Montecristo Robusto Edición Limitada 2006

It’s St. Patrick’s Day and Argus and I have just moved some furniture, so naturally the consensus is that we should find a pub and have a pint of the black stuff. We’re simple men in search of simple pleasures, and we eschew the chaos of the local Irish pub (where on St. Patrick’s Day they have music and food and whatnot – in years long past Argus and I made an annual tradition of going there and balking at their several hundred person line) in favour of the local non-Irish pub.

The place is empty, and the publican looks up from his paper with surprise as we stride in, thumping the bar and demanding two pints of Guinness. “Sorry, no Guinness” he says. “It won’t keep.” We survey the selection with some disappointment: Victoria Bitter, Carlton Draught, Cascade Premium Light. “Well, give us the closest thing you have.” He comes back with White Rabbit Dark Ale, which, sure enough, is ‘black stuff,’ but it’s a long way from stout, and a longer way from Guinness.

I had been smoking for a few years when the Montecristo Robusto Edición Limitada 2006 was released (I owned a humidor and kept it stocked), but I had not yet really started to collect. I was aware of the EL program, but I don’t think I’d ever actually smoked one when one of my friends gave me one of these robustos to look after for a while. I remember it sitting in my humidor, a glowering dusky beauty, and I remember its aroma which seemed to overpower everything else in there; a dirty bomb of musk and hard spice. This example has none of that, but it is a handsome brute with a nice, oily sheen.

Montecristo Robusto Edición Limitada 2006 with a pint and a PSD4

We take our seats out in the beer garden, and I rifle through my pockets looking for my camera in order to take the inaugural shot for this review, but fairly predictably I’ve forgotten it (I will later find it inside my humidor). The pictures that accompany this entry will be brought to you courtesy of my Nokia 6300. The Nokia 6300 was released in January 2007 (mere months after the Montecristo Robusto Edición Limitada 2006), and I acquired one shortly thereafter. To me it represents the apex predator of the non-smart phone; the last great Nokia. In June 2007 the original iPhone was released and changed everything, and the Nokia 6300 and its like were quickly tossed aside in favour of the smart phone paradigm, but I’ve kept mine all these years. It’s smaller than an iPhone, it’s a lot cheaper than an iPhone, it’s easier to use than an iPhone, and I don’t really want my email to follow me about twenty four hours a day. There is also a certain satisfaction to be derived in owning the pinnacle of an antiquated technology; is a 30 year old Rolls Royce not better than a new Hyundai? (For the record, I drive a 1990 Mercedes-Benz). Perhaps it’s time though. With the Google Glass and the rumoured Apple watch thing being released within the next year, the sun is setting on the smartphone era, and rising on the era of the wearable computer. Perhaps it’s time I bought a smartphone. Perhaps the latest iPhone is the apex predator.

I slice the cap of the cigar and take an experimental puff. The draw is a little loose, and when I light it it immediately becomes apparent why: there is a hole down the middle of the cigar. At its mouth the hole is almost 2mm across, and it extends probably 15mm into the cigar. It’s not really a concern, but were it not for its position in the exact centre of the cigar I would probably wonder if it was a tobacco beetle’s exit wound rather than the product of an oddly shaped leaf or dubious roll. The cigar begins very well, with nuts over medium tobacco, and just a whisper of heavy cream. First class.

Montecristo Robusto Edición Limitada 2006 partially consumed with beers and detritus

Argus has ordered us a packet of chips, paying the dollar premium for Red Rock Deli Sea-Salt over Smiths Original. Even the bartender was sceptical – “they’re basically exactly the same,” he told him. I’m always wary of eating something salty like this with a cigar, as I don’t know what effect it will have on my taste buds. On the surface the taste of the tobacco is much stronger, but it seems like salt might manifests itself in different ways, swamping the palette or shrinking the taste buds or some such. Beer and chips: I’m really not taking this tasting review too seriously. Salt on the palette deserves further study.

Nonetheless, the cigar is quite wonderful, very rich, with cream and cocoa. The burn is a little uneven, but nowhere near requiring a touch up, a vast improvement of burn quality over its 2000 brethren.

