Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure de Luxe La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2012

In its best moments, the La Casa del Habano Exclusivo series is an island of misfit cigars; smokes too weird for mainstream release, produced on an “as many as we can sell” basis. The Partagas Culebras, the Upmann Noellas, the Bolivar Gold Medals, and the Partagas Salomon: all are perfect examples of the breed. To this dysfunctional family came 2012’s Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure de Luxe – an utterly standard new release. It is of the Mágicos vitola, proud size of every second regional, and a petite robusto in a brand already sporting robusti petite, regular and extra. If there is one thing that the de Luxe did pioneer, it is in the art of excessive bands: with both a double-sized main band and an LCDH special, fully 42% of it is concealed.

Unlit, the Epicure de Luxe has a wind tunnel draw, the air passing through without even a hint of resistance. Lit, it begins with notes of burnt toast. The tobacco is sweet and mild. There is a hint of the typical Hoyo wood there, but fortunately it takes a back seat to sweetness and cinnamon. After about a centimetre the cigar develops something dry and unpleasant on the back palate. Oddly, the draw has tightened up to a point where it’s definitely firm, and on the verge of Cuban. I attribute it to the rinsing, which took place after the cut, but before the light. Yet another example of the glories of running your cigars under a tap.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure de Luxe

Camellia-Bell Jones was a dear sweet thing when our paths first crossed, and to some extent, so was I. It was the summer of my 19th year, at the same stock-standard teenage riot that I attended weekly in those salad days; forty or so kids and a few slabs of Melbourne Bitter arranged around the tumbledown share-house of a friend-of-a-friend. That night, my attention was laser focused on Victoria Sargent, a Toorak ballerina who’d been in and out of my circle for four-or-five years. She was utterly out of my league, but treated my dotage with good humour, even as she casually rebuffed my fumbled advances. I went home that night delighted with myself: another evening well spent in the radiant light of The Sargent. “One day” I thought “I’ll wear her down. Good ground work, Groom.” I had no awareness that even as my gaze fell limpet on Victoria, other eyes were regarding me just as covetously from across the cold void of the dance floor.

Camellia-Bell got my number from the host and rang my house the next morning. “It’s a girl,” my mother announced loudly, for her own benefit more than anyone else’s. Camellia said she’d really enjoyed meeting me last night and wanted to have coffee sometime. I accepted, despite having no memory of her at all, an amnesia that continued well into the coffee date itself.

She was a waifish wallflower from the suburban fringe, who had moved to the big city for university; 45kg of blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and big dreams. Unlatched from the parental teat she was all about taking charge of her life. She’d never had a boyfriend – never even been kissed – and first item on the list was to find a man. Her first real date had been some weeks earlier with Ben Plumber, a vague acquaintance of mine. It had not gone well. In a lanky teenaged Groom, though, she thought she’d found something promising. She was wrong.

At nineteen, I still succoured from my parental teat nightly. My 6pm curfew wasn’t strictly speaking enforced anymore, but I still respected it most of the time. I liked video games and pizza and goofing around with my friends. I knew an awful lot about Civilization 2 and Warhammer 40,000, and almost nothing about the fairer sex.

I spent a lot of time with Camellia-Bell that summer. We wandered around back alleys. We went to Parliament House and the Supreme Court and the stock exchange. Anywhere free. She wore dressy backless tops and tight skirts and eye makeup. I wore tatty black shirts and cargo pants from the army disposals store. When she introduced me to her friends they smiled knowing smiles. “Nice to finally meet you” they said. “We’ve heard so much about you.”

Clearly, Camellia-Bell was into me, and yet, my diaries at the time are filled with endless analysis of every comment. “Does she like me?” I wondered. “What about when she brought up talking to a boy on the bus, what was that about?” In my more confident moments, my rumination moved to how to escalate things, with every possibility ruled out.

Eventually, her roommate took me aside. “It’s so hilarious how into you Cammy is” she told me. “She has a photo of the two of your framed next to her bed, and she has this whole book where she practices signing her name as ‘Camellia-Bell Groom.’ She draws a little flower on the end.” I’m not sure if the roommate told Camellia-Bell what she’d done, but the next time I saw her she seemed to have a new determination. She asked outright if I liked anyone. I gave her an adolescent non-answer. “I like someone” she volunteered, unprompted, and looking at me deeply. “I just can’t figure out how to tell him.”

Perhaps it was the anaphrodisiac of being desired, or maybe simple cowardice, but it was all too much for me. I was spooked. I went cold on her. From that day forward, when she texted I wouldn’t reply for days, if at all. On the rare occasion I answered her calls, I would give her a series of non-committal grunts, declining her invitations with a curt “nah, I’m busy.”

Eventually the phone calls stopped and a letter arrived, a full ten pages of loopy feminine script. I can’t believe I was so in love with such a coward, it began, and continued in that vein. I didn’t reply, and time rolled on, and that was that. Over the years I thought of her once in a while. Tried to look her up, but I never could find anything. No Facebook. No LinkedIn. With no real mutual friends, she was out of my life. A ghost of a botched romance from the distant past.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure de Luxe partly smoked.

