Alexandr Gorokhovskiy is a spirits expert that also smokes cigars. Or he is a cigar expert that works in the beverage alcohol industry. Six of one, half dozen of the other. He is originally from Russia but calls Paris home these days. Having a conversation with Alexandr (who goes by Sasha) is much like smoking a cigar. As the conversation evolves, so do the flavours of the cigar. You become more familiar and occasionally wander into territories that are miles away from where you started. Sasha took the time to answer our questions between trips to Cuba and Italy, and we ended up with not only insight about cigars but about the many places this industry can take you.
Bartender Atlas: Have you ever worked as a bartender? If so where?
Alexandr Gorokhovskiy: Never. I was always a very keen customer though 🙂
BA: How did you start working in beverage alcohol?
AG: I was doing a Business degree in Ireland, at Trinity College Dublin, and once I graduated I was offered a position of Brand Ambassador by Jameson. After several weeks of very intense training by Irish Distillers I was sent back home, which in a way was ideal for me since I was intending to come back to Moscow after my studies, anyway. This was back in 2005, so that was the time of high hopes for Russia, economy was booming and imported spirits sector was on the rise. Bars were opening up everywhere, Russian consumers were desperate to try new stuff, and bartending just started to be seen as a profession. Enthusiasm and passion were there, but the level of knowledge among those behind the stick was very basic at the time. There was no understanding of what whiskey was, what is it made of and how shall it be consumed. So my job was to change all that, and I am proud to say that my efforts probably paid off since Russia is now one of the biggest markets for Jameson globally… I’m only joking, of course, since it is rather a result of collective work from a lot of people over several years multiplied by a somewhat natural predisposition of the Russian consumer to smoother and sweeter whiskies. As for contemporary Russian bartenders, to my mind they are now among the most knowledgeable and professional in the trade, with Moscow bar scene being one of the most vibrant and developed in Europe, if not in the world, with other Russian cities following suit.
BA: You are Russian and now live in Paris. Did that move relate to employment opportunities?
AG: After 8 years with Pernod Ricard Russia in various roles (as I mentioned, I started as a Jameson Brand Ambassador, and ended up as their Head of Brand Education managing a team of ambassadors across different categories), I made a decision to move on and try myself on a brand-owner side of our business. A position became vacant in Mexico with Olmeca, and since I was a big fan of this tequila I immediately applied. Because I have worked very closely with the creators of Olmeca Altos, Henry Bessant and Dre Masso, on launching Tahona Society (the first global tequila education program targeting bartenders and currently the most important international tequila cocktail competition) in Russia, which was Olmeca’s biggest market at the time and a pilot country for this project, the transfer was not very hard to arrange. I spent three fantastic years in Mexico as Global Brand Advocacy Manager for Olmeca and Altos, after which I was moved to Havana Club. Since Havana Club International is a joint venture between the Cubans and Pernod Ricard, the headquarters are in Paris, where I’m currently based.
BA: You now work with Pernod Ricard to conduct spirit tastings for cigar smokers, do you know anyone else that has this job?
AG: Not really, actually… I mean, a lot of people who work with ultra-premium spirits are cigar smokers and occasionally attend various cigar events, but I am not aware of anyone whose main responsibility is managing a relationship between a brand and the cigar community.
BA: We met in Cuba on a Havana Club sponsored trip. How do you feel Rum stacks up next to Cognac or Whisky where cigars are concerned?
AG: Rum is not necessarily the most immediate choice when it comes to cigar smoker’s repertoire – you are quite right in that historically spirit categories consumed together with high-end cigars were Whisky and Cognac. However, I am convinced that aged rum is maybe the best and certainly the most natural match for a good Cuban cigar. Especially Cuban rum, since both originate from the same land! The natural gifts of Cuban soil and climate are unique to this island and cannot be found anywhere else. Just as other places may have acquired local tobacco seeds and technologies, but never managed to reproduce the exceptional quality of Cuban cigars, the same thing happened to Cuban rum, as we all know…
Havana Club, which I now work for, has recently developed its Iconica Collection – a range of ultra-premium rums dedicated to spirit connoisseurs and enthusiasts. We are very confident that these rums can rival the top luxury spirits in the world, and talking directly to cigar smokers, for whom pairing cigars with the best spirits is part of a ritual, is a task which I can describe as both challenging and rewarding. It is very flattering when upon being introduced to the Havana Club range most of seasoned aficionados agree that very few things out there are more satisfying from a palate pleasing point of view than accompanying a good cigar with one of our rums. The exquisite natural sweetness of good rum can really animate and thrust all of the flavours that you normally get from a full-bodied and well-balanced Habano. The rich flavours of rum such as oak, dark chocolate, coffee, and vanilla blend nicely with the notes of wood, cinnamon, cedar, espresso, and caramel that are typical for a Cuban cigar.
BA: Are there any specific brands that you feel work best with cigars?
AG: Couple of years ago we launched Havana Club Unión, which is the first rum ever created to be paired specifically with the beautiful and full-bodied flavour of a fine Cuban cigar. It is a collaboration between two of the most passionate characters – Havana Club’s Maestro del Ron, Asbel Morales, and Cuba’s most renowned Cigar Master and Habanosommelier, Fernando Fernandez. Different blends of rare rum reserves are prepared by Asbel, before they are selected and adjusted together with Fernando Fernandez to form a final blend that in their minds perfectly matches the beautifully smooth and powerful flavour of the classic Habano. To me, it is the best combination possible.
BA: Have you got any tips about how to best enjoy a cigar and spirit tasting?
AG: To begin the experience, you need to prepare the cigar by cutting it. The cut should be made with a special guillotine or cigar scissors just above the line where the cap meets the wrapper (otherwise the cigar might start unravelling). Another way of doing this is to use a punch cutter – it will remove part of the cap while preserving the shape of the cigar’s head. Do not remove the band right away for you risk damaging the wrapper.
Then you need to light up your cigar. Always use an odourless flame – a butane gas lighter or a wooden match. Never use a petrol lighter. The best way of lighting a cigar is to hold the foot of the cigar next to the flame and start rotating it until the surface is evenly charred. Then place the cigar between your lips and, holding the flame a centimeter away, draw on it while continuing to rotate the cigar. An Habano should be smoked slowly. It should be sipped rather than gulped, just like a fine aged rum. Never inhale – this is not a cigarette.
Now, once you take a sip from your glass with rum, you will get hints of dried fruit, vanilla, chocolate… And when you go back to your cigar, you will notice that it has changed. Rum saturates the cigar with flavours and regains them from the cigar. It also may make the cigar woodier and more leathery while taking on some other notes from it in return. The rum might also appear rounder and chewier. Rum and cigar are truly great partners, with a properly executed pairing leading to a kind of a conversation between them, with the whole experience being bigger than the sum of its parts.
BA: Anything people should avoid when tasting cigars and spirits together?
AG: There is a rather popular myth that a tip of the cigar can be dipped into alcohol and that it will supposedly improve its taste. The truth is that a cigar should never have any direct contact with any liquid. Even the best rum will only ruin the experience if the cigar is dipped into it. It is far more pleasant to merge the flavours of the two in your mouth, sipping the spirit while at the same time smoking the cigar. And of course, both shall be consumed in moderation.
Thank you Sasha for taking the time to speak with us!