H. Upmann Noellas La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2009

I debated this one long and hard: the day is perfect for a dusky beauty, the sun is shining, the temperature ideal, it’s very still, and I have nothing in particular to do for four or five hours. There is only one problem: it is the morning after the night before, and I am hung-over like a dog.

I have selected the Noellas for two reasons, and they’re both related. As a smoker of more or less exclusively exotic and esoteric cigars, my smoking roster tends toward trophy smokes: long, thick, precious cigars. There is a very real possibility that a cigar right now will make me throw up, and Noellas is among the smallest I have waiting for me. I also have more than one in stock, so it’s replaceable in the event that I have to ditch it.

H. Upmann Noellas La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2009 unlit

I lift the cap and light the cigar. It begins very well, mid-tobacco, with a sharp herbal tang and an aftertaste of hot buttered toast. The draw is on the firm side, a perfect, classic Cuban.

The Noellas was an old cristales, packaged not in a box but in a glass jar that resembles a preserve jar crossed with a milk pail. At one time these were common, particularly in the Upmann line, but today they are all long discontinued; the Noellas was the last of them, surviving up until the mid-1980s, but this particular example comes from a 2009 rerelease of 5,000 units, theoretically exclusive to the La Casa del Habano chain of stores. They have gone to a great deal of trouble with the replica – not only is the jar pretty much spot on, but the printing on the La Casa del Habano band is some of the worst I’ve ever seen, with blotchy, smudged gold and misaligned embossing: a true example of 1980s Cuban print quality.

H. Upmann Noellas La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2009 two thirds remaining

At the mid-point the cigar is full and punchy, but still smooth, with notes of hot grass, heavy tobacco, and a hint of incense; that first heavy breath as you walk into a Buddhist temple.

I’m a good drunk, in that it doesn’t take too much to get me feeling jolly, but I don’t really show it: in the habitable zone of six to ten drinks my decision making is certainly impaired and my inhibitions are lowered, but I never really slur or stagger, and when I throw up it’s always discreet and doesn’t really slow me down. Many is the time I’ve been granted service at or admittance to a bar when an equally inebriated cohort has been refused it. The downside to this is that I never really have bad experiences while I have a bottle in hand, and because of that I never really think about my hangovers until it’s too late.

I’ve had bad hangovers my entire drinking life: rough things where I wake up with a foul taste in my mouth that won’t go away and an ice-pick driving into my temple that no remedy homespun or pharmaceutical seems to cure. The worst part is the sickness, a churning mix of acid and gas that the intake of anything, even an innocuous glass of water, will provoke until I retch up spurts of bitter, toxic yellow stomach acid. On the bad days there’s blood.

Despite all this, I’ve only ever had one real moment of clarity. I had been out to a friend’s birthday about fifteen minutes’ walk from my house, and when it was over I decided to go for a kebab. The kebab shop that lay between my friend’s house and mine was closed (permanently, some years before, as a more sober man might have recalled), but by the time my nose was pressed against its dusty window I was very committed to the kebab idea, and so I decided to go well out of my way to the kebab van at the petrol station down the hill.

It was a straight shot from the closed kebab shop to the van, and I made it without mishap, but there were no arterial roads on the way from the van to my home, and I was much less familiar with the route. A man with common sense could no doubt have navigated it easily, but common sense was in short supply on this journey, and so I spent the next hour wandering the streets, climbing fences, drinking out of the taps in people’s front yards, making wrong turns and lengthy detours, before finally finding my way to bed.

The next morning I woke up slowly and contemplated my situation, the rancid bitter taste in my mouth and the drill-bit that felt like it was boring into my skull just behind my right eye socket. My stomach churned. “Don’t move” I thought to myself “just lie here. Stay as still as possible and maybe it will pass.” For a few minutes I lay there, but soon a cold sweat broke out on my forehead and saliva began to trickle down the back of my throat, a sure sign of an impending expulsion. Too late I leapt out of bed and ran for the bathroom: half way there it came. I tried to catch the warm, liquid mass in my hands, but the volume was too great, and my cupped palms only forced it up and out, back into my face and all over the room. I didn’t stop to survey the damage, but continued to run for the bathroom, cradling what I was able to catch before me.

Once my stomach contents were expelled and the immediate threat was over, the toilet flushed and my hands rinsed off, I walked gingerly back to my bedroom to survey the damage. A perfect circle of vomit covered the centre of the room, two meters in diameter. I paused to look at myself in the full length dressing mirror: drips of garlic sauce ran down my face, and undigested bits of lamb and tomato were in my hair and clinging to my bare chest. As I stared into my bloodshot eyes and deeply creased forehead a sliver of lettuce peeled itself from my earlobe and flopped gently to my shoulder and from there to the floor.

