Cohiba BHK 56

When the Cohiba BHK line was released in 2010 they were seen as more or less just a set of fat Cohibas.

There was some talk at the time about how they contained the new medio tiempo leaf, and how that would keep their quantities limited, but the general understanding was that if you wanted them, you could get them. They were expensive, but they weren’t that expensive.

The main thing I remember about the buzz at the time were some grumblings from an owner of a Cohiba 40th Anniversary Humidor that the line was devaluing his purchase.

I paid $581 AUD for my box of ten 56s in January 2011. The USD price would have been $412. It seemed steep at the time. I could have had a box of twenty-five Lanceros for $700.

In 2023, it is a struggle to find a box of BHK 56 at any price. In Cuba, the RRP is $1,794 USD, but they never see the shelves there, disappearing immediately into the suitcase of the first flipper to bribe the clerk. There are some reports saying another 50% price hike is on the way in Cuba – reasonable given that it’s hard to find an online vendor listing them for less than $4,500.

The cigar I’m smoking today is the last from my original box. The 2010 production is generally agreed to be the high point of the line, and no doubt my box would fetch a premium on the market price if it was still complete. I gave my mother the box years ago, and she still uses it to keep earrings in as far as I know. Even empty it’s probably worth $400.

The defining feature of BHKs, and the reason for their shortage, is that they must have perfect wrappers. The one on this specimen is fantastic – a lovely Colorado shade, with delicate veining – however, there are at least three water blemishes on it. Perhaps standards weren’t as high at $412 a box.

Cohiba BHK 56 unlit

Lit, it begins wonderfully, with smooth creamy notes. The strength is light to medium, with a grassy tobacco taste.

The story of the demise of the other nine cigars in this box is a shameful one. I was twenty-seven years old in the summer of 2011. I had a job, but didn’t yet have any responsibilities, and money was a meaningless concept.

I invited a few friends around for Luxury Night. It was marketed as such in an attempt to sell the $70 cover charge. I had to emphasise it because at my usual parties a charge was unheard of; the rule was to bring a bottle if you were feeling generous, but if not there would be plenty to go around. Not all my friends were in the same position as I was at that moment in life. Some were still in the perpetual twilight of childhood, still doing degrees, working part time jobs, living with their parents or in share houses. Others were in the dawn of adulthood; newly married, new mortgaged, or new parents. They didn’t necessarily have $70 to rub together. It was all well and good, but Luxury Night was more than I wanted to bankroll on my own. It was pay to play.

For the fee you got a BHK cigar, and a few snoots from the other luxury – a bottle of Grand Marnier Cuvée du Cent Cinquantenaire, an elixir that I had been chasing for a few years after being bamboozled by its advertising. “Hard to find, impossible to pronounce, prohibitively expensive… and yet, it’s the best thing we make.” Who could resist? It had set me back about $250.

In the main, the invitees were not cigar guys. Their experience ranged from “never had a cigar” to “a few puffs at parties.” In retrospect, a 56 × 166 mm Cohiba may have been a lot to ask of unseasoned smokers.

In the ‘never had’ camp was Alistair Wolf, then a Junior at EY, today a partner. He was invited because he could afford it. Beyond the cover, contributions to luxury night were not requested or encouraged, but Alister seemed to have interpreted the $70 as being payable in kind. He had brought a bottle of Marmont vodka, and insisted we all do shots of it as the first order of business, before he enthusiastically filmed the unboxing of the BHK and Cuvée.

By the time the cigars were lit he had cajoled us into another shot, and another followed shortly thereafter. The night quickly descended into madness. Not the civilised exploration of fine tobacco and complex liqueur I had imagined, but just the usual bacchanal: shots, yelling, bawdy stories, light wrestling, stupid selfies. We ended up going to a karaoke bar. Few of the BHK made it anywhere near the nub, but Alistair was the worst offender: as we headed to the cab, I found his abandoned on the gatepost, with perhaps a centimetre burned.

Cohiba BHK 56 partially burnt

By the midway the cigar remains smooth, creamy and delightful. The medio tiempo leaf, which is the BHK’s trademark differentiator, is supposed to be the strongest of the strong, and give the cigar a punch not typically found out of Cuba. Perhaps it’s the twelve years of maturation, but I don’t see it. It remains light to medium.

Construction has been impeccable, with razor burn that never goes out, and ash that falls only on command. There is an herbaceous twang in aftertaste.

Cuvée du Cent Cinquantenaire is no longer the best thing Grand Marnier makes. It was superseded at the top of their line-up in 2011 by the Quintessence, which occupied a $900 price point, far above the $300 RRP that Cent Cinquantenaire was commanding at that time. In 2013 it was discontinued, with strategists deeming that there wasn’t enough “liquid differentiation” between Cent Cinquantenaire and the lesser Cuvée du Centenaire, replacing Cent Cinquantenaire with the Cuvée 1880, which had a slightly high cognac content and was priced at $350. Since then, the 1880 has itself been cut in favour of the Révélation, which ups the price of the second tier to $700, and the Quintessence has gained a mouth-blown decanter and moved passed the $2,000 threshold.

When I heard of the Cuvée du Cent Cinquantenaire’s demise, I set up stock alerts at a few online bottle shops in the hope of finding one last bottle. It was tough stuff to find even when produced, but after being discontinued it seemed a Quixotic endeavour. In 2019, long after I had given up any hope, I got an email indicating that a dusty case had been unearthed at a specialist liquor store not far from me. It was surely one of the last in the world. I bought the lot.

Cohiba BHK 56 at passed the halfway point

Notable about the BHK has been its fantastic blue smoke. It really has been a great cigar. There are notes of vanilla somewhere in there, along with a hint of a shoe polish which is more pleasant than it sounds, and a tart fruity saltiness that calls to mind ponzu sauce. The aftertaste is dry and sweet, with dried fruit and cinnamon spice.

The cigar puts itself out with an inch and a half to go, and is quite bitter after I relight it, probably more the fault of the hot flame than the tobacco. I try to cool it down, but it’s a difficult task this close to the end. A less frugal man would probably toss it, but I take it till it burns my fingers.

There is a good chance that this was the last BHK 56 I will have in life: their prices are increasing much faster than my income, and unless some magnanimous soul makes me a gift of one (surely EY partners can afford to be generous with such luxuries), I am already priced out. Foolishly, I didn’t stash some away when I could have. Hindsight, as always, is 20/20. I’m glad I had the foresight to acquire my reserve of Cuvée du Cent Cinquantenaire. I’m sure I’ll never be so fortunate as to sample the Quintessence.

The BHK is probably an overall better experience than the Robusto Especial 30 Aniversario; in its best moments that cigar rose above the peaks that the BHK achieved, but for the most part it was overaged while the BHK delivered throughout.

It is a difficult task to rank cigars at this level, and there is not much between this and the other heavy hitters of the vertical, like the Robusto Supremos and the DC. By a hair, I think that a 2010 BHK 56 might just have it.

Cohiba BHK 56 nub and ashes

Cohiba BHK 56 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Cohiba Robusto Especial 30 Aniversario Humidor

In the early days of The Harem I used to smoke everything; the raison d’etre of this thing was that my humidor had become so clogged with holy grail unsmokable smokes that I figured that if I documented their combustion it would at least make the act of smoking them somewhat less wasteful. As time has gone on, I’ve become a much more serious collector of rare Cuban leaf, and there is plenty that was burnt in those early years that I wish I could recover.

The cigar on the stand today is about as precious as they come: a Robusto Especial from the 1996 Cohiba 30th anniversary humidor. They talk today of old Cohiba limiteds like the ’06 Piramid and the Sublime being $200 cigars. Around 200,000 of each of those were produced, and they were generally available to anyone anywhere. Two-and-a-quarter thousand Robusto Especiales were rolled, and they were sold in only 45 boxes worldwide. By some reports, twenty-five percent of them were smoked by two individuals in the early 2000s.

Cohiba Robusto Especial 30 Aniversario Humidor unlit

It’s as nice looking a cigar as can be imagined. The wrapper is smooth and thin. The rat tail is a short nub, the appendix knocked off at some point during the decade it has spent in the ‘exotic singles’ drawer of my humidor. A tip for rinsers: once I rinsed a Trinidad that had similarly lost its tail, and the little hole at the tip filled with water and gave me a shot of tobacco juice with each puff for the first ten minutes. It’s not an experience I’d care to repeat. I take special care to keep the water off the end of this one.

The draw is a bit looser than I’d really prefer. It begins very subtly, with slightly burnt toast, roasted almonds and walnuts.

I’m smoking on the deck at the Groom compound on a day that is frankly borderline for the activity. It is April, the last days of summer. Overcast. Although it is a still day, there is a slight movement to the air that is keeping the coal hotter than it should be for a cigar like this. It really is a cigar that calls for a smoking lounge.