The beer is very light tasting for its colour, and honestly much more appropriate for a sunny summer afternoon than Guinness would have been. It’s a little burnt and hoppy, but not overpoweringly so. There is a trick with the standard beer jug used in Australian pubs where you can pour two glasses simultaneously by titling the jug slightly and letting it spill over the lip on one side. I’ve been doing it for years as a party trick, and it generally seems to impress, despite the fact that it’s actually an incredibly simple thing that anyone can do on their first attempt. I do it on this occasion, dividing the fifth pot between us, and as I do I quip “like King Solomon, I cut the beer in half.” “No, no,” Argus protests, “I’d rather see it go to you than see it split.” I chuckle and tilt the jug a little, giving him the lion’s share. “Then you my son are the beer’s true owner.”

Montecristo Robusto Edición Limitada 2006 last third, resting on a cutter

Toward the end the cigar tars up a bit, and grows bitter, but it’s bitter cocoa and espresso, over obviously top shelf tobacco, and not at all unpleasant. I take it till I burn my fingers.

There is a criticism among cigar aficionados that all the more recent Edición Limitadas taste the same, and perhaps there’s some truth to that, but I’m not too bothered. For my money this cigar is the superior of the both the Millennium Reserve Robusto and the 2000 EL, not to mention the Monte 4.

Montecristo Robusto Edición Limitada 2006 nub

Montecristo Robusto Edición Limitada 2006 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Montecristo No. 4 Reserva Cosecha 2002

When these cigars first came out I was a sceptic. “What is the point,” I asked, “of rolling an $800 version of the Monte 4?” The Monte 4 is the most popular smoke in the world, and with more than a billion sold since 1935 it is the very definition of the everyman’s cigar. The Monte 4 comes from liquor stores and petrol stations and it gets smoked at dog tracks and stag nights. It’s not a trophy smoke, some seven inch phallus with which one can luxuriate over a summer evening, but a smash and grab cigar, a kick in the teeth delivered with the morning coffee or that one last brandy. When the offer came into my inbox to purchase a box of these my reply was simple: “pass.”

And then two years later came the Cohiba Siglo VI Gran Reserva. The concept was the same, new standard size cigars rolled with old tobacco, except this time there weren’t 20 of them, there were 15, and they weren’t $800 a box but $1700. There was one other difference: the reviews. 100 points they got! Best cigar ever smoked! The cigar aficionado community was cleaved evenly in twain between those who declared the Gran Reserva far too expensive, and vowed never to smoke it, and those who had smoked it and declared it the finest cigar ever rolled. I admit it: I caved, and somewhere at the bottom of one of my humidors lies a box of 14 cigars that cost me more than the sum of the hundreds of other dusky beauties that sit on top of them. The fifteenth cigar? Well, I smoked it. It was fantastic.

All of which got me to thinking: perhaps there’s something in this ‘new cigars with old tobacco’ malarkey. Perhaps there’s something in the Montecristo No. 4 Reserva.

Montecristo No. 4 Reserva Cosecha 2002 unlit with a Havana Club bottle

The draw is a little loose; the first puffs pure Monte 4, dusty straw, bean, and a touch of spice on the back of the nose. It could be all in my head, but I also feel like there’s a slight refinement, a touch of cream. From puff three I notice the aftertaste, a musky ash that is very familiar to me as the taste that no amount of brushing will remove from my mouth the morning after I drunkenly sucked down a Monte 4 nightcap. I’m not complaining – if it weren’t invariably accompanied by a splitting headache and general queasiness that taste would be not at all unpleasant – but I mention it as evidence that this cigar runs true to its roots. Fancy band or no, this is very much a Monte 4.

Montecristo No. 4 Reserva Cosecha 2002 partly smoked

I’m never sure quite how far I should go in this blog. Cigars the world over are an aid to meditation, a ritual to occupy the hands so that the mind can relax and contemplate, an idea I try to convey on this website with my meandering anecdotes (I started it as much for their sake as any serious attempt at cigar criticism). I do however, share the dream of every cigar aficionado who posts his smoking diary on the internet: that it is the beginning of a path that decades from now will lead me to the stage of the Karl Marx Theatre on a sultry February evening where I will modestly wave as a dusky Cuban beauty hands me a small statue and an announcer booms “Ladies and Gentlemen… your Habanos Man of the Year.”

