Colección Habanos Roundup

This list is the cigars from the first ten years of the Colección Habanos series, ranked in order from best to worst. It may be updated at some stage to include cigars released post-2011, but at the moment I deem them to be too young.

  1. Montecristo Maravillas No. 1 (2005) – so good I smoked it twice, with identical results.
  2. Cohiba Sublimes Extra (2008)
  3. Trinidad Torre Iznaga (2006)
  4. Romeo y Julieta Fabulosos No. 6 (2004)
  5. Bolívar Gran Belicoso (2010)
  6. Partagás Serie C No. 1 (2002)
  7. Hoyo de Monterrey Extravaganza (2003)
  8. San Cristobal de Habana O’Reilly (2009)
  9. H. Upmann Magnum Especiales (2007)
  10. Cuaba Salomones (2001)

Montecristo Maravillas No. 1 Colección Habanos 2005 (redux)

Winter is coming, and it’s coming quickly. The air has a chill to it, and still, sunny days like today are getting rarer and rarer. I must make smoke while the sun shines, and so I’ve come to a local park for the final entry in my retrospective of the Colección Habanos, the Montecristo Maravillas No. 1, a rare revisit of a dusky beauty. The last time I smoked this cigar – around eighteen months ago – I deemed it phenomenal, the best Montecristo cigar that I had ever had the pleasure of smoking. Now, with the Colección at my back, I’m smoking it again to see how it compares to its immediate peers. Will it live up to the memory? Almost certainly not.

Montecristo Maravillas No. 1 Colección Habanos 2005 unlit

The Maravillas No. 1 resists the soft flame of my bic lighter* for a while, but eventually succumbs. The first puffs are fantastic, a wonderful rich coffee cream. The ash is pale, the aftertaste rawhide leather and roasted coffee beans. It is rich, yet balanced. I tend to think of elegant cigars as lightly flavoured, with a mild tobacco taste that reveals the subtleties of the leaf, but this cigar is full bodied, with a complex profile that is rich and dense, and oh so very elegant.

A brief peek behind the curtain: when these articles go to print they appear as a stream of consciousness, as if written sentence for sentence during the smoking of a cigar. In some cases I do indeed write the entire article with the cigar clenched between my teeth, but in others I write only a few sentences of tasting notes during the smoking, and put in the filler later. Sometimes, for the purpose of general interest, a slight fiction is necessary, the chief example of which occurred in my last review of the Montecristo Maravillas No. 1. I claimed, at the time, that I was pairing the cigar with a Hahn Millennium Ale: in fact, I had drunken the Hahn a few days earlier at a New Year’s Day function, but I still had the bottle, and I deemed it too rare and interesting a brew to not mention on The Harem. The beer I was actually drinking was the beer on which the Hahn was allegedly based (and which formed the springboard for the meat of that review), a Chimay Red. In an endeavour to recreate that sublime experience, I am pairing this cigar also with a Chimay Red. It’s about as good a beer as I can imagine having with a cigar: rich but mild, with a creamy, coffee sort of taste, none of the heavy hops of many boutique beers.

Montecristo Maravillas No. 1 Colección Habanos 2005 an inch or so gone

Around a third of the way burned and the cigar is now mild, the tobacco taste mellowed out, true coffee and cream, and a dash of powdered chocolate. I’m not sure how much of this is in my head, how much my seasoned cigar aficionado brain has learned to block out the taste of tobacco and focus only on the subtler flavours of a cigar, but to me the flavour here is indistinguishable from that of a cappuccino.

It may be good, but Chimay is an expensive beer. In Australia a single bottle of beer in a liquor store will set you back generally between $3 and $4. The two Chimay Reds I bought for this review were $7.50 each. Its brother, the Chimay Blue, is even more expensive. A few months ago I walked into a high end watering hole, glanced at the bottles on display behind the bar, and casually ordered a Chimay Blue, not looking at the price list or even thinking twice about it. “That’ll be eighteen thanks mate” said the bartender. I double checked against the menu, and he wasn’t joking or mistaken. Eighteen dollars for a beer! Cocktail prices!

Montecristo Maravillas No. 1 Colección Habanos 2005 two thirds smoked

In the final couple of inches the cigar develops a bite, a herbal, tang that isn’t tar and isn’t bitter, no longer cappuccino, but espresso, no longer light, sweet, chocolate powder but instead 95% cocoa, the proper stuff. The sun sets early. It’s winter. I smoke on, the sole occupant of the dark park, lit by the light from my laptop screen. Just as I take the final few puffs an old friend joins me. He had severe asthma as a child, was in and out of hospital for much of his early life, and as a result has a notoriously weak sense of smell, which makes his first words very notable: “Man, I could smell your cigar from a block away” he says. “Smells fantastic.”

What it comes down to is this: the Montecristo Maravillas No. 1 is not a transcendentally good cigar. It’s not going to change the way you think about cigars. It’s not as good as the Partagás 150 or the Partagás 155. I’ve never had one, but I doubt it’s as good as the 1492 humidor cigars. That said, it is at the very apex of non-transcendentally good cigars: it’s better than a Cohiba Gran Reserva, it’s better than every EL I’ve ever had, and it’s a head and shoulders above the rest of the Colección Habanos, and if anything the example I smoked today was better than the one I had last year. If you want to spend $100 on a cigar then this is the one you should buy.

