Cohiba Talismán Edición Limitada 2017

Cuba has always played pretty fast and loose with the concept of a limited edition. In the early 2000s, when something that was advertised as “limited” sold out with demand left on the table, a new batch of units would quietly appear in the market shortly thereafter. If the first batch had been individually numbered, the second usually wouldn’t be. They’ve gotten a bit better in recent years, but in general limited editions out of Cuba should be considered to be limited to as many as they can sell.

The Edición Limitada programme cigars are officially limited by the year of their availability, not their quantity. The quantities are not disclosed, but for most releases they are thought to be between 150,000 and 250,000 sticks. The Talismán came out at an interesting time for Cohiba. A few consecutive years of poor harvests in the mid-2010s meant that in 2017 and 2018 the high grade wrapper leaf needed for Cohiba was in very short supply. At the same time, the veracious appetites of the newly-rich Chinese market had found cigars, and the only thing they liked better than a fat Cohiba was a fat Cohiba Edición Limitada. Edición Limitadas, famously, use only the lowest grade of wrapper leaf. In the months after the Talismán were released, all Cohiba boxes were going for 3-5x retail. Talismán were going for 10x.

In February of 2019 when participants in the Habanos Festival toured the El Laguito factory, it was widely reported that heavy production was underway of the 2017 Limited Edition Talismán. When the cigars hit the market a few months later, the Cubans at least were open about it: the cigar had been so successful, they said, that they had rolled another 200,000. The also claimed that these cigars had used tobacco from the same harvest as the ones rolled two years earlier, which seemed a little dubious. At the time of writing, the most recent box code for a Talismán that has found its way to me indicates a production date of April 2020. That the cigars were still in production more than a year after the second batch was known to be being rolled makes even the 200,000 number suspect. The cigars are in stock everywhere, from big La Casas to volume stores online and tiny boutiques that don’t normally carry the limiteds. They’re all asking at least $1000 a box.

To the Dusky Beauty reader, I say this: I do not condone or support this kind of behaviour. The Talismán I am smoking today is from the original 2017 batch. I will have no other.

Cohiba Talismán Edición Limitada 2017 unlit

I always give a cigar a single cold draw, but only to verify that the cut is okay and the cigar is not completely plugged. I never make much note of flavours. The cold draw on the Talismán, however, is one of the best I’ve ever had, with rich raisin fruit cake flavours. Lit, the opening notes are as smooth as would be expected from a Limited Edition Cohiba, but not particularly complex: there is mid tobacco, and some dry grassy notes.

Alongside the Talismán, I am enjoying a Mornington Porter, which obtained via criminality. Although certainly a degenerate, I am not generally of a criminal nature, and I agonised over this one. On the shelf in the First Choice Liquor there were two varietals of Mornington available: the Brown, which was deeply discounted in six packs, and the Porter, which came in fours and had a retail price higher even than six of the Browns. The issue came in the stock levels; there was only one six pack of the Brown remaining, and it only had four beers left in it.

I must have stood there for ten minutes mulling my options – long enough that the clerk came over to ask if I needed any help. I told him I didn’t, and eventually committed the most basic teenager level of shoplifting imaginable. On the edge of my 40s; a C-level executive; an owner of property; the chairperson of the body corporate; a former jury foreman; a pillar of society, respected by all, I put two Porters in place of the missing Browns.

I had some concern that the clerk would lift a few bottles and check the labels, and when I placed the six pack on the counter, I made sure to put the end with the Porters facing away from him. The cardboard shroud concealed all but a tiny sliver of the label, where the darker brown of the Porter’s graphic peaked above the edge (note for the Mornington Brewing Company; a minor design tweak to the height of your six pack holders or labels, or using differed coloured bottle caps on different lines, would make shoplifting of your high priced Porter’s much more difficult).

As soon as I placed it, the clerk immediately flipped the box around. My heart stopped for a brief moment. It was the same clerk as had asked me if I needed help, and I wondered if he had noted the stock level and knew exactly where the empty slots were on the one remaining sixer. He was just trying to get at the barcode, however, and once he’d scanned it I tapped my card and was on my way.

“Enjoy your afternoon!”

Cohiba Talismán Edición Limitada 2017 mostly smoked

At the mid-point, the Talismán has thickened up somewhat, although it still doesn’t offer terribly much in the way of complexity. It is first rate medium tobacco, with some grass and bean. I think I may have over humidified it. The burn has not been great, requiring several relights, which is not the kind of thing you expect from a limited Cohiba.

My paranoia around casual beer theft, comes, like most things, from my formative years, and the experiences of my friend Jacob.

Jacob took a little longer to mature than the rest of us. When our friendship group first met at fourteen, the rest of us were gawky teens with wispy moustaches, while Jacob was a cherubic child; he remained at five feet tall, with pale skin, full red lips, and a voice that stayed unbroken well into year ten. Jacob’s parents were evangelical Christian teetotallers, and his previous school had been the same Christian college where his dad worked. We were his first real exposure to infidel teens and our pastimes.

Jacob didn’t get pocket money, and we mocked him for his poverty, encouraging him to shoplift instead, and mocking him doubly for his refusal to do so. Eventually, he came back big, stealing $1,000 in cash from the door proceeds from a gig his dad’s folk band had played. He spent it mostly on Warhammer, and concocted a cockamamie seconds bin to explain to his parents why he suddenly had the biggest miniature collection on the tabletop.

Jacob bragged to us about it at school the morning after his heist, but his pride would only last a week before his dad found the money missing, and called up Games Workshop to confirm that they didn’t sell their seconds. Jacob was grounded for several months, and had to sell his Warhammer (mostly to me at a deep discount).

After we had graduated high-school, Jacob worked a part-time job at Safeway while attending university. The poverty worm had turned: my own pocket money had been cut off after I turned eighteen, and my only source of income was the very occasional odd job helping neighbourhood shut-ins with their computer problems. Eighteen-dollars was precious, so I was delighted one evening when Jacob showed up with a six pack of James Boags Premium.

“On the house, my man” he said. “Five fingered discount. I just wrote it off as broken at work and put it in my bag.”

A week later, it emerged that Jacob had stopped working at the Safeway. He was coy about the reason why, but the abruptness of the severance seemed to imply that an incident had taken place.

It wasn’t until we were well into our thirties that Jacob would tell us the full story. When he’d gone into the supermarket for his next shift, his manager had taken him into the back office and shown him the footage of him putting the beer in his bag. Jacob was fired, and as per store policy, he waited in the stock room while the police were called to arrest him and take him to the station to be charged.

Jacob had to appear before the Magistrates’ Court, with his parents and five siblings lined up in their Sunday best in the front pew. He pled guilty, and before sentencing him to a fine and period of probation, the magistrate asked Jacob’s father if he would like to testify as to his son’s good character. He declined to do so.

Jacob has struggled with employment his whole adult life, mostly living on short-lived music teacher gigs in-between lengthy periods of tax-payer subsidised study. He seems content enough with it, but I’ve often wondered if the real reason for his unemployability is his criminal past.

Still, the Boags tasted sweet, and these Mornington Porters are even sweeter.

Cohiba Talismán Edición Limitada 2017 mostly smoked

In the final couple of inches, the cigar gets strong, and I begin to tremble from the nicotine; the bitter end, where notes of coffee and mud linger on the palate. There is still something there though, with the occasional sweet fruit of the cold draw coming through.

Unquestionably, the 2017 Cohiba Talismán is a first-rate cigar, but it’s not a revelation. Between the Cohiba Limiteds I have smoked recently, it is worse than the DC and the Supremos, and on par or a hair finer than the 2006 Pyramid. Perhaps with four or five years in a humid box they may come good. In 2020 you can probably do better things with $100.

Cohiba Talismán Edición Limitada 2017 entirely smoked

Cohiba Talismán Edición Limitada 2017 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Cohiba Double Coronas Edición Limitada 2003

My first Cohiba Double Corona in 2006 was a revelation. At that point in time, my cigar experience was just starting to peak out of the mainstream. I had had plenty of Monte 3s and 4s and Romeo 1s and 2s. I was starting to dabble in Bolivar Belicosos Finos and the odd Punch Punch. On special occasions, I had had one or two of the smaller Cohibas, and a Romeo Churchill and some of the other trophy cigars. The Cohiba DC, though, was my first Limited, and my first true luxury cigar. It blew everything that had come before it away by the widest of margins. It was the cigar that showed me what a cigar could be.

In 2020, the DC is still a magnificent thing to behold. Its 49 ring is thick enough that it has some weight to it, but not so fat that it loses all elegance. At 194mm, the proportions make a statement. The wrapper is dark and oily. The construction perfect.

Cohiba Double Coronas Edición Limitada 2003 unlit, with a pair of Microsoft Surface Headphones in the background.

Set ablaze, the cigar begins wonderfully. It is smooth and rich, with a hint of charred oak barrel with an earthy umami mushroom note. Light to mid-tobacco strength.