Cohiba Robusto Especial 30 Aniversario Humidor partially burnt

The midpoint is still smooth and pleasant; dry, lightly grassy. Not a lot to it. Perhaps it’s overaged. Perhaps it’s fake. Like most of my rare cigars, this one was a gift, years ago, from a prolific collector. Some of my benefactors are the kind of people who buy humidors like this firsthand, and I would never think to question the authenticity of their cigars. The one who gave me this was the kind who would have bought them as singles.

If you were to find the 50 Aniversario–this cigar’s modern equivalent–being sold as singles, anyone with any healthy scepticism would write it off as a fake. Fakes these days are too good, and prices are too high, for these humidors to ever be split up. The buyers are either buying them to flip, and won’t ever remove the cigars from their cellophane, or they’re buying them to smoke, and it would never cross their mind to sell them. This cigar has been with me near to fifteen years, however, and those days were a more civilized age. The prices of Cohiba Anniversary humidors back then ran in the four figures, and cooperatives buying them to split were not unheard of, nor were retailers breaking them down to increase their margins.

Still, it wouldn’t be the first fake to appear in the harem. Two of the best reviews I’ve ever given, the Partagás 150 and 155, were likely such. Years after I obtained them it emerged that a well-respected and prolific collector had been selling fakes of those cigars–along with Cuban Davidoff, Dunhill, and other exotics–to other well-respected and prolific collectors. It was never clear if he was the mastermind, or just a dupe himself, but he was publicly accused based on subtle flaws in the bands that distinguished his cigars as counterfeit. How long it had gone on, how many cigars had been involved, and the true source remain mysteries. No confession was forthcoming. After some protestations of innocence, the collector disappeared.

I didn’t acquire mine from the man in question, but by the time the fraud came to light they had thoroughly infiltrated the humidors of many collectors with impeccable reputations. The bands on the cigars I reviewed exhibited the same flaws that the accusations were based on. I wasn’t the only patsy. The flawed bands also feature in well-known books and on cigars reviewed by highly reputable publications.

Cohiba Robusto Especial 30 Aniversario Humidor mostly burnt

In the final third, the cigar heats up to a medium tobacco and really comes alive. Up until now there hasn’t been enough to it to really grab my attention, but in the final third it will not be denied. There is no hint of tar which is miraculous in a big boy cigar like this. There is a cinnamon sweetness to it, along with wood and grass and a herbal tang, and in the aftertaste a strong espresso coffee note. Rich, complex tobacco of the highest quality. Delicious.

There is perhaps, an advantage to the fakes of yesteryear: the stelar reviews I gave those cigars can only be attributed to cognitive bias. I thought I was smoking a legendary cigar, so that’s what I found. These days, I expect a fake as much as a legend. Whatever I find is hopefully what’s really there.

And the Robusto Especial is legendary. I take it until I burn my fingers, and when it extinguishes itself with a centimetre to go, I touch it up again. If this is fake, who cares.

I wonder if at twenty-four the Robusto Especial is overaged. The first two of its two-and-a-half-hours were light and subtle, with nothing bad, but nothing really to set itself apart. In the final thirty minutes it was as good a cigar as I have ever smoked. Perhaps ten years ago the whole thing would have been as good. The greatness of the DC and the Robusto Supremos is more in-your-face. Had I tossed this two inches earlier I would have put it down as unremarkable. Had I picked up someone else’s discarded cigar at the same point I would have rated it a 100 point masterpiece.

As always, the question of price dominates: is it worth $2,000 or more? Probably not. Would I take it over the Robusto Supremos and the DC? Probably. I don’t regret smoking it, but I certainly wish I had another.

Cohiba Robusto Especial 30 Aniversario Humidor nub

Cohiba Robusto Especial 30 Aniversario Humidor on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Cohiba Mágicos

The Cohiba Mágicos is my least favourite in the Cohiba Maduro 5 Line, although if I’m honest I can’t say I’ve ever given them much of a chance.

When the Maduro’s first came out, I smoked a lot of the other two – between 2007 and 2009 I sucked down at least a few boxes each of the Genios the Secretos. Aside from their stupid names (a top end luxury line in 2007 called “Genies”, “Magical”, and “Secrets”, come on), I loved them. I wasn’t much of a Limited Edition smoker at the time, and the maduros had a chocolaty richness that was new to me in cigars. I’m sure the Mágicos had it too, but I never could find a place in my heart for the size. The Secretos was a fun little firecracker you could smoke in mixed company without being too obnoxious. The Genios was a big luxurious smoke to enjoy around other cigar smokers. The Mágicos was an early starter in the trend of short fat cigars that try and cram all punch of a big robusto into something you can smoke in under an hour. They weren’t for me. I need some length before I can enjoy the girth.

After those first few years of heavy Maduro smoking, I more or less moved on from the line. My cigar budget has only increased in the intervening decade, but the prices of Cohiba have increased faster. By all accounts, the glory days of the Maduro line have long passed, with Cohiba shifting their best people onto the BHKs or the old classics, and the Maduros languish today as the black sheep of the El Laguito flock. If I’m going to spend Cohiba money, I only want the best.

Cohiba Mágicos unlit

Once lit, the Mágicos begins pretty well. Smooth and earthy, with a little sourness. Musty wood, slowly dissolving in the underbrush.

There was a summer at the very start of our twenties that the folklore remembers as The Summer of Buckley, for what seemed like an epic sexual rampage that our least-assuming friend embarked upon. Up until then (and for the most part, ever since), Buckley had been a very nice boy; the kind of kid that a mother could be proud of. He didn’t drink, and certainly didn’t smoke or drug. His romantic history consisted of three teenage relationships, each lasting more than a year and separated by only a week or so of ‘single life.’ He remained on good terms with all of them. Two of them had left him with their virginity intact.

At the start of the summer, Buckley’s incumbent girlfriend was getting ready for a trip abroad on the classic European student vacation. She would be seeing the continental sights by day, before spending late nights in backpacker bars, and sleeping in dirty hostel beds. Imagining that at some point along the Costa del Sol a handsome Spaniard tight pants and a heavy tan might find his way into one of those beds, the night before she departed, she took Buckley aside for a serious talk.

“I’ve been thinking” she said, “and I want to go on a break this summer. I really love you and I want to be with you, but I don’t want to ruin my holiday wishing you were with me. Let’s take a few months off and have fun. We’ll get back together when I come back. Enjoy your summer!”

Buckley was devastated. For a week, he moped around his share house, picturing his girlfriend dancing the salsa under the stars, with Mediterranean hands low on her waist. At the end of the week he came up angry. “Fine” he thought. “If she wants to just have fun this summer, let’s have some fun.”

He called me wanting to know if I had a party for us to go to, and as it happened, I did. Nice had invited me to a poker night.

Nice (pronounced like the city) was in a group of friends that intersected with mine, but she was way cooler than any of my set. I found her very intimidating, but super sexy. She was Ukrainian, and had that Eastern European sneer. She didn’t mind telling you exactly what she thought of you. She chain-smoked hand rolled cigarettes, and you could hear it in her voice. It was always unsettling talking to her. I was never sure if she was flirting with me or mocking me, and I felt like she wanted me to feel that way.

The door to her house was ajar when Buckley and I arrived. We wandered in, and found the party gathered in the kitchen. Nice was leaning against the doorframe, smoking.

“Hello boys,” she said, in her husky whisper. “Welcome.”

We had bought drinks with us to split: a pair of Stones Ginger Beers, and a bottle of 100 Pipers Scotch, which was the cheapest available at the time. The idea was that we would take a swig from the bottle of ginger beer and then top it off with the whisky, with the logic being that the mix would progressively get stronger and by the time we were down to straight scotch, we would be drunk enough not to notice the flavour. I also had a couple of Montecristo No.4s.

The game began. Besides Buckley and myself, the players were Nice, her housemate Sarah, another girlfriend and two other guys I knew vaguely from school. Everyone was smoking. I lit my cigar, and the other got passed around, becoming soggy from many wet lips. The bottle of whisky began to empty.

Sarah was the first to run out of chips. Without discussion, she took off her top and dealt herself into the next hand.

I have only been involved in a few games of strip-poker, and in none of the others has any female ever taken off anything significant. In most cases they’re coyly removing an earing or a sock while I’m down to my briefs. Not this one.

The game continued, and Nice began to lose hand after hand. I was still mostly fully clothed, as were Buckley and Sarah. It was coming up to midnight, and the others had departed not long after the clothes started to go. Nice had lost her shoes and socks and jacket and earrings and hair-ties. When all that had gone, she took off her jeans, keeping her legs under the table while she did it. Things got more serious when she lost her top, and we got to enjoy her red lacy bra for a few hands before that too was removed. Finally, she lost her last pot. She stood up, removed her panties and tossed them on the table.

“Game over” she declared. “Let’s go to the park.”

