Cuaba Piramides Edición Limitada 2008

very season of The Harem needs a whipping boy, a cigar that I can lambast as tasting of burning garbage or as having the acrid notes of chemical spill – it helps to preserve my reputation as an unbiased critic that doesn’t buy into the hype. Well, if there is to be a whipping boy this season, this might well be the one: the 2008 Edición Limitada from the loathsome Cuaba. Then again, perhaps not: of all the Cuaba cigars, this is the only one that I don’t recall ever hearing a bad word about.

Fun fact about Cuaba: Habanos occasionally cribs words from the Taino Indians (the pre-Columbian inhabitants of Cuba, functionally extinct thanks to some fairly vigorous genocide by Christopher and his colonial crew). One such word is Cohiba, the term for their proto-cigars; another is Cuaba, the term for a burning hunk of wood that they would yank from a fire to light their Cohibas. It remains a fairly apt descriptor of the best use for most Cuaba cigars.

Cuaba Piramides Edición Limitada 2008 unlit

The piramides begins reasonably: a little bitter at the outset, it quickly mellows into something that, while not smooth, is not totally unpleasant. It’s a rough, vaguely grassy mid tobacco. The cigar seems to have a lot of trouble staying lit, and I have to relight it four or five times within the first inch. I have no idea why, as 2008 is long past the era of fireproof wrappers that marred the early 2000s, and this particular example has spent a few days in a dry box that should have taken any excess humidity out of it. The draw is perfect and, when it is burning, the smoke volume is heavy, discounting a plug or anything of that nature. I did give my standard rinse before lighting, but that has never seemed to do burns any harm in the past.

I’m drinking Pusser’s navy rum, a very amicable drop with a nice orange aftertaste. For three centuries the British Navy issued its sailors a daily tot of rum – a practice that was ended (to the consternation of many a hardened mariner) in 1970. Pusser’s rum is supposedly the same stuff that was served to seamen, being rums from Jamaica, Barbados, the West Indies and the British Virgin Islands, all blended together to the Admiralties’ ancient recipe. It’s a slightly dubious distinction: is the fact that a drink was enjoyed when served free to generations of men barely over drinking age really a mark of quality? Perhaps so: a few years ago I passed through Edinburgh and spent an hour or so wandering HMY Britannia, the Queen’s old sloop, and took note that there were six fully stocked bars on display therein: one for every class of sailor and a few extra for the royal family. If anyone takes their drinking seriously, it’s the British Navy.

Cuaba Piramides Edición Limitada 2008, a little smoked, with Pusser's Rum

By the midpoint the Cuaba Piramides is actually a good cigar. It has mellowed out to light tobacco with dusty straw. There is a very mild woodiness, and something of the armour of sap. A generous man might attribute some leather. It leaves a distinctly salty taste on my lips.

The first bar I encountered on the Britannia was in the captain’s private dining room, a small wood panelled chamber at the top of the ship. I came in just as a tour group was leaving and, having ridden the elevator up alone, I knew that I would have at least a few minutes to myself before anyone came in behind me. Sitting on the bar, only a foot or so beyond the velvet rope, was the distinctive spiked decanter of a bottle of Louis XIII cognac. The first thought that went through my head was that any job where you are issued with a presumably limitless supply of $2000 brandy is not such a bad lark; the second was that I was obligated to lift it. I glanced around for cameras and saw none. I went to the window and checked the gangway: nobody was coming. I stuck my head out the door and saw that the last of the tour group were already in the next room. Finally, confident that the coast was clear, I violated the sanctity of the velvet rope and reached for the bottle. My hand on the decanter, the criminal act came to a swift end. The bloody thing was glued down. No doubt it was filled with tea. My caper aborted I slunk off down the corridor to the officer’s mess, and kept my thieving hands to myself for the rest of the tour, but it wouldn’t be the last time that an unsecured bottle of Louis XIII proved too great a temptation for my criminal heart.

It was about a year later and I was staying in the business wing of a Chinese Holiday Inn. I’m not sure why I was booked in the business wing – I guess by some definition I was a business man – but the main distinction of the business wing is that it’s not as good as the regular hotel. You do get access to the business centre, and the Wi-Fi is free, but you lose access to the pool and the restaurant is in a whole other building. The chief advantage as far as I can tell is the private bar area which, on a good night, is filled exclusively with people travelling on business and looking to have one-night stands with like-minded strangers. At the time of my stay however, the bar was closed, defended by a velvet rope to which someone had sticky taped a “closed for renovations” sign. I gave it a cursory glance, but no renovations were evident.

Late on the evening of my third and final night in the Holiday Inn I arrived back at the hotel a good deal worse for wear. My Chinese colleagues had thrown a banquet in my honour, and I had already had a decent amount of beer when my boss half-jokingly suggested that I had to do a shot of baijiu with every member of the party. I could have gotten out of it; I had seen the same suggestion made to several others, and they had all nominated a designated drinker, or poured themselves half shots, or offered to do it with beer instead or made some other excuse. Not me though. My blood was up, and the only thought in my mind was “I’ll show these Chinamen what Western Imperialist drinking power looks like.”

Baijiu is horrible alcohol, as strong as Chartreuse, and even at the topmost shelf the best you can really hope for flavour wise is watered down mineral turpentine. When I staggered out of the elevator that night in front of the shuttered business wing bar, I was looking for something, anything really, to take the taste of wretched baijiu out of my mouth. It was like a sign from the heavens: on the top shelf of the bar the crystal decanter was illuminated softly green by the neon light from the Holiday Inn sign outside the window. It was an unsecured bottle of Louis XIII.

I didn’t hesitate for one second. I hopped over the rope and strode straight behind the bar. I looked around for a glass, but the racks were empty, their glasses removed during the renovations. There was nothing else for it: I upended the bottle and suckled straight from the $2,000 teat, two quick pulls of about a shot each. I think it was nice, but I was far too loaded to appreciate it, and my tastebuds were ruined from an evening drinking light gasoline. I returned the decanter and headed for my room. From conception to flight the crime had taken less than thirty seconds.

In any event, the moral of the story is that crime doesn’t pay: the hasty double broke the camel’s back and I spent the next hour or so throwing up in the bath.

Cuaba Piramides Edición Limitada 2008, mostly smoked

In the final third the Piramides begins to betray a few notes of that classic Cuaba flavour: tar, ash, and rubber, but it never gets too bad and I wind up taking it all the way to the hilt. Not a great cigar, and definitely not a great limited edition, but it is an acceptable mid-range and by far the best Cuaba I’ve ever had. We’ll need to find another whipping boy. I’ll try and dig out one of their regular production.

It’s a league better than the Salomónes.

Cuaba Piramides Edición Limitada 2008 nub

Cuaba Piramides Edición Limitada 2008 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.