Trinidad Short Robusto T Edición Limitada 2010

The Harem is well known for its verticals, my comprehensive evaluations of every cigar in a brand or line, but we have never completed a horizontal until today, when the Trinidad Short Robusto T Edición Limitada 2010 will join its EL 2010 sisters, the Montecristo Grand Edmundo and Partagás Serie D Especial in conflagration. Consisting of only three cigars, I admit that the horizontal is not one of my most impressive achievements; I have a vague plan to someday smoke my way through an entire year’s regionals, but I can’t quite face the idea of all those 50 ring Ramon Allones in a row.

Trinidad Short Robusto T Edición Limitada 2010 unlit

I set the cigar ablaze and from the first puff it is obvious that this will present the standard Edición Limitada profile of chocolate and cedar. Aficionados often decry this profile and the Edición Limitada program in general, claiming that every cigar tastes the same. I see where they’re coming from, but I’m not too fussed because to me they all taste delicious, and besides, there’s always a little nuance between them. The other, perhaps more valid, criticism of this particular cigar was its price: the regular production Trinidad Robusto T, released to acclaim only one year earlier, provided a very obvious comparison point; the Short Robusto T was 20% shorter and 30% dearer. They were not fast sellers.

Nonetheless, it is precisely the diminutive length that has drawn me to this cigar today. The sun is shining, but Melbourne is exhibiting its trademark winter nip: an icy wind, straight off the Antarctic. As my old running mate in China, a cockney brawler named Simon, used to say, “it’s a bit Pearl Harbour out here.”

It was Christmas Eve and a light snow was falling, catching in the obsidian hair of the Chinese girls and gleaming like so many costume tiaras as they swarmed across the square and into the subway station. They walked with an odd, bow-legged gait, placing heel and toe flat simultaneously: the stone of the square was interspersed every few meters with panes of glass that were treacherous when dry, and murderous in these conditions. I was in a foul mood. Eight months in China will do that to a man, but today was worse than usual. In Australia Christmas Eve would be a fun day in the office: the beer fridge might get opened after lunch, and people would leave early, everyone excited for the break. In China it was just another work day, and the 25th would be the same. To top it off, my assistant had informed me that a package from Australia, presumably containing gifts from my family, had been destroyed by customs. Allegedly it contained a knife.

I was headed for the New York City Deli, a favourite watering hole for me and my degenerate crew. It was run by a Chinese guy called Eddie, who had started the place after visiting New York in the early 2000s. Unusually for Chinese theme bars, the food was actually pretty good, and not too disloyal to its inspiration, trafficking mainly in cured meats on rye bread. My friends and I were regulars chiefly because of their Friday night lock-in policy: whoever was in the bar at 8:00pm on a Friday night was charged ¥100 (about $15) and set loose to eat all you could eat and drink the bar dry. By about 9:00 Eddie would have passed out and the regulars would be behind the bar, drinking out of the beer taps, practicing flair bartending, and generally enjoying the sensation foxes feel when let loose in the hen house. Tonight was the lock-in Christmas special: a full bird with all the trimmings.

Trinidad Short Robusto T Edición Limitada 2010 two thirds remaining

At the mid-point the cigar is very pleasing, chocolate dominating over a buttery finish. A short while later the chocolate becomes less sweet and gradually changes into coffee. The butter remains. A friend of mine who follows a diet composed almost entirely of fats and oils takes his coffee with butter in it, and this reminds me a lot of that. It leaves a slight oiliness on the tongue. Strength is light-medium but growing.

Simon was the first face I saw when I walked in the door, slouched at the bar, well into a beer that didn’t look like his first. He was the same age as me, but looked five years older (and I’m not exactly a baby face), having the grizzled features of a hard life. He always wore a baseball cap, and I knew him six months before the tout outside a girl bar had playfully snatched if off and revealed his baldness. “’Ello Shag,” he said when he saw me, and with a wink he lowered his voice. “It’s going to be a white Christmas.”
“Yes.” I smiled, brushing the snow off my shoulders. “Merry Christmas.”

