According to Wikipedia, the following is the definition of the word sommelier:
A sommelier , or wine steward, is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, normally working in fine restaurants, who specializes in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food pairing. The role in fine dining today is much more specialized and informed than that of a wine waiter. Sommeliers Australia states that the role is strategically on par with that of the chef de cuisine.
Excellent. The short form is that a sommelier is a wine steward. To go a little deeper, he or she is someone who is a knowledgeable professional who specializes in wine service as well as food pairing.
So if the sommelier is one who is knowledgeable in wines, then it stands to reason that a cigar sommelier is one who is knowledgeable in cigars, right? Good.
Several years ago – around the turn of the new millennium – the Habanos corporation in Cuba put together a course for their cigar experts. Of course they had for years been training torceadors – cigar rollers – as well as every other aspect of the industry – for years. Great… their people know how to make cigars; they have master blenders, farmers, rollers, and everything else you would need to make a cigar. Some might say that this was enough; it would then be on the cigar smoker to know what he or she likes, which is for many really all that was needed.
So when someone who has never tried a real cigar asks a cigar smoker: “What is your favourite cigar?” or “What is the best cigar in the world?” they might answer: “I love the Partagas 898!” or “The best cigar is the Cohiba Behike 56.” If the person asking was another seasoned cigar smoker, they would then try both of those, and decide whether or not they agreed with the person’s opinions. A beginner might then seek out the Partagas, light it up, and think that smoking was not for them. It is a very strong cigar that the seasoned smoker who loves full-bodied cigars will love… but it is probably too strong for someone who has never smoked a cigar before. They would then look at the price tag of the Cohiba Behike and realize that if they didn’t like cigar #1, they probably would not invest the money to try cigar #2. They might never become a cigar smoker. Their parents, worried about the health risks associated with smoking, might be happy with this outcome… but there are truly as many different cigars as there are most any other pleasure, and that person might be missing out on something that they really might have enjoyed.
Now: If the same beginner were to ask a cigar expert – someone who did not have an agenda, but knows more about cigars than the average smoker – they would likely get a very different answer. In truth, as a cigar sommelier (not a Habanos Sommelier), I would answer their question with a series of questions. “I would start by asking if they have ever smoked before, and if so, what did they try, and did they enjoy it? I would ask if they prefer heavier cigars, or lighter ones. I would ask what they were drinking, and if they had eaten recently, what had they eaten? What were they drinking? If someone had never smoked a cigar before but was eager to try it, and they had not eaten for several hours, it would be simpler – I would likely pair a lighter cigar with their drink. I would give them something lighter, but that would compliment their drink of choice. For example, if they were drinking a light red wine or an aged single-malt whisky, I might pair it with a Romeo and Julietta #3… something a little smaller, a little softer. Based on that experience, the beginner might realize that they enjoyed their first cigar, and would be eager to try it again.
I have been helping people to learn about cigars and the cigar culture for over a decade. In fact, I have been smoking cigars for over twenty years, but that did not make me an expert. I am, however, passionate about my cigars (hence the name of my website), and sharing my knowledge and passion; helping people to learn has always been a pleasure for me.
Traditionally, if I am in a cigar lounge and am asked the question, I try to pair the person asking with a cigar that the establishment sells. I remember sitting in one of my favourite lounges in Kahnawake, Canada helping a young lady who had come in for a holiday party; the people in her group obviously knew about cigars and had made their own selections, but they were mostly busy drinking. The young lady was a cigarette smoker who enjoyed both light and minty cigarettes; when introducing people to cigars I try, as a rule, to avoid flavoured cigars, and so after she answered my questions I recommended she try the Trinidad Vigia, which is lighter and paired nicely with the Chardonnay she was drinking. I showed her how to prepare it, how to cut it, how to light it… and she fell in love. Did she continue along the path to being a true cigar smoker? I have no idea – we never spoke again. I do know that she really enjoyed the cigar, and that she did not feel so left out by the crowd she had come in with.
A cigar sommelier is different from most cigar smokers in that they have specialized training in many aspects of cigars that most smokers do not. We learn about the terroir (sound familiar? It is a term borrowed directly from the wine industry). We know about different vitolas. We know the history of tobacco, from the first meetings between European explorers and the Taina tribe indigenous to Cuba. We know about the religious ceremonies in which tobacco was originally used, how the tribe’s behike (shaman) would light their bundle of leaves with the wood from a cuaba tree (which by the way smells terrible, and thus why we use Spanish cedar today). We know the difference between green tobacco (used for cigarettes) and black tobacco (used for cigars). We learn about the different regions where black tobacco is grown, and the different properties of those tobaccos, and what properties in the soil contribute to the different flavours. We learn about the different leaves on different levels of the tobacco plant, and so much more.
Since I earned the designation in 2019, I have been asked by many people what is involved in earning the credential. I tell them that you need to take a three-day course, followed by a month of studying, and then an exam. I also tell them that the only reason I was able to successfully pass that exam was because I have been smoking cigars for over twenty years, and have been learning about them for just as long. The International Association of Cigar Sommeliers is a relatively new organization, and to expect to be an expert based solely on their course and exam is probably folly… and it is for that reason that only people who have been learning about and smoking cigars for many years are recommended to sit the class. Much like in my day job, anyone can pass a certification exam, given enough time to study the material; to be an expert requires so much more than that.
I am proud that I was able to achieve the Cigar Sommelier Diploma; it took a lot of hard work, and I am happy that I succeeded. However, just like in my day job, my expertise is so much more than a logo that I can print on my business cards. The same is true for every one of the people who sat the class with me. Our instructor, Yamir, was able to take our years of cigar experience and knowledge, and improve upon that with his knowledge of the history and of the industry, as well as his knowledge of spirits (in addition to being a Master Cigar Sommelier, he is also a Wine & Spirits sommelier). I know that the nine of us who spent the weekend together in the Hollywood Hills had an amazing time sharing discussions about different vitolas, cigar shapes and sizes, and the different ways to cut different cigars. We had an amazing time discussing the different pairings we enjoyed, and many of the things we did not enjoy. The least experienced of our group knows that she still has a lot to learn, and continues to improve daily. In fact, I suspect that is true for all of us.
Since passing the exam, I have helped many people with their cigar pairings; I have taught people how to prepare their cigars, and how I felt they could best enjoy them. With that said, I am not the most knowledgeable person I know in my circle of cigar friends. When those people point to me as the expert, I am almost embarrassed, because I know that they know what they are talking about, often better than I do. I do, however, enjoy learning from them… and occasionally teaching them a thing or two.
So to get back to the original question, what makes a cigar sommelier? Depending on the individual, that answer could be different. Most of the others that I know work in the industry, in one form or another. Some are cigar rollers, some manage (or own) cigar stores, and a few own their own lines of cigars. Many are either Instagram or YouTube personalities, although I suspect we all have a pretty active social media presence. Some of us might even blog about cigars.
What makes me a cigar sommelier? It is not the diploma I received; it is my willingness, indeed my passion, to help people to enjoy their cigars more. Yes, I blog… and I record the occasional YouTube video to share what I know… but that all goes back to my sharing my passion and knowledge.
What might it mean to you? When you are ready to answer the question, I will be happy to discuss it with you.