H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007

Every Cuban cigar marque has its own character in its distinctive flavour profile, but a few novelty brands aside (Cuaba comes to mind), when it comes to sizes they generally sell a pretty standard line-up. Every brand has got to have its take on a Churchill, on a Petite Corona, on a Pirámides and a Dalia, and every brand has got to have its version of a Robusto.

Except, predictably, for one: H. Upmann.

The duty free exclusive release series is not a series where you typically expect to find very good cigars, mainly because duty free shops are not the kind of places you typically expect to find very good cigars. Yes, there are a few big, modern hub airports in luxury oriented destinations that have dedicated, premium cigar stores, with trained staff and properly respected stock – I think Dubai has one, and probably London – but in general airport cigars are stored at ambient humidity and temperature, and pitched to you by leggy sales girls whose expertise lies in 2L bottles of Baileys Irish Cream and cartons of Menthol Super-slims, not the nuances of fine Cuban leaf.

Perhaps because of this, when the H. Upmann Robusto travel humidor came out in 2007 – a handsome leather 10 cigar travel case – it didn’t get a lot of play in the aficionado scene. For a few years they were widely available, but I guess some people bought them – most likely big collectors seeking completeness, or perhaps one or two took a fancy to the case, and bought it with the intention of swiftly refilling it with something more to their taste – because eventually word got around the aficionado community that the cigars inside were fantastic. The run didn’t last long: a few non-duty free retailers picked up the unsold stock, and flipped it as quick as they could. I’ve had a few of these cigars over the years and they’ve always been great. This is my last one, and today it burns.

H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007 unlit

The first puffs are fantastic, light toasted, spicy tobacco with a grassy, herbal finish. After about puff number six it develops a sour note, but fortunately this quickly fades and the cigar comes back with the same herbal grassiness in a thicker, richer tobacco note.

It would have been around the time that the travel humidors started to run out that the Upmann robustos started to come in thick and fast: I’m not sure if it was the sudden success of the travel humidor that prompted it, or if the powers that be at Habanos S.A. simply decided that the Upmann robusto void remained sadly unfilled, but in 2011 there arrived the Royal Robusto as a La Casa del Habano exclusive, and then in 2012 there were two, a special 520 Aniversario Robusto, alongside that year’s Edition Limitada, another Upmann Robusto.

H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007 an inch smoked

In the early days of the Harem I would rant ad nauseam about my distaste for gourmet beer; today, it seems that times have changed. Australia, along with the rest of the developed world, has been deep in the craft beer craze for years now, and the humble, mass-market corporate swill of my youth barely exists anymore. Once every six months or so I sip a Carlton Draft at a racetrack or stadium and am instantly struck by what tasteless, sour swill it is. Today I’m drinking a Leather Britches Brewery Hairy Helmet golden ale, a beer I’d never heard of until I saw it in the Bottle-O just now, and it somehow seemed the most appealing of their mid-priced imported beers. I don’t know why I buy golden ales. The first one I ever had – from Two Birds Brewery, or something like that – was fantastic, but every one I’ve had since then has been a disappointment. This one is a beer for beer nerds:  too hoppy! It’s bitter, with an undercurrent of compost heap. It doesn’t pair so badly with the robusto though. The bitterness of the hops brings out the sweetness in the cigar, and it mixes with the herbal aftertaste quite nicely, and adds a depth to it.

That said, I do have to rinse my mouth out with water and puff out through the cigar to get a decent tasting note: light to mid tobacco, touch of cream, touch of spice, a little sweetness, and something of the aroma of an ancient hay wain.

The beer might have been a mistake, as more than anything else right now I need a bathroom. As a ten year old in red China, I remember vividly what constituted a public toilet at that time: a cinder block hut containing a row of faeces caked concrete holes that drained (by the power of gravity alone) into an open cesspool behind the structure. Periodically, the local peasantry would visit the pool and shovel its contents into wheelbarrows to dump on the nearby fields. I took one look and said “never again.” (I also refused to eat any more Chinese watermelons). For two years I held it from early morning until late evening every single day, and in the process I developed a bladder so strong that in six years of high school I visited the bathrooms only twice: once to hang posters for my ill-fated student body presidential campaign (more on that later), and once as a quiet place to replace the photograph of an honoured famous old boy with one of our more infamous alumni, mass murderer Julian Knight, as an end of year prank. Those days are long passed, however, and like a football left too long in the sun, my bladder has withered, and half a litre of beer is now too much for it.

H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007 two inches remaining

With a bit over an inch to go the cigar has thickened up a little, heavy tobacco now, with still a slightly sour note. It ends well. Not bitter, but sour on the back palette. Rich raw tobacco. A touch of charred whisky barrel. This was not, unfortunately, the best of travel humidor robusto that I’ve ever had, but still, the sky is blue, the sun is warm, and the beer is cold. A boy can’t complain too much, at least not after he finds a bathroom.

Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto: better than the Petit Corona, not as good as the Magnum 48.

H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007 nub

H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Partagás Serie P No. 1

Before I begin, a word about jars.

