Cohiba Robusto Especial 30 Aniversario Humidor

In the early days of The Harem I used to smoke everything; the raison d’etre of this thing was that my humidor had become so clogged with holy grail unsmokable smokes that I figured that if I documented their combustion it would at least make the act of smoking them somewhat less wasteful. As time has gone on, I’ve become a much more serious collector of rare Cuban leaf, and there is plenty that was burnt in those early years that I wish I could recover.

The cigar on the stand today is about as precious as they come: a Robusto Especial from the 1996 Cohiba 30th anniversary humidor. They talk today of old Cohiba limiteds like the ’06 Piramid and the Sublime being $200 cigars. Around 200,000 of each of those were produced, and they were generally available to anyone anywhere. Two-and-a-quarter thousand Robusto Especiales were rolled, and they were sold in only 45 boxes worldwide. By some reports, twenty-five percent of them were smoked by two individuals in the early 2000s.

Cohiba Robusto Especial 30 Aniversario Humidor unlit

It’s as nice looking a cigar as can be imagined. The wrapper is smooth and thin. The rat tail is a short nub, the appendix knocked off at some point during the decade it has spent in the ‘exotic singles’ drawer of my humidor. A tip for rinsers: once I rinsed a Trinidad that had similarly lost its tail, and the little hole at the tip filled with water and gave me a shot of tobacco juice with each puff for the first ten minutes. It’s not an experience I’d care to repeat. I take special care to keep the water off the end of this one.

The draw is a bit looser than I’d really prefer. It begins very subtly, with slightly burnt toast, roasted almonds and walnuts.

I’m smoking on the deck at the Groom compound on a day that is frankly borderline for the activity. It is April, the last days of summer. Overcast. Although it is a still day, there is a slight movement to the air that is keeping the coal hotter than it should be for a cigar like this. It really is a cigar that calls for a smoking lounge.

Cohiba Robusto Especial 30 Aniversario Humidor partially burnt

The midpoint is still smooth and pleasant; dry, lightly grassy. Not a lot to it. Perhaps it’s overaged. Perhaps it’s fake. Like most of my rare cigars, this one was a gift, years ago, from a prolific collector. Some of my benefactors are the kind of people who buy humidors like this firsthand, and I would never think to question the authenticity of their cigars. The one who gave me this was the kind who would have bought them as singles.

If you were to find the 50 Aniversario–this cigar’s modern equivalent–being sold as singles, anyone with any healthy scepticism would write it off as a fake. Fakes these days are too good, and prices are too high, for these humidors to ever be split up. The buyers are either buying them to flip, and won’t ever remove the cigars from their cellophane, or they’re buying them to smoke, and it would never cross their mind to sell them. This cigar has been with me near to fifteen years, however, and those days were a more civilized age. The prices of Cohiba Anniversary humidors back then ran in the four figures, and cooperatives buying them to split were not unheard of, nor were retailers breaking them down to increase their margins.

Still, it wouldn’t be the first fake to appear in the harem. Two of the best reviews I’ve ever given, the Partagás 150 and 155, were likely such. Years after I obtained them it emerged that a well-respected and prolific collector had been selling fakes of those cigars–along with Cuban Davidoff, Dunhill, and other exotics–to other well-respected and prolific collectors. It was never clear if he was the mastermind, or just a dupe himself, but he was publicly accused based on subtle flaws in the bands that distinguished his cigars as counterfeit. How long it had gone on, how many cigars had been involved, and the true source remain mysteries. No confession was forthcoming. After some protestations of innocence, the collector disappeared.

I didn’t acquire mine from the man in question, but by the time the fraud came to light they had thoroughly infiltrated the humidors of many collectors with impeccable reputations. The bands on the cigars I reviewed exhibited the same flaws that the accusations were based on. I wasn’t the only patsy. The flawed bands also feature in well-known books and on cigars reviewed by highly reputable publications.

Cohiba Robusto Especial 30 Aniversario Humidor mostly burnt

In the final third, the cigar heats up to a medium tobacco and really comes alive. Up until now there hasn’t been enough to it to really grab my attention, but in the final third it will not be denied. There is no hint of tar which is miraculous in a big boy cigar like this. There is a cinnamon sweetness to it, along with wood and grass and a herbal tang, and in the aftertaste a strong espresso coffee note. Rich, complex tobacco of the highest quality. Delicious.

There is perhaps, an advantage to the fakes of yesteryear: the stelar reviews I gave those cigars can only be attributed to cognitive bias. I thought I was smoking a legendary cigar, so that’s what I found. These days, I expect a fake as much as a legend. Whatever I find is hopefully what’s really there.

And the Robusto Especial is legendary. I take it until I burn my fingers, and when it extinguishes itself with a centimetre to go, I touch it up again. If this is fake, who cares.

I wonder if at twenty-four the Robusto Especial is overaged. The first two of its two-and-a-half-hours were light and subtle, with nothing bad, but nothing really to set itself apart. In the final thirty minutes it was as good a cigar as I have ever smoked. Perhaps ten years ago the whole thing would have been as good. The greatness of the DC and the Robusto Supremos is more in-your-face. Had I tossed this two inches earlier I would have put it down as unremarkable. Had I picked up someone else’s discarded cigar at the same point I would have rated it a 100 point masterpiece.

As always, the question of price dominates: is it worth $2,000 or more? Probably not. Would I take it over the Robusto Supremos and the DC? Probably. I don’t regret smoking it, but I certainly wish I had another.

