Cohiba Espléndidos

I have found myself at a young people’s party – a twenty-second birthday, no less. The birthday boy is one of the young people from my office, and he was most emphatic that I come, and so here I am in his parent’s house, hovering awkwardly like a middle aged creep. The youth are different to how I remember them. The skirts are shorter, for one.

The biggest shock at this party is that people are smoking, and smoking indoors, a habit I thought disappeared with the generation before mine. I consider, for a moment, lighting up one of the cigars that is in my pocket, but dismiss the idea as far too obnoxious, until the birthday boy wanders over with a tin of Wee Willem cigarillos. “Hey man, you want a cigar?” he asks. “I know they’re probably not as your usual thing, I tried to get some real ones but I couldn’t find any.” On the spur of the moment I offer him a deal. “Son,” I say, proffering the contents of my jacket pocket. “This is a Cohiba Espléndidos. This is Saddam Hussein’s favourite cigar. It is as good a cigar as you can smoke in life.  I’ll give you one, on condition that I can smoke the other in your house. Some of your guests are going to complain. It’s going to stink up your parent’s curtains. You’re going to get into trouble. I don’t recommend you take this deal.”

“Fuck yeah” he replies. “That cigar looks dope.”

The large cigar begins exceptionally smoothly; very light tobacco with umami mushroom notes, and miso soup, alongside the usual dry straw. It has a tighter draw, which for me is perfect, but I suspect might be a bit much for these twenty-two year olds. They seem to be enjoying it though. By the time my cigar has burnt through the first inch, theirs has passed through half-a-dozen pairs of lips and been featured in as many selfies.

Growing up as a nerd at an all-boys-school, I was seventeen before I attended my first real party: a party with girls and booze and dope and no adult supervision. A party where nobody was playing video games, and nobody got picked up by their parents at 10:30. A party with strangers. Alistair, who went to a different all-boys-school than I and who I knew vaguely socially, invited me. “You’re a classy guy, right? I’ve been seeing this girl, Jessica, and I want to take her to a party this weekend, but she’ll only come if she can bring her friend, so I need you to take care of the friend.”

Jessica, as it turned out, was stunning, and her friend Lauren not much her lesser, but the real eye opener was the party. It was like I had stepped into a different world. At the parties I usually went to we drank Coke and ate pizza and occasionally played laser tag. There were girls there, but they were pimply creatures with braces. These girls were another beast entirely. They wore makeup, and showed cleavage. One of them had her older sister’s ID, and bought us a bottle of Vodka and raspberry soda to mix it with. I watched awestruck as Jessica, a cigarette hanging from her lips, cut up a bowl of pot, casually sprayed it with fly spray to “make it burn better,” and rolled it into joints. When we smoked them I didn’t really feel anything, but I giggled along with the others.

Most miraculous of all was that the girls seemed to like me. I was as unique a butterfly to them as they were to me; they were used to suburban thugs, and here was a polite guy who didn’t just clown around with his mates and was amused by things other than his own flatulence. They listened in awe to my tales of boyhood in China and Papua New Guinea. As much as they were women to me, to them I was a man.

I had an ‘official’ girlfriend at the time, whom I held hands on the train in the morning and occasionally made out with in the park after school, but after the party she seemed like an artefact of a bygone era. I broke up with her over the phone, and started getting on at a different carriage.

I started hanging out with my new crew almost every weekend, drinking and smoking and loitering in the way teenagers do. I started dating Lauren, more or less by default, but as the months went by I started to wonder if I hadn’t made the wrong choice. Jessica was not only hotter, but she was funnier, and maybe even a little smarter. It turned out that Alistair had misrepresented their relationship as well. He was obsessed with her, certainly, and wanted to date her, but she was very clear on the matter: she wasn’t interested in him.

Cohiba Espléndidos with about an inch smoked

By the midpoint of the Espléndidos the saltiness is gone, replaced by a sweet caramel vanilla bean. The grassiness remains. The tobacco is still extremely light – this cigar is approximately the same age as the Lanceros I smoked recently, and yet, somehow, this thicker cigar has even more delicate a flavour profile. The birthday boy’s cigar seems to have mainly been commandeered by one of the female guests, who is standing on the edge of the dancefloor, sipping from it blissfully. I don’t ask her for her tasting notes. One of the dancers glares at her, and makes a big show of fanning the smoke away. To another guest I observe that the end of the cigar looks very dry – usually when a cigar is passed around a party like this it ends up as a chewed up, soggy mess. “Well, a lot of the people here have very well practiced joint etiquette.”

