Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure Edición Limitada 2013

The Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure was released in 2013 to mixed reviews. Some liked the profile, which was a bit more in keeping with its marque than most Edición Limitadas. Others complained about the erratic construction. Its stable mates were the Romeo De Luxe and the Punch Serie D’Oro No. 2; of the three, the D’Oro got the press. The first limited from Punch, and a Pyramid in a brand where those are very thin on the ground. Ultimately, though, all three of 2013’s ELs would slip away into the mists of forgettability.

Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure Edición Limitada 2013 unlit

The Grand Epicure is about as vulgar as they come, with its 55-ring gauge and double-sized custom band, but if you put aside the design then this example looks to be a good one. The wrapper is dark and oily, and construction appears perfect. The draw could be firmer but is well within the threshold of acceptability.

Lit, the cigar is smooth and rich. The predominant flavours are of the forest floor – fungus and wet dirt. The wood is there, of course, but it isn’t the standard dry cedar or the tannins of fresh cut sapling; it’s something darker. Cuban mahogany.

There are few triter clichés than that of the favourite teacher; the sage whose lips let spill the viscous pearl of wisdom into a wiling teenage ear, converting a wild hoodlum into a productive member of society. For me, the Sage’s name was Dr. Penny Marceau.

The high school I attended was a select entry college for academic boys. The faculty at all times placed great emphasis on preserving the culture of the place. Classes were formal business, and to be taken seriously. Competition was high. Discipline was expected. The VCE literature master was Giorgio Demetriou, well known throughout the school for his short fuse and fits of rage. Even the non-literature inclined knew him well, as any classroom remotely near his would inevitably find themselves snickering at the sound of his screaming rampages coming through the walls, and the line of boys outside his door who had been thrown out for some infraction or other.

In year eleven it was my turn to spend time with Giorgio, but a last-minute reprieve changed the course of my life. Over the summer break, one extra student transferred into literature, taking the size of the class over the government mandated maximum. The cohort was cleft in twain, and I wound up in the B stream; eleven boys and a temp teacher named Dr. Marceau.

The class lacked the formalities of the rest of school life. With Dr. Marceau we sat on the floor and chatted casually. We read Shakespeare and Don DeLillo. Peter Carey and Tennessee Williams. Up to that point I’d always been an avid reader of pulp fantasy garbage: Dr. Marceau’s class changed that. One-week she saw something with a dragon on the cover sticking out of my blazer pocket, and the next she gave me her well-thumbed copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude to read on my own time. “Read this” she said. “It’s fantasy with meaning.” I’ve never looked back.

Since a young age I’d always written creatively, but never been met with anything more than an eye-roll from adults. Dr. Marceau took me seriously. One afternoon, instead of handing my essay back like she did everybody else’s, she held me after class and spent hours going through it sentence by sentence with me, trying to instil in me a feel for the rhythm of language.

At the end of the year, Dr. Marceu’s future was uncertain. She had been hired only to fill the gap in the literature course. Aping Dead Poet’s Society, me and the other boys stood on our desks to wish her farewell. “Oh Captain my Captain.”

Of course, the school kept her on, but I never had her again.

Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure Edición Limitada 2013 an inch or so smoked

At the mid-point the cigar is sweet, and extremely smooth. The term “elegant” fits it very well. It is soft and creamy. The tobacco is light and floral, with only the slightest high of cedar.

Fifteen years on I found myself in a hotel function room, seated up the back at an Old Boys dinner: steak and fish, served alternately. The speaker was a boy from a couple of years after me, who had found minor celebrity as a stand-up comic. He began by welcoming the various notables – a few politicians, a judge, a member of the class of 1933, and finally “our distinguished former faculty member, Dr. Penny Marceau.”

Excitedly I told my tablemates about her, about how she made me the man I am today, and after I’d finished my fish I headed up to the front of the room to seek her out. She was surrounded by other men my age, no doubt all with the same intentions as me, but I patiently waited my turn, finally catching her just as people started to return to their seats for dessert. “Dr. Marceau” I gushed. “I just wanted to say ‘hi.’ Alexander Groom.”

She looked at me blankly. “Class of 2001. It was a small class. I had long hair.”
“Oh, hi” she said, clearly without any memory of me.
“I just wanted to thank you… you really instilled in me a love of literature, and taught me so much about language, about the rhythm and beauty of prose.”
She brightened up. “Oh? So what are you doing now?”
“I’m the head of tech at a start-up,” I said, and watched her face fall.
“So nothing creative?”
“Well that’s just my day job,” I stammered. “I also run a cigar website… it’s very successful.”
With a sneer, she began to turn away. Desperately I called after her.
“I also write a blog. Sometimes I use big words. Petrichor!”

But she wasn’t listening. I was just another disappointment.

Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure Edición Limitada 2013 smoked just above the band.

Right to the end, the cigar remains extremely smooth, never bitter for an instant. Most of the final third is notes of buttered toast and nuts. In the last moments some of the forest floor from earlier returns, with fungal notes and the petrichor funk. Above all though, the chief attribute of the Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure is smoothness. An elegant, relaxing, and wonderful smoke. Quite a claim for a 55-ring gauge cigar with barely five years of age on it. A long way better than the Epicure 2.

Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure Edición Limitada 2013 nub.

Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure Edición Limitada 2013 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Hoyo de Monterrey Regalos Edición Limitada 2007

It is the morning after the night before, and the well-trodden path has taken me to a shady nook in the Brisbane Botanical Gardens. It seemed very implausible to me that smoking would be allowed here, and certainly nobody else seems to be doing it, but on careful study of the rules board I found no prohibition. The sky is a flawless blue. A gentle tropical breeze takes the edge off the Australian sun. On the river, boats silently putter back and forth, and on the boardwalk girls stroll languidly by, tan legs flashing beneath summer dresses. One cannot imagine a better situation for a cigar smoker to find himself in.

Hoyo de Monterrey Regalos Edición Limitada 2007 unlit, resting on some RayBan Caravans.

The Hoyo de Monterrey Regalos is one of the 2007 Edición Limitadas, and as far as I recall it’s considered largely forgettable, or at least, people largely have forgotten it. I haven’t seen a review of one of these in five years or more, and the ones when it came out weren’t glowing. Still, time changes cigars. It may have come into its own. Ignited, the opening of the cigar has a sharp bite, with musty, fungal undertones, and a good amount of dry straw. There is a bitterness there that I strongly suspect will become cocoa before too long. The tobacco strength is on the higher end of medium.

The reason for my trip for Brisbane – the aforementioned night before – was the Havanathon; a bi-annual bacchanal hosted by a local cigar retailer. It takes place in the shed that doubles as his headquarters, and consists of about two hundred large men carousing as only large men can. Four cigars apiece are included with admission, as is a buffet lunch, all the beer you can stomach, some lightly mixed mojitos and heavily mixed sangria.

The whole thing has the atmosphere of an extended buck’s night: a testosterone fuelled carnival of masculinity. There were waitresses in sequined bikinis, and the throng ogled them unabashedly. One of the girls seemed to be enjoying herself, or at least she was enough of a professional to pretend, all smiles and banter as she handed out the beers. On her buttock there was a tattooed lipstick mark, and she giggled coquettishly as guys posed as if they had just planted it. The other girl was less pleased with her lot in life, plonking each bottle down with a sneer, and shooting a poison glare at anyone who talked to her with anything more than a drink order. “She’d be pretty if she wasn’t such a bitch” a colleague observed to me. “That’s what makes her pretty,” another rejoindered.

