An interview with Mike Choi. In the world of Cuban cigars, Mike Choi is a known name. He’s a walking encyclopedia when it comes to Habanos. He was the UK Habanos sommelier in 2013, and runner up at the competition at the 2014 Habanos festival. But Choi isn’t all about Cuban cigars, he is launching his Boutique Smokes soon. A UK based webshop that will sell boutique cigars, imported and distributed by Choi. Reason enough for Ministry of Cigars to sit down with Mike and ask him a few questions.
Mike, tell us something about your history in cigars, how did you get involved in the cigar industry? And how did that lead to you being the UK Habanos sommelier 2013, and runner up at the Habanos Festival in 2014?
I tried my first real cigar over 20 years ago, whilst I worked on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. No surprises, it was a Montecristo no.2.
My first real contact with the cigar industry was in about 2002 when I joined The Avenue bar and restaurant on St James’s Street in London as Assistant Bar Manager. I took the chance to manage their modest and badly maintained desktop humidor. I worked with Jonathon Butler of Hunters & Frankau (the UK Habanos distributors) and together, we replaced the humidor and changed the cigar selection. I organized cigar training and lo and behold, cigar sales started to increase – you could still smoke indoors until 2007 in the UK.
The Avenue was my first taste but, the real ignition for me was opening Franco’s on Jeremy Street in 2005, opposite Davidoff of London. I had the pleasure of looking after Edward and Eddie Sahakian, the owners of Davidoff London. I think it was smelling the smoke of the cigars they enjoyed outside on the terrace that reminded me that I really liked cigars. I was in an envious location, as I seemed to spend my breaks between Davidoff and Dunhill trying everything I could afford. I think I smoked mainly Cuban cigars back then. I wish I could remember my first New World cigar. After a year at Franco’s, I started looking at opportunities in the cigar industry but, there were few positions that met my requirements.
I left Franco’s in 2007 and bought a bar in Mallorca and effectively disappeared for nearly 4 years. I returned to London in late 2010 and was lucky enough to be re-hired at Franco’s as Bar Manager. My friendship with Davidoff London was rekindled. In November 2011, I decided that the restaurant life was no longer for me and left Franco’s again. I went to Australia and chilled out with my family in Brisbane. In January 2012, I got a call from Eddie Sahakian that would change my life.
It really was one of those out of the blue phone calls. Eddie made a tentative inquiry about my employment situation and then we met up to have a chat. I was honestly so surprised to be offered the opportunity to open and manage a brand new cigar shop for them in the new Bulgari Hotel in Knightsbridge when I had no real experience in cigar retail. Eddie put it really succinctly for me, “we can teach you about cigars but, we can’t teach you hospitality and service”. If you have ever met Eddie and Edward then I think you’d agree that comment was very modest of them.
The Edward Sahakian Cigar Shop opened in May 2012. I was asked to take part in a new cigar qualification called the Master of Havana Cigars organized by Jimmy McGhee of Hunters and Frankau (similar to the Habanos Academy qualifications but harder). After passing that and joining the Masters, I was invited to participate in the U.K. Habanosommelier Championship in 2013. I certainly didn’t have any expectations of winning. I was pretty shocked when they announced my name as the winner. As a result of winning the U.K. Habanosommelier Championship, I got to take take part in the 2014 Habanosommelier World Championships in Cuba. I finished a respectful second place behind Spain and ahead of Cuba.
Did being Habanos sommelier of the UK and second place at the Habanosommelier World Championships open doors for you?
Winning the UK Habanosommelier Championship was a real eye-opener for me. I was surprised that it received so much coverage in magazines and online.
The UK has had a long history with the Habanosommelier World Championship. I was really proud to continue this and represent the Sahakian’s, the UK and Hunters & Frankau in 2014 in Havana. The Habanos Festival was like the Oscar’s for Cuban cigars to me. I was absolutely “bricking” (nervous) it before the competition but, someone pretty high up in a cigar company said to have a little Dutch courage before each round to calm my nerves – Thank you Havana Club 7 year old, you really helped.
I met so many people from around the world at the competition and Festival. I met Terry Chau who owned a cigar magazine in China. He asked if I would be interested in writing something for his magazine, Epicur, as I was one of the few Oriental competitors who had entered the competition. After seeing a copy, I really thought that this was one of the classiest cigar magazines I’d ever seen. The quality of the photos and content were really focused on cigars. I wrote cigar reviews for them for a couple of years. I received mentions in a few magazines and online articles. A year later I was approached by The Rake magazine to contribute articles as their “cigar guy”. Currently, I only write articles for Cigar Specialist, a Chinese publication.
