In a poem called The Betrothed, Rudyard Kipling is forced to contemplate a difficult problem. He has been forced to choose between his wife and his cigar box.
He acknowledges that although she is pretty, she will soon wrinkle with age. A cigar too, he despairs, will also shrivel to an ugly stump in the end.
After much deliberation, he decides to do the right thing and honour his first vows.
“Light me up another Cuba!”
Vernon Chalker always chooses the cigar box. A man who has steadily built an empire of the night, his kingdom spans Madame Brussels, Gin Palace, Collins Quarter and, most recently, the futuristic urban wonderland that is Bar Ampere.
We met Chalker inside Ra Cigar Bar, an upstairs room within Collins Quarter, along with Ra’s head bartender, Jonathan Vanek.
To come to Ra is to indulge in pleasure. To sink into the pillows and dark leather sofas, to taste fine spirits, to look through the clear glass ceiling to see only skyscrapers and reaffirm that you’re in one of the world’s greatest cities. And of course, to experience the luxury of a beautiful, handcrafted cigar between your fingers.
There is a quiet hiss and for a moment, the dark room is illuminated by a jet of bright blue flame.
Vanek carefully burns away the top of his Boliva, then edges down the sides. “When you’re smoking a cigar, it needs to come down evenly,” he instructs. “If it’s not fully lit, that affects the flavour as it comes down and you get air pockets affecting the draw as you smoke.”
The two men sit side by side, taking a relaxed draw every minute or so, then sipping on whiskey with ice that clinks gently as it travels. The absolute enjoyment, the deliberate slowness seems so far from the hurried, mechanical mannerisms of a cigarette smoker.
“It’s a very different experience, smoking a cigar to smoking cigarettes,” Chalker says. “Smoking cigarettes, you tend to smoke out of habit, or a hit, I suppose,” he explains. “But a cigar cries for preparation.”
From the special cutters, to lighters and particular types of ashtrays, everything about it is deliberate, almost ritualistic. Even the journey to actively seek out this hidden place within the city, to venture upstairs to this room is distinctly purposeful.
“It’s a great pleasure,” Chalker says, releasing a fine, grey-blue mist. “It tastes delicious. It’s not smoking like when you smoke cigarettes, it doesn’t give you a rush. It’s very easy, pleasant, smooth, particularly with a whiskey. I feel like we should do this every night!”
Vanek compares the experience to that of enjoying the sophistication of a fine wine. “Once you’ve realised how much effort goes into it, that’s when you can appreciate it,” he says. “You have terroir [geographical origins] affecting the flavour, how long it’s aged for, and then obviously the producer, how they’re rolled. So once you understand all the effort that goes into it, you can realise there’s a reason why we appreciate it, and you want to understand the flavours.”
But like fine wines, it’s a scene that can seem intimidating at first to a newcomer, or one that may bring preconceived notions of pretentiousness. Chalker says he would just like to attract people who are interested and then be able to offer them a selection that might suit their personal taste.
When choosing your first cigar, Vanek recommends taking it slow. “Never have anything too full-bodied or strong because you want to understand the basic flavours first.
“When you are smoking it, you have to understand that you’re only trying to appreciate the flavour, you’re not trying to smoke the tobacco. So only have enough to coat your tongue, and let it rest. The more and more you do that, receptors in your tongue get used to the new flavours you’re introducing to them.”
Ra may offer smokes, but they still are a bar. Both gentlemen are very particular about making sure that their customers enjoy their cigars with just the right drink.
For a holistic experience, Vanek recommends something sweet to complement the flavours of the cigar. Rum is a much-loved match, as is a Rusty Nail – a combination of scotch and Drambuie. “You get the heavy flavours from whiskey and sweetness from the Drambuie. So you get sweetness coating your tongue, then as you draw through the sweetness, you get a nice contrast of smoke and sweet,” Vanek says.
However, Chalker warns that not all drinks can pair well with a good cigar. Aperitifs like martinis or champagne are suited more to before dinner, while a cigar is something you would have afterwards to settle your stomach. “Scotch and rum are digestives as well,” Vanek adds, “so that’s why they match.”
If smoked and savoured properly, a cigar can take thirty minutes to an hour to burn down, leaving plenty of time relax and enjoy unrushed conversation with friends. It’s these winding conversations, these shared moments and spaces of enjoyment that Chalker is trying to preserve at Ra.
But truly, he’s a bit of a fatalist about the whole thing. “We’ve got an outdoor area here (at Collins Quarter) where you can smoke cigarettes downstairs in the courtyard, and eventually that will be banned. And they’ll ban it here as well and it will be banned everywhere.”
Chalker seems to have accepted that some people won’t stop viewing him as some kind of devil, joking that there are many more people actively avoiding the place than actually coming here.
A man who says we should ‘legalise everything’, Chalker can’t get his head around the logic of demonising one vice over any other, sarcastically throwing in, “we should ban eating because people might get fat”.
“Having an indoor place like this where you can smoke a cigar in a comfortable environment is rare now, completely rare,” Chalker says. “That culture is disappearing. We might as well enjoy it while we can.”
As it gets late, the conversation burns down along with the cigars, which fume quietly in the ashtray, still emitting a pleasant, warm glow.
“That was excellent,” says Chalker, as he settles into the night.