As Phnom Penh’s original cigar bar celebrates its five-year anniversary, La Casa del Habano owner Guillaume Boudin discusses the Cuban government-owned franchise, and Cambodia’s embrace of tobacco’s finer side. Writing by Joanna Mayhew. Photography by Charles Fox.

Opening the door to cosy La Casa del Habano presents an apt picture. Dressed in a white linen collared shirt, Guillaume Boudin stands behind the small bar, doing exactly what one would expect of a cigar lounge owner: lighting his next Cuban, an Upmann Magnum 50.

“I try to smoke as many cigars as I can,” says the Frenchman. He tenderly turns the stout stick, plumes of smoke rising lazily, as Latin music drifts from the speakers. “But I have to keep some for my customers.”

Tucked discreetly away at the capital’s riverside, La Casa del Habano functions as a private club of sorts for the country’s high rollers. One half of the space is a lounge, offering a selection of liquors that pair well with the cigars, and decorated with black rattan lounge chairs accented by red and white cushions and quirky art pieces. The other half is the venue’s treasure trove: a large, dimly-lit, walk-in humidor boasting 100 cigar types from 25 Cuban cigar brands, with approximately 10,000 sticks for sale in neatly displayed boxes.

Opened in June 2010, the Cuban cigar outlet was the first of its kind in Cambodia, and represented Boudin’s new lease on life. Previously working in logistics in China, he had long had a love affair with cigars. As a boy, he grew up watching his father and grandfathers finish family Sunday lunches with cards and cigars.

At 13, he tried his first cigar with a friend, after stealing one from his father. Today, he cringes recalling the American-brand cigar—a White Owl, one of five sold as a pack. “We didn’t know how to smoke it; it made us quite dizzy,” he says, with a laugh. “Since then, I always had a thing for cigars.”

With about 2,000 cigars in Boudin’s personal collection, his wife suggested  he open his own shop. After coming across Phnom Penh on a return trip to China, he immediately saw the potential in the nascent market. “It reminded me of La Habana – the riverside, the atmosphere, the weather, the rainy season,” he recalls.

Leaving his former corporate life behind, swearing never to return, Boudin opened what was for the first six months called The Cigar Shop, while pursuing franchising from La Casa del Habano. “It’s the top, high-end quality standard when you are in the cigar industry,” says Boudin of the franchise, which began in 1990 selling exclusively Cuban cigars, and has 135 outlets worldwide. More notably, the chain is owned by the Cuban government, which monitors supply chains to ensure quality.

Franchise owners have to comply with certain standards, such as lounge size, and pay royalties, and in exchange the Cuban government assists with marketing and provides yearly visits by Cuban rollers for demonstrations.

Boudin now owns exclusive rights for the franchise in Cambodia, and flies in new orders monthly through an exclusive regional distributor for Cuban cigars. He watches over his stocks religiously: ensuring room temperature stays between 16 and 22 degrees Celsius, and maintaining humidity between 65 and 75 percent.

He estimates that over the years he has tried 600 different cigar types, both Cuban and non-Cuban. “I always come back to the Cuban,” he says, adding that they stand out because of the soil type, allowing for an evolution of flavours rather than a linear smoke. If maintained properly, cigars can last 20 years. Like wine, the taste will change over the years, making its peak at a certain time. It also changes according to accompanying drink and food. “That’s the beauty of it,” he adds. “It never ends.”

Boudin believes what defines cigar smokers is a way of life. “We have the philosophy behind cigars of taking the time to enjoy something,” he says, adding that he recommends pairings depending on the time of day: In the morning, a light-bodied cigar will match well with an espresso; in the evening, a full-bodied cigar with rum will round out a big meal. For reflective afternoons, Boudin prescribes an easy-going cigar that will not distract. “It will just be a companion, to help you think.”

Thirty percent of La Casa del Habano’s customers are now Cambodian—a significant achievement considering cigars were a relatively new product just five years ago. Boudin has worked to raise the profile of the sticks in country, and part of his job includes educating people about the risks of counterfeit products, which are rampant in Southeast Asia and often include dangerous substitutions, such as sawdust.

Boudin foresees growth in the cigar market, particularly as taxes are amongst the lowest in the region, and hopes to further this by distributing to Siem Reap’s growing number of high-end hotels and restaurants, and by exploring opening a second shop in the region.

Standing at the bar, Boudin continues to tend to his Upmann, having diligently taken his time with it. “When you say, if you were stuck on an island, what kind of book would you bring. If I said the same with a cigar, it’s this one,” he says, raising his dutiful companion with a smile. “I found it. Finally.”