It was an hour later when it became clear what he meant. The doors were locked, the blinds drawn, my belly was full of rich food, and all around were friends. I was sipping on a little Jägermeister – an after dinner digestif – when Simon started cutting lines of cocaine out on the bar. With a smile he proffered me a rolled up ¥100 note. “Here you go, Shag. Get some of this up ya.”

It’s quite something, that cocaine. The tingle in the sinuses. The bitter drip down the back of the throat. It gives you at once a feeling of invincibility and a boundless energy and enthusiasm. It also sharpens the brain to the point where alcohol seems to have no effect, which was a good thing because we were in a mood to drink heavily. It was about 10:30 when the Skittle shots came out: half a packet of a single colour of Skittles, dissolved in the cheapest, most methylated Chinese knock-off vodka. The first one hit the top of my stomach and sent me to the toilet to throw up. I was cool about it. A quick yak then back to drinking. By midnight I had lost it twice more, and we’d cleaned out every drop of liquor in the place.

Tempers were starting to run high. Simon had locked horns with some young Brit over football teams or something, and was repeatedly inviting him to come outside and have “the shit kicked out of him,” an invitation that young man was hastily declining. When I went over to intervene he turned on me. “You better watch yourself, Shag. Fucking Australians, no respect for their heritage.” Fortunately I knew how to placate him. “C’mon mate, the bar is dry and we’re out of coke, let’s go to Bund.” He liked Bund.
“Oh, Bund” he smiled. “Lovely.”

The big problem with cocaine is that it doesn’t last very long – only half an hour or so – which doesn’t seem like a problem until you stop taking it and all your crimes catch up with you. Bund was the best club in Shanghai, occupying the top floor of an old bank right on the river; a beautiful space with high ceilings and a shark tank running the full length of the back wall. To get up to the club you ascend a sweeping marble staircase to a cramped bouncer’s station, and if you pass muster he lets you into the elevator. When my motley crew arrived there were six of us – myself, Simon, the young Brit (they seemed to have patched things up), and a few hangers on – each of us with twenty standard drinks inside him. The bouncer was not happy. At first he flatly refused admission, but everything in China is a negotiation, and soon Simon had him down to a ¥300 per head cover. Simon was willing, but the comparative value proposition between this and the NYC Deli lock-in raised my ire. I pushed into the bargaining position. “No, no, no” I said “we come in free.” The bouncer shook his head solemnly, so I raised myself up to my full height, took a step back for emphasis, and yelled “don’t you know who the fuck I am?”

The back step had placed my heel precariously on the edge of the marble step, made slippery from the tramped in snow of and evening’s guests, and my proclamation lingered in the air for a beat before my footing went from under me. Step by step I rolled down the grand staircase, eventually winding up face down in the lobby. I began to chuckle, struck by ridiculousness of it all. Eventually Simon’s voice drifted down from on high. “Oy, Shag… you alright?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine, just a little tumble.”

I hauled myself to my feet and bounded back up the stairs. “Three hundred quai, was it?” I asked, holding out the money to the bouncer. He smirked and let us in.

As far as I’m concerned, the next thing that happened was I woke up in my bed. It was 10:30am, I was covered in bruises, my head felt like someone was forcing a blunt power-drill through my temple, and I was very conscious of a black spot in my evening. Simon later told me that we had had many more adventures: a bottle of Grey Goose at the club, and then to a girl bar in Pudong. When he saw me last I was heading home, throwing up out a cab window. I didn’t recall a second of it. I dragged myself to the shower and threw up blood, both brown, old blood from the stomach and red, new blood from my throat: throwing up so many times in one night had opened up sores in my oesophagus that would take months to heal. I tried to call my boss and tell him I wouldn’t be in, but my voice was completely gone, nothing but a dry, high pitched rasp. It took me until about 4:00 to recover enough to send him an email. I signed it off with “Merry Christmas.”

Christmas in China. Not recommended.

Trinidad Short Robusto T Edición Limitada 2010 smoked just above the band

In the final third the butter departs the cigar, leaving only bitter espresso, which after a time turns into pure cocoa with a strong cedar back. It is strong and bitter, with more tar than you’d expect from a cigar this small. It gives a good nicotine buzz. The Trinidad Short Robusto T will probably never be worth the money, but if money is no object and you only have an hour or so for a smoke, you could do a lot worse than this one. Recommended.