At the halfway point something has turned in the Epicure de Luxe. The cigar is bitter and ashy. I let it sit for a while, and blow through it vigorously to clear the smoke, but nothing seems to help. I try to tap the end off, but the bulk of the ash won’t budge, just small particles of ash falling from it like dandruff. Thinking that perhaps it is tunnelling, I relight to even up the coal, which makes it even hotter and ashier, so I let it sit for a while, after which it seems to come back on form. Still not a lot to it though.

Fifteen years later, I was seated in a karaoke bar, watching with distain as a drunken quartet caroused their way through a rendition Eminem’s Lose Yourself, when my phone vibrated: New friend request from Camelia-Bell Lockwood. I clicked through, and there were those bright blue eyes.

Over the next few weeks we chatted online, and once the pleasantries were out of the way, she wanted an explanation for why I cut her off all those years ago. I said I didn’t really have one, but I denied some stuff and apologised for the rest, and that seemed to satisfy her. She wanted to meet, and a week later we found ourselves back in the old coffee shop, and she told me her story.

Two years after I had departed her life, she was still un-kissed when on a New Year’s Eve she got chatting to a boy, and at midnight he grabbed her by the neck and gave her both barrels. A week later he asked her to marry him. She said no at first, but he persisted, and six months later they were engaged, and married just after the next new year. They moved to a one-horse town in rural Victoria and bought a cute little house. He started a business installing pest netting on organic farms. She did a Dip-Ed and got a job at the local high school.

The years passed, and malaise set in. The netting business was seasonal, and when it was slow, her husband would drink and bring home his frustrations to her. She didn’t like the principal at her school, but with no other schools within a reasonable distance, there was nowhere else she could go.

The Victorian Education Department offers teachers seven years of unpaid maternity leave, and a baby seemed like the answer to both problems. By the time she was ready to return to fulltime teaching, surely the principal would be retired. Also, she hoped, the new bub would focus her husband, and reinvigorate their marriage. She was wrong.

After the birth, her husband’s drinking moved from moderate to heavy, and his shouted frustrations moved to kicked doors and broken glass. Finally, he threatened her child, and she left, first to a woman’s shelter and later to a cot in the hallway of her mother’s house.

Six months later, her divorce was finalised. With her settlement she bought a little flat and picked out a puppy. Unlatched from her husband, it was time take charge of her life, so she looked up the boy she’d never forgotten. The one who had seemed so promising. Friend request sent to A. T. Groom.

Our coffee date was awkward. We were two strangers, with two very different lifetimes between us. Camila-Bell was undeterred. Afterwards she sent me a text. “It wasn’t as easy chatting to you as I remembered, but I still feel that special connection with you. I want us to be proper friends.”

From the fortress of my inner-city bachelor pad I considered the situation carefully. I had been a bit of a shit to her last go around, and it had obviously left some scars. I didn’t want to leave any more. A brief fling to cross one off the list was out of the question. With this one it was either never let it begin, or marry her.

For a while I allowed myself the fantasy. A simple life. Sell my apartment. Quit the owner’s corporation. Ditch the eighty hours a week in the office, the binge drinking, the cocaine, the string of girls that come and go. We could make a nice life in a cute little house in the country. I could open up a computer shop and install anti-virus software for people. Home by 5:15 to my schoolteacher wife with the bright blue eyes. A father to her son, and after a few years, to the sons she would bare me.

Instead I decided to be cruel to be kind. When she messaged me, my replies were slow to come and short. I declined four of her invitations before her tone became exasperated.

“I can’t believe you’re so busy! Are you trying to avoid me? 😉”

I tried to let her down gentle.

“I’m sorry Cammy, you’re a great girl, it’s just I know I hurt you last time around, and I don’t think I can give you what you want this time around and I don’t want to hurt you again, so I’m not sure how smart it is to start up with you…”

The chat-box flashed Camelia-Bell is typing for the longest time, as she composed her furious response. When it finally came, all it was missing was the loopy teenage script.

“It sounds like you think I’m pathetic. I did like you once, but I’m not interested in you that way anymore. Actually, I’m seeing someone else. I just wanted to be friends with you because from the first moment I met you I always felt we had a special connection, like we were together in a past life or something. I should have known it was a mistake to contact you again.”

The text continued in that vein for several scroll wheel clicks, and by the time I got to the bottom the reply box was greyed out. This user has unfriended you and blocked you from sending messages.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure de Luxe smoked to the second band.

As the second band comes off, the Epicure de Luxe it starts to recover, the sweetness returning somewhat, with a note of coffee. As it moves into the nub the coffee transitions from arabica to robusta to over-roasted robusta and finally into tar. The aftertaste is all cedar, but it’s not too bad.

I don’t really think of Hoyo as a brand with too much aging potential, but this one I feel could use five years to take the edge off it. It’s a decent enough smoke besides though. Just could use a little bit of maturity.

Oh, and Victoria Sargent? She wound up marrying Rod Plumber.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure de Luxe nub.

Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure de Luxe La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2012 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Hoyo de Monterrey Elegantes La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2016

In The Harem, where cigars are rarely combusted before their fifth birthdays, and often not before their fifteenth, today’s beauty is a comparative rarity; the Hoyo de Monterrey Elegantes is part of the La Casa del Habano exclusive program, and was scheduled for release in 2016. Naturally, it did not actually begin appearing in stores until 2017, and the single I purchased at retail wasn’t even from the first batch. From factory to fire in less than six months! Unheard of.

Hoyo de Monterrey Elegantes La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2016 unlit

True to its name, it’s an elegant cigar, topping out at 47 ring gauge, but feeling thinner on account of the perfecto format. The wrapper is smooth chestnut. Whoever put the band on had a little trouble with the tapered tip: the fit is awkward, and you can clearly see the overlap. Lit, the cigar is punchy from the get go: bitter, and acridly herbal, with strong tannic and woody notes. Somewhere in there is something slightly fungal. Shitake mushrooms.

Being the height of Melbourne’s summer, the weather has taken a turn. The sky is overcast, and a chill breeze is coming in from the south. My winter coats are deep in the mothballs, and going in after them this early in the year would seem too much like giving up. My autumnal coat though? Seemed doable. It’s a very simple, Loden-wool chesterfield, cut to the mid-thigh. It first came into my possession in the mid-90s, when I was about 14, and going through a phase. A phase where I wanted a trench-coat.

I wanted it long and black and preferably leather. I wanted a collar I could flip up as high as my ears. I wanted to drop a caustic one-liner, flick my cigarette into the wind, and swoosh off into the night. The Matrix hadn’t come out yet, so I guess I must have seen The Crow or something. I suggested to my parents that they could buy me one for my birthday, and they flatly refused. That Sunday, at dinner at my grandparents’ house, my mother even brought it up as a joke. “Do you know what Alexander wants for his birthday?” She hooted. “A trench-coat!” My grandmother’s eyes lit up immediately. “I’ve got just the thing!”

She scurried to the back bedroom, and pulled my coat from the cupboard. “I hate this horrible thing” she declared. My grandfather glared, but said nothing. My mother gushed over the quality, which is very fine, and I accepted it somewhat begrudgingly. It was not at all what I wanted; a plain, old-man’s autumnal coat. I wasn’t nearly long or leather enough. On the ride home I mused out loud about the possibility of dying it back. “Oh, you mustn’t,” my mother said. “You’ll ruin it.”

Hoyo de Monterrey Elegantes La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2016, with two thirds remaining

After the bulge has burned away, the cigar grows mild, with cedar notes predominating. A straw taste has emerged, and there is still that slight musty element of forest floor. The burn is perfect.

My grandmother’s demise was fairly swift, as far as demises go. She was eighty-nine, and a routine doctor’s visit showed a lump on her liver. A biopsy declared it cancerous and rapidly spreading. She was sent more or less immediately to hospital, and after two weeks as an inpatient she was transferred to a hospice, where a few days later she would die.

The last time I saw her was in the hospital. It was the only occasion in my adult life that I ever remember being alone with her, and the only time I ever conversed with her person-to-person, as equals. She was taking a medication that was making her hallucinate, especially at night, and I discussed the experience at length with her, trying to give her some insight from my own misspent youth, when I had been through the same thing recreationally. Eventually the nurse came in, and it was time for me to go. As she was being bolstered up, my grandmother looked at me slyly and added one last thing in parting. “You know,” she said. “He’s never forgiven me for giving you that coat.”

At this point I had had the coat for fifteen years, and although my tastes had matured enough that I could appreciate it, I still wore it only rarely. There’s simply not that many days in a year that call for an autumnal coat. It had acquired a few knocks over the decades – it was missing a button, and the lining had come away in places – and I resolved to set things right. I would get it fixed up and return it to my grandfather.

Hoyo de Monterrey Elegantes La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2016, final third

Into the final third, the cigar as strengthened again. Still, the predominant note is cedar, and fresh cut branches. It’s slightly nutty. Walnuts.

After my grandmother died, my grandfather always seemed a bit lost. He lived until he was ninety-seven, and I think in the last few years more or less everyone he knew had died. He stayed in his own home, stubbornly independent, and pottered around, working on little projects and watching a lot of old TV. My grandmother had always done the cooking and the cleaning and so on, and he didn’t care much for those jobs, living on microwave dinners and letting the dishes pile up in the sink. He had to endure his daughters reversing the parental relationship, nagging him to eat better and clean up after himself, and bossing him around about his appointments and so on.

It took me about five years, but eventually I gave the coat back. I had it dry-cleaned and repaired, and it looked as good as the day I had acquired it. My parents were going over to my grandfather’s house for dinner, and I joined them, which was rare for me. I presented him the coat, and explained the story about my grandmother’s death bed. He claimed not to remember it, but nonetheless I felt like I had done the right thing. I had put something right that once was wrong.

