H. Upmann Robusto Edición Limitada 2012

There are certain voices in the cigar aficionado community that loudly decry the Edición Limitada series, and particularly their trademark dark wrappers, which they (the aficionados) contend make them (the cigars) all taste the same. Perhaps as the years go by and the Harem begins to develop strong horizontals (reviews of every cigar produced in a particular year) in addition to its verticals (every cigar produced in a particular brand), I will be able to provide a conclusive position on one side or the other, however, for the moment I must content myself that for all their faults, the EL wrappers look gorgeous, and the 2012 H. Upmann Robusto is no exception: dark and rich and smooth, a fine cylinder of the best ebony.

The first notes are spicy, hot on the tongue. There is a strength here, full tobacco, and rich aromatic saddle leather. Once it settles down a bit there is a hint of cocoa and Mexican black bean. Within the first centimetre or so the thick umami of shiitake mushrooms emerges. This is shaping up to be something special.

H. Upmann Robusto Edición Limitada 2012 unlit

Like most young men I have occasionally found myself in love, and like all young men in love, I have occasionally found myself heartbroken. It was London in July and she was gone. The whole damn city stank of her, her perfume oozing out of the Underground, that oppressive womb that worms beneath the old town, and permeating the streets and parks and most of all my room beneath the stairs in a Paddington flophouse. I had once found that smell so comforting: six months earlier and a continent away I used to place a scarf she’d worn on my pillow, so that her scent and my dreams of our future together could lull me to sleep. Now it sickened me. There was a serpent in my stomach and a boulder on my shoulders. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t think. The galleries and museums held nothing for me, so I just wandered the streets aimlessly day and night. My beard was growing out, but I spent an hour or more each day lying face down on the shower floor, so at least I was clean. When I went to a pharmacist and asked for something to settle my stomach she tried to nail me down on symptoms.
“Is it acid?” she asked. “Or gas? Perhaps a virus?”
“No, no” I replied. “It’s just love.”
She didn’t have a pill for that.

Eventually I split for Paris, taking rooms across from the Gare du Sud, and in a nearby café I managed my first food in a week, a pain au chocolat. Everything in Paris was an improvement: the wine was cheaper, the weather warmer, the food better, and her smell was drowned out by the cheese shops and the garbage heaps. During the day I was largely cured, but at night, once the shadows lengthened in the narrow streets, I found the City of Lights to be haunted by an altogether different ghost, and my malaise returned. Running low on options I took the only logical step: I headed for Disneyland.

About an hour on the train from central Paris, Eurodisney, or Disneyland Paris as it is known these days, is among the least of the world’s Magic Kingdoms. The problem is that the French just don’t take things as seriously as the Americans (or the Japanese for that matter). My ticket was dispensed with the same sneer that accompanies most acts of customer service in France, and while the waitress who told me that the register was broken and that I wouldn’t be able to eat at the Lone Star Saloon that day was certainly flummoxed by her predicament, she was also totally unapologetic. At no point did anybody take the time to wish me a magical day.

I’ve never quite understood what children see in Disneyland, and honestly, the place would be vastly improved without them. For children a day there is about seven hours of standing in lines screaming and an hour or so of riding rides. To a solo adult rider like me though it’s not such a bad time. I take a book to read while standing in the lines, which are usually shorter because I’m alone and can fill in the empty seat next to a group of three. The food is good, and they sell beer. I enjoy the nuances of the design of the place, the little details and jokes hidden in every ride, and I like to try and spot the concealed doors and functional elements that make the whole place work. There is a special atmosphere in Disneyland that you don’t find anywhere else on earth; perhaps it’s because of the constant subtle background music, or the unrelenting attention to detail, or maybe it’s the chemicals they pump out into the air, but the unreality of the place just makes me feel happy. It’s the perfect destination for the heartbroken.

At around 9:30 they had the parade, and at 10:00 the fireworks, and after that the Galician peasantry began to thin considerably. I always save my favourite ride, Space Mountain, until last, and after 10:00 there are not even enough passengers to fill one shuttle, so you can ride it several times without disembarking. If you close your eyes while you’re in the lobby they adjust enough to the dark of the ride that you can see the track and maintenance gantries. With my final ride complete, I took one last lap of the park and grabbed a crepe in Main Street. The midnight parade was just wrapping up, so I lingered a moment to admire the French Jasmine and Ariel, before finally calling it a day, cramming my mouse ears into my pocket, and heading for the train station.

