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.
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.
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.
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.
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.