It was almost exactly a week later that he died. My aunt was at his house, and was going to take him out for dinner. He was in the next room when she heard him fall. Mentally and physically he was fine, and in the family we had every expectation that he would reach a century, but in that one moment his heart just stopped beating. The paramedic said he would have been dead before he hit the floor.

A month later the family gather at the old house to divide up the estate, each of us placing stickers on the things we wanted. The coat was folded over the back of the dining chair, exactly where I’d left it. It got my first sticker.

Hoyo de Monterrey Elegantes La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2016 nub

The cigar gets a little bitter towards the end, but never too bad; it isn’t the bitter chocolate and heavy tobacco end that I relish, but nor is it the sharp, saliva inducing tar that finishes off inferior cigars. The Elegantes falls pretty squarely in type for Hoyo de Monterrey: it is light to medium strength, woody, with bit of grass and not too much else. If I had to rank it, and eventually I shall, it will probably find its place above the Epicure 2 and below the Regalos. It’s a narrow field though.

Hoyo de Monterrey Elegantes La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2016 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Romeo y Julieta Cedros de Luxe La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2014

Amongst the more inexplicable releases of 2014 was the Romeo y Julieta Cedros de Luxe, that year’s addition to the La Casa del Habano Exclusive line (which are not especially exclusive, either to La Casa del Habanos stores, or the year of production, and least of all in number produced). The Romeo y Julieta line can loosely be broken up into several lines: the numbered series, which come in tubes, are available in gas stations, and are smoked mainly by non-aficionados; the Churchill series, which have the classic name, command a premium price, and are smoked by both the aficionado and non-aficionado alike; and the Exhibición series which are the exclusive domain of the aficionado. Then there’s the en Cedros cigars, which fall strongly into the “sell well in Spain” category (or to put it another way, are smoked by nobody).  Why Habanos felt that adding a Gorditio to the cedros line (a size that was last seen de cedros as the 2007 Escudos EL) was a good idea is beyond me, but so it is. Today one shall burn.

Romeo y Julieta Cedros de Luxe La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2014 unlit

Readers are sometimes surprised to learn that I don’t really smoke all that much. Aside from the odd social event – where I’ll hang a cigar out of my mouth and not really think about the flavours – the cigars you see burnt in these pages are pretty much the sum of it. Because of this I am approximately the world’s most spoiled smoker, with a palate accustomed exclusively to ancient limited editions and other rarities. Despite being 2014 cigars, the Cedros de Luxe only finally materialised in mid-2015, making this example the youngest thing I’ve smoked in years. It’s got a real tang to it up front, like biting into a vine leaf. That note only lasts for a second on the palate though, quickly fading into a sticky, milky sort of taste, with a walnut bitterness. Tobacco strength is a light medium. It’s not bad at all.

It’s mid-morning on a Tuesday, and I have decided to call today a Vitamin-D break. I logged into the office chat-program first thing, and when somebody addressed a question to me I replied “I’m out of the office this morning, will get back to you this arvo.” Nobody seemed to question it. There is a cool breeze blowing, but the little park I’m in is sheltered, and it’s nice in the sun.

I picked up a coffee on the way over. The sprightly young waitress took my order, but told me to wait for the barista, and made small talk with me until he arrived. He turned out to be an elderly Italian man, who was delighted when I declined his offer of sugar. “Good, good!” he said. “The last guy, he want hot chocolate with two sugars! Two sugars! It’s like can of coke! He want to kill himself, I think.” I smiled along, and murmured the platitudes one murmurs when somebody rants passionately at you about something you don’t have a lot of stake in. While he was talking the waitress had started wiping down the large tables, and was bending deep to reach the far side. The barista caught me checking out her butt and winked at me. “I think maybe sometimes you like the sugar, eh?” I threw up my hands, and smiled. “Sometimes I like two sugars.”

Romeo y Julieta Cedros de Luxe La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2014 partially smoked

The burn of the Cedros de Luxe is not great, the coal burning only in the centre, and leaving the wrapper untouched. It has yet to totally go out, but has required several touch ups to keep a semi-decent smoke volume going. The ash seems unusually white for a cigar this young. By the mid-point the initial tang has transformed into a dryer one, resembling the herbaceous element of a martini. Hendricks gin, if I’m not mistaken, with a tiny splash of Noilly Pratt. Dry is a good word to describe this cigar. It sucks up the saliva.

The park I am in is a little patch of green between office complexes in Melbourne’s desolate docklands, so on a sunny morning like this it is naturally deserted. A beaded man, of a similar age to myself wanders by, a large pipe between his lips. He does a double take when he sees my cigar, and nods to me. Brothers of the leaf. The man wanders down to the water and out onto a small pier there. As I watch he places his pipe on a bollard (the very same bollard that my dusky beauties have rested on from time to time), and takes several photos. I wonder if he’s writing a pipe website somewhere.

Romeo y Julieta Cedros de Luxe La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2014 an inch left

As the coal touches the final inch of the Cedros de Luxe the tang is stronger, the tobacco strength thickening to a full medium. It goes out, and I relight it, and puff vigorously for the last ten minutes or so, finishing it off. Surprisingly it never grows bitter. The final notes are very herbal, quite milky.

