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

Romeo y Julieta Petit Coronas

And so, as it is wont to do, the great wheel of time has turned. We who were lifted on its spokes have had six months of adventure, of journeys great and small, of loves won and lost, and we have been deposited back; back at the height of the Australian summer, back at the open lid of the half-full humidor, and back at the start of a new season of A Harem of Dusky Beauties.

Welcome.

As our ancient customs dictate, I shall, over the coming weeks and months, examine one of the great Havana tobacco houses: in this case, Romeo y Julieta. As always, I begin the horizontal with the marque’s lowliest member, so that I might have a marker to compare her most exalted special releases against, and by doing so provide the consumer with useful purchasing advice. So it is then, that the Romeo y Julieta Petit Coronas today must burn.

Romeo y Julieta Petit Coronas unlit

The first puffs are very mild, with no hint of bitterness from the heat of lighting. It is strongly herbaceous, vegetal even, with something of the compost heap in there, and the tang of five dollar chardonnay.

Romeo is one of the great old marques, with a history dating back to the 1850s. As recently as fifteen years ago it was a powerhouse, the second highest selling brand behind Montecristo, but unlike H. Upmann and Partagás, the subjects of my last two verticals, Romeo is a brand on the decline. More than any other, Romeo has suffered from the rise of Cohiba. In a world of conspicuous consumption, the consumer of today is more interested in the cigar of Jay-Z than a brand that bases its marketing around a 75 year old association with Winston Churchill, and is named for a play whose principal conflict seems trivial in the age of sexting. Each Romeo dress box is emblazoned with 16 gold medals, the hallmarks of her pedigree. The most recent was awarded in 1900.

More than most brands, Romeo suffered during the great rationalisation of 2002, when Habanos S.A. tried to make the line-up more approachable for the neophyte. Fifteen cigars were wiped out that year, although it was not all without justification, to be honest; five of the discontinued models were variations on the petit corona, and even today there are still two other cigars in the catalogue with the exact same dimensions as the one I am smoking, and several others that are so close you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference without a ruler and a gauge measuring tool.

The real problem began in the late 2000s though, when Romeo lost her mother factory, and production of the cigars was split amongst many workshops all over the island. Consistency fell. Quality fell. In 2015, Romeo y Julieta cigars just aren’t very good any more.

All that said, the Romeo No. 2 in a tube is still the cigar you are second most likely to find in a liquor store or petrol station, ceding only to the Montecristo 4.

Romeo y Julieta Petit Coronas a quarter smoked

At the midway point the cigar still trends mild, with a slightly spicy, buttery note. Somewhere in there I detect a hint of wildflowers, the sweetness of a daisy filled meadow, along with the stinging chlorophyll that those blossoms emit.

Typically I enjoy my dusky beauties alone, not because in the company of like-minded fellows is not an objectively better way to enjoy a fine Havana, but because in that environment I find myself too distracted by ribald anecdotes to really examine the finer points of flavour tasting notes that this column demands, and I am nothing if not devoted to my craft. Today, however, is a rare exception.

I began the morning with a long bath and a brief vomit, the accrued debt of an evening that ended at the bottom of a bottle of Johnny Walker Red in a karaoke bar at 4:00am. I wanted nothing so much as to spend the day in bed, but being a man who follows through on his commitments, I dragged myself down the street toward a revitalizing bowl of wonton noodle soup and then a bar where several of my cigar aficionado brethren were meeting to smoke on the rooftop terrace.

I found them on a secluded table in a little crow’s nest above the bar proper, and soon felt much revived, first by a Bloody Mary and then by the first puffs of a Cohiba Siglo III. Before long though, our serenity was interrupted by the hostess, who explained very apologetically that we would have to move; there was a baby shower happening down wind of us, and the expectant mother was none to pleased. The hostess moved us to a shared table in the centre of the main bar. The place was packed, and our new table sat under a shade cloth, and even I, as unrepentant a smoker as exists in this world, felt some pangs of guilt as I watched every exhalation get caught by the cloth and funnelled directly into the indoor section of the bar. Before too long the hostess returned: we were bounced. As we skulked out another patron, no doubt the complainant who had triggered our eviction, could not resist a parting jab: “it really is disgusting, you know. It’s going to kill you.”

