H. Upmann No. 2 160th Anniversary Humidor

The afternoon is turning to evening, but the weather remains a disgusting thirty eight degrees centigrade and overcast. It’s completely still, and the air is soupy and stale, thick with humidity. Occasionally a thunderclap rumbles in the distance, a hint of the storm that will break this warm front later on tonight, so I’ve chosen the balcony (which should remain fairly sheltered in even the most vicious of maelstroms) rather than the yard, just in case the gale comes on sooner than I expect. It feels familiar: in my youth I’d often come up here during summer storms with a big bowl of cherries to spit into the wind as I watched the lightning flicker over the suburbs. My habits may have changed a little, but occasional spitting is still involved.

H. Upmann No. 2 160th Anniversary Humidor unlit, on a cocktail

The final cigar from the H. Upmann 160th Aniversario humidor, the noble No. 2 piramides, begins with an unusual sort of bitterness that only manifests on the aftertaste. The inhale is very pleasant, mid-strength, high grade tobacco and dried foliage (specifically the aroma released by the cracking underbrush as heavy boots tramp through the bush at the height of summer). Once that inhale mellows on the palette, however, it turns tart, bitter and sour: the dreaded tar.

It’s very rare when smoking outdoors that smoke rings hold their shape for any duration; even indoors there is often a fan or vent or some other agitator that pulls the rings apart. Not so today. The air is so thick and still that every puff hangs about my head until I wave it away, and smoke rings drift intact long into the distance.

The H. Upmann No. 2 was one of the early, seminal cigars in my smoking journey: the first cigar I smoked in Cuba. I had been smoking cigars occasionally for years, first at stag nights, then at birthday parties, and I had acquired a taste for the habit to the point where the things were starting to make an appearance at most special occasions. Shortly before departing for The Island I had purchased my first humidor, a cheap desktop that I hoped to fill with a few boxes on my return. All told, on that first night in Havana my total cigar smoking experience probably encompassed about three dozen cigars, almost all of them Montecristo No. 4s. At the time I could probably have named five cigars from three brands, and H. Upmann wasn’t one of them.

I arrived in the early evening and, tired from my journey, I planned for a quiet night. Cuba is Cuba however and (after a simple spaghetti meal in Havana’s Chinatown), I soon found myself in a bar on the Malecón with more than one Cuba Libre inside of me and another on the way. Resigning myself to the Havana night, I decided that it was time for a cigar. I asked at the bar, and they directed me to an old man in the corner, who smiled, murmured something about “bueno tobacco,” and produced for me a handsome pirámides.  He snipped the end with a worn brass guillotine (very rare in Cuba). Four pesos.

Like most cigars in Cuba, it was glorious, but its significance in my evening was lost in the soup of rum and dancing. In the morning I found the band in my pocket and filed it in the pages of War and Peace, the book I was reading on my journey. Years later, after I had become a fully-fledged cigar aficionado, I skimmed through War and Peace again looking for some quote or other, and out fell an old Upmann band. I suppose it was probably fake – it was from a tout in Havana, after all – but it seemed pretty fantastic at the time.

H. Upmann No. 2 160th Anniversary Humidor two thirds remaining

Past the mid-way point now, and the cigar is not offering much; light to mid tobacco, and a vague, ashy, burning grass. A hefty puff out through the cigar cleans some of the ash from it, but doesn’t add a lot. There’s no complexity here, no subtlety.

I’ve been drinking a sidecar, a simple little drink of two parts brandy, a little less than one of lemon, and a little more than one of Cointreau. In the interests of efficiency I made a double before I came up to smoke, and left half of it in the freezer. I figured it would be alcoholic enough not to freeze, but apparently I was incorrect, as the second glass has the consistency of a 7-11 Slurpee or a hen’s night strawberry daiquiri. It’s not diminished for it.

H. Upmann No. 2 160th Anniversary Humidor final quarter

The cigar ends as it has travelled, light, a little tart, and not particularly noteworthy in either direction.

