Some fellow cigar lovers asked us what someone needs to do to become an expert in cigar tastings and pairings, sometimes referred to as cigar sommelier. This article is meant to provide practical information on the topic.
Needless to say, the areas of the premium cigar knowledge are varied and it is recommended to acquire a solid general preparation on the cigar history, production and market. Such knowledge will be a good basis for the further, very important step, which is the tasting of the cigar.
Once you can do that, you can more easily continue your path as cigar sommelier, where you are expected to not only design pairings, but also explain what you do and why to customers who may know more than you do, and be ready to re-design a recommendation based on your customer’s needs and wants.
Let’s start with the basic cigar knowledge.
The Habanos Academy
The premium cigar tradition having been popular in Cuba in the first place, it is not surprising that that country is looked at for worldwide standards in fine cigar education. In fact, the Habanos Academy aims to ‘introduce a uniform and coherent knowledge on the Habano. Currently the training is available to tobacconists through the local Habanos distributor.
In the UK, Hunters & Frankau developed a curriculum for the qualification of Masters of Havana Cigars.
Other countries examples
There are also countries where club life is so lively and demanding that similar high-profile classes are delivered by cigar clubs. I can mention my home country, Italy, with the well reputed Cigar Club Association and their successful Catadores classes. Lecturers are among the most reputed experts at national level and beyond. Exams include written and oral tests, blind tastings and pairing suggestions. Master classes are in the process of being set up.
Although, in order to understand the tasting aspects, you need to also understand how blends are made and how cigars are rolled, the above classes do not necessarily prepare you to blend and roll cigars. Becoming a blender or a roller requires totally different levels of knowledge and expertise, which a professional taster will highly respect.
Now let’s look at the most reputed, in my opinion, organization for developing professionals of the hospitality industry to become serious cigar sommeliers.
The International Association of Cigar Sommeliers (IACS)
Another more recently established institution is the International Association of Cigar Sommeliers (IACS), an organization training and certifying Sommeliers in the management, service, pairing and understanding of cigars as a gourmet product. They currently have more than 600 members and graduates in more than 20 countries, including Mexico, the United States, Cuba, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Romania, Spain, South Africa, Hong Kong, Belgium and China. They have two certification levels: Cigar Sommelier (also available through e-learning) and master Cigar Sommelier.
Their Director of Education and Head Instructor is Yamir Pelegrino, born in Cuba, he holds a degree in Social Sciences, a JD, a Master in Wine & Spirits Education and a PhD in Tourism. He is President of the American Gourmet Academy (AGA), Director of Education of the International Association of Cigar Sommeliers (IACS) and Honorary Maître of the Republic of Cuba. He was awarded “Best Sommelier of 2017” by Excellencias Group and obtained the Gourmand World Cookbooks Award twice (Considered as the Nobel of Gastronomic Literature). Best known as the “Sommelier of the Stars”, Yamir has hosted dinners with more than 110 Michellin Stars being responsible of the wine and cigar pairing.
Yamir is a pioneer of the cigar education, 30 years ago he co-created the Habano Sommelier concept. He has been jury of the International Habano Sommelier Contest and facilitator of cigar training seminars in the Habano Fest in Cuba, Procigar Festival in the Dominican Republic and Puro Sabor Festival in Nicaragua.
Education is the starting point
But education is only the starting point – nobody becomes an expert just after some classes. What is extremely important is to acquire the methodology and the notions so as to use the appropriate terminology and avoid mis-conceptions which are very easy traps to fall into, given the complex nature of the cigar and the wide varieties on the market. What really matter are practice, practice, practice in tasting and in advising customers, and a lot of eagerness to learn.
Our panelist Rajan Rengasamy won HabanoSommelier competitions in his country, the United Arab Emirates, and was finalist at the International HabanoSommelier competitions. He is a national jury member and selects the finalists travelling to Cuba each year for the same renowned international contest. He knows what it means to be scrutinized by international experts in everything you do when serving a cigar.
Rajan (holding the paper) and other expert judges deliberate over the next finalist representing the UAE at the worldwide Habanos Sommelier contest. Image credit: arabianindustry.com
Here is what Rajan advises to people wanting to learn how to become a cigar sommelier:
”Learning to be a cigar sommelier includes observing every person in hospitality: how a waiter talks to a guest, how wine sommeliers engage and show their passion toward the products they sell. Observe colleagues at competitions and at cigar events. Every single element will help a cigar sommelier learn and develop his/her personal knowledge, however, guests are the best teachers. Knowledge is very vital to build confidence. In-depth knowledge and understanding of the vitolas de galera and de salida, of production processes from the plantation to packaging using the appropriate Spanish terminology is the foundation for any Habanos Sommelier. Beverage pairings sound easy! A true Cigar Sommelier has to pair what the customer likes. A good understanding of multicultural palate is important. Never generalize the pairing, always split the elements and analyze what in the drink and the cigar go well together. Try to taste as much as you can with different cigars. Always ask for honest feedback on your pairing from a paying guest, try a different one next time. You need to be able to compare different vitolas within brands. Flash cards help, ask friends to check on your knowledge. Cigar identification is very important, theoretical learning of vitolas comes to effect only when you put that in practice, always visit the shops and ask the sales person to layout a batch of 20 different cigars from various brands. Use your theory and recollect the vitolas from the brand you can get closer in identifying the cigars. But it all comes from practice, a sales person in a cigar shop can be the best knowledgeable person in vitolas and identification. Keep up to date, always read articles and update your knowledge on new cigars and de-listings. Learn the upcoming year release which will help to understand market demands. The best way to show your skills is to cut and light a cigar perfectly. Be humble, you will get lot of feedback to improve. Carry your own cutter and lighter, always. Practice lighting cigar with cedar wood stick in an unstable environment where it is windy. You will find it easy to light in normal conditions. Never use a lighter unless it’s crucial. Buy lots of machine made inexpensive cigars, cut and light as much as you can until you get confident. Once you are confident with your knowledge, presenting yourself is important, Remember you are competing with professionals all over the world. Practice in front of the mirror. Record your practice and watch yourself. You will always have something missing.”
We hope we have provided some useful information to those of you who are thinking about this exciting career. If you have questions or comments, don’t hesitate to share them with us!