I cannot smoke a DC without my mind drifting back to that first afternoon and to the friend who I enjoyed it with. Bertie, sadly, is long lost to me now, but in those heady days he and I were the closest of companions. (incidentally, Bertie is one of the prime suspects as The Wolf That Walks Among Us, for reasons which will become clear).

Bertie was one of those friends that you occasionally have to explain your friendship with. His father was a musician who’d recorded a hit song in the mid-1980s, that is still popular in Australian commercials to this day. The royalties from that one track had given his family the comfortable middle-class life that is out of reach of most with a career in entertainment, and especially not those who have been semi-retired since their 30s.

Much of my friendship with Bertie stemmed from our shared love of the finer things; of whisky and wine and Havana cigars. I’ve always felt my thirst for life was greater than most of my contemporaries, but Bertie’s was far less slakeable than mine. Bertie was always the last one to leave the party. He was always up for anything anytime you called him. He had little regard for money, and would charge into an evening of excess without any thought to whether he was spending his first dollar or his last.

Bertie and I would often meet for a cigar at ten or eleven in the evening, and heading home at two or three would stop off at a fast food place for a late-night snack. I would order a small fries, or maybe a cheeseburger – just some little thing to stop my stomach grumbling while I was trying to fall asleep. Bertie was a gourmand, in the truest sense of the word. He would order the double bacon cheese extreme mega meal, or whatever was the largest thing on the menu. He approached all his meals and frequent snacks with the same gusto, a habit which was reflected in his generous proportions.

Bertie was weird around girls. More than once I had to spend the morning after the night before on the phones, doing damage control to patch up some offence he had committed. His party piece was that he had a Prince Albert piercing, and no compunctions at all about showing it to people. Most of the time, it was met with a bemused “didn’t that hurt,” followed shortly thereafter by someone reporting to me that my friend was drunk and should be put in a cab. My favourite memory of his performance is of a time when he showed it to a small group, including a French exchange student someone had brought along. The student pointed to a freckle on Bertie’s head and loudly exclaimed “what’s this? Your penis is dirty! It’s dirty!”
    “Fuck off, it’s a freckle!” Bertie protested, hurriedly shoving it back in his pants.

Bertie fell in love often and hard, and would lavish the objects of his affection with expensive gifts, far more than he could afford or was warranted by the relationship. Girls who went out with Bertie would find themselves presented with jewellery or another pricy item as early as the second date. On one occasion, an inamorata of his left for a three week vacation the day after a promising first evening out with Bertie. Without so much as an email exchanged in the interim, she found him waiting for her at the Arrivals Gate with flowers upon her return. Each inevitable rejection would plunge Bertie into a deep depression, which generally led to ever pricier items, deposited anonymously on his paramour’s doorstep. Over the years, a small cluster of star tattoos grew on his calf, in blues and greens and browns. He would never explain them, responding to questioning with an evasive “those are just for me,” but I’ve long held the theory that each one represented an unrequired love with the colour of her eyes.

Above all, Bertie liked to be entertained. His room at his parent’s house was dominated by the dual monoliths of his giant TV and his video-gaming rig. He had a huge collection of DVDs, and was the kind of guy who bought the collector’s edition boxed set with the special tin and the hand-painted figurine. His career aspirations extended vaguely to “something in entertainment,” but he never showed much creative energy. The guy just liked to watch movies.

Cohiba Double Coronas Edición Limitada 2003 partially burnt.

At the mid-point the Cohiba Double Corona is sweet and nutty: sugared almonds. The strength has thickened to a firm medium. The aftertaste leaves me a little dry, with something of a light roast espresso note. It is impeccable.

After high school, Bertie had gone to university like the rest of us, but where we had undertaken technical degrees, Bertie had begun some vaguely defined Cinema Studies qualification. He liked the movies, but the essays were a bit much, and he dropped out at the end of the first year to work part-time in a video shop.

As we entered our mid-twenties, Bertie’s peers were finishing our matriculations and beginning our adult lives. Many of us set off on adventures. I went to Japan, and later China. Buckley went to Japan as well, and Davidé joined the army and deployed to the Middle East. Other friends started jobs, wearing suits and scrabbling for the bottom rung of the corporate ladder. Some of them met girls, and later got married. People moved out of their parents’ homes, first to dirty share houses with friends, and later to a small-apartments. A few even talked about buying a place.

But not Bertie. At twenty-seven, during the last summer of my youth, when I had returned from my life as a highly-paid expat in China, with enough cash for a house deposit and an enviable resume, Bertie was in much the same position as he had been at nineteen. He lived with his parents. He worked at a video store. He played a lot of video games. He had mostly graduated from DVDs to Blu-rays. Sometimes he chased girls, each to the same grim conclusions as ever.

I lived as large as seemed prudent within my means, which in those days meant a box of cigars every month or so, and a couple of nights a week at cocktail bars. Bertie had a third my income and lot more incentive to save, but lived far larger. On his days off he would sometimes spend the whole afternoon in Baranows, paying bar prices for three cigars and seven top-shelf rums. Most nights after work you would find him propping up the bar at the cocktail place across the road. I met him there a few times. He drank heavily and tipped generously.

The video store Bertie worked in was a family affair that specialised in niche and cult titles. Of the five casual staff, Bertie was the most senior (by seven years, as well as in authority). Officially he was just another clerk, but he functioned as something between the assistant manager and the boss’s son. It was Bertie who was charged with doing the count at the end of each night, and with running the cash down to the bank in the morning. When the boss was away, Bertie looked after his house, and might pick up his kids from school or some other favour when he was in a pinch.

Eventually, it all came out. Buckley and I were in my parent’s back yard, enjoying some discount sodas from NQR, when Bertie called me up and asked if he could join us. He had something to confess.

It had started simply enough, as it always does. Bertie’s workplace had had a promotion, and papered the neighbourhood with flyers offering two-for-one DVD rental. When a customer came in with a coupon, the clerk would input the sale at half price, and then stamp their flyer and add it to a spike. Under the counter sat a stack of the unvalidated flyers to hand to the customer for use on their next visit. Bertie was quick to recognize the flaw in the system. Whenever a customer made a rental without bringing in a coupon, he simply charged them full price, took a flyer from the stack for the spike, and pocketed the difference. Over a shift, it might be twenty or fifty dollars: not much, but it covered the first round at the bar.

When the promotion ended, Bertie had another realisation: from time to time, a customer would come in complaining about a DVD that wouldn’t play. In that case, the clerk had discretion to put the sale through with a defect code, and the customer would get their next rental for free. A few times a night when a customer paid cash, Bertie would scan it through as defect and pocket the difference. It was only fifty or a hundred a night, but it covered the first few rounds at the bar, and maybe a cigar afterward.

It all came undone when Bertie switched shifts. Most of the time he worked Tuesday to Saturday, but on this particular week he had swapped a Sunday with someone. Sundays were a quiet night in any week, with a usual take of around $700. When Bertie locked up at the end of his shift, he had $500 in cash in his pocket. The boss had noticed a general decline in revenue for months, but had put it down to the slow death of an industry that was well into its twilight years. When he checked the safe on Monday morning and found an eighty percent drop on the previous week, he finally went to the computer.

On Tuesday morning when Bertie arrived, his boss hustled him straight into the back room, and showed him the defect code statistics. Over the past six months, defects had increased a hundred-fold. Ninety-nine percent of them had been scanned in by Bertie. With panic in his eyes, Bertie began to stammer something about how sometimes they left the computer logged in and other staff might use it, but when the boss pointed to the take on the Sunday when Bertie had worked, verses every previous one when he hadn’t, Bertie broke down. With tears running down his face, he confessed all and begged forgiveness, blaming a drug addiction. When the boss asked Bertie how much he had stolen, Bertie estimated it at ten-grand, but the reality was that neither man had any idea of the actual figure.

Undecided on whether or not he should involve the police, the boss sent Bertie home. When he walked in the door, his mother was sitting at the kitchen island, doing the crossword. She barely got out her “you’re home early,” before the whole story cascaded from Bertie.

His confession over, Bertie’s mother got up and went straight to the bank. She withdrew ten thousand in cash, and took it to the video store.

For the next few weeks, Bertie’s old boss would call him up from time to time, mostly demanding the return of some trinket or other that Bertie had borrowed over the years, or to accuse him of taking something that was misplaced around his house, and threatening still to involve the police. Eventually he stopped. Caught in the collateral damage was one of Bertie’s friends, who had gotten a job at the video store based on Bertie’s recommendation. The boss let him go with a small redundancy. He said he was sorry, but he just couldn’t trust him anymore.

Bertie confessed all this to us in the hope, I suppose, that we would be sympathetic, and support him through his personal crisis. The products of a single sex education, we of course drilled him about it relentlessly.