Lauren’s chief appeal was in her glorious mane of strawberry blonde hair, so when, six months into our relationship, she dyed it the awful matt black of moody teenagers, I took the opportunity and broke up with her. For a time I was cast out of the group. Lauren and Jessica were best friends, and inseparable, but then I made my big play. I asked Jessica to come to the school formal with me. It was two months hence: a night of dinner and dancing. My first tuxedo. I would pay for her ticket and promised her a limo and a corsage. The after-party was to be a warehouse rave with unlimited alcohol. She said yes, and Lauren, the previous presumptive holder of my plus one, was furious. The girls stopped talking, and with Alastair out of the picture thanks to his rebuffed affections, Jessica and I became thick as thieves. My plan was working perfectly. At the after party, I would make her mine.

In retrospect I should have made a move on her in those two months we were best friends. She was clearly open to it. Once, when we were alone in her room she asked me why I had chosen Lauren over her the night we’d first met, and when I explained that Alistair had misled me about their relationship she laughed. “You could have had any girl at that party, you know? We were all so into you.” I should have kissed her right then, but fool that I was I stuck to my plan. I would make my big move at the formal after party. It was going to be perfect.

I thought I should introduce Jessica to some of my school friends before the big event, so the week before the formal I took her to a party of my own. It was wilder than most of our affairs – Simon Treehorn was the host, and his parents mostly left us alone in the rumpus room out back. A few people even snuck in beers. I was very clear to my friends before the event that this girl was mine, and I could see by their expressions when she walked in in her tight jeans and a low cut tank that they were impressed. For most of the night I sat with her on the couch. Most of the action at the party was centred around the Nintendo or the pool table, and the couch was off to the side, a bit above those childish pursuits. At some point I went to the bathroom, and when I came back Owen Donoghue had taken my spot, and was chatting to her. I made a show of nonchalantly watching the Nintendo game, while keeping a careful eye on the couch, where they seemed to be getting on awfully well. Within an hour they were making-out. As I watched them, my fists balled in impotent rage, I realised my mistake. I had introduced a girl who liked me to a bunch of guys who were exactly the same as I was.

She came to the formal wearing my corsage, but she was really Owen’s date. She was seated next to me for dinner, but never stopped making eyes at him. I made a point of taking her to dance, but as soon as a slow song came on he wandered over. “Mind if I cut in.” At the after party I watched in misery as they made-out and dry-humped in the corner, somehow not able to look away.

There are two things you have to know in life if you want to get the girl: never hesitate and never listen to your friends when they tell you to back off.

Cohiba Espléndidos final third

As you’d expect from a cigar this size, the Espléndidos gets earthy toward the end, with notes of ash and wildfire, and medium-strong tobacco. There is a mild sting from the tar, but it’s nothing a sip of beer can’t placate. Burn has been razor sharp the entire way. I observe the discarded nub of the other cigar in an ashtray, consumed to just above the band. Personally, I like to take my cigars until I burn my fingers, but five and a half inches is not a bad effort for a bunch of novice smokers.

If I have any minor criticism of this cigar, it’s that it was almost too smooth: there was a bit of a lack of flavour. Compared against the Lanceros, both are elegant, delicious cigars, but the Lanceros has a touch more complexity, and I’d take one of those over the Espy for that reason. Still a great cigar though.