While there’s nothing really wrong with the H. Upmann 160th anniversary cigars, they have to a stick been disappointing. When you see a limited edition humidor that contains standard production sizes like this does, the question you must ask is “are these a special blend, or are they merely standard cigars in a special box?” All three cigars here have exhibited exactly the same profile, and I feel that I can say absolutely that they are all a unique blend rolled for this humidor. Unfortunately, while it begins well and is very smooth, and is obviously composed of high quality tobacco, that blend is bland, slightly bitter and, by every measure, mediocre. In the case of the H. Upmann No. 2 and the Connoisseur No. 1, the 160th anniversary cigars are worse than I would typically expect from their standard production counterparts. These are not terrible cigars: if they were a cheap cigar that I could reach for when I wanted an uncomplicated smoke for an evening that was complicated enough already, these would definitely be on my list, but compared to the Partagás 150th (or indeed any of the Partagás aniversarios), and compared to the heights to which cigars at this level should aspire, they are garbage. I place the Upmann 2 between its sistren purely based on length. It is better than the Upmann Petite Corona mainly because that base cigar was a particularly poor example.

H. Upmann No. 2 160th Anniversary Humidor nub

H. Upmann No. 2 160th Anniversary Humidor on the Cuban Cigar Website

H Upmann Connoisseur No. 1 160th Aniversario Humidor

It’s hot. Damn hot. Beneath the oppressively low cloud ceiling the air is thick and still and viscous. I don’t know if it’s good weather for cigars. I doubt it. It’s not good weather for humans, that’s for sure. Nonetheless, I have the time, and these dusky beauties aren’t going to smoke themselves, so I have crawled out from under my rock with the shortest cigar left on my Upmann list, the Connoisseur No. 1 from the H. Upmann 160th Aniversario humidor.

H Upmann Connoisseur No. 1 160th Aniversario Humidor unlit

I light it, and the smoke begins wonderfully, very light on the palette and very sweet. The aftertaste is woody, with strong notes of almond and walnut. The Upmann tobacco flavour is only slight, the strength low.

The weather in Melbourne is famously erratic, but generally the worst of it is accompanied by winds. In the summer they blow from the north, dry and dusty from the deserts of central Australia, and usually filled with bushfire ash. In the winter they blow from the south, and carry the scent of the ice caps. The still, hot mugginess of today is unusual, and reminds me of nowhere so much as Osaka, a town I lived in for a while and which has a summer season where every day is exactly as stifling and oppressive as this one.

I recall a weekend when, about a month into that disgusting summer, I got the itch, and spontaneously caught the train south to Shikoku, where it was hotter, but at least it was sunny and there was a breeze blowing. There was some kind of dance festival in town, and the main thoroughfares were all blocked by an endless parade of troupes of uniformed dancers in tightly marshalled phalanxes, executing highly choreographed steps to blaring Japanese rap. I met up with Yoshi, a local Japanese cigar aficionado, and a gaijin pal, and after some fine Romeo Churchills and whale meat at an izakaya, us foreign devils dragged our poor host out with us in pursuit of dancing girls. Yoshi kept trying to steer us toward capsule hotels and net cafes and so on – places where we could spend the night – but assuming that his urgings were just a distaste for our debauchery we ignored him and carried on until he abandoned us to the night without fanfare, and several hours thereafter. It was four AM by the time we finally gave up on the girls and, by this time substantially inebriated, stumbled into the net-café he had recommended to us some hours earlier.

Typical Japanese net café accommodations include a comfortable leather recliner in a private cubical, along with a small TV and computer, but we were told that because of the dance festival the place was completely full, as would everywhere else be. For $10, however, we could sleep in the lobby on a couple of plastic bucket chairs, such as one might find in a high school auditorium, under the restful flicker of a fluorescent light, and lulled by the dulcet tones of a TV playing J-Pop videos. We stuck it out until 6am or so, when, having added stiff necks and dry mouths to our troubles, we caught the bus to the beach, watched the sun rise, and then laid down in the shade of a tree for a kip.

