Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing George Hamilton. He’s not just a Hollywood icon (“Love at First Bite“, “Zorro the Gay Blade” ), author (“Life’s Little Pleasures“, “Don’t Mind if I Do“) and famed ladies man, George Hamilton loves cigars. Not only does he love them, but his knowledge of the growing and manufacture go well beyond that of even the most hardcore enthusiast. From landing in Havana in January of 1959 and being detained by the revolution (read “Don’t Mind if I Do”!), to having brands of cigars and cigar bars bearing his name, Mr. Hamilton knows cigars and took some time out of his busy day to speak with me about them. Here is the transcript of my Q&A with him:
Do you still smoke cigars?
Yeah, I do. I have really great cigars that I’ve collected over the years. I don’t think cigars get “better” with age…I don’t believe that. I think you can preserve them for a long time, and I’ve had very old, pre-embargo cigars that were still hanging on…and I’ve had a lot of Dominican cigars and Nicaraguan ones and even Jamaican that were during the war that were preserved well. So I’ve always had a collection of great cigars and while I don’t smoke every night anymore, my brother likes it, and I like it. So I find that when I really have something in-depth to think about or ponder, I take a cigar. Or when I have a meeting with someone where it’s going to be 45-minutes of business, I choose well the cigar, and I try to choose well the person I’m going to smoke it with.
You had the Hamilton’s Cigar Lounge in Las Vegas and the Hamilton Reserve cigars…
I had two lines of them…one of them made by Upmann, and I had made one by Davidoff …Kelners. And then I developed my own line which was called “Hamilton House,” which was a blend of Dominican with Nicaraguan … perhaps stronger tobacco that was quite good from the old Somoza fields.
I did this in the Dominican, and I think at that time I was fairly accomplished at not only appreciating a cigar but knowing why I appreciated it.
When you enjoy a cigar, you don’t realize how many hundreds of people’s hands touch it before you get to it.
It’s not as much the cigar as it is the tobacco…I mean, what goes into the actual tobacco…the fillers and binders. The binder’s another thing, that’s grown in a different way, really. It is an enormous amount of time that hands are touching it. It’s incredible to see a torcedor make a cigar properly (and crimp and book it right). It’s not an easy thing to do, and there’s nothing worse than a cigar that’s badly rolled. I just want to ditch when they burn quickly. You can feel a cigar. I can look at it now. If you can stand it on its ash, you can tell it’s pretty much been rolled right.
That brings up an interesting question: there is a current trend towards short fat cigars, 60 ring gauge, and I’ve seen some manufacturers brag about them standing on their ash. So it’s interesting that you mention that….
Well, I can do it on a panatela …I mean any one that’s rolled right it’ll stand on its own ash. If you get a least three-fourths inch to one-inch, you should be able to stand a cigar on its ash in an ashtray.
I like to look at a cigar, and I like to see the combustion ring and look at the magnesium and see how white a ring it is. You can smell a cheap cigar across the room…or these days, across the street. There’s nothing worse than a cigar that’s made with cheap tobacco and green tobacco. The minute you take it in, you know. I can smell it a mile away, but once in awhile someone will give you a cigar and it’s a “fooler“. You think, “Oh my God, why am I with this person for 45 minutes with this cigar?!”
How do you feel about the Cuban embargo and how that affects things now and how the possibility of it ending will affect things?
Well, I think that Cuban tobacco, just by the nature of the tobacco, (the Vuelta Abajo…in that area) is some of the most wonderful cigar tobacco I’ve ever seen. And I know for a while they made their Cohibas from there, and I know that Castro’s people rolled from those farms in that area. Tobacco is so personal that you have to know the farm; you have to know the people. And you can get consistency by going to the same people…knowing their land – if it’s been rotated, if the lands been worn out…you know.
Cuba has incredible tobacco…always has. And it’s not to say that we don’t have it. Connecticut broadleaf binder is incredible. It has stretch and give to it and feel to it. And they use it in Cuban cigars, but the Cuban tobacco that they have is so incredibly good and so unmistakably Cuban that if you’ve ever smoked them, you get used to them, and it’s a sad loss not to have them.
There are many wonderful cigars in the Dominican. In Nicaragua, the Somoza fields have incredible tobacco…Cuban seed tobacco that was wonderful. But “the Cubans” are unmistakably Cuban just as a great bottle of Lafite or La Tour or a Chateau Cheval Blanc or Haut Brion or Petrus come from a specific piece of land, and you know why that wine is great. (Not to say California hasn’t got great wines and isn’t getting better, but the price of it doesn’t make a lot of sense – what we’re charging for a lot of the wines.)