Cohiba Mágicos partially burnt

By the midpoint the Mágicos is showing up with some strength and a bit more tar than I’d really like. There is definitely the sweetness of the other maduros, but it doesn’t quite come to chocolate. A charitable man might call it spicy. At least I can’t fault the construction – the burn is razor sharp and the draw is perfect.

By the time we arrived at the park, the fog of whisky was intense. Nice and I sat down on one of those log fences that surround all Australian playgrounds of a certain era, and began making out without much discussion. Buckley and Sarah had climbed into the playground tower, and the sound of their giggles belayed a similar occupation.

I had a foul taste in my mouth from the tar of the cigar and the cheap whisky, which was almost strong enough that I couldn’t taste Nice’s musty cigarette smoker’s breath. After a few minutes of entwined tongues, she withdrew a moment and considered me.

“Too much cheese, perhaps?”
“Sorry” I stammered. “I think it’s the cigar”

It didn’t deter her. After the poker game, she had never properly dressed herself, just pulling a windbreaker on over her bare torso. I unzipped it and slipped my hand inside.

We went back to the house, and Nice disappeared. Sarah was making up a bed for Buckley on the loungeroom floor, while I stood awkwardly in the hallway. When she passed me on a trip to the linen closet, I asked her where I should sleep.

“You’re in there” she said, pointing at the closed door of Nice’s room.

I timidly knocked and let myself in. Nice was in the bathroom, and when she came back I mumbled that Sarah had told me I was sleeping in here. Nice threw me a sneer, but didn’t throw me out. Fully dressed, I climbed into her bed. She joined me in a t-shirt and lacy red underwear. We made out for a while, our hands roaming unhindered under inside each other’s shirts, and mine briefly inside her panties. Coital love making did not occur, although not because either party rejected the idea. We were just a bit too drunk and tired to go through the motions. At some point I passed out.

A scant few hours later I was jolted awake by her alarm.

“I’ve got to go to work” she hissed, getting dressed in the dark. “You can stay here.”

I went back to sleep, and once the sun was high in the sky I got up and poked my head into the loungeroom. Buckley was still unconscious, with Sarah naked beside him.

Later, on the tram home I asked him how he did.

“Yeah, I fucked her” he replied. “How’d you go?”
“Yeah, me too.”

We high-fived.

Cohiba Mágicos burnt to just before the band

As the coal of the Mágicos reaches the band, things are much unchanged. The tar is still present, but it hasn’t grown stronger and isn’t causing an issue. The earthiness is rich and muddy. The tobacco strength at this point is full, leaving a nicotine tingle on the lips.

I don’t know why I never called Nice after that night. I definitely should have. I liked her, and she seemed to like me. Even having necked with her, I couldn’t get passed the intimidation. I guess I kind of hoped that I’d run into her at a party again some day and it could be “one of those things.”

Even without seeing her, six months later I managed to blow up whatever chance I had.

I was sitting in a beer garden in Brunswick at one of my friend’s birthdays, and got chatting to his older brother and his older brother’s girlfriend. It eventuated that she’d been to the same school as a few of my female friends. She started rattling of names.

“Do you know Victoria Sargent?”
“Yeah! The ballerina? Of course.”
“How about Minh Nguyen?”
“I dated her for a while in year 10!”
“Wait, you don’t know Nice do you?”
“Only in the biblical sense! I slept with her at a party one time!”

The girlfriend looked delighted at the gossip.

“Oh wow… we’re pretty good friends, and she definitely never mentioned that.”

I tried to backpedal, but the damage was done. About a week later I got a scathing email from Nice that began “it’s not nice to kiss and tell, especially when it’s not even true” and continued apace for several paragraphs. She used the word “liar” repeatedly, and insinuated that the only reason she hadn’t had sex with me that night was because I was impotent. She still would have done it later, though, if I wasn’t too much of a coward to give her a call. She concluded that it probably worked out for the best. She doubted she’d even be able to feel my tiny dick inside her.

I tried to smooth things over, with a jokey mae culpa. I offered to buy her a steak dinner to make up for smear on her reputation. Her response email was less verbose.

“No chance, loser.”

Cohiba Mágicos nub, lying amongst its ashes

In the end, the Mágicos is not such a bad cigar. It never made me want to spit, which I feel couldn’t be said of the same size from a lesser marque, although I certainly did feel the need to wash it down with a few slugs of Mornington Porter.

As for where it sits in the ranking? Well, if you ground up the tobacco and put it gram-for-gram against the leaf in the Siglo II, the Mágicos would probably come up on top. That isn’t how these things work though. If I had both cigars in my humidor, there is almost no occasion where the Mágicos would be the one I reached for.

Cohiba Mágicos on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Cohiba Sublimes Edición Limitada 2004

I’ve smoked a Cohiba Sublime twice before in this life. The first was at an event in 2005, when they were still a new release and readily available. It was a four cigar eight wines kind of function, and nobody was paying too much attention to delicate tasting notes. The general consensus was that they were fine cigar, but nobody was using hushed tones to refer to them. Cohiba at that time were priced about twenty percent higher than other brands, and limited-edition pricing was about in line with regular production. The Sublimes were good cigars: the kind of thing you might save for an especially sunny afternoon.

The second occasion that I smoked a Sublime was in 2012. By then, their reputation as an all-time great was well established. When they could be found, which was not impossible, they were priced around twice the price of a Cohiba Espléndidos. At that point in life, I was still very firmly in the “everything over 52 ring is gutter-trash” camp, so I sneered at the Sublime, conceding only that it was “okay,” in my smoking diary, and adding “but nowhere near as good as the DC.”

In 2021, the Cohiba Sublime is a $250+ legend, and Dusky Beauties is a column that recently gave a positive review to a 58 ringer. I approach my third sublime with an open mind and anticipation of something truly special.

Cohiba Sublimes Edición Limitada 2004 unlit

The cigar begins as well as it can be expected to. The draw is too loose for my taste, but in line with what a 54-ring gauge customer expects from their ‘cigars.’ The notes are smooth and spicy, with nutmeg and cinnamon. By half a centimetre in there is already some rum and raisin chocolate in the aftertaste.

In general, I don’t believe much in beer with cigars. Davidé, whose taste is dubious in every field, insists on nothing but IPAs with his Henri Wintermans, but I have always found that even a hint of hops will overpower the palate with bitterness that amplifies only the worst aspects of tobacco. There is an exception to every rule, however, and I have had some enjoyment from sweeter beers, like the Hahn Millennium Ale, or my old friend Chimay Red. Thus, I am headed into the breach once more with today’s beverage.

Crown Larger is generally regarded as swill by the sophisticated Australian beer drinker, but according to the marketing, its creation myth shares a lot with Cohiba’s. Crown was first brewed in 1919, when no expense was spared in creating a beer to represent the pinnacle of what was possible from our young nation. It was to be consumed exclusively by Australian diplomats and their VIP guests. In 1954, in honour of the visit of our new Queen, Crown was made available to the public as the first premium beer sold in Australia. One wonders if in some dim corner of the Bundaberg warehouse they are bottling a true-blue equivalent of Isla de Tesoro.

In 2020, you generally find Crown only at ‘posh’ functions held in large venues that have a supplier deal with Carlton United Breweries: think a function centre at the casino or racetrack. The rumour is that CUB make their beer in giant tanks, and skim the top portion off into Crown bottles, the middle into VB and Carlton Draught, and the bottom into Melbourne Bitter. From the dregs, the brewers squeeze whatever liquid they can for Abbotsford Invalid Ale. The remaining silt is sold as Vegemite. When slaughtering a pig, a skilled butcher wastes only the squeal.

In 2008, Crown did make one genuine stab at a luxury product. The Crown Ambassador Reserve is (or was; they only did it for six years) an annual release of 10,000 numbered bottles, packed in a velvet box with a wax seal and all the trimmings. Mine is the 2010 batch, which brags, aside from its freshly picked Galaxy hops and general attention to detail, that it includes part of the 2008 and 2009 batches matured in French Oak barrels. The hangtag emphasises that the beer is made from strictly the first runnings, which makes me wonder if they are making a sly nod to the ‘top of the barrel’ legend. The copy also advises that the beer will continue to age in the bottle for up to ten years. It’s as good a reason as any to consume it now. That and to flex on Davidé on Untappd.

Cohiba Sublimes Edición Limitada 2004 with Crown Ambassador Reserve

At the midpoint, the cigar is not doing so well, at least in comparison to the high bar it needs to clear. It is very smooth, but there is not a huge amount in there beyond a slightly dusty taste, some grassy notes, and dry straw. It’s by no means unpleasant. There is no bitterness or tar or chemical twang. It would be a very nice casual smoke. But the performance falls well short of its legend (not to mention its pricetag).

