If you know that a famous person smokes cigars, you may sometimes wonder about their habits, like where they do it, what they smoke and why. Welcome to what was once Stalin’s Georgia.
According to the omnipotent Google, Georgia is famous for wine, holy houses and abandoned bath houses from the time when Soviet important people wanted to relax in mud and radon water. This includes one of the most powerful of them all, Joseph Stalin. He was born in the small town of Gori, an hour west of the cap ital, Tbilisi, and he had his own personal bathtub in Bathhouse No.6 in the old spa town of Tskaltubo.
The museum dedicated to him is, of course, a must see, but most of all I am hoping to find out whether something other than pipes made it in behind that dense, statesmanlike moustache of his. Before I start finding out about the smoking habits of one of the most brutal dictators in modern history, I meet up with Dimitry Gakhov at Havana Club, a nice lounge, bar and shop with a walkin humidor, high ceiling and good ventilation in Tbilisi. He is one of the managers, and we sit down for a coffee and an Arturo Fuente to talk about this young cigar nation. “Cuban Cigar House was the first cigar place here when it opened about ten years ago,” he tells me. “It’s a shop selling only Cubans and at first it was located on the outskirts of the city. By the time it had moved to the center a few years later, Davidoff Cigar House had also opened.”
Davidoff Cigar House is the other cigar lounge in Tbilisi. It is smaller than Havana Club and not as busy but is in a nicer area, in a leafy side street rather than a thoroughfare with heavy traffic behind highrises on a shopping street. But once you enter Havana Club, you forget that. The private room, especially, is nice and relaxing.
“Smoking has become more and more popular,” Gakhov continues. “Every day I see new faces in the club. I think they’ve seen the cigar culture abroad and they often ask me what to try while they’re traveling.”
Georgia is still Cuban territory, and Gakhov and his partner, Ilia Zhgenti, also sell mostly Cubans, but they are set on spreading the word of nonCubans, too. So far, they offer their customers Arturo Fuente, Villiger, Padrón, La Estancia, and Toscano. At the Davidoff Cigar House you can also find brands that fall under the company’s umbrella, like Ca macho and Avo Uvezian. There is progress, but it is still slow.
These days, there is greater interest in nonCubans, even though people usually start by smoking Cubans. “After a while they might try something different, but most often they still return to Cubans,” explains Gakhov.
Figuring out what cigars Stalin actually smoked turns out to be easier than I thought. As soon as I step into the Stalin museum in Gori, I stumble upon a display that contains pipes, cigarettes, ashtrays and three of his cigars. The cigars – very unsurprising for that time period – are Cuban.
However, finding out what is more than visually obvious is more challenging, so unfortunately I’m none the wiser when it comes to the frequency and preferred location of Stalin’s cigar smoking habits.
We end our tour in Tskaltubo, a former Soviet health resort now host to about 20 abandoned spa hotels, in none of its former glory. Nature, and refugees from the partially recognized republic of Abkhazia, have now claimed these grand remnants of a communist past, and it is spectacular to visit its decaying ball rooms and courtyards. One is still active, Bathhouse No.6, which Stalin frequented. He even had his own bathtub.
Back in Tbilisi, I spend my final day with Gakhov, Zhgenti, and a bottle of their own Georgian wine, appropriately called Havana Club. Being the birthplace of wine, this is another feature that makes Georgia well worth visiting. And they have their own traditional way of producing it.
“We ferment the grapes, not just the juice, in clay pots underground, to keep the same temperature all year round. They’re mostly fullbodied wines.” While we are enjoying the wine, they tell me about the cigar scene during USSR times.
“Before Cuban House and Davidoff opened, there was no cigar culture, but if you go back 30, 40 years you could get Cuban cigars in every supermarket,” Zhgenti tells me. “But they didn’t use humidors, and not many people actually smoked, so they were all dried up, but they were available.”
Speaking of Soviet times, I also get to learn a little bit more about Stalin’s cigar habits. “I don’t know much about those,” Gakhov says, “but he preferred the pipe. He used to take the tobacco from Herzegovina Flor cigarettes and put it in his pipe. I’m pretty sure the gars only came out when a certain Mr. Churchill, or maybe other important men, came to visit.”
You can still buy cigars in some super markets, restaurants and cafés today, but since 2018 it has not been possible to smoke inside.
“You can only smoke inside in cigar clubs and casinos now, and they can’t serve any food,” Gakhov explains.
“The license is only for cigars, not cigarettes or even cigarillos,” Zhgenti adds. “Besides the casinos, our place is actually the only one in Georgia that has this license. Officially, you can’t even smoke inside Davidoff Cigar House now.”
The new license is not the only thing that makes it harder for people like Zhgenti and Gakhov to run their business. Even worse is a new law that the Georgian government passed in spring 2019 stating that stickers were simply not enough. Health warnings had to be printed on the actual boxes. For a small market like Georgia this has created a logistical nightmare.
“Since no other country practices this, the manufacturers don’t do it,” Gakhov explains. “Imagine asking Habanos to print an image on their Cohiba box. They just won’t do it. So for now, we have to do it here ourselves.”
This means they have to make their own boxes with the health warning. When the law was first enforced they were allowed to go to customs, put the cigar boxes in their own boxes, seal them up and take them through, but since then, they have had to ship the boxes to the producing countries. “The companies then put the original boxes in them and ship them back.”
As if that was not enough, they are not allowed to display cigars or sell cigars without packaging. “The cigars have to be in closed boxes so you can see the warning label clearly,” Zhgenti, says. “Officially, that means we can’t sell single sticks unless they’re in tubes, because every product has to have packaging with a label on it.”
So if you want to have a cigar at Havana Club or any other lounge in Georgia, you would have to buy a whole box.
“It’s crazy!” Zhgenti says. “We have 500 different cigars to choose from. Who buys a whole box at a lounge?”
Outside Tbilisi, it is harder to buy and smoke cigars. Gakhov and Zhgenti supply all the casinos and some restaurants in Batumi, Georgia’s second largest city, and there are some humidors in restaurants in Kakheti, the wine district. So if you are going to any other place, you best stock up before you leave the capital.
Photos: Simon Lundh