Cohiba Robusto Especial 30 Aniversario Humidor nub

Cohiba Robusto Especial 30 Aniversario Humidor on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Romeo y Julieta Double Corona 125 Aniversario Humidor

There is an interesting bit of trivia about the Romeo y Julieta Double Coronas from the 125th Anniversary Humidor. Romeo had two notable releases in the year 2000, the aforementioned humidor and, from the first generation of Edición Limitada cigars, the Exhibición No. 2. The Exhibition No. 2 has a 49 ring gauge and a 194mm length. The Double Corona has a 49 and an 180mm length. If you look at the 125 Humidor, the layout is very hap-hazard. The cigars are in four compartments, in uneven numbers. For the most part the compartments are the right size for the cigars, and are divided by double walls of cedar, but in some places a single wall is used, and one of the compartments is about 15mm too big for its contents. The rumour is that the humidor was originally supposed to contain Exhibición No. 2s and Romeos, but they messed up their estimates and accidentally made the humidors too small. The solution they came up with was to lop 14mm off the Exhibición and call it a Double Corona.

Once lit, the cigar exhibits a light mid-tobacco note that leaves a little lactic stickiness on the cheeks. There is a slight note of whiteboard marker. The aftertaste is grassy straw.

Romeo y Julieta Double Corona 125 Aniversario Humidor unlit

When we last visited with my friend Lance Hendricks, he was in Taipei, living out the fugue spiral of an unemployable foreign cripple. Things have changed. A few years ago he returned to Melbourne, occupied the garden shed in his parent’s house, and began anew the fugue spiral of an unemployable cripple in Australia. His primary aspiration in life seems to be to upgrade from the regular unemployment benefit to the ‘super-dole’ (the disability pension).

Somewhere along the line he managed to ingratiate himself with a crowd of people – mainly female – in their early 20s. To peers in his own age group he is a fuckup; no career, no wife, no kids, living with his parents, with nothing more to show for his life than a few thousand views on his YouTube videos. People in their early twenties don’t care about that stuff though. To them he is an artist, a free spirit, living life outside of society’s norms. They don’t care that he still lives with his parents. Half their friends still live with their parents.

I welcomed his new friends with open arms, delighted at the prospect of ani influx of new life to my parties, which had become a bit dead since all my friends got married and had babies. Besides, if the girls were impressed with him, imagine what they’d think of me and my myriad accomplishments!

It was a beautiful dream, but it perished fast. A few months after he joined their circle I hosted one of my blowouts, and sure enough, the girls were impressed. “Wow,” one of them remarked. “I thought parties like this only happened in the movies.” Deep in my host state, and resplendent in my white dinner jacket (an exact copy of the one Humphrey Bogart wears in Casablanca [I’d had a tailor make it for me in China]), I was shaking up a cocktail for one my friend’s girlfriends when Jill (one of the 20 year olds) asked if I could make her something. The drink I was mixing was fairly weak already (its intended recipient was known to get rowdy) but nonetheless, I diluted it a little, and split off a glass for Jill.

Some hours later there was a tap on my shoulder, and a guest informed me that a girl was throwing up in the bathroom. I went to investigate, and found Jill in as bad a state as anyone has ever been. She was face down in the empty bathtub, bleary eyed, throwing up, and babbling incoherently about how she was going to die. She refused my offer of a bed to pass out in, and didn’t want me to call an ambulance, so I summoned Shortcake, a nurse and fellow guest. For the next few hours we sat together in the bathroom, assisting Jill through her crisis. I missed out on most of the bash, but it wasn’t so bad, really; Shortcake is extremely charming, and I enjoyed the intimate moment with her, if nothing else. In the end we drove Jill home together and put her to bed.

A week or so later Lance came to me and said he had bad news. “You know that Jill chick?” he asked.
“Sure, how’s she doing?”
“Well… ahh… she’s telling everyone you spiked her drink because you were trying to rape her.” I was mortified, but what was I to do? The arrows of injustice had been cast. I had no forum to defend myself. The 20 year olds never came to my parties again. From time to time I would see them sometimes at his soirees, and to be honest, they always seemed to be fine with me, friendly and easy going, but Lance would assure me that they all hated me. “You should hear what they say behind your back” he’d say. “They basically think you’re a paedophile rapist creep.” Over time, I grew to reciprocate their alleged feelings. When Lance would ask me if I wanted to go to one of their parties with him I would reply “No. Fuck those two-faced pricks.”

Romeo y Julieta Double Corona 125 Aniversario Humidor somewhat smoked

At the mid-point the cigar is very light, with slight notes of cedar and slighter ones of balsa wood. There remains a slight, chemical trial on the back end that is reminiscent of PVA glue. I’m drinking a beer, which is never a great pair with cigars, but this particular beer is an especially strong hoppy thing that completely drowns out anything more delicate that the cigar might have to offer. For an aged cigar like this, where delicacy is everything, it was a terrible choice.

One evening, after some years of animosity between myself and Lance’s young friends, I found myself in a nightclub, and at the bar I ran into one of their number. Her name was Sara. She was twenty-two years old, and looked happy to see me. We chatted for a few minutes before she took my hand and pulled me onto the dance floor, where she gyrated against me, hot and slow. Soon we were necking, and not too long after that we were lying sweaty on my bed in a state of post-coital bliss. “Wow,” she murmured. “That was amazing. Exactly like I imagined it.” I looked at her quizzically.
“You’ve been imagining it for a while?”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “I’ve wanted you for years. Since the first moment I saw you. I never thought it would happen though because Lance always told us you hated us.”
“What? I don’t hate you. He told you I hated you?”
“Yeah, all the time. He says you look down on us. You think we’re drug addicts and fuckups and you hate us because we’re poor.” I laughed.
“He always told me you all hated me because Jill told everyone I tried to rape her.” She laughed.
“What? That’s not true. I never heard that. When?”
“At that party of mine where she was throwing up in the bath.”
“Really? I don’t think she ever said that.” I laughed, as the nature of Lance’s betrayal became clear to me. That son of a bitch.

Sara and I continued our affair for some weeks, and together we would delight in Lance’s continued duplicitousness. Once she showed me one of his texts: “I know you’re having fun with Groom, but he’s not all he seems. Don’t trust him.” As the weeks wore on, it became clear that Sara was falling for me a little bit. Coyly, she would sound me out. “Do you like me?” she’d ask. “I like you.”

