Paul BK Garmirian earned his PhD cum laude in International Politics from the Catholic University of America in Washington DC in 1975. He lectured on Politics and International Marketing and managed his real estate firm in McLean, Virginia until 1990.
Paul Garmirian’s passion has always resulted in the enjoyment of fine cigars. This quest has led him around the world and journals of his travels are contained in his book, The Gourmet Guide To Cigars.
Paul Garmirian’s interest in cigars led to his 7 years of researching and 2 years of writing the Gourmet Guide To Cigars, first published in 1990.
The Gourmet Guide has been re-printed ten times including the Spanish version (1993) Guia Gourmet del Cigarro.
The publication of his book resulted in the opportunity to work with Hendrik Kelner, President of Tabacos Dominicanos and Eladio Diaz, his chief blender in Santiago, Dominican Republic.
What followed was experimentation and hard work by extremely skilled and talented Dominican artisans whose spirit and innovation fused the PG Cigar into existence.
The initial release of the PG line consisted of the traditional Cuban sizes which were introduced at Georgetown Tobacco in Washington DC in November of 1990.
The first PG cigars were officially released nationwide at a cigar dinner in Chicago on May 1st 1991.
The initial 7 sizes were all classic Cuban sizes:
Belicoso (First time the shape appeared in the US)
NO. 2 (Rothschild)
Following the great success of PG Cigars nationwide in 1991 the line has grown to 21 sizes from the largest 9 X 50 Celebration to the smallest Joyita 4 ½ by 26.
The PG Gourmet Series II was launched in 1999 in two shapes, Torpedo and Robusto. In late 2001 the Connoisseur and Belicoso Fino were added.
The Reserva Exclusiva, an exceptional cigar from 10-year old tobaccos, also arrived in late 2001 in Corona Extra and Belicoso. Churchill, Robusto and No. 5 joined the PG R.E. family in early 2002.
2005 was the 15th Anniversary for PG and a special full bodied blend was created. A Belicoso Extra was made in 1000 boxes of 15 and quickly sold out. In 2006, the blend became a line of 9 sizes, called 15th Anniversary.
During the blending of the 15th Anniversary PG came across a tantalizing full bodied blend which, after further blending, was released in 2006 in three sizes as the PG Soiree. Full bodied and tantalizing, the Soiree is the perfect after dinner cigar.
In 2010, PG’s 20th Anniversary was celebrated with a Limited Edition cigar (one size (6 x 52) that was made available to the top 25 PG Authorized Dealers. This rich tasting cigar covered in a dark and oily wrapper was so successful that very small productions, of different sizes, followed.
2015 marked the 25th Anniversary and was commemmorated with a ‘fantastic’ cigar according to many of those who have smoked it. The 25th Anniversary Connoisseur fits in a place of its own within the PG Gourmet Series at 7.5/10 strength.
Stories of Garmirian’s travels and experiences will be continued in his follow up publication to the Gourmet Guide – working title: The Road to Cigars, as of 2022, in final stages of development.
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LORD OF THE SMOKE- AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL B.K. GARMIRIAN, PH.D., NOTED AUTHOR, CIGAR MAKER, CONNOISSEUR, CONVERSATIONALIST, AND ALL-AROUND GREAT GUY.
MP: How did you get started in the cigar business?
PG: I used to smell my father’s cigar boxes from the age of ten on, all the Cuban cigar boxes. I was an amateur cigar smoker for many years. I’ve been smoking about 40 years. In the mid 1980’s, I decided to put all my experiences into print. In 1989, I completed my book, “The Gourmet Guide To Cigars”. “The Gourmet Guide To Cigars” was the first book that came out on cigars in this country (U.S.A). This was also the first book to come out that divided the cigar world into the Havana and Non-Havana groups. Prior to that, most books that had been published, were praising Havana cigars. Because at that time, the Non-Havana world had not been known. In Davidoff’s book there were maybe three pages dedicated to Non-Havanas. And frankly, there weren’t that many great cigars to talk about anyway. Since that time, a great deal of new cigars have come into the market.
MP: What’s one of your favorite cigars?
PG: Which cigar is my favorite from my cigar line, or generally?
