Bolívar Gran Belicoso Colección Habanos 2010

I’ve a lot of time for Bolívar, and no cigar more than their biggest seller, the Belicosos Finos – so much so, that with the possible exception of the Monte 4, you’d struggle to find a cigar I’ve been through more of. Today, seated on the grass in a local park on a mild autumn afternoon, I’m smoking 2010’s Bolívar Gran Belicoso, which although a little thicker and a lot longer, is presumably essentially just a Belicosos Finos in a fancy box.

Bolívar Gran Belicoso Colección Habanos 2010 unlit

From the outset the Gran Belicoso is medium strength, tending toward full, with a nice toasted tobacco flavour and strong grassy notes. Most of the Colección Habanos begin very light and in a cigar this length this kind of strength up front is bit of a worry, as the build-up of tar throughout will probably make the end very bitter. The ash is very dark, which indicates a lot of unburned oil left in the smoke, and is usually a sign of insufficient ageing. I noticed the same dark ash in the San Cristobal; it’s a problem with doing a retrospective of a series like this: the Colección Habanos are, as the name suggests, collector’s cigars, and aren’t really intended to be smoked at only four years of age. Nonetheless, at this stage the Gran Belicoso is very pleasant.

As I’ve described before, I lived for a time in an apartment in Japan that was built for the building manager, the only apartment in a building of hostess clubs and massage parlours. My kitchen wall housed the control panels for the elevator, the water tanks, and the fire control board, and I had full and unrestricted access to the plant and machine rooms. From time to time a drunken Japanese salary man would pick up the emergency phone in the elevator and it would ring in my kitchen, where I would berate them in English. Once or twice I went downstairs and rescued a repeat caller.

The summer in Osaka is disgusting: three unrelenting months of a constant 35ºC and 100% humidity, with no relief at night. Around midnight one night I was sitting in my stifling apartment with more than one cocktail inside of me when I decided that it was time to act. I headed to Don Quijote, a department store not 100m from my house that was open all night, or as near as makes no difference, and sold absolutely everything, from food to clothes to construction materials. I purchased myself a 4m x 3m tarp, a bag of cable ties, and a garden hose: all the materials required for a rooftop swimming pool.

I laid the pool out on my roof, cable tying the tarp to the rails in such a way that, when filled with water, the sides would be firm from the tension. The end result was about nine feet by five, and eighteen inches deep. As it filled from the tap that protruded from the wall for no obvious reason I went downstairs and searched through my contacts for a structural engineer that might still be up, finding Woody, and old school chum and architect.
“Woody” I asked “would you think there’d be any issues with putting a few ton of water on the roof of a concrete Japanese apartment building… y’know, structurally?”
“Yes” came the answer “almost definitely.”

Bolívar Gran Belicoso Colección Habanos 2010 two thirds remain

Midway through the cigar is full bodied, a really good toasted tobacco over the tang of fresh cut grass with a rich creamy back and a lot of coffee. It’s hard to call a cigar like this elegant – elegance is a subtlety of flavour, a nuanced delicacy – but this is full and rich and balanced and pleasant; every positive adjective you care to come up with except elegant.

The next morning I was awaked about eleven to the sound of a klaxon in my kitchen, an alarm going off on a panel whose purpose I was unaware of at the time (I later found out that it was the control board for the building’s water system, the alarm indicating a low level in the tank on the roof that maintained the building’s water pressure). I called my landlord and in time a Japanese man in his late sixties and a maintenance worker’s jumpsuit arrived. He spoke a little English, and introduced himself as Takeshi. He inspected the panel and flipped the switch that silenced the alarm, before asking me to take him up to the roof. As we exited through my bedroom door onto the roof proper he paused, having met an unexpected obstacle: a substantial tarp swimming pool, sparkling blue and inviting in the summer sun, lay between him and the ladder to the water tank. He turned to me gravely: “may I enter your pool?” I consented, and watched him as he took off his shoes, rolled up his trousers, and waded through my ridiculous construction.