What will the selection committee say when they look over my archive? Will they say “no, not him, we can’t have an animal like that as our man of the year”? Or will they perhaps say “him, he’s the only voice in Habanos that tells the truth”?

Well, the truth is that I am in pain. Not physical pain (although I did crack a rib wrestling last weekend), but mental pain; the anguish one acquires when one isn’t as young as one used to be, and so many dreams have yet to be fulfilled. The pain of lost love. The pain of cowardice and regret. The pain of living. With the Montecristo 4 Reserva half smoked I take 20mg of Oxycodone, and wash it down with a little rum and apple juice.

Montecristo No. 4 Reserva Cosecha 2002 bit less than half

The cigar at this stage is very nice because Monte 4s are very nice, but if you asked me to take the Pepsi challenge between this and one with a couple of years of age on it, I honestly think I’d struggle. I was expecting a cigar with a bit of finesse, a Monte 4 with the edges smoothed, but this is all Monte 4: woodsmoke, straw and bean, over the bitter grounds from the bottom of a Turkish coffee.

The opiate is in my temples and my fingers, and pressing out from behind my eyes. I probe my rib: still tender. I feel slowed. Each click of the keyboard is pleasant, and each puff of the cigar more so. I let the smoke curl from my lips, a gently wafting, twisting ectoplasm. It’s a good match, the opiate; one contemplative relaxing drug paired with another. 20mg is a lot of opiate for someone with my emaciated frame and no built up tolerance for the stuff (I haven’t had so much as a Panadine Forte since 2005); the equivalent of 200mg of codeine, 30mg of morphine, 30mg of heroin.

Montecristo No. 4 Reserva Cosecha 2002 final inch

In the last inch the Reserva shows what may be its distinction: it hasn’t turned bitter. Monte 4s traditionally offer you a lot of tar toward the end, but just millimetres from my fingers this has none. Perhaps it’s the drug. Great waves of relaxation are washing over me, crashing breakers of content. They have forced me to the floor where I lie on my back, the smoke wafting straight up as I exhale. I feel very slow, every action laborious, and perhaps that is slowing down my smoking, cooling the cigar. It’s hard to say, my sense of time may be a little off. I probe my rib again: no pain at all. I probe my soul: no pain there either.

Eventually I become aware of one pain, although it’s not unpleasant per se, just a polite signal from my brain that something might be wrong in my fingertips. The cigar is burning them; its end has come, although the bitterness still eludes it. I solider on a moment longer, but it extinguishes itself and I let it go.

These cigars are still available on rare occasion: just this week I was offered a box at an asking price of a thousand dollars. In no sense is it worth that kind of money, and I can’t recommend that you buy them, but they’re better than a Monte 4.

Montecristo No. 4 Reserva Cosecha 2002 nub

Montecristo No. 4 Reserva Cosecha 2002 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Montecristo Robusto Edición Limitada 2000

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.

Montecristo Robusto Edición Limitada 2000 unlit

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.

Montecristo Robusto Edición Limitada 2000 partly burnt with a melon

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.

Montecristo Robusto Edición Limitada 2000 half consumed with a lot of spent matches

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

Montecristo Robusto Edición Limitada 2000 nub with detritis

Montecristo Robusto Edición Limitada 2000 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Montecristo Robusto Reserva del Milenio

The Montecristo Millennium jar Robusto; arguably the first Montecristo special release. This was released in the fledgling days of the new Habanos S.A., the ink from Altadis’ 50% buyout was still wet on the page, and the very first sprouts of capitalism were beginning to emerge from the fallow fields of the Cuban cigar industry. Collectables were the order of the day. Special releases! Same cost to produce, higher price at the register! Lower the expenses! Increase the margins! Find the equilibrium on the supply and demand curve!

Montecristo Robusto Reserva del Milenio unlit

The cigar begins well, with a nice firm Cuban draw. The first notes are woody, a lot of cedar, and also something heavier, maybe oak. What does mahogany taste like? Birch? The larch? It’s definitely not pine or maple, that much I’m sure of. I feel I can also safely eliminate the Australian Red Gum, which I imagine tastes like eucalyptus oil, although there is a certain hint of the Australian bush in this smoke; the bush in the morning, after heavy overnight rain. I remember one afternoon in Cuba my bus stopped for a few hours in some nondescript village halfway between Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, and there, in the shadow of a grim Soviet apartment block and a billboard of Castro I found a wattle tree. There was no context as to how it got there, but the flowers were unmistakable. Perhaps a few spores from that lonely specimen were taken by the trade winds and deposited in Pinar del Rio, where they made their way into my cigar? It’s plausible, but it seems like a heavier wood than that.

