A Harem of Dusky
Beauties is on hiatus, at least in so far as the concept of a ‘hiatus’
holds meaning for a website that has updated sixteen times in three years.
It will return of course. Over the past half-decade, I have spent time in all the best houses in Havana except for one. The finest mansion of them all stands at the top of the hill, and every night as I pass I see the fine brown faces of twenty or so dusky beauties peering from its lighted windows. Each one is more beautiful than the last, but whenever I lock eyes with them, I sense a deep longing. They are hungry for the flame. The name etched in iron about that house’s gate? COHIBA.
For the time being though, they must wait. The road is long, the night is cold, and I have places to be and promises to keep. Fret not though, my friends. Before you know it, the bright summer sun shall find me reclined in a pleasure boat, idling on a millpond with one such beauty. “My love, won’t you take the till a moment?” I shall say. “I just need to light a little smoke.”
When a stranger first learns that I am the proprietor of the
world’s leading resource for collectors of Cuban cigars,* they quickly probe
the economics of the thing.
“Do you get paid?” They ask. “No, not really. A donation here and there. It doesn’t cover the cost.” “So you must love it.” “Well, cigars, sure, but there’s not too much love to be had in website administration.” “Then why do you do it?” “Well, mostly because it opens a lot of interesting doors.”
Today I am in Hong Kong, and the door that has opened leads to a
private smoking lounge. I am a guest of the owner, with whom I had exchanged
perhaps 150 words of email before he suggested I stop by next time I was in town.
I should think of his humidor, he told me, as my humidor. He said he had “some
He wasn’t wrong. After a brief tour of the club, he opened the door to the walk-in, and told me to pick out anything I liked. The spread on offer contained fully two per cent of the world’s supply of original Behikes, along with a 1492 humidor, and most any other Cuban treasure one would care to name. Respectful of my host, I didn’t want to reach for either the top or bottom shelf, and finally settled on the Partagás Lusitanias Gran Reserva Cosecha 2007: a $150 cigar, but humble in this company.
As you’d expect from one wearing the GR band, the cigar is
perfectly constructed, and once a pair of hand-beaten Japanese cigar shears has
circumcised the cap, the draw is a perfect Cuban. Lit, there are notes of
medium tobacco of the highest quality, with yeasty bread up front and chocolate
out the back. There is a little woodsmoke. Chocolate chip damper.
Another door opened in 2012 when Nic Wing first reached out to me. At the time he was working as a publicist for a cigar store in London, but on the side he was putting together a walking tour of the local “historical cigar sites.” He wondered if I wouldn’t mind putting a link to his tour somewhere on my website. Ever a jealous guardian of my SEO juice, I replied thanking him for his email, and asked after some mutual acquaintances, but ignored his request. We exchanged gossip for a few weeks, and he promised to send me some pictures of some fancy old bands, but never did, and eventually the thread dropped off.
I suppose he forgot the exchange, because in 2015 when he emailed me next, he reintroduced himself. By this time though, he was well known to me. I’ve always dreamed of being Hugh Hefner in 1957, the slick magazine publisher in the sharp suit, smoking cigarettes and drinking whisky over next month’s layout book. Nic evidentially shared that dream, and unlike me, he had done something to actualize it. He had started a magazine earlier that year, and it was doing well with the aficionado set. UK Cigar Scene was a good read, with interviews, reviews and gossip, and wasn’t swamped by puff pieces for the non-Cuban advertisers like every other cigar periodical. (My version would have included fiction, hard-hitting investigative journalism, and a centrefold, but you can’t have everything).
Nic wanted to do a piece about Cuban Cigar Website, and in service of that we exchanged emails regularly for a few months. I even suggested at one point that perhaps he’d like to reprint the odd Dusky Beauty in his magazine – a proposition he politely ignored.
Six months after my piece ran, UK Cigar Scene quietly stopped releasing new issues, and four months after that I learned that Nic had died, the loser in a short fight with the dragon cancer, at the age of 58.
We think of the internet as a gorgon that never forgets, and in a sense that’s true. If you know what you’re looking for, there are archive websites that still host the most bestial of my teenage slash fiction. In any practical sense though, the internet forgets you the minute you stop paying the bill. For Nic, the domain of his magazine now hosts a vape blog, no doubt bought cheap by a Chinese store looking to exploit the SEO juice of Nic’s hard-won link exchanges. His walking tour, which existed only behind a paywall that archive websites could not breach, is down, and presumably lost forever.
Most notable about the Lusitania is the smoke, heavy and blue, which curls from the lip. It’s a good cigar for blowing smoke rings. Halfway through, the tobacco has mellowed a little and coffee notes dominate the foretaste. The chocolate is still around, as is the yeast, but best of all is that there is something of the lactic note familiar from the very best of the Partagás Aniversarios in the back palate.
When Simon Chase first reached out to me in 2014, he gave a humble introduction: “I don’t know if my name means anything to you” he wrote, “but I’ve been kicking around the Havana trade for a few decades.”
Of course I knew him. Simon was the author of some of the best books on the minutiae of Cuban cigars, and countless column inches. He was the closest thing we ever had to an investigative journalist; when something took his interest, he would probe the archives held in the deepest vaults of the UK importers, and fly to Havana to interview the Cubans, and eventually produce a treatise, well written and funny, and usually presenting facts that differed vastly from the common mythos. Over the years we went back and forth many times, him reaching out to me to correct some error on the site, and I to him to ask a question, the answers to which he would seek out like a terrier, coming back with an essay as well written and researched as any of his columns.
Of all the ghosts of the internet, these strangers that appear in my inbox with a few words about a shared hobby, Simon was one of the ones that I was fondest of. He died this March, aged 74, after a long walk with the self-same dragon.
Simon won’t be soon forgotten. For one, he was published in enough different places that a great many sites must go under to erase his oeuvre, and for another because he had more than one book in print, and widely circulated in the cigar world; dusty tombs for some young smoker to find when cleaning out his grandfather’s library. What is lost though, is his brain, which held uncountable titbits of cigar ephemera, and his letters, of which I’m sure I hold only the smallest fraction.
Cigar smoking is a hobby that attracts the gourmand. I know of few aficionados for whom tobacco is their only vice, and many who are just as enthusiastic about wine, rum, whiskey, brandy, cocktails and obscure French liqueurs. We also like Papuan coffee, roasted just right, with only the finest Swiss chocolates on the corner of a saucer, and Iberian suckling pigs in truffle sauce, and slow roasted goose, and bone-in rib eye steaks, and day smoked brisket, and house-made sausage, and much other decadence besides. Best of all, we like it when all these things are served at once.
At any cigar function I am the youngest by twenty years, and the
lightest by thirty kilograms, and yet even I have regularly thrown up blood
from excess for most of my adult life. Nic and Simon are just the most famous
of my internet friends; when the others succumb, will I even learn their fates?
Or will the emails one day simply cease? There are plenty of old correspondents
who I haven’t heard from in a while… perhaps already they are lost.
And of course, myself. There will sometime come the day when my
own sent box sees its last new message. What then?
To the cigar aficionado of tomorrow I have one request – put a watch on my domains, and if they ever expire, pick them up. If you can’t restore the sites, put up something of your own, or a simple tribute, or even leave them blank. Just as long as my hard won Page Authority doesn’t wind up going to some vape store.
The Partagás Lusitanias Gran Reserva Cosecha 2007 ends beautifully, not bitter for one instant, with notes of leather and freshly turned earth. The logic with the Gran Reservas is that they are a regular production cigar in its very best expression; I’ve not smoked enough Lusitanias to really comment, but if they can be this good then I’ll be reaching for them more often in the future. One thing I can say that it is unmistakably a Partagás. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of the Anniversaries, which remain among the best cigars I’ve ever had in this life, but it isn’t too far away, and is a truckload better than a PSD4.
Vale the vile Hoyo! As is tradition for the Harem, I provide you now with an essential piece of consumer advice: a mostly complete ranking, from best to worst, of the special edition cigars from the hole of Monterrey.
Of course, when it comes to Hoyo there is one piece of consumer advice I should offer you before all others: “do not buy.” To your host they have near unanimously proved to be insipid cigars: cedar, light tobacco, and nothing much else. When considering a purchase of any Hoyo, my recommendation is that you take a few steps to the left and buy a Monte 4 instead. If they’re all out of those then I guess you need to hope that they still have the 2004 HdM Humidor.
2000. A chaotic year for Cuban cigars. A
decade prior the Soviet Union had collapsed, and forty years of a Cuban economy
propped up by subsidised sugar had come to an end. The last two tobacco harvests
had been bad. Hurricanes Georges and Irene had flooded fields and demolished
curing barns, and the crop was almost completely lost. The nineties had been a
boom decade for cigars, and its legacy showed in Havana’s empty tobacco storehouses.
What was lacking most of all were the
wrapper leaves. Traditionally, the wrapper for a Habano comes from a single
large middle leaf of a shade grown plant, pale brown, and thinner than paper.
