Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo des Dieux

Beyond the Epicures, there is another line in Hoyo de Monterrey: the Serie le Hoyo. A reader, distressed by the perpetual mediocrity that this season’s vertical has put me through, suggested that I should try something from the Le Hoyo range, and presented me with this example, a Le Hoyo des Dieux.

“Are you a big Hoyo fan?” I asked, worried that I may have offended a man of otherwise impeccable taste (and ready with my follow-up question, “how could anybody like this muck?”). “Not really,” he shrugged. “But I like the Des Dieux.”

Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo des Dieux unlit

The cigar begins nicely enough, although it’s not as far from the Hoyo trope as I would like. It’s mild, with that woody, cedar taste, and a very strong grass note. Beneath it all there is something lactic, which in and of itself is a big improvement over the rest of the Hoyo marque.

We are drinking that prince of drinks, the Sazerac. It’s a drink I’ve been ordering once in a while for many years. In the early 2000s, before Mad Men re-popularized vintage alcoholism, and before I was really secure in my masculinity, ordering cocktails was a dangerous affair. It was the dying days of the liqueur era, and all around was saccharine sweet; every drink on every menu made of Galliano, Chambord and Frangelico, served in a hurricane glass with fruit and whipped cream spilling out of the top.

Once, seeing me agonizing over a particularly treacherous menu, a bartender offered to make me a special, and the thing that came back was a Sazerac. I didn’t care much for it, my boyish palate still too soft for hard liquor, but I persisted, and have ordered them occasionally ever since. A safe choice. Slightly watered down, lightly sweetened whiskey. Something every bartender knows that sounds a bit more sophisticated than an Old Fashioned when you ask for it.

It was more or less a year ago to the day that my host showed me the true potential of the Sazerac. When he makes them they are smooth and sweet, with only the slightest twinge of alcohol burn. Beyond all else there is a butteriness to them; they warm the throat like an alcoholic Butter Menthol. Divine. A prince among drinks.

Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo des Dieux, somewhat burnt

By about the midpoint, the lactation has increased to the point where cream is the dominant flavour in the cigar. There is still some wood on the back end (it is a Hoyo, after all), but mostly it is cream. The tobacco taste is very light, with not a hint of spice or bitterness.

The first step to making a good Sazerac is to select the right glass: you want to contain the volume of the drink (about 75ml) and nothing more. This is no place for a balloon glass.

Next, pour in a little absinth. 5, maybe 10ml. You want an absinth with some staying power. My host uses Doubs, but anything a bit serious will do. Not Green Fairy.

Fill the glass to the brim with water and set it in the freezer for 45 minutes. For this reason alone, a Sazerac is good for the first drink of the night. Have the glasses in the freezer so that they’re ready to go as soon as she walks in the door. After 45 minutes, the glass will have the start of a thin skin of ice. Serve only to punctual guests. If she’s an hour and a half late then you’ll have to wait until the absinth ice-cubes at least partially thaw.

(The object of all this is to chill the glass and to coat the inside evenly with a light amount of the absinth. The hurried tapster could theoretically get away with leaving the glass only a few minutes, or perhaps not chilling it at all. As in all things though, if you can take the time, you should.)

When the glasses are about chilled, make the bulk of the drink. In a cocktail tin, mix two shots of good cognac, with 10ml of simple syrup and three dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters. When it comes down to it, this drink is basically a glass of cognac, so you should use something drinkable. My host uses Hennessey VSOP. In many bars, they use one part of rye whiskey to one part cognac. This is one of the many reasons most bartenders fail at this drink.

The most important step is the stirring. Add to your tin a few large lumps of ice. Large lumps melt slower and are more forgiving. Stir the drink with a bar spoon until it is exactly as cold and diluted as it needs to be. How to tell when that is? Well, therein lies the skill of the Sazerac; the thing that sets it apart from the Old Fashioned or the Alaska or any other glass of lightly sweetened hard liquor. For me, it is always about ten turns of the spoon longer than I think it should be. Stir too little and your Sazerac will still have the alcohol burn. Still too much and it will taste watery.

With the drink ready to go, take the glasses out of the freezer, and toss the contents dramatically down the sink. Hold one glass under her nose. She’ll wrinkle it. “Black jellybeans?”

Strain the tin into the glasses, filling a bare half millimetre below the rim. The drink will be a glorious Chuck Berry red. Drop a lightly coiled lemon twist into each glass. The liquid should now be forming a meniscus. Take a second piece of lemon peel and squeeze some of its oils over the surface of the drink. Spritz a little more on the outside of the glass, where the hand will sit. On the stem if you’re using stemware.

Serve carefully and drink with purpose.

Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo des Dieux, mostly combusted

The Le Hoyo des Dieux ends very respectably, with a slight strengthening of the tobacco note, but no tar or anything objectionable. Perhaps it’s the liquor, or the company, or the warm summer sun, but the Dieux has been a very pleasant smoke. It is a Hoyo, and it has all the family traits. It’s light and woody and not overly complex. What is there is good, however, and I rank it above all its predecessors in the round-up.

Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo des Dieux nub

Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo des Dieux on the Cuban Cigar Website

Hoyo de Monterrey Petite Robustos

Hailing from 2004, the Hoyo de Monterrey Petite Robustos was a trendsetter for the brand, and for Habanos generally. At release it was the first of its vitola, both salida and galera; the first front-line skirmisher of the short-and-fat brigade that would come to dominate the new release lists for the next fifteen years.

To me, the petite robusto has always looked a little off, its girth heralding a grander cigar than the length can deliver, and begging the question, “where’s the rest?” Lit, it is bitter from the start, with an acrid woody tang. I set it down a moment, and it calms down a bit, relaxing into light wood and medium tobacco.

Hoyo de Monterrey Petit Robustos unlit

I’ve known a few delinquents in my time, but rarely have I been in as close contact with the criminal element as I was with Simon Cates in the summer of ‘aught five. It was six months into my relationship with Audrey (and about two years before the Parisian Encounter). We both lived with our respective parents, but that summer hers had gone to Europe on The Trip of a Lifetime – three months riding the canals of Germany, France and the Netherlands – and Audrey and I were playing house.

Audrey had a summer job as a research assistant, which kept her busy for most of the daylight hours. I had no need of a job, having emancipated myself from my parents a year or so prior, which made me eligible for the government cheques. I spent my days mainly playing video games in her father’s study. The long summer days also gave me plenty of opportunity to bond with the house’s other resident layabout, Audrey’s eighteen-year-old brother, Simon (Simmy, to his friends).

