Fire Starters: The Sampling Room at the Bulgari Hotel
The Cigar Shop and Sampling Room in the Bulgari Hotel Knightsbridge is a space for all smoking connoisseurs, amateur and veteran alike.
North American Indians had it right when it came to their cultural attitudes towards tobacco. There was none of the dismissiveness found in modern-day views, when the mention of smoking or tobacco is, more often than not, met with a cold reception to a 'filthy habit'. No, they were more respectful in their treatment of the dried-out leaf. Far from the 'Can-you-smoke-that-outside' philistines of today, they believed in the entheogenic capabilities of tobacco - some believed that tobacco was a gift from the Creator, the smoke lifting their prayers to the heavens. Algonquian people in Canada still frown upon addiction to tobacco, as they believe that if you abuse this sacred plant, it will abuse you. The practice of smoking it, as they did, in a spiritual room where serenity can be found - and where you might even find God - is all but lost, save for a solitary space in the Bulgari Hotel of Knightsbridge, London: the Edward Sahakian Cigar Shop and Sampling Room. The unexpectedly rapid rise of the COSA (Cosy Outdoor Smoking Area) has become a fascinating subject for specialist cigar and luxury magazines. Removed from the stringent expectation of door fees, sparkler-bearing vodka bottles, and minimum-spend-per-table bars and clubs you'll find in most MEDC metropolises, these are havens in which to sit in solitude or in fine company, contemplating the stick of tightly bound (though not too tightly bound) leaves in front of you, a tonic for the woes of the earth. The problem is that, for legal reasons, many of these are fifty-one percent outdoors - a slave to the elements. In some cases, take The Ritz in London, for example, to get there feels akin to asking to see the pornography stash, situated as they are along back corridors and up-and- down staircases. The Edward Sahakian shop and sampling lounge at the Bulgari Hotel in Knightsbridge, which opened in May 2012, affords you meditative surroundings with all the trappings of a 1950s' jet- set after-dinner salon: easy to find, well upholstered, and with warm and comfortable chestnut-coloured décor, pictures of the most glamorous smokers of all time, Geoffrey Parker backgammon sets designed to match the room, cumbersome but sturdy ashtrays, and smartly chosen music at the perfect volume so conversation is never stifled. Then, of course, come its two main attractions. Firstly, the sommeliers, Mike Choi and Attila Szabo. Mike is considered one of the finest sommeliers in the world - the second- finest, in fact, having finished runner-up at the Cuban 2014 World Habanosommelier Championship (he was also the UK habanosommelier champion of 2013). Attila is hot on his heels, and both hold the Hunters & Frankau epithet 'Master of Havana Cigars'.
Together they form a fantastic team, treading the line between talking you through the cigar and leaving you to enjoy it in quiet contemplation. The amateur smoker will never feel intimidated here - the process of selection is tailored entirely to your experience, size, time available and, believe it or not, what you have eaten that day; it is a stark contrast to the upsettingly commonplace practice of offering an inexperienced smoker a more expensive cigar than is necessary, which is a scandal that equals that of extravagant wine-list recommendations in semi-reputable restaurants. So listen carefully to them, trust them, and you will find yourself setting fire to something that matches your good mood or at least takes your prayers to the appropriate celestial being. Which brings us to the second showpiece: the cigars. There is a specially selected assortment of chocolatey, golden brown, sweet, sensuous, succulent and smoky cigars, chosen by legendary merchants Messrs Sahakian and Sahakian, the father and son proprietors of Davidoff of St. James's. Eddie, scion of this great dynasty, says of the shop: 'The genesis was that the hotel wanted to offer a first-class, highly respectable facility for cigar-smoking clientele, different to terraces and heat lamps, as you would find in other establishments. 'We were approached at the time I was planning to celebrate my father's achievements in the cigar world. Having his brand in the Bulgari framework ticked all those boxes. We felt cigar smokers would understand it without being too in your face. We have only happy and very positive reactions and also thoroughly enjoy doing it.' The 'jewels', as Eddie refers to the cigar selection, will absolutely meet your needs: the rare cigars and lesser-known brands can satisfy even the pickiest connoisseur. They have all shapes, sizes and colours in regimented shelves of perfect tobacco, mainly from Cuba but also the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. Everything from the Cohiba Siglo VI Gran Reserva - the greatest cigar ever made - to the Montecristo Sublimes, a Rake favourite, the San Cristobal Muralla (the largest Habanos torpedo on the market), mainline cigars such as the Romeo y Julieta Wide Churchill, and short formats such as the Trinidad Reyes. Also, rather specially, there are Cuban Davidoff Aniversario No. 1 - good luck getting these at auction for less than £6,000 per box of 10. Why 'sampling lounge', though? Well, cigars are supposed to be bought in bulk, strapped down by a colourful ribbon in a cabinet, or nuzzling together in a box of 10 or 25. Choosing them is extremely important, as it is not only a cash investment but a time investment. A smoke needs time, a smoke needs liquid accompaniment, it needs laughter, it needs patience, and, above all, it needs concentration. This is the key to the sampling lounge, you see: a cigar, among many of its fascinating and mystical attributes, has a tendency to change as you sample it. The flavours strengthen and subside as you puff through, because of a variety of factors going on within the capa (wrapper) and capote (binder). As you know, you are smoking lots of leaves, but they are all lined up and rolled totalmente a mano (totally by hand), so you are smoking the tip of the leaf through to the thicker and juicier - thus predictably stronger - end of the leaf. As you need to consider the entire cigar before you buy a batch, you are perfectly entitled to enjoy all the way from la boquilla (the foot) to la perilla (the head). Should you so choose to move to another cigar and have Mike or Attila pair it with an appropriate tipple, you are very welcome to do so. The Rake believes that the romance, the sensuality, even the eroticism of smoking is being stubbed out. Anti-smoking legislation served as a valediction that forbade mourning. Yet the accession of the COSAs puts that to the test, a home-guard defence by the faithful few, ready to keep the fires burning bright - and at the vanguard of this is the Bulgari's cigar shop. Photography by Andy Barnham.