James Leavey's Corner
Nicholas Freeman
The British Ambassador For Havanas

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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey
Nicholas Freeman is the Chairman of Hunters & Frankau, the sole importer of Havana cigars into the UK.He is the fifth generation of a London tobacco manufacturer who rolled and sold cigars in the early 1800s.James Leavey interviewed him at his offices in St James's Street, the heart of Britain's cigar-friendly capital.

JL: Do you remember your first cigar"

NF: It was almost certainly an H. Upmann corona and I guess I was then about 17 and given it by my father.

JL: Can you remember that first taste"

NF: I can remember much more the smell of cigars.Having cigars around the home and office has always been the norm.

JL: What do you smoke, nowadays"

NF:About four or five cigars a day.I don't smoke any small cigars at all, no whiffs or anything like that. And I probably smoke 15-20 cigarettes a week, usually in the car when I don't have time to really enjoy a cigar.

JL:Do you think Havana cigars are as good now as they were when you first started smoking them"

NF: There has been no change at all in my view. Over the years there have been problems but a good Cuban cigar today is still the finest smoke, there's no doubt about that.

JL: Is it true that Havanas sold in the UK are better than those sold in other parts of the world"

NF: That was certainly true in the old days before the revolution.Although the words 'English Market Selection'weren't marked on the boxes for the English market itself, the letters 'E.M.S.' were.The Cubans used to claim they provided special cigars for England but how different they really were I don't know. If you talk to the old factory workers in Cuba they'll all tell you that England has always been one of the world leaders in cigar quality.There's no official position on this today but by and large Britain is still recognised as one of the best places in the world to buy a fine Havana.

JL: Your family's involvement in Havana cigars goes back five generations"

NF: Yes.My great great great grandfather was a man called James Reykers Freeman and we believe his mother came from a cigar family in Holland.What is certain is that he went to Holland in the 1830s and learned how to make cigars and then came back to Hoxton in the East End of London.He was the first person, as far as we know, to manufacture cigars in this country, in 1839, as J.R. Freeman and Son, and the family business continued until just after the Second World War, when it was sold to Gallaher in 1947. One of our original factories still exists in Newport Road, Cardiff, and is, I believe, the largest cigar factory in Europe.

JL: How did you get involved in selling cigars"

NF: I left school and qualified as accountant. Between 1938 to 1953 no Havana cigars were sold in Britain, it was just like America is now. Nobody here was allowed to use US dollars because we were trying to repay war dollars.

My father managed to buy back J Frankau in the 1950s and by the time I came back into it in 1962, Havana cigars were starting to happen in this country and J Frankau was beginning to build up its cigar business.

In 1958 there was the Cuban revolution and then what was called the intervention, not nationalisation, of the Cuban cigar industry took place. Nobody believed at that time that the revolution would last so long. My father felt that if he or any of his senior people went to Cuba there could be a problem because if the old owners got back they might get upset because we'd been over trying to consort with the revolutionary government.I was sent there to represent the company in 1963, when I was 24.

JL: What was it like then"

NF: It was quite extraordinary, when I first went there in 1963.I remember being told there were only 19 or 20 English people who had visited Cuba, and that included the embassy staff.We didn't recognise the embargo at that time but there was a lot of pressure to do so.The memory I have of Havana in those days is that the place just seemed deserted, because something like a million people had left Cuba.Certainly all the managers and above levels had gone and the country started to get very run down because there was nobody there to manage anything.

JL: How many times have you been to Cuba, since then"

NF: I've never really counted but it must be over 30 times. For the first 20 years or so the personalities in the Cuban cigar business never changed and we built up a very strong relationship. At that time all the people in the top positions in the Cuban government were young.Castro himself was only about 30.And so one tended to stay with them.Most of the top echelon of Cubans stayed in their jobs and only started to retire in the last 10 or 12 years.

JL: The cigar market has had its peaks and troughs, but in recent years it has started to grow again.

NF: Quite dramatically. The sales of large hand-made, or premium cigars as we call them in the trade, in the States have multiplied four times in the last five years. I don't know of any consumer product that has ever done that in any market; certainly not in a mature consumer product.

