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Quarter 4, 2008

Smoking in Estonia

Story and photos by Cindy-Lou Dale

Despite the crackdown on smoking in the European Union, smoke shops strive to survive.

Hidden in the gothic old town of Tallinn, with its distinctive pewter-colored steeples, pink-domed cathedrals, red-tiled roofs, spiked minarets, and cobbled alleyways, is a culture of smoking lounges that double as quality cigar shops. Here cognac, plump chairs, and sagging sofas provide an engagingly club-like atmosphere to its moneyed clients.

Down a narrow lane, in a 16th century building, which is overlooked by storybook medieval turrets, is La Casa del Habano tobacconists, part of the international franchise of Cuban cigar lounges and the only place in the Baltic’s to buy genuine, high-quality Cuban cigars. I politely observed from a distance whilst Piret Põldsaar, tobacconist par-excellence, guided her discerning clientele to their smoking pleasure.

Tallinn’s cigar lounges are frequented by ex-pats, local businessmen and politicians - all in the 30+ age-group - as well as foreign visitors, especially Finnish nationals who ferry over for a peaceful smoke and to stock up on their favorite brands (a luxury item which is extortionately taxed in their home country).

There’s simply no place quite like these cigar lounges anywhere in the world. La Casa almost certainly has the region’s most impressive selection of cigars all of which are meticulously stored in a high-tech cellar humidor.

The House of Havana teems with atmosphere, friendly faces, and cigar smoke, where the heart of La Casa - the bar - has become the meeting place of choice for many resident and visiting smokers. It feels like someone’s living room: softly lit, with a red brick floor and Nigerian art. To remind you that Cuba is its main inspiration, there’s a photo of Che Guevara at the bar. The choice of Cuban brands is vast and includes Bolivar, Montecristo, Cohiba, Punch, La Gloria, and Romeo y Julietas (said to have been Winston Churchill’s favorite).

Says Põldsaar: “There are but a few things in the world that are known without question to be the best of their kind. A Havana cigar is one of them. The nature of Cuba’s soil and climate, combined with the knowledge of Cuban farmers and cigar makers passed down from generation to generation, makes the Havana cigar a unique product.”

I asked after the most popular Cuban cigar: “That can only be Habano’s flagship - the Cohiba, which was fashioned in 1966 for President Fidel Castro himself. Initially it was only seen outside Cuba as gifts for heads of state and visiting diplomats but since 1982, Cohiba has been available in limited quantities to the open market.”

Põldsaar’s lips puckered up and folded down at the edges. “But then Montecristo is the best known and probably the most appreciated brand of Habanos throughout the world.”

Estonia’s ancient coastal capital has bounced between the Danes, the Swedes, Poles, Nazi and Russian invaders - all wanting control of its ice-free port. So you’d expect very little of the original city to remain, but the Estonian capital has in fact more remnants of its past than the majority of European cities.

This is evidenced as I make my way to Davidoff’s, down winding cobbled streets, lined with chic boutiques in pastel-colored doorways, past antique stores, and sidewalk cafés doing a roaring trade in lattes and pastries. The walled city of Tallinn is a walk-in museum. The 19 towers still standing now house art galleries, restaurants, and offices. Even the Baroque Toompea Castle (rebuilt on the express orders of Catherine the Great in the 1700s) is home to Estonia’s parliament.

Davidoff Sigari Maja is Tallinn’s other classy cigar lounge found in a restored 15th-century merchant’s house on the city’s medieval main square. The shop front is deceptively small, but progress beyond the first chamber and you’re at once engulfed in the rich aroma of Davidoff’s specialty.

White-gloved staff served cognac to Armani-clad bankers relaxing on the burgundy Chesterfield’s, talking shop. Candle-lit opulence, hushed voices, old-fashioned luxury, wood paneled elegance, medieval beams, a fireplace, busts of ancient Greek philosophers. Nina Simone crooned softly in the background. A couple of Bohemian old-timers sat brooding over a chessboard, wreathing one another in fragrant blue smoke.

I waited in the wings whilst Natalja Sokolova fussed over the bankers, presenting them with a selection of her finest cigars.

When asked to explain how she guides her client’s to cigars that will inevitably become their favorite she explained that the most important factor in enjoying your cigar is to choose one to suit your palate, mood and occasion.

“If you have eaten foods with strong flavors choose a cigar that has a fuller body and vice versa. If you only have 30 minutes to enjoy a good puff, select a cigar which is not more than 120mm in length. In order to enjoy the flavor of a cigar one must smoke it beyond half - where all the flavor comes to life. Should you be playing golf or similar, choose a cigar with a short filler. This will give the gratification of tobacco smoke without overwhelming your system whilst being subject to exercise.”

I asked Sokolova to demonstrate how one would smoke a cigar: “If you look at the cigar it has two ends, the foot, which is where you light it, and the head, the end you put between your lips. Under close inspection you’ll notice the head has a distinct band at which point the cigar comes together, it must be cut just above this band so the cigar holds together and doesn’t unravel. Use a guillotine or scissor cutter to get a clean cut. A cigar must be well lit to enjoy the smoke. Use a match or an odorless gas lighter; make sure that the foot is completely and evenly lit and then puff gently.” In a small gloved hand she took a long lit match to the end of the cigar she held, turning it this way then that, eventually it started smoldering.

She sunk into a deep sofa and began to puff. “When you smoke, don’t inhale - it’s not a cigarette. Gently draw the smoke into your mouth and allow it to play gloriously on your taste buds. Relax and savor the subtle essence and aromas of the tobacco in the blend. And it’s fine to relight your cigar if it goes out. But first clean off any loose ash or you will find it hard to re-ignite.”

Sokolova followed my gaze to the chess players, their board now liberally sprinkled with cigar ash. One old chap regarded me sternly through a monocle’d eye then put his cigar to his mouth. His lips sort of caved in around it, with little slanted vertical lines pulling inwards around the cigar, like the drawstring on a pipe tobacco bag. Sokolova explained they were a couple of retired academics that visited nearly every day.

“Don’t concern yourself with the length or fate of the ash. It is not done to tap your cigar nervously, like a cigarette. Let the ash fall when it wants, preferably into an ashtray. And when the time comes to part with your cigar, don’t stub it out. Let it rest in the ashtray, it will go out by itself. Allow it to expire with some nobility,” she added sagely.

The EU’s smoking ban has intensified access to Tallin’s smoking lounges. Both Piret Põldsaar and Natalja Sokolova claim that though their clients now smoke less, they do so mostly in their smoking lounges; sometimes twice a day. Clearly the stricter the EU laws get, the more inventive smokers become - this is what makes smoking lounges unique.

The spirit of EU tobacco laws has made advertising near impossible and as such Põldsaar and Sokolova promote themselves on a limited scale: small adverts in local tourism brochures and marketing to specialist tour operators, but mostly its word-of-mouth. Yet, despite restrictions and legislation, these two cigar-crusaders collectively import in excess of US$2 mn tobacco products annually.

Says Põldsaar: “For me it’s a passion, a culture, elegant even. Enjoying a good cigar with other borderless spirits holds an element of philosophy to it as it allows you time to discover yourself.”

Tobacco Products International - Quarter 4, 2008
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