In a similar vein, the Crown at ten years is a very nice, drinkable beer. It has a creamy mouthfeel and Christmas cake sweetness. There is a strong malt element, with the metallic tang that is reminiscent of the malt extract I would sometimes eat from the tin as a child. There is no hint of bitterness. There is nothing in it that I would normally associate with an expensive beer: it doesn’t have overpowering hops, or high alcohol, or that rich heavy taste that makes you say “this is nice, but I don’t want more than one.” It’s just a pleasantly sweet, creamy, mild beer. If these were on special at $45 a slab I would drink them every day. The Ambassador Reserve doesn’t have a legend to live up to. Even serious beer drinkers have mostly never heard of it, and to those who have it’s kind of a joke. It does have a price tag, though: $90 for a longneck, and assessed purely as a drink it isn’t worth the money. As far as beers with cigars go, it is an excellent complement to the Cohiba Sublime.

Cohiba Sublimes Edición Limitada 2004, halfway smoked

As I approach the bands, and just when I was starting to write the cigar off as “overaged,” things start to liven up a bit, gaining a distinct peanut note. Some chocolate appears not long after (the dry, Hershey variety), which then thickens into coffee.

And then, sadly, it turns on me. In the final inch, the cigar gets bitter and ashy, with only a light fungus in the back palate to redeem it. Between puffs, I feel an urge to rinse and spit, which is not something that should ever be even a consideration with a super-premium cigar.

The Sublime was Cuba’s first attempt at a 54 ring Pajero, and in the years that followed a great many more of that girth and thicker have been released. My theory is that in 2004, they hadn’t quite perfected the art of an American style cigar. It’s blended a bit too mild and the start and a bit to heavy at the end.

It’s better than a Siglo II, but sadly falls short of everything else in this horizontal.

Cohiba Sublimes Edición Limitada 2004 ashes and nub

Cohiba Sublimes Edición Limitada 2004 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Cohiba Talismán Edición Limitada 2017

Cuba has always played pretty fast and loose with the concept of a limited edition. In the early 2000s, when something that was advertised as “limited” sold out with demand left on the table, a new batch of units would quietly appear in the market shortly thereafter. If the first batch had been individually numbered, the second usually wouldn’t be. They’ve gotten a bit better in recent years, but in general limited editions out of Cuba should be considered to be limited to as many as they can sell.

The Edición Limitada programme cigars are officially limited by the year of their availability, not their quantity. The quantities are not disclosed, but for most releases they are thought to be between 150,000 and 250,000 sticks. The Talismán came out at an interesting time for Cohiba. A few consecutive years of poor harvests in the mid-2010s meant that in 2017 and 2018 the high grade wrapper leaf needed for Cohiba was in very short supply. At the same time, the veracious appetites of the newly-rich Chinese market had found cigars, and the only thing they liked better than a fat Cohiba was a fat Cohiba Edición Limitada. Edición Limitadas, famously, use only the lowest grade of wrapper leaf. In the months after the Talismán were released, all Cohiba boxes were going for 3-5x retail. Talismán were going for 10x.

In February of 2019 when participants in the Habanos Festival toured the El Laguito factory, it was widely reported that heavy production was underway of the 2017 Limited Edition Talismán. When the cigars hit the market a few months later, the Cubans at least were open about it: the cigar had been so successful, they said, that they had rolled another 200,000. The also claimed that these cigars had used tobacco from the same harvest as the ones rolled two years earlier, which seemed a little dubious. At the time of writing, the most recent box code for a Talismán that has found its way to me indicates a production date of April 2020. That the cigars were still in production more than a year after the second batch was known to be being rolled makes even the 200,000 number suspect. The cigars are in stock everywhere, from big La Casas to volume stores online and tiny boutiques that don’t normally carry the limiteds. They’re all asking at least $1000 a box.

To the Dusky Beauty reader, I say this: I do not condone or support this kind of behaviour. The Talismán I am smoking today is from the original 2017 batch. I will have no other.

Cohiba Talismán Edición Limitada 2017 unlit

I always give a cigar a single cold draw, but only to verify that the cut is okay and the cigar is not completely plugged. I never make much note of flavours. The cold draw on the Talismán, however, is one of the best I’ve ever had, with rich raisin fruit cake flavours. Lit, the opening notes are as smooth as would be expected from a Limited Edition Cohiba, but not particularly complex: there is mid tobacco, and some dry grassy notes.

Alongside the Talismán, I am enjoying a Mornington Porter, which obtained via criminality. Although certainly a degenerate, I am not generally of a criminal nature, and I agonised over this one. On the shelf in the First Choice Liquor there were two varietals of Mornington available: the Brown, which was deeply discounted in six packs, and the Porter, which came in fours and had a retail price higher even than six of the Browns. The issue came in the stock levels; there was only one six pack of the Brown remaining, and it only had four beers left in it.

I must have stood there for ten minutes mulling my options – long enough that the clerk came over to ask if I needed any help. I told him I didn’t, and eventually committed the most basic teenager level of shoplifting imaginable. On the edge of my 40s; a C-level executive; an owner of property; the chairperson of the body corporate; a former jury foreman; a pillar of society, respected by all, I put two Porters in place of the missing Browns.

I had some concern that the clerk would lift a few bottles and check the labels, and when I placed the six pack on the counter, I made sure to put the end with the Porters facing away from him. The cardboard shroud concealed all but a tiny sliver of the label, where the darker brown of the Porter’s graphic peaked above the edge (note for the Mornington Brewing Company; a minor design tweak to the height of your six pack holders or labels, or using differed coloured bottle caps on different lines, would make shoplifting of your high priced Porter’s much more difficult).

As soon as I placed it, the clerk immediately flipped the box around. My heart stopped for a brief moment. It was the same clerk as had asked me if I needed help, and I wondered if he had noted the stock level and knew exactly where the empty slots were on the one remaining sixer. He was just trying to get at the barcode, however, and once he’d scanned it I tapped my card and was on my way.

“Enjoy your afternoon!”

Cohiba Talismán Edición Limitada 2017 mostly smoked

At the mid-point, the Talismán has thickened up somewhat, although it still doesn’t offer terribly much in the way of complexity. It is first rate medium tobacco, with some grass and bean. I think I may have over humidified it. The burn has not been great, requiring several relights, which is not the kind of thing you expect from a limited Cohiba.

My paranoia around casual beer theft, comes, like most things, from my formative years, and the experiences of my friend Jacob.

Jacob took a little longer to mature than the rest of us. When our friendship group first met at fourteen, the rest of us were gawky teens with wispy moustaches, while Jacob was a cherubic child; he remained at five feet tall, with pale skin, full red lips, and a voice that stayed unbroken well into year ten. Jacob’s parents were evangelical Christian teetotallers, and his previous school had been the same Christian college where his dad worked. We were his first real exposure to infidel teens and our pastimes.

Jacob didn’t get pocket money, and we mocked him for his poverty, encouraging him to shoplift instead, and mocking him doubly for his refusal to do so. Eventually, he came back big, stealing $1,000 in cash from the door proceeds from a gig his dad’s folk band had played. He spent it mostly on Warhammer, and concocted a cockamamie seconds bin to explain to his parents why he suddenly had the biggest miniature collection on the tabletop.

Jacob bragged to us about it at school the morning after his heist, but his pride would only last a week before his dad found the money missing, and called up Games Workshop to confirm that they didn’t sell their seconds. Jacob was grounded for several months, and had to sell his Warhammer (mostly to me at a deep discount).

After we had graduated high-school, Jacob worked a part-time job at Safeway while attending university. The poverty worm had turned: my own pocket money had been cut off after I turned eighteen, and my only source of income was the very occasional odd job helping neighbourhood shut-ins with their computer problems. Eighteen-dollars was precious, so I was delighted one evening when Jacob showed up with a six pack of James Boags Premium.

“On the house, my man” he said. “Five fingered discount. I just wrote it off as broken at work and put it in my bag.”

A week later, it emerged that Jacob had stopped working at the Safeway. He was coy about the reason why, but the abruptness of the severance seemed to imply that an incident had taken place.

It wasn’t until we were well into our thirties that Jacob would tell us the full story. When he’d gone into the supermarket for his next shift, his manager had taken him into the back office and shown him the footage of him putting the beer in his bag. Jacob was fired, and as per store policy, he waited in the stock room while the police were called to arrest him and take him to the station to be charged.

Jacob had to appear before the Magistrates’ Court, with his parents and five siblings lined up in their Sunday best in the front pew. He pled guilty, and before sentencing him to a fine and period of probation, the magistrate asked Jacob’s father if he would like to testify as to his son’s good character. He declined to do so.

Jacob has struggled with employment his whole adult life, mostly living on short-lived music teacher gigs in-between lengthy periods of tax-payer subsidised study. He seems content enough with it, but I’ve often wondered if the real reason for his unemployability is his criminal past.

Still, the Boags tasted sweet, and these Mornington Porters are even sweeter.

Cohiba Talismán Edición Limitada 2017 mostly smoked

In the final couple of inches, the cigar gets strong, and I begin to tremble from the nicotine; the bitter end, where notes of coffee and mud linger on the palate. There is still something there though, with the occasional sweet fruit of the cold draw coming through.