And so we have adjourned to the courtyard of my private residence, where the whisky is cheaper and the aggrieved parties fewer and less vocal. Even here though, the smoke is under threat. If there is any ongoing theme to this season of The Harem, it will be my struggle with the owner’s corporation, an existential battle for the last sanctuary of the smoking man. It is not our world anymore.

For today though, the sun shines, the whisky glows with a certain inner warmth, and the pungent smoke of five Havana cigars wafts skyward.

Romeo y Julieta Petit Coronas smoked just above the band

In the final inch or so the Petit Coronas grows bitter, losing all flavour to the rubber fire. While very pleasant for an entry level, and setting a strong standard for the exotics to be compared against, it’s not as good as a Monte 4.

Romeo y Julieta Petit Coronas nub

Romeo y Julieta Petit Coronas 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

Montecristo Petit Edmundo

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

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

Montecristo Petit Edmundo unlit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montecristo Petit Edmundo two thirds remaining

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

Montecristo Petit Edmundo an inch left

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

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

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

Montecristo Petit Edmundo nub

Montecristo Petit Edmundo on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Quintero Favoritos

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

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

Quintero Favoritos unlit

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

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

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

Quintero Favoritos two thirds remaining

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

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

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

About half an hour into the pitch Ken pulled out a pack of cigarettes and asked if we minded if he smoked. My boss wrinkled his nose: “I don’t think it’s legal to smoke in offices anymore.”
Ken was disgusted, “you’re going to force me out on the balcony? You don’t smoke at all?”
“No.”
“How about if you’re at a party and someone starts handing around a bit of choof?”
“No.”
He shook his head and looked at me. “How about you mate? You smoke?”
“Choof at a party? Definitely.”
This pleased him. “How about ciggies?”
“Ah, not really, but I like a good cigar.”
Quick as a flash he handed me a Quintero, took one for himself and, with a parting sneer over his shoulder at my boss, ushered me out onto the balcony.

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

Needless to say, we got the gig.

Quintero Favoritos final third

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

Quintero Favoritos nub

Quintero Favoritos on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Partagás Culebras

The Nicaraguan cigar industry, plagued as it is by small independent producers scrabbling to distinguish themselves from each other, produces a lot of novelty cigars; a quick perusal of any US based online cigar store will reveal cigars as long as your arm, cigars with two-tone barber-pole striped wrappers, cigars shaped like onions, square cigars, and a never ending quest for thicker and thicker ring gauges and darker and darker wrappers. Cuba, on the other hand, with its virtual monopoly of the premium cigar market everywhere outside of the States, doesn’t feel the same drive, and stays more or less entirely within the same basic shapes and sizes it has been producing for five centuries. As always there is one exception: the Partagás Culebras.

Once manufactured by a few different brands, the only surviving Cuban Culebras is the Partagás one (and that has been announced as discontinued more than once, although stock seems to keep appearing). It’s an odd duck, with three heads and three feet, and a twisted mess of tobacco in-between them.

Partagás Culebras unlit

I try to open it with a cutter, but can’t manoeuvre the thing in properly, and so wind up using my fingernail. Lighting is actually easier than you would expect; the feet aren’t quite level, so a narrow, precise jet-flame and a steady hand can light each one individually without blacking the side of another. I wouldn’t recommend trying to light this one with a match. Straight away I discover that it’s impossible to toke from all three heads at once – you can’t create a seal with your lips and end up just drawing in outside air. It is easy enough to draw on each one individually, however, and I quickly fall into a rhythm of puffing from one and rotating the cigar. This would probably be a good choice for the smoker who puffs too often and causes his cigar to burn hot; the staggered inhalations keep each coal relatively un-stoked. One head has a slightly looser draw than the other two, but all fall well within the bounds of acceptability.