Montecristo Maravillas No. 1 Colección Habanos 2005 nub

*Regular readers might recall my review of the Montecristo Millennium Jar Robusto, whose dreadful burn I lamented as having exhausted two lighters. That represented the end of my gas supply for my large collection of high quality jet lighters – over a year has passed, and it has yet to be replenished, with every dusky beauty since then set ablaze by either a matchstick or a bic lighter.

Montecristo Maravillas No. 1 Colección Habanos 2005 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Bolívar Gran Belicoso Colección Habanos 2010

I’ve a lot of time for Bolívar, and no cigar more than their biggest seller, the Belicosos Finos – so much so, that with the possible exception of the Monte 4, you’d struggle to find a cigar I’ve been through more of. Today, seated on the grass in a local park on a mild autumn afternoon, I’m smoking 2010’s Bolívar Gran Belicoso, which although a little thicker and a lot longer, is presumably essentially just a Belicosos Finos in a fancy box.

Bolívar Gran Belicoso Colección Habanos 2010 unlit

From the outset the Gran Belicoso is medium strength, tending toward full, with a nice toasted tobacco flavour and strong grassy notes. Most of the Colección Habanos begin very light and in a cigar this length this kind of strength up front is bit of a worry, as the build-up of tar throughout will probably make the end very bitter. The ash is very dark, which indicates a lot of unburned oil left in the smoke, and is usually a sign of insufficient ageing. I noticed the same dark ash in the San Cristobal; it’s a problem with doing a retrospective of a series like this: the Colección Habanos are, as the name suggests, collector’s cigars, and aren’t really intended to be smoked at only four years of age. Nonetheless, at this stage the Gran Belicoso is very pleasant.

As I’ve described before, I lived for a time in an apartment in Japan that was built for the building manager, the only apartment in a building of hostess clubs and massage parlours. My kitchen wall housed the control panels for the elevator, the water tanks, and the fire control board, and I had full and unrestricted access to the plant and machine rooms. From time to time a drunken Japanese salary man would pick up the emergency phone in the elevator and it would ring in my kitchen, where I would berate them in English. Once or twice I went downstairs and rescued a repeat caller.

The summer in Osaka is disgusting: three unrelenting months of a constant 35ºC and 100% humidity, with no relief at night. Around midnight one night I was sitting in my stifling apartment with more than one cocktail inside of me when I decided that it was time to act. I headed to Don Quijote, a department store not 100m from my house that was open all night, or as near as makes no difference, and sold absolutely everything, from food to clothes to construction materials. I purchased myself a 4m x 3m tarp, a bag of cable ties, and a garden hose: all the materials required for a rooftop swimming pool.

I laid the pool out on my roof, cable tying the tarp to the rails in such a way that, when filled with water, the sides would be firm from the tension. The end result was about nine feet by five, and eighteen inches deep. As it filled from the tap that protruded from the wall for no obvious reason I went downstairs and searched through my contacts for a structural engineer that might still be up, finding Woody, and old school chum and architect.
“Woody” I asked “would you think there’d be any issues with putting a few ton of water on the roof of a concrete Japanese apartment building… y’know, structurally?”
“Yes” came the answer “almost definitely.”

Bolívar Gran Belicoso Colección Habanos 2010 two thirds remain

Midway through the cigar is full bodied, a really good toasted tobacco over the tang of fresh cut grass with a rich creamy back and a lot of coffee. It’s hard to call a cigar like this elegant – elegance is a subtlety of flavour, a nuanced delicacy – but this is full and rich and balanced and pleasant; every positive adjective you care to come up with except elegant.

The next morning I was awaked about eleven to the sound of a klaxon in my kitchen, an alarm going off on a panel whose purpose I was unaware of at the time (I later found out that it was the control board for the building’s water system, the alarm indicating a low level in the tank on the roof that maintained the building’s water pressure). I called my landlord and in time a Japanese man in his late sixties and a maintenance worker’s jumpsuit arrived. He spoke a little English, and introduced himself as Takeshi. He inspected the panel and flipped the switch that silenced the alarm, before asking me to take him up to the roof. As we exited through my bedroom door onto the roof proper he paused, having met an unexpected obstacle: a substantial tarp swimming pool, sparkling blue and inviting in the summer sun, lay between him and the ladder to the water tank. He turned to me gravely: “may I enter your pool?” I consented, and watched him as he took off his shoes, rolled up his trousers, and waded through my ridiculous construction.

When he returned Takeshi explained to me in broken English that the tank was empty, but he couldn’t find any reason why, and would have to send for some water specialists. I nodded seriously and showed him out, but as soon as he was gone I rushed back to my roof: Takeshi might not know why the tank was empty, but I sure did, and I only had a few hours to hide the evidence of my crime. I took a knife and cut through the cable ties, the sides of the pool collapsing and spilling two thousand litres of water out onto the roof in a wave that lapped against my bedroom door and washed the dust out of the elevator machine room. A whirlpool formed around the only drain, not moving nearly fast enough for the volume of water, until with a ‘whoosh’ a distant sluice gate opened. I heard feminie screams from the street below, and stuck my head over the side to see what was up: water was pouring out of some emergency runoff into the street, and a passing group of school girls had been soaked. I looked back to the drain. It was really moving now.