Unquestionably, the 2017 Cohiba Talismán is a first-rate cigar, but it’s not a revelation. Between the Cohiba Limiteds I have smoked recently, it is worse than the DC and the Supremos, and on par or a hair finer than the 2006 Pyramid. Perhaps with four or five years in a humid box they may come good. In 2020 you can probably do better things with $100.

Cohiba Talismán Edición Limitada 2017 entirely smoked

Cohiba Talismán Edición Limitada 2017 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, some Cohiba limiteds burn much brighter in the public consciousness than others; the 2004 Sublimes is held up as an all-time great, while the (superior in my opinion) 2003 Double Corona and 2006 Pyramid are largely forgotten. It is the same for the 2014 Robustos Supremos and its immediate neighbours, the 1966 in 2011 and the Talisman in 2017.

The Robsutos Supremos arrived reasonably on-time and with little fanfare. Sufficient quantity was available that all who wanted one could obtain one, even as a single, and there were neither frenzied mark-ups and reselling nor long shelf life and discounting. There were some bad reviews, along with the usual pearl clutching you would expect from the release of a 58 ring-gauge out of Cuba, but nothing so severe that the cigar would be remembered as a great debacle. It was simply largely forgotten.

Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014 unlit

I light the beast, and it begins very well. It is smooth and sweet, with an umami roasted mushroom note under clove and cinnamon. Light to medium tobacco, which surprises in a brute like this.

In a recent Dusky Beauty, I alluded to a crime long past; a vicious theft perpetrated by one (or more) of my closest friends, who in the early 2000s assaulted my precious store of fine whisky, along with the jewel of my father’s vinegar collection, a bottle of 1970 Penfold’s Grange Hemitage.

An update for you all: the case is closed.

While my grandparents were alive and copacetic, they were the custodians of the Groom family Christmas ritual. My father’s parents would host a lunch for their four children, many grandchildren, and various spinster aunts and other hangers on. My mother’s parents would host a dinner for their smaller family (still four children, but less grandchildren and hangers on). On both sides there are members of my parents’ generation who live away from Melbourne, and in those days they would all usually make the trip down for Christmas. Sometimes some of my interstate cousins would stay with my family for weeks over the summer break, or the whole tribe would head down to the family seaside compound between Christmas and New Year.

Since my grandparents have gone, the interstate relatives don’t come any more. There was bad blood on both sides over the division of the estates. Christmas is a lunch only affair, that alternates in host between my mother and one of my Melbourne based aunts.

The guest list includes my parents, my aunt and uncle, my sister and her husband, and my two cousins and their husbands. Being a marginally less disappointing child than I am, my sister has sired a five-year-old daughter. My two Melbourne based cousins have five children between them.

This year just passed was to be my aunt’s turn to host, until on Christmas Eve I received a phone call from my mother. My niece, who had spent the last five days with her other grandparents, was in hospital. She had contracted viral gastro and had been throwing up all day. It had been decided that she shouldn’t be around the other children. Christmas was cancelled. In its place, we would have a small affair with the immediate family. Very casual. Cold chicken. No dessert.

When I arrived the next day, everyone was in a jovial mood. My niece was in bed, being waited on by her parents. In the family room, my mother rolled her eyes and muttered about how spoiled her grandchild is.

My brother-in-law, being of different blood to me, is into tech and start-ups, and is a bit of a wine guy besides, and at some point the conversation turned to the grape. I was waxing lyrical about Rockford, a Barossa winery that I had visited the previous summer, when my father piped up.

“I’ve actually still got a few old bottles of wine from Uncle John left,” he said. “No time like the present.”

He disappeared into the laundry for some time, clinking through the numerous racks, before eventually returning with a ‘70s bottle of Henschke.

“I could have sworn I had an old bottle of Grange in there somewhere” he said. “I guess I must have drunk it.”

As the age-old tradition goes, the rotten cork crumbled into the wine, and we strained it out through a tea strainer.

Four glasses were poured, and one by one we each took a tentative sip. I was the first to call it.

“Pure vinegar.”

Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014 halfway burnt

By the mid-point the Robustos Supremos is a little meatier, with mid-tobacco, which is still surprisingly low for a fat boy like this one. On the palate a sweetness propounds, with an undertone of the forest floor in the aftertaste; mushrooms, pine needles, and damp wood. Really first rate.

When my father uttered the words “I must have drunk it,” thus was one of my youthful indiscretions concluded. He wrote the bottle off. I didn’t get grounded. He didn’t seem perturbed, and is unlikely to mention it again.

Except… nobody ever did confess to being the culprit.

I looked up the old email I sent on that fateful morning after the night before in 2007. Of the sixteen recipients, I still count four among my closest friends. A further seven I am still in periodic, if ever diminishing contact with. The final five I haven’t spoken to in more than a decade.

Figuring it was worth a shot, I hit ‘reply all’, and reached out again. This time around, my tone was conciliatory.

“A lot of water has run under the bridge” I wrote. “Most of you have kids of your own. You have adult lives. You have careers. You own property. Those heady days of youth are far behind us. What idiots we were. Nobody is going to care or give you a hard time about this. I personally committed untold social crimes at parties in my misspent youth, many of them against each of you. Like those crimes, this will just be a funny story of youthful japery. At worst I might give you some good-natured ribbing.”

“When I think of heaven, I picture it as watching your life over, but with all the unanswered questions revealed; ‘where did I lose that,’ ‘what did she really think’, and ‘why did she act that way.’ I want to know who had a secret crush on me, and who hated me. I want to know where I lost my keys. I want to know what happened to the wallet I dropped on the train. I want the thought process behind every awkward social interaction explained. And I also want to know how that whisky tasted.”

“Why don’t you and I make a little slice of heaven here on earth today?”

Three emails bounced, their mailboxes long abandoned and filled with spam.

Two others replied, repeating their protests of innocence.

The other eleven accounts remained silent.

The wolf walks among us still.

Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014 burnt just above the bands

For its entire length, the burn on the Cohiba Robustos Supremos has been impeccable; a razor-sharp line from tip to nub. The draw is a long way from a Cuban draw, but perfectly acceptable for a fat boy like this. The ash is solid, and falls on demand in heavy chunks. This would be a good cigar for a long ash competition.

The end is beautiful, with the slightest hint of the rich bitterness of coffee and cocoa in the final inch. The flavour is full with earthy, fungal notes. A fantastic cigar, that I must somewhat reluctantly admit, is better than the 2006 Pyramid, and at time of writing is the best cigar of my Cohiba vertical. One can only hope that a future entry will improve on it, and save the Harem from being known as a publication that endorses the idea of a 58 ring cigar.

Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014 nub and ashes

Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2001

I was barely beginning my smoking journey in 2002, when the Pirámides EL hit the market, and I wouldn’t graduate to Cohiba for another few years. The old Cohiba that this cigar wears is a rare sight for me. The design was laid out apparently by someone with little training. Even to my amateur eye, the symmetry is all wrong, with La Habana Cuba far too close to the bottom edge, and the ratio of black to yellow off kilter. Embossing and holograms aside, Cuba has come a long way in twenty years.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2001 unlit

The first few puffs hold some harshness, although punchiness at this point in a twenty-year-old cigar is probably more a positive than a negative as it shows that the leaf still has something to give. Once the harshness fades, there is not terribly much too it: the cigar is smooth, light tobacco, and a little dry earthiness. There is a pleasant coffee note in the aftertaste.

About three quarters of an inch in, it goes out for the first time, a classic trait in turn-of-the-millennium ELs.

I am the black sheep of my extended family, who are unvaryingly modest living Christians; middle class, working people, with no apparent aspirations beyond their station. One of my grandfathers was an engineer, the other an accountant. Among my parents’ generation there are farmers on both sides, teachers, more accountants, and a public servant. My generation is more of the same. There are no artists or writers. There are no entrepreneurs. There are no unemployables.

The biggest family scandal is that one of my aunts got married and swiftly divorced in her early twenties, a fact which I have only heard mentioned once when my grandmother was showing some photos and came across one of my aunt in a wedding dress. One of my great aunts never married, and seemed to spend a lot of time with a close female friend, and I have wondered later in life if they may have been lovers, although this is entirely unsubstantiated and never talked about.

There are few vices. Nobody drinks heavily, or uses drugs, or smokes, or gambles, or stays up late. They don’t travel widely. Nobody has been arrested. If anybody has ever had an affair, I don’t know of it.

All except for my great uncle John.

John died around the time this Cohiba Pirámides was being rolled, some fifteen years before his older brothers.  He was a bachelor, and wealthy thanks to the sale of his civil engineering business, which had given him the ownership of a number of apartment blocks. He had retired in his early 50s, and devoted his life to his hobbies. In his sprawling Toorak home, he had an extensive library of rare books, and a large dark room for his photography. Up the mountains he had 80 acres of bushland where he had someday planned to build a weekender, although at the time of his death the only completed structure on the property was a marble tryptic fountain with classical statuary.