In Havana in 2000, these were in short supply. They did, however, have a few of
the upper leaves. Thicker and much darker, these sun exposed leaves were
normally deemed unfit for the export grade Habanos, and were used instead for
domestic cigars. But times were hard, and quotas had to be met.
This is the origin story of the Edición Limitada program. Those first four cigars, wrapped in thick, dark, and oily domestic wrapper leaves, pumped out to fill out a quota. Today, the program is considered a great success, and the black and gold bands signal high prices, low supply, and a good opportunity for a speculator to flip them at margin. Back in 2000 though, the sticks were priced very reasonably, and the bands were more of a scarlet letter. “Don’t worry too much about these” they read. “There aren’t many of them. They’re only here for a year.”
An ‘A’ size cigar is always a journey, and
at 12:33 in the afternoon I touch the flame and begin this one, the Hoyo de
Monterrey Particulares Edición Limitada 2000.
The first few centimetres surprise on all
fronts: of an old cigar, of a giant cigar, and of a Hoyo de Monterrey, one
expects mildness. Instead, the cigar is quite punchy, high medium tobacco
notes, with burnt toast and charred mushroom. There is a touch of cedar, and
just a little bitterness to the aftertaste.
The blue smoke curling ever upward, my
memory strays to Victoria Sargent, the next in my half-decade long reminiscence
of girls I liked in high school; of that which could have been, and wasn’t.
I first became aware of Victoria when we were fifteen or so. My school was boys only and she went to McRobinson’s, our all-girls sister school down the street. It was considered very cool to complain about how ugly the McRob girls were (“McDog” got thrown around a lot), and yet we all seemed to wind up dating them. My clique at school was the film geeks crew; a bunch of greasy dorks with long hair, who talked a lot about the twin idols of every teenage film nerd in the ‘90s, Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. I wore a beret completely unironically on more than one occasion.
We were a band apart, but at parties there
was a lot of overlap with a few of the other cliques who didn’t take scholarship
too seriously: the stoners, the music club, and the theatre kids. The theatre
kids’ parties were the ones you wanted to go to. The theatre kids did a lot of
mixed productions, and the theatre kids knew girls.
At some point I had would up with a McDog of my very own. Minh Nguyen was short and squat, with bad skin and braces, and my friends teased me relentlessly for dating her. I was fifteen though and she smelled like shampoo and let me French her and that was good enough for me. Besides, those dudes were gay, anyway.
Minh wasn’t one of the theatre clique. I’d met her at one of their parties, but she was a film geek through and through. Somehow, she and a few of her friends managed to infiltrate themselves into our movie nights, where the etiquette remained unchanged, despite the addition of females. No drinking, no drugs, and no public displays of affection; just eight guys and three girls soberly watching art-movies until late, then all sleeping on somebody’s parent’s loungeroom floor. Once the lights were out, the couples would exchange furtive caresses, while the others pretended to be asleep, and stifled giggles at any unconcealed noises.
A taken man, and still subscribed to the fairytale of monogamy, I would appreciate Victoria only from afar in those early days. Minh was very much a creature of this earth. Her short legs were purpose built for squatting in the gutter in a south-Asian market, and her powerful forearms were ideal for separating the heads from chickens with a cleaver. Victoria, by contrast, was an ethereal. Victoria was built for the lobbies of luxury hotels. She was tall and lithe, with perfect teeth and sparkling green eyes, and a smile that raised her high cheekbones and lit up her flawless white skin. She was a ballerina, trained since childhood, and the practice was evident in her every move. She glided across rooms. She reached for drinks en pointe. Usually at a theatre party I would be slumped in a beanbag in some darkened corner with the other movie nerds, when across the room I would catch Victoria throwing out a spontaneous arabesque, her friends laughing, and falling over trying to imitate her. Her form was perfect.
After high-school, and with Minh long
behind me, I began to develop something of a friendship with Victoria. She went
to a ballet university, and once in a while I’d see her clomping around the
city in her leg warmers, and she would smile and hug me and if nobody was in a
rush we’d get a coffee. When I saw her at parties we would always gravitate to
each other, the two of us on a couch in some quiet room, our easy conversation
flowing unceasingly. She always seemed to be dating a much older guy, or an
athlete, or someone else beside whom I was grossly inadequate, but she was
always polite enough not to mention him when we were together.
Eventually I would lose track of Victoria for a year or so, and somewhere in there I started dating Audrey (who, by the way, was also a McDog, although she was far too aloof and standoffish for even the theatre clique). Our relationship was about eight months in, and the cracks were starting to show a little, when out of the blue Victoria started chatting to me on MSN Messenger.
It turned out that I had lost track of
Victoria for a reason: she was overseas. She had graduated from ballet school
and, having already been rejected from all the big Australian ballet companies,
had moved to London to try out for the European ones. She was alone, house
sitting a flat that belonged to an aunt, and was lonely. Her days were filled
with training, try-outs, and eventually rejection. She was struggling with the
looming reality that most of those who devote their youth to a high aspiration
must someday face: that she wasn’t going to make it. At 24, she would have to
completely rebuild herself.
We talked most nights, often for hours. As ever, the conversation flowed easily and unceasingly, me about my life of IT drudgery, and her of her trails and fading dreams, and it began to become clear that she was developing a pretty big crush on me. She would send me pictures of her on her travels, en pointe in front of European landmarks. Once in a while there would be one that seemed like it was taken just for me, her in a leotard in her messy bedroom, an arabesque with perfect form. We made plans together, of things we would do when she came back, keeping a list of restaurants and bars and sights that we should see together. In my head I was doing the calculation of Victoria’s return date verses my lengthening cracks with Audrey. Of course, I was polite enough to never mention her to Victoria.
One night I found myself at bar with the
old set, the film geeks, the stoners, the music club, and the theatre kids all
strongly represented; mostly people I hadn’t seen in years. It was a farewell
party for Julia, a theatre kid from way back, who was off on a European gap
year. First stop: London. “Are you going to see Victoria?” I asked her. “Sure,”
she replied. “I’m staying with her tomorrow night.” With her typical grace,
Minh barged into the conversation. “Oh my God, Julia” she squawked. “Have you
the goss about Alex? He’s dating Audrey Cates.”
Two nights later I saw Victoria online at
the usual time, and sent her my normal greeting. I could feel her hurting
through the screen. “You didn’t tell me you were dating Audrey Cates.” I
fumbled a response: “Oh, didn’t I? Well, it’s not that serious.” It was to no
avail. We were through. She never messaged me again.
The initial robustness of the Hoyo de Monterrey Particulares lasted longer than you’d expect, and even at the halfway there are still some signs of it. The Hoyo wood has arrived, as always, but there is a strong char to it – a campfire in a cedar forest. In the aftertaste is a sweetness that is not at all unpleasant. Although not as bad as either the Monte or the Party of the same vintage, the Particulares does suffer from the famous flame-retardant tobacco of the early 2000s. It has extinguished itself perhaps five times already, and been touched up a few others, and even when it remains lit I feel like I must puff more than usual in order to keep it so. I suspect that all this is keeping the coal too hot, and is probably the source of some of the cigar’s strength.
It was about three years later when I next
saw Victoria. She had circulated an open invitation to her Facebook friends to
come up to her family’s hobby vineyard to help with the annual harvest. I was
probably the last person she was expecting to respond, but time had passed and
wounds had healed, and when I messaged her to ask if I could come she said
It was a big mistake.
In the intervening years, Victoria had
given up on ballet, and like every person who gives up on something they love,
had gone for the most practical choice possible. She was doing an Information
Systems degree. The other takers for this winery invitation were three of her
friends from uni, all nineteen-year-old guys. Worst of all, Victoria was clearly
smitten with one of them.
Although Victoria and I were the same age,
in the eyes of the others she was one of them and I was some random old man. In
deference, I was given the front seat on the drive up, and watched jealously in
the rear vision mirror as Victoria leaned into her beau far more than was
necessary with each bend in the road. Once we had arrived at the farm, the four
of them mostly ignored me, leaving me to chat with her brother and parents,
while they gossiped about people in their course.
The bedroom we were to share had one bed
and a few camping mattresses on the floor. “Victoria should have the bed” I
declared, “it’s her place,” but the others we adamant it should be me. One of
the guys snored loudly all night – loud enough to keep me awake, but not enough
to drown out the sharp intakes of breath, and slurps and squeaks and moans and
muffled giggles of Victoria and her guy exchanging furtive caresses on the
floor below me.
The final twist of the knife came the next
day. I was standing with Victoria and her mum, watching Victoria casually do a
few barre exercises on the side of a plastic grape bin.
“Alex changed my life, y’know mum,” She
remarked, offhandedly. “When I was in England we used to chat a bit, and he
gave me the idea to go into IT. It just seemed like pretty easy work.”
By the three-quarter mark, the strength has
faded out of the Particulares, and smoking it is a constant struggle. If I puff
on the cigar to keep it lit then the coal will core. When I touch a flame
around the edge to burn the wrapper, it will become too hot, and the flavour
will be bitter tar. If I leave it a moment to let it cool, the cigar will
extinguish itself, and I’ll need to relight it, and the process will begin again.