Hoyo de Monterrey Regalos Edición Limitada 2007, two thirds remaining.

About a third in, and the cigar has mellowed, yet still the mustiness predominates, with a strong hint of a closet in a ramshackle ‘70s beach house. I’m sipping a Bundaberg Ginger Beer (luckily, the 7-11 didn’t carry the rum), and its sweetness takes any harshness from the cigar very nicely.

As the afternoon wore on, the shed grew stifling, as much from the combusted phlogiston of a few hundred Habanos as from the tropical sun beating on its iron. Most of the attendees migrated out the front, where the breeze provided welcome respite from the heat, even as it striped us of our ability to sustain a coal.

Soon our host called us back inside, where a trio of salsa dancers had materialised, all high kicks and swivelling hips. After a few numbers they lead us in a dance lesson, the moves to which more resembled the Hokey Pokey than the serpentine writhing they had shown us a few moments before. It ended with a conga line through the shed and out into the street. Cigar smokers have their talents: each of these men can hold down a drink, tell a tall tale, and wax lyrical about the tannic sting on the back-palate, but dancers they are not.

The afternoon wore on in much the same fashion: ribald conversation with the brothers of the leaf, punctuated by musical acts. By 6:00pm, with the third cigar fully combusted, my head was spinning from the nicotine and I needed a break. The crowd was starting to thin a bit, with most of the locals heading home to their lives. The men who stayed were the ones from interstate: true degenerates, with nowhere better to be. I stayed outside for about an hour, holding my fourth cigar, but leaving it unlit. The evening air cleared my head. I ate a light dinner of cold meats leftover from lunch, and drank more than one glass of water.

Hoyo de Monterrey Regalos Edición Limitada 2007 with one third remaining.

Into the final stretch and the cigar is firmly in the mid-strength. There is a strong tannic sting on the back-palate. The fungal mustiness has given way to muddy earth tones. The forecast cocoa has failed to eventuate.

The conclusion to the evening, naturally, was the karaoke contest. In Melbourne today, karaoke is somewhat popular. The expanding Asian influence of the last few decades has opened the bars, and those have gradually permeated the broader Australian culture, to the point where most youths of bar-hopping age would have had cause to belt out a rendition of Don’t Stop Believing on at least a few occasions. This was not always so. Even in my own salad days, karaoke was confined to the rare Wednesday night at the pub. At the Havanathon, where I fell on the younger end of the age scale, the level of experience was not high, and volunteers were few and far between.

The MC filled in the blanks with Elvis numbers, and a friend who is in a band gave us some very passable versions of ‘80s pop-songs, but after that the roster started to run dry. Eventually the MC took to wandering through the hall, offering each person the microphone, and declaring “pussy” when they turned it down. When he offered it to me I lingered for a second, then accepted.

My own karaoke repertoire was honed not with Australian youths, but with Japanese barflies. They have a machine over there that gives you an estimate of the amount of kilocalories you expended during your track, the algorithm for which seems to be based mainly on how loud you sing and how much your voice cracks. It trained me into a one trick pony: I sing power ballads and pretend to cry. It is an act utterly unsuited for this room, but nonetheless, I performed it, belting out Total Eclipse of the Heart with all I had, my voice mellifluous after three and a half cigars. Occasionally through screwed up eyes I would glance out at the crowed, who watched, stony-faced, unsure of what to make of the performance art. “Are you okay?” someone asked me after. “Just passionate,” I told him.

By ten the host had had enough, and led the assembled in a rousing chorus of that most proud Australian anthem, Thunderstruck, before turning on the lights. The stragglers stacked the chairs and stole the lighters, and embraced one another warmly. “Till next time, brother.” “Next year in Havana.”

There was an after party, of course, and a fifth cigar, and then a sixth, and somewhere along the way I found some Port wine, and somewhere else some KFC Popcorn Chicken. By four AM I was in bed, the fourteen hours of heavy drinking just enough to drown out the nicotine and put me straight to sleep.

Hoyo de Monterrey Regalos Edición Limitada 2007 nub and bands.

The cigar ends nicely, never bitter, but still with the dry, musty note that has predominated throughout. In the end there is nothing wrong with the Regalos, but when I tell the story of this afternoon, the details I relate will be of the bush turkey scratching in the dirt at my feet, and how he puffed his chest, and then charged, head lowered, to drive off flock of Ibis who came too near; of the big lizard who emerged from the brush to sun himself on the road, and almost got clipped by a cyclist; and of the two Japanese girls, who strolled by languidly, wrinkling their noses at the smell of my cigar. The Regalos, alas, is ultimately forgettable. The Havanathon, not so much.

Hoyo de Monterrey Regalos Edición Limitada 2007 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Romeo y Julieta Petit Piramides Edición Limitada 2005

It’s as good a winter’s day as a boy could ask for – sunny, still and crisp – but even the finest winter’s day is still not especially pleasant for being outdoors. My fingers feel the bite whenever they emerge from my leather greatcoat to tap at my laptop keyboard, and will doubtless soon numb up holding a cigar.

The smoke of the moment is the 2005 Edición Limitada from Romeo y Julieta, a Petit Pirámides. It was one of the omissions from my recent Romeo Roundup – fortunately a kindly soul noticed the absence and sent a couple over. Many thanks. It’s a nice looking little pyramid wearing the short-lived all-gold Romeo band. As always when I encounter one of these bands, the reason they only lasted a couple of years is obvious: the printing is just appalling. It must be hard to prevent counterfeits when the genuine article looks like it was made by a high-schooler on work experience.

Romeo y Julieta Petit Piramides Edición Limitada 2005 unlit

I set fire to the beast. The first notes are very sharp for something with over a decade on it, offering up a sour, tannic bite. I inhale through my nose and probe the flavour, finding a bit of sweet musk on the back palate. Within ten puffs the sourness leaves and the cigar settles down, bringing medium-strong tobacco notes with a creamy aftertaste. Not bad at all. It reminds me a bit of the Partagás Serie P No. 1, which I always liked.

Being outdoors in this chill, with numb fingers and nose, takes me back to a very specific time of life. An adult and a homeowner who holds a desk job, there is seldom any need for me to suffer through this kind of discomfort (I could even smoke indoors if I wanted, but I generally choose two hours in the cold over two weeks trying to get stale cigar smoke out of my drapes). Once upon a time, however, things were different. Once upon a time I was a teenage boy with a great passion for canoodling, and after school I had nowhere to slake my thirst but city parks.

Honestly, I think it added to it. Who could ever forget the sensation of making out with their high-school girlfriend in a park on a winter’s day? With sweaty palms slipped inside blazers we would paw at one another. Cold backs and warm fronts! As we shifted position, her braces would sometimes knock against my teeth, and the tip of her nose would nuzzle my warm cheek, cold and damp like that of a Dalmatian puppy.

