Despite the draconian smoking bans which have come in across Europe over the last decade or so, cigar smoking is in rude health. In London, many cigar terraces have been introduced since the 2007 ban prohibited smoking in enclosed public spaces. There are now no shortage of places where you can light up a Hoyo de Monterrey or a Henri Wintermans Slim Panatella and smoke to your heart’s content. Cigar smoking was always sexy — but arguably the smoking ban has made it sexier still.
The new vogue for cigar smoking cuts across boundaries of class, nationality, political affiliation and gender. Female celebrities who have been photographed puffing away include Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez and Heidi Klum.
Mary Churchill, daughter of Sir Winston, was reported to still enjoy a postprandial smoke at the grand old age of 89, and George Galloway celebrated his Bradford West by-election victory with a -Churchillian V-salute and a Cuban cigar. Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, the radical French lawyer and spouse of Carlos the Jackal, loves a cigar, as does the leading Newmarket racehorse trainer Sir Mark Prescott Bt, who, asked what was his favourite brand of cigar, replied: ‘Partagas — and I smoke as many as possible.’
A feature of this new golden age of cigar smoking has been the growth of smoking festivals, including The Spectator’s own cigar dinner. My own love of cigars recently took me to Estonia, where I attended the inaugural ‘Nordic BigSmoke’ held in Tallinn.
Billed as a ‘48-hour marathon for cigar lovers’, the Nordic BigSmoke is the brainchild of Jan Vistisen, a Danish cigar aficionado who reckons that he has smoked more than 25,000 cigars in the past 25 years (probably not to be advised). Jan loves cigars so much that he decided to make them his life’s work by buying a plantation in Panama and single-handedly resuscitating Denmark’s once world-famous cigar industry with his own Royal Danish label.
The event, held to coincide with the ‘White Nights’ of midsummer, kicked-off at the Davidoff Cigar House in Tallinn’s main square. Jan arrives and kindly pops a couple of Royal Danish in my top pocket, ‘something to smoke later’. I meet Marco and Toni from Croatia. Marco established the Cigar World Championship in his home city of Split in 2010 and his dream, like Jan’s, is a noble one: to bring together cigar smokers from all over the world in a spirit of peace and friendship and fun.
If you think ‘Big Smoke’ events are a male-only preserve, think again. A sizeable percentage of those attending are female, mostly from Russia and the Baltic States. ‘There is nothing sexier than a beautiful woman smoking a cigar,’ Marco tells me, as in front of us a tall brunette in a long black dress lights up a Macanudo.
Two cigars later, we make our way across town to the next event, a gala dinner at the marina. Cigars are smoked before, during and after the three courses. Then Jan takes to the floor and announces that it’s time for the competition. Who can keep a Montecristo No. 4 alight for the longest using only three matches? The prize is a glittering one: a Royal Danish cigar humidor with 24K gold-plated sterling silver crown, containing 20 King of Denmark nine-inch cigars encrusted with Swarovski crystals. In addition the winner also gains a free entry to the cigar smoking world championship. A young female competitor from Latvia goes beyond her third match, but is allowed to continue. She remains in the competition a long time but after an hour fewer than half of the contestants are still puffing. In the end the prize goes to Igor from St Petersburg, the reigning world champion, who sets a new world record time.
Next morning we are taken by coach and ferry to the lovely island of Saaremaa, for the next stage of the festivities. Tonight’s contest, held alongside a disco on the beach, is the longest ash competition for the longest day of the year. I have achieved ash of about 3cm when I make one false move on the dance floor and the British chance of glory in an international event is gone once more. (Close, but no cigar.) Once again, Igor triumphs, producing ash 10.5cm long. How does the man do it?
Next day, it’s back to Tallinn for the third and final contest. Jan’s delightful Panamanian wife shows us to how roll cigars from dried leaves and how to press them and then we all have a go, Generation Game-style. I’m reasonably satisfied with my effort, but Toni from Croatia dazzles us with his expertise.
After a farewell meal, it’s time to say our goodbyes. Thanks to events like these, people are being united around their love of a tightly rolled bundle of tobacco leaves.
I leave Estonia convinced that if more people smoked cigars and adopted the hedonistic philosophy of Jan Vistisen, the world would be a much better place. Roll on the next Big Smoke.