Perhaps a more skilled smoker than I am could get something out of it, but for
me it fluctuates between bitterness and tastelessness.
It is 4:45 in the afternoon by the time I finally lay it down, a little over four hours since the flame first touched the foot. It has never really been unpleasant at any point during the journey, but it also has never been easy. With a better wrapper I’d take this over two Epi. 1s, but as it stands it’s only really better for the novelty value.
A postscript: Years later, Victoria would
wind up marrying Rod Plumber, another from the periphery of the old set (one of
the stoners), and as undeserving a doofus as could win a girl like Victoria.
Their courtship? She was working as a product manager at IBM, and he was doing
a multi-month walking tour down the east coast of the US. He had downtime in
the evenings, which coincided with the time when she was bored at work. They
did a lot of chatting online.
In 2003, when the Hoyo de Monterrey Piramide came into this life, the Edición Limitada program had yet to fully find its feet. Habanos was still releasing five EL cigars a year, one from each of the big marques, and none from the 2003 cohort are rememberedespeciallyfondly. The stand out is the Cohiba Double Corona, a cigar for which I have a very soft spot indeed, but even that is deeply overshadowed by the 2004 Sublime when people reminisce about the Cohiba limiteds of yesteryear.
The Hoyo de
Monterrey Piramide I have with me today has been badly
abused, having spent several weeks rattling
around in the bottom of my day-bag, unloved and unhumidified. As a result, it
is a bit on the dry side. The wrapper crackles when I roll it between my
fingers. Lit, the initial notes are spicy; hay, with a dusty mushroom scent underneath,
and most of all tobacco.
As I moved from my mid-twenties into my
late-twenties, one by one the great bachelors started to disappear. Where once
my weekends had runneth over with parties and card nights and trips to the dog-track,
now, more and more, they stood empty. Where once a text sent into the ether on
a Saturday night would have immediately discovered a brace of good-ol’-boys at
a nearby bar, all delighted to welcome me amongst their number, now any such plea
would come back two days later with “sorry mate, fell asleep early,” or “was at
dinner with my wife’s family. Hope you had fun.”
And so it came to pass that by my thirtieth
birthday I found myself with just a single bachelor friend left. T. Rex and I went
back fifteen years, although we’d only been friends for ten. For the first three
years I outright hated him. He grew on me through years four and five, before becoming
a firm friend around the start of year six. T. Rex was an acquired taste, but also,
he’d improved with age.
For the most part T. Rex’s problem was that he wasn’t great at reading a room. When a joke had run its course and everyone had finished laughing, T. Rex would always throw out one more zinger. Other times he’d make a crack that referenced some obscure piece of knowledge, and insist on explaining it at length. There were some landmine subjects that you needed to learn to avoid at all costs with T. Rex, because at the slightest whiff of a segue, he would deliver an insufferable lecture on them (European royal bloodlines were a particular favourite, but there were many, many others). I would get a lot of complaints about him when I invited him to parties.
By the end of my twenties though, T. Rex had
sanded most of the corners off his obnoxiousness. Over the preceding
half-decade, he had been on a perpetual self-improvement kick. He’d taken
intonation lessons to liven up his monotone voice. Singing lessons had given
him a karaoke setlist (mostly Chris Isaak, but it was something). He’d been to
pick-up classes, and was very good at walking up to girls and saying some
stupid shit and then turning that into a conversation. He was able to take them
home more often that you’d expect. He was still obsessive and weird, and his
room reading still wasn’t great, but he’d learned to go light on the royal
My thirtieth birthday party was sparsely
attended, with most of the invitees texting in a last-minute excuse about kids
been sick or having had “a hell of a day.” Amidst the rubble, T. Rex and I
struck a deal. From now on, there would be no more Saturday nights wasted
hanging around our bachelor pads. The great fear of every bachelor, that a routine
slip-and-fall will lead to a lonely death and partial consumption by one’s
housecat, would be eliminated for one night a week. We had a standing date for Saturday
Halfway through and
the Petite Piramide has mellowed out to nothing. If I stoke the coal and blow the smoke
out through my nose I can get a slight hit of tobacco spice, but in the normal
course of things there is almost no flavour at all. A slight butteriness on the
It didn’t take long for Saturday evenings
to settle into a familiar routine. T. Rex and I would meet at my apartment
around eight, wearing tuxedos. We would make ourselves at least three drinks from
The Savoy Cocktail Book; classic
cocktails, from an age before Midori, when drinks were mostly a question of
whether you wanted sweet or dry vermouth in your gin. By about nine thirty we
would be ready for some dinner, and would head to a restaurant where the staff,
already starting to relax as their last customers finished their desserts, would
roll their eyes as we strode through the door. “Table for two!”
After the restaurant, we would head to a
bar or two. We liked the karaoke bars, most of which didn’t get busy until
later in the evening, so we could get in a song or two without too long a wait.
Sometimes we’d try a whisky bar, or whatever new cocktail place had come to our
attention. It didn’t matter much. We were just killing time until midnight and
last drinks at The Columbia Club.
In Melbourne, everybody knows that the
coolest bars are found down alleyways, and The Columbia was down an alley off
an alley. It was standing room only, capacity of ten. The staff were always
quick to let you know that it was a classic cocktail bar, in the tradition of
the 1920s. They didn’t sell vodka, they didn’t sell beer, there was no tequila,
and you couldn’t have an anything-and-coke. There was a short menu of the
usuals – Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Negroni, Aviation – but once you’d been
there a few times you would generally just tell the bartender how you were
feeling and they’d make something up for you. Drinks started at $22.
We became fixtures at the place: the guys
in the suits who come around midnight. After two months we were exchanging
knowing smirks with the bartenders whenever a drunk winced through the Americano
they’d given him after denying his request for a rum and coke. After six months
or so we were allowed to remain for a little while after closing for a couple
of last amari on the house. After a year the bartenders would invite us out to
a hospo bar afterwards, the kind of place that doesn’t really get started until
bartenders and waitstaff get off work at 3:00am, and where the people would
give us puzzled looks of semi-recognition.
Over three years and $15,000 in bar-tabs, T.
Rex and I outlived many generations of Columbia bartenders, but as they worked
in pairs there was always someone to let the new guy know that we were alright.
The first to leave was Andre, a soft-spoken Spanish giant. Next was Henry, a
hospitality lifer, who would tell us more than we wanted to know about his
struggles with his battle-axe ex-wife, and who eventually left to open a bar
even cooler than The Columbia Club (down two alleyways and up a fire-escape).
Elsa was a boyish lesbian, who invited us to her art exhibition of nude self-portraits,
modelled after ancient Greek athletic paintings, and showing off her impressive
musculature. Florence was twenty, and filled with the radiant energy of the
newly adult. She only lasted at the bar a few months, but after her departure
she invited herself to my home one night, showing up at 11pm on a Wednesday.
Together we shared at least twelve drinks, and she talked a lot about her
boyfriend, before going home, apparently with no other intentions, an incident
that still perplexes me to this day. Longest lasting of all was Rudy, Germain
perfectionist, who introduced us to the Last Word and much else besides.
We were the most regular of regulars, and
then we skipped a couple of weeks. I had a wedding, T. Rex had a family thing,
and when we came back there were two guys behind the bar we had never seen
before. “Good evening sirs, have you been here before? We’re just about to call
last drinks. Do you know what a classic cocktail is?”
With that, the magic was gone. We’d spent
thousands of dollars and endured a lot of hangovers, but in the end we were
just two wankers in overstuffed monkey suits. The next week I told T. Rex I was
busy while I stayed home, read for a while and went to bed early. The week
after was the same, and the week after that. The week after that he stopped
The bands come off
the Petit Piramide. The tobacco level is still very light, with a slight
vegetal taste, mild tannins, cedar, not much else. Put delicately, the cigar is
delicate. A more forthright man might say it was flavourless.
I saw T. Rex just one
more time after the end of the Bullshit. It was some years later, and I found
myself in a karaoke bar we had been together from time to time. He was seated
the corner with half-a-dozen Chinese people, drinking whiskey and green-tea. He
wore a salmon pink dinner jacket that I remembered from when it was an
immaculately tailored garment worn by a man at his wrestling weight; today he
bulged out of it, the sleeves tight around the shoulders, and a roll of white
bellyfat visible where his shirt buttons buckled open. Clinging to his side was
what I took to be his new girlfriend, her face as flat and broad as the Yangtze
floodplain she had so recently departed. I watched him for a while. He didn’t
seem to see me. For the most part he just started vacantly in to the middle
distance, his expression only interrupted by a grimace every time his girl
shouted mandarin into his ear. The closest he came to an emotion was when she
tried to feed him cake from a spoon. “No!” He snapped at her. “Too many carbs!”
