Food & Drink

The UD Job Interview: What Does a Cigar Sommelier Actually Do?

A Conversation with New York's First and Only Certified Cigar Sommelier

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Every so often, as we go about leading normal lives in this strange moment in time, we come across an occupation that gives us pause: Wait, so...people actually do this for a living?

Amidst the flurry of our rapidly changing economy, it’s not an uncommon sentiment. And today, we’re taking the time to investigate one such case...

Michael Dounoulis is a certified cigar sommelier—the only certified cigar sommelier in New York, and just one of 30 or so certified cigar sommeliers in the world. He was born in South Jersey, where he grew up idolizing his father—in particular, the zeal with which he shared his love for cigars. Soon after he began smoking them himself, youth tricked Dounoulis into believing he could start his own cigar company. That venture failed, but he made a career for himself in the hospitality industry—first, in Atlantic City and, as of about 10 years ago, New York.

Though he was managing restaurants and clubs, Dounoulis never abandoned his first passion. And last February, he managed to secure a position as the General Manager of Soho Cigar Bar, where he’d been a regular for years.

The establishment, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, is a rarity, even in New York; it’s one of few cigar bars in the city to also serve both liquor and food (think: filet mignon sandwiches and bacon-wrapped meatballs). Unlike stuffy, old-school cigar dens, Soho banks on a casual atmosphere—complete with a state-of-the-art ventilation system—that's comfortable for both first-time and veteran smokers alike.  

Naturally, part of the bar's appeal is Dounoulis himself, whose expertise far exceeds that of your standard retail tobacconist. But what, exactly, does he do? And how, exactly, does one become a certified cigar sommelier?

This is: the UD Job Interview.

Christopher Webb Photography

How does one become a certified cigar sommelier?
Turns out, there’s a university for tobacconists, called, aptly, Tobacconist University. A standard retail certification is easier to obtain, while the sommelier certification takes six months of dedicated study. Courses cover the history of tobacco, starting thousands of years ago, when cavemen first smoked tobacco, to modern day. As a certified sommelier, Dounoulis says, you can continue on to become a “master tobacconist,” which is more comparable to a master wine sommelier. It’s a two-year program, where you have to travel and plant the seeds and learn how to roll your own cigars. “Once you become a master tobacconist,” Dounoulis says, “you can basically start a cigar factory down in the Caribbean.”

Who usually becomes a certified cigar sommelier?
Most of the other cigar sommeliers in the world work at five-star hotels, golf clubs or fancy steakhouses. Which makes sense... 

What can a cigar sommelier do that a retailer can’t?
These guys can teach you not only about the brand of the cigar, but about the tobacco—how it’s made and why some are more expensive than others, and how cigars are made, how they’re fermented and the kind of labor that goes into making them. Once he’s able to deconstruct the cigar tobacco-wise, Dounoulis can ascertain the particular notes and match them up with Soho Cigar Bar’s library of whiskey, gin, wine and food. In addition, he can teach classes on cutting cigars, tasting cigars, pairing cigars and more.

Soho Cigar Bar

But how, exactly?
Dounoulis likes to ask new clients about what they like to drink and eat to get a feel for their palette before recommending a cigar. If someone is super into a scotch, he’ll match it up with something really nutty, oaky, cinnamon-y; if someone’s drinking an apple martini (which, not our thing, but okay...) he might recommend a light toasty cigar with a slight almond after-note. Dounoulis has also developed a pairing menu, categorized by light, strong, peaty, sweet, rich and smooth.

How many cigars does a cigar sommelier smoke a day?
Dounoulis smokes an average of five a day—three of which are not cigars he would normally smoke. Over the course of his first few months on the job, he smoked every one of Soho Cigar Bar’s approximately 150 cigars (which rotate in and out) in order to pick out their tasting notes.

How does a cigar sommelier “taste” a cigar?
Dounoulis smoked each one of Soho Cigar Bar’s cigars three different times, noting the date, what he ate that day, what he was drinking with it and took extensive notes on the taste. He filled up six or seven journals with notes just from this menu.

Okay, last question: can you pair a cigar with a slice of pizza?
Provided you know a certain food’s ingredients, you can pair cigars with pretty much anything. For pizza, Dounoulis recommends a medium-bodied cigar with some citrusy notes to match up with the tomato sauce.

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