In the end, it was a formative moment for Bertie. Within five months, he had sold most of his DVD boxed sets, pawned his giant TV, and left for Hollywood. Nearly a decade has passed, and he has yet to return. He’s not a big success, but I think he does okay. A commercial here and there, or a minor role in something-or-other. Enough to pay the bills, which is more than most can say for a career in entertainment.

Cohiba Double Coronas Edición Limitada 2003 fairly close to done.

In the final third the Double Corona gets heavy, with the roasted, chocolatey bitterness of slightly burnt, walnut-heavy brownies. It is not acrid in any way, and remains smooth and beautiful, all the way to the nub.

There is little more that can be asked of a cigar than this. It is a magnificent smoke. At least on par with the Robustos Supremos.

Cohiba Double Coronas Edición Limitada 2003 nub.

Cohiba Double Coronas Edición Limitada 2003 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, some Cohiba limiteds burn much brighter in the public consciousness than others; the 2004 Sublimes is held up as an all-time great, while the (superior in my opinion) 2003 Double Corona and 2006 Pyramid are largely forgotten. It is the same for the 2014 Robustos Supremos and its immediate neighbours, the 1966 in 2011 and the Talisman in 2017.

The Robsutos Supremos arrived reasonably on-time and with little fanfare. Sufficient quantity was available that all who wanted one could obtain one, even as a single, and there were neither frenzied mark-ups and reselling nor long shelf life and discounting. There were some bad reviews, along with the usual pearl clutching you would expect from the release of a 58 ring-gauge out of Cuba, but nothing so severe that the cigar would be remembered as a great debacle. It was simply largely forgotten.

Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014 unlit

I light the beast, and it begins very well. It is smooth and sweet, with an umami roasted mushroom note under clove and cinnamon. Light to medium tobacco, which surprises in a brute like this.

In a recent Dusky Beauty, I alluded to a crime long past; a vicious theft perpetrated by one (or more) of my closest friends, who in the early 2000s assaulted my precious store of fine whisky, along with the jewel of my father’s vinegar collection, a bottle of 1970 Penfold’s Grange Hemitage.

An update for you all: the case is closed.

While my grandparents were alive and copacetic, they were the custodians of the Groom family Christmas ritual. My father’s parents would host a lunch for their four children, many grandchildren, and various spinster aunts and other hangers on. My mother’s parents would host a dinner for their smaller family (still four children, but less grandchildren and hangers on). On both sides there are members of my parents’ generation who live away from Melbourne, and in those days they would all usually make the trip down for Christmas. Sometimes some of my interstate cousins would stay with my family for weeks over the summer break, or the whole tribe would head down to the family seaside compound between Christmas and New Year.

Since my grandparents have gone, the interstate relatives don’t come any more. There was bad blood on both sides over the division of the estates. Christmas is a lunch only affair, that alternates in host between my mother and one of my Melbourne based aunts.

The guest list includes my parents, my aunt and uncle, my sister and her husband, and my two cousins and their husbands. Being a marginally less disappointing child than I am, my sister has sired a five-year-old daughter. My two Melbourne based cousins have five children between them.

This year just passed was to be my aunt’s turn to host, until on Christmas Eve I received a phone call from my mother. My niece, who had spent the last five days with her other grandparents, was in hospital. She had contracted viral gastro and had been throwing up all day. It had been decided that she shouldn’t be around the other children. Christmas was cancelled. In its place, we would have a small affair with the immediate family. Very casual. Cold chicken. No dessert.

When I arrived the next day, everyone was in a jovial mood. My niece was in bed, being waited on by her parents. In the family room, my mother rolled her eyes and muttered about how spoiled her grandchild is.

My brother-in-law, being of different blood to me, is into tech and start-ups, and is a bit of a wine guy besides, and at some point the conversation turned to the grape. I was waxing lyrical about Rockford, a Barossa winery that I had visited the previous summer, when my father piped up.

“I’ve actually still got a few old bottles of wine from Uncle John left,” he said. “No time like the present.”

He disappeared into the laundry for some time, clinking through the numerous racks, before eventually returning with a ‘70s bottle of Henschke.

“I could have sworn I had an old bottle of Grange in there somewhere” he said. “I guess I must have drunk it.”

As the age-old tradition goes, the rotten cork crumbled into the wine, and we strained it out through a tea strainer.

Four glasses were poured, and one by one we each took a tentative sip. I was the first to call it.

“Pure vinegar.”

Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014 halfway burnt

By the mid-point the Robustos Supremos is a little meatier, with mid-tobacco, which is still surprisingly low for a fat boy like this one. On the palate a sweetness propounds, with an undertone of the forest floor in the aftertaste; mushrooms, pine needles, and damp wood. Really first rate.

When my father uttered the words “I must have drunk it,” thus was one of my youthful indiscretions concluded. He wrote the bottle off. I didn’t get grounded. He didn’t seem perturbed, and is unlikely to mention it again.

Except… nobody ever did confess to being the culprit.

I looked up the old email I sent on that fateful morning after the night before in 2007. Of the sixteen recipients, I still count four among my closest friends. A further seven I am still in periodic, if ever diminishing contact with. The final five I haven’t spoken to in more than a decade.

Figuring it was worth a shot, I hit ‘reply all’, and reached out again. This time around, my tone was conciliatory.

“A lot of water has run under the bridge” I wrote. “Most of you have kids of your own. You have adult lives. You have careers. You own property. Those heady days of youth are far behind us. What idiots we were. Nobody is going to care or give you a hard time about this. I personally committed untold social crimes at parties in my misspent youth, many of them against each of you. Like those crimes, this will just be a funny story of youthful japery. At worst I might give you some good-natured ribbing.”

“When I think of heaven, I picture it as watching your life over, but with all the unanswered questions revealed; ‘where did I lose that,’ ‘what did she really think’, and ‘why did she act that way.’ I want to know who had a secret crush on me, and who hated me. I want to know where I lost my keys. I want to know what happened to the wallet I dropped on the train. I want the thought process behind every awkward social interaction explained. And I also want to know how that whisky tasted.”

“Why don’t you and I make a little slice of heaven here on earth today?”

Three emails bounced, their mailboxes long abandoned and filled with spam.

Two others replied, repeating their protests of innocence.

The other eleven accounts remained silent.

The wolf walks among us still.

Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014 burnt just above the bands

For its entire length, the burn on the Cohiba Robustos Supremos has been impeccable; a razor-sharp line from tip to nub. The draw is a long way from a Cuban draw, but perfectly acceptable for a fat boy like this. The ash is solid, and falls on demand in heavy chunks. This would be a good cigar for a long ash competition.

The end is beautiful, with the slightest hint of the rich bitterness of coffee and cocoa in the final inch. The flavour is full with earthy, fungal notes. A fantastic cigar, that I must somewhat reluctantly admit, is better than the 2006 Pyramid, and at time of writing is the best cigar of my Cohiba vertical. One can only hope that a future entry will improve on it, and save the Harem from being known as a publication that endorses the idea of a 58 ring cigar.

Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014 nub and ashes

Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2001

I was barely beginning my smoking journey in 2002, when the Pirámides EL hit the market, and I wouldn’t graduate to Cohiba for another few years. The old Cohiba that this cigar wears is a rare sight for me. The design was laid out apparently by someone with little training. Even to my amateur eye, the symmetry is all wrong, with La Habana Cuba far too close to the bottom edge, and the ratio of black to yellow off kilter. Embossing and holograms aside, Cuba has come a long way in twenty years.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2001 unlit

The first few puffs hold some harshness, although punchiness at this point in a twenty-year-old cigar is probably more a positive than a negative as it shows that the leaf still has something to give. Once the harshness fades, there is not terribly much too it: the cigar is smooth, light tobacco, and a little dry earthiness. There is a pleasant coffee note in the aftertaste.

About three quarters of an inch in, it goes out for the first time, a classic trait in turn-of-the-millennium ELs.

I am the black sheep of my extended family, who are unvaryingly modest living Christians; middle class, working people, with no apparent aspirations beyond their station. One of my grandfathers was an engineer, the other an accountant. Among my parents’ generation there are farmers on both sides, teachers, more accountants, and a public servant. My generation is more of the same. There are no artists or writers. There are no entrepreneurs. There are no unemployables.

The biggest family scandal is that one of my aunts got married and swiftly divorced in her early twenties, a fact which I have only heard mentioned once when my grandmother was showing some photos and came across one of my aunt in a wedding dress. One of my great aunts never married, and seemed to spend a lot of time with a close female friend, and I have wondered later in life if they may have been lovers, although this is entirely unsubstantiated and never talked about.

There are few vices. Nobody drinks heavily, or uses drugs, or smokes, or gambles, or stays up late. They don’t travel widely. Nobody has been arrested. If anybody has ever had an affair, I don’t know of it.

All except for my great uncle John.