When his song finally
came on, he took the stage and belted it out with the same passion he always
had, while his girlfriend vogued behind him, her friends yelling at her to pose
for a photo. Finally, he acknowledged her presence, looking right at her as he
howled the chorus. “What a wicked game you play” he sang. “To make me feel this
As he left the stage I
approached him, and we chatted for a minute. “Nice girl,” I said “been together
“Oh, six months or so. She’s actually
going back to China next week… her visa ran out. I’m going to bring her back on
the spouse ticket though… just need a couple of months to sort out the
“Oh, congrats man. Another one bites
the dust. Last of the great bachelors.”
He smiled a vague sort
of smile and went back to his table.
A few months later
word arrived that T. Rex had passed. He’d slipped while carrying some glassware
down the stairs, and bled out on the living room floor. They didn’t find him
for more than a week. No word on the housecat.
In 2018 the Hoyo Petite Piramide is
probably dead. When great cigars sail beyond the sunset – think an old Lanceros
or 1492 – they can become light and delicate. With the tar and bitterness of
the tobacco all gone, they reveal new and complex flavours; milk, vanilla, egg
white, and honey; notes that would be drowned out in a younger cigar. When
lesser puros make the same journey, they can be flat and unpleasant, with ash,
old newspaper, and musty attic notes. The Petite Piramide falls somewhere
in-between. It’s not unpleasant, but there’s not a lot too it. Smoke ‘em if you
got ‘em. They aint getting any younger.
In the main, Habanos SA doesn’t put a lot of effort into the Duty Free Exclusive line, and frankly, why would they? These are cigars that will sit for years in an unhumidified plexiglass cabinet in the perpetually airconditioned day-night of an airport, tended to by sales people more accustomed to moving jumbo-sized bottles of Malibu and cartons of discount Holiday cigarettes than fine Havana leaf. When they are finally purchased, it will be as a last-minute gift; “oh, we forgot Groom! He likes cigars, doesn’t he? Get him this fancy white box.” For most duty-free exclusives, Habanos simply commissions a lacquered box from China, drop-ships them a few master cases of whichever regular production cigar they have spare, and calls it a day. Once in a while though they decide to make an effort. The Hoyo Double Epicure is only found in this one release; 4,000 units of fifteen cigars. That makes it rarer than most anything else out there. Rarer than Grand Reservas. Rarer than most regionals.
How they arrived at “Double” for this Epicure I’m not quite sure – it’s the same ring and twenty per cent longer than an Epicure 2, and a little under ten percent longer than an Epicure Especial. With the ring a comparatively classy 50 though, it’s better not to ask too many questions.
Once lit, the cigar is mild, with a perfectly pleasant aroma of light tobacco and buttered toast. My cut, unfortunately, was a little vigorous, and I have damaged the head, causing it to unravel somewhat. Once my saliva has thoroughly soaked into it, everything will be fine, but for the moment though I must sip the smoke ever so gently.
Perhaps not for society as a whole, but amoungst my friends I think I sit about two thirds of the way down the dodginess scale. Sure, I’ll have a puff or two of a joint if someone is passing one around, and I’ll attend a cockfight if it’s Brahma night, and I probably know a guy who can get what you’re looking for, but in general I am a productive and clean-living member of society. I have a job. I own a home. I pay taxes. My arrests are rare and never lead to any charges.
I’m sure some of my friends, those lily-livered tenderfoots, consider me their dodgy mate. They should see my dodgy mate. LanceHendrix is an unemployable drug addict, and he’s the guy I call when I’m trying to get you what you’re looking for. And yet, on the scale of dodgy mates, he’s not really all that dodgy. Sure, he is high all day every day, but he rarely causes anybody any trouble. He lives in his parents’ middle-class home and watches a lot of conspiracy-theory videos on YouTube. He manages to get by on the dole money without committing too many crimes to supplement it.
Lance’s dodgy mate is Pete, and Pete is a proper lowlife. My occasional run-ins with him generally all begin the same way: I’ll be meeting Lance for coffee, and afterwards he’ll ask if I can drive him down to Fitzroy to run an errand (Lance, understandably, doesn’t like to drive). The errand is to buy weed from Pete.
Pete is half-Thai and half Caucasian. He’s about five-foot-tall, and weighs all of 40kg. His front teeth are dead and blackened, and he has a nervous twitch and stutter. He likes to punctuate his sentences with a cry of “yeeeaah booiiii.”
When Lance calls Pete to announce our imminent arrival, Pete always asks the same favour: “can you bring me a couple of bottles of coke?” He lives deep in a block of low rise housing commission flats. We park in a nearby alley, and then wind our way through the complex, through the overgrown courtyard with an abandoned couch, and past some rusted play equipment. The place always seems empty. People keep their blinds drawn.
Pete lives with his mother, who is sometimes there and sometimes not. When she’s there, she’s usually on the couch watching TV and doesn’t acknowledge us as we walk past her on the way to her son’s room. Their house is overflowing with stuff: in the kitchen every counter is covered with groceries. In the lounge room, every surface is home to a vast community of little animal figurines. Pete has a small white dog with a bad skin condition, that sniffs at us as we pass through. He treats it very gently.
As soon as you enter Pete’s room, he immediately lays a rolled-up towel in front of the door gap, I assume as a concession to his mother, who otherwise doesn’t seem to question why he has a string of people visiting him for ten-minute intervals at all hours of the day and night. His room is small and decorated with posters of Asian women with implausibly full busts. Across one shelf is his collection of My Little Ponies. He usually seems to be watching a movie and will skip back and forth to show you the good bits.
I usually enjoy these little visits: a refreshing glass of Coke, a bit of a chat about the “clever girl” scene in Jurassic Park, some insights into the life of an interesting character. Lance, however, does not. As soon as the deal is done, he’ll start looking for an excuse to leave. Pete is too dodgy for him.
After a bitter spell ten minutes in, the cigar has slackened off, and if it wasn’t for the visible smoke I would wonder if it was even lit. The flavours are extremely mild. Somewhere in there I can detect the slightest hint of tobacco. Perhaps, if I’m pushing it, there’s something sweet. Vanilla maybe. Full disclosure, I am enjoying this cigar with a Bloody Mary. I make my Marys with fresh tomatoes rather than concentrate, and as such they are a much milder beverage than is typically had over brunch. They do, nonetheless, have plenty of Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce, so it’s more than possible I’ve ruined my palate for a delicate cigar like this.
Pete may be a weed dealer but, like most people, he likes to look outside his business for his recreation. His real passion is for crystal methamphetamine. As a casual acquaintance, who only really knew him in a professional capacity, I was only dimly aware of this hobby until after coffee one Saturday, when Lance asked me to drive him on an errand. He wanted to go visit Pete in the hospital.
Pete, it eventuated, had suffered a collapsed lung. Crystal meth is hard stuff, and Pete had been enjoying it on a more than casual basis. Eventually, he’d caused a part of his lung to rot and a hole had developed. Having a hole in a lung is not ideal, but it’s survivable: Pete, it seemed, had been carrying his around for some time without too many issues. The problem came when one of his clients bought around a new bong for show and tell. It was a glorious double chambered thing, eighteen inches long, and made of lab-grade Pyrex. Dishwasher safe. He insisted they christen it together; Pete huffed in a giant hit, some air got out through the hole in his lung, and when he exhaled the pressure differential between the air outside his lung and the absence of air inside it caused it to collapse.
Short of breath, with a racing heart and stabbing pain in his chest, Pete thought he was just too high. “Man” he said, “that is an awesome bong.” He delayed seeking treatment for almost a day, but eventually had his mum drive him to the hospital.
When Lance and I saw him, Pete was a miserable customer indeed, lying in bed with a tube of bloody fluid coming out of him, and numerous other tubes of (less bloody) fluids going in. He was watching American History X in bed. We sat with him a while as he skipped around, showing us the good bits, and loudly speaking along to the dialogue, either unaware of unconcerned that the ward of people around him could hear every word.
A few weeks later, Lance and I visited Pete again, now back at home and seemingly fully recovered. As always, he weighed Lance out his ounce, and then rolled us a joint, before waxing philosophical: “Guys” he said, “I’ve learned something from all this. Nothing wrong with smoking, nothing wrong with a little meth, but stay away from the fuckin bongs. Yeeeaah booiiii.”
In the final third the cigar grows coffee bitter, never acrid, and honestly, it’s a welcome change from the bland two thirds that proceeded it. My over-enthusiastic cut, which hasn’t troubled me at all after the first few minutes, finally catches up with me in a sloppy nub that falls apart.
There’s not too much to the Hoyo Double Epicure, but what there is is no way offensive. If you’re in the duty-free shop looking for a gift and the Upmanns are available, take them every day of the week. If they only have Hoyos? Well, get me these over the Epicure 1s.
Hailing from 2014, the Hoyo de Monterrey Le
Hoyo de San Juan is a comparatively recent addition to the Serie Le Hoyo family
of cigars. As such, it naturally has a 54 ring and a double-sized band. Like
all cigars this heavy, it feels overweight both in the hand and on the lips.
The unfired draw is a touch looser than Cuban, but acceptable. My luck with the
Serie Le Hoyo line having being somewhat better than with the Epicures, I have
some hopes for this one.