One particular instance stands out. Our usual bench for canoodling was deep out of view, a little nook in the more overgrown part of the park, but on this particular day it had been denied us by some old men chatting. Our second favourite, by the pond, was also occupied, and so we had wound up on the very edge of the park, ten meters from the road. We had been going at it for some time – probably about an hour and a half, as darkness had fallen, but I wasn’t yet in breach of my 6:30 curfew, when we both became aware of a light being shone on us. The cop cleared his throat. “You been here long?” he asked. “Ah, yeah… an hour or so. What’s the problem?”
“Did you see what happened when the car got stolen over here?”
I looked at him blankly, and he cast his torchlight on an empty car-space filled with broken safety glass, not more than fifteen meters from our bench.
“A car was stolen here sometime in the last half hour, you didn’t see or hear anything?”
My girl and I exchanged glances.
“No, sorry. We were busy.” We giggled.
The cop rolled his eyes and stomped off. “Bloody kids.”

Romeo y Julieta Petit Piramides Edición Limitada 2005 half smoked

By the midpoint the cigar has developed very strong espresso coffee notes, with a bit of old wallet mixed in – there is distinct leather, but also a slight copper, and sweat, and a little bit of banknote. As I progress into the last inch and a half it gets dirty, the flavour of wet earth and bitumen.

As it burns down, the asphalt element only grows, and it ends as a bitter little tar bomb. A slight citric tang is in there, which gives it something reminiscent of Campari. Even with the tar, the coffee note is still very strong. The ash in the final inch is very white for some reason, where the first two thirds were a dirty grey. All throughout the cigar has had a fantastic burn. I lit it initially with a match, and I didn’t do the best job of it, leaving an unblackened portion around the edge. Within moments it evened up, and was razor straight from then until I burnt my fingers, without a single touch up or corrective measure. It also held its ash very well. Total smoking time was around 90 minutes.

Romeo y Julieta Petit Piramides Edición Limitada 2005 smoked just above the bands

A good cigar sets a time and place for itself, and this one needs to be smoked at 10:00am with a coffee, preferably in café in a village in the South of France. It is a quintessential morning cigar, a flavourful little bomb of coffee and tobacco to start the day. Yes, there is a bit of tar, and yes, it will leave a bad taste in your mouth all day, but if you’re the kind of person who smokes before lunch you’re probably used to that. A decade old exotic might not be the most normal thing to fill the morning cigar void, but if you have that void, and you have the means, then this is the smoke for you.

Romeo y Julieta Petit Piramides Edición Limitada 2005 nub

Romeo y Julieta Petit Piramides Edición Limitada 2005 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 1 Edición Limitada 2003

The day is pleasant, high twenties and humid, and I have spent much of it on foot – so much, in fact, that my pedometer has crested 25,000 for the first time in living memory. Now, however, I have reached my destination. I am in the back corner table of a nice suburban pub, my friends and I well shaded beneath an umbrella. The beers are cold, and there are no other patrons to bother. It’s a fine afternoon for cigars.

The dusky beauty in question is the 2003 Romeo Edición Limitada, the Hermosos No. 1. From what I recall, these were well received in 2003, but thirteen years changes a cigar, so in 2016? Who knows. 2003 was such a mixed bag for ELs – the phenomenal Cohiba DC, the reviled Monte C, and the not-especially-memorable Partagás D2. The Romeo could go either way.

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 1 Edición Limitada 2003 unlit

I’m lighting the cigar with a Bic lighter – there was a plane journey before my walk, and I didn’t like to bring a torch lighter in case it was confiscated – so it takes a little while to coax a coal from the Bic’s fitful fires. Eventually I get there. Perhaps a symptom of the slow light, the first puffs have no heat to them, and no bitterness at all. The tobacco is extremely light, the flavour slightly lactic, slightly herbal. All those things are marginal. Mostly it tastes like nothing. I wonder if perhaps this cigar is a little old.

The friends I’m with are old friends, school friends, and as we puff and laugh away, an ancient anecdote comes to mind. The year would have been around 1998, and I was in year 9, the youngest of the four forms at my high school. I was pimple faced pubescent with hair that was just marginally too long (by year 12 it would be a greasy mop that frequently earned me uniform citations for crossing the collar limit) and a voice that still cracked occasionally. My parents had become friendly with the parents of Fabian Swann, a classmate of mine. Fabian and I were largely ambivalent toward each other, but I guess it was convenient, so the Swanns had brought him over to my house, notionally so that we could do our homework together, while our parents attended the school’s Parents Trivia Night.

Fairly predictably, not a lot of homework was getting done, but Fabian and I felt that we had to at least make some show of it, so we were spreading our books out on the kitchen table when something fell out of Fabian’s diary. “Oh yeah,” he said “check this out.” It was a proto-selfie, taken on a disposable camera some weeks prior at school camp. The subject was one of our classmates, Stavros Dimitriadis. Even by the standards of a teenage boy, Stavros was enduring a particularly brutal puberty; he was overweight, with pale skin that acted as an ideal canvas to extenuate his acne, a big, nobly nose, thick glasses and braces. Stavros always copped a lot of shit (it didn’t help that he had an identical twin brother, lived above a fish and chip shop, and proudly wore the Christian fish symbol on his blazer lapel), but at the moment in question he was undergoing an especial moment of fame. A few weeks prior, at the aforementioned school camp, we had gone caving (essentially writhing through foot high tunnels in close quarters with your classmates). Stavros was one of the last of the class to exit, so we were all standing around in a circle watching when he popped out of the ground, his glasses fogged up, and wearing a miner’s helmet with a light on it. Somebody yelled out “it’s a mole-man,” and that was it: Stavros would never be known as anything else. Being still relatively fresh, any reference to moles, mole-men, or Stavros had the class in stiches.

The photo that Fabian produced was about as unflattering as any that has ever been taken: low angle, it captured both Stavros’ double chin and his nose, and the sun gleamed equally off his greasy skin and his braces. “Let’s put it on a chick’s body,” I suggested.

The year being 1998, my family internet connection was restricted to a 28.8 baud modem that connected to a server at my dad’s work (he worked at a university). He had cautioned me repeatedly that every site would be monitored by their IT department, so an AltaVista search for something like “female body” was completely out of the question. Instead we leafed through a coffee table book until we found a picture of Chloé, a rubenesque nude that famously hangs in a pub in Melbourne, and scanned her. Using a trial version of some editing software that I had gotten on a shareware CD, we successfully planted Stavros’ head on Chloé’s body. The editing was awful, but good enough: the dichotomy between the pale nude’s body and the Greek boy’s greasy face was hilarious.

We printed out two copies, and the next day at school Fabian had one in his folder, and discreetly we began to show our friends, who all found it just as funny as we did. It was all going swimmingly until Cameron Sprague got a hold of it and stuck it up on the whiteboard. The whole class pissed themselves except Stavros, who snatched it down and fled the room in tears. Half an hour later the year-level coordinator came to get me.

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 1 Edición Limitada 2003 somewhat smoked, on a bic lighter

The cigar at the mid-point has thickened considerably, although it is still only barely a mid-strength cigar. There are a few vague notes, some floral elements, the occasional lactic hint, but mostly at the moment it is dominated by a Mānuka honey taste stronger than I recall finding in any other cigar.

They only knew about me, but in the hopes of a lesser punishment, I immediately rolled on Fabian. It didn’t work. After a lot of shouting I was given a one-day suspension, a week of detention, and I had to have my parents sign the offending picture. I thought my parents would be the worst part of the punishment, but in the end it wasn’t too bad. They yelled at me a bit, but mostly they seemed mildly amused.