Starting in the 1920s, Cuban cigars have occasionally been released packaged inside ceramic porcelain jars. Lined with a cedar sheet, and with an airtight seal and small humidifying sponge in the lid, these jars make nice little humidors. Aficionados opine that much like in aluminium tubes, the air circulates less inside a sealed jar than it does inside a porous cedar box, which means the oils in the leaf take longer to evaporate. Less oil movement means that the cigars (in theory, at any rate), age slower, and as the legends tell us, slower aging is better ageing.

The Millennium Jars in 1999 marked the return of the special edition porcelain jar to the modern era, and since them a special edition jar of some kind has appeared more or less annually. They’re very popular among collectors, and I can see why, as they are really very nice things. The cigar we consider today is the Partagás Serie P No. 1, which was released (in a jar) exclusively for duty free retail in 2010. The lid on my example sits on very lightly, held in place only by gravity and the slight grip of the rubber membrane that creates the seal. The very best jars from days of yore would have a seal made only by two pieces of perfectly milled porcelain, but our modern mass manufacturing techniques can’t match the old precision, at least not at the price Habanos S.A. is willing to pay.

Partagás Serie P No. 1 jar

As I discussed in my article on the Serie D No. 4 (and most every essay since), the letter in a Serie cigar theoretically denotes its gauge, and the number its length. Not so much in the P1: the P presumably stands for piramides, but the 1 should indicate a considerable length, which this does not have: by rights it should probably be a P4. What that means for the series overall though I don’t know: the P2 conforms to what you’d expect.

To me the P1 was always a working man’s sort of cigar: a knock about little pyramid of spice and tar for the tradesman on the go, and so I’ve brought this one today to a working man’s sort of venue: the smoking section of a McDonald’s restaurant in Osaka, Japan. I rarely pair cigars with food – I find the cigars tend to drown out the taste – but in this instance I think I may have found a perfect match: the Partagás Serie P No. 1 and a Medium Big Mac Value Meal.

Partagás Serie P No. 1 unlit, with a Big Mac Meal

Every McDonald’s in Japan has a smoking section, the size and pleasantness of which vary depending on the size of the restaurant. A larger branch will usually have a whole floor set aside for the smokers, but not so this one, where the smoking area is a small glassed off booth with eight seats. It’s not nearly as ventilated as I’d like. Besides myself there are four occupants, three teenage hoodlums and what appears to be a homeless man (a rare site in Japan), and between us we are adding a considerable pall to the air. There is an air-conditioner, but it seems to be blowing air around more than it is filtering it.

From the first puff the cigar doesn’t mess around, straight into dirt and spice and tarred cedar wood. When you’re only a three and a half inch cigar first impressions count, and the P1 is definitely a rough kid. Sometimes I like them rough.

Partagás Serie P No. 1 two thirds, remain

I’m not sure if it’s by design or by accident – although knowing both Japan and the McDonald’s corporation like I do, I’m going to bet design – but the ashtray they have provided fits perfectly within one half of the Big Mac burger box. The further I get into this meal I begin to think that perhaps the Medium Big Mac Value Meal has undergone a similarly intensive engineering process, with just one design goal in mind: to totally swamp a cigar aficionado’s palette. The salt of the chips, the sweet of the cola, and then the greasy mess that is the Big Mac touches sweet, salt, sour, umami – every taste button bar one: bitter. Fortunately the Partagás Serie P. No. 1 is happy to oblige and complete the sensory overload.

Confines are cramped in the smoking area; seated on a stool at a counter facing the wall I feel that my personal space begins and ends at the borders of my meal tray. My cigar makes its cyclical journey from the ashtray to lips within this zone, and small flecks of ash have dropped from it onto my chips. To my overloaded palette it is lending them a subtly peaty flavour, much like one might find in an Islay single malt. From the cigar has emerged a note of aniseed.

Partagás Serie P No. 1 an inch left

My visits to McDonald’s these days are generally limited only to the occasional particularly desperate morning after the night before, when only the most efficient mechanism for delivering a jolt of sugar and fat and salt and caffeine to my system will suffice, but I’m appreciating it tonight for reasons beyond the gimmick of smoking a cigar in the world’s most iconic family restaurant. The example of a Big Mac that one finds in Japan, a country where even punk teenagers in minimum-wage jobs have a work ethic, is substantially better put together than the Australian variety, but once one takes a bite they are utterly indistinguishable, both from each other, and from their ancestor I consumed twenty five years ago at my best friend’s birthday party, and from the countless others I have eaten all over the world. Consistency is important, and pleasant for its own sake.

Like the Big Mac, the Partagás Serie P No. 1 is a consistent cigar. I’ve smoked a heap of these little guys over the years, and always enjoyed them as no-nonsense firecrackers, an efficient tool for delivering the joy of a great Cuban smoke directly to your pleasure centre. They’re not the most complex things in the world, and I don’t really think they’re worthy of their packaging: these should be an everyday smoke, not a collector’s trophy to age and admire. In my overall ranking of the Partagás specials these will suffer for their length, but inch for inch they’re as good as anything out there. I just wish that they were regular production, because they’re more deserving of it than a PSD4.

Partagás Serie P No. 1 nub, with ashes and detritus

Partagás Serie P No. 1 at the Cuban Cigar Website.