He was a member of all the best clubs, and his funeral was attended by his peers: rotund lawyers and businessmen in expensive suits, who no doubt held a wake for him at the Melbourne Club after the service. My family were not impressed, and scowled disapprovingly across the aisle, no doubt uncomfortable in their ill-fitting polyester-blends.

I only ever met John twice, and barely remember either occasion. I mainly know the man through his possessions. What I know of him is that John liked the finer things.

I remember going through his house after his death with three stickers to put on anything I wanted, and having my mother veto my selection of his set of crystal decanters. I don’t remember what else I selected – I’m sure all my first choices were rejected – but I ended up with a heavy gold silk robe and large detailed map of Melbourne in the 1950s that hangs on my wall to this day.

My family had a big furniture upgrade after John died. Our home furniture had previously been cheap and miss-matched, mostly purchased by my parents after their marriage in the 1970s. After John we had heavy antiques in dark wood, and guilt framed ancestral paintings on the walls. Two decades later, and the trickle-down continues; my own apartment is furnished mostly by John, and came to me after my parents upgraded their stuff with John’s nicer pieces from my grandparents’ home.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2001 somewhat burned

At the midway, the Pirámides is still on the mild side, but with a sweet nutty note on the back palate. There is also that lingering lactic thickness that I prize in a cigar. Walnut up front, and almond milk in the aftertaste.

Among the few items bequeathed to a specific individual was the “family silver:” a 200-piece set of antique silverware that John had had engraved with the crest of a dubious ancestor, and left to my mother. His will, although recently updated, also left a multi-million-dollar block of flats to a woman he’d dated decades prior, and not spoken to in years. He gave no explanation for this. It was the exact kind of pathos riddled gesture that a well-resourced Groom would make, and my sensible cousins wouldn’t.

I was still a teenager when John died, and had little input into the disposal of the smaller items. I remember my mother poured the contents of the decanters down the sink, along with a large number of other half empty spirits bottles, paying no heed at all to whether the labels were red or black or blue, or if the number below the name read 12 or 18 or 30. My dad does like a glass of wine with dinner, and the thousand or so bottles of wine that filled John’s garage did make it to our house, with the theft of one of them later becoming the subject of a Dusky Beauty.

Bag after bag of ephemera went to the op shop, including many vintage sunglasses (and monocles, for some reason), the aforementioned decanters, and old watches, along with hundreds of books, and dozens of bespoke suits.

“Were there any cigars?” is something I’ve often wondered: I’m quite sure there would have been. Even if John didn’t smoke himself, I have no doubt that a Melbourne Club buddy would have handed him a box of Dunhill Cabinetta at some point as a gift for some or other favour. Whichever of my family came across the humidor, I’m quite sure they would have emptied it into the garbage and sent it to the op shop labelled “storage box.”

The biggest pity of all, of course, is that he didn’t live another ten years. He might have enjoyed not being the only black sheep.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 burned to just above the band

With an inch and a half left in the Pirámides, the chocolate comes in strong. Lindt 80%. Fantastic. I smoke it as low as I realistically can.

Ultimately this is what you want in an old cigar. Mild for the first two thirds, but in a way that allows you to appreciate the nuances, and not flavourless cardboard as some over-old cigars can be. Once it has built up a head of tar, the flavours are strong, but never overpowering.

Between this and the ’06 rendition though, I’d probably give it to the younger version by a hair. They are both excellent cigars, but the younger one has a bit more to it.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 nub

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2001 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011

The Cohiba Cohiba 1966; a cigar named for the year the marca Cohiba was given a name, having previously just been “those cigars Fidel smokes.” Being a Limited Edition from 2011, the 1966 celebrated the 45th anniversary of the brand. At 52 x 166mm, the dimensions of the cigar are nothing too outlandish, and should please those wish their 52 x 150mm Siglo VI lasted fifteen minutes longer. It’s hard to find a negative review of any Cohiba Limited, and this one is no exception.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 unlit

Once lit, the first puff from the cigar hits me like a bucket bong: the thing is a wind-tunnel. In no sense is this a Cuban draw. It feels like an entire leaf is missing from the middle. I squeeze up and down the length, checking for soft spots, but don’t find any. Can this be intentional? After moderating my smoking technique somewhat to only sip the slightest sips, I get to a place where some flavour is discernible. It is burning too hot, and is a little bitter, but there is dry grass and vanilla bean behind it.

2011 was a grim time for old Groom. I had arrived back in Australia at the start of 2010, having been dismissed and despatched from my job in China with a few days’ notice due to a visa issue, coupled with a general over-paid, over-entitled gwailou attitude on my part.

At first it wasn’t so bad. I was living with my parents, and with few expenses and a bucket of cash saved from my offshore revenue, getting a job didn’t seem like a high priority. I spent my days in my room playing video games and re-watching Seinfeld. I spent my nights drinking and smoking cigars with my buddies.

My friend Buckley had remained in Japan while I was in China, and in 2011 he too was newly returned and unemployed. Where I had had a fat foreign consultant package on my overseas adventure, Buckley had worked a lowly grad job in a university. Back in Australia, he too was living with his parents, but with the government teat for succour. He had videogames to play and sitcoms to watch also, but on Friday mornings after his pension cheque cleared, he usually felt like a little socialisation, and we would usually hang out.

On some Fridays we would go to the local shopping centre and drift aimlessly down the fluorescent lit mezzanines checking out the girls who worked in the fashion stores. On other occasions we would walk down to the Not Quite Right discount supermarket, which sold expired food and products that had failed disastrously in the marketplace for cents on the dollar. My fondest memory of the time is when Buckley purchased ten packets of grape flavour liquid-centre gum for a dollar, and crammed at least fifty pieces in his mouth at once. “I’ve always wanted to do that” he declared, with purple goo dripping down his chin. The girls at NQR weren’t as well dressed as the fashion store girls, but they had a certain scruffy charm.

Eventually though, my blissful unemployment began to wear a bit thin, or at least, my mother’s nagging me about it did. I began to search for a job. In China I had felt like a king, with my salary providing me many times more than I could ever hope to spend in that country, and the simple virtue of being the only white guy in an all Chinese company giving me an authority well beyond my job description. I applied for many jobs, but few would even interview me, and the ones that did I saw as far below my station. It made their eventual rejection of my application sting all the more. When one eventually made me an offer, it was with a heavy heart that I accepted. It was an office job in the outer suburbs, where an hourlong commute in rush hour traffic would bookend my every day. “Just for a few months” I thought. “Something better will come along.”

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 somewhat burnt

With a few inches burnt, the cigar is quite delightful. Somewhat implausibly, the draw has tightened up, and while nowhere near Cuban, it is perfectly acceptable. The taste is smooth and sweet, with honey and hazelnut. When I talk of cream in a cigar, it is usually a lactic thickness on the roof of the mouth, which isn’t present here, but there is something milky in the aftertaste, which reminds one of honey nut cereal.

A year later, when the Cohiba 1966 made their way to Australia, I was in the deepest funk of my life. Our office was a rundown cream-brick box in a light industrial park. The blinds were perpetually drawn against any hint of natural light or outside stimulation. My colleagues were all ten or fifteen years older than me, and used to nervously laugh and say I was a “whizz kid” when I would make some suggestion that seemed to me like it should have been elementary to anyone who was remotely abreast of the  technology we were working with. I hated them on the deep level that only someone who you are confined in a box with for most of your waking hours can be hated; for their incompetence, sure, but also for the way they chewed sunflower seeds, or ate apples loudly, or told the same stories about their kids again and again, or took personal phone calls at their desks, or squeaked their chairs, or sniffed, or blew their noses, or their smell, or the sight of them, or everything. We were perpetually behind on our deadlines, and had a culture of working late in pursuit of them, until at least nine each night and often later, and some weekends too. I kept a log of this unpaid overtime and passive-aggressively emailed the running total to my boss each night. Theoretically it would be reimbursed in leave, but it had accumulated to more than three weeks, which seemed to large a sum to ever materialise.

Between twelve hours at the office a day, and two on the road, I didn’t have much time for anything else in my life. It was the Era Before Tinder, but I wouldn’t have been a lot of fun on a date even if I’d had one, and hadn’t been laid in a year or more. I’d struggle to fall asleep often, tossing and turning and ranting to myself. Sometimes I would smoke weed to knock me out, until one incident where it filled me with energy and I spent all night staring with loathing at myself in the mirror.

I bought my box of ten Cohiba 1966 for $470 AUD delivered. It was an impulse buy, the small solace of a luxury item in a dark time. I never touched them. The cigar I am smoking today is a single I picked up somewhere else along the way.