“What am I doing to myself” I asked aloud. “This has got to stop.”

And that was it. My moment of clarity. I think I stopped drinking for about a week.

H. Upmann Noellas La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2009 final third

The cigar ends exceptionally well, with no tar at all, just a light, crisp, herbaceous tobacco, with slight aniseed notes, a little sour citrus. Very pleasant, and somewhere in the top echelon of Upmann, the farthest distance from the Petit Coronas.

It’s even done wonders for my hangover.

H. Upmann Noellas La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2009 nub

H. Upmann Noellas La Casa del Habano Exclusivo 2009 on the Cuban Cigar Website

H. Upmann Connossieur A Habanos Specialist Exclusive 2013

The H. Upmann Connossieur A was the 2013 entry in the Habanos Specialist Exclusives program; it’s not entirely clear what criteria qualify a store as a Habanos Specialist, although I suppose the idea of the program is that it’s a slightly broader version of the similar La Casa del Habano exclusives. In reality, cigars from both programs seem to be available to any store that has the wherewithal to order them from their distributor. The misspelling of “connoisseur” is apparently deliberate, or at least it’s consistent across the band, box, ribbon, and all of Habanos S.A.’s press releases. Why they chose this spelling for this release, and the correct spelling for the Connoisseur No. 1 has never been adequately explained: a cynical mind might speculate that perhaps they wrote it down wrong when they commissioned the bands, and in a display of good Cuban frugality, decided to just roll with it rather than scrap the run.

H. Upmann Connossieur A Habanos Specialist Exclusive 2013 unlit

I open the end with a fingernail and test the draw: classic Cuban, just firm enough that you feel it. Once lit it has a nice nutty, grassy beginning, with light, slightly floral tobacco. It thickens up quickly, and by an inch in the cigar has become quite strong – much stronger certainly than I was expecting from the first mild puffs, the taste now being rich tobacco and fresh-turned earth. It’s not totally typical of Upmann, but very pleasant nonetheless. A few millimetres further on and some cream enters the mix.

In Cuba, years ago, I lingered for a few days in a town called Trinidad, a well preserved colonial tourist trap a few hours from Havana. I was travelling with my friend Andre, and he had read in a guidebook that there were precisely two things to do at night in Trinidad: the La Casa del Musica, an outdoor live music venue in the centre of town, and some kind of nightclub in a cave in the hills just outside it. We had arrived in the late afternoon in the back of a beaten up Lada taxicab driven by two Cuban youths, who kept the tachometer needle firmly in the red at all times, save for the occasional moment when they would slam on the breaks to blow kisses at a comely female hitch-hiker. Tired from the journey, we decided that for night one we’d go with the quieter option, and so headed to La Casa.

The stage was at the bottom of a set of steps from which a crowd of forty or so tourists watched spirited renditions of Guantanamera and all the usual Cuban favourites. We joined them, and after a short while a heavily pregnant and decidedly rabid looking Dachshund stray weaved its way through the line of foreign ankles to us. I went to shoo it away, but Andre, ever the soft hearted dog lover, picked the thing up, put it in his lap, and began to feed it chips. I was just starting the process of chastising him, saying he was sure to catch rabies, or at least fleas, when I noticed that two female faces were leaning forward to look at us from a few seats down the aisle. At a break in the music they sidled over, a gorgeous blonde in her twenties who said she was Argentinian (although from her Aryan appearance I’d say her family had probably emigrated there around 1945), and a Cuban girl in her mid-teens, short and square, but with a cute enough face, made only more attractive by her fine, black moustache. After complimenting us on our dog, the girls suggested that we all head for the nightclub, and energised by the fragrance of foreign feminine pheromones, we instantly agreed.

The way to the club was a short hike up a rocky path through a graveyard and past a tumble down church, and as is natural with groups of people, we fell into two couples, Andre and the Cuban girl up front, and myself and the Argentine behind, each making idle chatter, getting to know one another. The disco was indeed in a cave, entered via a steep set of stairs and a long tunnel with walls worn smooth and waxy by the curious caress of a million tourists. The dance-floor itself was the only obvious construction, a flattened artificial floor laid beneath a soaring ceiling covered in stalactites. We found ourselves a table near the edge, ordered a round of mojitos, and lifted them in toast to our success: to unique atmosphere, the company of charming strangers, and to the Cuban night in general.

H. Upmann Connossieur A Habanos Specialist Exclusive 2013 two thirds remain

At the mid-point the cigar is very mild and crisply herbal, with an unusually white ash for a cigar of this age. With about two inches to go it takes on a sweet herbal characteristic reminiscent of cloves and dessert spices.