John died around the time this Cohiba Pirámides was being rolled, some fifteen years before his older brothers.  He was a bachelor, and wealthy thanks to the sale of his civil engineering business, which had given him the ownership of a number of apartment blocks. He had retired in his early 50s, and devoted his life to his hobbies. In his sprawling Toorak home, he had an extensive library of rare books, and a large dark room for his photography. Up the mountains he had 80 acres of bushland where he had someday planned to build a weekender, although at the time of his death the only completed structure on the property was a marble tryptic fountain with classical statuary.

He was a member of all the best clubs, and his funeral was attended by his peers: rotund lawyers and businessmen in expensive suits, who no doubt held a wake for him at the Melbourne Club after the service. My family were not impressed, and scowled disapprovingly across the aisle, no doubt uncomfortable in their ill-fitting polyester-blends.

I only ever met John twice, and barely remember either occasion. I mainly know the man through his possessions. What I know of him is that John liked the finer things.

I remember going through his house after his death with three stickers to put on anything I wanted, and having my mother veto my selection of his set of crystal decanters. I don’t remember what else I selected – I’m sure all my first choices were rejected – but I ended up with a heavy gold silk robe and large detailed map of Melbourne in the 1950s that hangs on my wall to this day.

My family had a big furniture upgrade after John died. Our home furniture had previously been cheap and miss-matched, mostly purchased by my parents after their marriage in the 1970s. After John we had heavy antiques in dark wood, and guilt framed ancestral paintings on the walls. Two decades later, and the trickle-down continues; my own apartment is furnished mostly by John, and came to me after my parents upgraded their stuff with John’s nicer pieces from my grandparents’ home.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2001 somewhat burned

At the midway, the Pirámides is still on the mild side, but with a sweet nutty note on the back palate. There is also that lingering lactic thickness that I prize in a cigar. Walnut up front, and almond milk in the aftertaste.

Among the few items bequeathed to a specific individual was the “family silver:” a 200-piece set of antique silverware that John had had engraved with the crest of a dubious ancestor, and left to my mother. His will, although recently updated, also left a multi-million-dollar block of flats to a woman he’d dated decades prior, and not spoken to in years. He gave no explanation for this. It was the exact kind of pathos riddled gesture that a well-resourced Groom would make, and my sensible cousins wouldn’t.

I was still a teenager when John died, and had little input into the disposal of the smaller items. I remember my mother poured the contents of the decanters down the sink, along with a large number of other half empty spirits bottles, paying no heed at all to whether the labels were red or black or blue, or if the number below the name read 12 or 18 or 30. My dad does like a glass of wine with dinner, and the thousand or so bottles of wine that filled John’s garage did make it to our house, with the theft of one of them later becoming the subject of a Dusky Beauty.

Bag after bag of ephemera went to the op shop, including many vintage sunglasses (and monocles, for some reason), the aforementioned decanters, and old watches, along with hundreds of books, and dozens of bespoke suits.

“Were there any cigars?” is something I’ve often wondered: I’m quite sure there would have been. Even if John didn’t smoke himself, I have no doubt that a Melbourne Club buddy would have handed him a box of Dunhill Cabinetta at some point as a gift for some or other favour. Whichever of my family came across the humidor, I’m quite sure they would have emptied it into the garbage and sent it to the op shop labelled “storage box.”

The biggest pity of all, of course, is that he didn’t live another ten years. He might have enjoyed not being the only black sheep.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 burned to just above the band

With an inch and a half left in the Pirámides, the chocolate comes in strong. Lindt 80%. Fantastic. I smoke it as low as I realistically can.

Ultimately this is what you want in an old cigar. Mild for the first two thirds, but in a way that allows you to appreciate the nuances, and not flavourless cardboard as some over-old cigars can be. Once it has built up a head of tar, the flavours are strong, but never overpowering.

Between this and the ’06 rendition though, I’d probably give it to the younger version by a hair. They are both excellent cigars, but the younger one has a bit more to it.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 nub

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2001 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011

The Cohiba Cohiba 1966; a cigar named for the year the marca Cohiba was given a name, having previously just been “those cigars Fidel smokes.” Being a Limited Edition from 2011, the 1966 celebrated the 45th anniversary of the brand. At 52 x 166mm, the dimensions of the cigar are nothing too outlandish, and should please those wish their 52 x 150mm Siglo VI lasted fifteen minutes longer. It’s hard to find a negative review of any Cohiba Limited, and this one is no exception.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 unlit

Once lit, the first puff from the cigar hits me like a bucket bong: the thing is a wind-tunnel. In no sense is this a Cuban draw. It feels like an entire leaf is missing from the middle. I squeeze up and down the length, checking for soft spots, but don’t find any. Can this be intentional? After moderating my smoking technique somewhat to only sip the slightest sips, I get to a place where some flavour is discernible. It is burning too hot, and is a little bitter, but there is dry grass and vanilla bean behind it.

2011 was a grim time for old Groom. I had arrived back in Australia at the start of 2010, having been dismissed and despatched from my job in China with a few days’ notice due to a visa issue, coupled with a general over-paid, over-entitled gwailou attitude on my part.

At first it wasn’t so bad. I was living with my parents, and with few expenses and a bucket of cash saved from my offshore revenue, getting a job didn’t seem like a high priority. I spent my days in my room playing video games and re-watching Seinfeld. I spent my nights drinking and smoking cigars with my buddies.

My friend Buckley had remained in Japan while I was in China, and in 2011 he too was newly returned and unemployed. Where I had had a fat foreign consultant package on my overseas adventure, Buckley had worked a lowly grad job in a university. Back in Australia, he too was living with his parents, but with the government teat for succour. He had videogames to play and sitcoms to watch also, but on Friday mornings after his pension cheque cleared, he usually felt like a little socialisation, and we would usually hang out.

On some Fridays we would go to the local shopping centre and drift aimlessly down the fluorescent lit mezzanines checking out the girls who worked in the fashion stores. On other occasions we would walk down to the Not Quite Right discount supermarket, which sold expired food and products that had failed disastrously in the marketplace for cents on the dollar. My fondest memory of the time is when Buckley purchased ten packets of grape flavour liquid-centre gum for a dollar, and crammed at least fifty pieces in his mouth at once. “I’ve always wanted to do that” he declared, with purple goo dripping down his chin. The girls at NQR weren’t as well dressed as the fashion store girls, but they had a certain scruffy charm.

Eventually though, my blissful unemployment began to wear a bit thin, or at least, my mother’s nagging me about it did. I began to search for a job. In China I had felt like a king, with my salary providing me many times more than I could ever hope to spend in that country, and the simple virtue of being the only white guy in an all Chinese company giving me an authority well beyond my job description. I applied for many jobs, but few would even interview me, and the ones that did I saw as far below my station. It made their eventual rejection of my application sting all the more. When one eventually made me an offer, it was with a heavy heart that I accepted. It was an office job in the outer suburbs, where an hourlong commute in rush hour traffic would bookend my every day. “Just for a few months” I thought. “Something better will come along.”

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 somewhat burnt

With a few inches burnt, the cigar is quite delightful. Somewhat implausibly, the draw has tightened up, and while nowhere near Cuban, it is perfectly acceptable. The taste is smooth and sweet, with honey and hazelnut. When I talk of cream in a cigar, it is usually a lactic thickness on the roof of the mouth, which isn’t present here, but there is something milky in the aftertaste, which reminds one of honey nut cereal.

A year later, when the Cohiba 1966 made their way to Australia, I was in the deepest funk of my life. Our office was a rundown cream-brick box in a light industrial park. The blinds were perpetually drawn against any hint of natural light or outside stimulation. My colleagues were all ten or fifteen years older than me, and used to nervously laugh and say I was a “whizz kid” when I would make some suggestion that seemed to me like it should have been elementary to anyone who was remotely abreast of the  technology we were working with. I hated them on the deep level that only someone who you are confined in a box with for most of your waking hours can be hated; for their incompetence, sure, but also for the way they chewed sunflower seeds, or ate apples loudly, or told the same stories about their kids again and again, or took personal phone calls at their desks, or squeaked their chairs, or sniffed, or blew their noses, or their smell, or the sight of them, or everything. We were perpetually behind on our deadlines, and had a culture of working late in pursuit of them, until at least nine each night and often later, and some weekends too. I kept a log of this unpaid overtime and passive-aggressively emailed the running total to my boss each night. Theoretically it would be reimbursed in leave, but it had accumulated to more than three weeks, which seemed to large a sum to ever materialise.

Between twelve hours at the office a day, and two on the road, I didn’t have much time for anything else in my life. It was the Era Before Tinder, but I wouldn’t have been a lot of fun on a date even if I’d had one, and hadn’t been laid in a year or more. I’d struggle to fall asleep often, tossing and turning and ranting to myself. Sometimes I would smoke weed to knock me out, until one incident where it filled me with energy and I spent all night staring with loathing at myself in the mirror.