They were siblings, and had similar noses, but that was about it. Audrey had attended an exclusive private school for gifted girls. She spoke with a vestigial British accent, and her friends were snobbish pseudo-intellectuals. Simmy had attended the local high school, and spoke with the languid drawl of a suburban thug, and his friends did the same. Audrey was blonde, with clear blue eyes and porcelain skin. She was against all physical activity, and deemed ballgames the pastime of the troglodyte. Simmy was tan and swarthy, and a natural athlete. Above all, Audrey was a member of society, and followed society’s rules. For Simmy there was no such thing.

The house was built into the side of a hill, and sprawled over three floors. Audrey and I occupied what was normally her parents’ domain on the top level. The bottom floor was Simmy territory. The open kitchen and dining room on the middle level were common property.

I rarely ventured down into Simmy’s crypt, but whenever I did the scene was much the same. He would be shirtless, reclined on the couch. Draped nearby would be Kate, his impossibly long-legged high-school girlfriend, clad only in one of Simmy’s basketball singlets and a blissful post-coital expression. His tubby friend Dave would be lying on the floor. The television would be playing an action movie, and all about would be strewn bongs and nangs and packets of chips. The marijuana scent was palpable, and as his parent’s return drew closer he would become increasingly concerned about how irreparably it had penetrated the soft furnishings.

On the second day of my residence, I was aroused from my Grand Theft Auto by a commotion on the kitchen deck. Investigating, I found Simmy and Dave in the process of heaving the family microwave over the railing to the lawn below. They had chanced upon a crime of opportunity: an open truck full of brand new microwaves, and helped themselves. I suggested that instead of destroying their parents’ perfectly serviceable microwave, they could sell either it or the new one for cash, but they weren’t interested. I then offered the idea that they could destroy it in a more spectacular fashion by microwaving a deodorant can or something. They thought about that one, but decided it was too much trouble, and over the railing the appliance went. Dented but largely intact, it would stay on the lawn until the night before his parents came back.

Audrey and I were both fending for ourselves for the first time, and were shocked by how expensive grocery bills could be. When we went shopping we were frugal, buying simple meals, and mostly cooking ourselves. For Simmy though the world was his oyster. Several times a week he and his friends would come home fully laden with purloined frozen meals and meats and candies and every delicacy of the suburban supermarket. I was amazed every time. For myself, I couldn’t see how it was possible to heist more than a chocolate bar, but Simmy seemed to be able to liberate the weekly shop for a family of ten. When I asked him how he did it he was nonchalant. “Just carry it out” he told me. “Nobody cares.”

Hoyo de Monterrey Petit Robustos, two thirds remaining

With the third of so of the cigar combusted, the bitterness has left, but what remains is very much the par three hole of the Monterrey course. Mostly it tastes of cedar dust, with a mild herbaceous twang in the aftertaste.

Audrey was universally disapproving of Simmy and his antics, but I became something of a friend to him and his buddies, not exactly approving, but definitely impressed. More than anything I was fascinated by a life so free of societal norms. One afternoon Simmy knocked on my study door clutching a little medical pouch. “Hey mate” he asked, “do you know how to fill up a needle?”

As it happened I did, having acquired the skill while caring for my family’s diabetic dog. Simmy had gotten his hands on some steroid injections, and wanted me help him shoot them into the meaty part of his buttock. For the next two weeks it became a ritual for us – he would come by after lunch, usually – and I would give him his injection. Eventually he gave it up because he wasn’t working out enough to see the benefit.

Halfway through the summer he came to Audrey and I and announced with great pride that he’d gotten a job. Starting Monday he was the new night watchman at the Tennis Centre. Audrey was pleased, although in bed that night we privately wondered if Rod Laver knew he was employing a fox to guard his henhouse. It took Simmy only three shifts to figure out how to turn off the cameras and open up the pro-store, and after that he would come home every morning with thousands of dollars’ worth of sneakers and racquets. As always with Simmy, there wasn’t any consequence. When he was fired some months later it was for absenteeism, not for thievery.

Audrey and I broke up not long after the end of the summer. After her parents came home she had wanted us to find our own place together, but I was content to go back to my folks’ place, where the groceries came gratis. We would reconcile for a time a few years later, but eventually parted for good. Last I heard, Simmy had done a few months in prison in his twenties for low-level drug dealing, but eventually straightened out, working a variety of labourer jobs before starting a landscape gardening business. He eventually married Kate, too, high-school sweethearts, and fathered twin girls. No word on what became of Dave.

Hoyo de Monterrey Petit Robustos, the final chunk.

The Petite Robustos lightens up considerably in the bottom half of the cigar, but doesn’t gain a lot in the way of complexity, with the usual wood, grass, and slight tang predominating.

The marketing impetus behind the short and fat revolution is that nobody has the time to smoke big cigars any more. To some extent, the marketeers have a point. Gone are the days of smoking in offices, in gentlemen’s clubs, in restaurants and bars, and other places where men might once have engaged in otherwise meaningful activity with a Churchill clamped between their teeth. The aficionado will always find a way to luxuriate at home with a big cigar, but for the habitual smoker, who smokes two, and four, and five a day, they need it short and to some extent they need it fat. Something to suck down while driving between landscape gardening jobs. In that capacity, the Hoyo Petite Robusto succeeds. It’s an easy-going, uncomplicated sort of smoke that you could get down in 30 minutes if you put your mind to it.

Hoyo de Monterrey Petit Robustos nub.

Hoyo de Monterrey Petite Robustos on the Cuban Cigar Website

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especial

The Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especial made its first appearance in 2004 as an Edition Limitada, where it proved so popular that they made it a regular production four years later. It was ahead of its time; the third example of the Gorditos vitola, a size which has appeared in the “new releases” column of the Habanos catalogue fifteen times since, and continues to resurface on an annual basis. I wondered at the time why they called it the Epicure Especial, and not the Epicure No. 3, which seemed to me a more logical name for a cigar that was basically a longer Epicure No. 2. Whatever their reasoning was I guess it worked for them, as they have continued the trend with the Double Epicure, the Grand Epicure, and the Epicure de Luxe.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especial unlit

I light her up. Construction is not great, with a wind tunnel draw that makes the initial burn far too hot, the smoke bitter as a result. Hopefully it will clean up as things stabilize. What flavor notes there are are woody and slightly chemical. Treated pine.

