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.

Cohiba Espléndidos

I have found myself at a young people’s party – a twenty-second birthday, no less. The birthday boy is one of the young people from my office, and he was most emphatic that I come, and so here I am in his parent’s house, hovering awkwardly like a middle aged creep. The youth are different to how I remember them. The skirts are shorter, for one.

The biggest shock at this party is that people are smoking, and smoking indoors, a habit I thought disappeared with the generation before mine. I consider, for a moment, lighting up one of the cigars that is in my pocket, but dismiss the idea as far too obnoxious, until the birthday boy wanders over with a tin of Wee Willem cigarillos. “Hey man, you want a cigar?” he asks. “I know they’re probably not as your usual thing, I tried to get some real ones but I couldn’t find any.” On the spur of the moment I offer him a deal. “Son,” I say, proffering the contents of my jacket pocket. “This is a Cohiba Espléndidos. This is Saddam Hussein’s favourite cigar. It is as good a cigar as you can smoke in life.  I’ll give you one, on condition that I can smoke the other in your house. Some of your guests are going to complain. It’s going to stink up your parent’s curtains. You’re going to get into trouble. I don’t recommend you take this deal.”

“Fuck yeah” he replies. “That cigar looks dope.”

The large cigar begins exceptionally smoothly; very light tobacco with umami mushroom notes, and miso soup, alongside the usual dry straw. It has a tighter draw, which for me is perfect, but I suspect might be a bit much for these twenty-two year olds. They seem to be enjoying it though. By the time my cigar has burnt through the first inch, theirs has passed through half-a-dozen pairs of lips and been featured in as many selfies.

Growing up as a nerd at an all-boys-school, I was seventeen before I attended my first real party: a party with girls and booze and dope and no adult supervision. A party where nobody was playing video games, and nobody got picked up by their parents at 10:30. A party with strangers. Alistair, who went to a different all-boys-school than I and who I knew vaguely socially, invited me. “You’re a classy guy, right? I’ve been seeing this girl, Jessica, and I want to take her to a party this weekend, but she’ll only come if she can bring her friend, so I need you to take care of the friend.”

Jessica, as it turned out, was stunning, and her friend Lauren not much her lesser, but the real eye opener was the party. It was like I had stepped into a different world. At the parties I usually went to we drank Coke and ate pizza and occasionally played laser tag. There were girls there, but they were pimply creatures with braces. These girls were another beast entirely. They wore makeup, and showed cleavage. One of them had her older sister’s ID, and bought us a bottle of Vodka and raspberry soda to mix it with. I watched awestruck as Jessica, a cigarette hanging from her lips, cut up a bowl of pot, casually sprayed it with fly spray to “make it burn better,” and rolled it into joints. When we smoked them I didn’t really feel anything, but I giggled along with the others.

Most miraculous of all was that the girls seemed to like me. I was as unique a butterfly to them as they were to me; they were used to suburban thugs, and here was a polite guy who didn’t just clown around with his mates and was amused by things other than his own flatulence. They listened in awe to my tales of boyhood in China and Papua New Guinea. As much as they were women to me, to them I was a man.

I had an ‘official’ girlfriend at the time, whom I held hands on the train in the morning and occasionally made out with in the park after school, but after the party she seemed like an artefact of a bygone era. I broke up with her over the phone, and started getting on at a different carriage.

I started hanging out with my new crew almost every weekend, drinking and smoking and loitering in the way teenagers do. I started dating Lauren, more or less by default, but as the months went by I started to wonder if I hadn’t made the wrong choice. Jessica was not only hotter, but she was funnier, and maybe even a little smarter. It turned out that Alistair had misrepresented their relationship as well. He was obsessed with her, certainly, and wanted to date her, but she was very clear on the matter: she wasn’t interested in him.

Cohiba Espléndidos with about an inch smoked

By the midpoint of the Espléndidos the saltiness is gone, replaced by a sweet caramel vanilla bean. The grassiness remains. The tobacco is still extremely light – this cigar is approximately the same age as the Lanceros I smoked recently, and yet, somehow, this thicker cigar has even more delicate a flavour profile. The birthday boy’s cigar seems to have mainly been commandeered by one of the female guests, who is standing on the edge of the dancefloor, sipping from it blissfully. I don’t ask her for her tasting notes. One of the dancers glares at her, and makes a big show of fanning the smoke away. To another guest I observe that the end of the cigar looks very dry – usually when a cigar is passed around a party like this it ends up as a chewed up, soggy mess. “Well, a lot of the people here have very well practiced joint etiquette.”