And then, as quick as it began, it ended. She stopped returning my texts. After a week or so of silence I took the case to Lance. “So”, I began, accusatorially. “Sara has stopped returning my texts… any idea why that would be?”
“Yeah,” he said. “That chick isn’t interested in you. She was just using you for sex, she said you were getting too clingy so now she’s with some other guy.”
“That’s not true,” I told him. “That girl is halfway in love with me. I know you’ve been trashing me to her, c’mon, be honest, what’d you tell her?”
He got all embarrassed and stammered out half an admission, but wouldn’t go into specifics. A few minutes later he made an excuse and left.

Finally, I sent Sara a text. “I get that you don’t want to see me anymore and that’s fine, I won’t hassle you again, but please, just tell me, was it something Lance said? What did he say to you?” The reply came a few hours later, at two in the morning. “He showed me your Facebook chat you two-faced arsehole.”

In the morning I scrolled through years of Facebook chat with Lance, and found what I think might have been the offending text. It had been sent two years prior, and at the time had seemed more flip than it did in retrospect. “Hey man, that chick Sara is having a party tonight if you want to come and hover awkwardly.” “Thanks, but I think I can live without an evening in a squat with a bunch of crack addicts. Besides, I don’t think I have enough clothes from Savers to fit in there.”

Romeo y Julieta Double Corona 125 Aniversario Humidor, with a bit less than half remaining

In the final few inches the Double Corona thickens up nicely, with burnt caramel and wood-smoke, and some nice, earthy vegetal notes. On the whole, it’s a nice, old cigar that I suspect is a few years past its prime. The same, admittedly, could be said about the Exhibición No. 2, but to me that cigar had just a little more elegance. Perhaps it’s the extra 14mm.

I’d take the Double Corona over a Petit Coronas, but under an Exhibición 2 or 125 Romeo.

Romeo y Julieta Double Corona 125 Aniversario Humidor nub

Romeo y Julieta Double Corona 125 Aniversario Humidor on the Cuban Cigar Website

Romeo y Julieta 109 130 Aniversario Humidor

It’s a temperate evening in the late summer, still, and not too humid. A good night for cigars and white wine. Let’s hope the fragrant smoke keeps the mosquitos at bay. I’m in a backyard and, lit only by a dim yellow spotlight from the porch, there is one element of the experience that won’t be up to par: the photos. Apologies for that, friends. I simply can’t bear to use a flash.

The cigar of the moment is the Romeo y Julieta 109, from my 130 Aniversario Humidor – at least, that’s what the official literature calls it; really a Nro. 109 vitola cigar should have the trademark bullet tip, which this cigar does not. Then again, the official literature also says there were 500 humidors released (actually 250). Official literature has never been Habanos’ strong suit.

Romeo y Julieta 109 130 Aniversario Humidor unlit

Alight, the cigar begins well, somewhat reminiscent of its baby brother, the Aguilas: nutty, very light tobacco, with hints of dessert spices: nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. There is a deep creamy sweetness that bodes well of things to come.

In the summer of 2006 I was still somewhat new to cigars. I had been a fan of the leaf for around three years, and although my regularity was increasing, I was still smoking no more than once a month. In the world of exotic cigars I was a complete neophyte, with perhaps three Edición Limitadas in my ashtray. My knowledge though, was definitely on the upswing. In June of that year I had been given the bible: Min Ron Nee’s An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Post-Revolution Cuban Cigars, and read it cover to cover and lustfully. I had a lot of free time that summer, much of it in front of a computer with a high speed internet connection, and I read voraciously of an online cigar forum run by a local merchant.

In 2006 Texas Hold ‘em Poker was also on the upswing, and at some point that summer the forum added a new feature: a poker room. It was an online Flash based thing, with daily games at midday Australian time (playing mostly against Americans in their evening).  I’ve always had a good instinct for games. To this day my boyhood next door neighbour Matias still complains about how relentlessly I used to beat him at Monopoly, Cluedo and The Game of Life (I had to cheat to win Life). In any event, I won the first poker game ever played on the forum, and was therefore the first incumbent of the no. 1 slot on the leader board, something I wouldn’t relinquish for almost four years. I was hooked, and when I wasn’t reading about cigars that summer I was reading about poker strategy.

In November the proprietor of the forum announced the first occasional poker tournament, with ten rounds, the winner of each moving on to a final table to play for a winner-takes-all grand prize: the Romeo y Julieta 130 Aniversario Humidor, number 244 of 250. Retail price $4500USD. $8000AUD, thanks to our taxes. My qualifying round was the first one played, and I won. It would be three weeks until the other rounds were finished and the final was played, however, and in that I was headed on a vacation.

It is here that this story picks up from an old Dusky Beauty: it was Paris in the intermingling into one puff of steam. A lone snowflake fluttered down and caught in her hair. “Won’t you stay the night with me?” she whispered. “Sorry babe,” I replied. “I want to, but I really have to play this poker game.” I kissed the girl goodnight, and bolted the 200m or so back to my hotel, logging into the poker room at 12:03pm Australian time. I was late, but they had waited for me.

In the end the game really came down to one hand. There were four players left, all with about even chips. I was dealt the ace and six of spades. The player with the least chips folded before the flop, which included two spades. All players bet, and the turn revealed another spade, giving me a flush. Again, the betting was strong, but nobody went all in, nobody folded, and we saw the river. An inconsequential diamond.

Coolly I assessed the table. There were no pairs among the shared cards, which meant that nobody had a four of a kind or full house. The spades were spread enough that it was impossible for anyone to have a straight flush. With the ace high flush then, I had the mathematically best hand that could be made from these cards. The other players obviously liked their hands. Perhaps they had king and queen high flushes, cards that on any other day would take the pot, but not today. Today I was going to win. I went all in. They followed. I won. That one hand eliminated half the table and gave me a stack of chips more than three times the size of my last remaining opponent. Five minutes of aggressive play later and I was the owner of an $8000 commemorative humidor.

