Some fellow aficionados have asked us what someone needs to do to become an expert in cigar tasting and related advice. Typically this role is referred to as cigar sommelier (or Catador). In this article we’ll attempt to explore the recommended preparations on the path to becoming a cigar sommelier.
As the premium cigar tradition has been originally introduced by Cuba, it is not surprising that the worldwide standard for education on premium cigars is provided by Habanos S.A. In fact, the Habanos Academy aims to ‘introduce a uniform and coherent knowledge of the Habano, to train true promoters of the cigar culture at world level and to consolidate the knowledge among the community of enthusiasts’. Currently the training is available to tobacconists through each country’s own Habanos distributor.
There are countries where club life is so lively and demanding that similar high-profile classes are delivered to tobacconists and consumers together. I can mention Italy with the very well reputed Cigar Club Association supporting local clubs in the education of their aficionados and professionals through Catadores classes. Lecturers are among the most reputed experts at national level and beyond. Exams include written and oral tests as well as practical tasting exams.
Although, in order to understand the tasting aspects, you need to understand how blends are made and how cigars are rolled, these classes do not prepare their participants to blend and roll cigars. Becoming a blender or a roller requires a totally different level of knowledge and expertise, which a taster will highly respect.
In the USA, the Tobacconist University is the go-to institution for general cigar training of consumers, tobacconists and industry salesforces. Professionalism and knowledge in the industry are the focus here through a program which also includes pipes and pipe tobacco.
But education is only the starting point – nobody becomes a true expert just after some classes. It is extremely important 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 matters is practice in tasting and in advising customers, and a lot of eagerness to learn.
Cigar Sense panelist Rajan Rengasamy has attained a top level of recognition in his country, the United Arab Emirates, by winning national Habanos Sommelier competitions und being a finalist at the International Habano Sommelier competition, serving as national jury member and selecting the finalists travelling to Cuba each year for the same renowned international contests. He knows what it means to be scrutinized by international experts in everything you do when serving a cigar.
Some advice by Habanos Sommelier Rajan Rengasamy
Here is what Rajan advises to people who want to learn how to help customers choose their cigars: ”Learning for 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.
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. You need to be able to compare different vitolas within brands. Flash cards help, ask friends to check on your knowledge.
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. The best teachers are your customers.
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 knowledgable person in vitolas and identification.
Keep up to date, always read articles and update your knowledge on new cigars and de-listings. Learn about the upcoming year’s releases. This 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. Always carry your own cutter and lighter. Practice lighting cigar with cedar wood sticks in an unstable environment where it is windy. You will find it easy to light in normal conditions. Buy machine made cigars to practice until you get confident.
Once you are confident with your knowledge, presenting yourself is important. Remember that 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.”
This article was first published by Franca Comparetto at Cigar Sense. Visit www.cigarsense.com for more articles and to learn about their project of helping consumers to identify new cigars they’ll love through a personalized system.