Once lit, it begins delicately, with some
sweet dessert spice behind the typical cedar. Nutmeg, perhaps. Some vanilla.
After the US, Beatrice and I were friendly acquaintances. Once in a while she’d show up at some event, or come by the office to see her brother, and if she happened to pass me in the corridor she’d say “hi.” Our relationship stayed at this level for about six months, until on one of these encounters she mentioned that she was looking for a job, and as it happened, I could get her one.
We had a need in my business for someone to
call beauty salons and book appointments for people. It was a pretty thankless
task. There were no set hours, and you could do it from anywhere you wanted,
but basically when someone filled in a form on a website wanting to book in a
treatment, the faceless machine would ping your phone and had to call all the
parties involved and arrange the details, ideally within about half an hour. Payment
was based on the number of bookings you organised. At the time Beatrice
enquired, the role belonged to a Taiwanese boy who fitted it in around his life
as a professional online poker player. He had gotten the job via a pretty
similar mechanism to Beatrice: he was some guanxi connection of my colleagues
in the senior management. By all accounts he was fucking it up. His English was
broken, and his male voice creeped out the women who were booking bikini waxes.
Over the next week or so I made a point of highlighting it on the corporate
communications channel whenever he missed a booking, and made the case for
Beatrice to whoever would listen. Within a fortnight she had the job.
She worked from home, but over the next few
months I made a point of making sure she was included whenever there was a team
meeting or bonding exercise or other excuse to have her into the office. I
wasn’t motivated by my attraction to her per-se – certainly I thought she was
attractive, but at fourteen years my junior she seemed of a different species
entirely to myself, and I never countenanced the idea that something might
happen between us. I did like her though. She was fun to have around, and she
seemed to appreciate the invites.
After a while the spring came. A few nights
a week Thadd and I and some others would head out to the terrace in the
evenings to drink beer and smoke joints, and more often than not Beatrice would
join us. Sometimes we’d drink late into the night, and sometimes we’d go out
afterwards. One Friday a few of us headed out to dinner, and then a pub, and by
the time ten o’clock came around, the last standing were Thadd, Beatrice and I.
Thadd bottomed his drink and announced his departure, clearly expecting the
party to disband with him, but instead Beatrice looked at me. “I’m up for one
more. You want to stick around?”
One more turned into three more. The pub closed, and we headed to a little cocktail bar I knew from my years of Saturdays. The bartender welcomed me by name, and he shook my hand as he showed us to the best seats in the house. Perhaps it was the booze, but somehow my rotted brain failed to make the connection that I was in; that this nymphet, this Helen of Troy in a see-through top, who could have any man she wanted, had wanted spent five hours of her Friday night sitting close with me and laughing at my jokes. She was attracted to me. When the bar closed and I had thrown down my platinum card, and we had stumbled out into the alleyway, I was actually surprised to find her arms around my neck, and her lips ravenous on mine.
With about two thirds still unsmoked, the
cigar remains a Hoyo. While the dessert spices have faded, the wood has
intensified, and there’s now a touch of chemical tang; the sharp musk of a
cockroach in its death throes. I’ve been smoking this cigar while sipping on a
sugary iced coffee, which I thought might have enough sweetness and palate
cloying dairy to mask the Hoyo’s lesser qualities, but it appears not to be so.
Cedar sap. Tastes like a sawmill.
The whole affair lasted about six weeks, I
suppose. At work it was a big secret. Beatrice would come to the after-work
drinks, and we’d sit and converse like any other colleagues, except with ankles
quietly linking underneath the table, and her fingers running stealthily across
my lap while she pretended to look for something in her bag. She liked to give
me hickeys, great welts on my arms and neck, and then in the break room would
coyly ask where I got the bruise. Abusing my admin privileges, I created a
private channel on the intraoffice chat, and we were on it constantly. It was a
stressful time for me at work. I was deeply engaged in a power struggle with
another manager, who eventually would go over my head with the principal
complaint that I never did any work. In that era, she wasn’t wrong. All I did
was chat to Beatrice.
The protestation from the December side of
every May-December relationship is the same: “she makes me feel young.” It’s
not inaccurate. Dating in your 30s is very transactional; there’s a sense that
the music is starting to slow, and if we don’t all find a chair soon then we’ll
be left forever standing. Everyone has a life behind them, with secrets to
hide. You need to assess your partners quickly, and decide which compromises
you’re willing to accept.
With Beatrice I felt like a teenager again. The last moment before I closed my eyes, I would text her “goodnight,” and the first thing I would do when I opened them again was check to see if she’d replied. During the day she never left my thoughts for more than five minutes. I had an energy I hadn’t felt in years.
Much as teens find it sufficient to spend a
day loitering in parking lot, so we never felt the need to do anything much. We’d
spend whole day together in bed, holding each other, love making interspersed
with TV and chit chat and perhaps ordering in a pizza. On paper the sex wasn’t
much; I was old and impotent, and filled with hang-ups, and she was shy and too
beautiful to do any work. The reality of it was the best I’ve ever had. We’d lie
there, legs entwined, her body supple and warm, melting into mine like a puzzle
piece. She would nuzzle me with her button nose, and squirm with ticklish delight
when I kissed her neck. Once in a while I’d get up to go to the bathroom, and
the sight of her in repose on my bed would take my breath away. Long and lean,
her strawberry hair unfurled on my pillow, she naturally hairless from the
eyebrows down, with not scar nor a pimple nor a wrinkle nor a fold anywhere on
this Venus’ alabaster body.
Even apart we were teens, staying up late
watching early episodes of The Simpsons together in different homes and
chatting about it online. “Lol” I’d type, at some joke about the Gulf War. “?”
she’d text back. “Was that a joke? Who’s Norman Schwarzkopf?”
A few weeks into our relationship, the HR
head pulled me aside after one of our regular team catch-ups. “Hey, just
thought I should let you know because you’re friends with her brother – we’re
going to let Beatrice go. She’s been letting half her bookings slip through.” I
mounted as vigorous defence of her as I could, but he just shrugged his
shoulders. “Take it up with Steph, she’s her manager.”
Back at my desk I checked the numbers. She
wasn’t wrong. Beatrice had been missing a lot of bookings. I thought back to
the weekend when, luxuriating in bed with me her phone had beeped. She glanced
at it and ignored it. “Just stupid work.” Abusing my admin privileges yet
again, I deleted a few posts, upping her percentage.
Over the next few weeks I waged a campaign
of trying to point out Beatrice’s successes in public wherever possible. In
private I was torn. I wanted nothing on earth more than to tell her everything,
but it seemed like that would be crossing a line in our already dubious
relationship. Instead I resorted to hints, which ended disastrously with a
poorly timed joke. It was the end of a long day in bed, and we were watching
Black Mirror, an episode where people are served by a digital version of
themselves, trapped inside a computer. “That’d be so nice” Beatrice purred, her
head nuzzled in my neck. “Well it wouldn’t work out well for you” I cracked.
“Your assistant would be so lazy.”
She was furious, and stormed out, and was
still giving me the silent treatment that Tuesday, when I left for a business
trip. By the Thursday she had forgiven me enough to send me a panicked text.
“OMG. HR wants to meet with me tomorrow! Am I fired?”
I tried to be as nice about it as I could,
to say it wasn’t her fault, that she was great, but I told her what I knew to
be true, that yes, she was fired. The next day she was mad again. “Why did you
tell me that?” she said. “I’m not fired! I got promoted! I’m going to be
working in the office now!”
That afternoon in Sydney I had lunch with
Steph, Beatrice’s manager, and things became clearer. Steph had always been a
provocateur. She was everyone’s best friend to their face, but lethal behind their
backs. She had gone after me numerous times, for crimes both real and imagined,
but I was far too well ensconced for it to make much of a difference. The real victims
were always those who reported to her. “Did you here they promoted Beatrice?”
She raged. “I can’t believe it! She’s lazy, she’s incompetent! I have to clean
up her messes all the fucking time. I’ve been saying they should fire her for
months, but they promoted her! They said they looked at her numbers and they
weren’t that bad, but it’s fucking bullshit, I know she’s missed heaps.”
The next day, back in Melbourne, Beatrice
texted me. “Come to Thadd’s party today.” She said “I miss you.”
When I showed up she was there on the lawn,
sitting with her brother. “I can’t believe you told her she was going to get
fired” was the first thing Thadd said. “Yeah,” I joked “well, she was… you
should be careful, B, you’ve got enemies.”
She was cold to me the rest of the
afternoon, and when I got home I texted to ask her why. Yet again, she was furious.
“I can’t believe you said I have enemies. Why would you undercut me like that?”
I tried to explain, to plead my innocence, but to no avail. We were through.
And so, for the next few months I would see
her nearly daily, close but so far out of reach. She would flit past my desk, a
flash of red in my peripheral, her head turned firmly away, or I would catch the
scent that once lingered on my sheets in an elevator she had recently departed.
Whenever conversation was unavoidable, when we found ourselves in the same
circle at Friday Drinks, she would miss no opportunity to take shots at me,
quibbling with anything I said. A few months later her name came up again as a
prospective layoff, and this time I said nothing.