H Upmann Connoisseur No. 1 160th Aniversario Humidor two thirds left

At the mid-point the cigar has thickened. The burn has not been great, requiring the occasional touch up and relight. The best way a cigar can begin is the manner in which this one did, light and sweet and deep. From that good beginning you expect the cigar to grow, to thicken up and become richer, which this cigar has not. It is a little thicker, surely, but it is no longer especially complex, with light-mid toasted tobacco and a sort of vague, grassy flavour. By no means unpleasant, it is also by no means spectacular. I’m drinking a mid-priced Australian Shiraz, which is not my habit with cigars, but I had half a bottle sitting around and it seemed like less effort than mixing a cocktail. Like the cigar, the beverage is light and uncomplicated.

I awoke around eleven to find myself in the full sun, with my legs already bright red below the knee (in the coming days they would blister and the skin would peel off in great sheets, the worst sunburn I ever experienced, despite a lifetime of Australian summers and little regard for sunscreen). My companion was stirring as well, so together we strolled along the waterline a ways toward a distant cluster of buildings that we hoped would include somewhere for breakfast. Upon arrival we found what appeared to be a gift shop, specialising in stuffed dogs that looked like Saint Bernards wearing samurai gear. My friend’s Japanese was better than mine, and after a moment considering the signs he came to a verdict: “this is a dog sumo ring” he said. “There’s a show in five minutes.”

We joined the gathering crowd and were soon shown into a well-worn auditorium, with battered seating and paint peeling from sloppily welded steel beams, the classic décor of an aging carnival attraction. Underweight and dishevelled, with a cigarette dangling from his lips and with more than one tooth missing, the ringmaster was the classic aging carnival attraction operator. With little fanfare he brought in the yokozuna, the name given to the highest rank of sumo wrestlers. He was a mighty beast, massive, with a glossy coat, and a suit of armour reminiscent of the ones his human contemporaries wear at the beginning of a sumo tournament. With squeals of delight, the audience, which was mainly made up of Japanese school girls, dancers drifted over from the contest in town, gathered around the ring to take pictures of the animal. He stood there sedate and solemn, posing for them.

After a few minutes the yokozuna was walked out, and the lights dimmed in preparation for the bout. The two dogs they brought in were mangy, scarred mongrels from the worst garbage dump in town. Even before they entered the ring they were snarling at each other, pulling on their chain leashes. The referee held a piece of burning newspaper between them to keep them separated until the bell rang. When it did he dropped it, its sputtering remains keeping the dogs apart for the few seconds he needed to climb to the top of the ring fence and began a jovial commentary. All of a sudden we were watching a dog fight. The animals obviously did this several times a day, but hated each other nonetheless, and held nothing back as they tore and clawed at one another. They didn’t have teeth, but both creatures were covered in old wounds, many of which soon opened and bled profusely. For a time one of them had an erection. Uncomfortable with the display I turned away, surveying the crowd, where it became apparent that it wasn’t just us ignorant foreigners that had been misled by the cutesy gift shop: I have never seen so many looks of abject horror as I saw on the faces of those Japanese schoolgirls.

After three minutes it was over: the promoter lit another piece of newspaper, and his assistants dragged the dogs out to lick their wounds, next show in an hour. In silence we exited through the gift-shop, and soon found a little ramen place, but for some reason we weren’t so keen on breakfast any more.

H Upmann Connoisseur No. 1 160th Aniversario Humidor final third

With the cigar in the final inch it begins to rain slightly. The smoke is mild all the way to the end, never growing overly bitter, and never filling with tar. All in all it has been an unexceptional but completely inoffensive cigar, reminiscent of nothing so much as it’s big brother, the Prominentes: I rate it better than that cigar mainly by virtue of its comparative brevity.

H Upmann Connoisseur No. 1 160th Aniversario Humidor nub

H. Upmann Connoisseur No. 1 160th Aniversario Humidor on the Cuban Cigar Website

H. Upmann Monarcas

Homewood bound, The Blue Valkyrie, a 1990 Mercedes-Benz 300CE coupe cruiser, charges through the empty brown fields of rural Australia, my maladroit manservant, Davidé, at the wheel. It is hour five of a Sydney-Melbourne run, a journey of some 900kms, and having recently completed our rest stop at Wagga Wagga, my driving duties are over, and I recline in the passenger side with a tubed H. Upmann Monarcas.

