow the staff to recover and the room to be properly aired. In May, Hugo Amold went to find out what is happening in the land of single malts, kilts: and sporraus. Scottish air is rich with cigar smoke, mostly aromatic, from Honduras the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and, above all, Cuba. They take their smokes seriously north of the border.
Both Edinburgh and Glasgow have a choice of retailers and out in the wilds you can find well-stocked humidors in Ayr, Aberdeen and Perth. Fine dining has, on the whole, a tolerant attitude to lovers of the weed and there are plenty of pubs and bars where any lack of cognac or armagnac is more than compensated for by a range - at times enormous of single malts.
All the tobacconists featured do a thriving trade in mail order. While I was there, calls came from America, Canada, Singapore and India and where any requests were not stocked, substitutes were offered. Can't get Montecristo No.2s? I know a place where you can.
"A general and rather furious move away from synthetic cigars towards the fine world ofHavanas", is how Joyce Taylor, who manages Herbert Love at 31 Queensferry Street in Edinburgh (Tel:+44 (0)131 225 8082), describes the last five years. Her shop sells the odd packet of cigarettes and plastic-wrapped cigars, but its main focus is the humidor. Ms Taylor's office reinforces the feeling of deepest Cuba, cigar boxes and brown files everywhere.
Ms Taylor's move to manager seven years ago was undertaken with some trepidation; "Let's just say I met with some opposition from male smokers unused to being advised by women," she says. "I started to smoke myself, researched the subject and when harvests failed I began to build up stock." She also deals with a number of large hotels in Scotland and, increasingly, the north of England.
Cigar dinners are planned and downstairs is to be a smoking room, for customers who find smoking at home difficult and the street unsatisfactory; "I just have to find the time to do it," she says.
Business is increasing, particularly among younger professionals moving off cigarettes and on to fine cigars, "the hardest group to educate as they are so used to inhaling. All our stuff have been to cigar school, however and most of` this group are keen to experiment." I put myself up for a lesson, being a recent convert to the delicious, indulgent world of fine smokes, and am sized up; "If you were not very tall," says Ms Taylor, "I would not encourage you towards a Churchill size, but something a little shorter" I draw myself up to my full five foot eleven inches and take delivery of a Sancho Panza Non Plus with a ring gauge of 42 and five inches of length and drift off a very happy customer, with an elegant cigar perfect for my novice palette.
Next stop is The Pipe Shop. Alan Myerthall's shop at 92 Leith Walk (Tel: +44 (0)131 553 3561), is one of the most unassuming I have ever been into. There is little to give away his enthusiasm for cigars except perhaps his top shelf, given over to the current issue of Cigar Aficionado. His real treasure trove, however, is 20 yards up the road at No.76 where Alan has just opened the Little Havana Cigar Store. You enter a humid heaven, near perfect at 67% relative humidity and with a temperature that never varies much from 65°F
Mr Myerthall has been selling cigars for 26 years; "I'm amazed at how much things have taken off in the last ten," he says. He supplies a lot of Americans and does mail order. We are seated at the bottom of the ladder in a cellar rich with tobacco aromas. The phone rings; an American in town on business buying for her friends. Within a few minutes several hundred dollars of business is done.
By now I am beginning to think of dinner and while the food is important, so is considering the location of my evening smoke. The Balmoralat 1 Princes Street (Tel: +44 (0)131 556 2414), the first in Rocco Forte's new company of RF Hotels has, I've been told, a well-stocked humidor, so I book in to the main restaurant, Number One.
Gentleman's Club meets Scottish austerity in the shape of red lacquered panels, possibly a little dark on a summer's day (in which case book into Hadrian's, the brasserie on the other side of the hotel, which has an inviting menu and will, if requested, get your required stogie from the restaurant humidor).
My tentative request for a sherry brings forward not a half-full bottle of tepid Tio Pepe but a manzanilla from one of Lustau's delicious almacenistas. The menu is well focused and succinct and I kick off with a fresh tasting amuse of sea bass. My tenine of foie gras and duck confit with sautéed potato is a delight, although I cannot help questioning the veal just decorating the plate, adding strength where subtlety would be more appropriate. My main course of roast turbot with salsify risotto delivered an exquisite piece of turbot, but a risotto that was overcooked, the salsify hardly evident and the stated sauce vierge more of a salad. and delicious it was too. The cheese board was impressive and well kept. Bleu d'Auvergne and a delicious, but unidentified, Irish cheese.