The station was totally dark, the doors locked, and a sign in French indicated that there hadn’t been a train here for some time. I considered my options. There were a row of taxis parked in the nearby plaza, but across the way a group of people were waiting at what appeared to be a bus terminal, and loath to fork out the taxi fare all the way back to Paris, I wandered over there. I inspected the signs thoroughly as several buses came and went, but did not find in any of them a destination I recognised. Finally one arrived that had a picture that looked remotely like a train on it, and the name of a station I thought I remembered passing through on the journey up. “Ah” I thought “I’ll go there. The trains must only run all the way to Disney until a certain hour, after which they stop part way up the line and this bus connects you.”

I handed the bus driver a 10 euro note, and when he asked me something replied “le gare… fin… le fin gare.” He looked at me with contempt, but handed over eight euro or so in change. The route meandered through the dark streets of the Parisian suburbs slowly, stopping regularly to let off another of my ten or so fellow passengers, and I became increasingly anxious as it became clear that this was not the popular and direct bus to the station that I had anticipated. Finally I was the only passenger left, and the bus driver began to drive quicker, everything dark outside. Eventually he stopped and open the door. “Fin” He yelled “Out.” He barely waited for me to alight before speeding off.

I considered my surroundings. A single fluorescent light flickered above a hard bench in the bus shelter, which was situated in the centre of a giant, empty parking lot. Off in the distance was a building that I presumed to be the station and a few shops, all unlit and plainly closed. I listened for some sound of humanity, but found nothing. No voices. No passing cars. No busy roads. Nothing. I checked my phone. No data. I sat on the bench and contemplated my options. As I saw it they were twofold, and neither was much good: I could wander randomly out into the night and hope that I found a taxi or kindly citizen before a gang of French street toughs, or I could sleep on this bench. I spent the next twenty minutes composing a text message to my two nearest friends, one across the channel in Bristol, the other in Berlin. They both began the same way: “I’m fucked.”

H. Upmann Robusto Edición Limitada 2012 two thirds remain

At the midpoint the cigar is thick and earthy, with rich dirty espresso and cocoa bean. A bit of a squalling breeze has sprung up, and despite spending its time between puffs in my lee, in a fort I have made for it with my jacket, I am unable to stop the cigar burning a little hot. If anything, this cigar seems a little young: five more years are needed to take the edge from the richness. I’m sipping on a lukewarm Coca-Cola, whose cloying sweetness surely dulls my palette, but nonetheless takes out the hint of bitterness in the cigar. Cocoa is okay on its own, but you don’t get chocolate until you add a little sugar.

I was still sitting on that bench, contemplating my dubious future, when out of the dark, softly at first, but growing closer, came a sweet siren song: the lilting laughter of American girls. They emerged from the darkness and sat down on the bench next to me, two blondes in their early twenties, and two swarthy Frenchmen, all dressed for a night on the town, and passing around a bottle of vodka. They paid me no heed, but I didn’t mind: wherever they were going, I was going, and where they were going there would be people and light and noise and probably buses, or at least taxis. Soon a bus came, and we all embarked. I let them get on first, and when the bus driver asked where to I casually pointed at them and nodded, as if to say “same place as them, we’re all together.”

Again the bus meandered through the darkened streets, this time picking up passengers as it went along; most were young and dressed for dancing. Finally we reached our destination, and all piled off, one happy crowd. With a smirk I glanced around the plaza, recognising it instantly. We were at Disneyland.

I followed my young friends as they stashed their vodka bottle in some bushes and joined the thickening crowd of young people that were all streaming, not toward the main, closed entrance to the park, but to an auxiliary area of shops and restaurants on one side, and a western themed bar within. The place was packed with kids, young, good looking, and largely Americans. I thought I recognised the flummoxed waitress from lunch. It was almost two in the morning, but the party was just getting started, people dancing, hooking up. “This ain’t so bad” I thought to myself, “and the taxis outside aren’t going anywhere. I might as well have a beer.”

The crowd at the bar was five wide and three deep, so I waited politely for a while, slowly making my way to the front. Almost everyone was flashing an ID card or something, some kind of discount card, I presumed. I reached the head of the queue, and stood there for ten minutes while it became plain that I was being ignored, so I began leaning further and further over the bar, waving at the bartender. Eventually he begrudgingly came over. I ordered a Corona, and he banged it down with a lot of contempt, even for a French bartender.