The exact difference between the proletarian Monarcas and its upper crust cousin, the Sir Winston, has never been entirely clear to me: they are the same size, and particularly with some age, present similar notes, yet it is always the Winston that aficionados speak of in hushed and reverent tones. This particular Monarch comes from the final run of tubos before their discontinuation. Eight remain in my possession: the dearly departed were all excellent, elegant smokes, and this one promises to be the same, with its mid-brown glossy wrapper and perfect texture.

H. Upmann Monarcas unlit

For appearances sake I attempt to light her with the provided lighter (which, I note, the manual refers to exclusively as a cigar lighter), but alas, the quarter-century old electrics provide only enough heat to slightly blacken the foot. I switch to my trusty mini-blowtorch, which does the job, but, Australian country roads not being as smooth as the autobahn to which The Valkyrie is accustomed, my juddering hands blacken most of the first inch. I chastise Davidé, but he is unrepentant. The first notes are mild, light, smooth tobacco with a heavy sweetness on the back palette. Davidé notes that the aroma is like beer freshly spilled in a country pub, and he’s right, there is an element of malt in there that I have often tasted before in Upmann cigars but never thought to name. As the first inch burns away a light spice appears.

I bought this car five years ago, choosing it because a friend (perhaps sarcastically) told me that the 300CE was the best car ever made, and because as an aspirational youth I felt an urge to trade in my aging Honda Civic hatchback for something with some heft to it. I initially aspired slightly higher even than the humble E-Class, looking instead to this car’s Sir Winston, the 560SEC, which adds some rear legroom, and more importantly replaces the 3.0L V6 of the CE with a 5.6L V8. In the twenty-teens there is precisely one kind of Australian male who drives an old Mercedes coupe: an ethnic thug from the suburbs, and so although I spent a few months visiting car yards in the outer suburbs looking at SECs, I was unable to find one that hadn’t been lowered and had the once ample boot space diminished by a phat woofer. Eventually I found a CE in light blue at a lot out in Werribee: the miles were low (suspiciously low, a more experienced used car buyer might have noted), but everything seemed to be original (right down to the unopened first aid kit), it boasted a full service history, and the price was right. A boy with an unbroken voice answered when I rang up to enquire: “oh yeah, the blue one? Yeah, that’s a real beauty, come on down.”

H. Upmann Monarcas, two thirds gone, in a car ashtray

At the midpoint the cigar remains mild, slightly thicker than the first puffs, but still on the light side of medium. The sweetness has faded a little, but still remains. To my palette the malt has been replaced by heavy cedar and grass; Davidé notes that beer is still the chief aroma he is detecting, although it’s highly likely that his palette (along with everything else) has been dulled by decades of heavy indulgence in the stuff.

The dealership, like many of the suburban used car yards with which I had developed a recent familiarity, was a chain-link fenced paddock filled with the classic cars of yesteryear in varying stages of decomposition: some pristine, some that had obviously recently been an integral part of a heavy impact, and others on blocks, rusting hulks stripped for parts. Leaning next to the door of the fibro shack that passed for an office was a gypsy boy in his early teens, casually smoking a cigarette. He hailed me as I approached: “can I help you sir?” Dubiously, and expecting that the request would be immediately relayed to some authority figure, I asked after the blue 300CE, and he immediately lit up. “Ah, yeah, the blue Merc, a real beauty, just over here.”