When he returned Takeshi explained to me in broken English that the tank was empty, but he couldn’t find any reason why, and would have to send for some water specialists. I nodded seriously and showed him out, but as soon as he was gone I rushed back to my roof: Takeshi might not know why the tank was empty, but I sure did, and I only had a few hours to hide the evidence of my crime. I took a knife and cut through the cable ties, the sides of the pool collapsing and spilling two thousand litres of water out onto the roof in a wave that lapped against my bedroom door and washed the dust out of the elevator machine room. A whirlpool formed around the only drain, not moving nearly fast enough for the volume of water, until with a ‘whoosh’ a distant sluice gate opened. I heard feminie screams from the street below, and stuck my head over the side to see what was up: water was pouring out of some emergency runoff into the street, and a passing group of school girls had been soaked. I looked back to the drain. It was really moving now.

A few days later I rebuilt the pool on a slightly smaller scale, filling it this time over a number of nights. I bought a black tarp to use as a cover, which served the dual purpose of keeping the bird shit and other muck out of it, and heating the water during the day, and I rigged up an elaborate siphon filtration/water replacement system to keep it mildly clean. From the pool I had a view into a host club, a type of Japanese bar where women enjoy the company of hosts, men with bleached blonde bouffant hairdos and pointy shoes, who are one part James Dean and three parts Liza Minnelli, and laugh at their jokes and tell them they’re beautiful for as long as they keep the champagne flowing. Night after night I would sit in my pool relaxing with a cigar at the end of a long day, and watch as these tight-trousered lotharios threw up on the balcony between drinks, and occasionally woke up a customer who had passed out in the elevator lobby and returned her to her bar tab. The cigar I was enjoying? Invariably a Bolivar Belicosos Finos.

Bolívar Gran Belicoso Colección Habanos 2010 final quarter

The end of the Gran Belicoso is much lighter than expected, with almost no tar. Beneath the heavy, toasted tobacco there is a distinct sweet aniseed, and a strongly herbal aftertaste. This is a no nonsense cigar, perhaps not as elegant as some, but excellent nonetheless. These cigars might be a little on the strong side for a novice smoker (I find even my veteran head to be spinning a little after two and a half hours of smoking time), but its robust flavours are very accessible and easy to appreciate. It fails to achieve the complexity of truly top end cigars, but is very enjoyable nonetheless, and sits at the top of the middle of the Colección Habanos.

Bolívar Gran Belicoso Colección Habanos 2010 nub

Bolívar Gran Belicoso Colección Habanos 2010 on the Cuban Cigar Website

San Cristobal de la Habana O’Reilly Colección Habanos 2009

It is a disturbing sign of how accustomed I have become to smoking the Colección Habanos that when I pulled the San Cristobal de la Habana O’Reilly out of my humidor this morning my first thought was “oh, a small one today.” At a petite 6.3 inches, the O’Reilly is the shortest of the Colección to-date, but its 56 ring makes it one of the fattest. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that it might not be quite as heavy as advertised: the Cuban Cigar Website uses the official measurements from Habanos S.A. press releases for its source, as I imagine do most online cigar resources, and everything I can find agrees that the O’Reilly is a 56, but the one in my hand doesn’t feel like it. My cutter can slice a 52 ring cigar in half, and it can’t take the O’Reilly, but it’s not too far off. I put this cigar at about a 54. 55 at best.

San Cristobal de la Habana O’Reilly Colección Habanos 2009 unlit

I cremate the tip and inhale deeply of the fragrant smoke. The first flavours are light and earthy, considerable cedar and general wood smoke, and quite nutty. The Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore is famous as the birthplace of the Singapore Sling, as well as for being the oriental hangout of choice for the gin-soaked colonialist of yesteryear: Kipling, Hemmingway, et al. These days it’s a tourist trap where the aforementioned Slings are served pre-mixed from giant buckets, but one tradition lives on yet: on every table there is a large bowl of shelled peanuts, and patrons are encouraged to eat the nuts and then toss the shells casually on the floor (ironically, littering is a criminal offense of the highest order anywhere else in Singapore). The result is a floor which is covered in shells to a depth of about two inches and any given time, and it is the aroma of those shells underfoot that is the flavour in this cigar; not the sharp oiliness of the nut itself, but the dry, woody, dusty aroma of ten million crushed peanut shells.