I did a lap and found a nook from which I could watch the girls dance without making too big a spectacle of myself, and was about halfway through the beer when I saw the bouncers coming for me, two burly men who took the drink out of my hand, put an arm around my shoulders and escorted me to the door.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “Disney party. Disney staff only.”
“I’m Disney” I protested. “I.T.”
He smirked at me and stroked his face. “Your beard.”

Defeated, I stole the bottle of vodka from the bushes and headed to the taxi stand. The drivers laughed when I said I wanted to go to Paris, but eventually I found one who would do it. 100€.

The next day I looked it up. All Disney staff must comply with the Disney Look, and facial hair is strictly forbidden.

H. Upmann Robusto Edición Limitada 2012 half remaining

The cigar ends surprisingly well, without any real bitterness: in a rich little bomb like this you expect a certain bitter tar finish, but no, this one ends very smoothly with a deep, rich, coffee note. As always, I take it till I burn my fingers, and only in the very final puffs do I feel a need to spit. It’s a great cigar right now, and is better than the travel humidor and the Royal Robusto, and in a whole other league to the Petite Corona, and think it will be better still in a few years’ time. Does it edge out the Magnum 48? Yes, I’m inclined to think it does. Nice work, Upmann brothers.

H. Upmann Robusto Edición Limitada 2012 nub

H. Upmann Robustos Edición Limitada 2012 on the Cuban Cigar Website

H. Upmann Royal Robusto La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2011

The second Upmann Robusto is not really a robusto at all, but rather a Royal Robusto, an edmundo: a couple of millimetres longer and a few points softer round the middle. It was extremely well received when it first came out: so well, in fact, that I bought into the hype and a box. They smoked great straight off the plane, and I went through most of mine in the first month or so. A few singles lasted long enough to get covered over in my humidor, and there they have languished until today. How has four years in the dark affected a once fine piece of Cuban vegetable matter? Today we’ll find out.

H. Upmann Royal Robusto La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2011 unlit

The very first note is bitter, hard on the back pallet, but it quickly mellows to a grassy coffee cream. There is a touch of the barnyard in there, straw and animal notes, and the pleasant, fruity part of the fragrance of cow manure.

Although this is not the first published review for the year (I try to publish in an order that makes a loose thread of some sort, groups similar releases and so on), it is, by some definition the first Dusky Beauty of the season. The Harem runs, of course, from January until about June, which corresponds notionally with the summer months in my home town of Melbourne, Australia. For three of these months (January to March) the weather can be more or less guaranteed to be reasonably pleasant for at least one day per weekend, however, three months does not a season make, and so even when I’m not actively publishing I will take any opportunity that presents itself to burn a dusky beauty, to be published when I have a gap to fill.

Today is such a day, an unseasonably warm afternoon in late September, and this will be my first cigar in many months. The temperature is in the high twenties, the breeze light and squalling, and the sun full and undimmed by clouds. Like many of my countrymen, I harbour an erroneous conviction that my leathery hide will never burn, and will instead simply take on the tan hue of a ligero leaf with the first light of summer. It’s not true, of course, and I will very likely emerge from this review lobster pink and peeling. I have at least taken the precaution of a wide brimmed Akubra bush hat.

H. Upmann Royal Robusto La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2011, two thirds left, with a Lipton Ice Tea

By the halfway mark the cigar has mellowed; it’s very sweet, with a sugary, caramel aftertaste, preceded by grass, almond, and perhaps a little peanut shell. I’ve been sipping on a Lipton Ice Tea for the duration, and honestly it tastes like nothing compared to the Royal Robusto. I back off it for a time to see if it’s the source of the sweetness on my back pallet, but no, it’s all the cigar. Fantastic.