We weren’t seated long before Andre’s partner dragged him to the dance floor, and quickly began to gyrate lasciviously against his more or less motionless form. Still in my early twenties and a native son of Australia (one of the world’s least rhythmic countries), I was not much of one for dancing. My typical move was a sort of arrhythmic shuffle: I would shift my weight from foot to foot and shake my shoulders back and forth occasionally, my arms hanging like salamis in a butcher’s window. Still, the thing that was happening against Andre’s crotch looked like a lot of fun to me, so I offered the Argentine my hand, and led her to the floor.

She may have been from Bavarian stock, but this girl was no Schuhplattler dancer: no, her moves came straight out of a Buenos Aires tango club. Grinning, she took my hand and pressed her lithe form against me, and I watched her smile fade as I nervously giggled and shuffled and attempted some ridiculous impersonation of a waltz. Soon she released me and took a step back, and as soon as she did an oiled Cuban lothario in tight pants and a shirt unbuttoned to his navel stepped in, taking her authoritatively within his personal space as he dipped and spun and thrust himself against her. Emasculated, I shuffled a few minutes more, before heading back to the table and sulking, looking on in increasing despair as first the Argentinian, and then Andre, began to make out with their native counterpart. Dejected, I finished my drink and headed back to the hotel alone.

I didn’t see a lot of Andre over the next few days: he came home at six in the morning that night, and disappeared immediately upon rising in the mid-afternoon sometime, and kept similar hours the next day. I wandered the streets alone, and read a good deal of War and Peace in a local park. Trinidad is a tiny place, and more than once I saw the Argentinian reading a book or writing in her diary in a café, but we didn’t acknowledge one another.

On our fourth and final day in Trinidad, Andre joined me for breakfast and informed me that we had an invitation to his girl’s house for lunch, and told me where to find it (we had bus tickets departing in the early evening). I prodded him for details of his activities over the last few days, but he wasn’t forthcoming, and disappeared immediately after breakfast. I took my final walk around the town, and at the appointed hour found the address I was given, a ramshackle but charming colonial house on the outskirts of town. I knocked, and was greeted at the door by bare chested Cuban man with a large, hairy belly. He regarded me for a minute before bellowing “Alejandro!” as if I were an old friend, slapping me on the back, and escorting me into the house, where I found Andre taking tea with the Cuban girl and her mother in the airy dining room.

We were served a fine meal of pork and rice, although the conversation was entirely in Spanish (Andre’s Spanish, which had previously consisted only of four years’ worth of Italian classes, seemed to have improved markedly over the last few days), and I was never able to really divine what relationship these people thought we had with their teenage daughter. After the meal the father (whose name was Mario, it turned out) took us into the backyard and showed us his pig, a massive sow lying on her side in a muddy pen. She showed no interest in us, so he threw rocks at her until she squealed, hauled herself upright and trotted over to receive an apple.

When it was time to go the daughter walked us out alone, and after one last passionate embrace, slipped Andre an envelope. He opened it on the bus: it contained an airbrushed glamour photo of her dressed as a Southern belle; hooped skirts, bonnet, parasol, moustache and all.

H. Upmann Connossieur A Habanos Specialist Exclusive 2013 final third

When the burn reaches the wide band I remove it, and unfortunately damage the wrapper in the process. From that point on the cigar begins to unravel, and I cannot cool the burn. It becomes bitter, and tar filled, and any nuance is lost. An unfortunate end to a fine cigar, but nevertheless this was a fine, mid-level smoke that is decidedly better than an H. Upmann Petit Coronas.

H. Upmann Connossieur A Habanos Specialist Exclusive 2013 nub

H. Upmann Connossieur A Habanos Specialist Exclusive 2013 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

H. Upmann Magnum 50

The H. Upmann Magnum 50 first appeared in 2005 as an Edición Limitada, and in 2008 it made the rare leap into general release. The cigar I have with me today is the penultimate single from a box I purchased in 2009, on the recommendation of a merchant who proclaimed them to be “fantastic right now.” He was right, as twenty three of this cigar’s incinerated sisters can attest; they’ve never let me down once.

H. Upmann Magnum 50 unlit

Upon ignition the very first notes are harsh and bitter, asphalt and burning plastic. It takes a little longer than usual – almost a centimetre of cigar – for the bitterness to depart, and a delicate, creamy, light tobacco flavour to emerge. Some grass. Very nice.