Time for a cigar. the sommelier presents a humidor with Cohibas and Bolivars. Do I want the band off or on and do I want my choice, a Bolivar No.2, "wound up"? I do. and am left with a perfectly primed stogic and a box of matches, "just in case". Tucked into one corner, I enjoy 40 minutes of undisturbed bliss.
The following day it is time to swap the elegance of Edinburgh for the more gutsy Glasgow. where I'm on a mission - for lunch at a restaurant I've been waiting 10 years to go to, the Ubiquitous Chipat 12 Ashton Lane (Tel: +44 (0)141 334 5007).
Housed in what was a stables in Glasgow's West End, the restaurant is a warren of rooms centred around a glassed-in courtyard complete with pond, greenery and cobbled floor. You can eat upstairs in a less formal area, or drink in the large, comfortable bar - wines and beers both well chosen.
Downstairs, I benefit from early summer sunlight but am grateful for the heating; Scotland in May is not quite warm enough for al fresco dining. Pine tables and brightly coloured napkins give the Chip a relaxed character; staff are bright, friendly and efficient.
My fine is a little on the warm side, but goes well with an amuse of cullen skin. Next comes a wonderful plate of langoustine. Sliced lengthways, they tumble one on top of the other and are served simply with mayonnaise. The main course of rabbit with cinnamon gravy came with a chargrilled saddle and casseroled fore and rear leg; the mash of tomatoes, potatoes and olive oil was deeply satisfying. The oatcake ice-cream was decidedly rich, but good. I was in haste and wanted a cigar.
For an afternoon smoke, the Chip is extremely comfortable, the aroma drifting up towards the double-height ceiling. Choose from Bolivar Nos. l, 2 or 3, H. Upmann Coronas Junior or Romeo y Julieta Churchills or No.3s. Trade is not huge, but the range is fine, in good condition and the venue a delight.
There are two Havana specialists in Glasgow, 100 metres apart; Tobacco House, now renamed Herbert Love as part of the chain at 9 St. Vincent Place (Tel: +44 (0)141 226 4586), and Grahams at 71 St. Vincent Street (Tel: +44 (0)141 221 6588). The latter is run by brothers, Nigel and Iain, who look the part in their Edwardian-fitted shop. While pipe tobacco and all the accompanying fancy goods are also sold, fine cigars account for the largest percentage of sales.
"There has been significant growth in the last three years" according to Nigel Graham. His route to persuading People on to fine cigars? "A King Edward costs £2.30 and for £2.65 you could be smoking this" - he holds up a handmade Honduran cigar. "For just that little bit more you get a pure tobacco, handmade cigar and the transformation is incredible. After that one step, the cigars tend to sell themselves." The Grahams have been running cigar dinners since the beginning of 1996, when they inherited a dinner by accident. "The Hilton had to cancel a cigar dinner at short notice and after a few calls we had 20 signed up and in a local wine bar" Everything has grown from there. The format emphasises the social aspect, with a three-course dinner and two cigars. one after the main course and one after pudding. Recently the Grahams have incorporated a popular whisky tasting.
Down the road, Jim Wilkinson at Herbert Love is getting towards the end of an afternoon smoke. He has been in the trade for over 40 years. 30 of those at George Murray Frame. "That was when a tobacconist really was a shop," he recalls. "The humidor was eight or ten times the size of this one and all the cigars on sale had been aged." Today we are standing in an eight-foot square humidor organised according to brand. "The last person through that door was the actor Billy Connolly," Mr Wilkinson tells me, but declines to reveal the great man's preferred smokes; discretion is all.
His most popular seller is the Cohiba range, the most popular size robustos. Most popular cigar? "Impossible to say, but I'd put a word in for Honduras generally, the quality and price of cigars from that country has done a lot to get people off homogenised tobacco leaf."
My next move is to hop back on the train towards Edinburgh, getting off at Linlithgow. I had heard about Champany Inn (Tel: +44 (0)1506 834 532) but knew nothing more than that the beef was rumoured to be excellent, the wine list extensive and cigar smoking encouraged. Clive and Anne Davidson run an impressive establishment
I started with a perfectly-cooked salad of black pudding and apple. My rib eye steak was quite simply one of the best I've ever eaten. Chargrilled and crispy on the outside, full-flavoured, moist and tender. Prices may appear high, but quality is uncompromising.