After I had served my detentions the incident died down. Stavros seemed to forgive me. Classmates would reminisce about it occasionally, and ask if I still had a copy, but alas, a condition of my parent’s punishment was that I delete the files from the computer, and the signed copy that I handed to the coordinator I never saw again.

There was something of an epilogue some years later, however, when Miss Kok (Miss Kok [she insisted it was pronounced “Coke”] too was the butt of a lot of our jokes, but also our pubescent fantasies: she was blonde, busty, wore a lot of singlet tops, and did a lot of jumping, leaping and jiggling around in her role as a drama teacher) asked me about it.
“Hey Alex, do you still have that picture of Stavros on the girl’s body that you made in year nine?”
“No, they made me destroy all the copies. How do you know about that?”
“Oh, we had that up in the staff room for weeks – that was hilarious.”

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 1 Edición Limitada 2003 final third

In the last few inches the Hermosos No. 1 firmly establishes itself as mid strength, but as it does the honey fizzles out and is replaced by a sort of chemical tang, not unreminiscent of high-quality fly spray. As it progresses the tar gets stronger and stronger, until I’m basically just smoking for the nicotine. It is neither bad nor good.

Overall, the Hermosos No. 1 is a fine cigar, and what notes there are are delicate and delicious. In 2016, however, there is not a whole lot to it. I suspect it may be five years too old. If you have a box and are saving them for something, now is the time.

Still better than a Petit Coronas though.

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 1 Edición Limitada 2003 nub

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 1 Edición Limitada 2003 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Romeo y Julieta De Luxe Edición Limitada 2013

Of the Romeo y Julieta De Luxe, Edición Limitada 2013, I have nothing to say. To be honest, when I plucked this cigar from my humidor, I had no idea what it was. “2013 Romeo EL?” I thought “Never heard of it.” A brief Bing does not reveal much: it appears to be another EL that has failed to distinguish itself, either in excellence or mediocrity. Ah well. The facts, as they say, will be in the fire.

Romeo y Julieta De Luxe Edición Limitada 2013 unlit

I lift the cap and toast the foot. It begins very dry on the palate, mid-to-light tobacco with notes of straw and dry dusty earth. Somewhere in the back of it there is the tang of fresh basil.

For all my lifelong debauchery, I’ve never really got that much into food. Drink, women, drugs, cars, boats, watches, racehorses, fine clothes, finer tobacco, and all the other pursuits of the epicurean? Sure. Food? Not so much. It’s not that I don’t like it – a good meal is a good meal – but I never really saw the need to seek it out. The maximum threshold of deliciousness can be reached for $10 at the local Chinese greasy spoon. Beyond that I don’t much see the point. Particularly my meals at home – the ones I consume as a solitary bachelor, in my underwear, slumped in front of the television – those meals I get no pleasure from. I resent every aspect of the experience: the time spent in the hellish supermarket, the time cooking, the time eating, the time cleaning up: it’s all a waste! An hour a day at least, spent in the service of a joyless calorie obligation! You can imagine my delight, therefore, when Soylent burst onto the scene.

Soylent is a nutrient slurry, designed by a tech entrepreneur to take humanity to the level beyond food. Essentially it is a beige powder that, when mixed with 3L of water and drunk throughout the day, gives the body 100% of what it needs. Nothing more. Nothing less. On a diet of Soylent there is no shopping, no cooking, no washing up and minimal preparation. Meeting the food obligation is reduced to minutes in the day. Most people with whom I discussed the idea were offended by it: “food is a fundamental part of the human experience” they would say. “How can you forsake it?” What they don’t get is that it’s not replacing all food. Lavish banquets with friends? Sure, I’ll eat those. But the miserable tin of baked beans on a Tuesday night? The tuna, spooned unheated from the can on a Wednesday? Give me the slurry. A month of Soylent costs about $350, which seems like a lot of up-front cost, but is pretty cheap when you consider that’s it’s your entire caloric intake for a month.

Soylent is not available in Australia (our nanny does not only disapprove of tobacco), but they make the recipe freely available, so I was able to cook my own (it’s basically oats, protein powder, and 50 or so vitamins and minerals). Like most of the innovations I bring about in my life, it eventually trickled down to my manservant Davidé, who fell in love with the stuff.

Romeo y Julieta De Luxe Edición Limitada 2013 somewhat smoked

At the midpoint the cigar is very dry, with a slight umami flavour, shitake mushroom. The straw still lingers, as does the dust. It is dry, very dry.

As long as I’ve known Davidé, the brute has always had a terrible digestive constitution. If we go out on the town, it is guaranteed that at some point he will be running for a public toilet in a state of desperation. If he comes to my home, his first demand is to immediately use my bathroom. Very often he regales and disgusts me with anecdotes about soiled clothing. When I began my post-food lifestyle I threw him a few tubs, and a week or so later he came to me, glowing. “Mr. Groom” he said “this stuff is a goddamn miracle. I’ve never done shits like this in my life. Solid perfect lumps that sink like stones. Regular as clockwork. I don’t even have to wipe anymore!” His questionable personal hygiene aside, I also felt pretty good. Strong. Lean. I was never hungry, and always energetic. It was my first experience of having a balanced nutrient intake, and it was good stuff.

Davidé has always had a very specific taste in women, which is to say he likes girls who are deeply, deeply damaged. At the moment in question he was dating a Singaporean diplo-brat named Jade. They’d met on the internet, and rapidly become lovers. She was gorgeous, a pouty, fine boned Asian. She had shaved her head completely bald, and wore an ever changing series of brightly coloured wigs. Needing something to get her through the day, she huffed nitrous-oxide bulbs constantly (she had started on the NoX because she didn’t want to take an addictive drug, but was on them to point of complete addiction, psychologically, if not chemically. She needed ten to get herself out of bed in the morning. She had them delivered weekly in industrial quantities, and there was a basket of empty canisters in every room in her house. Davidé referred to her home as Da Nang.) Ringing her arms and legs were rows of scars, and whenever Davidé angered her she’d tell him she was going to add another. It was a promise, not a threat. She hated to sleep alone, and would demand that he stay over nightly. When he refused she would threaten to cut him, or failing that, herself. If he spent more than an hour or two away from her he would start getting hysterical messages accusing him of cheating. She was deeply, dangerously damaged.

Because of her separation anxiety, Jade, therefore, was present when we cooked our second batch of Soylent. They’d just recovered from one of their frequent splits – Davidé had announced that he was leaving her, and she’d sent him a constant stream of alternatingly sexy and suicidal images until he’d relented and gone over to her house, where they’d had wild sex while she screamed abuse at him. At the cook-up she mostly just brooded in the corner. Soylent is mostly cooking by spreadsheets – it’s just a matter of figuring out ratios – and Davidé, in an attempt to include Jade, gave her the job of crushing up the various pills that make up the micronutrient quotient of the Soylent with a mortar and pestle, while we handled the “man’s work” of reducing several kilograms of oats to flour, and mixing in great sacks of protein and maltodextrin. She performed her task diligently, but silently, watching something on her computer. When she was finished she handed us the mortar filled with grey-brown powder and wordlessly disappeared into Davidé’s room. He rolled his eyes. “She doesn’t like it when I talk to other people.”