Romeo y Julieta 109 130 Aniversario Humidor a little smoked

At the midpoint the cigar is progressing wonderfully, with a rich, creamy sweetness that sits viscous on the lips. The spice palette is much the same, and reminiscent of hot cross buns or mother’s bread and butter pudding. With three inches to go, however, disaster strikes. The cigar goes out, seemingly of its own accord, and when I relight it it is ashy and tasteless. Desperately I huff through it, trying to purge out any stale smoke – I even cut the coal off and start the blaze afresh at one point – but nothing I can do brings the old flavours back.

A month or so later, after I had returned to Australia, the humidor arrived. It came in a crate. A proper wooden crate! I had to open it with a crowbar! Inside, packed in shredded copies of Granma (the Cuban state newspaper), was a custom made leather satchel, and inside that, the humidor. It really is a lovely thing. The red lacquer is thick, and silky to touch, the hue richer than any plastic. The thin gold plated handles are strong and solid, more than able to take the weight of the full humidor, and even ten years later they swing smoothly and silently. It holds temperature and humidity perfectly, almost never needing maintenance. I’ve never had the pleasure of owning a high end humidor from Elie Bleu or the like, but compared to my $150 eBay job, the 130th Aniversario humidor is a league apart.

One criticism: the little magnetic hygrometer it came with is total garbage. I guess there must be a short circuit in it or something, because while it does work, it drains any battery you put in it in less than a day.

Romeo y Julieta 109 130 Aniversario Humidor final third

The Romeo 109 never recovers from its extinguishment, unfortunately, remaining bitter and ashy till the last, despite my considerable efforts to restore it. I suppose it was largely user error: a man with a better smoking technique would have kept it ablaze, and had a better experience for it. I apologise, Romeo 130 Aniversario Humidor. A creature as lovely as you deserves better than a ruffian like me.

The first half was very nice, though. I’d take that over a Petit Coronas any day.

Romeo y Julieta 109 130 Aniversario Humidor nub

Romeo y Julieta 109 130 Aniversario Humidor on the Cuban Cigar Website

Romeo y Julieta Aguilas 130 Aniversario Humidor

The cigars that are immolated on these pages are very often among the rarest collectable Cuban cigars, coming from limited release humidors of which only a few hundred are ever made, and which retail for thousands of dollars each. In my custody, unfortunately, most of these cigars exist only as singles; gifts from benefactors with pockets far deeper than my own who can afford to buy the humidors and break them up. There is one exception: the Romeo y Julieta 130 Aniversario Humidor. There are 249 like it, but this one is mine.

The humidor comes with 100 cigars, 50 each across two sizes, a 109 (that isn’t actually a 109 – more on that later), and an Aguilas, a nice mid-size perfecto, which is what we shall examine today.

Romeo y Julieta Aguilas 130 Aniversario Humidor unlit

The cigar lights well – I love a good perfecto. The dominant flavor at the outset is very nutty, walnuts over hazel. The tobacco is medium strength with smooth, rich smoke. The quality of the leaf is undeniable.

There was a time in my life, early in my career, when I worked two days a week in the sheltered workshop of a university administration building, keeping the faculty’s website up to date. It was a simple job. From time to time, subject administrators and professors would send us an update to a webpage – a revision to a timetable, an article about their new research project, things like that – and we had to apply these updates to the website. For me, a boy of twenty-three with a fairly advanced knowledge of HTML, one of these updates would typically take less than five minutes. On a busy day, we might receive ten updates. There were four of us in the team. I was hired because my three colleagues were having trouble getting through the entire workload each day.

Florence was our team leader, a very sweet Filipina who took the job extremely seriously. She did, admittedly, spend about four hours of every day drinking tea and gossiping in the break room, but during the other four she was hard at work, staring worriedly at her screen and wrestling with the update jobs. I mentioned earlier that a knowledge of HTML was helpful. It was. Without HTML, you would have to deal with the ungainly custom editing software that the university had provided us. It was an extension for Microsoft Word that was supposed to make editing web pages simple for anyone with basic computer literacy, but unfortunately, the software wasn’t very good. It would leave odd gaps and font changes everywhere. Bullet points were a real mess. The issues were simple enough to correct if you knew HTML – you just had to go into the code view and remove a few erroneous tags. If you didn’t know HTML, then you had to figure out a few tricks. Remove the fonts from everything and then reapply it in a big block, that kind of thing.

Florence, despite four years in this job, had not learned HTML or figured out the tricks, and her computer literacy was questionable at best. For her, the job we were doing was a difficult, technical one. She genuinely tried hard at it, and often stressed about the workload, sometimes working late to make up the difference. I think in all honesty, she was genuinely unaware that she was staggeringly incompetent.

Stephen, on the other hand, was just lazy. About my own age, he was a sly, pudgy fellow, who regarded me with suspicion. He had somehow convinced all and sundry that he had a medically diagnosed health condition, and must not be allowed to get stressed. Whenever Florence tried to give him work she would do so apologetically, with platitudes like “don’t let yourself get stressed, take your time, if you can’t do it that’s fine, just let me know.”

The highlight of my time with Stephen came on a pleasant spring day. It was about 10:30am, and he’d been at work for perhaps 45 minutes when he announced that he was feeling stressed, and was  going to go to the break room for a bit. “Oh yes, of course, take as long as you like, your health is the most important thing” Florence told him. Five hours later I happened by the break room: he was still there, slouched on the couch, watching the cricket.