Trinidad Short Robusto T Edición Limitada 2010 nub

Trinidad Short Robusto T Edición Limitada 2010 on the Cuban Cigar Website

La Corona Panetelas

On a long enough timeline everything becomes exotic. We’ve had discontinued cigars on The Harem before, but never a discontinued brand. La Corona was once a fine house, producing the very best in premium cigars; once in a while you see a cigar butt half smoked by Winston Churchill go to auction, and when you do it’s usually a La Corona. Romeo may get the credit, but La Corona is what the big man really smoked. The La Corona factory is no longer in the same colonial building that was built in 1904 to house their production, but the modern incarnation still bears the old name, and is still the largest factory in Cuba. The once proud marque of La Corona though, is done. It has been done since 1979. When the brand reappeared in the 1990s it was a shadow of its former self, nine cellophane wrapped machine made small cigars, little better than the Belinda of today. It was gone within a decade. Today’s dusky beauty is one from this era, a La Corona Panetelas. On a long enough timeline everything becomes exotic.

La Corona Panetelas unlit

I’m not sure that I’ve ever smoked a plastic wrapped cigar before – it takes me a minute to figure out that the red band is a pull tab that separates the plastic into halves. The wrapper is brutal, a mess of spots and lumps, peaks and valleys. The tip is nice though, a hot bullet, almost too conical to open with my nail. I get there in the end. Once lit it begins a little tannic, with a lot more force than you’d expect from a quarter century old machine made. Min Ron Nee describes these cigars as very mild, and maybe they were in 1995, but in 2015 this one has some guts.

As a youth I identified a lot with the Tom Cruise character in Risky Business:  I was young and timid, my parents had a great house and went on trips a lot, and I never really saw any huge moral problem with hiring sharp featured prostitutes with legs that went all the way down to the floor. As time went by things changed: I did a business degree, developed a lot of unrealised aspirations, and formed close bonds with older mentors who would ultimately betray me. I also had a penchant for poetry. In short, I became Tom Cruise from Cocktail. There was also a period when I was really into volleyball, but the less said about that the better.

There is a point to all my ‘80s movie jokes, which is that in addition to being a world class cigar aficionado, a decent computer programmer, and a mediocre author of bawdy anecdotes, I’m also pretty good at mixing drinks; in fact, I have one with me today in the form of a sports bottle full of ice and Savoy Milk Punch No. 1. True fact: in the novel that Cocktail is based off (also named Cocktail), the two main characters bartend while they aspire to be novelists, not plutocrats. All that Wall Street business stuff was added just because it was the ‘80s and making bank was popular.

La Corona Panetelas two thirds remaining

I think I’m starting to understand what they mean when they refer to the ‘90s La Corona cigars as very mild, because the tobacco flavour and the level of nicotine are really both very light. That said, the amount of flavour, the pure volume of tastebuds that are stimulated and the length that flavour persists on the palette is anything but. There is a strong kick of oak and fruit, the first mouthful of cheap white wine.  It is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but it is very distinct and anything but mild. I can feel it coating my mouth in a thin layer of viscous film.

About halfway through the cigar goes through as drastic and sudden a flavour change as I’ve ever encountered. The white wine oak disappears, leaving behind it a mild creamy coffee. Somewhere behind that is a hint of tobacco, the first I’ve seen in this cigar.

The Savoy Cocktail Book is one of the quintessential old cocktail books, first emerging as a manual for the bartenders at the Savoy Hotel in London’s American Bar in the 1920s, and being periodically supplemented and rereleased since then. It contains over a thousand recipes, although almost all of them are slight variations on a martini. In the very back there is a section on punches, and one of those is the Milk Punch No. 1.

The idea of a milk punch is that you take a bunch of fruit, herbs, spices, and sugar and leave it to marinate in brandy and rum for a few days. Once sufficiently infused you strain out the chunks and add lemon juice and lightly heated milk. When the milk touches the booze and the citrus it curdles, and the curdling process acts as a kind of filter, pulling the impurities out of the booze. Several days of straining follow, but once you have successfully filtered the cheese out you are left with a clear, glowing punch. It’s hard to say how alcoholic it is: the extracted cheese smells like somebody spilled a bottle of metho, while the punch tastes like a child’s breakfast drink, but half a bottle is definitely enough to noticeably lift my spirits.