You’re launching your own webshop soon, why did you decide to start your own enterprise?
Back in 2015, I launched Casa Puro to deal exclusively with Cuban cigars, initially on a part-time basis. I never intended to set up another company, heck, I didn’t know if the Cuban business had the legs to survive more than a few years. Since 2013, I started working with a couple of German smokers, Didi Hoffman and Sebastian Wein. They had a cigar information website called Cigar Cities. They both had a lot of knowledge about New World cigars and encouraged me to visit Intertabac in Dortmund in 2013.
In the beginning, I didn’t enjoy or understand New World cigars (I dislike the term non-Cuban because I think it’s so negative and infers an inferior product), mainly because I had only been exposed to Cuban cigars. It took two visits to Intertabac and smoking about 24 cigars over each 3-day event to eventually have my “Eureka” moment. I had made the schoolboy mistake of constantly trying to compare the cigar to Cuban cigars. When I was able to block out thoughts on Cuban cigars, I suddenly discovered so many different flavors and aromas. I also realized whilst Cuban tobacco is still amazing, Cuban cigars were only made with one origin tobacco, New World Master Blenders get to experiment with tobacco from all over the world, different types of aging and curing processes, double binders, mixed wrappers (barberpoles) and so on. That is all very interesting for my tastebuds.
What is the goal for your company? And where will the focus be?
The goal for Boutique Smokes is to find new boutique New World brands that meet my requirements and that I think fellow smokers in the UK will enjoy too at an affordable price. As I will be importing and selling direct to the customer, Boutique Smokes can effectively sell at a wholesale price to the customer. The aim will be to deliver cigars at around 30-40% cheaper than those found in shops.
Will you sell directly to customers only, or will you distribute to cigar shops too?
The goal initially is to sell direct to customers but, I’d like to think there’s a chance to sell to shops wholesale because having a presence in shops can only be beneficial in the future. Sometimes you just can’t wait to get a delivery, so to know your local shop stocks some of Boutique Smokes range is a win for all.
What brands did you secure for now? And why did you pick these specific brands?
Boutique Smokes will launch with 3 brands.
- Skull 77 (Costa Rica)
- Kafie 1901 (Honduras)
- El Viejo Continente (Nicaragua)
I chose these brands as I liked the people behind the brands, they were still small producers of quality cigars and of course, the cigars caught my attention.
I met Marc (Vegas de Santiago) and Laurent on my first trip to Intertabac in 2013. We’ve been friends ever since. Laurent created a slightly fuller richer cigar in the form of Skull 77. I liked it from the first draw and the logo reminded me of The Terminator. In 2017, Vegas de Santiago, who produce Skull 77 in Costa Rica, won the Cigar Journal Best Costa Rican Cigar Award – positive reinforcement that I had chosen a good brand to partner with.
I have been following Dr. Gaby Kafie of Kafie 1901 cigars for quite a while, particularly his views on the FDA, Honduras and boutique brands. We met last year at Intertabac and he gave me some Kafie 1901 and San Jeronimo cigars to sample. It’s always interesting to meet people in person and Gaby was exactly what I expected. A gentleman, mild in temperament, educated,
El Viejo Continente by Daniel Guerrero is a brand that was introduced to me by some friends in Belgrade, Serbia. Nino Dojcinovic, owner of Libertador Cigar Lounge and Zdravko Brkic, wine, spirits, food and cigar aficionado last year. I can’t say no to a lancero cigar and I was happy to try the El Viejo Continente Maduro Lancero. Nino and Zdravko were raving about this cigar and they weren’t wrong.
The brands are all New World, yet you are known for your knowledge of Cuban Cigars. Why did you choose to go New World for your webshop?
After 5 years of running the award-winning Edward Sahakian Cigar Shop in London, I had no recollection of any distributor in the U.K. ever coming in to see me to tell me about new cigars or special offers. I only knew about certain brands because of Cigar Aficionado and Cigar Journal, plus what was available in Davidoff of London. As Edward owns Davidoff of London, we obviously stocked some Davidoff’s. Having visited nearly all shops and lounges in London, it was obvious Cubans dominated the market but I saw a slowly increasing amount of New World cigars. 1a St James’s and Cgars Ltd stocked a good amount of New World cigars.