Lauren’s chief appeal was in her glorious mane of strawberry blonde hair, so when, six months into our relationship, she dyed it the awful matt black of moody teenagers, I took the opportunity and broke up with her. For a time I was cast out of the group. Lauren and Jessica were best friends, and inseparable, but then I made my big play. I asked Jessica to come to the school formal with me. It was two months hence: a night of dinner and dancing. My first tuxedo. I would pay for her ticket and promised her a limo and a corsage. The after-party was to be a warehouse rave with unlimited alcohol. She said yes, and Lauren, the previous presumptive holder of my plus one, was furious. The girls stopped talking, and with Alastair out of the picture thanks to his rebuffed affections, Jessica and I became thick as thieves. My plan was working perfectly. At the after party, I would make her mine.

In retrospect I should have made a move on her in those two months we were best friends. She was clearly open to it. Once, when we were alone in her room she asked me why I had chosen Lauren over her the night we’d first met, and when I explained that Alistair had misled me about their relationship she laughed. “You could have had any girl at that party, you know? We were all so into you.” I should have kissed her right then, but fool that I was I stuck to my plan. I would make my big move at the formal after party. It was going to be perfect.

I thought I should introduce Jessica to some of my school friends before the big event, so the week before the formal I took her to a party of my own. It was wilder than most of our affairs – Simon Treehorn was the host, and his parents mostly left us alone in the rumpus room out back. A few people even snuck in beers. I was very clear to my friends before the event that this girl was mine, and I could see by their expressions when she walked in in her tight jeans and a low cut tank that they were impressed. For most of the night I sat with her on the couch. Most of the action at the party was centred around the Nintendo or the pool table, and the couch was off to the side, a bit above those childish pursuits. At some point I went to the bathroom, and when I came back Owen Donoghue had taken my spot, and was chatting to her. I made a show of nonchalantly watching the Nintendo game, while keeping a careful eye on the couch, where they seemed to be getting on awfully well. Within an hour they were making-out. As I watched them, my fists balled in impotent rage, I realised my mistake. I had introduced a girl who liked me to a bunch of guys who were exactly the same as I was.

She came to the formal wearing my corsage, but she was really Owen’s date. She was seated next to me for dinner, but never stopped making eyes at him. I made a point of taking her to dance, but as soon as a slow song came on he wandered over. “Mind if I cut in.” At the after party I watched in misery as they made-out and dry-humped in the corner, somehow not able to look away.

There are two things you have to know in life if you want to get the girl: never hesitate and never listen to your friends when they tell you to back off.

Cohiba Espléndidos final third

As you’d expect from a cigar this size, the Espléndidos gets earthy toward the end, with notes of ash and wildfire, and medium-strong tobacco. There is a mild sting from the tar, but it’s nothing a sip of beer can’t placate. Burn has been razor sharp the entire way. I observe the discarded nub of the other cigar in an ashtray, consumed to just above the band. Personally, I like to take my cigars until I burn my fingers, but five and a half inches is not a bad effort for a bunch of novice smokers.

If I have any minor criticism of this cigar, it’s that it was almost too smooth: there was a bit of a lack of flavour. Compared against the Lanceros, both are elegant, delicious cigars, but the Lanceros has a touch more complexity, and I’d take one of those over the Espy for that reason. Still a great cigar though.