I’ve made myself a cheeky martini. I have in my home a serious liquor collection (certainly enough to open a decent bar or suburban bottle shop), but for some reason all I ever drink is beer and the occasional Dark and Stormy. Well not today. Two shots of Hendricks, a half of Noilly Prat and a half of Grey Goose, poured over a shaker of ice. Not shaken, not stirred, but allowed to sit, just for a moment, just long enough to chill it or until I get a sliver of peel off a lemon and place it in the bottom of a chilled martini glass: whichever comes first. I’m not sure why I don’t drink more of these. Unadulterated alcohol, a crisp, clean taste. It’s not a bad pair with a cigar, really. Very neutral. A little herbal. Definitely dissolves the tar.

Montecristo Robusto Reserva del Milenio partially burnt in a champagne glass

The cigar is changing with every puff, the draw loosens then tightens. An inch in and it’s delicious, very rich and creamy. Medium tobacco dominates, with a hint of the barnyard, and a nice sweetness. Honey perhaps? Nectar?

I remember the 1999 into 2000 New Year’s Eve (I’m avoiding writing “the dawn of the new millennium” or anything like that, because as was explained to me at great length in the build-up to the 2000-2001 new year, “there was no year zero” etc etc. In 1999 we didn’t care about that stuff; for us, 1999 was the last year of the second millennium). A few of my punk friends and I were at my dad’s work, a 10th floor balcony overlooking Flinders’ Street Station and the fireworks barges that were floating on the river behind it. My friends and I spent most of the night in my father’s office, doing what I don’t recall, but I know that at 11:55 or so we wandered out onto the deck in preparation for the countdown. At 11:58 Dad took me aside. “Xan, can you make sure the computer is shut down?” he said. “The IT guy wants all the computers shut down… just in case.” He didn’t have to say in case of what; I knew: the Millennium Bug! The dreaded apocalypse was nearly upon us! I scampered inside, but the computers of 1999 did not shut down so quick, and so that’s where I was as the clock ticked over: in an eight square meter cubical, looking at a 15” cathode ray tube monitor displaying something like “Windows NT is shutting down…”. Every New Year’s Eve I think about how much bigger the resolutions have gotten since then (humour).

(Part of me hoped I’d find the husk of a long dead tobacco in this cigar, which would have enabled a Millennium Bug pun in that last paragraph, but alas, it was not to be.)

Is this cigar a gateway to another time? To an age before September 11th 2001, before the unending war on shadowy enemies, and the ubiquitous security and surveillance that goes with that; an age before the rise of China; an age when there were people who hadn’t used the internet yet; and an age where I was just a lad, taking my first (largely abortive) steps into adulthood? The flavour seems about right. Cedar. A little nutty.

Montecristo Robusto Reserva del Milenio final inch in a filthy champagne glass

Here’s a trick I just made up: when you’re smoking in the wind, rest the cigar in a champagne glass between puffs – nothing is worse for cigars than the constant agitation of a gusty breeze. There is a downside, of course: the sticky brown residue that rapidly begins to coat the inside of the glass. This is what we’re putting in our lungs? They say that age and Cuba’s intensive hand wrought process of fermenting and drying the tobacco reduces the tar, and yet twenty minutes of un-stoked smouldering from a 13 year old Cuban super-premium is enough to thoroughly coat the inside of this champagne glass with patchy brown molasses! Imagine what a fresh-from-the-table forth rate Nicaraguan would do to it!

Toward the end the cigar grows tangy… it seems that some tar has avoided the glass and wound up in last inch of the cigar, where I gingerly combust it. Bitter. Ashy. Awful. It’s the end. The bitter end of a nice cigar.

Certainly better than a Monte 4, although perhaps not quite as good as the giants of the breed.

Montecristo Robusto Reserva del Milenio nub in glass ashtray

Montecristo Robusto Reserva del Milenio on the Cuban Cigar Website