The cigar is very mild with light earthy notes. Deeper in there is leather and coffee. It’s a basic, nice quality light Partagás profile – not as rich as a D4 or any of the banner cigars. Maybe the start of a Lusitania.

The fire is still a good millimetre above the first ribbon when I notice it (the ribbon) beginning to melt. I untie it as quick as I can, but it leaves a thin line of melted red plastic on the cigar. As it burns off I avoid inhaling, stoking the fire by alternately exhaling through the cigar and blowing directly onto the coal. Here’s a piece of trivia for all you aspiring aficionados out there to file away: Partagás Culebra ribbons are 100% polyester.

Partagás Culebras two thirds remain

As the cigar tightens in on itself the three coals become one, and each puff flares the entire coal. I slow my toke speed to match. I have been finding myself spending a lot of time following the paths of the cigar up, trying to figure out which end leads to which, but now that the cigar is tight and it’s all one coal, it doesn’t really matter. The flavour is still very light, mild tobacco, although the earthy tones have graduated to more of a grassy, woody note. It doesn’t offer all that much, but it is a very pleasant, no nonsense sort of cigar.

I’m about two thirds of the way through my second beer, a White Rabbit Dark Ale, when my manservant Davidé polishes off his fourth and proposes a run to the bottle-shop for some hard liquor. In a moment of weakness I toss him the keys to my cabinet upstairs and tell him to get himself a bottle of Jack Daniels. He returns ten minutes later with the most expensive scotch in the place, a Glenfiddich 125th Anniversary Edition that I bought duty free a couple of years back, having deemed the Daniels, along with various Johnny Walkers, bourbons, and the odd Islay Single Malt, unworthy of his distinguished palette. He promptly pours himself a double.

The beer, for what it’s worth, is excellent. I don’t have a palette for the stuff, but Davidé tells me it’s extremely chocolaty, and I tend to agree. It complements the cigar very nicely.

Partagás Culebras final third

Although I have been puffing on the triumvirate equally, the looser drawing pathway in the cigar is (fairly predictably) burning a little quicker than the other two, and as the cigar starts to tighten for a second time it begins to become a problem. I remove the main band and push the miscreant up so that the coal is level with the others. The unfortunate side effect here is that one head is now impossible to puff on. Hopefully the proximity of the others will keep it going but, if not, I suppose I can always relight. Overall the cigar is excellent, burning very cool and presenting not the slightest hint of tar, even at this late stage. The notes are lightly herbal with a faintly earthy finish. I retrohale and get a creamy note for a minute that is far above this cigar’s pay-grade.

I finish off the beer and pour myself a small dram of the Glenfiddich as Davidé helps himself to another full tumbler. The swine is shitfaced, and slumped in his chair he gurgles with wet mirth as I make snide comments about the forty dollar’s worth of whiskey he has just inhaled. It’s an odd duck, the 125th Anniversary, with a shocking amount of peat for the Lairds of smooth Speyside. It’s not quite the tar pit of a Laphroaig or Lagavaulin, but there is a distinct iodine note in there. I’ve never been a fan of smoky whiskies with cigars as I find that they tend to bring out the worst from the leaf, exacerbating the bitterness of the tar. Fortunately, in the Partagás Culebras there’s no tar to exacerbate.

Eventually I reach the inevitable point and have to untie the final ribbon, causing the cigar fall apart. Disassembled, it resembles three petite coronas, two in the final inch and one few centimetres longer. I smoke them down to three separate nubs, puffing in rotation.

In the end this is a very easy going, no-nonsense sort of a cigar. Were it a straight parejo it would no doubt be a sleeper favourite amongst Partagás fans. As it is it is a fun, perfectly smokable cigar that deserves more than novelty status. In fact, I really feel that should be more Culebras in the world: if you’re in the business of commissioning regional edition cigars, I strongly recommend you order up a paper-wrapped Fonseca Culebras, or at least a Ramón Allones one, because I certainly enjoyed this more than a PSD4.

Partagás Culebras nub

Partagás Culebras on the Cuban Cigar Website