I bought my box of ten Cohiba 1966 for $470 AUD delivered. It was an impulse buy, the small solace of a luxury item in a dark time. I never touched them. The cigar I am smoking today is a single I picked up somewhere else along the way.

The darkness is long behind me now, vanquished later in 2012 by the scent of feminine perfume, although that’s a story for another time. The 1966 box gives me solace still: today on the secondary market they are going cheap if you find them below $2000 AUD.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 burned to the band

Throughout its consumption, the burn of the 1966 has been disgraceful. I keep my humidors a little wetter than conventional wisdom dictates, my theory being that for aging the preservation of oils is key. Normally if I plan to smoke something, I will take it out a few days beforehand and let it dry a little, but in this case the perfect afternoon came on the back of a week of rain, and I pulled one straight from my aging box to take advantage. Perhaps then it is me who is to blame, but nonetheless the cigar has gone out three times, and burned unevenly for the duration.

Even so, the Cohiba 1966 is impeccable. A little dirty on the finish, but otherwise very smooth, with notes of dry straw, sweet nut, and black coffee. The final inch is a little bitter, but nothing I can’t handle. A note of cocoa in there somewhere, and a sweet herbaceous tang. A fine end to a fine cigar. Better than the Novedosos, not as good as the 2006 Piramide.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 nub and associated ashes

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006

When Cohiba first emerged in the 1980s it was marketed as Castro’s private brand, and had all the cachet that came with that; sipping from a Lanceros you pictured yourself in fatigues in the wood-panelled meeting room of the politburo, your smoke rings wafting from the kind of immaculate treasure that only a dutiful personality cult can produce. Today when you smoke a Cohiba it’s all about the status. The shiniest gold rings on the fattest cigars, matching the rings on the fat fingers that clutch them. You don’t smoke a Cohiba because they’re the best; you smoke them because you’re the best. The ultimate symbol of crass capitalism.

The 1996 release of the Siglo series was the first step Cohiba took away from Castro’s cigars. The second would come in 2007, with the Maduro line, but in 2006 the release of the Pirámides Edición Limitada still smelt of the old days. Along with the ‘A’ sized Gran Corona, the Cohiba Pirámides were a tradition unto themselves, wheeled out regularly for the most special of occasions. Getting a box of these in ’06 felt like you were in on something. It felt like a diplomatic gift.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006 unlit

The first puff is very bitter. I had picked this day for a smoke because it seemed perfect – still and warm – but in the time it took me to walk down to the smoking spot a breeze has sprung up, and it is doing the cigar no good at all. Things improve somewhat after I build a little fort for the coal out of my various paraphernalia: the taste is strongly woody, with coffee notes.

The last time I smoked one of these cigars was around five years ago, when I passed around a box at the stag night of a friend. Aside from being a waste of good cigars, the night was a non-event, just the regulation debauchery, but I recall it mainly as my first encounter with Mark.

Mark had a nervous energy, and brought a frenetic tension with him into every room. He talked fast, and repeated himself frequently. Specifically, there was factoid he would drop at absolutely every opportunity. Mark was dating a stripper.

“Hey Mark, how’s it going?”
“I’m so tired today, had to pick my girlfriend up from work really late last night. She’s a stripper, so she has crazy hours sometimes.”

“Hey Mark, your share of dinner is $30.”
“No worries, you mind if I pay with fives? I have heaps because I’m dating a stripper.”

It always seemed like a weird flex to me. As a man who has dated several models (and one escort), I know full well the pleasure of dropping your girlfriend’s occupation, a social shorthand no less potent than “man, I gotta go to the doctor, the band on my Rolex is giving me a rash,” or “sorry I’m late, my bloody Mercedes has the worst satnav.” Where I come from though, “stripper” is a bit of a loaded term. Yes, your girlfriend is attractive enough that men will pay to see her naked, but is that really such a high bar to clear? The fantasy of the beautiful girl who is only doing this because it gives her more time to study for her law exams is somewhat plausible where I live in the city centre, but Mark was not from where I live. Mark was from somewhere thirty kilometres passed Frankston. There aren’t a lot of law schools out there. In the outer suburbs, stripping is a career you choose when you need drug money and you don’t have a lot of options.

Mark evidentially didn’t feel there was any dubiousness at all about it. He dropped the brag with such frequency that it became an easy shorthand when referring to him. “You know Mark?”
“Oh, the guy who’s dating the stripper?”

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006 halfway done

At the midway the cigar has mellowed significantly, although is still on the strong side for a teenage Cohiba. The predominant note is mid-tobacco, a little grassy on the back of the throat, with strong burnt coffee and bitter cacao notes. It tastes more or less like a badly made cappuccino, with over-roasted beans.

After years of Mark being the guy dating the stripper, he suddenly wasn’t. I encountered him at a party one night and found him hot to trot, pointing out girls, asking who was single, and articulating what he wanted to do to this or that one. He was a man on the prowl. When I asked what happened to his girlfriend, it was evidentially a sore subject. “Man” he told me, “fuck that bitch.”

It had turned out that she had been cheating on him for years, and in the end had left him for the other man. Before their relationship began, Mark had owned a house – his dream home, in his telling – which he had bought with factory sweat in his early twenties, when house prices were much lower than today. He had dated the stripper for more than five years, and the law considered them a de-facto couple. When they parted ways, the house was sold and the profits divided. He was living with his parents. “Man,” he said, by way of an exclamation point. “Forget that bitch. I am going to get laid tonight!”

He didn’t. Some five hours later he was paralytic drunk, and I poured him into a cab for his long ride back to the suburbs.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006 final third

As the first band comes off, the cigar is sweet with dark chocolate and a strong coffee note. The aftertaste is dry and dusty, but with a gingernut spice that sticks to the roof of your mouth.

A year or so after my last encounter with Mark, I received an unexpected message on Facebook. I had never met her, but after some mild internet sleuthing, I recognised the sender as Mark’s ex-girlfriend. Her name was Crystal. “Hi” she said “I’m organising a party for Mark next weekend. Can you come?”
“Sure.” I replied. Why not?

It wasn’t much of a party. The house two-bedroom fibreboard near a freeway offramp in a far-flung suburb. On the kitchen island the ‘bar’ was laid out: Midori, Chambord, Galliano, Blue Curaçao, and honey flavoured Jack Daniels. No gin or whisky or vodka or anything that could be used to make an actual drink. Crystal and a girlfriend sat inside with UDLs. In the backyard, Mark and two of his mates sipped Woodstock and Cola cans around a firepit. His friends had beards, beer bellies, and Metallica t-shirts.

After a while I asked Mark what the story with the stripper was. “I thought you guys broke up?”

He rolled his eyes.

“Fuck, mate” he said. “I had the best house. My dreamhouse. Had to sell it. Two hundred grand I gave that bitch when we split up, and in six months she blows through the lot traveling and getting high with some douchebag. Then we get back together and now all I can afford is this shithole.”

At that point Crystal appeared at the screen door. “Are you ready, boys?” she called. “It’s time for Mark’s present.”

The girls had cleared the room, save for a single plastic bucket chair of a design familiar to anyone who has ever sat through a play in a school gymnasium. Mark sat on the chair, with his friends and I standing in a lose semi-circle around him. The room was lit by the unrelenting glare of two naked fluorescent bulbs directly above Mark’s head. Crystal carried in a boombox that for some reason she had plugged in via an extension cord from the back yard. She pressed play, and the opening notes of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck rang out… and then immediately ceased. She swore, and fussed with the extension cord, which was apparently defective. After three more abortive starts, she assumed a position straddling the doorway, holding the ends of the cords together, and the music resumed.

Crystal’s friend appeared from the bathroom just as the first “thunder” and drum hit shot from the stereo. She wore a red costume cape over lacey black lingerie, with a plastic devil horn headband and pitchfork. Mark grinned. “Ho ho,” he said, glancing at Crystal. “You serious?” Crystal cackled in response.

The girl began to dance, gyrating her hips, and letting the cape fall from her shoulders. Thunderstruck’s screaming guitars do not lend themselves to a sensual strip tease, and her every move seemed just a little off the beat. It also was quickly apparent why strip clubs are not typically lit by bare fluorescents; I found myself fixated on the marks on her skin more than the dance. A small white scar ran up her bicep, ending just below her vaccination spot. There was a large bruise just above the left knee. When she unsnapped her bra, her skin was red from the tension. There was a pimple on her butt. There was a mole on her lower back that she probably should get checked out.

A few minutes in, the lap dance was reaching its conclusion: nude but for her panties, the girl was bent half in two at the waist; her legs straight, and her face down near her knees. One hand was wrapped around her ankle, while the other pulled aside the crotch of her panties to expose her vulva six inches from Mark’s face. At that moment the music cut out.

“Fuck! Crystal!” the dancer yelled, without straightening her pose. “Just skip to the next bloody song.”

It was A Whole Lotta Rosie.

