An unhealthy habit that whispers of closed doors and secret deals is enjoying an unlikely resurgence. Women smoke cigars now – at least, they do if you ask London's top-flight hotels. The May Fair, near Green Park, has announced plans to open a cigar room this spring that will offer a "feminine experience", consigning the gentleman's club atmosphere to the history books, and sprucing the place up with pot plants and a choice of Martinis.
The May Fair joins No. Ten Manchester Street, a hotel in Marylebone, which recently launched a regular ladies' cigar evening, where female chompers can enjoy their stogies without feeling inhibited. The Lanesborough and The Langham also boast cigar rooms or terraces to satisfy a growing demand among a new generation of smokers.
I hope my doctor isn't reading this, because I'm fairly sure he'd take a dim view of me pulling away on a Cuban at 10am on a Friday morning. Puff Daddy would understand. And besides, it was all in the name of research.
"We have a lot of ladies who come for the first time," says Edita Nemethova, Manchester Street's cigar sommelier and a connoisseur of the aromatic pastime. "Maybe they've wanted to try it for a while but still don't feel comfortable enough to do it in front of men. We have regular guests, young and old. We have one lady, about 60, who smokes the biggest cigars we have in the humidor, and has done for 36 years."
Good for her, I think, at the prospect of women romping through the exclusive corridors of this most stinky and antisocial of male habits. Not only has Rihanna recently been spotted smoking a cigarillo, but some of the greatest female icons have made it their signature. Novelists George Sand and Radclyffe Hall took a stand against the establishment with a blunt clamped between their teeth, while Marlene Dietrich and Madonna have both tried out the look. There's something subversive and thrilling about a woman with a cigar. But, let's not forget, there's also something daft about them too, because smoking is bad for you.
But cigar-smoking today is less about making a stand than it is about taking a seat. Part of the joy of a cigar, I am told, is the fact you can draw it out over an evening; this is not a quick chuff while you're waiting for the bus. "We have gents who sit for five, six hours and smoke three," says Nemethova, "but that's too much for me. One over three hours maybe, is really nice but there isn't always time."
And the cigar industry is catering to this new market – unsurprisingly, given cigar sales declined by 5.4 per cent last year and were hit severely by the smoking ban. But they're on the up again, as hotels get wise to the limitations of the laws. These new spaces skirt the ban's definition of indoor space as one that is 50 per cent covered, with mesh walls, foliage, tiles and outdoor heaters to create an ambience that is fresh – both literally and metaphorically – and as free of fug as it is of fogies.
Havana itself has recognised the unlikely new demand: Cuba's most famous brand, Romeo Y Julieta, last year developed the "Julieta", a 4.75-incher targeted at the lady smoker.
"There's definitely more interest in cigars, especially among young people," says Jennifer Fincher, assistant manager at Robert Graham, the Scottish whisky and cigar specialists. "They're more socially acceptable than cigarettes."
But you can see why women might feel a bit abashed: smoking a cigar for the first time is like having a dirty joke explained to you, or questioning a boarding school tradition. Puffing away like a steam train on something that looks like a slightly rude, burnt hotdog and requires a Churchill-esque underbite to hold in your mouth is simply not a feminine thing to do. And that's before you even consider the Lewinsky connection.
Nemethova advises me to plump for the Havana brand's Exhibition no. 4, a medium-strength sausage that feels slightly oily to the touch. After clipping the end and lighting it slowly, she reminds me not to inhale it. I feel like I should be playing it rather than smoking it, and my first impression is of laughing with your mouth full. Thick smoke pours out of my face, enveloping me in a boardroom tang. It tastes of privilege, but also of a sour sort of nothing, and the only other person in the cigar room is a Russian businessman.
"You don't stub out a cigar," Nemethova says, as I lay the hot dog down on a silver ashtray. "You must let it die with dignity."
And that, I think, is what I'd like to do too. So trendy or not, I won't be joining the swelling ranks of cigarellas. I have so many other vices that I simply don't have the time.
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