A few days later I rebuilt the pool on a slightly smaller scale, filling it this time over a number of nights. I bought a black tarp to use as a cover, which served the dual purpose of keeping the bird shit and other muck out of it, and heating the water during the day, and I rigged up an elaborate siphon filtration/water replacement system to keep it mildly clean. From the pool I had a view into a host club, a type of Japanese bar where women enjoy the company of hosts, men with bleached blonde bouffant hairdos and pointy shoes, who are one part James Dean and three parts Liza Minnelli, and laugh at their jokes and tell them they’re beautiful for as long as they keep the champagne flowing. Night after night I would sit in my pool relaxing with a cigar at the end of a long day, and watch as these tight-trousered lotharios threw up on the balcony between drinks, and occasionally woke up a customer who had passed out in the elevator lobby and returned her to her bar tab. The cigar I was enjoying? Invariably a Bolivar Belicosos Finos.

Bolívar Gran Belicoso Colección Habanos 2010 final quarter

The end of the Gran Belicoso is much lighter than expected, with almost no tar. Beneath the heavy, toasted tobacco there is a distinct sweet aniseed, and a strongly herbal aftertaste. This is a no nonsense cigar, perhaps not as elegant as some, but excellent nonetheless. These cigars might be a little on the strong side for a novice smoker (I find even my veteran head to be spinning a little after two and a half hours of smoking time), but its robust flavours are very accessible and easy to appreciate. It fails to achieve the complexity of truly top end cigars, but is very enjoyable nonetheless, and sits at the top of the middle of the Colección Habanos.

Bolívar Gran Belicoso Colección Habanos 2010 nub

Bolívar Gran Belicoso Colección Habanos 2010 on the Cuban Cigar Website

San Cristobal de la Habana O’Reilly Colección Habanos 2009

It is a disturbing sign of how accustomed I have become to smoking the Colección Habanos that when I pulled the San Cristobal de la Habana O’Reilly out of my humidor this morning my first thought was “oh, a small one today.” At a petite 6.3 inches, the O’Reilly is the shortest of the Colección to-date, but its 56 ring makes it one of the fattest. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that it might not be quite as heavy as advertised: the Cuban Cigar Website uses the official measurements from Habanos S.A. press releases for its source, as I imagine do most online cigar resources, and everything I can find agrees that the O’Reilly is a 56, but the one in my hand doesn’t feel like it. My cutter can slice a 52 ring cigar in half, and it can’t take the O’Reilly, but it’s not too far off. I put this cigar at about a 54. 55 at best.

San Cristobal de la Habana O’Reilly Colección Habanos 2009 unlit

I cremate the tip and inhale deeply of the fragrant smoke. The first flavours are light and earthy, considerable cedar and general wood smoke, and quite nutty. The Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore is famous as the birthplace of the Singapore Sling, as well as for being the oriental hangout of choice for the gin-soaked colonialist of yesteryear: Kipling, Hemmingway, et al. These days it’s a tourist trap where the aforementioned Slings are served pre-mixed from giant buckets, but one tradition lives on yet: on every table there is a large bowl of shelled peanuts, and patrons are encouraged to eat the nuts and then toss the shells casually on the floor (ironically, littering is a criminal offense of the highest order anywhere else in Singapore). The result is a floor which is covered in shells to a depth of about two inches and any given time, and it is the aroma of those shells underfoot that is the flavour in this cigar; not the sharp oiliness of the nut itself, but the dry, woody, dusty aroma of ten million crushed peanut shells.

Who really cares about San Cristobal de la Habana, that’s what I would like to know. Launched in 1999, San Cristobal is the youngest Habanos brand, and as far as I can tell it fills no niche in particular. They’re light, inoffensive cigars, in unique but not particularly original sizes, named after forts and streets in Old Havana. There was a guy who would come very occasionally to my cigar club in Shanghai who was a San Cristobal evangelist (I think he was a big party cadre or some-such, because the Chinese guys would always give him a lot of face, a lot of guanxi, and refer to him as “The Chairman,” and he once complimented me on my high forehead, saying that it meant I was very smart, like Mao). Whenever he walked into a room everyone would stand up and welcome him, “ah, Chairman, hello, how are you?,” and he’d pull a bundle of San Cristobals out of his pocket, always a big one, El Morros or Murallas, and when you shook his hand he’d present you one as if it were his business card. Once I tried to refuse because honestly I already had two of his cigars unsmoked at home, but he looked greatly offended and slipped one into my breast pocket. I fished into my travel humidor and pulled out a Cohiba Siglo IV to offer as trade: he protested greatly, but eventually I was able to get it into his breast pocket.

San Cristobal de la Habana O’Reilly Colección Habanos 2009 two thirds remain

Beyond the halfway point the O’Reilly has thickened up a bit, with a bit of the tang of an oak barrel, and some paperbark tree. There is a hint of leather and a little coffee. It leaves a dusty dryness on the palette. I’m sipping on a chocolate milkshake which would take the edge off the cigar reasonably well, but there’s not a lot of edge to take off.

Argus, an old friend, came to stay with me for a few days while I was in China. He had done an Arts degree and, possibly the first person to wind up employed in that field without teaching it, had found himself a job at a history company; a private company that for a fee would research the history of whatever it was their clients were interested in (it has since gone bankrupt). I took him out to one of the Gourmet Society’s dinners, and introduced him to The Chairman, who looked my friend up and down and asked what he did for a living.
“I’m a historian,” Argus replied.
“Oh, very interesting,” intoned The Chairman. “Tell me, is it true that all Australians are descended from Criminals?”