I made this batch a few days ago: four litres for a party that only ten people attended. My Risky Business days are long behind me. Concealed in my sports flask it should remain undetected unless law enforcement do a specific gravity test. Through the bulk of the cigar the mild pineapple flavour has complimented but not overpowered the tobacco’s flavour. During the bitter final third it is sufficient to take the edge off the tar.

La Corona Panetelas final third

The La Corona finishes a little bitter, but is none the weaker for it. Flavoursome and punchy, this delivers far more than you would expect from a twenty year old, low cost machine made. For what it’s worth, I would say that the La Corona is better than the Quintero Favoritos, the closest comparable modern cigar that has graced these pages. If you have the means I highly recommend you pick one up.

La Corona Panetelas nub

La Corona Panetelas on the Cuban Cigar Website

Montecristo Petit Edmundo

It is a crisp winter’s day in the docks, and a rare appearance of the sun has drawn me out for a cigar. Although the orb is shining the day is not warm, and something short is called for lest my fingers go numb holding it: the order of the day is a well-aged Montecristo Petit Edmundo from 2008.

The fact that this cigar has reached a stage where it could be considered “well aged” comes as something of a shock to me; I still consider the Edmundo to be the controversial new kid on the block, and the petite version came out a few years after that did. Quite without noticing it, time appears to have passed me by.

Montecristo Petit Edmundo unlit

The cigar is bitter from first light, with a sour aftertaste. There is a bean element, dry espresso: it is the aroma of a bag of coffee beans more than it is the flavour of the brewed stuff.

It’s an odd sensation, approaching the age that your parents were when you first knew them: you begin to see their actions (which at the time seemed to be the inscrutable follies of the gods) in the light of your own ridiculous antics, and they begin to make a lot more sense.

The event that I think of as my first memory took place in the town of Goroka, deep in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. I am sure that it is a manufactured memory, implanted from years of hearing the tale told by my mother whenever she needed an example of my father’s gross brutality; there is no way that I would have been allowed to witness the events in question, and it’s debatable whether or not I was even born at the time. Nevertheless, thirty some years later I can envision it quite clearly.

The highlands of the Papua were a wild place in the 1980s (as they are today). Cannibalism had only been officially stamped out a decade or so earlier, and it was not uncommon for spear wielding men in war paint to flag down cars on the highway and demand a toll for passing through their area. The kina was the official currency, but real transactions – dowries, bribes, ransoms and whatnot – were all conducted in pigs. There were a lot of dogs about and, although they were domesticated in the sense that they hung around the houses and depended on humans for food, they did not have owners as we understand them in the west.

There was one dog in particular that my family thought of as ours, a blonde vaguely Labrador looking mongrel that my mother had christened Crumpet. Our house was on stilts in the Queenslander style, and underneath it was a great pile of junk, the discarded odds and ends of several previous occupants. I have a distinct memory of being taken down there to see Crumpet, who, heavily pregnant, had lain down on some old newspapers to begin her labours. I remember her panting, looking up at me with her eyes, not able or willing to lift her head.

I have an image, too, of after the birth; of a pile of nine pink, hairless puppies clambering over each other to suckle from their mother’s teat. The final image is of my father. As I recall it he and my mother had a heated debate before he finally declared that “there were enough mangy strays in the world,” and headed under the house. Crumpet raised her head weakly as he found an old hessian sack amongst the junk pile, her look turning to confusion as he scooped up her puppies one by one and placed them in it. She did not resist: she trusted him.

I watched from the veranda as he filled an old tin bucket with water and carried it out into the backyard. He dumped the hessian sack in it unceremoniously, and held it underwater for a minute or so, presumably until he felt the movement stop. For reasons unknown he emptied the corpses out onto the grass and left them in the sun to dry while he dug the hole: nine little pink balls, their wispy blonde fur bedraggled in the sunlight.