PG: Whichever one happens to be the one I’m smoking at the time. Depending on the mood, depending on the meal, or situation.
MP: What’s your Ph.D. in?
PG: My Ph.D. is in International Politics. I was a professor for 20 years before I went into the cigar business. I was a professor, as well as a Real Estate Broker. I did both.
MP: Where are you from originally?
PG: I’m originally from Lebanon, of Armenian heritage. I left Lebanon in 1960-61, and went to school in England for 4 years. I came to the states in January of 1965 and continued my academic work here. I taught some here and some in the Middle East. I got into the cigar business professionally in the late 1980’s with the publication of my book and the production of my cigars.
MP: How many cigars do you have in your cigar line?
PG: Basically, right now I have four different lines: We have the regular PG Gourmet Series which comes in 20 sizes, We have the Maduro Line which has five sizes, We have the PG Two Series which is a stronger version of the PG- in two sizes, and we have the Artisan’s Selection Line which is a less expensive cigar, but basically a good high quality cigar. It’s not a second and it’s not a reject. It’s a slightly different blend. Lighter. So, all together there are four different lines totaling 36 sizes.
MP: Do you do mail-order, sell directly to cigar shops, where are they available?
PG: I don’t do any direct sales through mail order, website, computer, nothing like that. The only thing I do is I do (deal) strictly with tobacco shops. The tobacco shop has to be an authorized dealer. The reason for that is (to ensure) quality control. I have a very small number of stores, not exceeding 200 in the United States, a couple of stores in London. I don’t sell to anyone but tobacco shops. I do sell to a limited number of restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area because I personally patronize those places- maybe two or three of them. I don’t do anything except work with the Tobacconists, such as this one (The Cigar Vault in Mclean, Virginia.) so that they can be a representative of the line. I don’t have any salesmen. I mainly work on the quality of the cigars. I hope that by word of mouth it would reach everyone.
MP: Where are the cigars made?
PG: The cigars are made in the Dominican Republic by Tabacos Dominicanos, which is headed by Hendrik Kelner- He is considered to be one of the finest cigar makers in the world. I work very closely with him and his chief blender Eladio Diaz, he is a very talented man. They also work on other cigars, in another factory, for Davidoff, Avo, and Griffin. It is a company that is jointly owned by Davidoff and Kelner. Kelner makes Davidoff in one factory in Villa Gonzales and Avo and Griffen in another. About 10 miles away in Santiago, they make PG and other brands.
MP: Do the tobaccos all come from the Dominican Republic- or do they come from all over the Caribbean and Central America?
PG: In the case of the PG 2, Regular PG, Artisan’s Selection they are grown in the Dominican Republic, from Cuban seed- and the wrapper is from Connecticut, USA. The Maduro comes from different parts of the world.
MP: What made you decide to get into manufacturing your cigars? Was it out of love? Or lack of a better alternative?
PG: I know it sounds corny in this day and age to talk about passion, because passion has been so overly used and abused. I suppose it was very passionate, in the middle of a dark era of cigar smoking in the 1980’s where I decided to get away from teaching and real estate. And isolate myself for a number of years and spend six- figures to do research and buy cigars and publish this book. Which wasn’t a very popular thing to do for an academic. It wasn’t a smart thing to do business- wise, taking time off for a year or two to finish the book. So there was the great deal of passion, but there was also the scientific curiosity about the different soils. Why certain tobaccos were the way they were. Rainfall. I studied soils. I went back to a doctorate dissertation from the turn of the century(early 1900’s late 1800’s). Over a hundred years ago, there were over 500 different doctorate dissertations that were written on tobacco. It was a big part of the economy. So there is a great deal of publications, some of them very obscure, dust covered books in the Library Of Congress and so forth. For me it was a curiosity because it was something I enjoy fully. So there was no question there was the passion, but the passion has never ceased. You start with passion, and then it becomes a business. For me, it has never become a business because- I don’t want to expand. I don’t want to grow too big. I don’t want to compete with anybody. I don’t believe in mass- production. My people who make my cigars understand that. They understand fully, that what I do is meticulous, slow, stresses quality, and doesn’t care what the market thinks, because the market is segmented. A majority of the people will recognize Macanudo and Partagas as soon as you mention a cigar. That’s not the market I’m aiming at. The market is the person who has the capacity to discern Havana cigars from Non-Havana cigars, high quality product, subtlety, and smoothness, all of those things. The idea is to not to become jaded and lose your integrity in the process of starting something with passion and ending up with commercialism. It’s like dating. You take a woman out, it’s flowers and perfume and this and that. When you get what you want, you lose the passion. This is something where the passion is always there. If you don’t have the passion, then it’s just a business. And it is not just a business. It’s a love affair.