The next night I took Argus out with my other circle of friends, this one not made up of the Chinese glitterati, but rather a group of expat English teachers, outcasts from occidental society, and villains and deviants of the highest order. I introduced Argus to Sal, a cockney brawler from the old country, who looked him up and down and asked what he did for a living.
“I’m a historian,” Argus replied.
“Oh, very interesting,” intoned Sal. “Tell me, what do you think of Hitler then? He got the job done, didn’t he?”

San Cristobal de la Habana O’Reilly Colección Habanos 2009 final third

The O’Reilly’s final inch is very dirty, thick tar and ash, inevitable in a 56 ring cigar. Ten years of age might take away some of this messy ending, but I can’t imagine it’d do much for the rest of the cigar, which has been lightly flavoured throughout – if anything it’d reduce it to a very light, inoffensive grassy cigar. In the end, there is nothing wrong with the San Cristobal de la Habana O’Reilly, but there’s not a lot to distinguish it either. Perhaps the best use for these is as gifts for friends, a memorable calling card to hand out as a greeting. Perhaps if you’re lucky someone will give you a nice Cohiba in return.

San Cristobal de la Habana O’Reilly Colección Habanos 2009 nub

San Cristobal de la Habana O’Reilly Colección Habanos 2009 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

H. Upmann Magnum Especiales Colección Habanos 2007

Throughout my retrospective of the Colección Habanos, I’ve felt that there’s been a shadow hanging over every review. I don’t have a basic cigar, a Montecristo or Partagás Serie D. No. 4, to hold these against, so I’ve increasingly been comparing them against each other, but there is one comparison I’ve refrained from making, one giant, who, silent on his lofty pedestal, nonetheless looms over every review: the Montecristo Maravillas No. 1. Regular readers will recall that in my Montecristo retrospective I awarded this cigar a considerable accolade: I declared it to be the best of all the Montecristo cigars. If the weather holds I’ll revisit the Monte before this jig is up, but even so, the existing review makes the Montecristo the one to beat as far as the Colección goes. The Cohiba, obviously, is the favourite to upset it, but no good punter plays favourites, and if I were to have an outside bet at longer odds, I’d put my money on today’s cigar, the H. Upmann Magnum Especial. Cohiba cigars rarely disappoint, and their price bracket reflects this, but Upmann cigars more than any other brand in my experience, exceed expectations.

H. Upmann Magnum Especiales Colección Habanos 2007 unlit

Like most of the Colección Habanos, the 55 ring Magnum Especial is too big. Fans of big ring cigars like to say that the thicker rings are manlier, but it’s not a statement that makes any sense to me, except in the Freudian sense. It is glorious looking though, very new Habanos, with a beautiful smooth wrapper. The oversize Upmann band is vividly coloured and cleanly embossed – night and day from the scrappy printing of the Hoyo. The draw is loose – not quite a wind-tunnel, but a distance from the classic Cuban draw that is my preference. Through the first inch the flavours when drawing are excellent, full-bodied top quality tobacco that tastes like the breeze in Vuelta Abajo, over lashings of cream, and dessert spices: nutmeg, cinnamon, cocoa and vanilla. In the very last aftertaste, however, something is badly wrong: a bitter, soapy, vaguely chemical taste. I have twice in my life consumed stale pine nuts, which left me with a bitter taste in my mouth at the end of every swallow for three or four days, and more than anything, this reminds me of that. That and soap.

H. Upmann Magnum Especiales Colección Habanos 2007 one third smoked

Passed the halfway mark, and the tobacco has lightened considerably, now mid-strength at best. With it, the flavours have become more delicate and sweeter, strongly gingernut cookies, hot from the oven. The bitter soapy aftertaste has lightened too, but it’s still present. There is something strongly green in it, perhaps pine sap. Once in a while you see a report of a cigar that tastes soapy, allegedly as a result of a roller who failed to entirely wash the cheap soap they have in Cuban factories off her hands before returning to work, but I don’t think this is that, as it’s way too subtle a flavour. It’s not the chemical rubbery bitterness of a cheap non-Cuban, it’s not the bitterness of tar, or smoke build up, or the hot bitterness of tobacco burned too fast, and it’s only present in the aftertaste; there is nothing of it in the initial puff. Honestly I think the cigar might just be way too young. I had such hopes for this cigar that I’m starting to make excuses for it, to seek out an environmental cause: I’m sitting down on the docks, and a few construction sites are nearby… perhaps some odourless gas is being emitted from a solvent or glue at one of them, and somehow causing a soapy taste on my tongue, or maybe I’m in the midst of some kind of physical problem, and the soapy taste is a symptom of an issue with the brain or heart. Just to be certain I pour out the cappuccino I was pairing this with, and fill the cup with water from a nearby drinking fountain.

Within ten minutes or so of ditching the coffee, the soapy aftertaste is gone, so perhaps it was that. The barista at the chain coffee shop that sold it to me certainly didn’t come across as the pinnacle of professionalism (he did a French accent and asked “would you like a baguette with that?,” and when I looked at him blankly he pointed to the Dutch flag on the shoulder of my light, military surplus jacket and asked “are you French?”). An inadequate cleaning of the machine perhaps? Laying the blame on the coffee is a big leap, honestly, as when I was drinking it it tasted fine; the soapy taste was the very last flavour on my palette after either a sip of coffee or a puff of tobacco, the flavour left once all other flavours had melted away. Oh well, another mystery of the leaf. Good riddance.