I met Saskiri Sutrisno online. Her profile was vague. She liked some TV shows. She liked to travel. Her pictures, all close-ups with big sunglasses, gave little indication of how she looked. She was enthusiastic, though, when she reached out to me and gushed about the bombastic essay that I used to promote my own eligibility. Enthusiasm goes a long way. It was a clear case for a low stakes internet date.

We met on a Tuesday night outside the State Library, because it’s a public place that everybody knows and because there’s nothing to do there. If you hate each other from the first moment then you’re not even committed to finishing your coffee. It was a Tuesday because nobody has anything better to do on a Tuesday.

We went to a nearby bar and immediately hit it off. She had been raised a diplo-brat, the child of a big wheel in the Indonesian kleptocracy of the 1980s and 90s, and we swapped stories about our childhoods in diplomatic enclaves. She laughed and smiled, with a big, wet mouth, and eyes to match. I liked her summer dress.

After the bar the date carried on to a restaurant, where the casual touching started; the clasp of the hand on the table to emphasize a point, the faux sympathetic shoulder pat. On the way to the third bar I held her hand. “Good move,” she whispered.

By the time the third bar closed it was a quarter passed midnight and we were two martinis passed sensible. We necked heavily in an alleyway.

Through the fog of Wednesday morning, I related the story to a friend. “I think this could be the one,” I told him. “She’s funny and smart and beautiful. She’s got Indonesian gangster money. Relax and Rolex.”

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especial two thirds remain.

True to expectation, the cigar has mellowed off considerably. There are notes of straw and cedar, with light dry earth and dust. There is a vague peanut flavor in the late taste. Some salt.

For the most part, my affair with Saskiri was a lot of fun. She worked in finance at one of those jobs where everyone is young and bubbly and drinks late every night. She fell for that old routine, the one where I throw on a robe and casually put together cocktails in my grand apartment. She lived in the hipster area, and we had nice breakfasts and sneered cynically at everything. She had a fun set of nicknames: Sass, Sassafrass, Sasquatch, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Once, she crashed one of my work functions just as it was winding down, and smiled and laughed and enthralled the older guys. “Who was that girl?” my boss asked me the next morning. “An old friend?”
“Ah…no” I replied. “More of a new friend.”

I wasn’t wrong about the gangster money, either. She showed me pictures of herself at age four, being bounced on Suharto’s knee. Then came the family portrait: ten Sutrisnos and twenty staff, all in their Sunday best outside an ambassadorial residence. The women and girls wore matching white dresses. The men and boys were in suits and brandished AK-47s.

But then, there were the problems.

Most of them were minor. She snored like a rhinoceros. She had terrible taste in movies. She was always on her phone. And, of course, that old complaint started to surface; the one that has driven most every lover from my life. She liked me, and she needed to express that to me, and to hear it expressed in return. The needier she got the less my broken psychology wanted to validated her.

The final straw came on July 1. It was a Wednesday, and she was celebrating Canada Day at a bar near my house. She texted me repeatedly, asking me to join her. When I finally arrived she was drunk, and slurring her words, and going on and on about how she couldn’t believe two of her friends had hooked up. It wasn’t the event for me, and inside an hour I was ready to go. When I told her so, and a twenty-minute song-and-dance ensued about whether or not she would come to my house. Her complex iterations of logistics are lost on me even today, but basically, I felt that as we both had busy days the next day, the dominant strategy would be for her to come and be intimate for an hour or so, and then get a cab home; she was steadfast that she was only coming to my house if she could stay the night.

She fell asleep immediately post-coitus, stealing all the blanket and snoring at the volume of industrial machinery. Several times I tried to wake her, or roll her over, or to smother her, but it was all in vain, and by 3am I abandoned my bed and went to sleep in the spare room. There I slept soundly until five, when she shook me awake. “What are you doing in here?” she asked. “Was I snoring?” I moaned concurrence. “Oh my god,” she said. “I’m so sorry.” She climbed into bed with me, the spare room’s single considerably less accommodating than my king, and fell asleep at once, immediately resuming her cacophony.

I was curt with her in the morning. She was sheepish, and knew she was in trouble. Once she’d gone I went upstairs to make the beds, and discovered that both sheets were heavily bloodstained. She had a cut on her leg, that apparently had opened up.

It was the final straw, and when she sheepishly texted me three days later, I let her know that it was over. She didn’t reply, but a few hours later I noticed she’d unfriended me on Facebook.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especial, burnt just above the band.

The Epicure Especial ends a little spicy, with a sharp tar that is not altogether unpleasant. There is still some dry dirt in the aftertaste. A few weeks ago, a friend, having read the first few of this season’s Dusky Beauties observed to me that Hoyo might be a bit mild for my taste. I’m sorry to say it, but I think he might be right. Hopefully there is some gold deeper in the limiteds, because as far as the regular production goes, it all seems to be much of the same.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especial nub.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especial on the Cuban Cigar Website

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2

Your intrepid reporter is deep in the jungles of Northern Australia, where the white noise of the cicadas is loud enough to make conversation difficult. My hostel has the aspect of a safari lodge: the bar is a few roughhewn wooden benches under a great green tarpaulin, strung between three ancient trees. My fellow travellers all speak with different accents, none of them Australian.

The place bills itself as a ‘wilderness retreat.’ My room, some fifty meters away down a narrow path through the dense foliage, is a meagre hut, with flyscreen walls and a tarpaulin roof. There is no power after they shut the generator off at 10pm. We are several hours north of the nearest mobile phone coverage, and there is a sign by the bar that gently advises us not to bother enquiring about the WiFi: “The best connection you can make” it suggests, “is with each other.”

I feel like there is no better way to bond with my compatriots than by lighting up a cigar: after all, what could a bunch of eco-tourists possibly object to about a Cuban cigar, the most natural product on earth?

Like its thinner sister, the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 is an ancient cigar, having survived since the revolution. Once upon a simpler time, these came in cabinets of 50, and wore no bands. Since 2008 they have two, giving this example less age than that. It is the oldest of the still extant robustos, an early forebear of the fat-cigar trend.

As an accompaniment, I order a glass of the highest shelf local spirit in the house: Bundaberg Black, neat. The bartender makes a show of carefully measuring out the shot. “You don’t want me to give you too much of this stuff, mate.”

He’s not wrong. Pure gasoline.

 Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 unlit, on a glass of Bundy Black.

Set ablaze, the cigar opens in a pleasant but inoffensive manner. The predominate flavour is mid-strength tobacco, tending towards mild. It is grassy, with strong notes of hay, accompanied by saddle leather and a hint of wet animal, to complete the barnyard melange.

I arrived in the jungle yesterday, and slept only fitfully: not only is there the constant cacophony of the cicadas, which only the mating calls of the bush turkeys and cassowaries can break through, but also every ten minutes a nut falls from the tree above my hut and lands on the tarpaulin like a gunshot. My wakeup-call this morning came in the form of a marsupial mouse, who crawled onto my pillow from places unknown. I was dozing when I felt his hot breath in my ear, and inquisitively rolled over to find us face to face. With a primal yawp I leapt out of bed, and he fled. Unable to locate either the point of the critter’s entry or of his exit, I decided the best strategy was to vacate the hut myself. On the porch I found a four-foot iguana, and I encouraged him inside to ferret out the rodent, but the slovenly lizard didn’t seem interested. 

By midday I found myself in the local swimming hole. Some kids were downstream of us, swinging off a rope, laughing, and cursing like sailors at their disobedient Blue Heeler, Gypsy. Eventually they left, with most of them roaring off in their beaten up four-wheel drive. One of their number, however, came towards us to collect his things – a towel and a short digeridoo – that lay on the river bank near where we were swimming.

He was a lanky teen, with a pile of red hair. His skin was parchment white; his pants would have been a similar tone, but had been rendered transparent by the water, making the chestnut thatch of his mons pubis distractingly visible. He hailed us from the shore with a ponderous drawl of the Australian bush philosopher.

      “Youse from around here?”

I told him I was from Melbourne, and he sighed.

      “I don’t like the city” he told us. “I’m from the Daintree, born and raised for nineteen years. I went to Sydney once. I thought the jungle had made me a man, but that city made me a little boy.”

My companion is from California, and she told him so, and he seemed to like that a little better. “Yeah, I reckon that’d be alright. I reckon California would be like the Daintree.”

I laughed, and told him that I’d been to both, and they were similar. “Wouldn’t you like to go somewhere a little different though? See the world?”

      “Why would I ever want to go anywhere else, when it’s so beautiful here?”

I asked about his digeridoo. “Oh, I love me dige,” he told us. “Can I play you a tune?”

The lad was good, conjuring from the dige at least as tonal a sound as I’ve ever heard from one, with a syncopated section reminiscent of an electronic dance track. For his finale he plunged the end of the stick into the water of the creek, slowly pushing it deeper and deeper, muffling the sound, but creating a maelstrom of bubbles around it. Finally, he withdrew it, gasping for air.

      “I do that to improve my lungs” he told us. “If I could play my full size dige when it was all the way in the water like that, I’d have the strongest lungs in Australia.” 

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2, two thirds remain. 

Just past the midway point the cigar starts to get bitter and ashy, but is somewhat redeemed by a very mild sweetness on the aftertaste. The flavours, in the rare place where anything definable penetrates the bitterness, are much unchanged: tobacco and dry grass. Some cedar.

Without warning the heavens open, a torrential downpour that pounds on the tarpaulin roof, competing with the white noise of the jungle. The low-point of the roof is nearby, forming a spout where the rain cascades off like a waterfall. A fast-flowing creek immediately forms on the ground beneath, disappearing off into the bush. Toads emerge, seemingly from nowhere, splashing about on the riverbank.

Within fifteen minutes it is over, and the air returns to its regular warm and humid state. The bush turkeys resume their cries.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2, smoked to just above the bands.

The final inch of the cigar reveals the life in the thing. The tobacco grows from medium toward strong. The sharp bitterness is gone, replaced by the richer, and much more pleasant bitterness of heavy tar, with nuttiness (peanuts), and some tropical fruit notes in the back of the thing.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 is not a terrible cigar by any means, but nor is there especially much too it. I’d take it before the Epicure No. 1, but it still runs a distant second to Partagás Serie D No. 4.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 nub.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 1

The passage of time, my friends, is inevitable. Grains of sand, crushed from once mighty mountains, cannot help but fall through the neck of the hourglass; the quartz crystal inevitably resonates with precise frequency when an electrical current is supplied; and my own Omega Seamaster’s mainspring coils and uncoils with much the same rhythm today as it did when my grandfather first wore it in 1969. Eighteen months have passed since we last spoke. Battles have been won and lost. Loves have come and gone. And Dusky Beauties, has returned.

Hoyo de Monterrey is the least of the big five global brands, and it’s not one I have terribly much affection for. The name translates to “the Hole of Monterrey,” and refers to a valley in Cuba, once famous for its tobacco. They are generally mild cigars, with a bit of wood and grass. The single example to appear previously on The Harem was 2003’s Extravaganza, smoked as part of my Colección Habanos roundup. It came in a mediocre 7th out of 10.

For the quintessential, entry level Hoyo, to which I shall compare all the exotics, I have selected the Epicure No. 1. It’s a corona gorda, and is as popular as any Hoyo. Normally they wear a second band, but mine has lost hers, a tithe to the god of plain packaging.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 1 unlit and in the shadows.

I light it, and the early notes are of mid-strength, vaguely sour tobacco. Somewhere in there there is a slight note of something chemical. It doesn’t overwhelm: just a little hint of Cuaba coming through. The aftertaste is quite pleasant. Buttery.

December 6th 2016 began like most days. I woke up late, and had a leisurely shower. I did a few push-ups, and drank my nutrient slurry, and by mid-morning had wandered into the office, where I noticed that my email wasn’t working. This in itself was not entirely unusual. Since some time in the early 2000s I have run my own email server, and from time to time, things happen. Most usually, the hard disk on the server fills up, and manual intervention is needed to clear things out, but occasionally the hosting company goes down for maintenance or something along those lines. I tried to log into the server, but it wasn’t responding, so I went to the Hotmail account that I use when other emails fail to see if they had sent me a downtime notice or anything. There was an email there, and it was brief and to the point.

Dear Mr. Groom,

Earlier today the server hosting your VPS crashed, and the backup could not be recovered. It has been reset. You will be refunded for downtime (approximately 8 hours) on a prorata basis.