It’s a good hat, this: an Akubra Pastoralist in fawn. I purchased it some years ago (why Australia doesn’t yet issue each of its sons and daughters with a cake and an Akubra on their 15th birthday I’ll never know) when I used to regularly attend Young Member’s events at the local racing club – I wanted a country hat with a slightly aristocratic air. In my mind I would be a young farmer from an old family fallen on hard times, in fresh from the Western District, hoping to make my name and win back the family honour with a promising young filly. I was wearing it to a meet once, where while the hat looked great, the rest of my ensemble looked like shit: an ill-fitting Chinese suit, a worn-out white shirt (had I removed my jacket the yellow stains under the armpits would have been visible), and a knock off Ralph Lauren tie, made of even thinner, cheaper silk than the real thing (hard to imagine, I know). In contrast, the friend I was with (a big tobacco executive) was immaculately attired in an impeccably tailored shawl-collared linen suit and double-breasted waistcoat, so it was somewhat surprising when, after signing in with the girl who was running the event, she singled me out for an invitation to the ‘best dressed’ competition.
“Do I have to do anything?” I asked.
“No, no” she said. “Just make sure you’re around for the drawing at 3:00.”
I got a look at the entry sheet as she took my name down: there was only one other name on the list, a girl, and it didn’t look like she’d left a lot of room for others.

As we walked away I said to my friend “I think I’m going to win this thing,” and sure enough, when three o’clock rolled around, after a bit of patter about how their specialist judges had been moving through the crowd and picking out the best of the best, my name was called. The prize? Five hundred credits at a local department store. Some other acquaintances heard my name being called an emerged from the crowd as I was having my photo taken for the Racing News.
“How’d you win that?” they asked. “You don’t look that good.”
“I dunno” I shrugged. “Must have been my lucky hat.”

H. Upmann Royal Robusto La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2011, final third

Getting into the grit now, the cigar has thickened up, heavy tobacco and a bit of tar. It has been relit twice, which probably didn’t help matters, and is generally burning on the hot side. For a seasoned smoker though this level of an ending is nothing, a nice kick to finish the thing off. A sip of the Lipton Lukewarm Tea thins it out nicely. The last inch has notes of coffee, leather and new car.

All in all the Royal Robusto is a great cigar, a slight bit better than the Duty Free Exclusive Robusto, and much better than the Petit Coronas, even if it doesn’t quite make the lofty heights of the Magnum 48.

H. Upmann Royal Robusto La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2011 nub

H. Upmann Royal Robusto La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2011 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007

Every Cuban cigar marque has its own character in its distinctive flavour profile, but a few novelty brands aside (Cuaba comes to mind), when it comes to sizes they generally sell a pretty standard line-up. Every brand has got to have its take on a Churchill, on a Petite Corona, on a Pirámides and a Dalia, and every brand has got to have its version of a Robusto.

Except, predictably, for one: H. Upmann.

The duty free exclusive release series is not a series where you typically expect to find very good cigars, mainly because duty free shops are not the kind of places you typically expect to find very good cigars. Yes, there are a few big, modern hub airports in luxury oriented destinations that have dedicated, premium cigar stores, with trained staff and properly respected stock – I think Dubai has one, and probably London – but in general airport cigars are stored at ambient humidity and temperature, and pitched to you by leggy sales girls whose expertise lies in 2L bottles of Baileys Irish Cream and cartons of Menthol Super-slims, not the nuances of fine Cuban leaf.

Perhaps because of this, when the H. Upmann Robusto travel humidor came out in 2007 – a handsome leather 10 cigar travel case – it didn’t get a lot of play in the aficionado scene. For a few years they were widely available, but I guess some people bought them – most likely big collectors seeking completeness, or perhaps one or two took a fancy to the case, and bought it with the intention of swiftly refilling it with something more to their taste – because eventually word got around the aficionado community that the cigars inside were fantastic. The run didn’t last long: a few non-duty free retailers picked up the unsold stock, and flipped it as quick as they could. I’ve had a few of these cigars over the years and they’ve always been great. This is my last one, and today it burns.

H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007 unlit

The first puffs are fantastic, light toasted, spicy tobacco with a grassy, herbal finish. After about puff number six it develops a sour note, but fortunately this quickly fades and the cigar comes back with the same herbal grassiness in a thicker, richer tobacco note.

It would have been around the time that the travel humidors started to run out that the Upmann robustos started to come in thick and fast: I’m not sure if it was the sudden success of the travel humidor that prompted it, or if the powers that be at Habanos S.A. simply decided that the Upmann robusto void remained sadly unfilled, but in 2011 there arrived the Royal Robusto as a La Casa del Habano exclusive, and then in 2012 there were two, a special 520 Aniversario Robusto, alongside that year’s Edition Limitada, another Upmann Robusto.