A week or so into the new batch, I came to the conclusion that something was definitely wrong. I felt weak and lethargic. When I stood up too quickly I would get dizzy. In the shower I would feel myself starting to black out, and have to sit down and run the water cold. There was a constant slight feeling of nausea. For the first few days I just thought I was coming down with something, but as it continued to get worse, I eventually began to wonder if something might be wrong with the Soylent. I called Davidé, who by this stage had broken up with Jade again (for what would prove to be the final time) and asked him how he was feeling. “Shit,” he replied.

We returned to our spreadsheet and did an audit of our left-over ingredients, comparing the amount left in the containers from the amounts that should have been expended in a proper, balanced cook. The big stuff all seemed fine, the oats, the maltodextrin, but when we got to the micronutrients the issue quickly became clear: she had given us almost thirty times the recommended daily dose of chelated molybdenum (a mineral that, among other things, leeches copper from the body), and no copper, iron, zinc or vitamin B12. We were in the advanced stages of copper deficiency. She was clearly trying to kill us.

We Googled for hours looking for a solution, and debated at length the merits of adding a large copper supplement to offset the molybdenum, but eventually decided it was too risky. We snuck out at night and dumped great garbage bags of Soylent into a skip at the construction site across the road. The post-food experiment was over.

Romeo y Julieta De Luxe Edición Limitada 2013 an inch or so left

In the final third the cigar gets ashy and a bit tannic. The is a strong herbaceous quality, that is not entirely unpleasant. It ends without tar, but very tannic. A fine cigar for any occasion, and better than a Petit Coronas, but the least of the three Romeo ELs I’ve had in the recent past.

Romeo y Julieta De Luxe Edición Limitada 2013 nub

Romeo y Julieta De Luxe Edición Limitada 2013 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Romeo y Julieta Duke Edición Limitada 2009

Osaka, Japan: hot, humid, overcast, with just the occasional touch of drizzle. A fairly typical afternoon at the end of the Osaka summer.

I lived in this city for a little over a year, mainly in 2009, and have returned here many times since. Today I am on vacation. My friends in this part of the world are all either bartenders or English teachers, but either way, they live the same lifestyle: rise at noon, work until late, drink until dawn. Now in the third week of my vacation, my body has entered a kind of toxin survival state where I no longer get hangovers, which means my afternoons are free. I have decided to take a walk.

Despite living here, I really have no idea about the geography of this city. There are no hills to speak of, and the whole place is tall buildings, there’s never anywhere you can get a clear line of sight. I know certain areas quite well, but only in relation to their nearby subway stops – how the districts fit together into a city I really have no clue.

I have decided to head to the aquarium, starting near my hotel on the Dōtombori canal. I know that the aquarium is by the harbour, and my logic is that the canal must eventually wind up at the water. The aquarium has the world’s largest Ferris wheel right next to it, so once I’m on the waterfront I figure I should be able to spot the wheel and head toward that.

It’s not a sound plan, but the point is the journey, not the destination. I’m bringing a traveling companion with me, a Romeo y Julieta Duke, Edición Limitada 2009, a handsome brute with a deep red wrapper.

Romeo y Julieta Duke Edición Limitada 2009 unlit

The Duke begins well, sharply floral, like chewing on rose petals rather than sniffing them. Somewhere behind there is a nice, beany coffee and more than a little cream. There’s no EL chocolate here yet, but you can clearly see the dust of its approach on the horizon.

Like most people in their mid-20s who wash up in a foreign land, I came to Japan mainly to get away from my mother. At the time I had just spent two years working in my first real job, eight hours a day sharing a cubical with a guy who crunched sunflower seeds unrelentingly throughout the entire workday. The money was great, and I was basically running the show, which is an unheard of career progression for a guy my age, and yet, I had come to ask myself that inevitable question, “what am I doing with my life?” My mother had the answer, “you have a good job, you’re doing well, you need to work hard, get some security, buy a house, meet a nice girl maybe.”

She was right, of course, but my young brain couldn’t see that. “Why is my mother trying to enslave me,” I wondered. “Why would she want me to spend all day in that prison?” I was a lost soul, and I needed to find myself. And so I fled.

A friend had recently moved to Osaka, so I applied for a job with his company, teaching English. They told me I had it, but after a month or two of messing around, they changed their minds, so I decided to wing it and just left. Tourist visa. One-month booking in a foreigner friendly flop house. No plans.

It was cold the night I arrived: January in Osaka is a marked shift from January in Australia. Somehow I found my way to my guest house and checked in. It was around 10pm, I think, by the time I settled in and ventured out. I found a pay phone around the corner and called my friend. “Hey man,” he said “I’m a bit busy right now. I’m in Hiroshima having a bath with an old lady. I’ll be back in three days.”

It was an odd three days. I had no phone, no internet access, I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t speak a word of the language, and I knew nothing about the city. If I got lost there was a non-trivial possibility of my dying on the streets, so I wasn’t too willing to venture far from my home range. Japan has one of the lowest levels of English in the world, but it is a strangely friendly country for the non-vocal illiterate. The western idea that Japan has a vending machine for everything is a myth (they do have a block of vending machines every ten meters, but they all just sell drinks and cigarettes), but in most mid-range restaurants you order from a machine that has pictures of every item, and don’t have to interact with your waiter beyond a curt head nod. In any event, I think I spent the next three days mostly in my room watching Japanese television.

Romeo y Julieta Duke Edición Limitada 2009 somewhat smoked

Back in the present, all is lost. The canal I was following branched, and then zig-zagged, and then I came to an industrial district where the walkway along the canal bank ended, and large warehouses obscured my view of it long enough that I lost it. I am walking in the direction that I think is toward the bay, but really I have very little evidence to back up that theory. The Romeo is holding together nicely though. Earthy. Christmas pudding. Cherries. Nice fruitcake. Strong coffee notes. Eventually I find my way to one of the huge bridges that span the harbour, and scale it, and from there I am able to determine the magnitude of my navigation issues. The Ferris wheel is visible, but several kilometres away. The only landmark that looks attainable is the giant IKEA on the next island, so I head towards there. The new goal is a $1 hotdog.

Romeo y Julieta Duke Edición Limitada 2009 half smoked

When my friend finally returned to Osaka he picked me up at my guest house and took for a tour of the surrounding district, which I would later come to know as Shinsaibashi, the main entertainment district. At the time it seemed completely alien, a maze of crowds and tall buildings. That night he took me to a club. I was delighted, my first social interactions in three days, my first exposure to Japanese girls, and the nightlife scene. I was a little tipsy and chatting in broken English to a girl in short shorts when my friend tugged me on the arm and said he was leaving with a girl.
“Should I come too?” I asked. “I don’t know how to get home.”
He shrugged it off, plainly not wanting to chaperone me when he had a female in his sights. “Just go outside and go straight, it’s just down the road. You’ll be fine.”

An hour or so later the girl I was talking to left with her friends, and I decided it was my bedtime too. I headed out to the street, and instantly realised I was in trouble. I had no idea where I was, or which of the four cardinal directions he meant by “straight.”

For the next four hours I wandered, first by heading about a kilometre or so in each of the cardinals before deciding it was wrong and heading back, and eventually just roaming at random, hoping to find some landmark I knew (which at this point in time was essentially limited to the 7-11 down the street or my guest house door). Eventually the sun rose, the trains resumed their service, and I was able to find one to take me to the station that I remembered as the one I had got off at upon my arrival. I didn’t have the map I had had then, so there was still a little random wandering before I found my bed, but I got there eventually.