He led Davidé and I over to a corrugated iron barn, where The Valkyrie reposed under a thick layer of dust. Lighting a fresh cigarette from the butt of his fast diminishing one, he found the keys and a jerry can of fuel, and pulled her around for me, waxing lyrical all the while about her low miles, intact accessories, and general status as a real beauty. The previous owner, he claimed, was the flamboyant publican of a fashionable inner-city night spot, and were I to mention the purchase of this machine to the bouncer there I would no doubt be whisked immediately passed the lengthy line and straight to the owner’s table, where he would be delighted to receive a fellow connoisseur of the finer things in life. As we departed on our test drive he sucked his lip wistfully. “Great car,” he said. “Lot of potential. You just gotta drop it a couple of inches and put a big sound system in the back.”

We ran around the block, and parked in the parking lot of a local school to get up close and personal with the engine. Despite a lifetime of buying used cars, Davidé’s assessment only ran as far as a glance at the underside and the observation of “no drips.” When I reminded him that he was here precisely because he was my deputised expert, the oaf merely shrugged, and said “you should have brought one of my friends, they’d be pulling parts off the car right now.”

H. Upmann Monarcas half left, on some Ray-Ban 42 Round

Perhaps it’s the confinement of the small ashtray that is doing it, but the cigar is having a lot of trouble staying lit, and my shaky road relights are not doing it any favours. With two and a half inches remaining it comes back from the relight spoiled, its elegance replaced by sour ash and bitter tar. I try the old smoker’s purge, a hearty exhale through the cigar in an attempt to blow out the crap, but it is ineffective. In desperation I hold the cigar head first up through the open sunroof for a few moments to see if the 120kph headwind can do what my feeble lungs cannot. I bring it back in and am delighted to find that it has worked: the bitter ash is gone, replaced by a thick, toasted mid tobacco, balanced and strongly herbaceous.

We arrived back at the dealer to find our young salesman waiting for us, his trademark Holiday between his lips. I said I was interested, and after a little coy banter, where I tried to established whether or not he really had the authority to negotiate, we settled on a number about twenty per cent below the asking. He spat in his palm, and shook my hand gleefully when I told him that I would be paying with the only currency that really talks at used car dealerships in Werribee: folding cash. He walked me back to the office, and it was only there that I finally encountered an employee of an age legally able to enter into a contract.

About three days passed before I realised that the odometer wasn’t turning, and after sober examination of the ‘full service history’ concluded that it hadn’t turned for more than a decade and presumably 150,000 kilometres. Nonetheless, The Valkyrie has for five years been as reliable a whip as any man could ask for, never leaving me stranded or requiring a major repair. Even now, as we approach the outskirts of Melbourne, having covered the better part of 2000 kilometres in the last two days, she purrs along with power, grace, and most importantly, heft. Whenever I pass through the outer suburbs her elegant, swooping  lines still attract the odd longing stare from a certain type of ethnic thug, no doubt mulling how she’d look an inch or two lower, and with a booming woofer in the back. We come from different worlds, these men and I, but we still have something in common: I didn’t choose the thug life, the thug life chose me.

H. Upmann Monarcas final third, on an honest lighter

The cigar ends quite wonderfully, thick tobacco but never bitter, the sweetness remaining to the end in the form of a thick musk, with the woody tang of Speyside whisky. A great cigar, that is the poor cousin of no one.

H. Upmann Monarcas nub

H. Upmann Monarcas on the Cuban Cigar Website.

H. Upmann Prominentes 160th Aniversario Humidor

With a 49 ring and a length of 7.6 inches, the H. Upmann Prominentes, scion of the H. Upmann 160th Aniversario humidor, is an intimidating smoke, no question about it. The nice, red, Colorado wrapper is slightly damaged – my own stupid fault, of course. While setting up my opening photograph, I tried to balance the cigar on the railing in order to capture something of the vista of treetops that I am overlooking, and a gust of wind caught me unawares and tossed the cigar down five meters or so to the tanbark flowerbed below. It could be worse, I suppose: I could have a pool down there. It’s a classic example of the reviewer’s hubris: this is a huge cigar, and over the four or so hours it’ll take to smoke, a tiny bit of wrapper damage could make a huge difference. I have changed the result by measuring it.