MP: Your book, “The Gourmet Guide To Cigars”, where can you pick that up? Is it available at a lot of bookstores?
PG: The book is available mainly at tobacco shops. When the book came out we thought, “Out of a hundred people that go into a tobacco shop a hundred people are the target (market) that would buy the book. You put the book in a bookstore, one percent of the people would read it. It’s available in tobacco shops. And believe it or not, it’s been eleven years since the book came out. It’s already in it’s ninth printing and I’m ready to do another one. There’s a big demand for it. I get a lot of orders from Baker & Taylor, Amazon.com. Borders, from people who want to order it throughout the world. The bulk of it is sold through tobacco shops.
As for what’s happening in the market, perhaps the title of my next book should be, “The Cigar Boom Before, During, and After.” What was the situation, condition of the cigar industry before the boom? What was consumer behavior? Why do people enjoy cigars? What happened during the boom and what happened after? It’s almost like a bridge, the boom was a bridge. Everybody crossed it, now they’re back to normal sort of enjoyment of cigars without the hype, without the nonsense, without everybody and his cousin getting in. It’s not a fashion statement anymore. It’s a statement of your lifestyle: you like a good meal, you like a good cigar, you like a good drink. You’re not doing it to impress somebody, and you’re not going to be seen. There was a great deal of exhibitionism. Exhibitionism with cigar smokers that I have seen in many parts of the world, that I have observed. For example, at some nightclubs in Europe people have a cigar and they don’t light it until they are at the door of the nightclub. They light it just as they go in so that they make a grand entrance with a cigar. The cigar has been known to be the “toy” of the gangsters. It’s been known to be the thing of aristocrats. It’s been known to be the instrument of bankers and success and affluence. The beauty of cigars in this country is that it is totally democratic. I remember thirty-six years ago when I came to the States, the first thing I noticed was the janitor in the hotel where I was staying was smoking a cigar. I wrote my father a quick letter and said, “You won’t believe it, America is so democratic, even the janitor is smoking cigars!” (It was unusual) Because in Europe and the Middle East, you have to be very well to do to enjoy a cigar because it is very expensive. Taxes are very high. Of course the guy (janitor) was smoking a nickel cigar, which stank to high heaven!
MP: You just described my uncle Tony. He wasn’t a janitor, though. Every holiday, he’d sit down in front of the TV with a drink and the smelliest cigar. I believe his brand was Garcia Vega.
PG: Ninety percent of the people in this country who have a negative reaction to cigars grew up with an “uncle Tony,” who used to tell them, “Come and sit on my lap,” puffing on that stink-a-roo. It was grand-pap somebody, or an uncle, or father. I have so many interesting experiences in my book where people see the cigar and say, “Oh my god it stinks!” and the cigar is not even lit. Then an hour later, they forget themselves, and you’ve lit the cigar- then they say, “Wow, what smells so good?” So, there is a great deal of negative conditioning against cigars, because of “uncle Tony.”
One of the points I wanted to make is that there is a cigar for every pocket book. Most countries import Havana cigars, and you have nothing in between. In this country, right now, you can have a dollar cigar- a dollar cigar today is like a ten cent cigar thirty or forty years ago. You have different categories of cigars to appeal to different people. That is the beauty of America. Just as you have different brands of beer, from Heineken to Pabst.
The only thing I would object to is the fluff in advertising. Exaggerations with the morning sunshine, and the sunsets, naked women and bathing suits. All this nonsense goes on and the poor consumer is confused.
MP: I don’t see many cigar ads in print…
PG: Most of it has been banned.