Cohiba Espléndidos nub

Cohiba Espléndidos on the Cuban Cigar Website

Cohiba Lanceros

The Cohiba Lanceros. If you ask the head of Habanos SA what the flagship Cuban cigar is, he will probably tell you the BHK56, or maybe the Siglo VI; to me it will always be the Cohiba Lanceros. The legend goes that in 1963, Fidel Castro observed one of his bodyguards smoking a long, thin, elegant cigar (that the bodyguards of one of the most assassination liable people on earth got to lounge around smoking cigars in full view of their boss gives you a good image of how things went in early ‘60s Cuba). Intrigued by the shape he asked what it was, and the man told him it was one of his friend Eduardo’s custom rolls, and offered him one. Castro smoked it, loved it, and had Eduardo summoned and set up in El Laguito, a repossessed mansion in the suburbs, to roll the personal cigars of El Presidente. Eventually the cigars were named Cohiba, and were made available to well-connected party men, and given out as diplomatic gifts. In the 70s they were very occasionally sold to tourists on Cubana flights and, in 1984, they went on sale to the general public (Castro had quit smoking the year before, leading to a surplus in high end tobacco).

Cohiba Lanceros unlit

With a kiss from a jet lighter the cigar smoking begins. The first flavours are very crisp and light, with lactic, creamy notes and the tang of fresh cut grass. In the aftertaste there is an unmistakable honey sweetness. The tobacco is very light in the first few puffs, but a centimetre or so it thickens to medium. This particular Lanceros is from 2008. The ash is dirty grey, and doesn’t hold very well, flaking off with regularity. The draw and burn are perfect.

These days, I am well enough connected in the international community of cigar aficionados that I could probably get a tour of El Laguito if I were ever in Havana, but in 2006 it was not so. Back then, I was a cigar neophyte. I had smoked precisely one Cohiba, which was almost certainly a fake (a friend knew I had an interest in cigars, and brought me back a Cohiba from Mexico [never a good sign]. I smoked it in a storm water drain where I used to hang out sometimes [that’s another story]. As I recall it burned down the core the whole way – never having encountered this before, I didn’t know to fix it [slight touch of flame around the edge] and, assuming it was some kind of high end smokeless tobacco, let it go, noting that the flavour was “very smooth”). Somehow, however, I had heard of the old mansion, and while I was in Cuba I made a personal point of visiting.

It took a while to get the taxi driver to figure out where I wanted to go, but after I had tried the name in several different pronunciations, tried “Cohiba,” and “bueno tobacco fábrica,” and pulled out my guidebook for a map, we eventually had meeting of the minds. “Ah, El Laguito,” he cried delightedly. “La fábrica de tobacco Cohiba! Bueno!” and off we went.

Today El Laguito is a bit tarted up, with big Cohiba logos on the outside, but in 2006 it was a nondescript mansion in a leafy neighbourhood, with no indication at all that industry was taking place inside. A high fence surrounded it, and the only point of entry seemed to be via a ramshackle corrugated iron annex. Entering we found a group of women sitting around chatting. They were not accustomed to dealing with random gringo walk-ins, and after a bit of “bueno tobacco fábrica tour,they found someone with a little English. The newcomer told us that this was a factory, and to visit we would need permission from Tabacuba, the tobacco ministry. She drew us a map. As we walked out I remarked to my friend that we were the dumbest bastards in the world. It was the perfect opportunity to offer a 20CUC note and ask dumbly “¿permiso?”

Cohiba Lanceros with about two inches burnt

At the midpoint the Lanceros has mellowed, returning to very light. The predominant flavours are grass and straw, with a hint of the barnyard. In the aftertaste there are sweet fruit elements, a touch of citrus and raisins. The lactic cream has more or less vanished.

The Tabacuba office marked on the map was a few kilometres away, close to central Havana, but it was a nice day so we decided to walk it, taking in the shady streets of colonial mansions and embassies that surround El Laguito. We reached the office around 2:30pm, when the after lunch slump was definitely in effect. There was nobody in reception, but after ringing a bell we finally roused a security guide, who eventually conjured up an English speaker, who was very bemused that we might want to visit the legendary factory. “This is just a factory” he told us. “Not for tourists.” With a suspicious glare he lowered his voice. “You are journalists?” Knowing that journalists are not always looked upon kindly in Cuba, I assured him that we weren’t. Eventually he told us that he didn’t see an issue, but also that he couldn’t give us the permit here, and instead wrote down the name of a man to see at the Tabacuba office in Old Havana. He drew us a map.