JL: What about the UK"Is it following suit"

NF: Yes, like anything that happens in America it tends to come across the Atlantic rather slowly and eventually arrive here.We've got nothing like the size of the boom in America but I think UK sales over the last three years have gone up about 15-20 per cent each year.It's still a significant figure.

JL:Is this all down to magazines like Cigar Aficionado or was it a market just waiting to happen"

NF: The cigar market had been beginning to turn the corner after drifting down for several years and along came Cigar Aficionado.This was the first time that someone had tried to tell people about cigars in the same way as people were telling about wine and this appealed to smoker's intelligence really.The great thing about Cigar Aficionado is it really represents an anti-feminist movement in the United States; it's back to being macho, back to being a man again and all that and cigars have become a symbol of masculinity. I think the reason that magazine sold was that it's the only magazine produced in recent years which appeals to the old-fashioned man.

JL: Apart from Playboy"

NF: Exactly. When it all started to happen in America, we named it "the renaissance of the cigar" and that phrase kind of caught on and was undoubtedly fuelled by Cigar Aficionado, which is now one of the biggest selling magazines in the United States. About 7-8 years ago at Hunters & Frankau we started what we called our educational programme to try to raise awareness of premium cigars in Britain and show there is a similarity between them and fine wines, and that's worked.

What we've got in terms of interest and sales is very solid and has come very much from the 25-34-year-olds age group - a generation that is searching for knowledge, who want to break away from mass-produced goods and are attracted by the romance of our product.

JL: How are the sales of fine cigars affected by the present anti-smoking mood"

NF: There's a general feeling that cigars aren't as unhealthy as cigarettes and I think that's probably true because of the way people smoke them, i.e. taking the occasional puff and not inhaling the smoke, and the infrequency in which they're smoking them.The average person smoking Havana cigars probably doesn't smoke more than 2-3 a week and if he doesn't smoke cigarettes then the amount of harmful substances he's taking into his lungs is very little.He also doesn't inhale a cigar the way a cigarette smoker does.

Cigars have tended to gain in such circumstances and particularly the bigger cigars because the smaller, miniature, mass-produced cigars are really substitute cigarettes. You don't usually get people standing around on corners chain-smoking large Havanas.

JL: Fine cigars are also a sign of wealth.

NF: Oh yes, and the growing sales reflect the fact that there is now more readily disposable income available to spend on luxury products.In the old days Havana cigars would only have been afforded by the wealthiest people.

JL: The thing about fine cigars, and I'm really only talking about Havanas, is that there is only a finite supply of them but there seems to be a growing worldwide demand for them.

NF:That's the problem. I think that our (British market) growth may well have been greater in the past five years if we'd had the supplies but we didn't and there has been a sort of scramble to get cigars out of Cuba.Every country in the world has been fighting to get the product.In the last 2-3 years, a lot of money has been invested in Cuba's cigar industry, particularly in agriculture, much of it by importers like ourselves to rebuild the Cuban cigar industry back to the level it was say ten years ago.

JL: And there's a significant British contribution to this

NF: Yes there is.

JL: Looking ahead to the 21st century, at the moment a lot of Americans can't go to Cuba or officially buy and smoke Havanas, although many get them by other means.If the US embargo on Cuba was completely lifted how would this affect supplies of Havana cigars in Britain"

NF: Well, Americans would no longer have to go outside of their country to get their Havanas and there'd certainly be a loss of sales there.The actual world consumption of Havana cigars at the moment is probably just under 100 million pieces a year. If America opened up, and once the market had settled down, it's safe to assume that they would probably consume about 30-40 million Havana cigars.Production at the moment is just about level with demand, but then we'd have 40 per cent more demand than we'd have supply in that situation.But that, I think, would happen gradually and there'd probably be a year or two for the Cubans to adapt their production in order to try and meet that demand.