H. Upmann Magnum Especiales Colección Habanos 2007 final third

Throughout the final third the cigar is strongly herbal, with star anise and dry grass dominating. In the final inch it turns a little bitter and sours on the tongue, with a doughy sort of element in the aftertaste. It leaves a thick coating on the pallet, not unlike an under ripe banana in texture. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this cigar: it has greatness within it, no question about that, and in its own way was unlike anything I’ve ever smoked before, but it’s also pretty flawed. If you’re offered one today, accept it politely but make an excuse for not smoking it, and leave it in cedar for five years or so. Or maybe you should smoke it. If ever there was a Dusky Beauties to take with a grain of salt, it’s this one, as I strongly suspect the soapy taste that so ruined my experience came from something outside the cigar. As with all things though, I have no experience but my own to go on, and to me, the H. Upmann Magnum Especial is a lot of things, but it’s no Montecristo Maravillas No. 1.

H. Upmann Magnum Especiales Colección Habanos 2007 nub

H. Upmann Magnum Especiales Colección Habanos 2007 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Romeo y Julieta Fabulosos No. 6 Colección Habanos 2004

I’m perched precariously on an inner-city windowsill on an autumn night. A gusty cool breeze blows in from the south – it’s not cold enough to make smoking unpleasant, but I suspect that it will blow every puff of tonight’s cigar back through the open window, and entirely defeat the point of my sitting out here. My cigar tonight is the 2004 entry in the Colección Habanos, the Romeo y Julieta Fabulosos No. 6, weighing in at 52 x 180mm, something like an overweight Churchill. It’s not entirely clear what the significance of the number six is in the name, as there are only two old cigars that carried the name Fabulosos, not five (and neither of those wore a number as a suffix).

Romeo y Julieta Fabulosos No. 6 Colección Habanos 2004 unlit

I lift the cap of the cigar with a sharp knife, and find under it a substantial divot, the mark of superior construction. Lit with a humble Bic, it begins fantastically well, with heavy cream and sweet toffee, and a note of green apple, something I’ve never tasted in a cigar before. The toffee flavour is so distinct and so specific that it triggers in me a long forgotten sense memory: in Red China when I was young there was sometimes a man in the market beyond the walls of our compound who would make toffee lollies. You would pay your money and then spin a wheel that would select for you an animal from the Chinese zodiac, and the man would lay a stick on the table and with liquid toffee make the design of your animal around it, setting it with water. The end result was something like an elaborate Chinese lollypop. The dragon was far and away the best design (aside from being the coolest animal in the zodiac, it was four times larger than anything else) and many times while waiting in line I watched other children successfully spin it up. I never managed it, always landing on a lowly rat or snake. In the west I’m sure the dragon would have sat at the top of a price structure, and imperialist children could have had it freely if they’d complained to their parents enough, but not me; I grew up in a communist country, and what you landed on was what you got. Well, I’m sure my father could have greased the vendor with a packet of cigarettes or something and got me my dragon, but I didn’t know that at the time. Anyway, that’s what the toffee in the Fabulosos No. 6 tastes like: ‘90s Chinese street lollies.

Romeo y Julieta Fabulosos No. 6 Colección Habanos 2004 with a Coffee Cocktail

Around the halfway point the Fabulosos No. 6 still carries a deep cream flavour, the tobacco being very light. There is some grassiness, and a little nutmeg. It is an incredibly elegant cigar, although it has lost a little of the flavour depth that it had at the start, and has become a little one dimensional, although that dimension is the best possible dimension for a quality cigar.

Alongside the cigar I’m enjoying a Coffee Cocktail, a recipe I got out of my Savoy Cocktail Book, which makes a point of noting that the name is a misnomer as coffee is not to be found among its ingredients. In my interpretation the drink is a shot of tawny port, half a shot of brandy, a liberal dash of Cointreau, a sugar cube and the yolk of one egg: add ice and shake it all to hell, strain into a wine glass and dust the result with nutmeg. The more you shake it the closer you will get to the intended appearance, which vaguely resembles milky coffee. The Savoy Book is the classic cocktail book, and despite several new editions its recipes are largely unchanged since the 1920s (and as a result many of them call for long extinct liqueurs). Around 90% are some tiny variation on one part gin, one part vermouth, a dash of absinth, shake well and strain into a cocktail glass. In every event they are cocktails for serious drinkers who like the taste of booze and complex aromatics: you will not find pineapple being used to mask the taste of vodka in the Savoy Book, and very few of its recipes turn out much less alcoholic than a whiskey on the rocks. The Coffee Cocktail is no exception; the egg gives it a creamy texture and it tastes sort of like mulled wine. I’ve been making them a lot recently, and generally they’re followed in fairly short order by a Whiskey Sour as I need to do something with the left over egg white. The sours aren’t as good.

Romeo y Julieta Fabulosos No. 6 Colección Habanos 2004 half smoked

In the last few inches the cigar becomes earthy, some sandy soil and burning cedar. The cream flavour, the most delicate of the flavours I commonly find in cigars, generally leaves within the first inch or so, but in this cigar it lingered well past the halfway point. There can be no doubt about it: this is an excellent cigar. Flawlessly constructed it is subtle, elegant, and relaxing. That said, however, it didn’t knock my socks off. This is great when I think about it, but if I had smoked it among friends, thinking more about the discussion at hand than the cigar, I wouldn’t have noticed how good it was. A truly great cigar is undeniable, and won’t brook distractions.