They provided a new username and password, and when I logged in it was as they had described. The server was as a new, virgin install. CubanCigarWebsite, with its 40 gigabytes of files, was erased, along with all 125,000 words of Dusky Beauties, my personal website, the website I had in high-school, the site where I posted my erotic fiction in the early 2000s, my cocktail recipe database, my Michael Jackson fan site, the website for my friend’s home portraiture business: all were gone. My four email servers, with 10 years of correspondence, both private and professional, erased. It amounted to the complete annihilation of my lifetime creative output.

Denial, as always, was my first response. Computer data is rarely ever completely lost. In the very worst case, if even a portion of a disk drive survives, it can be picked over by men in white coats with microscopes. There was no indication that the loss was caused by a fire at the data-centre, so most likely it could be recovered with considerably less effort than that. I fired off a help desk ticket: priority 1, urgent. It would be the first of many. Their reply was similar to their original email: apologetic but nonchalant, and absolutely clear that the data would not be coming back. I fired off an increasingly panicked response, but my hope was starting to fade. It felt like it was time to call Trevor.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 1 in the bright sun, a quarter smoked.

At the midpoint the cigar is light-to-mid strength, with dry straw alongside freshly cut lumbar. There is a bit of a herbal taste there that leaves a tang on the back of the tongue.

In 2008 I was a bare neophyte in the world of Cuban cigars, when I found myself in a blind tasting contest. I had no business being there, as my experience was far too narrow, and I knew that whatever I picked was going to be a guess, but I wanted to at least make it an educated guess. I headed to CubanCigarWebsite.com, which was then (as now), the best online reference for Cuban cigars. The site at that time was flat HTML. Each cigar appeared in several locations that would all have to be updated manually, and most importantly, it wasn’t searchable. If you had the approximate dimensions of a cigar, and wanted everything that fit within that, it just wasn’t possible.

And so I emailed Trevor, the proprietor, and suggested that he put a database behind the site. In not so many words he replied: “good idea. Why don’t you do it.”

And so I did.

For the next four years we worked on the site together, our relationship pretty similar to your standard consulting gig. Once in a while Trev would have an idea for a change, and I would implement it. Every now and again he’d send a few cigars my way. It was at least three years and 150,000 words of emails before we ever met in person.

Between 2012 and 2014 Trevor gradually retired to a quiet life of philately, and I took over the running of the thing. I have changed very little during my tenure, beyond keeping it up to date and adding the odd technical feature. The truth is that by the time of Trev’s retirement, the site was basically complete, and could remain forever as a legacy to his efforts. Cuban cigar smoking is not a field that has changed terribly much over the last 500 years. Every year some more special releases come out, and once every 20 years or so there is an event of historical significance, but other than that, there isn’t a lot of innovation: most of the time, you still light them at the foot and puff from head.

It was not an easy call to make. Once I’d passed on the news that everything was gone, and unlikely to be recovered, Trev and I tried to make small talk, but we were both too shaken up to think of anything to say. All in all the call lasted about three minutes.

Later that night I went to a concert with an old friend. When she asked me how my day was I told her that I’d lost everything I’d ever created in my life. She asked how I felt. “Empty.” I replied.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 1 final third.

Into the final third, and the cigar is much unchanged: grass and sap, with a woody element and the strongly tannic tang of tang of cheap sauv blanc. It is starting to get bitter, which does not bode at all well for the smoke to come.

Like most things, it all worked out in the end. After I circulated an impassioned essay about the situation to the cigar community, there were a great many offers of assistance. My donation link saw more use than it had for the entirety of its existence. Technical experts had recovery advice. Lawyers were willing to send letters to the hosting company.

Most importantly, several people came forward offering me complete (if slightly out of date) copies of the site they had made “so they could browse it locally.” It was suspicious, but it saved me. Between February and April, I rewrote the backend software of the site, and then built a bot to repopulate it from the copies. Dusky Beauties was restored a little later, largely from caching sites and my own archives. My email was all still on my computer, and I was smart enough to back it all up before it resynced with the new blank servers. Not everything was saved. My rants about the faculty at my high-school and clumsy erotica of my early 20s were lost to the dust of all things. But perhaps that is for the best.

The Epicure No. 1 ends better than expected, grassy and nutty, and with the bitterness lurking just out of the fore-palate, I never once feel the need to spit or take a sip of water. In the end, this is not an overly complex cigar, with no flavour ever really emerging that could overpower mid-tobacco and vague grassiness, and barely any change throughout its passage. I’d take a Monte 4 over this, and a PSD4, and even a Romeo Petit Coronas. Between this and the Upmann Petite Coronas there’s not a lot in it. Both are inoffensive but unremarkable. Pick whichever is closest.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 1 nub.

One final note: once removed, the band bears a size mark for a 50-52 ring cigar: curious on a 46-ring gage smoke. I guess they were out that day.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 1 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

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

Trinidad Funadadores

Ah the Trinidad Funadadores, slightly fatter cousin to the Cohiba Lanceros. Both are long and skinny pigtailed cigars from premium brands, and both have a linage in diplomatic gifts (slightly dubious in the Trinidad’s case). The example I have today wears the old band, which gives it at least thirteen years of age. In the normal course of events when smoking a Funadadores I find myself wishing for a Lanceros – the Trinidad just never gives me the creamy elegance of the Cohiba. Perhaps the years will have softened it, however.

Trinidad Funadadores unlit

I set the thing ablaze, and it begins well, with very light notes of first class tobacco. It has the perfect draw for a cigar like this – just firm enough that you feel it. There’s not all that much flavour, but importantly it doesn’t taste like newspaper like some aged cigars can. Just a simple, elegant smoke. Slightly grassy. Slightly herbal. Slightly sweet.

I was a twenty–year-old moron when I met first Audrey; like most people, she just sort-of started showing up at parties. I didn’t give her much mind at first. I knew enough about her to know that she had a boyfriend, for starters, and also she was a little bit goth for me. Black lipstick, studded leather dog collars, full length fingerless gloves and ratty, shapeless jackets were her look, whereas I was I getting around in dishevelled op-shop suits and overcoats, and wanted an op-shop cocktail dress kind of girl. Of course, the clothes I was seeing Audrey in were her party clothes. I probably would never have seen her in her day-to-day stuff – probably would never have realised what an angel she was – if it wasn’t for Aldo’s wedding.