The next office was closed by the time we got there (about 4:30pm), and I was preoccupied for the next few days with other tourist jaunts, but eventually returned, and presented the girl at the desk with the name of the man the clerk had written down for me. I waited for 30 minutes or so in a dingy waiting room, before eventually being ushered into a messy office. The man was very suspicious, asking me first if I was a journalist, and then listing off the names of publications he thought I might write for. After I refuted all of them he tried a different tact, and began listing tobacco companies. When that line of enquiry was exhausted he asked for my passport, and thoughtfully inspected every page, rubbing each stamp and visa between his thumb and forefinger, as if trying to establish whether or not my Japanese entry permit from two years earlier was a forgery.

Finally satisfied, he took my passport with him, and disappeared into another room for thirty minutes or so. From my seat my eyes searched around the room for the one-way mirror or concealed camera, sure I was being observed by the Cuban Secret Police. Eventually the bureaucrat returned, and presented me a long document in Spanish, with an official red stamp on it. “Your permission,” he told me. “You got to El Laguito on this date,” indicating a date about a month hence. “No, no” I said in dismay. “I’m leaving Cuba at the end of the week.” His patience for me exhausted, he shook his head. “This date is not negotiable.”

And so I left, and left Cuba, having never got further into El Laguito than the guardhouse. I did learn a lesson, however, one which would serve me well during my China years, and further travels: when dealing with a second world bureaucracy, as soon as things start to go against you: bribe everybody.

Cohiba Lanceros final third

As the Cohiba Lanceros reaches its final third it gets milder still, just the lightest of tobacco flavour, over a subtle coffee, leather, and a hint of new tennis balls. It is only once I have smoked past the band that it gets a little punchy, the ash causing me to salivate. I have brought down a bottle of the high end Bundaberg rum, but forgot to bring a glass, so haven’t touched it until now. The tar on my palate is unpleasant enough that I swig from the bottle to cut it. Like all Bundy it has a bit of a paint thinner taste to it, but it cuts the tar nicely.

Anyway, the Cohiba Lanceros is a fantastic, elegant and subtle cigar, that brings to mind a more civilized age. Smoke more Cohiba Lanceros.

Cohiba Lanceros nub

Cohiba Lanceros on the Cuban Cigar Website

Cohiba Piramides Extra

With the winter chill long descended, but my self-imposed obligation to this column not quite expended, I have been reduced to this: it is Tuesday night and I am hunkered in my kitchen. The ashtray rests on the cooktop so that the range hood might extract as much smoke as possible. I am clothed entirely in silk because of a misguided idea I have that it doesn’t take on the smell of smoke (the reason that it is the traditional material of smoking jackets). A smoke blanket hangs across the doorway in the vain hope that the odour will be isolated to just this room. Upstairs my bed is stripped in a vain effort to preserve the sheets. In truth, it’s a very comfortable way to enjoy a cigar, but the aftermath will not be pretty. This is the last dusky beauty I will smoke this season.

For this finale I have selected a Cohiba Piramides Extra from the original release in 2012. All cigars vary from year to year, but generally the first release is about as good as they get. Some first releases are legendary (the 2003 Siglo VI being the most famous example), while others are only great in comparison to the depths their descendants sink (Maduro 5 line, BHKs). I guess Cuba just tries a little bit harder in the first year.

Cohiba Piramides Extra unlit

At first light the cigar is toasty, with a strong, dry grass aftertaste. The tobacco is a light to medium. In true Cohiba style the smoke is incredibly smooth and rich. It tastes like class. My soft spot for Cohiba is well known; I don’t have the words to articulate exactly what it is that makes them special, but I’d like to think that words aren’t necessary. Smoke a Cohiba, you’ll see. Even the worst of them have a quality that is self-evident, that is beyond language.

Of my various sojourns abroad, my time in Japan bore a marked difference to my time in China. In China, my friends were rich as hell and, all earning western salaries in a country where you can feed a family of four for less than the cost of an ice-cream in Australia, we lived like kings, never giving the first thought to vile money. In Japan my friends were all broke. They were English teachers in the main, all living paycheque to paycheque, and those paycheques came monthly. It was the last Saturday of the month, and so I found myself alone on a Saturday night. My own existence was that of a hermit, prowling a huge apartment above a strip club by day, talking to myself. There was no way I was staying in on a Saturday night.