Finally, there was Asha, a sort of vague hippy who kept her computer covered in the detritus of Eastern spirituality: little Buddha statues, various charms, a portrait of her yogi, that sort of thing. Her job was to answer the phones. Every now and again – perhaps twice a day – a professor would call up rather than log a page alteration through the system. Maybe the change they wanted was so small that they couldn’t be bothered sending it, or maybe their own computer literacy wasn’t up to figuring out the change request system: either way, Asha’s job was to take their request and either do it or log it in the system for one of us to do. In the hierarchy she was considered to be less technical than Florence or Stephen, so most of the ‘difficult’ jobs she would assign to them. It worked out fine. Asha was chatty and personable, and the professors liked her. Even if she didn’t do all that much work, she gave us a good public face.

About midway-through the spring Asha sent an email around to entire department. “Hi guys,” it read. “I’m taking a vow of silence for the next twelve weeks, so please don’t think I’m ignoring you if I don’t answer when you talk to me around the office. I’ll also be trying to minimize written communication during this time, so if at all possible please don’t email me.” Essentially she was saying “I’ll show up and collect cheques, but I’m not going to be doing my job for the next three months.” Nobody seemed to mind. Florence took over the phone answering duties, and fretted all the more about the amount of work that was piling up.

Romeo y Julieta Aguilas 130 Aniversario Humidor an inch smoked

Midway through, the cigar is mild but luscious, with thick notes of cream. It is an after dinner cigar, really, one that leaves a sweetness on the lips, and has the slight zap of dessert spices, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Above all, nut notes still dominate. Mainly almond.

My interview was as much a farce as the rest of my employment there. I showed up a bit drunk, being as the interview was at 4:00pm and I was twenty-three and still had the habit of drinking beer with my friends on sunny afternoons. The interview panel policy dictated that four people must be present: the immediate supervisor (in my case, Florence), someone higher up the chain (David, the coordinator of the communications section of the department, and the only hardworking and competent person I encountered in my time there), someone from HR, and an entirely disinterested person, preferably from another department. In the best case scenario, therefore, there would be one person on the panel that could assess whether or not the candidate was qualified for the position. With Florence as my supervisor, there wasn’t even that. Most of the questions were about my hobbies, and vague HR nonsense. I guess they liked my drunken swagger, and were able to overlook my slight slur, because they hired me in the room.

Once I started, my colleagues soon came to hate me. The first task Florence gave me was a simple clean-up exercise of a lot of old pages. “Just go through and familiarize yourself with the system” she said. “Ask me if you have any questions.” There was a thirty minute or so learning curve while I figured out how the software worked, and after that I started chewing through them. Three hours later I brought my results to Florence. She was horrified. “Oh my God” she said. “That was supposed to take you a month.”

Initially I was hired full time, but more or less immediately they cut me down to two days a week, Thursday and Friday. A pattern soon emerged: on Thursday mornings I would arrive at 9:00am, and start on the backlog of jobs that had accumulated over the first three days of the week. I would normally be finished by 9:45 when the others began to trickle in, mouthing the same platitudes each week about how the “trains were hell today.” There would then be an hour or so while they settled in, got their coffees, said hello to everyone, but by 11:00 each of us would be at our desks, silently browsing the internet, trying to look busy, all fully aware that there was absolutely nothing any of us had to do, and them seething with resentment with me for doing it all. When something new would arrive, it would ping into all of our inboxes simultaneously. I would glance around, making sure that Asha had made no attempt to close her organic food blog, or that Stephen hadn’t alt-tabbed off the footy scores, and then I would do the work.

On Fridays they just didn’t show up. For the first few weeks Florence would send me apologetic emails, saying that she was sick and she hoped I wouldn’t have too much work, but after a while she just stopped showing up. Once the others realised that their supervisor wasn’t coming in, they followed suit. I would blatantly read books at my desk, and take four-hour lunch breaks. It was that kind of a gig.

I never actually quit. Eventually I just stopped going in. There was never any phone call asking “where are you?” No email. Some months after I left I was passing the office late one night, and decided to see if my key still worked. It did, and there was my computer, still set up with my post-it notes, just how I left it. I’ve often wondered, in the intervening decade, if I should just start showing up again. Start submitting timesheets. The pay was pretty good.

There is a greater point to telling this story than simply to slam my long lost coworkers – I’m setting up the idea that over the spring and summer of 2006 I had a lot of time on my hands, and that free time set in motion the sequence of events that led to my acquisition of my Romeo y Julieta 130 Aniversario Humidor. That is a story for another time, however – next week, specifically – with my review of the 109 from that same box.

Romeo y Julieta Aguilas 130 Aniversario Humidor final inch and a half

The cigar ends sweet and mild, with just a slight taste of tar that tarnishes its perfection. Overall though, a fantastic, top notch smoke, that falls only barely shy of the pinnacle of Romeo y Julieta.

Romeo y Julieta Aguilas 130 Aniversario Humidor nub

Romeo y Julieta Aguilas 130 Aniversario Humidor on the Cuban Cigar Website

Romeo y Julieta Romeos 125 Aniversario Humidor

It is the summer and Davidé and I are on our customary trek north. We have made it as far as Sydney and, as one usually does when spending any amount of time in this humid sweatbox, we have wound up by the water. In much the same fashion as a young boy will mimic his father, strutting around impersonating his swagger and talking into a pretend telephone, Davidé has recently developed an interest in cigars. Ever the evangelist, I’ve brought him down here to show him a thing or two about the leaf. His cigar is a Romeo 2 from an olive green Australian plain packaged tube (he bought it from a suburban bodega this morning – I had to literally step behind the counter and rummage through their cabinet to find him something better than the vanilla flavoured nub the shop keep was recommending). For my own part I have something lovely – a Romeo y Julieta Romeos from the 125th Aniversario Humidor. It’s a nice, perfect perfecto, and it already has something on the last one of these I smoked: the printing on the band is excellent.

Romeo y Julieta Romeos 125 Aniversario Humidor unlit

It’s windy by the water, and with a flight in my near future, I have neglected to bring anything more serious than a Bic lighter. Getting the Romeos lit is a long and frustrating process, with a lot of crouching against the seawall, my hands cupped around the sputtering flame. Once I finally get it ablaze it starts light, but moves rapidly to full as the coal widens. Sour cherry notes dominate, with herbal undertones and a bit of dry spice on the back end.