Who really cares about San Cristobal de la Habana, that’s what I would like to know. Launched in 1999, San Cristobal is the youngest Habanos brand, and as far as I can tell it fills no niche in particular. They’re light, inoffensive cigars, in unique but not particularly original sizes, named after forts and streets in Old Havana. There was a guy who would come very occasionally to my cigar club in Shanghai who was a San Cristobal evangelist (I think he was a big party cadre or some-such, because the Chinese guys would always give him a lot of face, a lot of guanxi, and refer to him as “The Chairman,” and he once complimented me on my high forehead, saying that it meant I was very smart, like Mao). Whenever he walked into a room everyone would stand up and welcome him, “ah, Chairman, hello, how are you?,” and he’d pull a bundle of San Cristobals out of his pocket, always a big one, El Morros or Murallas, and when you shook his hand he’d present you one as if it were his business card. Once I tried to refuse because honestly I already had two of his cigars unsmoked at home, but he looked greatly offended and slipped one into my breast pocket. I fished into my travel humidor and pulled out a Cohiba Siglo IV to offer as trade: he protested greatly, but eventually I was able to get it into his breast pocket.

San Cristobal de la Habana O’Reilly Colección Habanos 2009 two thirds remain

Beyond the halfway point the O’Reilly has thickened up a bit, with a bit of the tang of an oak barrel, and some paperbark tree. There is a hint of leather and a little coffee. It leaves a dusty dryness on the palette. I’m sipping on a chocolate milkshake which would take the edge off the cigar reasonably well, but there’s not a lot of edge to take off.

Argus, an old friend, came to stay with me for a few days while I was in China. He had done an Arts degree and, possibly the first person to wind up employed in that field without teaching it, had found himself a job at a history company; a private company that for a fee would research the history of whatever it was their clients were interested in (it has since gone bankrupt). I took him out to one of the Gourmet Society’s dinners, and introduced him to The Chairman, who looked my friend up and down and asked what he did for a living.
“I’m a historian,” Argus replied.
“Oh, very interesting,” intoned The Chairman. “Tell me, is it true that all Australians are descended from Criminals?”

The next night I took Argus out with my other circle of friends, this one not made up of the Chinese glitterati, but rather a group of expat English teachers, outcasts from occidental society, and villains and deviants of the highest order. I introduced Argus to Sal, a cockney brawler from the old country, who looked him up and down and asked what he did for a living.
“I’m a historian,” Argus replied.
“Oh, very interesting,” intoned Sal. “Tell me, what do you think of Hitler then? He got the job done, didn’t he?”

San Cristobal de la Habana O’Reilly Colección Habanos 2009 final third

The O’Reilly’s final inch is very dirty, thick tar and ash, inevitable in a 56 ring cigar. Ten years of age might take away some of this messy ending, but I can’t imagine it’d do much for the rest of the cigar, which has been lightly flavoured throughout – if anything it’d reduce it to a very light, inoffensive grassy cigar. In the end, there is nothing wrong with the San Cristobal de la Habana O’Reilly, but there’s not a lot to distinguish it either. Perhaps the best use for these is as gifts for friends, a memorable calling card to hand out as a greeting. Perhaps if you’re lucky someone will give you a nice Cohiba in return.

San Cristobal de la Habana O’Reilly Colección Habanos 2009 nub

San Cristobal de la Habana O’Reilly Colección Habanos 2009 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008

Oft alluded to but never discussed in depth in this column is that Cohiba, the flagship Cuban brand which grew from Castro’s custom rolls to diplomatic gifts, and finally to the powerhouse money spinner of the Cuban cigar industry that it is today, is my favourite brand. I’ll go into its history in more depth when I do a complete vertical of it in a future season of A Harem of Dusky Beauties (slated for 2018), but for the moment it will suffice to say that there are two schools of thought as far as Cohiba goes: that they’re a cut above everything else Cuba makes, and that they are overpriced. As usual, there’s a little of truth in both; Cohiba leaves go through an extra fermentation and are generally of a higher quality than those used in non-Cohiba cigars, and for this you pay at least a 30% premium. The thrifty aficionado willing to hunt for specific box codes, willing to age cigars, willing to snap up things when they’re hot, can easily get a better cigar than a standard Cohiba for a fraction of the cost. For the amateur smoker who wants a special cigar without too much messing around? Buy a Cohiba.

There have been some legendary limited edition cigars out of El Laguito – 2003’s Double Corona is amazing, and the 2006 Pirámides is no slouch – but one I’ve never really felt lived up the hype is the 2004 Sublime. It’s nice, but it’s a bit rough around the edges. The word on the street is that they have passed their prime, but even a couple of years ago it never had for me the elegance or the balance of the DC. Today’s cigar, 2008’s Colección Habanos Sublimes Extra, is essentially the Sublime but 20mm longer.

