Strong stogies find new fans in KoreaA few years ago, importer Pierre Cohen-Aknine felt the need to create a space for a small class of smokers who had to nowhere to go in a country full of smokers ― those who enjoy cigars.
When he began importing Cuban cigars to Korea in 1995 through his trading company, Pierre Limited, he began sampling them himself and found fellow cigar aficionados. What initially started as impromptu get-togethers became occasional gatherings of 72 cigar lovers in the capital.
In 2001, Mr. Cohen-Aknine started Seoul’s first official cigar club. “Everybody kept on coming to smoke their cigars in my office, so I just made space,” he said, extending his arms out from his sides.
His office on Mount Namsan is divided into two areas: his trading office, Pierre Limited, and an entertainment area equipped with a walk-in, glass-walled humidor and an espresso bar with a small sink.
Except for one American, all the members are male, and most are non-Korean. But now more Koreans are starting to adopt cigars as their smoke of choice.
In the past, cigars’ strong smell and their image of pretentious wealth turned off Korean smokers. Even now, cafes and restaurants that allow cigarette smoking will often discourage cigar smokers from lighting up.
According to a spokesperson at KT&G, which controls tobacco sales and distribution in Korea, the consumption of foreign tobacco products since the late 1980s has been rising steadily, with a 23 percent market share in the first half of 2004. However, cigars make up a miniscule part of foreign tobacco consumption, or less than 0.1 percent.
It is a particularly difficult market, yet Mr. Cohen-Aknine’s Pierre Limited has seen a steady increase in cigar consumption in Korea in recent years. Because of his competitors, he declined to comment on the exact amount of the Cuban cigars he imports or his sales figures.
The cigars’ smell is the same, but what has changed is Koreans’ perception of cigars. What was once seen as a sign of flaunted wealth and leisure is now seen as a sign of sophistication.
At A.O.C., a European-style brasserie in Cheongdam-dong, one can spot stogie smokers puffing away in the cigar lounge.
Among them is Kim Yong-ho, a fashion photographer and restaurateur, who can be seen savoring the taste of his favorite, Davidoff’s Robusto, in the evenings.
Mr. Kim said a handful of fellow cigar smokers started something like a club about eight years ago, but it soon disappeared.
“The image of smoking cigars was somewhat too authoritative, masculine and luxurious in Korea back then,” he said. “If a company CEO or a prominent politician were seen smoking a cigar in public, it was viewed as negative.”
To the 50-something photographer, cigars signify the smoker’s economic status and leisurely lifestyle. “But it’s not just about having a lot of money and time. Because smoking cigars is normally accompanied by intelligent conversation, cigar smoking has been recognized as a high-class pastime,” he said.
“A number of freelance workers and the newly rich in Korean society, who are free from social prejudice, regard cigars as part of a sophisticated culture,” Mr. Kim said.
Celine Shin, spokesperson at Blue Bell Korea, which imports more than a dozen Dominican Republic cigars, says the company’s clientele consists mainly of corporate CEOs and executives.
“Smoking cigars has become a new lifestyle, as people gather occasionally to enjoy time after work, with dinner and wine to go with cigars,” she said.
However, “Korea is a tough market because people are used to easy-to-smoke cigarettes, and the market remains exclusive,” she said.
Cigars have been in Korea for a long time, but the early ones were domestically produced, according to a KT&G spokesman.
“The brand named Hangang was popular in the 1960s, and there were other brands such as Seorak and Yeonsong,” he said. “But somehow cigars lost their appeal to Koreans over the years, and now cigarettes make up a majority of the domestic tobacco market.”
Most of the world’s top-quality cigars are produced in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Leading cigar brands in Korea are Cohiba, Montecristo, Davidoff and Dunhill.
Finding them in Korea may not be easy, as sales of cigarettes in restaurants and bars larger than 40 pyeong (132 square meters), as well as any promotional activities, are prohibited.
Despite such restrictions, major cigar importers in Korea, such as Pierre Limited, Blue Bell Korea and British American Tobacco, are planning to expand distribution by selling cigars through convenience stores, gift shops and cigar lounges.
The importers’ promotions are designed for the wealthy and upper classes in Korea. British American Tobacco, which distributes Dunhills, often offers complimentary cigars at private functions targeting high-end clientele. Blue Bell Korea organizes events for cigar smokers in wine bars and hotels.
Those wanting a more casual atmosphere go to Mr. Cohen-Aknine’s lounge. Membership fees include a 500,000 won ($416) non-refundable deposit and an annual fee of 500,000 won, which gets members access to the lounge and a 20-percent discount on cigars and cigar accessories.
One Wednesday evening in July, through the door of an office that has no sign outside, Thierry Marty and Pascal Paoli strode in unannounced. As single, French expats in Korea, they had the time to visit their mutual friend, Mr. Cohen-Aknine.
Mr. Cohen-Aknine had just told his Korean wife that he would be home soon for dinner but upon seeing his regular visitors, he changed his mind. Soon, the three began to light their favorite cigars, all Cuban.
“Thierry is one of the biggest individual buyers of my cigars here,” Mr. Cohen-Aknine said.
“I buy from Pierre, maybe a case or two, per month, but then when I travel, I buy cigars,” Mr. Marty said.
Images of Cuba
On the white walls of the lounge were posters, photographs of tobacco farms in Havana, black-and-white picture frames of tuxedo-clad men holding fat cigars.
The console and shelves displayed memorabilia from Cuba and cigar paraphernalia. Imported ashtrays, cigar guillotines, humidors, stacks of books, maps, postcards were placed in an orderly manner.
As a gray haze hovered over the three men, an earthy, spicy scent filled the room. In the background, Ella Fitzgerald could be heard singing as they played backgammon.
“We do this all the time. It’s our simple pastime,” Mr. Cohen-Aknine said, lighting another cigar.
The well-known hazards of smoking don’t faze Mr. Cohen-Aknine, who smokes an average of two cigars a day.
“Slow death can be brought upon by a number of elements in your life,” he said.
“For example, a temperamental boss at work can be highly stressful. There are other negative things or stressful situations that are bad for you, such as pollution, fast food, sugar, palm oil, caffeine. Excess of anything is bad.”
Cigars, he said, offer mental and psychological satisfaction.
“You can take out a cigarette anytime and put it out quickly, but not with a cigar,” he said. “It takes time to choose, light and put it out. A cigar smoker normally plans his cigar for the day. When he takes out a cigar or two, he thinks about when, where and with whom he will be smoking for how long.”
He says that unlike cigarettes, cigars are closely associated with one’s cultural sophistication, and the social element of cigars can override the cancerous chemical substance in tobacco.
“A cigar can cool and relax a person physically and psychologically, and so cigar smokers are usually attentive and good listeners,” he said. “It’s that human quality of cigars that generates a happy process in one’s life.
“I cannot say that smoking cigars by itself will necessarily make the smoker interesting, but if one is interested in refining particular experiences and nurturing in-depth knowledge, then he or she must display other characteristics and perspectives in other fields of interests in life, making the conversation or time with them interesting,” Mr. Cohen-Aknine said.
To reach that level of sophistication, he claims, a beginner smoker needs to acquire a taste for the bitterness in cigars, which are made from fermented tobacco leaves.
“To someone who never ate top-grade caviar, it can taste like ‘jelly gone bad.’ Money won’t buy you a good smoke; you must deserve it,” he said.
by Ines Cho