Of course, none of it is real. The family annals are vague on dates, but at most I would have been two years old at the time of the puppy incident; a slobbering infant, rather than the stoic figure I picture watching the massacre dispassionately from the back veranda, Napoleon in OshKosh B’gosh. Nevertheless, old brains play tricks, and that one is mine: a vivid recollection of dead dogs. As I recall Crumpet got over it well enough, but always gave my father a wide berth from then on.

Montecristo Petit Edmundo two thirds remaining

Halfway through the cigar the bitterness has subsided. It is still a little sour, but main note is a muddy sort of earthiness. There is also some straw involved. Years after the puppy incident, now living in China, my older sister tried to build a mud brick house in the back yard (no doubt inspired by the mud huts of the Papuan highlands). She only got one wall about two foot high before a big rain disolved the thing, but my sense memory remains, and this one is real. The flavour in this cigar is the smell of my sister’s mud bricks drying in the sun.

Montecristo Petit Edmundo an inch left

My phone rings: it’s a recruiter, and it takes me ten minutes or so to dislodge him. When I return to the cigar it has gone out. Once relit, it is very bitter, but with one of the most distinct black jelly-bean aniseed flavours I have ever had in a cigar.

The very end is bitter tar, underpinned by a deeply aromatic herb, star anise, perhaps. I smoke it till I can’t smoke no more. At all times the Montecristo Petit Edmundo was rough, brutish almost. Even at seven years old it could still use a decade or so more in the dark.

Nonetheless, a very decent effort from old Montecristo. Better than a No. 4.

Montecristo Petit Edmundo nub

Montecristo Petit Edmundo on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Quintero Favoritos

An interesting facet of the Habanos portfolio is that the closest things they have to mass market cigars – the Montecristo No. 4, the PSD4, and the Romeo No. 1 et al – are actually from ancient and prestigious luxury brands. If you’re in the market for a cigar from Nicaragua’s second most prestigious producer you will only find it only in a locked display cabinet in a specialist cigar shop. If you want a Monte 4 you can buy it at a well-stocked petrol station. If you do find a Nicaraguan cigar next to the Mobil 1, it won’t be an Arturo Funete, but some anonymous trash you’ve never heard of.

Cuba, however, does have cigars that are specifically pitched as low cost, low quality cigars. Today’s dusky beauty, which rings up at less than half the cost of a Montecristo No. 4, is the lowliest cigar to ever grace these pages, the Quintero Favoritos. There is no petrol station in the world that carries Quintero: if you want one you’ll have to find a high end Habanos specialist. It’s an interesting paradigm: only the true connoisseurs smoke the shit.

Quintero Favoritos unlit

The cigar begins very well, with extremely light tobacco and a hint of black tea. This is a short-filler cigar, the first to ever grace these pages. In a long filler cigar, whole leaves are bunched up and then wrapped in other whole leaves. In a short-filler cigar, small trimmings are bunched up, and then wrapped in a couple of whole leaves. A whole tobacco leaf will have a natural progression in nicotine levels and flavours as it travels from foot to tip, and long filler cigars exploit this. The scraps that make up short filler cigars come from many different leaves, and therefore if the flavours change it will be sudden and erratic, not the stately metamorphosis of their premium sisters. Traditionally short-filler cigars are also a bit looser and hence burn a hotter and rougher, which also kills the nuances a bit.

I remember the first time I ever laid eyes on a box of Quinteros. I was still young in my cigar journey, as I was in life (I was about twenty three). I was working as an IT contractor, and my boss asked me to come meet a potential client and pitch for an idea they wanted to build. Their office was the top floor of a small tower in the heart of the city. The office I worked out of at the time was a converted warehouse that didn’t put a lot of emphasis on the conversion: our desks were rickety salvage pieces picked up from the hard rubbish, the computers were not much better, and there were meandering cracks between the floorboards that in the worst places could accommodate a ping pong ball. The office we visited that day was the total opposite: everything bedecked in black marble, dark wood and leather. The company was named Steeple Mortuary Services and they were a corporate behemoth in the funeral business, even though nobody had ever heard of them. They owned a number of smaller, specialised funeral parlour brands, and as the parent company they provided the group with shared services like a morgue, HR, accounting, and the software package we were to build.