As a purely online business, Boutique Smokes is not allowed to buy Cuban cigars from Hunters & Frankau, so Cuban cigars were ruled out straight away. Also it would be hard to offer anything but low prices to compete.
The New World cigar market in the U.K. is still relatively young but, showing signs of growth year upon year. Whilst London maybe Cuban focussed, I found that the rest of the U.K. seemed much more open minded to New World cigars. It was great to get some much needed positive feedback, regarding my project and New World cigars. People were happy to recommend some of their favourite brands, some even sent me cigars.
I also believe that no one can say they know about tobacco, if they only smoke cigars from one country. The journey into New World cigars is long and varied. That’s so exciting. “One cigar isn’t better than another, they are just different”, I’m not sure who said it but I agree with them in the main. Although looking at it now, it conflicts with the whole concept of cigar rating systems.
Another reason I’m enjoying New World cigars is that you actually get to meet the brand owners and talk directly to them. With Cuban cigars, you talk to a government employee and get the prepared answers. If you haven’t seen Hand Rolled (the cigar documentary which was recently released on Amazon and Apple), you really need to. It gives you an insight to how the American cigar market and how brands came to be.
Often Cuban smokers look down on New World Cigars, did you get any negative comments from within the Cuban cigar community?
I wouldn’t say negative comments but I did receive “advice” from a couple of friends who said stick to Cubans as you can’t go wrong and you can never lose money. I didn’t get into cigars for money. It’s always been about the passion for the product. Other than that, I’d say it’s been positive which really makes me feel like I’m making the right move.
The support I received after Cigar Journal wrote about my business plan last year, was exactly what I needed to press forward, after I hit so many obstacles trying to set up Boutique Smokes.
Will the number of brands be expanded? And if so, what brands are you looking at?
The aim is to launch 2-3 new boutique brands every quarter.
At present I can’t say which brands will be added as nothing is confirmed yet but, they will cover all the major tobacco producing countries eventually.
Boutique Smokes will develop an unrivalled portfolio of boutique New World cigar brands in the U.K.
How do you select the companies you want to work with?
Mostly down to gut feeling, the people behind it, with a touch of cigar reviews, a dash of social media thrown in and of course a cigar I enjoy and would smoke again.
What are you expecting for the future regarding cigars in the UK, with growing legislation?
At the moment I would say that regarding Tobacco legislation, the U.K. is doing better than most. Thanks to strong lobbying by Hunters & Frankau, the late Simon Chase, Tor Imports and other supporters, premium handmade cigars and pipe tobacco won an exemption against plain packaging and has resisted the demands for those horrendous photographs used on health warnings in other countries.
Will the Brexit have any influence? Without ‘open borders’, packages send from within the EU might be checked again by British Customs, making ordering online for end consumers more risky, do you think that is an advantage for your company and other retailers in the UK?
We still have no idea about the effects Brexit will have on us and that’s a real concern.
I think that when it happens, Border Control will be scrutinising a much higher percentage of parcels coming from Europe for a couple of months at least. This actually puts the European sellers at risk for a jump in requests for refunds and returns as not all U.K. buyers will pay the custom and duty fees. The U.K. may go on a blacklist for European sellers as they are having too many issues shipping there.
U.K. tobacco retailers have always been losing the fight against EU and non-EU imports based on price. Last year, UK customs seemed to target many shipments from Switzerland. Perhaps post-Brexit will reduce the personal importation of cigars a little for a short period. That’s a potential win for all U.K. retailers.
There’s also a chance that the health warnings will change to incorporate those ridiculous photographs used to scare people (most of which have nothing to do with tobacco – the EU should be sued for false and misleading advertising).
Is there anything you want to get off your chest before we conclude the interview?
As a newbie in New World cigars, I’m grateful to Ministry of Cigars for the interview and to show that the UK isn’t only about Cuban cigars.
It maybe one of the toughest markets to crack but, New World sales have been growing. I hope that because I am personally curating the selection of brands, that U.K. smokers will have a little faith in my choices. I also think that there’s no one like me in the business who comes from such a strong Cuban cigar background to take up the challenge of importing/distributing and selling New World cigars in the U.K.
And if any of your readers are ever in London, feel free to contact me and perhaps we can meet for a smoke.