MP: Do you do a lot of writing?
PG: When I first started with my book, I wrote for about two years for the Retail Tobacconist Magazine, which is actually the industry magazine. I wrote many, many articles on different aspects of cigar smoking. I gave a lot of lectures around the country. I did the first cigar dinner in conjunction with a tobacco shop in Chicago in 1991. That was when the boom started and I pulled out. I don’t like crowds or lunacy and everyone sticking their cigars in my face. The vulgarization. Cigar smoking became terribly intolerable in the mid nineties. But all those people are gone, they were just part of the boom. You look at all the advertising, GQ magazine, this and that and the other, and you see that in 96- 97, in magazines and even (TV) sitcoms- you always see a cigar, because it was a fashion statement. After that, it completely died out.
MP: That is true. This is a great place to enjoy a smoke.
PG: Yes, this place, The Cigar Vault of McLean has been a haven for all the lost souls of cigar smoking. We have all congregated here, regardless of political persuasion. This is the perfect place that is actually a substitute for the old neighborhood pub or the old village tavern that people used to go to over a hundred years ago. This is the modern version. This is where people come and forget their troubles, they sit down, share a moment, laughter, television. You have a cigar. It’s like a fraternity. Sometimes, ladies come in. One group of people that are not welcome, although we don’t rudely tell them anything, is cigarette smokers. Cigarette smokers are the equivalent of you eating a nice steak and someone walks by with a bottle of ketchup says, “Here, have some ketchup with your meal.” I honestly feel bad for people who smoke cigarettes because, I mean it is an addiction. The worst thing about cigarettes is people just smoke them for no other reason (than the addiction). Young people start for the dramatic effect. They want to be older, they want to make a statement, they want to fit in.
MP: So, what’s next for you as a cigar maker and author?
PG: Well, you know during the whole ten years that I have been making cigars I did a great deal of what I call my delicate work- for accessories. I designed and produced this lighter (by S.T. Dupont) in France that sells for a thousand dollars, retail. I have leather cases, in different skins: alligators, buffalo, ostrich. I did the ashtray in Belgium. I did the cigar cutter in England, by the finest cutter maker, who passed away about two years ago. The cutters are collector’s items because they are hand made, of aircraft aluminum. My next project, if I’m able to do it, would be the fragrances. Fragrances for men.
MP: To complement the cigars?
PG: No. To complement them naturally, because I have always enjoyed good scents.
MP: Ralph Lauren’s Polo cologne had the smell of tobacco and leather. Any weird people come out of the woodwork looking to capitalize on your success?
PG: I taught marketing for twenty years. My doctorate is in international relations. The second half was in marketing. I owned a real estate business, which I still do, but I’m not very active. I’m aware of advertising. Some how, to me, I feel it cheapens everything when you start getting into gimmicks. Actually, I got a telephone call from a tailor that used to work at Bloomingdale’s. He said, “I’m designing a special suit that would appeal to cigar smokers.” Well, what kind of suit would it be, single breasted, double breasted-what’s your point, I said?
MP: Well, looking around here, we’re all wearing the gamut- there are no t-shirts but….
PG: My point exactly. Concessions turn me off. Stereotyping, clichés you know, this goes with this. I go crazy when they start pairing wines with cigars, it’s so nonsensical. I believe in total freedom and enjoyment of whatever you do, and if you smoke a cigar after you eat a sandwich, so be it. If you’ve had a six course meal, and smoke a good cigar, that’s great. Of course, I don’t grab a twenty year old Havana cigar after a tuna sandwich, when I’m on the run. All this chi chi stuff is just nonsense. I believe in total freedom of choice when it comes to smoking cigars whether you drink Pepsi cola, wine, or whatever. Don’t tell me this beer or this wine goes with this cigar. It’s nonsense. However, after a good meal there are certain things I do recommend. Port is good with a cigar after a meal. Rum, Cognac, single malt scotch- whatever you enjoy. I like to sip on rum. That I think is the traditional drink for cigars.
MP: How many cigars do you sell a year?
PG: How many cigars do I sell a year? Me no speak English! I will give you the figures because they are public, I don’t want to play games with you. In 1996…
MP: I take it you’re not in it for the numbers- it’s a true labor of love….