Aldo was a friend from school who at nineteen had fallen in love with a government certified lunatic. I was at a backyard barbeque with them not long after they started dating, and she had gotten ahold of someone’s baby, and wouldn’t put it down. “Oh Aldo” she crowed. “I can’t wait till I have one of my own!”
“Run” I silently mouthed to him, but he didn’t take my advice, and eight months later she was pregnant and I was best man at their wedding. The wedding was to be held at a resort up in the mountains, about three weeks after the ski-season had ended, and a month before the hiking season began. The bridal party were to arrive on the Thursday and settle in, then we had the rehearsal on the Friday, and then the wedding proper on the Saturday. Being off-season, we had the resort pretty much to ourselves.

I got in late on Thursday night, after the bar had already closed. With nobody around I went more or less straight to bed. In the morning, having missed the grand tour, I wandered the halls alone, looking for action, and found it when I stumbled across Audrey in the library. She was curled up in the arc of a porthole window, reading a fat fantasy novel. She had on tight black cotton pants and a grey cashmere jumper that perfectly accentuated her tiny waste and full bosom. The light was streaming through the window behind her, giving her a halo through her fine, blonde hair. She lit up when she saw me. “Oh, good, you’re here” she said. “I’ve been waiting for someone to come play Scrabble with me.”

She demolished me at Scrabble, of course. She was the kind of nerd that has memorised all the two letter words, and so keeps scoring 75 points with three letters by putting them down the side of something else. Despite the trouncing, when she offered to go again, I gladly accepted. Something much more important than a board game was going on in that library. We were connecting. We liked the same books, the same movies, and we had similar upbringings. By the time we were finished, we had our own private in jokes, and I was staring to fall for her.

Saturday was the wedding, and after the ceremony, conducted in the business centre because of the rain, and after the reception where I gave a meandering speech and made a few too many jokes at the bride’s expense, and after we had all watched Labyrinth, the couple’s favourite film, the few remaining hangers on snuck down to the indoor pool to go skinny dipping. The lights were off, but the moonlight came strong and bright through the plexiglass roof. Most of us were bashful, disrobing fully only in the darkest corners, and then slipping into the water as quickly as possible, covering ourselves until we were submerged. No Audrey. She sat for a while, fully clothed on the edge of the pool, sneering at our antics. Once the party was all naked she walked purposefully to the edge of the pool, disrobed completely in a moonbeam, and then slid her perfect form into the water. Lying on her back she floated gracefully, only her perfect breasts and face breaching the surface, Diana bathing with her nymphs.

After an hour or so I tired of the horseplay, and headed for the showers. No sooner had I entered the men’s change rooms then Audrey appeared behind me, her glorious form resplendent in the uncompromising florescent lights. “Do you have a towel?” she asked. I handed her one, and watched in a pitiful impersonation of a casual manner as she strode into the showers and washed herself, leaving the cubical door open. When we were both done, I walked her back to her room and lingered for a moment outside the door. “Well” she said. “Goodnight,” and kissed me wetly. “Goodnight,” I replied, and went back to my room. Like I said, I was twenty and a moron.

Trinidad Funadadores with an inch smoked

By the midpoint of the cigar the sweetness has gone. The tobacco has thickened ever so slightly, and behind it has bloomed a floral note. Cream is notable mostly for its absence. It’s a subtle cigar, but the heater is warm, my beer is cold, and I don’t mind a bit of subtlety. Elegance is still this cigar’s watchword.

The next morning, Audrey and I both caught a lift back to the city in the same car, next to one another in the back seat. As the car rocked back and forth down the winding mountain roads she slipped out of her safety belt and lay her head down in my lap. I folded my arm gently around her shoulders, praying that she didn’t notice the erection that lurked bare millimetres below her ear.

Of course, even the biggest moron eventually comes to his senses and, a few weeks later, Audrey and I became lovers. Her boyfriend was still around, something she seemed nonplussed about. “Oh, I’ve cheated on him loads of times” she told me. As we got closer the state of their relationship became clearer. They had been together for seven years, but broken up periodically whenever she met someone she liked better. Basically, she hated to be alone, and he was spineless enough that he was willing to be the default bed-warmer she called when there was nobody better around. Or at least he had been. When they got back together after her last foray, he had set her an ultimatum: “This is it,” he proclaimed. “If we break up again it’s forever.” A pre-engagement ring had been presented.

And so, I was relegated to the position of a part-time lover. She liked me, but he was default position, and she wouldn’t leave him. As I fell for her harder, this was increasingly a problem. I was addicted to that angel, and Groom wears the cuckold’s horns for no man. I hatched a plan.

It was simple enough. I knew that she was going to a barbecue that weekend, and that her boyfriend would be there. One of my friends, a vague acquaintance of her boyfriend, would also be there. One of her sexual predilections was to have her neck kissed and bitten, and so on Friday night, during a particularly vigorous coital session, I indulged her, leaving a prominent purple mark above her collarbone, an unmistakable lover’s branding. As she brushed her hair in my bathroom the next morning she laughed about it. “I’m going to have to wear a turtleneck.”

Once she was gone a text went out to my Iago. “Hey bro,” I wrote. “Tell him to get a look at her neck. She’s wearing a turtleneck to hide a hickey.” In the evening she called me in tears. “Kip broke up with me,” she sobbed. “He found your bloody hickey.” I smiled the smile of the victor.

Of course, a year later I was done with her and she went back to him, but that’s another story.

Trinidad Funadadores half smoked

In the final two inches the cigar thickens up as six inches of accumulated tar starts to combust, and the flavour profile changes to notes of earth and wood and gun-smoke. The gentler soul might toss it at this point, but for me it’s the perfect way to end a subtle beauty like this one. Flavour country. I smoke it all the way.

The Trinidad Funadadores? Very decent with fifteen years on it.

Trinidad Funadadores nub

Trinidad Funadadores on the Cuban Cigar Website

Romeo y Julieta Cedros de Luxe No. 2

Measuring in at 42×142, the Romeo y Julieta Cedros de Luxe No. 2 is the same ring and only a centimetre or so longer than the Petit Coronas and Mille Fleurs that I have written about over the last few weeks. The Cedros de Luxe No. 3, on the other hand, is exactly the same size as those cigars. Why didn’t I stick to the theme and review that? I’m not sure, I guess I ordered the wrong one.

The Cedros de Luxe line is interesting mainly because they come wrapped in thin cedar sheets, a feature found almost nowhere else in the Habanos line-up. It protects the cigar to some extent, but mainly the theory is that with many years of aging, the cedar will impart a delicate cedar spice to the cigar. This example is not particularly old, three or four years at most, but one hopes for a decent smoke, even without the wood.