I saw a lot of the city that night, and over the next year I was constantly finding familiar things, landmarks from my ramblings. If you want to find yourself, you first have to get lost. It’s a good way to get away from your mother, also.

Romeo y Julieta Duke Edición Limitada 2009 final third

In the final third the chocolate emerges, deep, bitter swathes of it. The coffee remains resilient also. The burn has not been great, requiring several relights, but I blame that mainly on the humidity. The ending could be smoother, but it’s not as rough as some. All in all, the Romeo y Julieta Duke is a fine cigar, and much better than the Petit Coronas.

Romeo y Julieta Duke Edición Limitada 2009 nub

Romeo y Julieta Duke Edición Limitada 2009 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Romeo y Julieta Exhibición No.2 Edición Limitada 2000

Dusky Beauties has always been about the verticals, the tasting of every special cigar across an entire marque, but in this our fourth season, the horizontals are starting to come together too. We already have two of the 2000 Edición Limitadas, the Monte Robusto and the Partagás Pirámides, and today we add a third, the Romeo y Julieta Exhibición No.2. The horizontals are really more meaningful than the verticals; some harvests are better than others, styles change, and the men working in the blending room sometimes get colds and can’t smell properly. You can guess more about how a cigar will be by looking at other cigars made in the same year than by cigars from the same brand made six years later. Unfortunately, this does not bode well for the Exhibición No.2: its siblings were both nice, but ruined by their fireproof Habanos 2000 wrappers. It’s a lovely looking thing, a silky and rich cocoa black but, at 7.6 inches long, if this cigar doesn’t burn it is going to be a brutal afternoon.

Romeo y Julieta Exhibición No.2 Edición Limitada 2000 unlit, basking in the sun

It lights without too much trouble, and begins as well as any cigar, with sweet floral notes over a pungent mid-tobacco. I don’t know much about flowers. In general, when I say “floral notes,” I mean the smell of a florist: a generic, rose heavy mélange. With the floral notes in the Exhibición No. 2, however, I can be more specific: it’s hibiscus. To be more specific still, it’s the hibiscus that grew on the pergola at my childhood home in Papua New Guinea.

I lived in PNG during my earliest years, ages two – five. My memories from that time are just snippets, coloured perhaps, but the oral traditions of my family, and the few grainy home movies that my dad made, where I can be seen babbling about my Lego, and in one chewing vigorously on a hosepipe while my sister recounts an anecdote. I remember that we had a lot of animals: Ernest, a placid tortoiseshell cat who we adored (mainly because he would let us kids pick him up and drag him around without ever showing any ill will), and Mathilda, a less cooperative tabby (she disappeared one night, and my parents told me that someone from the squatter’s village down the hill had turned her into soup). There was also Crumpet the dog and her short lived litter (mentioned previously), and two turtles, whose names I forget, but they were great, fat things, with rolls of blubber where their flippers emerged from the shell. We would feed them dry cat food, tossing a handful into the turtle tank, where the pellets would engorge in the water, and the turtles would nipple at them from underneath. The cats would sit on the edge, trying to fish the pellets out with their paws.

The menagerie continued in the backyard with two sheep, Oscar and Rosie, one each for me and my sister. Oscar (named for the grouch) was mine, and at some point he got sickly, and was taken away. My mum told me years later that when they cut him open he was a mess of tumours inside. Finally, in a cage under the house there was Gus, a vicious tree-kangaroo who I don’t remember much about, except that I was told he was very dangerous, and was under strict orders never to approach his cage.

Romeo y Julieta Exhibición No.2 Edición Limitada 2000 somewhat smoked

At the midpoint the cigar is very light, slightly dry, with some earth and straw notes, not unlike the inside of an Asaro Mudman’s mask. You want a cigar like this to be light in the middle – too much kick now and the end would be too bitter. Its fifteen years are showing, too, bringing out the subtleties. Very pleasant.

From my point of view, life in PNG was an idyllic frolic, playing in the mud with my friends, throwing rocks and climbing trees (my parents worked, leaving me in the care of a local nanny, who didn’t see the need to supervise the white boy any more than the other children in the village). Sure, every now and again someone would have a two-foot parasitic worm crawl out of them, but that was just part of life, wasn’t it? There was always a bit of an undercurrent of danger, though, that I don’t think I was fully aware of.

In the hills outside of town, for example, there was occasionally a checkpoint where men in traditional warrior garb and brandishing spears would stop our car to demand a donation for the local boy scout troupe. I remember another incident too, where mum hit a pig on the road, and the entire tribe showed up at our house to negotiate a settlement. The closest brush I ever had though came when we weren’t even at home.

My family and I were back in Australia on holiday, and we had left the house and our menagerie in the care of Helen, a single woman friend of my mother’s. The house stood on stilts, in the Queenslander style. In the cavity underneath there was (aside from Gus’ cage) all manner of junk, including a pair of huge packing crates (that at one point had contained industrial sized generators for the school my parents worked at). The generator crates sat directly under the floor to the bedroom that my sister and I shared, with perhaps a twelve-inch gap between. Under my bed and, therefore, above the crates, was a long forgotten trap door, now screwed down.

About a week into Helen’s residency, a rascal from the squatter’s village wandered up the hill and, snooping about the junk pile for something to pinch (he was undeterred by Gus’ hissing), discovered the trap door. We can only speculate how long he lay on the crates, or what his intentions were, but in the morning they found a little bed he’d made for himself down there. In the evening, once it was dark, he unscrewed the trapdoor and climbed up into our bedroom.

Helen was watching TV in the lounge-room when she heard some odd scraping noises coming from the kid’s room and, thinking it was one of the animals, she went to investigate. She opened the door and snapped on the light, startling the man who was standing in the middle of the room. Helen screamed and ran, and the man chased her, brandishing the screwdriver. In the lounge room she had a flare gun that a neighbour had lent her, half-jokingly, for self-defence. She fired it at the intruder, hitting him in the hand. He dropped his screwdriver and fled. The flared ricocheted and left a burn mark in the hallway. As the man ran back to the trap door she fired again, this time catching my bedroom door, that he was in the act of slamming behind him. The flare left a small round hole with blackened edge, right about my eye level. I used to play that it was a peep-hole.

Helen ran screaming to the neighbour’s place, and the police came, but the man was gone, and there wasn’t a lot the cops were inclined to do. “Forget it, Helen, it’s PNG.”

The epilogue to the story is the death of dear Ernest. After the incident, Helen understandably wanted a little more protection around the house, and borrowed a giant brute of a Rottweiler from a neighbour, which she chained up on the front porch. Ernest, normally a free range cat, was confined to the indoors while the dog was in residence. One evening she opened the door and Ernest, evidentially eager for some fresh air, came darting out. The dog got a hold of him, and a beloved childhood pet met his end.

Romeo y Julieta Exhibición No.2 Edición Limitada 2000 final third

The cigar has remained mostly very mild, but in the last two inches it starts to bitter up a bit, with a sweet and nutty spice. Some cinnamon. This is a fantastic example of a mature cigar. It is not dried out and tasteless (like the aged Romeo Churchill I smoked some years ago), but instead has a sweet, nuanced mildness. It will barely leave an aftertaste.

Very interesting here is that the burn has been utterly unimpeachable: it lit in moments, has had no relights, no touch ups, and been straight all the way, a miracle compared to the Monty and the Partagás of the same year. Evidentially some decent wrapper existed back then.