H. Upmann Prominentes 160th Aniversario Humidor unlit

I light the thing, and if the wrapper damage is having an effect, it feels like it might be a positive one. Perhaps extra fresh air is being sucked in through the open side of the cigar and softening the smoke, in much the same way as certain old cars beat emissions tests by pumping fresh air out with their exhaust. The first flavours are divine, silky smooth, with as light a tobacco note as I’ve ever had. There is a thick, toffee sweetness, almost cloying, on the back of the palette.

Released in 2004, and hence relatively early in the anniversary humidor program, the H. Upmann 160th Aniversario humidor seems like one of Habanos S.A.’s more lacklustre efforts. It contains one hundred cigars in total: thirty each of the H. Upmann Connoisseur No. 1 and the H. Upmann No. 2 (both popular regular production sizes), and forty of this, the uniquely dimensioned Prominentes. As with all these humidors that contain production sizes, the question of whether they are just regular production cigars, plucked straight from the standard production line and placed in special boxes, or whether they are something special, perhaps the very highest quality that could be found in the regular production, or even some special blend made in the traditional sizes, must be asked. I’ll attempt to answer it in the next few weeks as I review those cigars, but the Prominentes is safe; she is a unique beast, and will live or die on her merits.

The box itself – a squat tower with three drawers behind a glass door – is nice, but not especially imaginative, and resembles nothing so much as the little display humidor that sits on the end of the counter at every 7-11 and decent liquor store. One can only hope that unlike those humidors, the Upmann 160s of the world are not kept constantly at either 100% or ambient humidity. If the cigars it contains are not particularly unique, and the humidor is not especially interesting, then who, I wonder, is the target market for these things? Is Habanos really cynical enough to release a product entirely for people who collect for collecting’s sake? In my travels throughout the community of high end cigar aficionados, I’ve met very few who pick and choose their commemorative humidors, buying only particularly lovely examples from their favourite brands. They either buy none, or they buy everything, and usually by the dozen. I would estimate that the 160 examples of this humidor have fewer than twenty owners.

At least the bands are nice, a tasteful riff on the classic Upmann band, with bright shiny gold in place of the usual dull brown one.

H. Upmann Prominentes 160th Aniversario Humidor, a quarter burnt, with some car keys

At the mid-point the cigar has thickened, and the smoke has become a little harsh. The taste is very woody, a component of freshly felled sapling. There is an ashy component to it I don’t particularly care for. I blow out forcefully through the cigar for a few seconds to remove any stale smoke and ash that has worked its way into the centre of the cigar. This cleans it up somewhat, but doesn’t add a huge amount beyond a slightly grassy flavour. The construction is fine, the burn very even, but the ash falls extremely easily; it has twice fallen on my pants at a length of no more than a centimetre each time and with no particular provocation. I finish my Stella Artois and switch to a brandy and ginger beer (I’m out of rum), in the hope that the sweetness will knock off the rough edges. It removes the roughness, but does little for the complexity – if anything, the sugar will dull my palette and mask some of the subtler notes, although there’s precious little to mask at this particular juncture.

H. Upmann Prominentes 160th Aniversario Humidor, final third

Into the final third and the cigar is still mild with a slightly dirty edge to it, and no particular flavour to speak of. We’re past the point where the wrapper was damaged now, so that can’t be to blame any more. The cigar this reminds me of most is the Hoyo de Monterrey Extravaganza, the 2003 Colección Habanos entry: there’s nothing particularly negative I can say about it, it doesn’t taste like soap, rubber, or chemical solvents, but it doesn’t taste of too much else either. This would be a great long cigar to have in your hand at a poker night or at a long afternoon barbecue with friends – anything where your focus was not 100% on the smoke. It is mild and inoffensive, but unfortunately given the rarity and cost of cigars like these, few will be smoked lightly, and you have to expect more from them.

This falls on the low end of Upmann exotics. I rate it better than the Petite Coronas, but not much better, and were I to develop some kind of price to quality index, this cigar would do very poorly indeed.

H. Upmann Prominentes 160th Aniversario Humidor nub

H. Upmann Prominentes 160th Aniversario Humidor on the Cuban Cigar Website.