After a minute or so more of gyrating on Mark, the now fully nude girl began to work to the room. She took a bowl of Allen’s Party Mix from the counter, and walked towards me. “Raspberry or banana?” she asked, batting her eyelids coquettishly.
“Ahh… banana?” I stammered. She giggled, and placed the banana just above her nipple, and then proffered it toward me. Awkwardly I reached and took it off her.

“Such a gentleman” she laughed. “Take it with your mouth.”

She placed another banana on her breast, and I uncomfortably bowed to remove it, again to titters from the room.

“He’s shy,” the girl remarked, and move on. “I’ll leave him alone.”

Mark’s friends were not so shy, and were evidentially familiar with this ritual. As she visited each in turn they handled her extensively, eating their sweet off her like a donkey eats an orange.

The show ended, and Crystal brought out a cake, her friend remaining casually nude while we sang happy birthday and Mark blew out the candles. I didn’t notice her get dressed, but she must have at some point, because shortly after that we were back around the firepit and the girls were back on the couch drinking UDLs. Mark at least seemed to appreciate his gift.

“Crystal can be a real shit sometimes,” he said “but she’s all right sometimes too. Nice of her to get me that. She knows I’ve wanted a dance from that girl for a while.”

From that night, unfortunately, my relationship with Mark ended; like ships in the night, we drifted apart. I heard he and Crystal had a baby not all that long after the party, and I think another one a few years later.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006 nub

The cigar ends well, smoother and sweeter in the nub than it has been at any point in its duration, with cocoa and coffee predominant. A truly first-class cigar. Better than the Novedosos and the Siglo II by a decent margin.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Cohiba Novedosos Especialista en Habanos Exclusivo

The Cohiba Novedosos is a 2019 release exclusively for Habanos Specialist stores, making it a far younger cigar than most that appear in these pages. It is the first cigar from a global brand to get a Habanos Specialist band, and the prestige of a new Cohiba adds considerable weight to the desirability of that programme. At 50 ring by 156mm it is a surprisingly respectable size, finding a home with smokers for whom the Robusto (50 by 124mm) is too little and the Siglo IV (52 by 160mm) too much. Whether that narrow void needed to be filled is debatable, although I am a proponent of variety in all things. The surprising part is that Habanos didn’t choose to cater to the end of the spectrum that craves the meatier 60+ ring gauge (having learned from past indiscretions, I decline to speculate on who that market may be).

The cigar begins with considerably more kick than a normal Cohiba: bitter for the first few puffs, then relaxing into a strong, creamy tobacco flavour, with barnyard notes on the back palate.

Cohiba Novedosos unlit in the afternoon sun.

Life is a complex road, and it’s interesting at times to note that the smallest event in my life could be the biggest in somebody else’s. For me, the is no butterfly wing that caused a tornado more than the night I took Ben to Club Pure.

When I first lived in Japan in my mid-twenties, Buckley, a friend from high school, was living there also. The apartment Buckley lived in was run by the English school he worked for, who operated it as a first apartment for their newly arrived teachers. Buckley had the top floor, which he shared with an American named Nathan. Below them lived two girls: Madeline and Cassie, and the five of us, along with various other English teachers and hangers on, all became a friendship group more or less by default. As it turned out, Nathan was ten years older than us, and the worst kind of melodramatic alcoholic, so within a few months Buckley moved into a place of his own.

Buckley was replaced in Nathan’s apartment by Ben, a sweet boy at barely 20 years old. He had grown up in a small town in rural Australia, and was handsome and enthusiastic, and excited for this new adventure. Nathan had been furious when Buckley left, seeing the departure of another roommate as a personal attack, and so didn’t bother to interact much with Ben, choosing to spend his time drinking alone in his room instead. With Buckley out of the block, and on bad terms with Nathan, our young friendship group had fallen apart. Ben, by default, fell into the clutches of Madeline and Cassie.

The early 20s expat experience in Japan is vastly different for men and women. There is a persistent and wildly exaggerated myth that Japanese women are insatiably attracted to western men, which, coupled with the first-time-out-of-home exuberance of men in their early 20s, draws them into a world of binge drinking and bar hopping. Women tend to get the opposite; all the pressures of being an alien in a foreign country, without the invincible party boy comradery. The proportion of women and men who arrive in the country on an English teaching gap year is about the same, but the number of women who leave after a few months is far greater than the men; equally, the number of men who become “lifers” and stay beyond their planned year or two is far larger. The effect of this is that the expat ‘scene’ becomes ever more masculine, and ever more uncomfortable for new girls.

And so, for the first few months of his new life in Japan, Ben didn’t get the expat fuckboy life he’d heard about. Instead he hung with the girls. They went on cultural trips to see Japan’s castles and natural wonders. They had tea ceremonies in cute cafes, saw art galleries and temples, and played dress-up under the cherry blossom trees. I didn’t see too much of him, but I knew him casually, so when we had a chance encounter in the street early one Monday evening, I invited him for a beer in a nearby Izakaya.

“So how are you liking Japan?” I asked him. “You’ve been here what, three months now?”
“Ah… yeah… it’s okay… I thought it would be a lot wilder though.”
“What do you mean?”
“Ah, well, just I’m hanging with Maddie and Cassie all the time, we mostly do cultural stuff, just thought there’d be more parties and stuff. Haven’t really even spoken to any Japanese girls.”

I had been in Japan for three months longer than Ben, and been with two more girls, but nonetheless we were men, and my bravado kicked in.

“You mean you’re in Japan and you’re not fuckin? Shit man, what a waste. Japanese girls love white guys like us.”
“Yeah, I heard that before I came, but I dunno man, how do you meet them.”
“Bro, it’s Monday night. Ladies Night at Club Pure. We’re going to get you laid.

Cohiba Novedosos, about half burnt.

By the mid-point the cigar has mellowed off, but still has a pleasant creaminess. There is a roasted espresso flavour, walnut and a good woodiness. Somewhere in there I detect the smell of the shellac used in French polish. 

Club Pure was the ‘it’ shitty gaijin­ club in the Osaka of the late-aughts. Seemingly the only place in the city with bouncers, it was in a basement off the main drag in the red-light district. The décor was a bit confused. Around the dance floor there were a number of small ‘caves’ with stone floors, rendered walls, and plaster stalactites. Upstairs was a VIP area, decorated with fake books, polished wood and red velvet that evoked a 19th century Parisian bordello. Behind the bar was a taxidermized stag head and neon bar lights. On the dance floor there were go-go cages, laser lights, and a DJ who ran Fatman Scoop’s Be Faithfull on very heavy rotation.

The standard entry fee for Pure was $20, which included every watered-down drink you cared to drink. On Monday nights, entry was free for ladies. Ben and I paid our money, walked in the door, and paused for a moment on a landing overlooking the floor. The place wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t full either. A few groups of girls were half-heartedly dancing together on the floor. Unusually for Pure, the patrons were mostly Japanese and mostly women.

“Now what?” Ben asked.
“Now we get some Malibu and Cokes.”

After we’d had the Malibi, a Midori Lemonade, a couple of Jager Redbulls, and a tequila shot, the place was starting to heat up, and the dance floor had filled to the point where it wasn’t possible to transit the dancefloor without bodily contact.

“Now what?” Ben asked.
“Now we go dance” I told him. “Just find a girl you like and dance near her. If she notices you and moves closer then she’s interested. If she moves away then go dance near somebody else.”

We moved onto the floor, and separated, and after fifteen minutes of cold shoulders I returned to the bar. I glanced back for Ben. He was dancing with a girl, his hands on her hips, and her backside grinding against his crotch.

I had a highball at the bar, and did another lap of the dance floor, again meeting nothing but rejection. This time when I checked on Ben he was making out with the girl. By the time I’d finished another lap and another drink, they were holed up in one of the caves and his hands were inside her shirt.

I poked my head inside the cave just long enough to indicate that I was going to leave.

“I’m off. You alright here, mate?”
“Yeah” he laughed. “Thanks for everything, man.”

At home, I was pleased with myself. I may have struck out, but at least somebody was getting laid in Japan tonight. I jerked off and went to sleep, and didn’t give the incident much more thought until three days later when Cassie called me.

“Hey” she said. “What did you do with Ben?”
“What do you mean?”
“He hasn’t come home in three nights and his phone is switched off.”
“Ahh… well I took him to Pure. I think he probably went home with a girl.”
“What girl?”
“Ahh… she had denim shorts on? White top? I dunno, I didn’t really look at her.”

Cassie hung up in frustration.

Ben did eventually resurface, coming home mostly to pick up his phone charger before he moved in with the girl from Pure. No word on how Nathan felt about that. About a year later they got married and moved back to Australia, and had a baby shortly thereafter. Within three years they had two more. I haven’t spoken to Ben in years, but from his occasional appearances on my Facebook feed, he is still married, and seems to be a normal, happy dad in a small town in rural Australia; the road of his life walked entirely because of one moment of my fuckboy bravado.