Romeo y Julieta Cedros de Luxe No. 2 unlit

The cigar begins with strong tobacco and a rough, campfire edge. It lightens up a bit within the first inch, revealing wet, earth flavours, the smell of the bush first thing in the morning, while the underbrush is still damp. A little heavy for my tastes, but not unpleasant.

I’m sipping a mint julep, bottled from a recipe I created in a backyard some years ago while celebrating Australia’s national day. The backyard in question had a large supply of wild mint, but a somewhat limited supply of grog: one bottle of white rum, another of Bullit Bourbon. Mojitos seemed the natural choice, but, being a forward thinking individual, I knew that the rum wouldn’t hold out forever, and so decanted the whiskey into a jug, added a goodly bushel of mint and a cup of sugar, and left it to infuse a while. Mint Juleps are not a popular drink in my part of the world, and in all honesty, mine is the only recipe I’ve ever tried. I’ve no idea what the genuine article is supposed to taste like, but mine is delicious, like a glass of bourbon that someone has spat their chewing gum out into.

I was celebrating that particular Australia Day with two old friends: one, who we called the T-Rex (sadly departed, RIP), was the last of the great bachelors, a moneyed satyr of the highest order; the other, Sebastian, was the archetypal castrated husband; once a proud disciple of Bacchus himself, he had married a Korean harridan, and these days was essentially a character from Everybody Loves Raymond. By the early evening we had gotten ourselves on the outside of both the rum and the julep, and were rummaging through the liquor cabinet wondering what Malibu mixed with Yellow Chartreuse would taste like, when Seb piped up with an idea. “Y’know, there’s this club in the city we could go to… Kim told me about it… she said it’s like a proper hostess bar her bosses go to where they’ll sing karaoke and strip and you can feel ‘em up and stuff. She said I must never ever go there, so you have to keep it a secret if we go. They probably wouldn’t let white guys in though.”

A quick phone call confirmed that they would, in fact, let white guys in, and twenty minutes later we were ringing the discreet doorbell of the Ladybird Club.

Romeo y Julieta Cedros de Luxe No. 2 somewhat smoked

At the midway point the cigar has strengthened, and is honestly pretty mediocre, the dominant flavour being strong tobacco and ash, with some dirt on the back end. It bears all the hallmarks of burning too hot, but I don’t see how that can be as I am smoking at a very leisurely pace, and the draw and construction are perfect. The condition feels about right, neither too wet nor too dry, and it lived a very similar life to the Petit Coronas and the Mille Fleurs, both of which were much nicer than this.

We were buzzed in and rode a dingy elevator up to the top floor, where we stepped into a lavish lobby, dripping with marble and fake gold. Behind the reception desk there was a gorgeous girl in a black blazer and four inch skirt. She eyed us very suspiciously, gestured for us to wait, and went to fetch the manager, a gangster with a t-shirt and a lot of hair-gel. I explained that we had a booking, and with one eyebrow raised he asked us if we knew what kind of club this was. We said we did, and he nodded at the girl who led us briskly down the hallway to our private room.

Shortly thereafter the waiter arrived and explained that this bar was bottles only, and after a brief discussion we ordered a Johnny Black at $220. He brought it with a jug of coke and another of green tea, and shortly thereafter returned with the girls. They paraded in, fifteen strong in cocktail dresses, and assembled in a line in front of the TV. We hemmed and hawed a little (our expectations had perhaps been raised a little high by the receptionist, a yardstick which these girls fell well short of), but eventually settled on our three. As he led the train of rejects out the waiter paused for a final word “girls eighty dollar per hour two hour minimum, okay?”

The evening degenerated from there. The girls were pretty shy, sitting quietly for the most part, and needing considerable egging on before they would sing us Chinese love ballads. I had my arm around mine, which she tolerated, but politely moved my hand away whenever it crept too close to the hem of her dress. Certainly there was no strip tease. It was about 10:00pm when we ordered our second bottle of Johnny and I had the briefest moment of clarity: “guys,” I said “do the math. We’re about $700 in at this point. I cannot afford this shit. If we’re staying it’s on one of you.” T-Rex waved it off. “Don’t worry about it.”

Sometime around 4:00am the waiter came in to tell us the place was closing up, and it was time to settle the bill. The girls bolted out of there like high schoolers at final bell, without goodbyes. It was almost as if they were eager to be done with us. The gangster was on the front desk, and he grinned at us while the invoice was printing. “You guys have a good time?” The total was $2600. T-Rex threw down his Platinum card.

Outside we were remorseful. “Rex, I’m so sorry man, I’ll pay you back, but it’s going to take me a few months, I can’t take it out of the joint account and I only get $400 a month spending money” said Seb. “Guys, please, Kim can never know about this ever… no jokes, don’t tell anyone she knows… never.”

I took a different tune. “Man, do you know what we could have bought for $2600? We could have had a party at my house with fifteen models! We could have gone to a strip club and had an eight hour lap-dance! We could have gone to a brothel and had three hookers sing karaoke with us all night! We could have bought a bottle of Louis-tres and used that to pick-up some skanks! Screw you Rex, that is your bill, you’re not getting a cent out of me!”

T-Rex was feeling good. His girl had given him her number. He wouldn’t find out it was fake until morning.

About three hours later I was awakened by the insistent peel of my telephone. I ignored it a first, but whoever it was kept calling and calling, so eventually I fished it from my pants pocket on the bedroom floor. It was Sebastian. “Hey man, so the story is that you and T-Rex had been to that place before and you knew it wasn’t dodgy, okay?”
“What?”
“For Kim, she’s gonna ask you.”
“How will she find out?”
“I told her.” I sighed an exasperated sigh.
“Why?”
“She would have found out anyway… whatever man, just tell her you guys went there before, okay? Tell her you knew it wasn’t dodgy.”
“Whatever, man, whatever.” I rang off.

She asked me about it a week later, and I gave her the party line, my voice hollow with untruth. She didn’t buy a word of it, and I didn’t have much of an answer for her follow up question. “But why would you go back and spend $2600 dollars if you knew it was just karaoke?”

The epilogue came eleven months later, when Sebastian got to talking with one of his wife’s drunken bosses at her work Christmas party. “Oh yeah, that’s what they always do, bring in the ugly girls first, you just have to send them away and they’ll bring in a new set… what do you mean, just karaoke? No, the girls don’t get paid by the bar, they get a percentage of your drink bill, but mainly they make their money from tips. You just have to pay them, strip show, blow jobs, sex, whatever you want. No wonder they didn’t like you, you made them work all night for free!”