And then came the final curtain of any
teenage relationship. It was her birthday. 21. Our time together had been
short, and by then was long past, but I still remembered the date. I went to
message her, a warm wish for old time’s sake, and there it was: this user has unfriended you and blocked you
from sending messages.
In the final inch-and-a-half of the Serie
le Hoyo, I catch myself leaning back to exhale a luxuriant cloud of smoke, and
it suddenly dawns on me that the cigar has come alive. There is a lot of Islay whisky
in here; it is an Islay Whiskey aged in cedar barrels, certainly, but there is
also a pleasant smoky peat, and some nice caramel sweetness. It could be the
iced coffee talking, but I think I might even detect a hint of cream in the
As far as cigars go, this one is still a
Hoyo, but unlike most Hoyos, it has a bit of energy. I attribute it mostly to
its youth. It’s invigorating. Intoxicating. Sure, an older Hoyo might be a bit
smoother, and it might have some imagined subtleties that this one lacks, but
for me, I’ll take the young one any day. It belongs high up in the roster as
far as Hoyos go.
In each season of The Harem, there is inevitably at least one entry where I smoke a novelty-sized cigar and suffer through a final two hours where afternoon has turned to evening and smoking weather has turned to shit. The Hoyo de Monterrey humidor of 2004 was a series of 500 bland looking boxes in light wood, that would match nicely with your Ikea cabinetry. They were exclusive to La Casa del Habano stores, and any other retailers that cared to order them. The boxes contained 100 cigars, 50 pieces each of a Gran Pirámides and a Diademas. The Pirámides is notable for being an early example of the 57 ring; the Diademas has some history. Named the Monterrey, it is a return of a grand old cigar that was discontinued in the 1980s. Unfortunately, these aren’t wrapped in foil like the old ones were.
I have long contended that the Diademas vitola
is not really for smoking. They’re there to admire. Show your friends. Pose for
a photo with one clenched between your teeth. Take a moment to appreciate the
skill it takes to roll something like that. But leave it at that. Nobody really
needs to spend four hours smoking the one cigar.
Like all Diademas, when I light the Monterrey
it begins very smooth, the cool smoke well filtered by nine inches of leaf betwixt
coal and lip. There is the slightest cinnamon note, and a grain or two of sugar.
Somewhere in there is a hint of tobacco, of coffee, and the lactic edge of
cream. In order to make these cigars bearable, they need to roll the foot with
the lightest leaves they can find as all the tar from the journey will build up
in the head. If they were to use a stronger leaf at the foot, the final few
inches would be unbearable.
I was thirty-three years old in the year I attended Ted’s twenty-second birthday party. Ted (born Téodor) was a friend from work; my opposite number in a business that shared our offices. We were similar personality types, both nerds with a taste for degeneracy, and had bonded over coding computers and getting lit. At work, our age difference wasn’t normally a factor. We were colleagues, and related as such. At the party though, it was being thrown into stark relief. The room was full of people ten and fifteen years my junior. The music was loud and unfamiliar. Drug use was abundant, and the way the reckless youth were making a mess of somebody’s parents’ house was causing a lot of tension in my homeowner’s stomach. People were leaving marks that weren’t going to come out. I hadn’t seen even one coaster.
My case of impostor syndrome was terminal, and
I found a couch in the darkest, quietest corner with the only other middle-aged
man in the place. We were discussing the merits of variable vs fixed-term
interest rates when Beatrice presented herself before us.
She was five-foot-ten wearing a four-inch skirt
and a singlet top. The couch we were on was badly collapsed, and slumped in it,
we were at eye-level with her kneecaps. Strawberry blonde, with a button nose
and bee-stung lips, I would later learn that she was a model. At that moment
she was only a humiliating manifestation of our departed youth.
“Get up.” She said, “I can fix those cushions
ourselves from the pit, and watched as she scrabbled about on all fours,
vigorously plumping the cushions and adjusting the covers until the couch stood
firm and erect.
“Jesus Christ” I muttered under my breath as
she flounced back into the crowd. “So that’s how they’re making them these days.”
“You know who that is?” my sofa-mate replied. “That’s Beatrice. That’s Ted’s
kid sister. Nineteen years old.”
Six months later, the workplace that Ted and I
shared organised a trade mission to Silicon Valley. Five days. Ten tech
entrepreneurs, along with a couple of dozen public servants and academics would
be touring campuses, attending talks, eating free lunches, and networking with
whatever Valley barnacles they could scrape up for something like this. A proper
I checked into the hotel and, already in full junket
mode, headed down to the lobby bar to get a head start on the cocktail
meet-and-greet. There, playing with her phone next to a pile of Autumnal gourds
(it was November), was Beatrice.
I sipped my beer in a nearby lounge chair and
contemplated her a while. She glanced at me a few times, but if she recognised
me she gave no indication. Eventually her brother materialised.
“Hey man, how’s it going? Have you
met my sister before? She’s going to stay with me for a couple of days. Free
As the Monterrey crests its widest point, it becomes
a little bitter for a moment, with full notes of roasted coffee. The upsurge
soon passes, and the cigar slips back into the mild range. The coffee note is
still present, now more cappuccino than espresso, with cream and vanilla bean
joining it. The day is sunlit and lazy, and ninety minutes in, the novelty
cigar is turning out to be really very enjoyable.
Ted was by far the youngest of the
entrepreneur contingent, with the others ranging from late twenties to early
forties. The academics and journalists were in their fifties and sixties. It
was the standard demographics of a tech convention. Ninety percent men.
One-hundred percent nerds.
Beatrice mostly sat out the lectures and the campus
tours, but she joined us for our nightly bar-crawls, and was the source of many
raised eyebrows. She had a fake ID, liked to drink, liked to smoke, and wasn’t
afraid of shots. She also wasn’t shy about arguing, and didn’t have a lot of
respect for the corporate hierarchy. For her nineteen years, she’d lived a life,
and had some very bawdy stories to share.
When she and Ted weren’t present, the gossip
often turned to Beatrice. One night a few of us were having a nightcap back in
the room, when someone pulled out a phone. “Check this out guys. Have you seen her
It was what you’d expect from a 19-year-old
model. Pages and pages of cheesecake shots in lingerie, sheer tops and glamour
nudes. A lot of pictures of her butt. “Huh,” Luuk, a dutchman, observed. “She
has a nipple piercing.”
When it comes down to it, Palo Alto is a very
small town. The downtown strip has only four bars, and three of them close at
eleven. Every night of the junket saw us propping up the bar in one that says
open late, and every night we would have a run-in there with one or other
character of the valley: senior executives from Samsung Korea, drunk and very
merry; Stanford AI researches who’d just got a big grant; and briefly Ariel
Zuckerberg, who looks exactly like her brother. It wasn’t until the forth night
though that we had our most memorable encounter.
It was about 9:30pm. Luuk, Geoff and I were in
a western saloon themed bar. Ted and Beatrice had been out front having a smoke,
and returned, full of laughter. Some guy and his girlfriend, they told us, had been
getting into a BMW i8 outside the bar. “Nice car,” Ted had remarked. “Nice
girlfriend.” The guy had retorted. “She’s my sister,” Ted had yelled as the guy
peeled out. He’d found the exchange highly amusing. Beatrice substantially less
Twenty minutes later the guy, having dropped
his date off, walked into the bar and seated himself at our table. He was built
like a thug, bald and heavyset. His name was Nathan. He was as big an arsehole
as has ever been found on this earth. “Sorry about that guys” he said to Ted
and Beatrice, by way of an introduction. “I should have noticed you looked
pretty similar. I was on a Tinder date with some stuck-up boring bitch. I
thought she was a hippy chick, that’s why I brought the electric i8, but she
was just some dumb gold digger. I should have brought my McLaren.” Three
minutes later he told us he was employee number 41 at Google. “Yeah, y’know,
it’s sad,” he reflected. “Google really changed after the IPO… all us early
guys got over a hundred million, and people changed.” He flashed his AMEX black
card about minute ten. “Yeah, this is the plastic one… y’know, they give you a
metal one as well with it, but it doesn’t fit in the machines, you just use it
to impress waitresses.” At minute fifteen he showed us the pictures of him as
an MMA fighter. “Yeah, I had a few fights. Dana said I could have gone all the
way in the UFC, but you never know with that shit. One bad hit and you’ve got
brain damage. Venture capital is just more fun.”
In the start-up jungle the apex predator is
the venture capitalist. VCs can make companies, and they can break companies,
and so each of us kowtowed to this arsehole unremittingly. One by one, he had
us give our pitches, the little spiels about our businesses. One by one we were
rewarded by the ceremonial presentation of his business card. My own subjugation
came when I asked about his car and he took me out to have a look. For a couple
of minutes we were just two guys admiring some exotic iron. He opened the
scissor doors and had me sit in the driver’s seat. Gave me the spiel about how
it was the pre-production version, and how that meant it was better than the
one most people had. As we walked back into the bar he announced loudly “Alex
just blew me in the car. Dude could suck-start a lawnmower.” I smiled weakly
and said nothing.