In theory, en cedros cigars will gain a cedar quality over time, but at this stage the Cedros de Luxe doesn’t really exhibit one. It’s not a bad cigar, undergoing several flavour transitions while I was smoking, even if those were more or less variations on the same three notes. Still, for what it’s worth, I’d much rather smoke another of these than head back to the office. I even rate it marginally higher than the Escudos, and certainly the Petit Coronas.

Romeo y Julieta Cedros de Luxe La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2014 nub

Romeo y Julieta Cedros de Luxe La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2014 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Partagás Culebras La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2007

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

H. Upmann Noellas La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2009

I debated this one long and hard: the day is perfect for a dusky beauty, the sun is shining, the temperature ideal, it’s very still, and I have nothing in particular to do for four or five hours. There is only one problem: it is the morning after the night before, and I am hung-over like a dog.

I have selected the Noellas for two reasons, and they’re both related. As a smoker of more or less exclusively exotic and esoteric cigars, my smoking roster tends toward trophy smokes: long, thick, precious cigars. There is a very real possibility that a cigar right now will make me throw up, and Noellas is among the smallest I have waiting for me. I also have more than one in stock, so it’s replaceable in the event that I have to ditch it.

H. Upmann Noellas La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2009 unlit

I lift the cap and light the cigar. It begins very well, mid-tobacco, with a sharp herbal tang and an aftertaste of hot buttered toast. The draw is on the firm side, a perfect, classic Cuban.

The Noellas was an old cristales, packaged not in a box but in a glass jar that resembles a preserve jar crossed with a milk pail. At one time these were common, particularly in the Upmann line, but today they are all long discontinued; the Noellas was the last of them, surviving up until the mid-1980s, but this particular example comes from a 2009 rerelease of 5,000 units, theoretically exclusive to the La Casa del Habano chain of stores. They have gone to a great deal of trouble with the replica – not only is the jar pretty much spot on, but the printing on the La Casa del Habano band is some of the worst I’ve ever seen, with blotchy, smudged gold and misaligned embossing: a true example of 1980s Cuban print quality.

H. Upmann Noellas La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2009 two thirds remaining

At the mid-point the cigar is full and punchy, but still smooth, with notes of hot grass, heavy tobacco, and a hint of incense; that first heavy breath as you walk into a Buddhist temple.

I’m a good drunk, in that it doesn’t take too much to get me feeling jolly, but I don’t really show it: in the habitable zone of six to ten drinks my decision making is certainly impaired and my inhibitions are lowered, but I never really slur or stagger, and when I throw up it’s always discreet and doesn’t really slow me down. Many is the time I’ve been granted service at or admittance to a bar when an equally inebriated cohort has been refused it. The downside to this is that I never really have bad experiences while I have a bottle in hand, and because of that I never really think about my hangovers until it’s too late.

I’ve had bad hangovers my entire drinking life: rough things where I wake up with a foul taste in my mouth that won’t go away and an ice-pick driving into my temple that no remedy homespun or pharmaceutical seems to cure. The worst part is the sickness, a churning mix of acid and gas that the intake of anything, even an innocuous glass of water, will provoke until I retch up spurts of bitter, toxic yellow stomach acid. On the bad days there’s blood.

Despite all this, I’ve only ever had one real moment of clarity. I had been out to a friend’s birthday about fifteen minutes’ walk from my house, and when it was over I decided to go for a kebab. The kebab shop that lay between my friend’s house and mine was closed (permanently, some years before, as a more sober man might have recalled), but by the time my nose was pressed against its dusty window I was very committed to the kebab idea, and so I decided to go well out of my way to the kebab van at the petrol station down the hill.

It was a straight shot from the closed kebab shop to the van, and I made it without mishap, but there were no arterial roads on the way from the van to my home, and I was much less familiar with the route. A man with common sense could no doubt have navigated it easily, but common sense was in short supply on this journey, and so I spent the next hour wandering the streets, climbing fences, drinking out of the taps in people’s front yards, making wrong turns and lengthy detours, before finally finding my way to bed.

The next morning I woke up slowly and contemplated my situation, the rancid bitter taste in my mouth and the drill-bit that felt like it was boring into my skull just behind my right eye socket. My stomach churned. “Don’t move” I thought to myself “just lie here. Stay as still as possible and maybe it will pass.” For a few minutes I lay there, but soon a cold sweat broke out on my forehead and saliva began to trickle down the back of my throat, a sure sign of an impending expulsion. Too late I leapt out of bed and ran for the bathroom: half way there it came. I tried to catch the warm, liquid mass in my hands, but the volume was too great, and my cupped palms only forced it up and out, back into my face and all over the room. I didn’t stop to survey the damage, but continued to run for the bathroom, cradling what I was able to catch before me.

