I’ve smoked a lot of Monte ELs in the last few weeks, and this one is the granddaddy of them all, numero uno, the 2000 robusto. It has the old non-embossed Montecristo band, faded with age to a light mauve sort of colour, and also that first EL band, the one before they realised they were going to have to put a year on these things somewhere (or perhaps the one before they realised they were going to do this more than once). It’s heavily box-pressed, thirteen years at rest having flattened the once cylindrical sides into a distinctly square shape.
I light it with a match, needing three attempts, which in turn makes the cigar a little hot and bitter in its first moments, however, when I back off it it soon settles down into a strong coffee flavour, with a hint of walnut in the aftertaste. The draw is very tight – tighter than Cuban, but looser than a coffin nail.
I’m accompanying this cigar with half a cantaloupe and some Diplomático rum, and on this still summer’s evening they’re both going down very nicely. If I’m honest the cantaloupe is a poor example of the breed – it’s practically flavourless – but with a cigar it works, offering just a very mild watery sweetness that clears the pallet and cuts some of the bitterness from the cigar’s aftertaste. The Diplomático is the same as ever, which is to say, great.
The cigar is burning unevenly and is in dire need of a touch up, but foolishly I only brought out my matches (they were right next to a torch on my desk, but on a whim I reached for the matches and only the matches. Hubris.), and you can’t really touch up an uneven burn with a match. Eventually it goes out completely, forcing my hand. It resists the relight: two long cigar matches almost burn my fingers before the smoke flows easily. I used to light my cigars with matches almost exclusively for a few years and I’ve never had anything like this kind of trouble with them before, which makes me think that something is amiss. Havana periodically changes the varietals of tobacco that make up their cigars, mostly to combat disease or fungus (it’s for this research that the elusive “Science” category of Habanos Man of the Year is awarded), and when this cigar was growing, probably in 1997 or 1998, it was the Habana 2000 strain that was in the earth. I’ve heard aficionados talk about fireproof Habana 2000 wrappers before but this is the first time I’ve encountered one.
When it’s burning though the cigar is really very nice, very balanced, and it wouldn’t be drawing too long a bow to call this chocolaty; a bittersweet bean and wood over medium tobacco. The burn remains appalling, and despite an attempt at a touch up a full inch of the cigar is unburned above where the coal seems to be, although its exact location is debateable, as only the smallest glow is visible in one corner of the charred portion. In moments like this I often think about Castro’s interview with Cigar Aficionado magazine, specifically the moment where he says that with a good Cuban cigar you should only have to light one corner and the burn will always even out. This cigar would not live up to Castro’s standard, but I suppose it was manufactured quite a while after he quit smoking.
The cigar goes out again, and exasperated I head inside to get a jet lighter, a Prince GT3000S miniature blowtorch that I bought in a Japanese hardware store and which advertises its primary functions as “jewellery repair”, “optical glass work” and “softening false teeth.” The torch claims to burn propane at 1300°C, but the asbestos wrapper resists even this inferno, glowing red, but not catching fire. For fully ten seconds I rain hellfire upon it, and as a result it is charred, but in no sense ablaze. I subject it to the furnace again, and eventually it succumbs, moments before my lighter runs out of gas.
At the time of writing Melbourne is in the grip of a heatwave, the hottest summer on record, and for this reason I started my smoking much later in the day than I normally would have. Dusk comes, and with it the mosquitos. I notice one on my arm, and bring my spare hand down upon her hard, flattening her, her grey limbs scattered within a smear of my own red essence. The carnage came too late, and within moments I can see the white bump raise and an intense itching starts, not just where she punctured me, but also in my other arm, on my ankle, my finger. I’m being eaten alive. I debate going inside to get some repellent, but the DEET would surely ruin what little is left of the cigar; it hardly seems worth it. When I’m done I’ll put a little square of sticky-tape on each bite, a trick I discovered years ago that at least stops me scratching them, but seems to somehow stop the itching as well. What a boon it would be if cigar smoke deterred mosquitos.
The end is barely bitter; heavy chocolate and coffee. I eat a passionfruit that I’ve been saving for after because I was worried that the flavour would be too strong and overpower the cigar, but it can’t even make a dint in the rich tobacco ending.
Terrible burn, but when it works it works well. Better than a poorly constructed Monte 4.
Total touch ups: 3
Total relights: 4
Matches expended: 9
Lighters depleted: 1