Japan is the kind of country where it is easy to make friends. In Australia strangers are predators: a man sitting alone in a park drinking a beer is a maniac to be shunned and avoided. In Japan the attitude is very different: he is a brother, a fellow imbiber, to be embraced and incorporated into your evening. So it was that I headed to Triangle Park, an isosceles of concrete in the heart of Osaka’s America-town. The ‘park’ sits in the middle of the nightlife district and there is a convenience store across the road that sells canned cocktails for $1, and so it naturally becomes a central congregation point for the aimless youth. If nothing else I could at least check out some girls in short skirts.

I was halfway through my fourth Cocktail Partner when I heard my name being called. It was a group of locals who evidentially knew me from some past debauchery or other. To be honest, I recalled them only barely (if at all), but who was I to quibble? We shared a drink and a cigarette, and they invited me to join them in a nearby club where a DJ they liked was playing.

The club was loud and warm, a maelstrom of writhing bodies. The DJ was good, but the VJ, who ran clips from films and psychedelic patterns in time with the music on large screens around the dance floor, was better. I soon lost my friends, and then myself, to the music; writhing in the dark, enjoying the sound and light, the heat, the smell and the viscera of other bodies.

Over time I became conscious of one particular body that had entered and remained in my close orbit, my pelvis contacting her warm rump at the zenith of my thrusts, the scent of her shampoo in my nostrils. Gradually, my incidental contact became deliberate: my caresses more lingering. With every contact she gave the palpable feeling of reciprocation; she would follow my movements, and embrace them, move into me as I moved into her. Finally I removed the subterfuge, and placed my hands around her waist, and she ground herself against me, tracing my erection with her arse.

I needed to piss, but I held it until things reached crisis point, and I whispered one of my three Japanese phrases in her ear: “chotto matte (one moment).” When I returned she wasn’t where I’d left her, and I looked around, panicked: I knew her only by touch, by smell: I hadn’t seen her face. Moments later though she was there, and hand in hand we moved to the dark recesses at the edge of the floor, and kissed passionately in the French style. Soon the moment felt right, and I deployed the second of my Japanese phrases, “ikimashouka (let’s go).”

Outside it was pouring rain, and my $2 plastic umbrella was in no way adequate to shelter two people for the ten or so block walk back to my apartment. I tried “eigo ga hanasemasuka,” my final phrase, but was met with a blank shaking of the head. I showed her my ID card with my address, attempting to indicate that it wasn’t far, but Japanese addresses don’t make any sense to any body, and it didn’t help my cause. Eventually I hailed a cab. We passed the five minute drive in awkward silence. Human affection was the only tongue we had in common, and the back seat of a Japanese cab is no place for that.

She looked very suspicious when we pulled up outside my building (and rightly so, as to all external indications it contained nothing but hostess bars and massage parlours), but entered nonetheless, and soon we were canoodling on my bed. I began to tug at her shirt, and she stopped me to unleash a great torrent of Japanese. I responded with a look of incomprehension, and throwing “chotto matte” back at me she began to rummage in her bag, eventually producing a pocket translator. She typed away on it for ages, and eventually handed it over with a paragraph of incomprehensible English word salad on the screen. I laughed and shook my head, and accepting defeat she pointed at the light. “No.” This I understood.

We made love in the dark, with her whimpering in the classic Japanese porno style. We slept curled up together, the language of affection knowing no culture. In the morning I walked her to the train station, to the Sakai line, a city to the south of Osaka. I gave her my phone to put her number in, and there I finally learnt her name: Takako. Before she left she managed to ask my age, and told me her own: she was twenty one, four years younger than I was. She had her friend text me later that day, and for a week or so we messaged back and forth. She told me she was learning English for me. Eventually, though, it petered out, and I never saw her again. Ours was a relationship that could not be sustained through texts.

Cohiba Piramides Extra, two thirds remaining, with Bulleit Bourbon

Mid-way through the cigar is creamy, the smoke luscious. The grassy flavour is still dominant, although a bit earthier than it was, more cut lawn than dry hay. Behind it there is the hearty aroma of old saddles. The strength has thickened a little, trending towards medium.  The class remains.