Cohiba Espléndidos nub

Cohiba Espléndidos on the Cuban Cigar Website

Cohiba Lanceros

The Cohiba Lanceros. If you ask the head of Habanos SA what the flagship Cuban cigar is, he will probably tell you the BHK56, or maybe the Siglo VI; to me it will always be the Cohiba Lanceros. The legend goes that in 1963, Fidel Castro observed one of his bodyguards smoking a long, thin, elegant cigar (that the bodyguards of one of the most assassination liable people on earth got to lounge around smoking cigars in full view of their boss gives you a good image of how things went in early ‘60s Cuba). Intrigued by the shape he asked what it was, and the man told him it was one of his friend Eduardo’s custom rolls, and offered him one. Castro smoked it, loved it, and had Eduardo summoned and set up in El Laguito, a repossessed mansion in the suburbs, to roll the personal cigars of El Presidente. Eventually the cigars were named Cohiba, and were made available to well-connected party men, and given out as diplomatic gifts. In the 70s they were very occasionally sold to tourists on Cubana flights and, in 1984, they went on sale to the general public (Castro had quit smoking the year before, leading to a surplus in high end tobacco).

Cohiba Lanceros unlit

With a kiss from a jet lighter the cigar smoking begins. The first flavours are very crisp and light, with lactic, creamy notes and the tang of fresh cut grass. In the aftertaste there is an unmistakable honey sweetness. The tobacco is very light in the first few puffs, but a centimetre or so it thickens to medium. This particular Lanceros is from 2008. The ash is dirty grey, and doesn’t hold very well, flaking off with regularity. The draw and burn are perfect.

These days, I am well enough connected in the international community of cigar aficionados that I could probably get a tour of El Laguito if I were ever in Havana, but in 2006 it was not so. Back then, I was a cigar neophyte. I had smoked precisely one Cohiba, which was almost certainly a fake (a friend knew I had an interest in cigars, and brought me back a Cohiba from Mexico [never a good sign]. I smoked it in a storm water drain where I used to hang out sometimes [that’s another story]. As I recall it burned down the core the whole way – never having encountered this before, I didn’t know to fix it [slight touch of flame around the edge] and, assuming it was some kind of high end smokeless tobacco, let it go, noting that the flavour was “very smooth”). Somehow, however, I had heard of the old mansion, and while I was in Cuba I made a personal point of visiting.

It took a while to get the taxi driver to figure out where I wanted to go, but after I had tried the name in several different pronunciations, tried “Cohiba,” and “bueno tobacco fábrica,” and pulled out my guidebook for a map, we eventually had meeting of the minds. “Ah, El Laguito,” he cried delightedly. “La fábrica de tobacco Cohiba! Bueno!” and off we went.

Today El Laguito is a bit tarted up, with big Cohiba logos on the outside, but in 2006 it was a nondescript mansion in a leafy neighbourhood, with no indication at all that industry was taking place inside. A high fence surrounded it, and the only point of entry seemed to be via a ramshackle corrugated iron annex. Entering we found a group of women sitting around chatting. They were not accustomed to dealing with random gringo walk-ins, and after a bit of “bueno tobacco fábrica tour,they found someone with a little English. The newcomer told us that this was a factory, and to visit we would need permission from Tabacuba, the tobacco ministry. She drew us a map. As we walked out I remarked to my friend that we were the dumbest bastards in the world. It was the perfect opportunity to offer a 20CUC note and ask dumbly “¿permiso?”

Cohiba Lanceros with about two inches burnt

At the midpoint the Lanceros has mellowed, returning to very light. The predominant flavours are grass and straw, with a hint of the barnyard. In the aftertaste there are sweet fruit elements, a touch of citrus and raisins. The lactic cream has more or less vanished.

The Tabacuba office marked on the map was a few kilometres away, close to central Havana, but it was a nice day so we decided to walk it, taking in the shady streets of colonial mansions and embassies that surround El Laguito. We reached the office around 2:30pm, when the after lunch slump was definitely in effect. There was nobody in reception, but after ringing a bell we finally roused a security guide, who eventually conjured up an English speaker, who was very bemused that we might want to visit the legendary factory. “This is just a factory” he told us. “Not for tourists.” With a suspicious glare he lowered his voice. “You are journalists?” Knowing that journalists are not always looked upon kindly in Cuba, I assured him that we weren’t. Eventually he told us that he didn’t see an issue, but also that he couldn’t give us the permit here, and instead wrote down the name of a man to see at the Tabacuba office in Old Havana. He drew us a map.

