Minding manners at Beirut’s cigar bars

BEIRUT: Don’t clench it between your teeth. Do take a puff no more than twice a minute. Don’t ask anyone else for a light. This Beirut-cigarshould be a personal affair. Thus wrote Zino Davidoff in his 1967 protocol for cigar connoisseurs.

He’d just struck a deal with Cubatabaco, Cuba’s state-run tobacco producer following the revolution led by Fidel Castro, a man well known to be fond of a Cohiba or two. If it sounds a little like a manifesto, against the backdrop of burgeoning Caribbean Communism, that’s because Davidoff was serious about cigars.

With that diary entry, the Ukrainian-born merchant invented cigar etiquette which, according to the weighty, leather-bound menu at one Beirut tobacco bar, “is as relevant today was it was when written.”

It is true that the Lebanese like their cigars. Its airport is a regional destination for tobacco junkies, some of whom regularly make specific detours through Beirut to pick up a box of Romeo y Juliettas.

But as Antoine Rizk, manager of Le Gray’s Cigar Bar, argues, you don’t have to know the circumference of a Robusto (50/64th of an inch) to enjoy a cigar in Beirut.

“The cigar is still seen as a luxurious item and for non-aficionados as a holiday item. You might have a cigar only on special occasions,” he says. “[A cigar bar] is a place to come after work. It’s a place to sign a very big contract, or a very small one. It’s a place to come with friends.”

In Le Gray’s fifth-floor, glass-walled bar – all brown leather and squat coffee tables – cigars aren’t smoked. They’re “enjoyed.” Even if the patrons aren’t all cigar junkies, the staff here, like cigarettes/davidoff before them, knows its tobacco.

The Cigar Bar even has its own Torcedora, a woman who comes once a month to hand roll some of Lebanon’s finest smokes. Where does she come from? “Cuba,” Rizk replies. Naturally.

At this point I’m working through a Partag?s No. 2, a “Pir?mide” shape containing three whole leaves of uncut, air-dried tobacco. At seven inches in length, it seems suitably grandiose.

What type of cigar does the Torcedora smoke? “Something significantly bigger than this,” Rizk says.

But Rizk is equally keen to point out that you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy cigars. Aficionados, in understanding the “correct” way to light, hold and savor a cigar, may possess a more profound grasp of why one is so pleasurable, but that doesn’t diminish the uneducated gratification experienced by the lay smoker.

“Just as prestige people would go for a Louis Vuitton or a Cartier, so they would go for more famous brands [of cigars]. A real connoisseur would not smoke only one cigar. He would try many. He’d go according to his time and what he wants, according to if it’s humid or not, whether it’s day or night,” Rizk says.

In Raouche’s Movenpick Hotel sits Hemmingway’s Cigar Bar. Overlooking the shimmering Mediterranean, the open plan room is dotted with languorous armchairs laid over indulgently thick cream carpet. A fine grand piano sits resplendent, if unused, close to the bar. It is, like Le Gray, a pleasant place to be.

Hemmingway was not himself an avid smoker, his occasional Havana habit putting him low down the list of famous tobacco lovers and certainly behind American novelist Mark Twain, who was known to frequently hit 40 cigars a day.

Not many people in the bar are actually smoking cigars. Couples of women sip neon cocktails from violin-shaped glasses. A pair of businessmen wearing cygnet rings and talking a little too loudly about stock portfolios tap away at their laptops, nursing vodka oranges. The atmosphere is relaxed, cajoling. Comforting, even.

One gripe might be the music, omnipresent in hotel lobbies and corporate bistros, which has the unique anesthetic quality of numbing every emotion save a vague and intrusive rage.

Still, it’s encouraging to learn that cigar bars are not the sole preserve of Blackberry-wielding businessmen and boxing promoters.

Most of the hardcore smokers don’t do it for show. They are a seriously committed bunch. Take for example the process of properly lighting a cigar.

“It’s complicated,” Rizk explains. “You light it with a flame touching the edge, and go in a circular shape to get it warm. It takes four, five matches to get it lit. Technically, it should be done with untreated Cedarwood matches, but now we’re entering extremes. But this is what real aficionados do, trust me.”

Then there’s what one chooses for the accompanying drink. Although the Hollywood bride of the cigar would be cognac, Rizk maintains the best tipple for tobacco is coffee.

“Because they both come from the earth,” he reasons. “But a lot more people are tending toward single malts. And that’s a good match; there is an earthiness that goes well with the sweetness of cigars.”

This is covered, incidentally, in Davidoff’s commandments: “Don’t dunk your cigar in port or brandy, a habit of Winston Churchill.”

Never stub out a cigar either, the way you might with a factory-rolled cigarette. “Let the cigar die a dignified death,” Davidoff reverentially wrote.

Ultimately, smoking – or not smoking – something nice at a cigar bar should be for everyone, Rizk argues:

“[Smoking is] down to taste. You can’t tell if it’s wrong or right. Like, it’s normal to wear black with white. But if you want to go for green with mauve, wear green with mauve. No one will tell you you’re wrong.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 11, 2011, on page 12.

By Patrick Galey
The Daily Star

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