It’s a Monday afternoon, and being young men on vacation, last night found us out on the prowl. I don’t want to cast aspersions on this fine city – certainly, in Melbourne you wouldn’t find a lot of action on a Sunday night either – but in this town they seem to have a certain anal retentiveness for the rules that we don’t share. Our first port of call (having wandered past several closed or empty bars), was what seemed like a busy pub. It was 9:30pm on the knocker when we approached the bar keep, never thinking that we might be rebuffed. “Sorry guys”, he told us. “Legally this till has to be locked at 9:30. I can’t serve you.”

Dejected, we returned to wandering, finding few options. In desperation, Davidé poked his head in the door at the Church of Scientology, where a crowd was milling, holding plastic cups (a banner read “Happy Birthday LRH.”) “Is there a bar here?” Davidé asked. The woman who answered him looked horrified. “No! This is a church!”

It was 10:15 by the time we found another place, a cool jazz bar that seemed to attract the local bohemians. We ordered gin and tonics, and the barmaid proffered some advice. “Guys” she told us. “Legally I have to lock this till in fifteen minutes. Why don’t you order triples?”

Pint glasses of gin in hand, we headed out to the beer garden. The only occupants of the place were a couple in their sixties, and all the seats save for theirs were leaned up against the tables. The place was obviously closed or closing, so we started to head back inside when the female half of the couple, obviously in the advanced stages of drunkenness, hailed us. “Sit down,” she said. “It’s not closed. That old black bastard just put them like that. Sit down. He’ll come out here in a few minutes and tell you to move, and you just tell him ‘no.’ What’s he gonna do? Can’t throw us all out.”

We sat, and as we sipped our drinks she engaged us intermittently, repeating the same general instructions: “when the old black bastard comes tell him ‘no.’ Refuse to move.” I was on board, and Davidé is always keen for some civil disobedience, but when eventually someone did approach us, it was a well-dressed and charming black guy in his early forties. “Hi guys,” he said, smiling, “sorry, but we have to close this area now, would you mind moving inside?” I had already complied by the time I realised that this was the bastard of legend. The couple held their ground, the woman heckling us with vigour as we skulked indoors. Ten minutes later they passed us on their way out. The woman gave us a haughty silence. The man, who heretofore had been silent, and I assumed must be the designated driver, gave us one word. “Pussies.”

Romeo y Julieta Romeos 125 Aniversario Humidor with one inch smoked

The wind got the better of us, and Davidé and I have moved around the coast a few hundred meters, improving the situation immensely. Our new nook is a sheltered platform with benches, a view of the setting sun, the yacht marina, and the jogging track where firm young things are exercising. The cigar responds well, with any bitterness falling away. At the midpoint the tobacco is light with a herbal tang, some straw and barnyard, and some saltiness on the lips.

As the evening began to wind down, we found ourselves in the front bar. At this point the bar was technically closed, the blinds drawn and the door locked, but the owner was not as much of a stickler as some of his compatriots, and kept the liquor flowing for us. He had an ulterior motive: aside from us, the only other remaining customers were two women, Amiee and Shana, and he needed someone to keep the more boisterous Amiee busy while he chatted up her friend. The girls were in high spirts, flush with success. They had arrived in Sydney two days ago for some trade show, hawking the produce of their candle business, and were going home with $20,000 in orders. They were a lot of fun, the very epitome of stereotypical rural Australian women, with no compunction about bellowing phrases like “where’s me phone, ya moll?” at each other in mixed company.

Amiee clearly wanted to take her celebrations further, complaining to us at length about her boyfriend, Brett, about how he didn’t love her, and about his tiny dick. She gave us both her number, and asked for each of ours. Multiple times she told us breathily “I let guys do anything to me… anything,” and when Davidé went to the bathroom she squeezed my thigh and said “are you going to let your friend have me all to himself? You need to be more aggressive.”

The night was suddenly aborted by the barman, who approached us quietly. “Sorry guys… Amiee, your friend is throwing up outside.” I had noticed them doing Sambuca shots before, but obviously he’d miscalculated her capacity for Italian liquor. Amiee rushed out, while Davidé and I settled the tab for everyone. By the time were got outside (the barkeep locking the door firmly behind us), the girls were gone, a puddle of watery vomit on the steps the only sign of their passing. “C’mon man,” said Davidé, “let’s do it. Call that chick. We’ll double-team her. She’s up for it.” I shook my head slowly. “Sorry friend, not this time. Some wallabies it’s better to let hop away.”

Romeo y Julieta Romeos 125 Aniversario Humidor with one third remaining

The construction of the Romeos has been fantastic, holding its ash in a perfect, solid cone. Davidé is in the final centimetre or so of his Romeo 2, and has been spitting incessantly for a while now, complaining of acrid tar. As he tosses the nub I give him a puff on my cigar, which still has a good two inches left, and is exhibiting sweet honey notes. He pronounces it a “whole different ballgame.” And it is.

The ending is woody, with the pleasant bitterness of coffee. The Romeo Romeos from the 125th Aniversario humidor is quite a different cigar to the Romeo Romeos from the Replica Ancient Humidor, but by no means its lesser. It’s certainly better than the Romeo Petit Coronas.

Romeo y Julieta Romeos 125 Aniversario Humidor nub

Romeo y Julieta Romeos 125 Aniversario Humidor on the Cuban Cigar Website

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 3 510 Aniversario Humidor

I messed up a little with the selection of today’s cigar. As I have opined before, the 510 Aniversario Humidor contains five cigars from five different marques. Three of those cigars are essentially regular production with a fancy band, no different to any cigar that you could pick up in any petrol station the world over. The other two, the Royals de Partagás and the Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 3, are unique to this humidor, and only 10,200 examples of each ever existed on this earth.