Once my stomach contents were expelled and the immediate threat was over, the toilet flushed and my hands rinsed off, I walked gingerly back to my bedroom to survey the damage. A perfect circle of vomit covered the centre of the room, two meters in diameter. I paused to look at myself in the full length dressing mirror: drips of garlic sauce ran down my face, and undigested bits of lamb and tomato were in my hair and clinging to my bare chest. As I stared into my bloodshot eyes and deeply creased forehead a sliver of lettuce peeled itself from my earlobe and flopped gently to my shoulder and from there to the floor.

“What am I doing to myself” I asked aloud. “This has got to stop.”

And that was it. My moment of clarity. I think I stopped drinking for about a week.

H. Upmann Noellas La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2009 final third

The cigar ends exceptionally well, with no tar at all, just a light, crisp, herbaceous tobacco, with slight aniseed notes, a little sour citrus. Very pleasant, and somewhere in the top echelon of Upmann, the farthest distance from the Petit Coronas.

It’s even done wonders for my hangover.

H. Upmann Noellas La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2009 nub

H. Upmann Noellas La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2009 on the Cuban Cigar Website

H. Upmann Royal Robusto La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2011

The second Upmann Robusto is not really a robusto at all, but rather a Royal Robusto, an edmundo: a couple of millimetres longer and a few points softer round the middle. It was extremely well received when it first came out: so well, in fact, that I bought into the hype and a box. They smoked great straight off the plane, and I went through most of mine in the first month or so. A few singles lasted long enough to get covered over in my humidor, and there they have languished until today. How has four years in the dark affected a once fine piece of Cuban vegetable matter? Today we’ll find out.

H. Upmann Royal Robusto La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2011 unlit

The very first note is bitter, hard on the back pallet, but it quickly mellows to a grassy coffee cream. There is a touch of the barnyard in there, straw and animal notes, and the pleasant, fruity part of the fragrance of cow manure.

Although this is not the first published review for the year (I try to publish in an order that makes a loose thread of some sort, groups similar releases and so on), it is, by some definition the first Dusky Beauty of the season. The Harem runs, of course, from January until about June, which corresponds notionally with the summer months in my home town of Melbourne, Australia. For three of these months (January to March) the weather can be more or less guaranteed to be reasonably pleasant for at least one day per weekend, however, three months does not a season make, and so even when I’m not actively publishing I will take any opportunity that presents itself to burn a dusky beauty, to be published when I have a gap to fill.

Today is such a day, an unseasonably warm afternoon in late September, and this will be my first cigar in many months. The temperature is in the high twenties, the breeze light and squalling, and the sun full and undimmed by clouds. Like many of my countrymen, I harbour an erroneous conviction that my leathery hide will never burn, and will instead simply take on the tan hue of a ligero leaf with the first light of summer. It’s not true, of course, and I will very likely emerge from this review lobster pink and peeling. I have at least taken the precaution of a wide brimmed Akubra bush hat.

H. Upmann Royal Robusto La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2011, two thirds left, with a Lipton Ice Tea

By the halfway mark the cigar has mellowed; it’s very sweet, with a sugary, caramel aftertaste, preceded by grass, almond, and perhaps a little peanut shell. I’ve been sipping on a Lipton Ice Tea for the duration, and honestly it tastes like nothing compared to the Royal Robusto. I back off it for a time to see if it’s the source of the sweetness on my back pallet, but no, it’s all the cigar. Fantastic.

It’s a good hat, this: an Akubra Pastoralist in fawn. I purchased it some years ago (why Australia doesn’t yet issue each of its sons and daughters with a cake and an Akubra on their 15th birthday I’ll never know) when I used to regularly attend Young Member’s events at the local racing club – I wanted a country hat with a slightly aristocratic air. In my mind I would be a young farmer from an old family fallen on hard times, in fresh from the Western District, hoping to make my name and win back the family honour with a promising young filly. I was wearing it to a meet once, where while the hat looked great, the rest of my ensemble looked like shit: an ill-fitting Chinese suit, a worn-out white shirt (had I removed my jacket the yellow stains under the armpits would have been visible), and a knock off Ralph Lauren tie, made of even thinner, cheaper silk than the real thing (hard to imagine, I know). In contrast, the friend I was with (a big tobacco executive) was immaculately attired in an impeccably tailored shawl-collared linen suit and double-breasted waistcoat, so it was somewhat surprising when, after signing in with the girl who was running the event, she singled me out for an invitation to the ‘best dressed’ competition.
“Do I have to do anything?” I asked.
“No, no” she said. “Just make sure you’re around for the drawing at 3:00.”
I got a look at the entry sheet as she took my name down: there was only one other name on the list, a girl, and it didn’t look like she’d left a lot of room for others.

As we walked away I said to my friend “I think I’m going to win this thing,” and sure enough, when three o’clock rolled around, after a bit of patter about how their specialist judges had been moving through the crowd and picking out the best of the best, my name was called. The prize? Five hundred credits at a local department store. Some other acquaintances heard my name being called an emerged from the crowd as I was having my photo taken for the Racing News.
“How’d you win that?” they asked. “You don’t look that good.”
“I dunno” I shrugged. “Must have been my lucky hat.”