H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007 an inch smoked

In the early days of the Harem I would rant ad nauseam about my distaste for gourmet beer; today, it seems that times have changed. Australia, along with the rest of the developed world, has been deep in the craft beer craze for years now, and the humble, mass-market corporate swill of my youth barely exists anymore. Once every six months or so I sip a Carlton Draft at a racetrack or stadium and am instantly struck by what tasteless, sour swill it is. Today I’m drinking a Leather Britches Brewery Hairy Helmet golden ale, a beer I’d never heard of until I saw it in the Bottle-O just now, and it somehow seemed the most appealing of their mid-priced imported beers. I don’t know why I buy golden ales. The first one I ever had – from Two Birds Brewery, or something like that – was fantastic, but every one I’ve had since then has been a disappointment. This one is a beer for beer nerds:  too hoppy! It’s bitter, with an undercurrent of compost heap. It doesn’t pair so badly with the robusto though. The bitterness of the hops brings out the sweetness in the cigar, and it mixes with the herbal aftertaste quite nicely, and adds a depth to it.

That said, I do have to rinse my mouth out with water and puff out through the cigar to get a decent tasting note: light to mid tobacco, touch of cream, touch of spice, a little sweetness, and something of the aroma of an ancient hay wain.

The beer might have been a mistake, as more than anything else right now I need a bathroom. As a ten year old in red China, I remember vividly what constituted a public toilet at that time: a cinder block hut containing a row of faeces caked concrete holes that drained (by the power of gravity alone) into an open cesspool behind the structure. Periodically, the local peasantry would visit the pool and shovel its contents into wheelbarrows to dump on the nearby fields. I took one look and said “never again.” (I also refused to eat any more Chinese watermelons). For two years I held it from early morning until late evening every single day, and in the process I developed a bladder so strong that in six years of high school I visited the bathrooms only twice: once to hang posters for my ill-fated student body presidential campaign (more on that later), and once as a quiet place to replace the photograph of an honoured famous old boy with one of our more infamous alumni, mass murderer Julian Knight, as an end of year prank. Those days are long passed, however, and like a football left too long in the sun, my bladder has withered, and half a litre of beer is now too much for it.

H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007 two inches remaining

With a bit over an inch to go the cigar has thickened up a little, heavy tobacco now, with still a slightly sour note. It ends well. Not bitter, but sour on the back palette. Rich raw tobacco. A touch of charred whisky barrel. This was not, unfortunately, the best of travel humidor robusto that I’ve ever had, but still, the sky is blue, the sun is warm, and the beer is cold. A boy can’t complain too much, at least not after he finds a bathroom.

Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto: better than the Petit Corona, not as good as the Magnum 48.

H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007 nub

H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

H. Upmann Magnum 48 Edición Limitada 2009

Eight PM on a Monday night finds me indoors and lounging, deep in a soft leather armchair and the company of stalwart fellows, a high-end rum before me. The room rolls with the viscous smog of sixty or so fine cigars being puffed on heartily. I’m in Baranows Lounge, and these are the final days of Melbourne’s last true cigar bar.

Between my own lips hangs an H. Upmann Magnum 48, Edición Limitada 2009, a smoke that drew considerable praise at the time of its release. The first notes are extremely light, almost indistinct from an inhalation of air not through a flaming faggot of dried leaves. If anything there is a slight grassy taste, mildly sweet. If the current profile continues throughout the cigar it will have to be deemed a flavourless failure, but to my reckoning mildness at this point in a short cigar like this bodes well for the future. The rum I’m pairing is a Diplomatico, the trademark of the house (they’re the local distributor), and it goes very well indeed.

H. Upmann Magnum 48 Edición Limitada 2009 unlit

At one time Baranows was the best brick and mortar cigar store in Melbourne: their vast humidor held not only the city’s best range of Cubans, but a large selection of non-Cuban trash to boot. Those days, unfortunately, are long behind it, and they haven’t restocked in several years. When I stopped by a few afternoons ago to check the lay of the land before this soirée, the proprietor, Wal, seemed disinterested, most of all in showing me the humidor. He shook his head slowly when I asked what he had in the way of H. Upmann limiteds.
“Nope, none of those at the moment.”
“How about a nice aged Upmann or something… Sir Winston, maybe, or something discontinued?”
The head shake continued.
“Nope, no Upmann at all at the moment.”
He sighed, and waved me lackadaisically toward the walk-in.
“Take a look around if you like.”
It was my turn to shake my head.
“Sorry mate, I’m only interested in Hupmann.”