I smoke today at a suburban barbecue while drinking beers, eating flesh and telling tall tales. As I was leaving the house I thought “I should grab a cigar… nothing too precious, I probably won’t be concentrating on it too much. How about the 510, isn’t that just a regular production?” I was wrong, of course, but I wouldn’t realise until it was too late.

The first great disrespect of the Hermosos No. 3 came pre-light. I was setting up a nice photo with the cigar balanced on a fencepost, the barbeque going on behind, when a gust of wind dashed the cigar earthward and its foot smashed on the pavement. To add insult to injury, the more stable platform that I opted for as my second choice was the lid of the garbage bin.

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 3 510 Aniversario Humidor unlit, resting on a bin

(A note on cigars with broken feet: they’re not really that bad. Any other damage and you can have unravelling, burn issues, ruined draw for one reason or another, but the foot? Not such a big deal. If anything it’s easier to light, and the issue burns itself away before too long. Shaggy foot unfinished cigars are even sought after in the customs market. Many cigar shops offer deep discounts on damaged stock – if the only problem is that the foot is a bit cracked, I say go for it.)

The cigar begins a little bitter, hot, no doubt, from the ventilated foot, but quickly mellows out into something light and sweet. There are strong vegetal notes, some herbs, a little flowery. Very nice.

I’m drinking a Brooklyn cocktail, which a friend brought to this party pre-mixed. It’s basically whiskey and vermouth, a little sweet, a little dry, and it goes nicely with the cigar; sweet enough to cut the bitterness, but not so cloying as to ruin the palate. Being essentially the same strength as whiskey but not much less drinkable than Coca-Cola, it is also laying a good foundation for what is to come.

Our host today is Kurt. He’s an excellent cook. He’s a decent carpenter. He’s an absolutely abysmal home distiller. In very simple terms, when you make any distilled liquor what you do is take a liquid that has been made mildly alcoholic by the digestive processes of yeast and boil it until you separate the alcohol out. This alcohol will be pretty dreadful when it comes out of the still, but if you took time and care with your mash, made it with the water from your nearby mountain stream, and with barley smoked with the unique peat of your backyard bog, then it might just have some subtle nuance to it that 10 years in a barrel (and some water) will enhance to the point of drinkability. If you didn’t take too much trouble then you can always mix your grain alcohol with some herbs and spices and call it Gin, or with sugar and fruits and make some kind of liqueur.

What Kurt does in the production of his flagship product, Colonel Kurtz’s No. 1 Special, and what most backyard distillers do, is make his mash out of what amounts to a bag of sugar and a sachet of commercial yeast and then add store bought flavouring essences to it that will allegedly make it resemble whisky or what-have-you. What he fails to do, I theorise, is properly separate the poisonous methanol from the somewhat less poisonous ethanol. The No. 1 Special tastes foul, gives you a headache, makes you anti-socially drunk, and leaves you with as bad a hangover as anything on this earth, but because I am a foolish, foolish man, I know that as soon as I finish this Brooklyn I’m going to go looking for some.

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 3 510 Aniversario Humidor, somewhat burnt

The cigar is burning with a nice white ash, showing its age. As the smoke combines with the Brooklyn on my tongue it brings out a strong, sweet coffee note. Very smooth and pleasant.

I find the No. 1 Special, Batch #3 (a good year), in the bar and have a snoot. It takes me back. The last time I was in this home I had a few belts of the stuff, and then walked back to the train with a couple of friends. Being out in the suburbs, the nearest train station is a kilometre or so away, and we walked merrily along, slugging from a plastic takeaway bottle of the No. 1 Special as we did. The train station in question is built with the platform in the centre of the two sets of tracks, so in order to gain access you walk across the tracks (literally across, the rails run right through the footpath), and then up a ramp in the centre of the platform. Being full of No. 1 Special, I decided on this particular night to take the more efficient path, and simply climb the two-foot rise directly onto the platform.

Waiting for me at the top of the cliff were two PSOs – Public Safety Officers – a variety of jackbooted thug that has emerged in Victoria over the last five years or so. They’re basically cops without the training (they do have the guns though). They asked me what I was doing, and if I’d been drinking, and if I knew there was a $2000 fine for being on the tracks. They asked what was in the plastic bottle. I didn’t handle the interrogation well, replying to every question as belligerently as I was able. “Yes, yes, but I wasn’t on the tracks, I climbed up from the footpath, it was paint thinner, but it’s empty, and I was just about to recycle it.” When they asked me if I’d ever been in trouble with the police before, and I replied that I wasn’t in trouble with the police now, they asked to see my license. They called my name into the police switchboard to check for warrants, but were still waiting on a response when the train arrived (real police don’t have a lot of time for PSOs either). “Thanks guys” I said, reaching over to take my ID. They looked at me unhappily as I got on the train and left, another arsehole off into the night. I guess it wasn’t worth shooting me over.

In the city twenty minutes later my friends were keen for a cocktail, but I was rapidly entering the final stage of the No. 1 Special effect, and insisted on McDonalds. The nuggets didn’t help. “Guys,” I said “you gotta go on without me. I’ve got a splitting headache and my whole body feels toxic. I need to sit on this bench for about twenty minutes.”

In the end I got a cab to drive me the six blocks to my home. I woke up with as bad a hangover as I’ve ever had.

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 3 510 Aniversario Humidor, final third

Perhaps it’s the No. 1 Special burning my taste buds off, but it seems like the Hermosos No. 3 gets bitter before its time, with almost two inches remaining. There are two main kinds of bitterness at the end of a cigar, the pleasant bitterness of coffee and chocolate, and the astringent bitterness of tar. This lies somewhere in-between. I’ve had worse.

When it comes down to it, the Hermosos No. 3 is a fine cigar, with plenty of flavour and a good balanced elegance. It falls somewhere in the upper echelon of the Romeos I have had thus far. I apologise, 510 Romeo, you probably deserved a bit more respect.