Like all good stories, Takako’s has a sequel. It was eight years later and 7,000km away, and I was at the time of my life where I had a wedding every weekend – in fact, on this particular weekend I had two. The first was in a garden in the afternoon, where a high school chum was marrying a Japanese girl. It was a quiet affair for family and intimates, and there wasn’t a reception per se, but there were drinks and canapés in the garden afterward. After those the bridal party were going out to dinner, but later in the evening the younger folks were invited to meet at their hotel suite for further libations. I have always lived by a very simple motto: “when you say ‘no’ to champagne you say ‘no’ to life,” and next to the rose bushes the bubbly stuff was flowed freely. By the time I headed to the second wedding of the day, my sails were full, and cut toward the breeze.

The second wedding of the day was a Russian affair: in truth, it was a reception, not a wedding. The wedding had been that afternoon in an Orthodox church somewhere, and had involved, someone told me, “a lot of great hats.” The event I arrived at was in a Russian reception centre in the eastern suburbs. Every table was laden with plates of cured meats and smoked fishes and, in addition to both colours of wine, each had its own bottle of vodka embedded in a block of ice. I wasn’t too hungry – I was filled with bubbles and hors d’oeuvres – but I was certainly in the mood to drink, and there were plenty willing to share a vodka shot with me. Before long I was on the dance floor bewitching a group of gorgeous Russian girls with my Michael Jacksonesque kicks and spins. We had not quite gotten to the hora when the bridegroom came over and told me I had to leave: apparently the girls fell under the jurisdiction of a table of Ukrainian mobsters, and their tolerance for my antics was quickly diminishing.

By the time I arrived at the hotel I felt great: I had enough drinks under my belt to fell a man twice my size, but somehow it was working for me. Perhaps it was all the smoked fish. The suite was large, and from the little entrance hall I had a good view of both rooms. In the lounge room my school friends sprawled languidly, their ties undone, drinking whiskey and telling jokes. In the bedroom eight Japanese girls in party frocks sat on a row on the end of the bed, facing an empty chair. I stuck my head into the lounge room for just long enough for my friends to smile welcomingly and for me to call them “homos” before I headed for the bedroom chair.

The girls were happy to see me and giggled at my jokes, and for a while I conducted it like a seminar, taking questions from the panel. Before too long the bride wanted her seat back and I found myself locked in conversation with one girl in particular. Her name was Takae, which sounds a lot like the Japanese word for “expensive,” and we instantly had a rapport. We talked for hours, and I left that night with her number in my phone. Over the next few months we become a romantic couple; there was something familiar in the way she whimpered when we made love, but I just put in down to my own cultural biases. “All Japanese girls are the same,” I thought to myself.

About a month into our relationship we got to the subject of family and where she was from, and it emerged that she grew up in Sakai, a city just south of Osaka. She had one sister, four years younger than herself. I didn’t instantly recognise the name when she told me. “Takako” I said, mulling it over. “I think I knew somebody called that.” I turned red when I put it together. “Does she speak English as well as you do?” I asked. “Yes,” came the response. “She was very lazy in high school and didn’t learn it at all, but when she was twenty one she really liked a western guy and she learnt it for him. You will probably meet her. She’s coming to stay with me in a month.”

We broke up shortly thereafter.

Cohiba Piramides Extra final third

In the final third I begin to get a serious head spin. The cigar is full and tangy, and a little sour on the back pallet. There is a slight bitterness. I have been drinking, of course: first a whiskey sour, then a daiquiri, perhaps 100ml of brown spirits in all, but that in no way accounts for how woozy I feel. This cigar has some punch.

Like all good cigars, I take it till I burn my fingers. The Cohiba Piramides Extra. Delightful.

See you next year.

Cohiba Piramides Extra nub

Cohiba Piramides Extra on the Cuban Cigar Website

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008

Oft alluded to but never discussed in depth in this column is that Cohiba, the flagship Cuban brand which grew from Castro’s custom rolls to diplomatic gifts, and finally to the powerhouse money spinner of the Cuban cigar industry that it is today, is my favourite brand. I’ll go into its history in more depth when I do a complete vertical of it in a future season of A Harem of Dusky Beauties (slated for 2018), but for the moment it will suffice to say that there are two schools of thought as far as Cohiba goes: that they’re a cut above everything else Cuba makes, and that they are overpriced. As usual, there’s a little of truth in both; Cohiba leaves go through an extra fermentation and are generally of a higher quality than those used in non-Cohiba cigars, and for this you pay at least a 30% premium. The thrifty aficionado willing to hunt for specific box codes, willing to age cigars, willing to snap up things when they’re hot, can easily get a better cigar than a standard Cohiba for a fraction of the cost. For the amateur smoker who wants a special cigar without too much messing around? Buy a Cohiba.