In the months leading up to the ban of indoor smoking in Melbourne there was much uproar about what it would do to the hospitality industry, about all the bars that would be driven into bankruptcy, but in reality there was only one real casualty: Baranows. I’m sure that many bars and clubs saw a brief decline in profits as the smokers headed outside and didn’t drink so much, but they all soon fenced in their loading docks and put decking on their rooftops, and with them developed a culture of lazy afternoons spent drinking summer punches in outdoor bars, rather than warm VB tinnies around barbecues in the suburbs. The three other serious cigar stores in Melbourne at the time were Alexander’s in Toorak, which had one or two armchairs for smoking, but did most of their business in the takeaway trade, the LCDH in the Hyatt, that never had a smoking area, and Fidel’s in the casino, which closed almost immediately, but put their stock under the counter in the high roller’s rooms of the casino. Fidel’s, though, was always just a side business of a major corporation, and never anybody’s livelihood, and it doesn’t count. I dated a former clerk from Fidel’s briefly, and the day it closed she was simply transferred to being a cashier in the casino cages.

H. Upmann Magnum 48 Edición Limitada 2009 two thirds left

At the midpoint the cigar is fantastic: the tobacco is still very light, but there is a wonderful, changing undercurrent of flavours in the back of the palette, first leather, then coffee, and then a sweet cocoa that I think will build to chocolate in the final third. The construction is perfect, with a razor sharp burn and pure white ash which remains intact for more than half of the cigar, before inevitably winding up on my pants.

No, the only casualty of the smoking ban was poor Baranows. They’d opened their lounge a couple of years prior to the ban, no doubt at great expense, taking a beautiful old bank on a corner block in a nicer inner suburb. They’d renovated it and done it right: big cane arm chairs and comfortable couches, overhung by slow moving fans. Behind the long mahogany bar stood a world class collection of scotches and exotic rums. A friend of mine fell in love with the place not long after it opened, and spent almost $2000 there in a fortnight, enjoying three cigars a day and working his way through their entire menu of $40-a-glass rum. But then came the ban. At first Baranows respected it, hoping that once the smoke had blown over an exemption would be granted for cigar bars. Eventually they put a shade-cloth around their parking lot and wheeled out a few plastic auditorium chairs, offering it as a very humble sanctuary for the smoker.

Some years in they decided to flout the ban, and smoking moved back to the main room, but this soon ended with a handful of council citations, a large fine, and a threat on their liquor license. From there they became a non-smoking cocktail bar, and then a member’s only smoking lounge, with an initial membership fee somewhere around $200. The fee soon lowered, and was eventually dropped entirely. With every change of local government they had to renegotiate the rules – I think for a time in the middle they may have returned to a late night non-smoking venue that did most of its business serving coffee to the after theatre crowd. I subscribed to their mailing list, but could never follow it.

In the meantime the anti-smoking movement went federal: a health minister whose father had died from emphysema was in office, and she made it her personal mission to stamp out the vile habit wheresoever it lurked. The taxes on tobacco almost doubled in four years, and the plain packaging legislation stripped cigars of their ornate bands and cedar boxes, leaving Baranows’ humidor a sea of non-descript olive grey.

If you are reading this, then Baranows is gone: my smoke takes place about two weeks before its final day of trading, December 31st, 2014. The scuttlebutt is that old Wal is retiring to Cuba and a salsa dancer girlfriend several decades younger than himself, and leaving the lounge in the charge of his son, who will reopen it as a whiskey bar. Goodbye old friend. You gave it your best shot. Sorry I didn’t visit you more often.

H. Upmann Magnum 48 Edición Limitada 2009 final third

The cigar thickens toward the end, showing me a hint of tar before it puts itself out with three quarters of an inch to go. I blow out through it and relight and am rewarded with dense, rich chocolate (95% cocoa) and deep espresso. The flavours fade on my palette, leaving almost no aftertaste. Some light spice, maybe. Slight grass. It is a fantastic finish to a wonderful cigar.

Much better than an H. Upmann Petite Corona.

H. Upmann Magnum 48 Edición Limitada 2009 nub

H. Upmann Magnum 48 Edición Limitada 2009 on the Cuban Cigar Website

H. Upmann Petite Coronas

And so it begins, Dusky Beauties, season three: we open on a shirtless boy in the bush, dirt on his pants, blisters on his fingers and sweat on his brow; alone but for a small fire, a bottle of dark rum, and a H. Upmann Petite Corona.