In any event, it’s better than the Petit Coronas.

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 3 510 Aniversario Humidor nub

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 3 510 Aniversario Humidor on the Cuban Cigar Website

H. Upmann No. 2 160th Anniversary Humidor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

H. Upmann No. 2 160th Anniversary Humidor nub

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

H Upmann Connoisseur No. 1 160th Aniversario Humidor

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

H Upmann Connoisseur No. 1 160th Aniversario Humidor unlit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

H Upmann Connoisseur No. 1 160th Aniversario Humidor nub

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

H. Upmann Prominentes 160th Aniversario Humidor

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

H. Upmann Prominentes 160th Aniversario Humidor unlit

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

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

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

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

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

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

H. Upmann Prominentes 160th Aniversario Humidor, final third

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

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

H. Upmann Prominentes 160th Aniversario Humidor nub

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

H. Upmann Robustos 520 Aniversario

It is mid-December, and although I am on holidays, today was supposed to be a work day. I have things to do! Errands to run! A life does not maintain itself! Some days, however, are made for cigars, and this is one of them: not a cloud in the sky, the gentlest of breezes, mid-20s in the shade. The call of the leaf was irresistible.

2012 was the year Habanos chose to mark the 520th anniversary of tobacco coming to the new world, and they celebrated in fine style with the Montecristo 520, the excellent Edición Limitada of that year. That cigar, however, was not the only dusky beauty to commemorate the event: there was another, much more obscure commemorative skulking in the shadows: the H. Upmann 520 Robusto. An extremely unusual release, treading the line between a legitimate member of the Habanos catalogue and an under the counter custom put out by an unscrupulous factory manager to value add some of his stock, the Upmann 520 Robusto was available only at the Habanos festival in the form of 1,000 dark varnished 10 count boxes. I can only think of one precedent: the legendary Habanos 2000 festival boxes (more on those later). Of course, in 2012 there was also an H. Upmann robusto released as a ‘standard’ Edición Limitada, which raises the real question of the day: is the Upmann 520 robusto an undiscovered legend, a rare cockatrice lurking in plain sight as a Habanos Festival value-add, or is it just an EL with an alternative band? Only in flame is there truth.

H. Upmann Robustos 520 Aniversario unlit

The first puffs are bitter, a sign of perhaps a few moments too long in the dry box, but it quickly loses its edge and settles into light tobacco with a grassy flavour over light herbs and Christmas spices; nutmeg, cinnamon and so on. Really very pleasant.

Once I had committed myself to setting aside my labours and spending the afternoon at smoke, it only followed that I would also get myself a little toasted. Toward that end, I’ve mixed myself an Old Fashioned cocktail, which is about as nice a way as I know to consume a glass of whiskey (the Mint Julep being the other obvious contender). I’m using pretty mediocre whiskey in Jim Beam Rye, which, although of a considerably higher standard than their bourbon, is nonetheless very much distilled to a price point. The thing that makes it though, is the Fee Brothers barrel aged bitters. The one I am using is a limited edition product in its own right, celebrating 150 years and four generations of Fees, but honestly I can’t tell the difference between this and the regular stuff, which is always exceptional. If aromatic bitters figure in your life, and those bitters are currently a decade old bottle of Angostura, it is imperative that you track down a bottle of Fee brothers: one sniff and you will never look back. It’ll cost you twice as much, but as bitters are typically a product that passes from one generation to the next, you can afford to invest the extra ten dollars. After whiskey, bitters and ice the drink is just a little sugar, a twist of lemon, and a maraschino cherry. Only trust a person that has a half empty jar of maraschino cherries in their fridge: if they have no jar at all then they’re plainly too square for your time, if they have an empty jar then they are definitely an alcoholic bounder.

H. Upmann Robustos 520 Aniversario, one third smoked, with a Jim Beam Rye

At the mid-point the cigar is very dry. The tobacco is still light, with a grassy flavour, and a hint of umami – mushroom or soya bean. There is still a mild spice on the tip of the tongue. At this point I think I can rule out legendary, but it is definitely in the upper echelon of excellent.

The courtyard I am in is mainly gravel and throughout the entire time I have been sitting here, which is more than an hour at this point, I have been listening to the rhythmic sound of rocks being rearranged, like there is a monk just out of view who is quietly raking a pattern into the stones. More accurately, it is the exact sound I woke up to each morning during a week I spent in Singapore, where the asphalt car park outside my window was constantly being swept with a hard bamboo broom. Finally, the culprit has come into view: a large black bird is hunting through the stones along the edge of a garden bed with his beak. He is moving systematically, and while it’s not clear exactly what he’s looking for (he certainly doesn’t seem to be finding it), I can see exactly where he has looked: nearly twenty meters of uninterrupted, arrow straight path stretch all the way back to the car-park entrance, the stones dislodged in two neat rows.

H. Upmann Robustos 520 Aniversario, an inch left, with a Fee Brother's Bitters

Toward the end the cigar thickens to mid-tobacco, and the mushroom takes over, a full, vibrant shiitake, pan fried with a little butter. As I move into the nub it never grows bitter. A little tart, maybe. Thick tobacco over dry earth. My drink is finished, but I’m saving the cherry until the cigar is done. A little dessert to cleanse the pallet. The sun is gone, but the warm air remains. Sometimes life is not so bad.

Overall, the H. Upmann 520 Aniversario Robusto is an excellent cigar: not a legend, but extremely good, sitting somewhere in the upper echelon of Upmann exotics. The real revelation is this: it’s definitely not the same cigar as the 2012 Edición Limitada Robusto, and for my money, I don’t think it’s quite as good. Close though. EL by a nose. Photo finish. It’s definitely a damn sight better than the Petite Corona.

H. Upmann Robustos 520 Aniversario nub

H. Upmann Robustos 520 Aniversario on the Cuban Cigar Website.