I think the art of anything is to find out a price you can live with that suits your habit and suits your “pocket.” Cuba will come in with cigars, and it only costs about 85 cents to roll that cigar…maybe $1.30 – I don’t know what it is now – but they retail these cigars for $30 and $40 in some places.
At some point the embargo will go. The Cuban cigar when there was no embargo was still a great cigar. So it wasn’t just the idea that it was “impossible to get,” it was because it competed worldwide as one of the great cigars, and it’s unmistakable.
You know the difference when you smoke a Montecristo 2 or an Epi or you know when you have …there are 10 or 20 brands of Cuban cigars. I’ve had them in England for periods of time and enjoyed them, and the British love them. The Spanish have better selections of them. And they had them in Switzerland for a while to help Cuba when there was an embargo. So anybody that is a cigar smoker, when they go out of the country, they will try a Cuban cigar… and if they have Cuban cigars, they will know why they match up.
I’ve been fortunate to have sampled many Havana cigars and they do appeal to me…
Now there aren’t many I haven’t had over the years, there are some [about which] we think the tobacco is strong, and it’s all how it’s blended. And there are cigars from Cuba that are incredibly soft and mellow…and there are others that are very strong. I mean, someone who’s never had a Montecristo 2 Torpedo Figurado says their eyes will roll back in their head! <laugh>
The last one I had that came from an English friend. It was very smooth, complex and delicate. I was surprised by it…it was a shock…
That’s right. There used to be two great guys in England, Desmond Sautter and Edward Sahakian. Those guys had the best cigars in the world…the best selection of cigars in the world! And they even had ones that were pre-embargo that I tried. I was always amazed at their cigars. Nothing I had ever measured up to those two fellas cellars.
How do you feel about smoking bans? Florida is proposing some pretty crazy restrictions and California started out back in the late ‘90s…
California is the one that actually destroyed smoking, and interestingly enough, the Governor smokes cigars…and probably still smokes them…and it crept in and spread like wildfire across the country.
I think… to me, there’s no doubt about it [smoking] being carcinogenic. There’s no doubt about alcohol being bad for your health…there’s no doubt about that, but it’s all in how you do it and the frequency in which you do it, I believe.
People should have that choice in their lives – what they want and what they do. I mean, I want to be informed and make my own decisions. And that’s not to say an addict can’t be cut off …an addict should be cut off. You do everything can to make sure people don’t drink and drive!
But when it comes to cigars, I think they’ve been around a long time and people have survived to a very late age with them. And it’s a decision made by the individual that shouldn’t be taken out of their hands, but I don’t disagree with the information.
Yes. Some could argue that the sun’s rays could be carcinogenic!
There’s no doubt about it. There’s nobody who’s more…I’m informed about the sun, I know all about it, and I’m probably the tannest white man in America! <laugh> I made that choice.
Well, that’s about it. I thank you for your time.
I appreciate it and your interest. My cigars have always been a passion, and I love them…and I have great wines that I love…but they are only an adjunct to my life.
It’s amazing: I believe in dieting, I believe in cutting back on calories and all those things as you get older, health-wise, but another thing that’s terribly important is that there is a balance in your life and that you see the humor in the tragedy and that you get a hold of some sense of freedom in our government’s proposal to clamp down on everything we do! You can’t live by those laws and really live.
It was really cool to chat about cigars with George Hamilton, he really knows his stuff. I purchased a box of the Hamilton House Torpedos from Best Cigar Prices in honor of this occasion. Mr. Hamilton tells me that these cigars were his third line and added Cameroon to the Dominican blend, if, indeed, they are the original. I received the box today and they look brand new, so I don’t think they are old stock that has been buried in a humidor for years. They are beautiful looking cigars.
Tell ya what, I will send a Hamilton House torpedo to 3 random folks who leave a comment on this article.
Many thanks to my wife, Jennifer, for transcribing the recording and making the interview happen. Also a big thank you to Jude Southerland Kessler, author of “Shoulda Been There” and the soon to be released “Shivering Inside”, for editing the transcript. Finally thank you to Mr. Hamilton who was very generous with his time and I deeply appreciate the opportunity to have had a brief discussion with him.
That’s it for now, until the next time,