Better than the Petit Coronas.

Romeo y Julieta Exhibición No.2 Edición Limitada 2000 nub

Romeo y Julieta Exhibición No.2, Edición Limitada 2000 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Romeo y Julieta Escudos Edición Limitada 2007

As far as Cuban Edición Limitada cigars go, 2007 stands out as probably the least interesting year to date. The Trinidad Ingenios was the standout, being that rarest of beasts, a long, skinny cigar in the limited edition program, but the other two, the Hoyo de Monterrey Regalos and today’s smoke, the Romeo y Julieta Escudos, were neither fat nor skinny not short nor long. They weren’t oddly shaped, and were from brands that sit in the meaty part of the bell curve; neither global powerhouses nor cult aficionado favourites. None of them sold particularly well, and all are still reasonably easy to come by eight years later.

Romeo y Julieta Escudos Edición Limitada 2007 unlit

It’s a perfect spring day and, for the sake of variety, I have crossed the river to the park that overlooks the riverside boulevard where I often enjoy my cigars. I find a place in a little sheltered horseshoe that in Europe would be an ancient burial mound, but here I suspect was just a convenient way to dispose of construction rubble and call it landscaping. The cigar lights well, and after an initial bitterness mellows into mid-tobacco with a nice floral note. A little almond maybe, with a sting on the back-palate. Some coffee.

Of all the adventures on my journey, of all the half remembered drunken tableaus, of all the brief encounters with desperate souls in varying stages of personal crisis, there is one vignette that often comes to mind.

It was the night of the Brownlow medal, the most prestigious award for the fairest and best in Australian Rules Football, that is celebrated with a gala at the Casino, just a little way up-stream from where I am sitting. At around about 10:00pm my phone rang. “Mate, what you up to? You want to go to the casino, check out all the trim from the Brownlow?” AFL footballers, being peak physical specimens, tend to attract females that are similarly well put together, and the Brownlow is their night of nights where, with ball gowns and diamonds and a lot of double sided tape, they compete for adoration of the gossip magazines. “Sure” I said. “Why not?”

The Brownlow is held on a Monday night, and if anything, the casino was quieter than usual, with all the action well off limits in a distant ballroom. We did a lap of the casino floor and found the serious punters in the sports bar; the television broadcast of the Brownlow medal is about as unbearable as you can imagine, an endless stream of numbers as they tally the votes for the umpire’s favourite players at every game of a season, but there they were, a silent room full of dead-eyed men watching television. They disliked our intrusion.

Romeo y Julieta Escudos Edición Limitada 2007 two thirds remaining

At the midpoint the cigar is on the lighter side of medium, with just a hint of that cherry note that one looks for in Romeo ELs, along with coffee bean and saddle leather. There still persists a vegetal tang that I can’t quite put my finger on… perhaps the cyanide of bitter almonds, or the capsaicin taste of capsicum peppers.

We left the sports bar and headed out to the terrace for a cigarette, and then back indoors for another lap. The casino has an effect on you: we were listlessly wandering, watching the gamblers at their high and low points. Eventually we wound up at the cocktail bar. There are three bars on the gaming floor, and theoretically, the cocktail bar is the classy one. It has a lot of chrome and red leather. The lighting is dimmer. There are less televisions. We were mainly there for the quiet, alone except for a clutch of girls in the back booth who appeared to be consoling a weeping friend.

We were chatting idly and sipping our beers when a man sidled up to the bar. He was probably in his 50s, and in every way unremarkable: he didn’t look drunk, he was dressed nicely, but not fancily. He didn’t look crazy or homeless or anything like that. Ethnically he looked Australian, as much as one can look such a thing – perhaps a second generation European migrant. I wouldn’t have given him a second glance, and didn’t, and until my friend said “hey look… this guy is pissing on the bar.”

And so he was. The bartender came over and took his order, two rum and cokes, while his urine flowed freely down the textured paint of the under-bar, and pooled around his shoes. Unsuspecting, she set his drinks before him, while he deftly extracted $20 from his pocket using his free hand. She left to get his change and, just at that moment, by pure chance, a floor manager walked by. He didn’t see the man at first, just my friend and I, wide eyed and mouths agape, awestruck by the spectacle. He followed our gaze to the man standing in the puddle, just shaking out the last few drops. He did a double take, and turned back to us. “Is this guy pissing on the bar?” “Oh yes.”

The floor manager bolted behind the bar and poured the drinks down the sink. The man looked bewildered as he was handed his money back, and even protested for a few moments before shrugging his shoulders exasperatedly and heading back onto the floor, where I assume he was ambushed by security and beaten up in an alley. My friend and I stayed for a few moments as a few groups of people came to order drinks, unaware that they were standing in a puddle of urine. When we had finished ours I mooted the idea of another, but my friend replied that there was no point, our night wasn’t going to get any better from here.

It’s the logic of the vignette that haunts me to this day: if he’d pissed on the floor by his slot machine, so as to preserve an imagined hot streak, I would think him demented but I would understand it. As it was he had left the floor, left his machine or his table, and the bathroom was only ten meters further away. It also sticks with me how cool he was: to look another person in the eye and engage in an everyday financial transaction while you surreptitiously urinate is a level of cool that I will never possess. He was truly the fairest and the best.

Romeo y Julieta Escudos Edición Limitada 2007 a touch above the band

The cigar ends with a little tar, and the same vague cherry/coffee/tang triumvirate it has had throughout. I don’t want to come down too hard on it: it was well constructed and pleasant throughout. That said, a lack of complexity keeps it from the top of the pack. Out of respect, I rate it higher than the Petit Coronas. Nowhere near as good as the Ingenios though.

Romeo y Julieta Escudos Edición Limitada 2007 nub, with an empty Sail and Anchor bottle

Romeo y Julieta Escudos Edición Limitada 2007 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Trinidad Short Robusto T Edición Limitada 2010

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

Trinidad Short Robusto T Edición Limitada 2010 unlit

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

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

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

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

Trinidad Short Robusto T Edición Limitada 2010 two thirds remaining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas in China. Not recommended.

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

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

Trinidad Short Robusto T Edición Limitada 2010 nub

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

Trinidad Ingenios Edición Limitada 2007

With the end of the season soon upon us and my main series for the year long concluded, The Harem has reached a bit of a doldrums. I hesitate to smoke too dusky a beauty as I feel that the most precious cigars should be saved to burn alongside their sisters in some future series, and yet, the raison d’être of this column is the objective comparison of the rarest of collectable cigars. The net result is this: today’s cigar, the Trinidad Ingenios Edición Limitada 2007, chosen more or less by random chance.

With a 42 ring gauge, the Ingenios is the thinnest Edición Limitada released to date and, if current trends continue, it will remain the thinnest for a long while to come (2014 featured a 58 ring, 2015 has a 56). It’s a lovely looking thing, with a glossy chocolate wrapper and pigtail. It feels good in the hand, an elegant aristocratic smoke. Trinidad is not a brand I’ve ever really come to; for some reason the packaging makes me think of them as light cigars with a sweet, cinnamon and nutmeg bouquet. I don’t know why: that’s not at all what they taste like, but the false expectation nonetheless leaves me disappointed. This one begins very far from that place, strong and punchy, full tobacco with coffee and chocolate from the get go.

