Where there's smoke, there's... whiskey?

Image credit: Arjun Sajip
Image credit: Arjun Sajip
Image credit: Arjun Sajip
Image credit: Arjun Sajip
Image credit: Arjun Sajip
Image credit: Arjun Sajip
Image credit: Arjun Sajip
Image credit: Arjun Sajip
Image credit: Arjun Sajip

If on a winter’s day a traveller were to wander down Sussex Street, past Costa and Bravissimo and Pepperberry, (s)he might spy an unprepossessing little shop in the corner of the square, guarded by a 5’5’’ cigar. Knocking and stepping inside, the traveller is confronted with an interior that recalls the novels of Arthur Conan Doyle – churchwarden pipes adorning one wall, own-brand whiskeys filling a cupboard on the right, with a friendly well-dressed assistant or two hovering coolly by the counter. Welcome to Robert Graham.

No place in Cambridge is as effective an instant relaxant as the toasty basement of Robert Graham (140 years old next year). The tasteful decoration is easy on the eyes, and the dulcet tones of Louis Armstrong and the Tedeschi-Trucks Band are easy on the ears.

If you don’t have an immediate deadline, you can take your work and your cigar down there and plug while you puff, perhaps with the aid of an espresso, which is always on the house. You might want to chat to the regular frequenters – pinguescent physics professors from Santa Fe, or American servicemen who drop into Robert Graham’s because of the embargo on Cuban cigars over the Pond.

Christmastime is coming, and the shop is only going to get busier over the next few weeks. But there’s nothing wrong with being surrounded by interesting people from all over the world, especially when conversation is lubricated by cigars, coffee, and the finest whiskeys known to man.

And so much choice! There are about 250 brands of whiskey, including some fearsome looking Japanese ones, and there’s no shortage of cigar brands – about 15 brands of Cuban and 20 of ‘New world’, with ring gauges ranging from 30 to a whopping 58 (‘ring gauge’ meaning ‘64ths of an inch’). Want a gentle initiation? Try a Petit Julietas cigar. Feeling adventurous? Go for a Salomónes. Got a death wish? Why not test some 62-percent-concentration moonshine: White Dog whiskey, from Kentucky? The assistants are experts on legally poisonous substances; they’ll sort you out.

I ask James, one of the assistants and an ex-Clareite Classicist, what his favourite whiskey is. Auchentoshan is the response, although he’s also partial to Ginger Tam’s and Cock of the North.

It’s always fun to observe cigar etiquette: if you’re feeling voluble, remove the band from your cigar, and people will – theoretically – initiate a conversation, perhaps by asking what you’re smoking. If you’re feeling grumpy and want to be left the hell alone, keep the band on and leaf through one of the numerous issues of Cigar Journal on the table, or gaze at the 31-year-old Port Ellen whiskey (its closed-distillery status making it worth £600), wishing your pocket were as deep as your liver.

I could spout more cigar- and whiskey-related trivia, but you should go and learn it yourself from the expert assistants or the full-colour tome Once Upon A Time In Cuba, which sits invitingly on the coffee table. Go with friends; go with a significant other; go alone. You’ll do nothing but imbibe some intoxicating fluids and vapours – but you’ll find it incredibly difficult to get bored.

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