I don't think Cuba has produced much more than 120 million cigars a year in the last 50 years.The limiting factor being the amount of land which actually produces the tobacco which goes into exported Cuban cigars.Cuba is about the same size as England, if you lop off Scotland and Wales, and they grow tobacco all over the island.Most of their tobacco is either consumed domestically or exported to European manufacturers, often blended into Dutch cigars.That's where most of the Cuban cigar tobacco goes. In Cuba, there's only two places where they grow the famous tobacco which has a unique flavour and they can't expand this without impairing the quality.So that is the limit of what we now understand as Havana cigars.

JL: Are there going to be enough of the larger Havanas to celebrate the millenium with"

NF: Whatever happens, there will continue to be a growing shortage of the larger sizes of Havana cigars.One of the key factors is that there are only a small number of leaves on any tobacco plant that are big enough wrap a large cigar, anything above a corona size really.That's always been about the right balance but in the last 20 years the fashion has changed and people have started smoking larger and larger cigars. If you look at these examples of cigars from 1890 (points to framed selection on his office wall), most of them are small, and the biggest one they made then was about the same size as a Montecristo No.3; certainly they didn't make anything like a Churchill cigar. But quite frankly the real reason is the bigger the cigar, the better its flavour.It's a problem.

Whatever happens, I think in Britain we're really lucky to have that history, which will work in our favour in terms of continuing to get quality cigars.

JL: Do you agree that London probably has probably the largest selection of fine cigars in the world, or are there other capitals"

NF:I don't think there's anything to touch it.The nearest equivalent is possibly Geneva; there's nowhere else in Europe.

JL:In the last year or so, London has seen a small but growing number of cigar divans, rather like the cigar bars in America.Is this trend likely to continue"

NF:I know of at least four others that will open in the next year.I think it's very good, anything to encourage interest in fine cigars.3-4 years ago there was a move to have smoke-free areas in restaurants and we've detected a slight reverse in this movement recently with a lot of restaurants into smoking.They're moving slightly in our favour at the moment.Your average Havana cigar smoker smokes 3-4 cigars a week and always finds somewhere to smoke those cigars.If you're a regular cigarette smoker it's going to be hell because in every 24 hours there's only going to be eight hours when you can smoke, and most of that time will be in your bed.Having said that, we don't turn a blind eye to the anti-smoking movement.

JL:Although there's a greater interest in fine cigars, lots of people haven't a clue what to do with them, what to choose, how to cut one, light or smoke it properly.

NF: That's why it's so important to continue to educate people on the art of smoking fine cigars.You've got to educate people to enjoy cigars properly, to know how to smoke them and know how to handle them. Going into that, the other aspect of etiquette which I think is desperately important is the way you behave when you're smoking a cigar so you don't offend people who are non-smokers.You musn't blow smoke in people's faces and when you're in a restaurant you should check that it's alright to light up. You should be sensible and grownup about it.I think it's terribly important that cigar smokers are considerate.

JL: Do you see the tobacco market changing dramatically in the next few years"

NF:Although the cigarette market seems incredibly resilient, I can't help feeling that the cigarette business has got to start declining sooner or later.Unless we take the French attitude and ignore the law, which is unlikely as British smokers are usually law-abiding.

JL:What about major changes in the fine cigar business"You've recently launched several new Havana brands: the Cuaba, the Trinidad and what I call the Vegas Ribena (actual name: Vegas Robaina). If the anti-smoking lobby gains force, will this affect sales of Havanas and the introduction of new product in Britain"

NF:I don't see any change here.I think somewhere there'll be a line drawn in the tobacco industry between addictive habit smoking and smoking purely for pleasure; a clear line between machine-made cigarettes on one side and pipe tobacco and hand-rolled cigar on the other side. I think there may well be a line drawn within the cigar industry between the very cheap popular cigars and the finer cigars. I think if people understand the difference between smoking an occasional pipe or fine cigar for its flavour and not for its nicotine, if we can separate that out there's no doubt that part of smoking as a pleasure will last and stay.Indeed that was virtually the only form of smoking until the 1914-1918 war.If people look back on this industry in 100 years' time, cigarettes may be only a small chapter in the great history of tobacco. I think one day people may look at the cigarette as being an abuse of tobacco, in a sense.

Copyright James Leavey, 1998.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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