Cohiba Novedosos, burnt to the bands.

The final two inches of the Cohiba Novedosos remain very smooth; remarkably so for a cigar so young, regardless of the marque. The final notes are of dry, sweet cocoa powder.

A great cigar, and a marked improvement on the Siglo II.

Cohiba Novedosos nub.

Cohiba Novedosos Especialista en Habanos Exclusivo on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Cohiba Siglo II

The tradition of this column, as the old timers tell it, is that the first cigar I light in any a new season is the fundamental example of the breed. The quintessential cigar that sums it up for any occasion. The “go to.”

Cohiba, however, is not a brand for just any occasion. Once the private marque of Fidel Castro, today it is mainly for the Chinese nouveau riche. The occasion when you reach for a Cohiba is when you want somebody to know that you’re the boss.

The Siglo II is by no means the quintessential Cohiba, and I doubt anybody much reaches for it very often. If you want a Cohiba, you want one with a bit of heft to it. You want a Behike 56. A Siglo VI. Maybe a Robusto if you’re pressed for time. Maybe a Lanceros if you’re an educated man.

I am giving the Siglo II the first smoke, however, purely because of its vitola de galera. The Siglo II is a Marevas; 42 ring by 129mm. The same size as the Montecristo 4, and a great many other quintessential cigars besides. It is long enough that you know you’re smoking a cigar, but short enough that you’re not back too late from lunch.

The example in question has a perfect domed marble head; a construction style that was once the standard for all Cuban cigars but since the 1970s has been rare, remaining only as a signature flourish for master rollers.

Cohiba Siglo II unlit

Lit, the first notes are a little more bitter than I’d like, but obviously first class, with black coffee over toasted grains. The draw is perfect.

One Easter Sunday some years passed I was coming off about three months of heavy internet dating; two nights a week walking the never-ending trail in search of something better than bachelorhood. Some dates were terrible, and ended with a hasty skolling of the first drink and pressing ‘unmatch’ on the app on my way out the door. Other dates went a little better, and we’d laugh and stay out late, and although things weren’t so good that I’d kiss her at the end, I’d still walk away thinking there might be something there. The next day I’d message to see if she wanted another go around, and in reply she’d say she liked me but “not in a romantic way.”

Once in a while, the dates would go very well, and the girl would end up in my bed. In the morning when she was gone, I’d lie there, my pillow still rich with her scent, and I’d try and imagine a life with her. Inevitably I would find some imperfection that seemed like it would drive me to insanity when subjected to a lifetime of it. Somewhat regretfully, but not wanting to waste her time, I’d send her a text: “I had a great time with you last night, but just being totally honest, I don’t really see it getting serious with you. Would be happy to see you a couple more times though if you’re keen.”

It was generally met with outrage. I couldn’t fault them for it.

The same cycle had played out time and time again, and I had resolved to end it. No more would I cast girls aside for some perceived minor flaw. It was Easter Sunday, and it was time that I became a better man. From now on I would see that the beauty of a rose is perfected by its thorns.

To be honest, I didn’t need a date that night. On Easter Saturday I had been out all night at a very druggy party. I hadn’t had a lot of sleep, and my dopamine levels were low. Elspeth and I had been chatting online for a week or so, and we were at the point where it was time to either meet in person or ghost her, so when she messaged with “how about we get together tonight?” I was a coinflip whether to accept the date or spend the night at home alone watching a movie. I decided that now was as good as any time to get it over with.

We met on the steps of the State Library and headed to a cocktail bar a few blocks down the road. She had chin length brown hair and a Mediterranean nose, and came off as shy, running through her chit chat with a wide-eyed hesitation. At first glance she looked like any Melbournite, dressed in black and grey, but if you looked a little closer, you’d see that she had some style. I would later learn that she shopped exclusively from Japanese fashion websites and it showed. Her things were just cut a little better than we see in Australia.

At the end of the first drink I was surprised when she consented to a second. My energy levels were through the floor, and she seemed nervous and uncomfortable. At the end of the second drink, I was even more surprised when she suggested we move to another bar. After six drinks at three venues I suggested we head to my place, and wasn’t at all surprised when she agreed.

Post coital, with her head nestled on my shoulder, I felt a deep affection for her.

“You know” I said, running a finger down her flank, “I’m sure you don’t think it, but you’re really very pretty. You have your little imperfections. Your nose. Your butt is too big. But you have nice eyes, and your stomach is flat, and your legs are long, and your tits are perfectly shaped. It might not be the Vogue Magazine idea of beauty, but everything is in proportion, and added up you look better than any of those bitches. You’re beautiful.”

She blushed and kissed me.

Cohiba Siglo II, about half smoked

Halfway gone, and the Siglo II is coming along nicely, with the classic Cohiba notes of grass and hay up front, and honey sweetness in the aftertaste. Above all it exhibits the smoothness that is the hallmark of Cohiba, and all true premium tobacco.

Elspeth was the artistic sort, a museum curator, and on our first date, somewhere after the third drink, I had tried to boost my intellectual credentials by mentioning The Harem. “It masquerades as cigar reviews” I had said, “but really I use it to tell my life story, one anecdote at a time, with poetic prose and a literary sensibility. I elevate the form.” When she told me she would read it, I grimaced, immediately regretting my braggadocio. “Please don’t.”

The second date went well enough, but for one incident. She mentioned in passing that she was bad with money, deep in credit card debt from years of unsustainable spending. Ever the attack dog, I teased her about it, taking care of the bills from then on, but never without a smirking “I’d better get this.” After the fifth time, she put on her serious voice and asked me to stop.

The third date was magical. Using her connections at the museum she took us to the warehouse where the exhibits not on display are stored, and we held hands as we walked down long aisles of curios, while she pointed out her favourites. In the taxidermy section we kissed, observed by the glassy eyes of a thousand staring creatures. I liked her a lot in that moment. She had her flaws, to be sure, but they were just part of her easy charm.

Later that night we had our first fight.

We were post coital again, preparing for sleep. There are two varieties of pillow on my bed, some low loft ones made of hard latex, which I prefer for sleeping, and some puffy king-sized ones made from a honeycomb foam that I use when reading in bed. I tossed the big one on my side to the floor.

“Choose whichever you like” I said. “I prefer to sleep on the hard thin one because I’m a hard thin man.”
“Mmm…” she said. “I think I’ll take this big squishy one…”

She trailed off, leaving the thought uncompleted. I grinned and poked her in the stomach. “You’re not that squishy.”

She went to the bathroom, and when she returned started getting dressed with the abrupt motions of a woman scorned.

“Are you going?”
“Yes.”
“Because I called you ‘squishy’?”
“Yes.”

There were tears in her eyes. I pulled her back onto the bed, and held her.

“I’m sorry.” I said. “It was just a joke… and I didn’t actually call you ‘squishy’… I sorta said you weren’t squishy.”

I felt her begin to relent.

“I’m sorry” I said.
“I’m sorry” she said.

We held each other a while longer, before she began a monologue.

“You remember the other night we when were in bed, you were saying such nice things about how beautiful I was… I don’t think anyone has ever said something so nice to me, but the next day all I could think about was the other side of it, how you didn’t think I realised it, and it just really upset me, thinking that that must be the way I present myself.”

I deflected. “I’m sorry,” I said. “That was just pillow talk.” The look in her eyes said that hurt her even more.

The next morning I walked her to the station, and once she was gone I mulled the situation over. My instinct was to end it; to send her some text saying I’d had fun but it wasn’t going to work, and quietly block her number. But this was the new Groom. Love is about tolerance. The girl was probably a bit thin skinned for a vicious predator like me, and tears on the third date are never a good sign, but I did like her. She was sweet, and smart, and funny, and had a bit of a flair that set her apart from all the other fans of wine and adventures. And I had meant what I said: her nose was a bit big, and her hips a bit too good for child bearing, but her eyes were bright and clear and she was beautiful. “This is the one, Groom” I said to myself. “Love is a many faceted stone, made perfect by its flaws.” I can make this work.

But the Groom of the past had other ideas.

Later that day, she sent me a text:

“I’ve been thinking about you a lot.”
“I’ve been thinking about you too.”
“I read your blog…”

Not one to be provoked by a hanging ellipsis, I left her text unanswered. There was no need. I knew it was over.

Some hours later she got tired of waiting and confirmed it.

“I don’t think we should see each other anymore. I don’t want to wind up as just another one of your stories.”

Cohiba Siglo II, final third.

The Siglo II ends mostly with fairly clean tobacco and dry grass; there is nothing too revelatory about it, but it is smooth and delicious and a first-class smoke in every way. I’ve been smoking alongside Davidé, and have made him a gift of a Siglo II to smoke alongside me. His tastes and budget run more often to White Owls than Cohiba, and he is rightly blown away by it. He declares it the best cigar he’s ever smoked. I hope that most of the aged and limited Cohibas that are to come resoundingly defeat the Siglo II, but it sets a high bar that few cigars from lesser marques would clear. If you need a perfect sized cigar for a daily smoke, and you have the means, you can’t do much better than a Siglo II.