But that said, it would take a hedonist of the highest order to walk around a party with a beer bottle in one hand and a Fabulosos in the other – if you’re in the market for one of these, then you are no doubt serious enough about smoking cigars to smoke this one alone, or with like-minded aficionados. In the sphere of the Colección Habanos it’s better than the Hoyo and not as good as the Trinidad. In the world of Cuban cigars it’s among the very best. Recommended.

Romeo y Julieta Fabulosos No. 6 Colección Habanos 2004 nub

Romeo y Julieta Fabulosos No. 6 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Trinidad Torre Iznaga Colección Habanos 2006

An autumn night under the full Easter moon and not even the slightest breeze is blowing. I’m in a seaside town on a Wednesday night, and only the very occasional purr of a car on the distant highway serves to indicate that I’m not the last man on earth. The air is crisp, but it’s nothing a light coat and some fortified wine can’t handle. The next port on my voyage through the Colección Habanos is 2006’s Trinidad Torre Ignaza, named after a tower, and appropriately so, as it’s a 52 x 170mm fat-boy. Trinidad is a brand I’ve tried to like, but I’ve never really come around to it. I have high expectations of it, as I think of it as a sort of Cohiba Jnr: they both have the same lineage, being born out of the diplomatic gift circuit, and they both feature my preferred style of cigar (long and thin) very prominently in their line-up. I’ve smoked a lot of Trini’s, however, and they almost always disappoint. How will this, a cigar that is about ten ring points overweight, and from a series that has thus far proved to be pretty hit-and-miss, fair? My expectations may be high, but my hopes are not.

Trinidad Torre Iznaga Colección Habanos 2006 unlit


I peel off the pigtail and apply a little heat. The draw is loose, but the flavour is excellent, medium tobacco with a great, full taste of freshly turned earth, cedar and subtle nutmeg spice. Half an inch in and the earth leaves in favour of roasted chestnuts, the meat greasy on the tongue. The smoke is thick and blue, and the night is so still that it wafts skyward in a column that is uncompromisingly straight.

I’m sipping a Seppeltsfield Para Grand, the $25 entry level tawny in a range that includes Australia’s most expensive wine, the world’s only annually released 100 year old vintage, which is to say that starting in the nineteenth century, someone had the foresight to set aside a barrel every year with the intention of opening it only after a century had passed, and that those barrels somehow managed to survive unopened through three generations of ownership changes, wars, recessions, fires, floods and fiscal crises before they started tapping one per year in the late-1970s. That 100 year old is a bit expensive for my blood, but its poor cousin is quite acceptable, a generic sweet wine that you can put half a bottle of inside you without really thinking too much about it; a good after dinner drink for the closet alcoholic.

Trinidad Torre Iznaga Colección Habanos 2006 one third smoked

At the halfway point the cigar turns on me for just a minute, the fantastic flavours fading to nothing but dirty ashes, but just as I delightedly prepare to write this off as another disappointing Trinidad it comes back, the ash disappearing and leaving a very light tobacco, clean new-wallet leather and roasted bean.

I had the pleasure once of participating in a blind taste test of Graham’s four aged tawny ports, at 10, 20, 30 and 40 years old respectively. There were four of us blind that night, and we were in total agreement as which port was which. We were also all totally wrong, nominating the 10 as the 40, the 20 as the 30, the 30 as the 20 and the 40 as the 10. I can’t speak to the logic of the others, but for my own part I based my decision largely on smoothness. All the wines were great, and once the labels had been revealed I revisited them all, meditating on the flavours. The truth that I took away from the evening is that as tawny ports, when first put into the barrel, essentially taste like Ribena: they are sweet, and smooth, and I imagine would be consumed with no complaints if an irresponsible parent were to serve them at a ten year old’s birthday party. As they age they certainly become more complex – a complexity that the aficionado no doubt appreciates – but with that complexity comes a strength of flavour, a sharpness, an alcohol burn, the tang of citrus rinds, the tannins of wood and so on. I like to think that were I to present a novice smoker with a Torre Ignaza and a more humble cigar, they would choose the Torre every time – its quality is self-evident and unmistakable. With the Graham’s port I suspect that a novice drinker would prefer the 10. And that 100 year old Seppeltsfield must be bloody awful.

Trinidad Torre Iznaga Colección Habanos 2006 final third

The Torre Ignaza ends with a slight bitterness, more good espresso than bad tar – I don’t feel even the slightest need to spit or cleans my palette after a puff, which is my dividing line between ‘good bitterness’ and ‘bad bitterness.’ The burn has been mediocre throughout: I’ve had to relight three times and touch up a handful of others. Smoking time was a hair over three hours, and for the past two I’ve felt intensely relaxed, the cold of the night and the ever present threat of mosquito bites wafting from my mind like so much fine tobacco smoke. When all is said and done, this is a fantastic cigar, supremely balanced, incredibly elegant, by far the best Trinidad I’ve ever smoked, and one of the better entries in the Colección Habanos. It’s hard for anything at this end of the spectrum to ever live up to its price tag – for the cost of one of these you could easily get five top notch sticks from the regular production – but if you’re the kind of person for whom a $100+ cigar can ever constitute value, then I don’t think you’d be disappointed in the Trinidad Torre Ignaza.