Unlike my own open plan wasteland, every employee at this company had their own enclosed office. There was space for twenty, but as we walked around the floor I counted three that were occupied. I later found out that they had an identical office in Sydney and most of the staff had desks in both places. We were shown into the boardroom and seated in comfortable leather seats at the 20 person single piece table. On one wall there was a large plasma screen TV (the height of luxury in those days), and beneath it a full wet bar with every kind of booze imaginable. When the CEO, Ken, a heavyset, cheerful sort of fellow walked in, the first thing he did was offer us a drink. My boss was a bit of a wowser, and balked at the idea of alcohol at 11:30am, but I had no such qualms, and accepted his offer of a scotch a Coke – the whisky was Johnny Black, poured from a 4.5L bottle in a cradle.

Quintero Favoritos two thirds remaining

About an inch in the cigar gives off an unusual note of dirty spice; clove or maybe cardamom, perhaps turmeric. It is thickening up, and by the mid-point it is quite punchy, just a notch or two below strong. There is a thick note of coffee and leather. True to prediction this has been a quick smoke: the halfway point falls barely 30 minutes in.

The system he wanted to build would be pitched today at a start-up incubator as “Uber for corpses.” In 2015 it would be a fairly straightforward smartphone app, but in 2005 it was revolutionary. The idea was that they would have unmarked vans driving the streets of the city at all times. When a hospital or nursing home had a corpse that needed picking up, they would visit a web page and log their address and some details about the deceased. The system would then figure out which driver was closet (via their last known whereabouts – GPS units were available, but they weren’t at a stage where they could be communicate with a web service), and instruct them to pick up the corpse (via SMS). Once the corpse was in hand it would be taken to Steeple’s central mortuary where someone would pick up a phone and notify the next of kin that they had the body and offer them a funeral. If they had another funeral parlour they’d rather use that was no problem, the body would be transferred for free, but Ken didn’t think many people would do that: the whole thing was a gigantic marketing manoeuvre, and one that he was very confident would pay off.

After Ken had laid everything out he left me and my boss alone for a while to discuss our solution, and then brought us into his private office to discuss it: this was the pitch, where the job would be lost or won. I was just the boffin, really: it was my boss’ job to do the selling, and so I sat, only half listening, my gaze wandering around the office. He had some interesting stuff in there, some ivory and more exotic booze, but as a blossoming cigar aficionado my gaze fell foremost on the box of Quintero Panatelas in the centre of the desk. It was a brand I’d never heard of before, but it was Cuban and I was intrigued.

About half an hour into the pitch Ken pulled out a pack of cigarettes and asked if we minded if he smoked. My boss wrinkled his nose: “I don’t think it’s legal to smoke in offices anymore.”
Ken was disgusted, “you’re going to force me out on the balcony? You don’t smoke at all?”
“How about if you’re at a party and someone starts handing around a bit of choof?”
He shook his head and looked at me. “How about you mate? You smoke?”
“Choof at a party? Definitely.”
This pleased him. “How about ciggies?”
“Ah, not really, but I like a good cigar.”
Quick as a flash he handed me a Quintero, took one for himself and, with a parting sneer over his shoulder at my boss, ushered me out onto the balcony.

We must have been out there for about thirty minutes, cracking jokes and telling tall tales while my boss glared at us through the window. Finally Ken tossed his nub carelessly over the balcony onto the sidewalk below, and leaned in conspiratorially. “Mate, if I sign with you guys, will I be dealing mostly with you, or with him in there?”
“Just me… I do all the actual work, he’s just the salesman.”
“Yeah, good. I just want to deal with a human being, y’know.”

Needless to say, we got the gig.

Quintero Favoritos final third

The cigar ends full and rich, with plenty of tar and not too much else, but it’s not too unpleasant for it. Total smoking time was around three quarters of an hour. All things considered this is a very decent cigar that holds its own with my base comparison cigars, the Monte 4 and PSD4, and substantially beats out the Upmann Petite Coronas. Given that it costs half or less than any of those, it is probably the best value for money cigar coming out of Cuba today.

Quintero Favoritos nub

Quintero Favoritos on the Cuban Cigar Website.