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

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.