Trinidad Torre Iznaga Colección Habanos 2006 nub

Trinidad Torre Iznaga Colección Habanos 2006 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Hoyo de Monterrey Extravaganza Colección Habanos 2003

The third release of the Colección Habanos, 2003’s Hoyo de Monterrey Extravaganza is an odd looking brute; the wrapper changes shade significantly along the length of the wrapper leaf, which gives the cigar something of a barber-pole stripe pattern not unlike the one you see on exotic fakes from time to time. In true Cuban style the embossing on the band’s crest is appalling, which is to say that it is essentially not embossed, just a nondescript gold blob on a white background. The consensus seems to be that the name of this cigar is the Extravaganza, although there is some room for doubt, as the official Habanos web page for the release refers to it as the Lusitania, which was the name of a long departed HdM Nro. 109. Is this a recreation of that cigar? The sizes are the same, but are the blends? For me, the point is moot: the Lusitania was discontinued in the 1980s and I haven’t had the pleasure, and were I to acquire one now the age difference would spoil the comparison.

Hoyo de Monterrey Extravaganza Colección Habanos 2003 unlit

I set the cigar alight and lean back, closing my eyes and luxuriating in the pale autumn sunlight. The opening centimetre or so is pleasant, giving a very mild tobacco with strong grass and herbal notes, particularly in the aftertaste, which includes a sharp nasturtium tang. There’s quite a bit of wood, the sap from freshly split logs. It’s not entirely my thing, to be honest, but you can tell that this is a first class cigar, and I’m sure it would be right up the alley of someone with a slightly different palette to my own.

I’m pairing the Extravaganza with a bottle of muscat from 2007. I was poking around in the back of my wine cupboard this morning looking for some port to make a coffee cocktail, when my hand fell upon the muscat and I decided that today would be the day. It bears a label from the Cigar Society of Australia and New Zealand, with the subtitle “The Final Chapter: 28-June-2007.” The Cigar Society of Australia and New Zealand was a club run out of a cigar store in Melbourne that once upon a time would host an annual dinner in the ballroom at the Grand Hyatt, packing the place with a few hundred aficionados, and giving them a heavy meal and three cigars a piece. By desert the ballroom was filled with a fog so dense that visibility was reduced to just a few meters, and staggering aficionados would loom suddenly out of it like ships in the night. I acquired this muscat at the last of dinners, where the society held a mock funeral for their order, and cigar smoking in general. The president of the order was brought in in a casket; his burial presided over by a famously outspoken Catholic priest. Three days later smoking indoors was banned in Melbourne. I think the Cigar Society persisted for a few years with smaller events, just drinks on a rooftop patio some place, but it wasn’t the same. Nowadays their URL times out, and Google only returns ancient news articles. The cigar shop still exists, so perhaps the society is still around in some form, their internet presence toned down for an age where cigar smoking is an activity allowed only behind firmly closed doors.

Hoyo de Monterrey Extravaganza Colección Habanos 2003, half smoked on a glass of muscat

The muscat is pleasant enough, a simple fruity drink for a simple fruity man. With a strong plum flavour and a smack of honey in the aftertaste, it’s not overly complex, but is better than you’d expect from a free wine. The cloying sweetness on my palette is enough to knock off whatever sharp edge the Extravaganza was presenting (or perhaps it has mellowed of its own accord: the edge is gone at any rate), leaving a very nutty, barnyard sort of flavour, a simple, approachable cigar for the gentleman farmer to puff off as he casually surveys the fences on the back of an old, faithful work horse. His aging retriever follows a while, but eventually gives up and returns to the house to lie on the battered wicker loveseat on the porch.

That final cigar dinner fell on a Thursday night (I remember it because I wore a suit jacket to work that day in anticipation of it, and as soon as my boss saw me he pulled me into his office and demanded to know where I was interviewing: we were not normally a formal workplace). The smoking ban came into effect at midnight on Saturday night, which worked out well for everybody, one glorious last hurrah for the social smoker. Myself, three friends and four Montecristo Number 2s got ourselves prime position, a table right in the middle of the dance floor of a particularly fashionable young nightspot. It was a chilly night, as June nights in Melbourne are, but we were left more or less alone in our cloud of blue smoke, the bulk of the bar’s population of pretty young things choosing to shiver out on the semi-enclosed patio rather than enjoy the aroma of fine Cuban leaf. They’d walk past us to refresh their drinks, more than one giving a dirty look or sneering “that stinks.” At midnight we had a small ceremony and tossed our nubs into the ashtray, which the wait-staff promptly cleared, never to return. Like a ruptured dyke the pretty young things flowed indoors, filling the dance floor, and put off by the noise and constant jostling we smokers decamped to the now vacant patio, where we began the first evening of our never ending exile.

Hoyo de Monterrey Extravaganza Colección Habanos 2003, final third

In the final few inches the tang returns, along with a peaty taste and something not unlike a coffee factory burning down. It’s still very smokable to the last. The burn throughout has been perfect, with not a single touch up or relight. The Hoyo de Monterrey Extravaganza is not an amazing cigar, but it’s very pleasant on a mild day. The price of admission on these is well over $100, and it’s definitely not worth that, but if you can find one at an estate sale for $25, you shouldn’t hesitate for one moment.