Most of all, he was boorish to the women. He
complimented the waitress on her arse repeatedly. She smiled along, with a deer
in the headlights look. They work for tips in America. He told Beatrice she was
hot at least a hundred times, interrupting every anecdote she told with lines
like “because you’re so fucking hot”. When she turned down a drink saying “I’m
fine,” his response was instant. “Oh, I know you’re fine. But would you like a
When Nathan went to the bathroom the table was
split. Luuk, Ted and Beatrice were livid. “This guy is the biggest arsehole
I’ve ever met in my life” Beatrice hissed. “If he says one more thing to me I’m
going to throw my drink in his face.” Geoff was pragmatic. “It’s just how this
town works” he said. “This guy can open a lot of doors for us. You just need to
put up with it.” For my own part, I was entertained. “Yeah, this guy is a huge
dick” I said, “but don’t you want to see where it goes?”
The others left, and Geoff and I remained. Nathan
was disappointed, but was up for the late-night bar. It was around 200m away,
but he insisted on driving, somehow managing to break the speed limit in a
block and a half. He parked illegally right outside the door. Bouncers in
America ask for ID from people obviously decades older than legal drinking age,
and sure enough they stopped us on entry. He thumbed at the car. “That’s my
ID.” They let us in.
In the bar we did a couple of Fernet shots,
and Nathan buttonholed me. “Man, that chick was so fuckin hot. You know her
“Beatrice? Ah, well, she’s Ted’s
sister, she’s a model, she’s a student, she’s nineteen.”
“Ah, so that’s why! Nineteen! Too
young to be impressed by money. Give her a couple of years, she’ll come around.
You got any pictures?”
I laughed. “You should see her fuckin Instagram
though.” I fumbled with my phone for a few minutes, but couldn’t get it up.
“That’s fine” he said. “You send me it
The next day, ever the networker, I sent him
meeting you last night – let me know if you ever get down Australia way and
we’ll do it again.
meantime, my business partner will be in Palo Alto in a couple of months and
I’d love to hook you guys up.
The response made it clear that this was a
meeting you to, bro. Sounds good. Don’t forget to send those pictures of that
It was a clear moral test. Here I was, a
humble bonobo, with a chance to curry the favour of an apex predator. And yet,
for all her bluster, Beatrice was a sweet young girl; she didn’t need me to
invite some Silicon Valley creep into her life. In the end I took the high
road. My follow up email politely ignored his picture request. There was no
And later I heard that he found her Insta
anyway and sent her a bunch of creepy messages, so I guess it all boils out in
The final third, thickened with the bitumen of
a double corona’s worth of tobacco, is punchy and bitter. Coffee and chocolate.
95% cocoa. Some salt. Somehow, it manages to avoid the acrid tar taste, and I
take it right the way to the nub.
Perhaps the most notable thing throughout this
entire experience has been the absence of cedar, usually the predominant trait
of Hoyo de Monterrey, along with a general blandness. Perhaps the Diademas
vitola, whose very nature dictates a mild beginning and a punchy end, and
forces a bit of character into even the most milquetoast of cigars, suits the
HdM profile well.
An excellent cigar, nonetheless. Well worth the time. And much better than an Epicure No. 1.
In its best moments, the La Casa del Habano Exclusivo series is an island of misfit cigars; smokes too weird for mainstream release, produced on an “as many as we can sell” basis. The Partagas Culebras, the Upmann Noellas, the Bolivar Gold Medals, and the Partagas Salomon: all are perfect examples of the breed. To this dysfunctional family came 2012’s Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure de Luxe – an utterly standard new release. It is of the Mágicos vitola, proud size of every second regional, and a petite robusto in a brand already sporting robusti petite, regular and extra. If there is one thing that the de Luxe did pioneer, it is in the art of excessive bands: with both a double-sized main band and an LCDH special, fully 42% of it is concealed.
Unlit, the Epicure de Luxe has a wind tunnel draw, the air passing through without even a hint of resistance. Lit, it begins with notes of burnt toast. The tobacco is sweet and mild. There is a hint of the typical Hoyo wood there, but fortunately it takes a back seat to sweetness and cinnamon. After about a centimetre the cigar develops something dry and unpleasant on the back palate. Oddly, the draw has tightened up to a point where it’s definitely firm, and on the verge of Cuban. I attribute it to the rinsing, which took place after the cut, but before the light. Yet another example of the glories of running your cigars under a tap.
Camellia-Bell Jones was a dear sweet thing when our paths first crossed, and to some extent, so was I. It was the summer of my 19th year, at the same stock-standard teenage riot that I attended weekly in those salad days; forty or so kids and a few slabs of Melbourne Bitter arranged around the tumbledown share-house of a friend-of-a-friend. That night, my attention was laser focused on Victoria Sargent, a Toorak ballerina who’d been in and out of my circle for four-or-five years. She was utterly out of my league, but treated my dotage with good humour, even as she casually rebuffed my fumbled advances. I went home that night delighted with myself: another evening well spent in the radiant light of The Sargent. “One day” I thought “I’ll wear her down. Good ground work, Groom.” I had no awareness that even as my gaze fell limpet on Victoria, other eyes were regarding me just as covetously from across the cold void of the dance floor.
Camellia-Bell got my number from the host and rang my house the next morning. “It’s a girl,” my mother announced loudly, for her own benefit more than anyone else’s. Camellia said she’d really enjoyed meeting me last night and wanted to have coffee sometime. I accepted, despite having no memory of her at all, an amnesia that continued well into the coffee date itself.
She was a waifish wallflower from the suburban fringe, who had moved to the big city for university; 45kg of blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and big dreams. Unlatched from the parental teat she was all about taking charge of her life. She’d never had a boyfriend – never even been kissed – and first item on the list was to find a man. Her first real date had been some weeks earlier with Ben Plumber, a vague acquaintance of mine. It had not gone well. In a lanky teenaged Groom, though, she thought she’d found something promising. She was wrong.
At nineteen, I still succoured from my parental teat nightly. My 6pm curfew wasn’t strictly speaking enforced anymore, but I still respected it most of the time. I liked video games and pizza and goofing around with my friends. I knew an awful lot about Civilization 2 and Warhammer 40,000, and almost nothing about the fairer sex.
I spent a lot of time with Camellia-Bell that summer. We wandered around back alleys. We went to Parliament House and the Supreme Court and the stock exchange. Anywhere free. She wore dressy backless tops and tight skirts and eye makeup. I wore tatty black shirts and cargo pants from the army disposals store. When she introduced me to her friends they smiled knowing smiles. “Nice to finally meet you” they said. “We’ve heard so much about you.”
Clearly, Camellia-Bell was into me, and yet, my diaries at the time are filled with endless analysis of every comment. “Does she like me?” I wondered. “What about when she brought up talking to a boy on the bus, what was that about?” In my more confident moments, my rumination moved to how to escalate things, with every possibility ruled out.
Eventually, her roommate took me aside. “It’s so hilarious how into you Cammy is” she told me. “She has a photo of the two of your framed next to her bed, and she has this whole book where she practices signing her name as ‘Camellia-Bell Groom.’ She draws a little flower on the end.” I’m not sure if the roommate told Camellia-Bell what she’d done, but the next time I saw her she seemed to have a new determination. She asked outright if I liked anyone. I gave her an adolescent non-answer. “I like someone” she volunteered, unprompted, and looking at me deeply. “I just can’t figure out how to tell him.”
Perhaps it was the anaphrodisiac of being desired, or maybe simple cowardice, but it was all too much for me. I was spooked. I went cold on her. From that day forward, when she texted I wouldn’t reply for days, if at all. On the rare occasion I answered her calls, I would give her a series of non-committal grunts, declining her invitations with a curt “nah, I’m busy.”
Eventually the phone calls stopped and a letter arrived, a full ten pages of loopy feminine script. I can’t believe I was so in love with such a coward, it began, and continued in that vein. I didn’t reply, and time rolled on, and that was that. Over the years I thought of her once in a while. Tried to look her up, but I never could find anything. No Facebook. No LinkedIn. With no real mutual friends, she was out of my life. A ghost of a botched romance from the distant past.
At the halfway point something has turned in the Epicure de Luxe. The cigar is bitter and ashy. I let it sit for a while, and blow through it vigorously to clear the smoke, but nothing seems to help. I try to tap the end off, but the bulk of the ash won’t budge, just small particles of ash falling from it like dandruff. Thinking that perhaps it is tunnelling, I relight to even up the coal, which makes it even hotter and ashier, so I let it sit for a while, after which it seems to come back on form. Still not a lot to it though.
Fifteen years later, I was seated in a karaoke bar, watching with distain as a drunken quartet caroused their way through a rendition Eminem’s Lose Yourself, when my phone vibrated: New friend request from Camelia-Bell Lockwood. I clicked through, and there were those bright blue eyes.