Trinidad Ingenios Edición Limitada 2007 unlit

Trinidad, of course, is named for the Cuban town a few hours down the coast from Havana, a place we have visited before in these pages. It’s a seminal town in my cigar smoking life: I visited very early on my first trip to Cuba, and the run down domestic production factory on the outskirts of town was the first cigar factory that I ever set foot in. Behind the factory I bought a newspaper wrapped bundle of corona gordas from one of the rollers for two convertible pesos – a deal both parties were delighted with. Without the paperwork required for export, I had no choice but to smoke three of those cigars a day for the next two weeks, and left Cuba thoroughly enchanted by the leaf. It was also in Trinidad where I met the Australians.

I was sitting in a café with a friend drinking a Malta (a revolting Cuban malt extract soda), and complaining loudly about it in my broad Australian accent when I was addressed from behind by a tourist in equally broad ‘Strine. “That sounds like the mother tongue!” he said. “Where’re you blokes from?”

He turned out to live three streets over from the house I grew up in, and was traveling in Cuba with his British wife. They were about five years older than my friend and I; and quickly became friends, not because of any real shared interest, but because we seemed to run into them everywhere we went. I saw them every day that I was in Trinidad, and then a few days later in Cienfuegos, and a few days after that in Santiago. They showed up at the bus station as we departed for Havana, and we spent eight hours on the overnight coach not two feet away from them. They had become something of a joke between my friend and I: were they ASIO agents, we wondered, sent by our government to monitor our exposure to communist ideologies?

Trinidad Ingenios Edición Limitada 2007 one third smoked

Mid-way through the Ingenios is very mild with a slight milkiness, not quite cream, but it leaves the lactic shock on the palette. There is the barest hint of promised nutmeg and, somewhere in the back there, a shadow of chocolate remains. An excellent smoke.

We had some respite from the Australians in Havana: we still saw them occasionally, but Havana is a big city and there were more places to hide. Things got really weird the next week though when we arrived in Mexico and found them in the hotel room next to us. Up to this point our relationship had been fairly casual: the odd shared drink, the occasional joke, but in Mexico we went sight-seeing together. “What are you guys up to today” the male had asked over buffet breakfast. We told him we were heading off to see the pyramids at Teotihuacán and he asked if they could join us. “Sure, why not?” They seemed friendly enough.

Mexico City sits at a famously high altitude: every guide book warns you to take it easy on your first few days there while your body adapts. It was extremely hot that day, a full sun beating down, and the pyramids at Teotihuacán are a heck of a climb. We were halfway up the Pyramid of the Sun by the time the woman started to complain. Long and loud, she protested, a sing song childish whine. She wanted to go down. She wanted a bottle of water. Eventually the guy gave us an apologetic look and said they’d meet us at the bottom.

When we saw them at the base of the monument an hour or so later, her complaints seemed to have escalated into an argument, and we were grateful when they told us to climb the Pyramid of the Moon alone and meet them at the entrance when we were ready to go. By the time we saw them again two hours later they were deep in a full blown domestic.

For most the bus ride through the slums they kept their bickering to muffled hisses, but once we got to the subway, away from the English speaking ears of the tourists, they erupted into an unbridled screaming match. She would say something, a complaint, and he would ignore her. Then she would repeat it, and accuse him of ignoring her, and then add another complaint, and so on until finally he snapped at her, at which point she would wail and scream until he yelled at her, at which point she would sulk for a few minutes before making another complaint and repeating the process ad nauseam. At one stage a camera was thrown. If there had been any plates around I’m sure they would have been broken. My friend and I were mortified, but what could we do? We were trapped on a train, and headed for the same destination. We rolled our eyes at each other at every repetition of the cycle, every carping over of the same tired points.

When finally we arrived back at the Zócalo and immediately made our excuses. “You guys go back” my friend said “we’re going to go get some dinner.”
“Oh, sounds good!” the guy replied. “Where are you going?” My friend looked at me desperately. It was imperative we not spend another minute with these dreadful people.
“Look, if I’m honest, we’re going to find some whores.” I said. “I’ve never been with a Hispanic woman and I really want to do it before I leave Mexico. We’re just going to head to the worst part of town and hang around until they find us.” He took a long look at his wife, and I think honestly considered coming with us: anything was better than the night of bickering he had in store for him back at the hotel.
“Ha, alright, you guys have fun” he said eventually.

The next morning he knocked on our door bright and early. “So sorry about yesterday, guys” he said. “I love her, but she’s just a real bitch sometimes, y’know?” We murmured vague kind of disagreement you murmur when politeness dictates that you have to disagree with something you entirely agree with.
“Hey, I was wondering, do you guys have any room in your bags? Could you take some stuff back to Australia for us?” He proffered a brown paper package about the size of two keys of black tar heroin.
“It’s just a camping stove and some souvenirs… we’ve got another month of trekking in front of us, and we won’t need them anymore. You can open it if you like.” Taking pity on the poor bastard and wanting to get him out of my room, I instantly agreed.
“No problem. No need to open it, I trust you.”

Trinidad Ingenios Edición Limitada 2007 final third

With a bit over an inch to go the chocolate is back in force. The tobacco strength is full, with heavy nicotine, and there is a smoky tar involved, but it’s sweet rather than sour tar. A bittersweet chocolate bomb.

After twenty five hours or so in the air we arrived at Cairns International Airport and when the customs officer saw the Mexican stamp in my passport he sent me straight to the inspection line. The officer on inspection duty was a young, jolly sort of fellow, who I think must have been fresh from training as he did the most thorough job of a bag inspection I have ever seen. Socks were unrolled. The pages of my books we thumbed through. Eventually, of course, he got to the brown paper package.
“What’s this?” The first questions he had asked me were “are you carrying anything for anyone else” and “did you pack your bags yourself.” I had answered “no” and “yes” respectively. I was caught out.
“Ah, it’s just a gift for a friend” I mumbled. All façade of joviality fell away.
“You don’t know what it is?”
“He said it was a camping stove.”
“How well do you know this person?”
“Ah well… y’know… I met them a few times… in Cuba… they’re Australians…” He signalled to someone, and four heavily armed customs officials appeared, taking stations between me and every exit. He withdrew a knife from somewhere and delicately cut along the seam of the package, delicately lifting up the corner of the wrapping. I contemplated what it would be like spending the rest of my life in prison. What do you get for heroin smuggling? Surely not more than 10 years with good behaviour. He lifted the flap a little further, peeking in, and then finally pulled the whole thing open. Inside was a camping stove and, inside that, a block of Cuban chocolate. The customs guy looked disappointed. The armed guards wandered off.
“I can’t let you bring this into the country, y’know” he said. “All food stuffs must be declared.”
“Can I eat it?” I asked.

And so I did. A whole block of rich, dark Cuban cooking chocolate, straight down the hatch. And that’s what the Trinidad Ingenios tastes like. Although it doesn’t make me feel sick like that did.

The end of the cigar is rich and smooth. Yes, it is bitter, but it’s not unpleasant. I don’t feel any need to spit or rinse my mouth out or anything like that. In the final analysis, the Ingenios is probably not as good as the Torre Iznaga, but it is a very good smoke, and one of the better Edición Limitadas.

Trinidad Ingenios Edición Limitada 2007 nub

Trinidad Ingenios Edición Limitada 2007 on the Cuban Cigar Website.