The next office was closed by the time we got there (about 4:30pm), and I was preoccupied for the next few days with other tourist jaunts, but eventually returned, and presented the girl at the desk with the name of the man the clerk had written down for me. I waited for 30 minutes or so in a dingy waiting room, before eventually being ushered into a messy office. The man was very suspicious, asking me first if I was a journalist, and then listing off the names of publications he thought I might write for. After I refuted all of them he tried a different tact, and began listing tobacco companies. When that line of enquiry was exhausted he asked for my passport, and thoughtfully inspected every page, rubbing each stamp and visa between his thumb and forefinger, as if trying to establish whether or not my Japanese entry permit from two years earlier was a forgery.

Finally satisfied, he took my passport with him, and disappeared into another room for thirty minutes or so. From my seat my eyes searched around the room for the one-way mirror or concealed camera, sure I was being observed by the Cuban Secret Police. Eventually the bureaucrat returned, and presented me a long document in Spanish, with an official red stamp on it. “Your permission,” he told me. “You got to El Laguito on this date,” indicating a date about a month hence. “No, no” I said in dismay. “I’m leaving Cuba at the end of the week.” His patience for me exhausted, he shook his head. “This date is not negotiable.”

And so I left, and left Cuba, having never got further into El Laguito than the guardhouse. I did learn a lesson, however, one which would serve me well during my China years, and further travels: when dealing with a second world bureaucracy, as soon as things start to go against you: bribe everybody.

Cohiba Lanceros final third

As the Cohiba Lanceros reaches its final third it gets milder still, just the lightest of tobacco flavour, over a subtle coffee, leather, and a hint of new tennis balls. It is only once I have smoked past the band that it gets a little punchy, the ash causing me to salivate. I have brought down a bottle of the high end Bundaberg rum, but forgot to bring a glass, so haven’t touched it until now. The tar on my palate is unpleasant enough that I swig from the bottle to cut it. Like all Bundy it has a bit of a paint thinner taste to it, but it cuts the tar nicely.

Anyway, the Cohiba Lanceros is a fantastic, elegant and subtle cigar, that brings to mind a more civilized age. Smoke more Cohiba Lanceros.

Cohiba Lanceros nub

Cohiba Lanceros on the Cuban Cigar Website

Cohiba Piramides Extra

With the winter chill long descended, but my self-imposed obligation to this column not quite expended, I have been reduced to this: it is Tuesday night and I am hunkered in my kitchen. The ashtray rests on the cooktop so that the range hood might extract as much smoke as possible. I am clothed entirely in silk because of a misguided idea I have that it doesn’t take on the smell of smoke (the reason that it is the traditional material of smoking jackets). A smoke blanket hangs across the doorway in the vain hope that the odour will be isolated to just this room. Upstairs my bed is stripped in a vain effort to preserve the sheets. In truth, it’s a very comfortable way to enjoy a cigar, but the aftermath will not be pretty. This is the last dusky beauty I will smoke this season.

For this finale I have selected a Cohiba Piramides Extra from the original release in 2012. All cigars vary from year to year, but generally the first release is about as good as they get. Some first releases are legendary (the 2003 Siglo VI being the most famous example), while others are only great in comparison to the depths their descendants sink (Maduro 5 line, BHKs). I guess Cuba just tries a little bit harder in the first year.

Cohiba Piramides Extra unlit

At first light the cigar is toasty, with a strong, dry grass aftertaste. The tobacco is a light to medium. In true Cohiba style the smoke is incredibly smooth and rich. It tastes like class. My soft spot for Cohiba is well known; I don’t have the words to articulate exactly what it is that makes them special, but I’d like to think that words aren’t necessary. Smoke a Cohiba, you’ll see. Even the worst of them have a quality that is self-evident, that is beyond language.

Of my various sojourns abroad, my time in Japan bore a marked difference to my time in China. In China, my friends were rich as hell and, all earning western salaries in a country where you can feed a family of four for less than the cost of an ice-cream in Australia, we lived like kings, never giving the first thought to vile money. In Japan my friends were all broke. They were English teachers in the main, all living paycheque to paycheque, and those paycheques came monthly. It was the last Saturday of the month, and so I found myself alone on a Saturday night. My own existence was that of a hermit, prowling a huge apartment above a strip club by day, talking to myself. There was no way I was staying in on a Saturday night.