I’ve made myself a cheeky Pimm’s Cup to go, that resembles nothing so much as the glass jar of tea leaves that every Chinese construction worker has slung from his belt at all times. Well, I say Pimm’s Cup – it’s really a very poor rendering of the drink: a few shots of Pimm’s, a tray of ice, half an orange (sliced), a few dashes of ginger syrup, and topped up with ginger beer. If I lived in a home with a better equipped refrigerator it would also contain lemonade, strawberries, and most critically, cucumber, but alas, it isn’t to be. The cucumber is key. It gives it the ‘fresh’ taste.

H. Upmann Magnum 50, two thirds left

At the midpoint the cigar has thickened slightly to medium tobacco with a light spice, and a nutty sort of undercurrent of almonds and the occasional cashew. An element of cream still remains.

As long as I’ve been a drinker I’ve always been a bit of a Pimm’s man: there’s nothing finer on a summer’s afternoon. Back in the day when we were insecure nineteen year olds I would get a lot of funny looks when I would show up with a bottle; it was widely considered to be a drink for old ladies, and was certainly the antithesis of the masculinity that our standard drink of the day – the warm Victoria Bitter tinny – represented. Once I poured out a few cups though it wouldn’t take too long before we were all sipping Pimm’s in the sun and having a gay old time.

I had one bad experience on the stuff. I was in my mid-twenties, and was invited to spend the afternoon at a friend-of-a-friend’s place, the pre-party to a house party elsewhere that evening. I arrived my customary two hours late, Pimm’s bottle in hand, and found only two other guests in the place. I knew my host only a little, and his friends not at all, and I quickly found myself on the outer as they reminisced about old times to which I had nothing to contribute. My lips unoccupied with conversation, they occupied themselves with sipping, and Pimm’s sips very easy. By the time my friends arrived, which was more or less when everyone was getting ready to move to the house party, I had gotten myself on the outside of more or less the entire bottle.

The party was banging, with a hundred or so people, all in elaborate costume. It was centred on the lounge room where a DJ was laying it down for a packed, sweaty dance floor. I wasn’t really in a dancing mood, and it was much too loud for much chit chat, so I was just sort of standing in the centre of the dance floor, perhaps tapping my toe enough to seem appreciative. I finished the final slug of my current cup – there was just a little swill left in the bottle, perhaps enough for one more – and glanced over to the stairs where my bag (and bottle) was stashed. Crouched on the landing overlooking the room, and focusing a hefty digital SLR, was a boy dressed as Wally (Waldo, American readers). He seemed to be focusing it directly on me, and so without much thought, I tossed my now empty plastic cup at him. He gave me the finger and I laughed.

A few minutes later I retrieved my bottle and made the final Pimm’s cup before returning to the dance floor. I stood around a while longer tapping my toe, and again my unoccupied lips made short work of the elixir. Ten minutes later I tossed back the last mouthful, glanced around the room, and, spotting Wally over by the kitchen counter, I tossed my cup in a fine ballistic arc, right into the side of his head. Furious, he marched straight over. “What the fuck is your problem?” he demanded. I didn’t have much of an answer, so I shoved him, and when he shoved me back I tried to throw a head-butt. I messed it up, and some people pulled us apart, told me I was being an arsehole and bundled me quickly into a cab.

“What was I doing” I asked myself in the clear light of the morning after the night before. I think at the time I thought I was being funny, but in retrospect, it was pretty obvious: I was trying to start a fight, something I have never done before or since. What a liquor to bring out your fighting drunk! Pimm’s! The Queen drinks Pimm’s (although if she’s not a bit of a rowdy behind closed doors I don’t know who is). Not whiskey nor tequila, not vodka nor absinth, not bathtub gin, nor any other liquor exclusively designed to make you unafraid of the police, no, for me, the one elixir that can turn me into an animal, is a Pimm’s No. 1 Cup. These days I treat it with respect.

H. Upmann Magnum 50, final third

Towards the end the cigar has comes to full, spicy tobacco and rough, mildly bitter tar. A bit of a breeze has picked up and I think it’s burning too hot. I put it on the seat in my lee in the hope that it will cool down a little, and sure enough it does, ending with a very crisp, clean, full tobacco and light straw.

A fine, but not earth shattering cigar; better than a Petite Coronas but worse than a Mag 48, it falls somewhere in the middle of the Upmann line.

H. Upmann Magnum 50 nub

H. Upmann Magnum 50 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

H. Upmann Robustos 520 Aniversario

It is mid-December, and although I am on holidays, today was supposed to be a work day. I have things to do! Errands to run! A life does not maintain itself! Some days, however, are made for cigars, and this is one of them: not a cloud in the sky, the gentlest of breezes, mid-20s in the shade. The call of the leaf was irresistible.