The darkness is long behind me now, vanquished later in 2012 by the scent of feminine perfume, although that’s a story for another time. The 1966 box gives me solace still: today on the secondary market they are going cheap if you find them below $2000 AUD.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 burned to the band

Throughout its consumption, the burn of the 1966 has been disgraceful. I keep my humidors a little wetter than conventional wisdom dictates, my theory being that for aging the preservation of oils is key. Normally if I plan to smoke something, I will take it out a few days beforehand and let it dry a little, but in this case the perfect afternoon came on the back of a week of rain, and I pulled one straight from my aging box to take advantage. Perhaps then it is me who is to blame, but nonetheless the cigar has gone out three times, and burned unevenly for the duration.

Even so, the Cohiba 1966 is impeccable. A little dirty on the finish, but otherwise very smooth, with notes of dry straw, sweet nut, and black coffee. The final inch is a little bitter, but nothing I can’t handle. A note of cocoa in there somewhere, and a sweet herbaceous tang. A fine end to a fine cigar. Better than the Novedosos, not as good as the 2006 Piramide.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 nub and associated ashes

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006

When Cohiba first emerged in the 1980s it was marketed as Castro’s private brand, and had all the cachet that came with that; sipping from a Lanceros you pictured yourself in fatigues in the wood-panelled meeting room of the politburo, your smoke rings wafting from the kind of immaculate treasure that only a dutiful personality cult can produce. Today when you smoke a Cohiba it’s all about the status. The shiniest gold rings on the fattest cigars, matching the rings on the fat fingers that clutch them. You don’t smoke a Cohiba because they’re the best; you smoke them because you’re the best. The ultimate symbol of crass capitalism.

The 1996 release of the Siglo series was the first step Cohiba took away from Castro’s cigars. The second would come in 2007, with the Maduro line, but in 2006 the release of the Pirámides Edición Limitada still smelt of the old days. Along with the ‘A’ sized Gran Corona, the Cohiba Pirámides were a tradition unto themselves, wheeled out regularly for the most special of occasions. Getting a box of these in ’06 felt like you were in on something. It felt like a diplomatic gift.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006 unlit

The first puff is very bitter. I had picked this day for a smoke because it seemed perfect – still and warm – but in the time it took me to walk down to the smoking spot a breeze has sprung up, and it is doing the cigar no good at all. Things improve somewhat after I build a little fort for the coal out of my various paraphernalia: the taste is strongly woody, with coffee notes.

The last time I smoked one of these cigars was around five years ago, when I passed around a box at the stag night of a friend. Aside from being a waste of good cigars, the night was a non-event, just the regulation debauchery, but I recall it mainly as my first encounter with Mark.

Mark had a nervous energy, and brought a frenetic tension with him into every room. He talked fast, and repeated himself frequently. Specifically, there was factoid he would drop at absolutely every opportunity. Mark was dating a stripper.

“Hey Mark, how’s it going?”
“I’m so tired today, had to pick my girlfriend up from work really late last night. She’s a stripper, so she has crazy hours sometimes.”

“Hey Mark, your share of dinner is $30.”
“No worries, you mind if I pay with fives? I have heaps because I’m dating a stripper.”

It always seemed like a weird flex to me. As a man who has dated several models (and one escort), I know full well the pleasure of dropping your girlfriend’s occupation, a social shorthand no less potent than “man, I gotta go to the doctor, the band on my Rolex is giving me a rash,” or “sorry I’m late, my bloody Mercedes has the worst satnav.” Where I come from though, “stripper” is a bit of a loaded term. Yes, your girlfriend is attractive enough that men will pay to see her naked, but is that really such a high bar to clear? The fantasy of the beautiful girl who is only doing this because it gives her more time to study for her law exams is somewhat plausible where I live in the city centre, but Mark was not from where I live. Mark was from somewhere thirty kilometres passed Frankston. There aren’t a lot of law schools out there. In the outer suburbs, stripping is a career you choose when you need drug money and you don’t have a lot of options.

Mark evidentially didn’t feel there was any dubiousness at all about it. He dropped the brag with such frequency that it became an easy shorthand when referring to him. “You know Mark?”
“Oh, the guy who’s dating the stripper?”

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006 halfway done

At the midway the cigar has mellowed significantly, although is still on the strong side for a teenage Cohiba. The predominant note is mid-tobacco, a little grassy on the back of the throat, with strong burnt coffee and bitter cacao notes. It tastes more or less like a badly made cappuccino, with over-roasted beans.

After years of Mark being the guy dating the stripper, he suddenly wasn’t. I encountered him at a party one night and found him hot to trot, pointing out girls, asking who was single, and articulating what he wanted to do to this or that one. He was a man on the prowl. When I asked what happened to his girlfriend, it was evidentially a sore subject. “Man” he told me, “fuck that bitch.”

It had turned out that she had been cheating on him for years, and in the end had left him for the other man. Before their relationship began, Mark had owned a house – his dream home, in his telling – which he had bought with factory sweat in his early twenties, when house prices were much lower than today. He had dated the stripper for more than five years, and the law considered them a de-facto couple. When they parted ways, the house was sold and the profits divided. He was living with his parents. “Man,” he said, by way of an exclamation point. “Forget that bitch. I am going to get laid tonight!”

He didn’t. Some five hours later he was paralytic drunk, and I poured him into a cab for his long ride back to the suburbs.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006 final third

As the first band comes off, the cigar is sweet with dark chocolate and a strong coffee note. The aftertaste is dry and dusty, but with a gingernut spice that sticks to the roof of your mouth.

A year or so after my last encounter with Mark, I received an unexpected message on Facebook. I had never met her, but after some mild internet sleuthing, I recognised the sender as Mark’s ex-girlfriend. Her name was Crystal. “Hi” she said “I’m organising a party for Mark next weekend. Can you come?”
“Sure.” I replied. Why not?

It wasn’t much of a party. The house two-bedroom fibreboard near a freeway offramp in a far-flung suburb. On the kitchen island the ‘bar’ was laid out: Midori, Chambord, Galliano, Blue Curaçao, and honey flavoured Jack Daniels. No gin or whisky or vodka or anything that could be used to make an actual drink. Crystal and a girlfriend sat inside with UDLs. In the backyard, Mark and two of his mates sipped Woodstock and Cola cans around a firepit. His friends had beards, beer bellies, and Metallica t-shirts.

After a while I asked Mark what the story with the stripper was. “I thought you guys broke up?”

He rolled his eyes.

“Fuck, mate” he said. “I had the best house. My dreamhouse. Had to sell it. Two hundred grand I gave that bitch when we split up, and in six months she blows through the lot traveling and getting high with some douchebag. Then we get back together and now all I can afford is this shithole.”

At that point Crystal appeared at the screen door. “Are you ready, boys?” she called. “It’s time for Mark’s present.”

The girls had cleared the room, save for a single plastic bucket chair of a design familiar to anyone who has ever sat through a play in a school gymnasium. Mark sat on the chair, with his friends and I standing in a lose semi-circle around him. The room was lit by the unrelenting glare of two naked fluorescent bulbs directly above Mark’s head. Crystal carried in a boombox that for some reason she had plugged in via an extension cord from the back yard. She pressed play, and the opening notes of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck rang out… and then immediately ceased. She swore, and fussed with the extension cord, which was apparently defective. After three more abortive starts, she assumed a position straddling the doorway, holding the ends of the cords together, and the music resumed.

Crystal’s friend appeared from the bathroom just as the first “thunder” and drum hit shot from the stereo. She wore a red costume cape over lacey black lingerie, with a plastic devil horn headband and pitchfork. Mark grinned. “Ho ho,” he said, glancing at Crystal. “You serious?” Crystal cackled in response.

The girl began to dance, gyrating her hips, and letting the cape fall from her shoulders. Thunderstruck’s screaming guitars do not lend themselves to a sensual strip tease, and her every move seemed just a little off the beat. It also was quickly apparent why strip clubs are not typically lit by bare fluorescents; I found myself fixated on the marks on her skin more than the dance. A small white scar ran up her bicep, ending just below her vaccination spot. There was a large bruise just above the left knee. When she unsnapped her bra, her skin was red from the tension. There was a pimple on her butt. There was a mole on her lower back that she probably should get checked out.

A few minutes in, the lap dance was reaching its conclusion: nude but for her panties, the girl was bent half in two at the waist; her legs straight, and her face down near her knees. One hand was wrapped around her ankle, while the other pulled aside the crotch of her panties to expose her vulva six inches from Mark’s face. At that moment the music cut out.

“Fuck! Crystal!” the dancer yelled, without straightening her pose. “Just skip to the next bloody song.”

It was A Whole Lotta Rosie.

After a minute or so more of gyrating on Mark, the now fully nude girl began to work to the room. She took a bowl of Allen’s Party Mix from the counter, and walked towards me. “Raspberry or banana?” she asked, batting her eyelids coquettishly.
“Ahh… banana?” I stammered. She giggled, and placed the banana just above her nipple, and then proffered it toward me. Awkwardly I reached and took it off her.

“Such a gentleman” she laughed. “Take it with your mouth.”