Cohiba Siglo II. Finished.

Cohiba Siglo II on the Cuban Cigar Website.

On Hiatus

A Harem of Dusky Beauties is on hiatus, at least in so far as the concept of a ‘hiatus’ holds meaning for a website that has updated sixteen times in three years.

It will return of course. Over the past half-decade, I have spent time in all the best houses in Havana except for one. The finest mansion of them all stands at the top of the hill, and every night as I pass I see the fine brown faces of twenty or so dusky beauties peering from its lighted windows. Each one is more beautiful than the last, but whenever I lock eyes with them, I sense a deep longing. They are hungry for the flame. The name etched in iron about that house’s gate? COHIBA.

For the time being though, they must wait. The road is long, the night is cold, and I have places to be and promises to keep. Fret not though, my friends. Before you know it, the bright summer sun shall find me reclined in a pleasure boat, idling on a millpond with one such beauty. “My love, won’t you take the till a moment?” I shall say. “I just need to light a little smoke.”

I encourage you to subscribe to the RSS feed.

Until we meet again, old chums, may all your smoke rings be round.

A.T. Groom
May 2019

Dusky Beauties is on hiatus.

Partagás Lusitanias Gran Reserva Cosecha 2007

When a stranger first learns that I am the proprietor of the world’s leading resource for collectors of Cuban cigars,* they quickly probe the economics of the thing.

“Do you get paid?” They ask.
“No, not really. A donation here and there. It doesn’t cover the cost.”
“So you must love it.”
“Well, cigars, sure, but there’s not too much love to be had in website administration.”
“Then why do you do it?”
“Well, mostly because it opens a lot of interesting doors.”

Today I am in Hong Kong, and the door that has opened leads to a private smoking lounge. I am a guest of the owner, with whom I had exchanged perhaps 150 words of email before he suggested I stop by next time I was in town. I should think of his humidor, he told me, as my humidor. He said he had “some good stuff.”

He wasn’t wrong. After a brief tour of the club, he opened the door to the walk-in, and told me to pick out anything I liked. The spread on offer contained fully two per cent of the world’s supply of original Behikes, along with a 1492 humidor, and most any other Cuban treasure one would care to name. Respectful of my host, I didn’t want to reach for either the top or bottom shelf, and finally settled on the Partagás Lusitanias Gran Reserva Cosecha 2007: a $150 cigar, but humble in this company.

Partagás Lusitanias Gran Reserva Cosecha 2007 unlit, with a Katana cigar scissor.

As you’d expect from one wearing the GR band, the cigar is perfectly constructed, and once a pair of hand-beaten Japanese cigar shears has circumcised the cap, the draw is a perfect Cuban. Lit, there are notes of medium tobacco of the highest quality, with yeasty bread up front and chocolate out the back. There is a little woodsmoke. Chocolate chip damper.

Another door opened in 2012 when Nic Wing first reached out to me. At the time he was working as a publicist for a cigar store in London, but on the side he was putting together a walking tour of the local “historical cigar sites.” He wondered if I wouldn’t mind putting a link to his tour somewhere on my website. Ever a jealous guardian of my SEO juice, I replied thanking him for his email, and asked after some mutual acquaintances, but ignored his request. We exchanged gossip for a few weeks, and he promised to send me some pictures of some fancy old bands, but never did, and eventually the thread dropped off.

I suppose he forgot the exchange, because in 2015 when he emailed me next, he reintroduced himself. By this time though, he was well known to me. I’ve always dreamed of being Hugh Hefner in 1957, the slick magazine publisher in the sharp suit, smoking cigarettes and drinking whisky over next month’s layout book. Nic evidentially shared that dream, and unlike me, he had done something to actualize it. He had started a magazine earlier that year, and it was doing well with the aficionado set. UK Cigar Scene was a good read, with interviews, reviews and gossip, and wasn’t swamped by puff pieces for the non-Cuban advertisers like every other cigar periodical. (My version would have included fiction, hard-hitting investigative journalism, and a centrefold, but you can’t have everything).

Nic wanted to do a piece about Cuban Cigar Website, and in service of that we exchanged emails regularly for a few months. I even suggested at one point that perhaps he’d like to reprint the odd Dusky Beauty in his magazine – a proposition he politely ignored.

Six months after my piece ran, UK Cigar Scene quietly stopped releasing new issues, and four months after that I learned that Nic had died, the loser in a short fight with the dragon cancer, at the age of 58.

We think of the internet as a gorgon that never forgets, and in a sense that’s true. If you know what you’re looking for, there are archive websites that still host the most bestial of my teenage slash fiction. In any practical sense though, the internet forgets you the minute you stop paying the bill. For Nic, the domain of his magazine now hosts a vape blog, no doubt bought cheap by a Chinese store looking to exploit the SEO juice of Nic’s hard-won link exchanges. His walking tour, which existed only behind a paywall that archive websites could not breach, is down, and presumably lost forever.

Partagás Lusitanias Gran Reserva Cosecha 2007 with one quarter smoked.

Most notable about the Lusitania is the smoke, heavy and blue, which curls from the lip. It’s a good cigar for blowing smoke rings. Halfway through, the tobacco has mellowed a little and coffee notes dominate the foretaste. The chocolate is still around, as is the yeast, but best of all is that there is something of the lactic note familiar from the very best of the Partagás Aniversarios in the back palate.

When Simon Chase first reached out to me in 2014, he gave a humble introduction: “I don’t know if my name means anything to you” he wrote, “but I’ve been kicking around the Havana trade for a few decades.”

Of course I knew him. Simon was the author of some of the best books on the minutiae of Cuban cigars, and countless column inches. He was the closest thing we ever had to an investigative journalist; when something took his interest, he would probe the archives held in the deepest vaults of the UK importers, and fly to Havana to interview the Cubans, and eventually produce a treatise, well written and funny, and usually presenting facts that differed vastly from the common mythos. Over the years we went back and forth many times, him reaching out to me to correct some error on the site, and I to him to ask a question, the answers to which he would seek out like a terrier, coming back with an essay as well written and researched as any of his columns.

Of all the ghosts of the internet, these strangers that appear in my inbox with a few words about a shared hobby, Simon was one of the ones that I was fondest of. He died this March, aged 74, after a long walk with the self-same dragon.

Simon won’t be soon forgotten. For one, he was published in enough different places that a great many sites must go under to erase his oeuvre, and for another because he had more than one book in print, and widely circulated in the cigar world; dusty tombs for some young smoker to find when cleaning out his grandfather’s library. What is lost though, is his brain, which held uncountable titbits of cigar ephemera, and his letters, of which I’m sure I hold only the smallest fraction.

Cigar smoking is a hobby that attracts the gourmand. I know of few aficionados for whom tobacco is their only vice, and many who are just as enthusiastic about wine, rum, whiskey, brandy, cocktails and obscure French liqueurs. We also like Papuan coffee, roasted just right, with only the finest Swiss chocolates on the corner of a saucer, and Iberian suckling pigs in truffle sauce, and slow roasted goose, and bone-in rib eye steaks, and day smoked brisket, and house-made sausage, and much other decadence besides. Best of all, we like it when all these things are served at once.

At any cigar function I am the youngest by twenty years, and the lightest by thirty kilograms, and yet even I have regularly thrown up blood from excess for most of my adult life. Nic and Simon are just the most famous of my internet friends; when the others succumb, will I even learn their fates? Or will the emails one day simply cease? There are plenty of old correspondents who I haven’t heard from in a while… perhaps already they are lost.

And of course, myself. There will sometime come the day when my own sent box sees its last new message. What then?

To the cigar aficionado of tomorrow I have one request – put a watch on my domains, and if they ever expire, pick them up. If you can’t restore the sites, put up something of your own, or a simple tribute, or even leave them blank. Just as long as my hard won Page Authority doesn’t wind up going to some vape store.

Partagás Lusitanias Gran Reserva Cosecha 2007 final third.

The Partagás Lusitanias Gran Reserva Cosecha 2007 ends beautifully, not bitter for one instant, with notes of leather and freshly turned earth. The logic with the Gran Reservas is that they are a regular production cigar in its very best expression; I’ve not smoked enough Lusitanias to really comment, but if they can be this good then I’ll be reaching for them more often in the future. One thing I can say that it is unmistakably a Partagás. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of the Anniversaries, which remain among the best cigars I’ve ever had in this life, but it isn’t too far away, and is a truckload better than a PSD4.

*I refer, of course, to www.cubancigarwebsite.com, not The Harem, which deserves the antithetic title.

Partagás Lusitanias Gran Reserva Cosecha 2007 nub.

Partagás  Lusitanias Gran Reserva Cosecha 2007 on the Cuban Cigar Website.