The Harem is well known for its verticals, my comprehensive evaluations of every cigar in a brand or line, but we have never completed a horizontal until today, when the Trinidad Short Robusto T Edición Limitada 2010 will join its EL 2010 sisters, the Montecristo Grand Edmundo and Partagás Serie D Especial in conflagration. Consisting of only three cigars, I admit that the horizontal is not one of my most impressive achievements; I have a vague plan to someday smoke my way through an entire year’s regionals, but I can’t quite face the idea of all those 50 ring Ramon Allones in a row.
I set the cigar ablaze and from the first puff it is obvious that this will present the standard Edición Limitada profile of chocolate and cedar. Aficionados often decry this profile and the Edición Limitada program in general, claiming that every cigar tastes the same. I see where they’re coming from, but I’m not too fussed because to me they all taste delicious, and besides, there’s always a little nuance between them. The other, perhaps more valid, criticism of this particular cigar was its price: the regular production Trinidad Robusto T, released to acclaim only one year earlier, provided a very obvious comparison point; the Short Robusto T was 20% shorter and 30% dearer. They were not fast sellers.
Nonetheless, it is precisely the diminutive length that has drawn me to this cigar today. The sun is shining, but Melbourne is exhibiting its trademark winter nip: an icy wind, straight off the Antarctic. As my old running mate in China, a cockney brawler named Simon, used to say, “it’s a bit Pearl Harbour out here.”
It was Christmas Eve and a light snow was falling, catching in the obsidian hair of the Chinese girls and gleaming like so many costume tiaras as they swarmed across the square and into the subway station. They walked with an odd, bow-legged gait, placing heel and toe flat simultaneously: the stone of the square was interspersed every few meters with panes of glass that were treacherous when dry, and murderous in these conditions. I was in a foul mood. Eight months in China will do that to a man, but today was worse than usual. In Australia Christmas Eve would be a fun day in the office: the beer fridge might get opened after lunch, and people would leave early, everyone excited for the break. In China it was just another work day, and the 25th would be the same. To top it off, my assistant had informed me that a package from Australia, presumably containing gifts from my family, had been destroyed by customs. Allegedly it contained a knife.
I was headed for the New York City Deli, a favourite watering hole for me and my degenerate crew. It was run by a Chinese guy called Eddie, who had started the place after visiting New York in the early 2000s. Unusually for Chinese theme bars, the food was actually pretty good, and not too disloyal to its inspiration, trafficking mainly in cured meats on rye bread. My friends and I were regulars chiefly because of their Friday night lock-in policy: whoever was in the bar at 8:00pm on a Friday night was charged ¥100 (about $15) and set loose to eat all you could eat and drink the bar dry. By about 9:00 Eddie would have passed out and the regulars would be behind the bar, drinking out of the beer taps, practicing flair bartending, and generally enjoying the sensation foxes feel when let loose in the hen house. Tonight was the lock-in Christmas special: a full bird with all the trimmings.
At the mid-point the cigar is very pleasing, chocolate dominating over a buttery finish. A short while later the chocolate becomes less sweet and gradually changes into coffee. The butter remains. A friend of mine who follows a diet composed almost entirely of fats and oils takes his coffee with butter in it, and this reminds me a lot of that. It leaves a slight oiliness on the tongue. Strength is light-medium but growing.
Simon was the first face I saw when I walked in the door, slouched at the bar, well into a beer that didn’t look like his first. He was the same age as me, but looked five years older (and I’m not exactly a baby face), having the grizzled features of a hard life. He always wore a baseball cap, and I knew him six months before the tout outside a girl bar had playfully snatched if off and revealed his baldness. “’Ello Shag,” he said when he saw me, and with a wink he lowered his voice. “It’s going to be a white Christmas.”
“Yes.” I smiled, brushing the snow off my shoulders. “Merry Christmas.”
It was an hour later when it became clear what he meant. The doors were locked, the blinds drawn, my belly was full of rich food, and all around were friends. I was sipping on a little Jägermeister – an after dinner digestif – when Simon started cutting lines of cocaine out on the bar. With a smile he proffered me a rolled up ¥100 note. “Here you go, Shag. Get some of this up ya.”