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008 unlit

The first three puffs are hot and ashy, and already I begin to frame the tone of this article: “this aint so special” I think “maybe I’ll say that it’s too young.” After the fourth puff I put it down and say “oh wow” out loud. The smoke is intensely delicate and light, and crisp on the palette like citrus foam in a restaurant that specialises in molecular gastronomy. The flavours are lightly grassy, herbal on the back palette.

It’s a hard decision, whether or not to pair a drink with a smoke like this, as the last thing I would want is for the cigar’s delicate flavours to be drowned out by strong liquor, but seeing as I brought it down, allow me a moment on Gran Marnier Cuvee du Cent Cinquantenaire. It took about three seconds of exposure to one of the ads for this product in a magazine before I was actively seeking it out; the most effective I remember an advertisement working on me. It featured the bottle on a plain blue background with the text “hard to find, impossible to pronounce, and prohibitively expensive… and while we’re being honest, it’s our finest work.” It was a challenge. Two years and two hundred dollars later I had a bottle of Cuvee du Cent Cinquantenaire in hand, and I invited a few friends over for a tasting. Also just in was a box of the then recently released Cohiba BHK 56, and I billed the evening as one of unrivalled epicurean delights. The first arrivals nursed a few craft beers while we waited for some late comers, and as people began to filter in, one of the party produced some Mamont Vodka, a bottle shaped like a woolly mammoth tusk, allegedly the best thing to come out of Russia. He suggested that we all enjoy a double shot of it with ice and a touch of lime while we waited for the final stragglers, and he met with no objections, either to the first or the second, or for that matter the third rounds. By the time all were present and accounted for and we started on the cigars and liqueur we were inebriated far past the point of appreciation. The evening ended at a karaoke bar. More than one of us threw up. In the morning I found a five inch BHK 56 stub sitting on a fence post. It was a crime against good leaf.

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008, two thirds left, with a bottle of Gran Marnier Cuvee du Cent Cinquantenaire

By about the halfway mark the cigar has thickened up considerably, medium tobacco, still strongly grassy with the occasional hint of coffee and cocoa. I take my first sip of the Gran Marnier and it is heavenly, freshly juiced, delicious tropical oranges that change on the tongue into aniseed and rich, ripe stone fruits. It combines with the cigar in the aftertaste, leaving a thick, smoky toffee. It’s a strong flavour and on its own can be cloying, but complements the cigar very well, with the cigar becoming sweeter and more floral, and the liqueur taking on rich, smoky notes. It’s much too expensive and difficult to find to waste on any old dreck, but it’s the best complementary spirit I know for cigars, each enhancing the other.

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008 final third

The cigar grows a little bitter in the end, slightly rough with some tar, but is still extremely smooth for a smoke of this size. The final notes are woody, with burnt toast and some leather. It’s an excellent cigar in every respect, edging out the Trinidad by a nose in the upper echelon of the Colección Habanos, but it’s not transcendental: I’ve had better Cohibas than this in aged Lanceros, the Siglo VI Gran Reserva, and a few of the ELs. As always, there are better cigars available for the dollars these commands, but if you have the means, the Cohiba Sublimes Extra is a fantastic way to spend three hours.

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008 nub

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008 on the Cuban Cigar Website

H. Upmann Magnum Especiales Colección Habanos 2007

Throughout my retrospective of the Colección Habanos, I’ve felt that there’s been a shadow hanging over every review. I don’t have a basic cigar, a Montecristo or Partagás Serie D. No. 4, to hold these against, so I’ve increasingly been comparing them against each other, but there is one comparison I’ve refrained from making, one giant, who, silent on his lofty pedestal, nonetheless looms over every review: the Montecristo Maravillas No. 1. Regular readers will recall that in my Montecristo retrospective I awarded this cigar a considerable accolade: I declared it to be the best of all the Montecristo cigars. If the weather holds I’ll revisit the Monte before this jig is up, but even so, the existing review makes the Montecristo the one to beat as far as the Colección goes. The Cohiba, obviously, is the favourite to upset it, but no good punter plays favourites, and if I were to have an outside bet at longer odds, I’d put my money on today’s cigar, the H. Upmann Magnum Especial. Cohiba cigars rarely disappoint, and their price bracket reflects this, but Upmann cigars more than any other brand in my experience, exceed expectations.