H. Upmann Royal Robusto La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2011, final third

Getting into the grit now, the cigar has thickened up, heavy tobacco and a bit of tar. It has been relit twice, which probably didn’t help matters, and is generally burning on the hot side. For a seasoned smoker though this level of an ending is nothing, a nice kick to finish the thing off. A sip of the Lipton Lukewarm Tea thins it out nicely. The last inch has notes of coffee, leather and new car.

All in all the Royal Robusto is a great cigar, a slight bit better than the Duty Free Exclusive Robusto, and much better than the Petit Coronas, even if it doesn’t quite make the lofty heights of the Magnum 48.

H. Upmann Royal Robusto La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2011 nub

H. Upmann Royal Robusto La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2011 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Partagás Salomones La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2008

A hot-tub in Taipei, Taiwan. Lance Hendricks, a friend blessed with the intelligence to dream of an exceptional life for himself, but crippled, both metaphorically (by a pathological fear of an honest day’s work) and literally (by a genetic pre-disposition to hip injury), has dropped out of society and washed up here. My own life in China was always that of the Western imperialist; earning an Australian salary that was a factor of ten greater than that of my equally ranked local colleagues, I lived the high life: the best clubs, the best drugs, the prettiest girls – all of them were the exclusive domain of me and my deviant expatriate friends. My man in Taiwan is the first white person I have known to live the life of a typical Chinese native, not in the glamorous heart of Taipei where glass sheathed towers flank wide boulevards and girls with short skirts and debatably genuine Prada handbags dance with the wài​guó​rén​ and sip Johnny Walker Blue Label mixed with sweet green tea, but in Tucheng, a rat’s nest of blind alleys and rabid dogs two stations from the end of the line. Being a cripple, his one requirement of my visit was that I find a hotel not too far from his burrow and the only place I could book online was a suites only motel near the freeway, the kind of place frequented by the discreet elite: those with the money and the inclination to take their girlfriends somewhere they won’t be recognised. Let me put it this way: the main drive is decorated by a forty meter frieze of nude sirens bathing. I am fairly sure my visit marks three milestones for this establishment: the first foreign visitor, the first solo guest, and the first person to stay more than one consecutive night. The room is as luxurious as any I have encountered in my travels. The floor space runs about 90m², of which the bathroom constitutes at least 40m², containing a fountain, a wet massage bed, a six headed shower, the usual sink and toilet along with a spa bath that could comfortably accommodate eight. It is in this bath that I find myself tonight. It is next to this bath that my Partagás Salomones finds itself tonight.

Partagás Salomones unlit, next to a bath

I dip the cigar in the clean bathwater before I respectively light and enter it. It doesn’t seem to do it any harm. At first the draw is a bit tight, as is typical of perfectos, but within ten or so minutes it opens up. The flavour is a mild, milky earth and light tobacco. Delicious. Dear Reader, I would like to submit that from the inside of a spa bath is the ideal condition to enjoy a cigar. With good friends and strong drink is undoubtedly delightful, but one tends to lose focus on the intricacies of flavour in that situation. A spa, however, is fun in and of itself, and it’s relaxing, focusing the mind and the senses. An added advantage is that the heat will hopefully leech from my body whatever toxins the tobacco might deposit. I’m pairing this cigar with a Gold Medal Taiwan Beer, which I bought because I was in Taiwan, and it seemed sensible to drink the national beverage. I can’t imagine on what criteria this alleged gold medal was awarded, as Gold Medal Taiwan Beer is as tasteless a brew as I have ever encountered, being essentially mineral water with a hint of malt extract. It does the job, nonetheless.

Lance was once a promising boy with a bright future, raised by a good family in a pleasant middle class area, he attended one of Melbourne’s best public schools. In his late teens he met a nice girl, Natalie, and after a few years of tertiary education he got a decent office job in a technical field.  He and Nat moved into a comfortable suburban home together, they purchased cats, and to all eyes their future was laid out: a few kids, a lengthy mortgage, and the occasional international holiday, followed by the comfortable twilight of the working middle class.

His decline started, as near as I can pinpoint it, about five years ago. I hadn’t seen him in a month or so when we ran into each other at a mutual friend’s art exhibition, and so, catching up, I asked how Natalie was. “Oh, she’s gone” was the response, surprisingly flippant for the announcement of the end of a seven year relationship. “I’ve got a new girl now. She’s over there.” The girl he pointed to was an unerringly beautiful seventeen year-old, doll faced Russian brunette wearing a short red cape. He leaned in and whispered “her name’s Natasha. She cost me twenty-five thousand dollars.” I’ve never been sure if he was joking.

From then on announcements came thick and fast. A few weeks later he got a new job. A month after that he bought a flat and one of the cats died. The next month he’d quit the new job and was collecting the unemployment benefit. When I first visited him in his new home where there wasn’t a lot of conventional furniture, just broken guitars he’d found at a hard rubbish collection. For reasons not entirely clear to me he’d demolished most of the bathroom, leaving exposed pipes and concrete. We smoked weed out of a bong he’d made from a large juice bottle and some rubber tube. He was very proud of it. We watched metal videos and he played the solos from Megadeath songs for me.