Romeo y Julieta Cedros de Luxe No. 2 mostly gone

The cigar ends much as it has been the whole time: strong tobacco, tar and ash. A very mediocre smoke, with little complexity. Much inferior to the Petit Coronas and Mille Fleurs. A pity. I’ll try and revisit it at some point with an older model.

Romeo y Julieta Cedros de Luxe No. 2 nub

Romeo y Julieta Cedros de Luxe No. 2 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Romeo y Julieta Mille Fleurs

I was invited to four office’s Christmas parties this year: my current workplace, two former workplaces, and the only one I am actually attending, a big tobacco company where I have some connections. They have rented out a warehouse down in the docks, and created a bastion for their product: the space is divided into two areas, the ‘outside’ (which is heated, air-conditioned, and fully enclosed by plastic sheeting), and the smaller inside, where the dance floor and the bar is. Smoking is only allowed on the outside. The inside is deserted.

There was a time when it was very common for Cuban cigar brands to have in their range multiple cigars of identical dimensions. Each of these cigars would follow the general flavour profile of the marque but, in theory at least, there would be subtle differences in their blends. The true connoisseur could not only tell the difference, but could no doubt find the perfect cigar for the moment among them. The classic example of this is Punch, which at one time had seven different cigars of the same size in their range.

All this changed in 2002. In 2000, Altadis (then a Spanish tobacco giant) had purchased a 50% share in Habanos S.A., the Cuban government quango responsible for bringing Havana cigars to the world, and the Cuban tobacco industry (along with the Cuban economy in general) was undergoing a harsh transformation from a Marxist satellite of the Soviet Union to an independent participant in the capitalist free market. Profitability was king, and the lowest common denominator had to be pandered to. Aficionados refer to this as the great dumbing down of Habanos: blends were simplified, and many of the more esoteric cigars were discontinued.

But not all. This week’s cigar is the Romeo y Julieta Mille Fleurs, a cigar that is size identical to last week’s Petit Coronas. They come in the same boxes. They wear the same bands. The only difference is the taste.

Romeo y Julieta Mille Fleurs unlit

Right away, the Mille Fleurs is a very different animal to the Petit Coronas; where that cigar was mild, this one is strong and rough, brutally nutty with thick tobacco notes that leave a dryness on the back of the palate. Both cigars were purchased at the same time from the same vendor, and have lived identical lives once in my custody. I don’t know box codes or ages, so perhaps there’s something there. In any event, condition does not account for the difference.

Like most boys my age, I’ve occasionally had occasion to try a spot of internet dating, and being at this corporate tobacco soirée has brought to mind my biggest internet dating failure.

I should have known something was up from the start: her profile was an exercise in vague anonymity, a string of dark photos that did not clearly show her face, body type, or even hair colour. The description was slightly defensive essay about people who shouldn’t message her. She liked wine, travel, her cat, family and friends. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered, but she reached out to me. She liked my style. She’d met a lot of jerks lately and she felt I might be different. She wanted to get together for a drink. “What the hell,” I thought. “What have I got to lose?”

Romeo y Julieta Mille Fleurs an inch smoked

At the halfway point the cigar goes through a rapid series of changes; the initial nuttiness had mellowed into a strong, toasted woody note, but that rapidly turns into a bitter, ashy tar. This lasts for ten puffs or so, before it flips again, becoming very mild, strongly buttery, with a mild cedar afterword. The DNA of the Petit Coronas is there, but there are many differences: ironically, the Mille Fleurs is the less floral of the two.

We agreed on a time, and she nominated a bar, which turned out to be a brightly lit hole in the wall with high stools the only seating. It was not the kind of bar that a man goes to drink alone, and the other patrons gave me increasingly quizzical glances and I nursed my scotch and dry and waited for first ten, then twenty minutes. Twenty five minutes late she walked in, gave me a curt nod, and walked straight to the bar. She was evidentially acquainted with the bartender, because the two of them exchanged pleasantries and laughed for a few minutes before my date finally wandered over, glass of white in hand. As she did, I signaled the bartender for a refill of my now empty glass.

The girl was an angel, a perfect hapa, with the best elements from both sides of her ancestry, along with that nebulous quality that Old Groom delights to find in both women and Lanceros: elegance. She spoke with a clipped, slightly plummy accent, and held her wine with a casual but slightly practiced hand. She smiled and made eye contact. I was a little bit in love.

At around minute three of our small talk, she revealed that she was the maître d’ at a well-known Melbourne cigar and cocktail bar, and, delighted to have discovered a common interest, I volunteered that I edit a cigar encyclopaedia, and had been to many tobacco industry events at her bar. It was a slight exaggeration: I had been to the bar to smoke cigars on at least fifty occasions, sometimes with friends, but many more times with small groups of cigar enthusiasts. On three occasions I had been part of a large group organised by a tobacco vendor; twice we had a few tables booked, but were there alongside the general public. On the third occasion I was the guest of a multinational tobacco group and they booked the place out.

She cocked her head and gave a pained smile. “Sorry, but I’m going to have to call you out on that one.” I was taken aback. “What?”
“I’ve taken every booking in the last five years, and I don’t recall a tobacco industry group ever coming through.” Shaken and defensive, I began to stammer through the names of the cigar store owners that I had been there with, and she acquiesced, plainly not buying it. Our conversation was downhill after that. Feeling like I’d been caught in a lie I was the worst combination of awkward, nervous, and snide. Having made her mind up about me she was cold and haughty. Two minutes later she gave another pained smile. “Look, this isn’t going very well, is it?” I laughed.
“No, well, you kind of called me a liar a minute ago, it’s hard to come back from that.”
“I’m going to go.”

She polished off her drink, picked up her bag, waved to the bartender and left. My new drink arrived five seconds later. Our date had lasted less than ten minutes. I haven’t been to Supper Club since.

Half an inch from the end I encounter a flavour I’ve never had in a cigar before, the distinct salty tang of smoked tuna. It lasts for a few puffs before settling into the familiar bitter finish. The Mille Fleurs is a fine cigar, but not as good a Petit Coronas.

Romeo y Julieta Mille Fleurs nub

Romeo y Julieta Mille Fleurs on the Cuban Cigar Website