And so, as it is wont to do, the great wheel of time has turned. We who were lifted on its spokes have had six months of adventure, of journeys great and small, of loves won and lost, and we have been deposited back; back at the height of the Australian summer, back at the open lid of the half-full humidor, and back at the start of a new season of A Harem of Dusky Beauties.
As our ancient customs dictate, I shall, over the coming weeks and months, examine one of the great Havana tobacco houses: in this case, Romeo y Julieta. As always, I begin the horizontal with the marque’s lowliest member, so that I might have a marker to compare her most exalted special releases against, and by doing so provide the consumer with useful purchasing advice. So it is then, that the Romeo y Julieta Petit Coronas today must burn.
The first puffs are very mild, with no hint of bitterness from the heat of lighting. It is strongly herbaceous, vegetal even, with something of the compost heap in there, and the tang of five dollar chardonnay.
Romeo is one of the great old marques, with a history dating back to the 1850s. As recently as fifteen years ago it was a powerhouse, the second highest selling brand behind Montecristo, but unlike H. Upmann and Partagás, the subjects of my last two verticals, Romeo is a brand on the decline. More than any other, Romeo has suffered from the rise of Cohiba. In a world of conspicuous consumption, the consumer of today is more interested in the cigar of Jay-Z than a brand that bases its marketing around a 75 year old association with Winston Churchill, and is named for a play whose principal conflict seems trivial in the age of sexting. Each Romeo dress box is emblazoned with 16 gold medals, the hallmarks of her pedigree. The most recent was awarded in 1900.
More than most brands, Romeo suffered during the great rationalisation of 2002, when Habanos S.A. tried to make the line-up more approachable for the neophyte. Fifteen cigars were wiped out that year, although it was not all without justification, to be honest; five of the discontinued models were variations on the petit corona, and even today there are still two other cigars in the catalogue with the exact same dimensions as the one I am smoking, and several others that are so close you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference without a ruler and a gauge measuring tool.
The real problem began in the late 2000s though, when Romeo lost her mother factory, and production of the cigars was split amongst many workshops all over the island. Consistency fell. Quality fell. In 2015, Romeo y Julieta cigars just aren’t very good any more.
All that said, the Romeo No. 2 in a tube is still the cigar you are second most likely to find in a liquor store or petrol station, ceding only to the Montecristo 4.
At the midway point the cigar still trends mild, with a slightly spicy, buttery note. Somewhere in there I detect a hint of wildflowers, the sweetness of a daisy filled meadow, along with the stinging chlorophyll that those blossoms emit.
Typically I enjoy my dusky beauties alone, not because in the company of like-minded fellows is not an objectively better way to enjoy a fine Havana, but because in that environment I find myself too distracted by ribald anecdotes to really examine the finer points of flavour tasting notes that this column demands, and I am nothing if not devoted to my craft. Today, however, is a rare exception.
I began the morning with a long bath and a brief vomit, the accrued debt of an evening that ended at the bottom of a bottle of Johnny Walker Red in a karaoke bar at 4:00am. I wanted nothing so much as to spend the day in bed, but being a man who follows through on his commitments, I dragged myself down the street toward a revitalizing bowl of wonton noodle soup and then a bar where several of my cigar aficionado brethren were meeting to smoke on the rooftop terrace.
I found them on a secluded table in a little crow’s nest above the bar proper, and soon felt much revived, first by a Bloody Mary and then by the first puffs of a Cohiba Siglo III. Before long though, our serenity was interrupted by the hostess, who explained very apologetically that we would have to move; there was a baby shower happening down wind of us, and the expectant mother was none to pleased. The hostess moved us to a shared table in the centre of the main bar. The place was packed, and our new table sat under a shade cloth, and even I, as unrepentant a smoker as exists in this world, felt some pangs of guilt as I watched every exhalation get caught by the cloth and funnelled directly into the indoor section of the bar. Before too long the hostess returned: we were bounced. As we skulked out another patron, no doubt the complainant who had triggered our eviction, could not resist a parting jab: “it really is disgusting, you know. It’s going to kill you.”
And so we have adjourned to the courtyard of my private residence, where the whisky is cheaper and the aggrieved parties fewer and less vocal. Even here though, the smoke is under threat. If there is any ongoing theme to this season of The Harem, it will be my struggle with the owner’s corporation, an existential battle for the last sanctuary of the smoking man. It is not our world anymore.
For today though, the sun shines, the whisky glows with a certain inner warmth, and the pungent smoke of five Havana cigars wafts skyward.
In the final inch or so the Petit Coronas grows bitter, losing all flavour to the rubber fire. While very pleasant for an entry level, and setting a strong standard for the exotics to be compared against, it’s not as good as a Monte 4.