It’s quite something, that cocaine. The tingle in the sinuses. The bitter drip down the back of the throat. It gives you at once a feeling of invincibility and a boundless energy and enthusiasm. It also sharpens the brain to the point where alcohol seems to have no effect, which was a good thing because we were in a mood to drink heavily. It was about 10:30 when the Skittle shots came out: half a packet of a single colour of Skittles, dissolved in the cheapest, most methylated Chinese knock-off vodka. The first one hit the top of my stomach and sent me to the toilet to throw up. I was cool about it. A quick yak then back to drinking. By midnight I had lost it twice more, and we’d cleaned out every drop of liquor in the place.
Tempers were starting to run high. Simon had locked horns with some young Brit over football teams or something, and was repeatedly inviting him to come outside and have “the shit kicked out of him,” an invitation that young man was hastily declining. When I went over to intervene he turned on me. “You better watch yourself, Shag. Fucking Australians, no respect for their heritage.” Fortunately I knew how to placate him. “C’mon mate, the bar is dry and we’re out of coke, let’s go to Bund.” He liked Bund.
“Oh, Bund” he smiled. “Lovely.”
The big problem with cocaine is that it doesn’t last very long – only half an hour or so – which doesn’t seem like a problem until you stop taking it and all your crimes catch up with you. Bund was the best club in Shanghai, occupying the top floor of an old bank right on the river; a beautiful space with high ceilings and a shark tank running the full length of the back wall. To get up to the club you ascend a sweeping marble staircase to a cramped bouncer’s station, and if you pass muster he lets you into the elevator. When my motley crew arrived there were six of us – myself, Simon, the young Brit (they seemed to have patched things up), and a few hangers on – each of us with twenty standard drinks inside him. The bouncer was not happy. At first he flatly refused admission, but everything in China is a negotiation, and soon Simon had him down to a ¥300 per head cover. Simon was willing, but the comparative value proposition between this and the NYC Deli lock-in raised my ire. I pushed into the bargaining position. “No, no, no” I said “we come in free.” The bouncer shook his head solemnly, so I raised myself up to my full height, took a step back for emphasis, and yelled “don’t you know who the fuck I am?”
The back step had placed my heel precariously on the edge of the marble step, made slippery from the tramped in snow of and evening’s guests, and my proclamation lingered in the air for a beat before my footing went from under me. Step by step I rolled down the grand staircase, eventually winding up face down in the lobby. I began to chuckle, struck by ridiculousness of it all. Eventually Simon’s voice drifted down from on high. “Oy, Shag… you alright?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine, just a little tumble.”
I hauled myself to my feet and bounded back up the stairs. “Three hundred quai, was it?” I asked, holding out the money to the bouncer. He smirked and let us in.
As far as I’m concerned, the next thing that happened was I woke up in my bed. It was 10:30am, I was covered in bruises, my head felt like someone was forcing a blunt power-drill through my temple, and I was very conscious of a black spot in my evening. Simon later told me that we had had many more adventures: a bottle of Grey Goose at the club, and then to a girl bar in Pudong. When he saw me last I was heading home, throwing up out a cab window. I didn’t recall a second of it. I dragged myself to the shower and threw up blood, both brown, old blood from the stomach and red, new blood from my throat: throwing up so many times in one night had opened up sores in my oesophagus that would take months to heal. I tried to call my boss and tell him I wouldn’t be in, but my voice was completely gone, nothing but a dry, high pitched rasp. It took me until about 4:00 to recover enough to send him an email. I signed it off with “Merry Christmas.”
Christmas in China. Not recommended.
In the final third the butter departs the cigar, leaving only bitter espresso, which after a time turns into pure cocoa with a strong cedar back. It is strong and bitter, with more tar than you’d expect from a cigar this small. It gives a good nicotine buzz. The Trinidad Short Robusto T will probably never be worth the money, but if money is no object and you only have an hour or so for a smoke, you could do a lot worse than this one. Recommended.