2012 was the year Habanos chose to mark the 520th anniversary of tobacco coming to the new world, and they celebrated in fine style with the Montecristo 520, the excellent Edición Limitada of that year. That cigar, however, was not the only dusky beauty to commemorate the event: there was another, much more obscure commemorative skulking in the shadows: the H. Upmann 520 Robusto. An extremely unusual release, treading the line between a legitimate member of the Habanos catalogue and an under the counter custom put out by an unscrupulous factory manager to value add some of his stock, the Upmann 520 Robusto was available only at the Habanos festival in the form of 1,000 dark varnished 10 count boxes. I can only think of one precedent: the legendary Habanos 2000 festival boxes (more on those later). Of course, in 2012 there was also an H. Upmann robusto released as a ‘standard’ Edición Limitada, which raises the real question of the day: is the Upmann 520 robusto an undiscovered legend, a rare cockatrice lurking in plain sight as a Habanos Festival value-add, or is it just an EL with an alternative band? Only in flame is there truth.

H. Upmann Robustos 520 Aniversario unlit

The first puffs are bitter, a sign of perhaps a few moments too long in the dry box, but it quickly loses its edge and settles into light tobacco with a grassy flavour over light herbs and Christmas spices; nutmeg, cinnamon and so on. Really very pleasant.

Once I had committed myself to setting aside my labours and spending the afternoon at smoke, it only followed that I would also get myself a little toasted. Toward that end, I’ve mixed myself an Old Fashioned cocktail, which is about as nice a way as I know to consume a glass of whiskey (the Mint Julep being the other obvious contender). I’m using pretty mediocre whiskey in Jim Beam Rye, which, although of a considerably higher standard than their bourbon, is nonetheless very much distilled to a price point. The thing that makes it though, is the Fee Brothers barrel aged bitters. The one I am using is a limited edition product in its own right, celebrating 150 years and four generations of Fees, but honestly I can’t tell the difference between this and the regular stuff, which is always exceptional. If aromatic bitters figure in your life, and those bitters are currently a decade old bottle of Angostura, it is imperative that you track down a bottle of Fee brothers: one sniff and you will never look back. It’ll cost you twice as much, but as bitters are typically a product that passes from one generation to the next, you can afford to invest the extra ten dollars. After whiskey, bitters and ice the drink is just a little sugar, a twist of lemon, and a maraschino cherry. Only trust a person that has a half empty jar of maraschino cherries in their fridge: if they have no jar at all then they’re plainly too square for your time, if they have an empty jar then they are definitely an alcoholic bounder.

H. Upmann Robustos 520 Aniversario, one third smoked, with a Jim Beam Rye

At the mid-point the cigar is very dry. The tobacco is still light, with a grassy flavour, and a hint of umami – mushroom or soya bean. There is still a mild spice on the tip of the tongue. At this point I think I can rule out legendary, but it is definitely in the upper echelon of excellent.

The courtyard I am in is mainly gravel and throughout the entire time I have been sitting here, which is more than an hour at this point, I have been listening to the rhythmic sound of rocks being rearranged, like there is a monk just out of view who is quietly raking a pattern into the stones. More accurately, it is the exact sound I woke up to each morning during a week I spent in Singapore, where the asphalt car park outside my window was constantly being swept with a hard bamboo broom. Finally, the culprit has come into view: a large black bird is hunting through the stones along the edge of a garden bed with his beak. He is moving systematically, and while it’s not clear exactly what he’s looking for (he certainly doesn’t seem to be finding it), I can see exactly where he has looked: nearly twenty meters of uninterrupted, arrow straight path stretch all the way back to the car-park entrance, the stones dislodged in two neat rows.

H. Upmann Robustos 520 Aniversario, an inch left, with a Fee Brother's Bitters

Toward the end the cigar thickens to mid-tobacco, and the mushroom takes over, a full, vibrant shiitake, pan fried with a little butter. As I move into the nub it never grows bitter. A little tart, maybe. Thick tobacco over dry earth. My drink is finished, but I’m saving the cherry until the cigar is done. A little dessert to cleanse the pallet. The sun is gone, but the warm air remains. Sometimes life is not so bad.

Overall, the H. Upmann 520 Aniversario Robusto is an excellent cigar: not a legend, but extremely good, sitting somewhere in the upper echelon of Upmann exotics. The real revelation is this: it’s definitely not the same cigar as the 2012 Edición Limitada Robusto, and for my money, I don’t think it’s quite as good. Close though. EL by a nose. Photo finish. It’s definitely a damn sight better than the Petite Corona.

H. Upmann Robustos 520 Aniversario nub

H. Upmann Robustos 520 Aniversario on the Cuban Cigar Website.