Hoyo de Monterrey Extravaganza Colección Habanos 2003 nub

Hoyo de Monterrey Extravaganza Colección Habanos 2003 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Cuaba Salomones Colección Habanos 2001

NB. A friend of the harem recently made a request: he wanted to see a retrospective of the first decade of the much maligned Colección Habanos, and more importantly, he sent the cigars. This review is the first in that series.

The Colección Habanos is an annual release of a book-shaped libro humidor, typically containing twenty large format cigars. The number they produce each year has gradually increased – for the last few years it has been 2000, but in the early days it was only 300. The colección is criticised for a few reasons: firstly, they are too big – more than anything else, these are the tip of the spear as far as girthy Habanos are concerned. Secondly, they are too expensive: prices vary year to year (Cohiba commanded a considerable premium), but you rarely get away for less than $100 a stick, and finally, because they’re one of the more esoteric annual releases. The Reserva and the Gran Reserva series represent the best of the best, the Edición Limitada and the Edición Regional both have a stated purpose, as do the commemorative humidors, but what exactly is this series supposed to be? These, arguably along with the Replica Ancient humidors, are true collector’s items; nobody owns just one of the Colección Habanos: you either have the set or you don’t have any.

I’ve already reviewed two cigars from the colección in my brand verticals, the Monte Maravillas No. 1 and the Partagás Serie C. No. 1, but today I’m smoking the granddaddy of them all, the first in the series, 2001’s Cuaba Salomones.

Cuaba Salomones Colección Habanos 2001 unlit

It’s a gorgeous looking cigar, no doubt about that. The wrapper is silky smooth, and a beautiful deep glossy brown. Construction appears to be flawless. You can pretty much pick your own draw on a perfecto like this – cut it higher if you want it looser – and mine is exactly how I like it.

I light it and inhale. It’s disgusting. I haven’t smoked a Cuaba recently enough to remember what they’re supposed to taste like, but this one is bitter and tannic, with a sort of chemical aftertaste, vaguely reminiscent of burning rubber. I have a policy of taking every cigar to the nub, but that is going to be a serious chore if this rubber fire continues for the next two hours.

There aren’t many brands that are more universally disliked than Cuaba. It was created in 1996 (at the height of the cigar boom) supposedly as a premium brand, intended to sit alongside Cohiba and Trinidad, offering something a little special and unique in the Cuban line-up (at a price point befitting their standing). They specialise in figurados, cigars that come to a point at both ends, an old Cuban style of cigar that had fallen out of favour, and is still almost non-existent in the standard line-ups of other brands (they are reasonably common amongst exotic and limited cigars, and as such they are over represented on this website).

When the sales of a particular cigar brand are low to non-existent (Fonseca, for example), and yet the brand remains inexplicably in production while far more worthy cigars are discontinued, the rational Habanos generally gives is that they are “popular in Spain.” Cuaba has been popular in Spain for a while now. A cigar store clerk friend of mine once told me that he has a customer in his store that buys a box of five Cuaba Diademas (the 55 x 233mm [9.1″!] flagship – a massive foil-wrapped cigar, that although spectacular to behold, is totally unsmokable) every week, no doubt accounting for the majority of global sales.

Cuaba Salomones Colección Habanos 2001 a third smoked

Fortunately, after about the first inch the bitterness departs, and the cigar settles down into a fairly one dimensional but not unpleasant grassy flavour. It reminds me of a parched field of dead grass at the height of summer, the sort of place one might lie while watching an indie band at a country wine and produce fair. It remains in this casual, inoffensive place for about an hour of smoking time, until I reach the halfway point, where it develops a sort of ashy taste, with a sour aftertaste, which, within a few centimetres starts to show tar. It only gets worse from there.

Cuaba Salomones Colección Habanos 2001 final third

This first release of the Colección Habanos is unique in a few ways, and it’s obvious that at the time they didn’t really know where they were going with the series. It’s by far the rarest: there were other years when they released as few units as they did in 2001 (300), but this is the only one where there were just ten cigars in the box. In every other case the cigars were something unique or at least unusual for the brand, but this cigar is one that is available in the regular Cuaba line-up. When Cuba releases a standard production size in a special release without going to great lengths to explain what makes these particular cigars unique, it generally means that they have just packaged the standard production in a fancy box. I imagine that this is the case here, although I rather hope it isn’t, and the regular production cigars are better that this.

The early 2000s were a chaotic time for Habanos as they struggled with the Altidas joint venture, with the surge in production levels demanded by the ‘90s cigar boom, with the new strain of Habanos 2000 wrappers, and much else besides. Cigars from this period are notoriously hit and miss in quality, although usually it’s the construction of the cigar that suffers, not the flavour. This cigar was flawlessly constructed, with a perfect draw and razor sharp burn, but at best its flavour was unremarkable, at worst, unpleasant. A Harem of Dusky Beauties is not a particularly good guide for quality, as its stated mission is to review exotic and unusual Cuban cigars, which tend to be at the apex of cigars produced worldwide. Perhaps a less spoiled smoker than myself might be able to find some merit in the Cuaba Salomones, but for me, this is amongst the very worst cigars I have ever reviewed. Collector’s item only. Not for human consumption.

Cuaba Salomones Colección Habanos 2001 nub

Cuaba Salomones Colección Habanos 2001 on the Cuban Cigar Website.