There have been some legendary limited edition cigars out of El Laguito – 2003’s Double Corona is amazing, and the 2006 Pirámides is no slouch – but one I’ve never really felt lived up the hype is the 2004 Sublime. It’s nice, but it’s a bit rough around the edges. The word on the street is that they have passed their prime, but even a couple of years ago it never had for me the elegance or the balance of the DC. Today’s cigar, 2008’s Colección Habanos Sublimes Extra, is essentially the Sublime but 20mm longer.

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008 unlit

The first three puffs are hot and ashy, and already I begin to frame the tone of this article: “this aint so special” I think “maybe I’ll say that it’s too young.” After the fourth puff I put it down and say “oh wow” out loud. The smoke is intensely delicate and light, and crisp on the palette like citrus foam in a restaurant that specialises in molecular gastronomy. The flavours are lightly grassy, herbal on the back palette.

It’s a hard decision, whether or not to pair a drink with a smoke like this, as the last thing I would want is for the cigar’s delicate flavours to be drowned out by strong liquor, but seeing as I brought it down, allow me a moment on Gran Marnier Cuvee du Cent Cinquantenaire. It took about three seconds of exposure to one of the ads for this product in a magazine before I was actively seeking it out; the most effective I remember an advertisement working on me. It featured the bottle on a plain blue background with the text “hard to find, impossible to pronounce, and prohibitively expensive… and while we’re being honest, it’s our finest work.” It was a challenge. Two years and two hundred dollars later I had a bottle of Cuvee du Cent Cinquantenaire in hand, and I invited a few friends over for a tasting. Also just in was a box of the then recently released Cohiba BHK 56, and I billed the evening as one of unrivalled epicurean delights. The first arrivals nursed a few craft beers while we waited for some late comers, and as people began to filter in, one of the party produced some Mamont Vodka, a bottle shaped like a woolly mammoth tusk, allegedly the best thing to come out of Russia. He suggested that we all enjoy a double shot of it with ice and a touch of lime while we waited for the final stragglers, and he met with no objections, either to the first or the second, or for that matter the third rounds. By the time all were present and accounted for and we started on the cigars and liqueur we were inebriated far past the point of appreciation. The evening ended at a karaoke bar. More than one of us threw up. In the morning I found a five inch BHK 56 stub sitting on a fence post. It was a crime against good leaf.

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008, two thirds left, with a bottle of Gran Marnier Cuvee du Cent Cinquantenaire

By about the halfway mark the cigar has thickened up considerably, medium tobacco, still strongly grassy with the occasional hint of coffee and cocoa. I take my first sip of the Gran Marnier and it is heavenly, freshly juiced, delicious tropical oranges that change on the tongue into aniseed and rich, ripe stone fruits. It combines with the cigar in the aftertaste, leaving a thick, smoky toffee. It’s a strong flavour and on its own can be cloying, but complements the cigar very well, with the cigar becoming sweeter and more floral, and the liqueur taking on rich, smoky notes. It’s much too expensive and difficult to find to waste on any old dreck, but it’s the best complementary spirit I know for cigars, each enhancing the other.

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008 final third

The cigar grows a little bitter in the end, slightly rough with some tar, but is still extremely smooth for a smoke of this size. The final notes are woody, with burnt toast and some leather. It’s an excellent cigar in every respect, edging out the Trinidad by a nose in the upper echelon of the Colección Habanos, but it’s not transcendental: I’ve had better Cohibas than this in aged Lanceros, the Siglo VI Gran Reserva, and a few of the ELs. As always, there are better cigars available for the dollars these commands, but if you have the means, the Cohiba Sublimes Extra is a fantastic way to spend three hours.

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008 nub

Cohiba Sublimes Extra Colección Habanos 2008 on the Cuban Cigar Website