H. Upmann Magnum Especiales Colección Habanos 2007 unlit

Like most of the Colección Habanos, the 55 ring Magnum Especial is too big. Fans of big ring cigars like to say that the thicker rings are manlier, but it’s not a statement that makes any sense to me, except in the Freudian sense. It is glorious looking though, very new Habanos, with a beautiful smooth wrapper. The oversize Upmann band is vividly coloured and cleanly embossed – night and day from the scrappy printing of the Hoyo. The draw is loose – not quite a wind-tunnel, but a distance from the classic Cuban draw that is my preference. Through the first inch the flavours when drawing are excellent, full-bodied top quality tobacco that tastes like the breeze in Vuelta Abajo, over lashings of cream, and dessert spices: nutmeg, cinnamon, cocoa and vanilla. In the very last aftertaste, however, something is badly wrong: a bitter, soapy, vaguely chemical taste. I have twice in my life consumed stale pine nuts, which left me with a bitter taste in my mouth at the end of every swallow for three or four days, and more than anything, this reminds me of that. That and soap.

H. Upmann Magnum Especiales Colección Habanos 2007 one third smoked

Passed the halfway mark, and the tobacco has lightened considerably, now mid-strength at best. With it, the flavours have become more delicate and sweeter, strongly gingernut cookies, hot from the oven. The bitter soapy aftertaste has lightened too, but it’s still present. There is something strongly green in it, perhaps pine sap. Once in a while you see a report of a cigar that tastes soapy, allegedly as a result of a roller who failed to entirely wash the cheap soap they have in Cuban factories off her hands before returning to work, but I don’t think this is that, as it’s way too subtle a flavour. It’s not the chemical rubbery bitterness of a cheap non-Cuban, it’s not the bitterness of tar, or smoke build up, or the hot bitterness of tobacco burned too fast, and it’s only present in the aftertaste; there is nothing of it in the initial puff. Honestly I think the cigar might just be way too young. I had such hopes for this cigar that I’m starting to make excuses for it, to seek out an environmental cause: I’m sitting down on the docks, and a few construction sites are nearby… perhaps some odourless gas is being emitted from a solvent or glue at one of them, and somehow causing a soapy taste on my tongue, or maybe I’m in the midst of some kind of physical problem, and the soapy taste is a symptom of an issue with the brain or heart. Just to be certain I pour out the cappuccino I was pairing this with, and fill the cup with water from a nearby drinking fountain.

Within ten minutes or so of ditching the coffee, the soapy aftertaste is gone, so perhaps it was that. The barista at the chain coffee shop that sold it to me certainly didn’t come across as the pinnacle of professionalism (he did a French accent and asked “would you like a baguette with that?,” and when I looked at him blankly he pointed to the Dutch flag on the shoulder of my light, military surplus jacket and asked “are you French?”). An inadequate cleaning of the machine perhaps? Laying the blame on the coffee is a big leap, honestly, as when I was drinking it it tasted fine; the soapy taste was the very last flavour on my palette after either a sip of coffee or a puff of tobacco, the flavour left once all other flavours had melted away. Oh well, another mystery of the leaf. Good riddance.

H. Upmann Magnum Especiales Colección Habanos 2007 final third

Throughout the final third the cigar is strongly herbal, with star anise and dry grass dominating. In the final inch it turns a little bitter and sours on the tongue, with a doughy sort of element in the aftertaste. It leaves a thick coating on the pallet, not unlike an under ripe banana in texture. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this cigar: it has greatness within it, no question about that, and in its own way was unlike anything I’ve ever smoked before, but it’s also pretty flawed. If you’re offered one today, accept it politely but make an excuse for not smoking it, and leave it in cedar for five years or so. Or maybe you should smoke it. If ever there was a Dusky Beauties to take with a grain of salt, it’s this one, as I strongly suspect the soapy taste that so ruined my experience came from something outside the cigar. As with all things though, I have no experience but my own to go on, and to me, the H. Upmann Magnum Especial is a lot of things, but it’s no Montecristo Maravillas No. 1.

H. Upmann Magnum Especiales Colección Habanos 2007 nub

H. Upmann Magnum Especiales Colección Habanos 2007 on the Cuban Cigar Website.