PG: In 1996, produced 700,000 cigars and sold 710,000. In 1997, I produced 1,125,000 cigars, which was great because it allowed me to have a nice cushion of inventory. Since then, because I have strengthened my inventory so much in 1997, all my friends are enjoying cigars made 1997. Now, unlike most cigar makers, I’m releasing cigars made over three years ago. There is big a difference between how much you produce and how much you consume or sell. Most of cigar makers, when they make a cigar if they make 700,000 cigars one year, they want to sell 700,000 that year. With me it’s the opposite. I make more cigars. I sell less and what’s left is aging and improving.
MP: Do cigars improve with age?
PG: Some do and some don’t. It’s like wines. Some get wonderful after five years. Some will go flat. Some are fabulous after 60 years. It depends on the type of tobacco that was used, storage.
MP: I remember a few years ago, there was this big “to do” about some Kennedy era Cuban cigars…
PG: Most of them are musty. They are not smokeable. People go crazy about them because of the show-and- tell aspect. I think that a good cigar, 5 to 10 years is perfect for aging. Again, what cigars are you aging? If you age a piece of garbage, it’s going to be garbage 5 years from now.
MP: How can you tell a cigar is bad? Is it a musty flavor? Is the odor, texture… Should the tobacco be moist?
PG: The first thing that you can tell is when you smell the cigar. If you are overwhelmed with something that smells as if you are at a horse farm then obviously something has been under fermented and not proper for smoking. There are three different tests. First you smell the cigar. Then you cut the cigar and draw on it without lighting it. And then, you light it.
I have seen friends light a cigar and just “Bleech!” and just throw it away. When you light it and you can’t wait to get into it because it is giving you a positive signal, then that’s the one! The positive signal comes from high quality tobacco, proper fermentation, proper aging, smoothness, and subtlety. It’s like a smooth cognac versus a harsh one.
MP: In the cigar preparation process, is there a particular way the leaves have to dry and age before they get rolled into a cigar?
PG: There are many, many steps and it is very complicated. There are four different stages. The most important one, for the quality of the cigar is the long-term fermentation of the filler tobacco in order for it to shed through heat, all the unpleasant aspects of a cigar: Acidity, ammonia, and nicotine. It sheds all of that as it is heated. It is an expensive proposition, which is why not too many people do it. If you do longer fermentation, the cigar tobacco is going to sit there, it’s going to break you’re going to lose weight. It’s like anything else, it’s how much love and care you put into it. Most of my cigar tobacco is 4 to 5 years old. The wrapper is 3 years old. That’s money, because when you let it sit you’re not selling it. No one makes things to sit, they make things to sell. For me it is the opposite. The less cigars I sell, the happier I am. It’s better than money in the bank. There are earthquakes, hurricanes, all kinds of problems. Zino Davidoff, the godfather of modern day cigars, traces his success to World War II. As the German armies were advancing everywhere, through his contacts in Europe, everyone was sending their cigars to Switzerland for safekeeping. By the end of the war, Zino Davidoff had a great inventory of Cuban cigars. So all the kings, presidents, and captains of industry- everybody went to Geneva to see Zino. He had cigars that were worth more than gold. So it is important to have a good inventory. Something most stores don’t understand. This store is unbelievable. They never miss a sale because they are stocked up with my cigars and other brands. If you come in, they have your brand. There are some of these mom and pop stores, I don’t want to make fun of the little storekeepers. They are so afraid. They are terrified. They buy one box. I say, “How can you buy one box? How about a backup?” Suppose someone comes in and wants to buy a box. It takes a lot of leadership on everybody’s part, from manufacturing as well as to the stores on how to market the product in a traditionally respectable way that denotes we are professional cigar merchants. Versus the other shopkeepers that are selling tchotkes, lottery tickets, film, and cigars because they are in style.
Look for PG cigars in finer tobacco shops all over. I can personally recommend them, having smoked several of them since the time of this interview. Paul’s book, “The Gourmet Guide To Cigars”. is available at amazon.com and we whole- heartedly recommend it to anyone as the definitive guide.