It was a hard decision, the comparison cigar for the H. Upmann vertical that will form the first dozen or so posts of the season, as there isn’t really a default Upmann like there was with Montecristo and Partagás. At first I thought about the Connoisseur No. 1, a cigar fits the size requirement (which is to say it is neither exceptionally short, nor long, nor fat, nor skinny, and not oddly shaped in any way), and is very widely held by the members of Cuban Cigar Website. I didn’t have one in stock and time was of the essence, so I took a tour of the major brick and mortar stores in Melbourne, all of whom turned out not to carry them. I was in my final choice of store, the La Casa del Habano in the Grand Hyatt, and marvelling at a fellow customer spending $3500 on 60 regular production cigars, by the time I realised that I would have to make a compromise. The LCDH didn’t stock my second choice, the Magnum 48 and so I settled on choice number three, the well sized but not especially well known or well liked H. Upmann Petite Corona.

H. Upmann Petite Coronas unlit

The construction of the cigar is good, the draw firm but not overly so. The first notes aren’t great; bitter, with tar predominating and a chemical aftertaste. After the first few puffs it mellows to a sort of vague straw flavour. Mid-tobacco. A very generous soul might claim a coffee note.

Upmann is one of the oldest current Cuban cigar brands, having been founded (as Min Ron Nee tells it) in 1844 by the hermanos Hupmann, two of four German brothers who had all emigrated for the island to make their fortunes. The business was a big success, and prospered under the brothers and their descendants until the First World War when German businesses were blacklisted in Cuba. By 1922 the bankrupted Upmann factory and the brand were sold off to a major tobacco conglomerate. Upmann languished until 1937, when the Menéndez family, flush with cash from the recent launch of their power house brand, Montecristo, purchased the Upmann factory and propelled it back to greatness.

As a brand Upmann sits somewhere at the bottom of the top tier of Cuban cigars: it doesn’t have the brand recognition of Romeo or Montecristo, the prestige of Cohiba, or the popularity of Partagás, but it is still a global brand with a large market share. It has had a lot of discontinuations over the years, but it hasn’t been cut to the bone like some of the smaller brands, and even gets the occasional new release. Overall, I think it should make for good vertical: the typical Upmann profile is one of light, clean tobacco, with the occasional hint of straw, leather, and creamy sweetness. With a bit of age they can be fantastic, and some real gems lurk in their special releases. Finally (and most importantly), the Upmann line is short enough that I won’t be stuck smoking the bloody things all the way into June.

H. Upmann Petite Coronas, one third smoked

By the mid-point the Petite Corona has improved, and is cruising along as a decent, but by no means excellent cigar. It is dry grass and leather, vaguely nutty, but still with tannic tang. I’m down in the backblocks of my ancestral sprawl, where I’ve lit a small fire that is a particularly poor example of the art. The wood is far too green, and more than a little wet, and I couldn’t be bothered with proper technique, choosing instead to ball up some paper, throw on the odd piece of damp bark and leaves, and hit the mess with my jet lighter until the flames caught on something more substantial. As always in life, you get what you deserve, and I have gotten a smoky, sputtering mess that is not much good to anyone, and a row of blisters across my knuckles where I got a little too fresh while rearranging some burning sticks. As is typical at the Groom compound, I’m sipping on a Bacardi Gold and ginger beer, that is taking the edge off my afternoon pretty nicely. Normally I find it a good match with cigars, being sweet enough to take the bite out of the tar, without being cloying on the palette like some other soft drinks. I’m not sure what it’s doing to the Petite Corona, but certainly isn’t improving it much.

H. Upmann Petite Coronas, half smoked

The end of the H. Upmann Petite Corona is surprisingly mild, dropping to light tobacco. As always, I smoke it down to a punched nub: the smoke is scorching in these final moments, but not all that bitter. Overall it has been a mediocre cigar; not hugely complex, and not offering any especially interesting notes, but also fairly smooth and inoffensive. It would be perfectly acceptable as a cigar at a drunken poker game or barbecue, anywhere where the principal focus isn’t on the smoke. It does not set the bar high for the rest of the Upmann range, and it certainly wasn’t as good as either a Monte 4 or a PSD4.

H. Upmann Petite Coronas nub

Upmann Petite Corona on the Cuban Cigar Website