Japan is the kind of country where it is easy to make friends. In Australia strangers are predators: a man sitting alone in a park drinking a beer is a maniac to be shunned and avoided. In Japan the attitude is very different: he is a brother, a fellow imbiber, to be embraced and incorporated into your evening. So it was that I headed to Triangle Park, an isosceles of concrete in the heart of Osaka’s America-town. The ‘park’ sits in the middle of the nightlife district and there is a convenience store across the road that sells canned cocktails for $1, and so it naturally becomes a central congregation point for the aimless youth. If nothing else I could at least check out some girls in short skirts.

I was halfway through my fourth Cocktail Partner when I heard my name being called. It was a group of locals who evidentially knew me from some past debauchery or other. To be honest, I recalled them only barely (if at all), but who was I to quibble? We shared a drink and a cigarette, and they invited me to join them in a nearby club where a DJ they liked was playing.

The club was loud and warm, a maelstrom of writhing bodies. The DJ was good, but the VJ, who ran clips from films and psychedelic patterns in time with the music on large screens around the dance floor, was better. I soon lost my friends, and then myself, to the music; writhing in the dark, enjoying the sound and light, the heat, the smell and the viscera of other bodies.

Over time I became conscious of one particular body that had entered and remained in my close orbit, my pelvis contacting her warm rump at the zenith of my thrusts, the scent of her shampoo in my nostrils. Gradually, my incidental contact became deliberate: my caresses more lingering. With every contact she gave the palpable feeling of reciprocation; she would follow my movements, and embrace them, move into me as I moved into her. Finally I removed the subterfuge, and placed my hands around her waist, and she ground herself against me, tracing my erection with her arse.

I needed to piss, but I held it until things reached crisis point, and I whispered one of my three Japanese phrases in her ear: “chotto matte (one moment).” When I returned she wasn’t where I’d left her, and I looked around, panicked: I knew her only by touch, by smell: I hadn’t seen her face. Moments later though she was there, and hand in hand we moved to the dark recesses at the edge of the floor, and kissed passionately in the French style. Soon the moment felt right, and I deployed the second of my Japanese phrases, “ikimashouka (let’s go).”

Outside it was pouring rain, and my $2 plastic umbrella was in no way adequate to shelter two people for the ten or so block walk back to my apartment. I tried “eigo ga hanasemasuka,” my final phrase, but was met with a blank shaking of the head. I showed her my ID card with my address, attempting to indicate that it wasn’t far, but Japanese addresses don’t make any sense to any body, and it didn’t help my cause. Eventually I hailed a cab. We passed the five minute drive in awkward silence. Human affection was the only tongue we had in common, and the back seat of a Japanese cab is no place for that.

She looked very suspicious when we pulled up outside my building (and rightly so, as to all external indications it contained nothing but hostess bars and massage parlours), but entered nonetheless, and soon we were canoodling on my bed. I began to tug at her shirt, and she stopped me to unleash a great torrent of Japanese. I responded with a look of incomprehension, and throwing “chotto matte” back at me she began to rummage in her bag, eventually producing a pocket translator. She typed away on it for ages, and eventually handed it over with a paragraph of incomprehensible English word salad on the screen. I laughed and shook my head, and accepting defeat she pointed at the light. “No.” This I understood.

We made love in the dark, with her whimpering in the classic Japanese porno style. We slept curled up together, the language of affection knowing no culture. In the morning I walked her to the train station, to the Sakai line, a city to the south of Osaka. I gave her my phone to put her number in, and there I finally learnt her name: Takako. Before she left she managed to ask my age, and told me her own: she was twenty one, four years younger than I was. She had her friend text me later that day, and for a week or so we messaged back and forth. She told me she was learning English for me. Eventually, though, it petered out, and I never saw her again. Ours was a relationship that could not be sustained through texts.

Cohiba Piramides Extra, two thirds remaining, with Bulleit Bourbon

Mid-way through the cigar is creamy, the smoke luscious. The grassy flavour is still dominant, although a bit earthier than it was, more cut lawn than dry hay. Behind it there is the hearty aroma of old saddles. The strength has thickened a little, trending towards medium.  The class remains.

