Cigars: culture, history and ecstasy

A status symbol of the rich and famous, indulging in quality cigars, unlike smoking cigarettes, is something that has a special allure. Indeed, cigar smoking is often seen as refined.

An integral part of male bonding, many a cigar has been lit to celebrate the most cherished high points in a man’s life: the birth of a baby; getting a promotion; and after having bagged his first hole-in-one.

However, there’s more to cigar smoking than just that, says Valerio Cornale, the urbane and cultured owner/director of cigar emporium La Casa del Habano.

Valerio Cornale, aficionado 

The longtime collector and purveyor of vintage cigars and cigar-related paraphernalia (humidors, cigar cutters, books, ashtrays and documents) said, “Simply put, cigars are a chance for men to indulge themselves and are a way of life.”

His way of life, as well as encompassing the smoking of cigars, also centers around appreciating philosophy. He likes to eat natural foods and prefers his cigars and his companions that way, too.

Known as the aficionados’ aficionado, Cornale is a familiar sight in auction houses such as Christies of London as an expert buyer and seller of cigars.

“Though cigars have come to be something of a status symbol in modern times, they are also a great social leveler,” he said. “They’re something that your local butcher all the way up to the Sultan of Brunei can indulge in. It brings all men together. One can actually be proud to be a cigar smoker,” he added.

Cornale also said that for many men, smoking a cigar acts as a stress-buster and is not as anti-social as drinkers who get drunk and get physically abusive or plain obnoxious.

His top tips for smoking a cigar are:

Don’t ever inhale. To smoke properly, recline your head slightly and keep your mouth slightly open. Closing your mouth increases the temperature on your palate and tongue obscuring the flavor. Gently expel the smoke using your throat.

To cut a cigar before lighting up, be sure to cut before the top leaf, which acts as a cap to keep the cigar optimally moist (just above the tiny strip of leaf around the cigar). Cutting after the leaf wrapper will cause the cigar to unravel.

Light around the edge. Many novice smokers make the mistake of lighting the middle of the tip and puffing furiously. Instead, light it around the rim to warm the cigar up inside. After a few puffs, a well-made cigar will light up by itself.

Cornale’s La Casa del Habano duty-free store is one of only 147 Cuban cigar franchises worldwide. His cigars are supplied directly by the Cuban government. With more than 20 of Cuba’s finest brands, like Bolivar Royal Corona and Cohiba, it offers some of the most famous cigars on island. All the cigars are kept in optimum conditions in the store to keep them fresher for longer and to avoid them drying out.

Cuban cigars 

When asked what makes Cuban cigars the best in the world, he said that it is all down to the unique area seeds are grown in. He explained that all Cuban tobacco is grown in a 13-square-mile region, in Pinar del Rio, known for its great soil and having just the right balance of sun, wind, temperature and humidity to produce premium tobacco. Cornale also said that each tobacco leaf is inspected 150 times and goes through three fermentations rather than two.

For anyone buying a cigar or a box of cigars for a friend or loved one as the perfect Christmas or New Year’s present, their flagship store directly under Breezes by the Bay, across from the waterfront on Harbour Drive, is a one-stop shop for cigar and cigar-related products.

And for those rare instances where the gift-giver does not actually know what brand the recipient smokes, his staff recommends small and mild to medium cigars like Behike 54. Bigger and stronger options, like Bolivar Royal Corona, and Splendido are, he said, more suited to the regular smokers. Similarly, if they prefer a quick cigar, then a small one like Patagas Serie D No. 6 are ideal, whereas a leisurely cigar smoker who likes to take a few hours over one might prefer a Diadema.

Made in Cayman 

Mr. Cornale’s latest venture, The Cigar Factory, is a non-franchise store located in a pink house near the Royal Watler cruise terminal. His newest store sells his own brand: Flore de Valerio, Cayman Islands, British West Indies. Made with tobacco leaves from Nicaragua, the shop caters exclusively to the Cayman market. Flore de Valerio come in four sizes, all named after great philosophers. The smallest cigars are the Confucius, the slightly larger ones are Epicurus, the bigger still Satre (his favorite modern philosopher) and the fattest ones, which are pointed at both ends, are called Platos.

Asked why he had wanted to make his own brand while already selling cigars from arguably the finest cigar-making nation in the world, he answered by drawing a parallel. “As an Italian, I feel a little like Enzo Ferrari. He started off as a mechanic, became a driver and finally became the producer of some of the finest cars in the world.”

His brand is a boutique one, catering exclusively for the Cayman market. “They are selling well; it’s mainly a word-of-mouth thing among serious cigar smokers here. I’m having fun with it,” he added.

From mid-January, the outlet will also be offering lunch. Sticking to his philosophy of enjoying the simple things, the restaurant will serve only grilled food: Grilled fish, steak, chicken and salad and Cuban sandwiches. Although it will not have a liquor license, patrons will be able to eat and smoke there to their hearts’ content.

Not a bad philosophy for someone who has smoked for 40 years and admires the Cuban spirit and most of all their cigars.

Other cigar outlets 

Due to a combination of our demographics, the high finance and tourism sectors and proximity to Cuba, Cayman has a thriving cigar culture that is being catered for by other cigar outlets. For example, Churchill’s Cigars, on Harbour Drive and at Owen Roberts International Airport is an Island Companies concession. The store, underneath Margaritaville, on George Town waterfront and the one at the airport reputedly offer the largest selection of Cuban cigars in the Cayman Islands. The brands they carry include Romeo y Julieta, Cohiba, Montecristo and many more. They charge in U.S. dollars and have a good selection of cigar accessories including humidors, ashtrays, coffee cups and Cuban coffee.

There is also the well known Havana Club Cigar Lounge and the Havana Club, both on West Bay Road.

The Havana Club Cigar Lounge, near Blue Cilantro, is a Mecca for the cigar smoker who enjoys smoking in company. As well as offering a wide selection of Cuban cigars and ones that are hand-rolled cigars on-island, the location is a popular live music venue where patrons can relax and chat while buying and smoking cigars.

Its sister location, the Havana Club in West Shore Center, offers an in-house roller for that personalized service.


Valerio Cornale, wearing his signature suit and hat, enjoys a cigar in his shop downtown. – Photo: Vicki Wheaton


Light around the edge of a cigar to warm it up inside. A well made cigar, like this Cohiba, should then light up by itself. – Photo: Stephen Clarke


Sorting through tobacco leaves before rolling a handmade cigar. – Photo: Stephen Clarke

Support local journalism. Subscribe to the all-access pass for the Cayman Compass.

Subscribe now