Partagás Salomones a quarter smoked, with a Taiwan Beer

About halfway through the Salomones a lump of ash falls into the water, where the jets instantly pulverize it. The flavour is very balanced, mid-tobacco with a sweaty, earthy note and slight peppery aftertaste, like a very light chemical capsaicin. It’s something akin the smell of freshly maced protesters.

Natasha lasted a year or so, and when she was gone he sold the flat (for a reasonable profit – he had someone come and finish the bathroom) and moved to Thailand to live in a kickboxing training camp. He returned to Australia three months later, lean and strong, with long hair and a beard. He moved back into the pleasant, middle class house in which he was raised and got a job driving a truck. It wasn’t a lot of work, a few hours a day at best, which left him with a lot of hours to get in his mother’s hair. He needed a retreat, and so strung up a heavy bag in the garden shed and would spend hours every day kicking it.

His family had always had weak hips. His father, only in his sixties, had had both replaced, as had his uncle and their father before them, but when Lance’s hip started to hurt him he was unconcerned. “It’s just the muscle growing” he told me. “Strength builds when the fibres in the muscle tear, and then grow back stronger. If I want to be strong I have to fight through the pain, keep kicking this bag.” After a month or so his body rebelled. He could no longer lift his leg high enough to kick the bag.

Even at his most lucid Lance always had a furtiveness about him, a hint of madness in his eyes that was considerably exacerbated by his permanently dilated pupils, a symptom of the weed with which he increasingly self-medicated his injury. In agonising pain and barely able to walk, with long hair, a beard, and dressed in ill-fitting athletic clothes from K-Mart, he went into a doctor’s office and was treated with suspicion; “It’s all psychological” they told him, refusing to prescribe anything stronger than Ibuprofen. “Go home and get some rest.” He tried a few different doctors with similar results, and grew increasingly frustrated by what he perceived as the uncaring system. Then one day he announced that he’d met a Japanese girl on the internet and was going to live in the suburbs of Tokyo with her for six months to convalesce.

Partagás Salomones mostly done

Into the final quarter, and the cigar remains largely unchanged. A slight creamy dairy note has emerged. Even more static is the flavour of the Taiwan beer, which remains as bland as ever.

Lance returned to Australia with his condition considerably worsened, now unable to walk without the aid of a cane and reluctant to drive. His once muscular physique was gone, and although he had no appetite, he was growing fat from inactivity. Most of his old friends had abandoned him, and he had acquired a new set, all much younger than him, but sharing the same circumstance: they were unemployed drug addicts living with their parents. Lance and I had always liked to go out for Indian food together, but now he was reluctant. He couldn’t eat without first stopping to smoke a jazz cigarette in a laneway, something I was loath to let him do. We fought over it, and drifted apart for a while.

When we reconciled he had found a new girlfriend, a twenty year old Taiwanese international student named Storm. A semi-professional basketball player in her native land, in Melbourne she played power forward for a bush league Tuesday night game, and Lance and I would go watch her play sometimes. I never saw her lose. She moved in with him, sharing his childhood bedroom. Once a Spartan cell, he covered the walls with egg cartons and miscellaneous fabric in order to make a better studio for recording self-composed rap songs to put on Youtube. Within six months Storm’s visa ran out, and within seven he had moved to Taiwan to be with her.

And so I find myself in a spa bath in Tucheng. Two days ago I met my friend by the fountain in front of the Taipei Main Railway Station. His eyes have turned milky, and he’s put on a lot of weight (he lives mainly on fried chicken and Red Horse beer – his preference due to its 8% alcohol content). I haven’t spoken Chinese in three years, and even then my vocabulary never went beyond thirty words, and yet, whenever Lance and I are in a store or restaurant and someone speaks to us in Chinese he looks to me to translate. I think he finds the language offensive and refuses to learn it on general principal.

Earlier today I visited him at his home. He showed me the supermarket where he buys his groceries. We bought some beer and drank it in a park. On his recommendation I bought a bag of beetle nut. It’s disgusting, but it makes you feel pretty jazzed. A little toasted we wandered into a junk shop and purchased an arsenal of air rifles (banned in Australia), and tried firing them out the window of his apartment. The little yellow pellets were too hard to see, so we came back to my giant bathroom and blazed into the fountain and the marble walls, the pellets shattering and sending tiny plastic shrapnel everywhere. By dinner time he was tired from the walking and returned home, leaving me with an evening to myself and Partagás Salomones.

What will become of my friend I cannot say; like all fugue states, his must eventually reach some kind of conclusion: perhaps death, perhaps epiphany. I look forward to finding out.

In the last moments the Salomones becomes harsh, but not without due cause. This was not a small cigar. The final notes are bitter tar and earth wood smoke. An excellent cigar, considerably better than a PSD4.

Partagás Salomones nub and ashes

Partagás Salomones on the Cuban Cigar Website