A Rare Find
Text: Colin C. Ganley / Photos: Colin C. Ganley
“I have some old cigars. Could you help me date them?” What my dinner party and I saw next left us flabbergasted. Gerry Stonhill, my friend and restaurant proprietor brought three boxes of century-old Havanas to the table.
Three months before this dinner I met Gerry Stonhill at the Hotel Nacional in Havana. He is a tall, well built man with shock-white hair who is rarely without his bright red socks. In Cuba, a group of Habanos loving Britishers emphatically told me that Gerry’s restaurant is one of a kind and that I had to see it. I had no idea at that time what a gem ‘The Mason Arms’ was but I was soon to learn.
Gerry Stonhill’s ‘Individual’ Mason Arms in rural Oxfordshire is a fine dining restaurant situated in a four century old, thatched-roof pub. It is described as “the most expensive pub in England” and doesn’t allow vegetarians, children or phones. The stony walls are covered with photographs of women smoking cigars, classic racecars and patrons’ helicopters. Outside is a cigar lounge overlooking the helicopter-landing pad. Inside are a voluminous wine list, multiple hearths and Gerry with his lifetime of stories. The menu features local produce, aged steaks and fresh fish but the chef consults diners so that each dish is cooked to their exact specifications. A Chef at tableside and eccentric decorations in such a building give the place an intensely quirky charm. ‘The Arms’ is warm, rustic, and dominated by Gerry’s ‘wine, cars, and cigars’ lifestyle.
My friends Jemma Freeman, Managing Director of Cuban importer Hunters & Frankau, and Tom Assheton, proprietor of Tom Tom Cigars arranged to meet me there for a dinner. Little did we know that dinner would be a seven hour affair during which we would be shown three of the oldest boxes of smokeable Havanas in the world.
Finding vintage cigars in grandpa’s wine cellar is a cigar collector’s fantasy. Unlike most of us, Gerry has uncommon luck. As the four of us dined on steaks, duck and local seafood, Gerry told us that he had some very old cigars but he did not know how old they were. He then asked if we would like to have a look at them. Jemma, Tom and I were intrigued by the prospect of dating old cigars so we encouraged Gerry to bring the boxes out for inspection before dessert. After our mains, Gerry went back to a gun safe that he had converted to a humidor and brought out two boxes of Cabañas Coronas Grandes and one box of H. Upmann Sonrisas. Each box was a cabinet of 100 cigars that formerly housed two bundles of 50, wrapped in yellow ribbons. Of the original 300, some two hundred or so remained.
Immediately it became clear that these were rare cigars so I implored, “Gerry, how did you obtain these?” Gerry then explained that a few years ago, a manour house on a familial estate nearby was under refurbishment. Some of the home’s contents were being removed, among them, these rare old cigars. Gerry received the cigars and noticed that they had become somewhat dry. It was at this point that Gerry converted an old gun safe into a humidor in order to slowly reinvigorate the cigars with gentle humidity. The Sonrisas vitola was unknown to our group and the boxes were clearly very old, so we began casually speculating about the age of this treasure.
How old are these cigars?
At first glance, these boxes suggest that the cigars are very old. Heat-stamps on the bottom of boxes became common in the early middle of the 20th century. Since heat stamps are absent from these boxes it suggests that these cigars were made prior to that era. Excitement started to build.
Most old cigar boxes that I have seen have been finished with a warranty seal from the Cuban government. These boxes had no warranty seal. The first version of the warranty seal was introduced in 1912 as an attempt to differentiate Cuban-made cigars from those made in the US and in Europe. Since these boxes showed no evidence of ever having such a seal, they were likely made before 1912. With this information, I started to think that these were over a century old and very special indeed.
Can these be dated more precisely? I think so but to do so requires some minor assumptions. According to a label on the Cabañas box lid, these boxes were all made for the Cigar Department of the Army & Navy Co-Operative Society located at 105 Victoria Street, in Westminster. This is a good clue because the society was so named from 1871 to 1918. One final clue lies on the H. Upmann box. Its label displays several medals awarded to the brand at festivals. The medals shown were won between 1855 and 1873. The brand won a medal at Paris in 1881 and more at Chicago in 1893. These medals are not depicted on the box.
Because these medals are clearly a source of pride for manufacturers, I expect that they would be displayed soon after they were won. These factors all combined suggest that the cigars were produced somewhere around the 1870s-80s. Wow, these cigars are approximately 120 years old, but will they have any taste left?
Smoking Century-Old Cigars
It is one thing to discover very old cigars. It is quite another to smoke them. Rarely does such a cigar have much flavour. These cigars shocked me with taste! I stuck my nose in the boxes and to my surprise the bundles all had a medium strength tobacco aroma. This scent suggested that they would smoke well. How could cigars of this age smoke well when many cigars of only 50 years are flavourless?
The answer lies in both the tobacco and its storage. As legend has it, Cuban cigars from the 19th century were very strong. The fact that these cigars maintained flavour suggests that the original blend was made of strong tobacco. Certainly this would have been good company to men of the Army and Navy around the British Empire. They would, after all, need a strong cigar to compete with their pale ales and rum rations.
These cigars were stored, as far as can be known, in a grand English country manor, probably in the cellar. The Oxfordshire climate is cigar friendly. It neither gets too warm nor too cold and it is always slightly humid. This climate allows smokers to keep cigars in their wine cellars without damaging their smokes.
Despite great storage, any cigar this old will have become fragile. Aged cigars of this kind have extremely delicate wrappers and should not be handled much. Aggressive cutting can destroy cigars of this age so it is best to simply pierce the cap or to cut just a small hole at the head of the cigar. Using a double-bladed cutter I removed the tips of each cigar and the tastes were surprisingly lively.
Smoking any cigar of this age is a time warp. My mind could not help but be taken back into history to imagine all that the cigar has ‘lived’ through. In the case of these puros, more than a century of Cuban and World history has passed around them. These cigars were smoked by British military-men throughout their global empire. Rarely does a cigar of this age have any flavour left in it, so when it does, it is appropriate to share the experience through stories. While the story of this smoke is very interesting, the lesson it taught me is this: well-made Habanos can be at their peak even after one hundred years.