Like all good stories, Takako’s has a sequel. It was eight years later and 7,000km away, and I was at the time of my life where I had a wedding every weekend – in fact, on this particular weekend I had two. The first was in a garden in the afternoon, where a high school chum was marrying a Japanese girl. It was a quiet affair for family and intimates, and there wasn’t a reception per se, but there were drinks and canapés in the garden afterward. After those the bridal party were going out to dinner, but later in the evening the younger folks were invited to meet at their hotel suite for further libations. I have always lived by a very simple motto: “when you say ‘no’ to champagne you say ‘no’ to life,” and next to the rose bushes the bubbly stuff was flowed freely. By the time I headed to the second wedding of the day, my sails were full, and cut toward the breeze.

The second wedding of the day was a Russian affair: in truth, it was a reception, not a wedding. The wedding had been that afternoon in an Orthodox church somewhere, and had involved, someone told me, “a lot of great hats.” The event I arrived at was in a Russian reception centre in the eastern suburbs. Every table was laden with plates of cured meats and smoked fishes and, in addition to both colours of wine, each had its own bottle of vodka embedded in a block of ice. I wasn’t too hungry – I was filled with bubbles and hors d’oeuvres – but I was certainly in the mood to drink, and there were plenty willing to share a vodka shot with me. Before long I was on the dance floor bewitching a group of gorgeous Russian girls with my Michael Jacksonesque kicks and spins. We had not quite gotten to the hora when the bridegroom came over and told me I had to leave: apparently the girls fell under the jurisdiction of a table of Ukrainian mobsters, and their tolerance for my antics was quickly diminishing.

By the time I arrived at the hotel I felt great: I had enough drinks under my belt to fell a man twice my size, but somehow it was working for me. Perhaps it was all the smoked fish. The suite was large, and from the little entrance hall I had a good view of both rooms. In the lounge room my school friends sprawled languidly, their ties undone, drinking whiskey and telling jokes. In the bedroom eight Japanese girls in party frocks sat on a row on the end of the bed, facing an empty chair. I stuck my head into the lounge room for just long enough for my friends to smile welcomingly and for me to call them “homos” before I headed for the bedroom chair.

The girls were happy to see me and giggled at my jokes, and for a while I conducted it like a seminar, taking questions from the panel. Before too long the bride wanted her seat back and I found myself locked in conversation with one girl in particular. Her name was Takae, which sounds a lot like the Japanese word for “expensive,” and we instantly had a rapport. We talked for hours, and I left that night with her number in my phone. Over the next few months we become a romantic couple; there was something familiar in the way she whimpered when we made love, but I just put in down to my own cultural biases. “All Japanese girls are the same,” I thought to myself.

About a month into our relationship we got to the subject of family and where she was from, and it emerged that she grew up in Sakai, a city just south of Osaka. She had one sister, four years younger than herself. I didn’t instantly recognise the name when she told me. “Takako” I said, mulling it over. “I think I knew somebody called that.” I turned red when I put it together. “Does she speak English as well as you do?” I asked. “Yes,” came the response. “She was very lazy in high school and didn’t learn it at all, but when she was twenty one she really liked a western guy and she learnt it for him. You will probably meet her. She’s coming to stay with me in a month.”

We broke up shortly thereafter.

Cohiba Piramides Extra final third

In the final third I begin to get a serious head spin. The cigar is full and tangy, and a little sour on the back pallet. There is a slight bitterness. I have been drinking, of course: first a whiskey sour, then a daiquiri, perhaps 100ml of brown spirits in all, but that in no way accounts for how woozy I feel. This cigar has some punch.

Like all good cigars, I take it till I burn my fingers. The Cohiba Piramides Extra. Delightful.

See you next year.

Cohiba Piramides Extra nub

Cohiba Piramides Extra on the Cuban Cigar Website

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008

Oft alluded to but never discussed in depth in this column is that Cohiba, the flagship Cuban brand which grew from Castro’s custom rolls to diplomatic gifts, and finally to the powerhouse money spinner of the Cuban cigar industry that it is today, is my favourite brand. I’ll go into its history in more depth when I do a complete vertical of it in a future season of A Harem of Dusky Beauties (slated for 2018), but for the moment it will suffice to say that there are two schools of thought as far as Cohiba goes: that they’re a cut above everything else Cuba makes, and that they are overpriced. As usual, there’s a little of truth in both; Cohiba leaves go through an extra fermentation and are generally of a higher quality than those used in non-Cohiba cigars, and for this you pay at least a 30% premium. The thrifty aficionado willing to hunt for specific box codes, willing to age cigars, willing to snap up things when they’re hot, can easily get a better cigar than a standard Cohiba for a fraction of the cost. For the amateur smoker who wants a special cigar without too much messing around? Buy a Cohiba.