Later that evening I was invited by Mr Davidson to view his cellar, all 100 feet of it. The best years from France, Italy, the New World and his homeland - South Africa. If you go, ask, and take, the advice of sommelier Michael Anthony. Knowledgeable he certainly is, but his enthusiasm and obvious enjoyment of the cellar come to the fore. In what is perhaps one of the most difficultjobs in a restaurant, he excels.
It is hard to be in this part of Scotland and not consider a trip to St Andrews, home to the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse, the very name enough to make golfers go weak at the knees. Not being a golfer, most of it was lost on me. Cigar loving golfers take note, however, smokes are encouraged in the bar which is conveniently close to the restaurant. The well-stocked humidor concentrates on big cigars: Cohiba Esplendidos, Bolivar Churchills as well as Nos. 1 & 2 and Romeo Y Julieta Churchills.
Lunch was not to be here, but in Glasgow at Yes , 22 West Nile Street, (Tel: +44 (0)141 221 8044), where the basement walls are pale yellow, the seats a rich blue and sunlight everywhere. I went for the salad of baby black pudding, a good assembly of leaves well-dressed with tasteful chunks of the said pudding. The rest of the table had the sorbet of blackcurrant and melon, tastefully presented, but rather too dessert-like in its richness. Our main courses were battered cod with pesto butter, chargrilled chicken with an overcooked pea and chestnut risotto which had suffered from a heavy hand on the Parmesan and a rather soothing casserole of salmon with tomato, saffron and courgette spaghetti. I passed on the pudding, heading instead for the humidor, rich in Cohibas, owner Ferrier Richardson's favourite cigar. The Robusto was slightly extensive for an afternoon smoke, but the Glasgow sunshine and the fact that it was Friday afternoon made it one of the more satisfying smokes of the trip.
Raffles bar in the Glasgow Hilton at 1 William Street (+44 (0)141 204 5555) is an exotic location by any standards. Singapore it isn't, but it's not far off. Having visited the real thing, I can only say the imitation is almost preferable. The charming sommelier Nicolas Maix oversees the humidor and enjoys his cigars. His hesitancy was only apparent after the first few puffs; "I have given up smoking," he admitted, "my wife would he appalled."
Bolivar is well represented, with Bonitas, No.2s and No.3s as well as Montecristo No.2s and Tubes. Romeo y Julieta No.2, H. Upmann Juniors and Santa Damiana Tubulares complete the box. Mr Maix always offers to light. saying it helps create theatre: "It is amazing how often the lighting of one cigar leads to other diners requesting a stogie"
If Leo Bolland is the modern face of cigar smoking, 1 want more of it. Cool, professional and entertaining, he is the general manager of Havana (now called Fiesta Havana)at 50 Hope Street in Glasgow (Tel: +44 (0)141 248 4466). Originally trained with the Savoy Group, he now runs this fourth Havana, Part of the Capital Radio group.(now part of the SFI Group)
Staff are trained, certainly, but at Havana they also have to pass a test before they are let on to the floor and this goes for cigars too. Although themed restaurants may not be everybody's choice destination, there are too many straight-laced, silver service establishments with poorly maintained humidors and ignorant staff who could learn more than a thing or two from Havana. Go here, and you will smoke well.
I asked our waiter. the effervescent Stuart Rutherford for a cigar and was shown a humidor well-stocked with Bolivar No.2s. Montecristo No.4s. H.Upmann Coronas, Cuaba Generosos. Santa Damiana Churchills and Cohihas, all in prime condition. Mr Rutherford had charm and enthusiasm in leading me, not towards the Cohiba. my initial choice, but the Cuaba. an interesting. broadly focused smoke. The shape figurado - was new to me, but so were the surroundings. Salsa music and a Friday night in Glasgow are not my usual hunting grounds. We drank house wine, but could have chosen from an extensive cocktail list. The house champagne is Piper Heidsieck at an extremely reasonable £24.95 (£15.95 during happy hour). Tapas came thick and fast, tortilla chips as you would expect, but also some delicious salmon fritters with cucumber salsa. The main restaurant list has a section on Havana wraps, rolled tortillas with a choice of filling, a section on salads and one on charcoal grills. We finished with delicious ice-cream and extremely good coffee, my macchiato as close to the real thing as 1 have had in a long time.
Next time I'm in Glasgow I know where I shall be heading for an early evening smoke, glass of champagne in hand and a Cuaba Generosos. or perhaps next time I'll try something different again.