Over the next few weeks we chatted online, and once the pleasantries were out of the way, she wanted an explanation for why I cut her off all those years ago. I said I didn’t really have one, but I denied some stuff and apologised for the rest, and that seemed to satisfy her. She wanted to meet, and a week later we found ourselves back in the old coffee shop, and she told me her story.
Two years after I had departed her life, she was still un-kissed when on a New Year’s Eve she got chatting to a boy, and at midnight he grabbed her by the neck and gave her both barrels. A week later he asked her to marry him. She said no at first, but he persisted, and six months later they were engaged, and married just after the next new year. They moved to a one-horse town in rural Victoria and bought a cute little house. He started a business installing pest netting on organic farms. She did a Dip-Ed and got a job at the local high school.
The years passed, and malaise set in. The netting business was seasonal, and when it was slow, her husband would drink and bring home his frustrations to her. She didn’t like the principal at her school, but with no other schools within a reasonable distance, there was nowhere else she could go.
The Victorian Education Department offers teachers seven years of unpaid maternity leave, and a baby seemed like the answer to both problems. By the time she was ready to return to fulltime teaching, surely the principal would be retired. Also, she hoped, the new bub would focus her husband, and reinvigorate their marriage. She was wrong.
After the birth, her husband’s drinking moved from moderate to heavy, and his shouted frustrations moved to kicked doors and broken glass. Finally, he threatened her child, and she left, first to a woman’s shelter and later to a cot in the hallway of her mother’s house.
Six months later, her divorce was finalised. With her settlement she bought a little flat and picked out a puppy. Unlatched from her husband, it was time take charge of her life, so she looked up the boy she’d never forgotten. The one who had seemed so promising. Friend request sent to A. T. Groom.
Our coffee date was awkward. We were two strangers, with two very different lifetimes between us. Camila-Bell was undeterred. Afterwards she sent me a text. “It wasn’t as easy chatting to you as I remembered, but I still feel that special connection with you. I want us to be proper friends.”
From the fortress of my inner-city bachelor pad I considered the situation carefully. I had been a bit of a shit to her last go around, and it had obviously left some scars. I didn’t want to leave any more. A brief fling to cross one off the list was out of the question. With this one it was either never let it begin, or marry her.
For a while I allowed myself the fantasy. A simple life. Sell my apartment. Quit the owner’s corporation. Ditch the eighty hours a week in the office, the binge drinking, the cocaine, the string of girls that come and go. We could make a nice life in a cute little house in the country. I could open up a computer shop and install anti-virus software for people. Home by 5:15 to my schoolteacher wife with the bright blue eyes. A father to her son, and after a few years, to the sons she would bare me.
Instead I decided to be cruel to be kind. When she messaged me, my replies were slow to come and short. I declined four of her invitations before her tone became exasperated.
“I can’t believe you’re so busy! Are you trying to avoid me? 😉”
I tried to let her down gentle.
“I’m sorry Cammy, you’re a great girl, it’s just I know I hurt you last time around, and I don’t think I can give you what you want this time around and I don’t want to hurt you again, so I’m not sure how smart it is to start up with you…”
The chat-box flashed Camelia-Bell is typing for the longest time, as she composed her furious response. When it finally came, all it was missing was the loopy teenage script.
“It sounds like you think I’m pathetic. I did like you once, but I’m not interested in you that way anymore. Actually, I’m seeing someone else. I just wanted to be friends with you because from the first moment I met you I always felt we had a special connection, like we were together in a past life or something. I should have known it was a mistake to contact you again.”
The text continued in that vein for several scroll wheel clicks, and by the time I got to the bottom the reply box was greyed out. This user has unfriended you and blocked you from sending messages.
As the second band comes off, the Epicure de Luxe it starts to recover, the sweetness returning somewhat, with a note of coffee. As it moves into the nub the coffee transitions from arabica to robusta to over-roasted robusta and finally into tar. The aftertaste is all cedar, but it’s not too bad.
I don’t really think of Hoyo as a brand with too much aging potential, but this one I feel could use five years to take the edge off it. It’s a decent enough smoke besides though. Just could use a little bit of maturity.
Oh, and Victoria Sargent? She wound up marrying Rod Plumber.
The Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure was released in 2013 to mixed reviews. Some liked the profile, which was a bit more in keeping with its marque than most Edición Limitadas. Others complained about the erratic construction. Its stable mates were the Romeo De Luxe and the Punch Serie D’Oro No. 2; of the three, the D’Oro got the press. The first limited from Punch, and a Pyramid in a brand where those are very thin on the ground. Ultimately, though, all three of 2013’s ELs would slip away into the mists of forgettability.
The Grand Epicure is about as vulgar as they come, with its 55-ring gauge and double-sized custom band, but if you put aside the design then this example looks to be a good one. The wrapper is dark and oily, and construction appears perfect. The draw could be firmer but is well within the threshold of acceptability.
Lit, the cigar is smooth and rich. The predominant flavours are of the forest floor – fungus and wet dirt. The wood is there, of course, but it isn’t the standard dry cedar or the tannins of fresh cut sapling; it’s something darker. Cuban mahogany.
There are few triter clichés than that of the favourite teacher; the sage whose lips let spill the viscous pearl of wisdom into a wiling teenage ear, converting a wild hoodlum into a productive member of society. For me, the Sage’s name was Dr. Penny Marceau.
The high school I attended was a select entry college for academic boys. The faculty at all times placed great emphasis on preserving the culture of the place. Classes were formal business, and to be taken seriously. Competition was high. Discipline was expected. The VCE literature master was Giorgio Demetriou, well known throughout the school for his short fuse and fits of rage. Even the non-literature inclined knew him well, as any classroom remotely near his would inevitably find themselves snickering at the sound of his screaming rampages coming through the walls, and the line of boys outside his door who had been thrown out for some infraction or other.
In year eleven it was my turn to spend time with Giorgio, but a last-minute reprieve changed the course of my life. Over the summer break, one extra student transferred into literature, taking the size of the class over the government mandated maximum. The cohort was cleft in twain, and I wound up in the B stream; eleven boys and a temp teacher named Dr. Marceau.
The class lacked the formalities of the rest of school life. With Dr. Marceau we sat on the floor and chatted casually. We read Shakespeare and Don DeLillo. Peter Carey and Tennessee Williams. Up to that point I’d always been an avid reader of pulp fantasy garbage: Dr. Marceau’s class changed that. One-week she saw something with a dragon on the cover sticking out of my blazer pocket, and the next she gave me her well-thumbed copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude to read on my own time. “Read this” she said. “It’s fantasy with meaning.” I’ve never looked back.
Since a young age I’d always written creatively, but never been met with anything more than an eye-roll from adults. Dr. Marceau took me seriously. One afternoon, instead of handing my essay back like she did everybody else’s, she held me after class and spent hours going through it sentence by sentence with me, trying to instil in me a feel for the rhythm of language.
At the end of the year, Dr. Marceu’s future was uncertain. She had been hired only to fill the gap in the literature course. Aping Dead Poet’s Society, me and the other boys stood on our desks to wish her farewell. “Oh Captain my Captain.”
Of course, the school kept her on, but I never had her again.
At the mid-point the cigar is sweet, and extremely smooth. The term “elegant” fits it very well. It is soft and creamy. The tobacco is light and floral, with only the slightest high of cedar.
Fifteen years on I found myself in a hotel function room, seated up the back at an Old Boys dinner: steak and fish, served alternately. The speaker was a boy from a couple of years after me, who had found minor celebrity as a stand-up comic. He began by welcoming the various notables – a few politicians, a judge, a member of the class of 1933, and finally “our distinguished former faculty member, Dr. Penny Marceau.”
Excitedly I told my tablemates about her, about how she made me the man I am today, and after I’d finished my fish I headed up to the front of the room to seek her out. She was surrounded by other men my age, no doubt all with the same intentions as me, but I patiently waited my turn, finally catching her just as people started to return to their seats for dessert. “Dr. Marceau” I gushed. “I just wanted to say ‘hi.’ Alexander Groom.”
She looked at me blankly. “Class of 2001. It was a small class. I had long hair.”
“Oh, hi” she said, clearly without any memory of me.
“I just wanted to thank you… you really instilled in me a love of literature, and taught me so much about language, about the rhythm and beauty of prose.”
She brightened up. “Oh? So what are you doing now?”
“I’m the head of tech at a start-up,” I said, and watched her face fall.
“So nothing creative?”
“Well that’s just my day job,” I stammered. “I also run a cigar website… it’s very successful.”
With a sneer, she began to turn away. Desperately I called after her.
“I also write a blog. Sometimes I use big words. Petrichor!”
But she wasn’t listening. I was just another disappointment.
Right to the end, the cigar remains extremely smooth, never bitter for an instant. Most of the final third is notes of buttered toast and nuts. In the last moments some of the forest floor from earlier returns, with fungal notes and the petrichor funk. Above all though, the chief attribute of the Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure is smoothness. An elegant, relaxing, and wonderful smoke. Quite a claim for a 55-ring gauge cigar with barely five years of age on it. A long way better than the Epicure 2.