There have been some legendary limited edition cigars out of El Laguito – 2003’s Double Corona is amazing, and the 2006 Pirámides is no slouch – but one I’ve never really felt lived up the hype is the 2004 Sublime. It’s nice, but it’s a bit rough around the edges. The word on the street is that they have passed their prime, but even a couple of years ago it never had for me the elegance or the balance of the DC. Today’s cigar, 2008’s Colección Habanos Sublimes Extra, is essentially the Sublime but 20mm longer.

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008 unlit

The first three puffs are hot and ashy, and already I begin to frame the tone of this article: “this aint so special” I think “maybe I’ll say that it’s too young.” After the fourth puff I put it down and say “oh wow” out loud. The smoke is intensely delicate and light, and crisp on the palette like citrus foam in a restaurant that specialises in molecular gastronomy. The flavours are lightly grassy, herbal on the back palette.

It’s a hard decision, whether or not to pair a drink with a smoke like this, as the last thing I would want is for the cigar’s delicate flavours to be drowned out by strong liquor, but seeing as I brought it down, allow me a moment on Gran Marnier Cuvee du Cent Cinquantenaire. It took about three seconds of exposure to one of the ads for this product in a magazine before I was actively seeking it out; the most effective I remember an advertisement working on me. It featured the bottle on a plain blue background with the text “hard to find, impossible to pronounce, and prohibitively expensive… and while we’re being honest, it’s our finest work.” It was a challenge. Two years and two hundred dollars later I had a bottle of Cuvee du Cent Cinquantenaire in hand, and I invited a few friends over for a tasting. Also just in was a box of the then recently released Cohiba BHK 56, and I billed the evening as one of unrivalled epicurean delights. The first arrivals nursed a few craft beers while we waited for some late comers, and as people began to filter in, one of the party produced some Mamont Vodka, a bottle shaped like a woolly mammoth tusk, allegedly the best thing to come out of Russia. He suggested that we all enjoy a double shot of it with ice and a touch of lime while we waited for the final stragglers, and he met with no objections, either to the first or the second, or for that matter the third rounds. By the time all were present and accounted for and we started on the cigars and liqueur we were inebriated far past the point of appreciation. The evening ended at a karaoke bar. More than one of us threw up. In the morning I found a five inch BHK 56 stub sitting on a fence post. It was a crime against good leaf.

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008, two thirds left, with a bottle of Gran Marnier Cuvee du Cent Cinquantenaire

By about the halfway mark the cigar has thickened up considerably, medium tobacco, still strongly grassy with the occasional hint of coffee and cocoa. I take my first sip of the Gran Marnier and it is heavenly, freshly juiced, delicious tropical oranges that change on the tongue into aniseed and rich, ripe stone fruits. It combines with the cigar in the aftertaste, leaving a thick, smoky toffee. It’s a strong flavour and on its own can be cloying, but complements the cigar very well, with the cigar becoming sweeter and more floral, and the liqueur taking on rich, smoky notes. It’s much too expensive and difficult to find to waste on any old dreck, but it’s the best complementary spirit I know for cigars, each enhancing the other.

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008 final third

The cigar grows a little bitter in the end, slightly rough with some tar, but is still extremely smooth for a smoke of this size. The final notes are woody, with burnt toast and some leather. It’s an excellent cigar in every respect, edging out the Trinidad by a nose in the upper echelon of the Colección Habanos, but it’s not transcendental: I’ve had better Cohibas than this in aged Lanceros, the Siglo VI Gran Reserva, and a few of the ELs. As always, there are better cigars available for the dollars these commands, but if you have the means, the Cohiba Sublimes Extra is a fantastic way to spend three hours.

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008 nub

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008 on the Cuban Cigar Website