She placed another banana on her breast, and I uncomfortably bowed to remove it, again to titters from the room.

“He’s shy,” the girl remarked, and move on. “I’ll leave him alone.”

Mark’s friends were not so shy, and were evidentially familiar with this ritual. As she visited each in turn they handled her extensively, eating their sweet off her like a donkey eats an orange.

The show ended, and Crystal brought out a cake, her friend remaining casually nude while we sang happy birthday and Mark blew out the candles. I didn’t notice her get dressed, but she must have at some point, because shortly after that we were back around the firepit and the girls were back on the couch drinking UDLs. Mark at least seemed to appreciate his gift.

“Crystal can be a real shit sometimes,” he said “but she’s all right sometimes too. Nice of her to get me that. She knows I’ve wanted a dance from that girl for a while.”

From that night, unfortunately, my relationship with Mark ended; like ships in the night, we drifted apart. I heard he and Crystal had a baby not all that long after the party, and I think another one a few years later.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006 nub

The cigar ends well, smoother and sweeter in the nub than it has been at any point in its duration, with cocoa and coffee predominant. A truly first-class cigar. Better than the Novedosos and the Siglo II by a decent margin.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Cohiba Novedosos Especialista en Habanos Exclusivo

The Cohiba Novedosos is a 2019 release exclusively for Habanos Specialist stores, making it a far younger cigar than most that appear in these pages. It is the first cigar from a global brand to get a Habanos Specialist band, and the prestige of a new Cohiba adds considerable weight to the desirability of that programme. At 50 ring by 156mm it is a surprisingly respectable size, finding a home with smokers for whom the Robusto (50 by 124mm) is too little and the Siglo IV (52 by 160mm) too much. Whether that narrow void needed to be filled is debatable, although I am a proponent of variety in all things. The surprising part is that Habanos didn’t choose to cater to the end of the spectrum that craves the meatier 60+ ring gauge (having learned from past indiscretions, I decline to speculate on who that market may be).

The cigar begins with considerably more kick than a normal Cohiba: bitter for the first few puffs, then relaxing into a strong, creamy tobacco flavour, with barnyard notes on the back palate.

Cohiba Novedosos unlit in the afternoon sun.

Life is a complex road, and it’s interesting at times to note that the smallest event in my life could be the biggest in somebody else’s. For me, the is no butterfly wing that caused a tornado more than the night I took Ben to Club Pure.

When I first lived in Japan in my mid-twenties, Buckley, a friend from high school, was living there also. The apartment Buckley lived in was run by the English school he worked for, who operated it as a first apartment for their newly arrived teachers. Buckley had the top floor, which he shared with an American named Nathan. Below them lived two girls: Madeline and Cassie, and the five of us, along with various other English teachers and hangers on, all became a friendship group more or less by default. As it turned out, Nathan was ten years older than us, and the worst kind of melodramatic alcoholic, so within a few months Buckley moved into a place of his own.

Buckley was replaced in Nathan’s apartment by Ben, a sweet boy at barely 20 years old. He had grown up in a small town in rural Australia, and was handsome and enthusiastic, and excited for this new adventure. Nathan had been furious when Buckley left, seeing the departure of another roommate as a personal attack, and so didn’t bother to interact much with Ben, choosing to spend his time drinking alone in his room instead. With Buckley out of the block, and on bad terms with Nathan, our young friendship group had fallen apart. Ben, by default, fell into the clutches of Madeline and Cassie.

The early 20s expat experience in Japan is vastly different for men and women. There is a persistent and wildly exaggerated myth that Japanese women are insatiably attracted to western men, which, coupled with the first-time-out-of-home exuberance of men in their early 20s, draws them into a world of binge drinking and bar hopping. Women tend to get the opposite; all the pressures of being an alien in a foreign country, without the invincible party boy comradery. The proportion of women and men who arrive in the country on an English teaching gap year is about the same, but the number of women who leave after a few months is far greater than the men; equally, the number of men who become “lifers” and stay beyond their planned year or two is far larger. The effect of this is that the expat ‘scene’ becomes ever more masculine, and ever more uncomfortable for new girls.

And so, for the first few months of his new life in Japan, Ben didn’t get the expat fuckboy life he’d heard about. Instead he hung with the girls. They went on cultural trips to see Japan’s castles and natural wonders. They had tea ceremonies in cute cafes, saw art galleries and temples, and played dress-up under the cherry blossom trees. I didn’t see too much of him, but I knew him casually, so when we had a chance encounter in the street early one Monday evening, I invited him for a beer in a nearby Izakaya.

“So how are you liking Japan?” I asked him. “You’ve been here what, three months now?”
“Ah… yeah… it’s okay… I thought it would be a lot wilder though.”
“What do you mean?”
“Ah, well, just I’m hanging with Maddie and Cassie all the time, we mostly do cultural stuff, just thought there’d be more parties and stuff. Haven’t really even spoken to any Japanese girls.”

I had been in Japan for three months longer than Ben, and been with two more girls, but nonetheless we were men, and my bravado kicked in.

“You mean you’re in Japan and you’re not fuckin? Shit man, what a waste. Japanese girls love white guys like us.”
“Yeah, I heard that before I came, but I dunno man, how do you meet them.”
“Bro, it’s Monday night. Ladies Night at Club Pure. We’re going to get you laid.

Cohiba Novedosos, about half burnt.

By the mid-point the cigar has mellowed off, but still has a pleasant creaminess. There is a roasted espresso flavour, walnut and a good woodiness. Somewhere in there I detect the smell of the shellac used in French polish. 

Club Pure was the ‘it’ shitty gaijin­ club in the Osaka of the late-aughts. Seemingly the only place in the city with bouncers, it was in a basement off the main drag in the red-light district. The décor was a bit confused. Around the dance floor there were a number of small ‘caves’ with stone floors, rendered walls, and plaster stalactites. Upstairs was a VIP area, decorated with fake books, polished wood and red velvet that evoked a 19th century Parisian bordello. Behind the bar was a taxidermized stag head and neon bar lights. On the dance floor there were go-go cages, laser lights, and a DJ who ran Fatman Scoop’s Be Faithfull on very heavy rotation.

The standard entry fee for Pure was $20, which included every watered-down drink you cared to drink. On Monday nights, entry was free for ladies. Ben and I paid our money, walked in the door, and paused for a moment on a landing overlooking the floor. The place wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t full either. A few groups of girls were half-heartedly dancing together on the floor. Unusually for Pure, the patrons were mostly Japanese and mostly women.

“Now what?” Ben asked.
“Now we get some Malibu and Cokes.”

After we’d had the Malibi, a Midori Lemonade, a couple of Jager Redbulls, and a tequila shot, the place was starting to heat up, and the dance floor had filled to the point where it wasn’t possible to transit the dancefloor without bodily contact.

“Now what?” Ben asked.
“Now we go dance” I told him. “Just find a girl you like and dance near her. If she notices you and moves closer then she’s interested. If she moves away then go dance near somebody else.”

We moved onto the floor, and separated, and after fifteen minutes of cold shoulders I returned to the bar. I glanced back for Ben. He was dancing with a girl, his hands on her hips, and her backside grinding against his crotch.

I had a highball at the bar, and did another lap of the dance floor, again meeting nothing but rejection. This time when I checked on Ben he was making out with the girl. By the time I’d finished another lap and another drink, they were holed up in one of the caves and his hands were inside her shirt.

I poked my head inside the cave just long enough to indicate that I was going to leave.

“I’m off. You alright here, mate?”
“Yeah” he laughed. “Thanks for everything, man.”

At home, I was pleased with myself. I may have struck out, but at least somebody was getting laid in Japan tonight. I jerked off and went to sleep, and didn’t give the incident much more thought until three days later when Cassie called me.

“Hey” she said. “What did you do with Ben?”
“What do you mean?”
“He hasn’t come home in three nights and his phone is switched off.”
“Ahh… well I took him to Pure. I think he probably went home with a girl.”
“What girl?”
“Ahh… she had denim shorts on? White top? I dunno, I didn’t really look at her.”

Cassie hung up in frustration.

Ben did eventually resurface, coming home mostly to pick up his phone charger before he moved in with the girl from Pure. No word on how Nathan felt about that. About a year later they got married and moved back to Australia, and had a baby shortly thereafter. Within three years they had two more. I haven’t spoken to Ben in years, but from his occasional appearances on my Facebook feed, he is still married, and seems to be a normal, happy dad in a small town in rural Australia; the road of his life walked entirely because of one moment of my fuckboy bravado.

Cohiba Novedosos, burnt to the bands.

The final two inches of the Cohiba Novedosos remain very smooth; remarkably so for a cigar so young, regardless of the marque. The final notes are of dry, sweet cocoa powder.

A great cigar, and a marked improvement on the Siglo II.

Cohiba Novedosos nub.

Cohiba Novedosos Especialista en Habanos Exclusivo on the Cuban Cigar Website.