Custom Roll

Today’s cigar is a closed-foot custom, about a Gordito size. It was a gift, and beyond what you can tell by looking at it, I know absolutely nothing about it. It came with a bunch of other cigars and no commentary. It has a nice, dark, oily wrapper. I pick the foot and take a dry inhale. The draw is very loose. Lit, it begins nicely. Sweet cream and coca. Touch of honey.

As a teenager, I never had a close relationship with music. I don’t think pop music was forbidden in the house I grew up in, but it wasn’t around very often. Certainly, I never stormed off to my room to blare rock and roll while my dad banged on the door, yelling at me to turn that racket down. My parents listened exclusively to news radio, and commercial television was forbidden on all but the rarest of occasions. There was a CD player in the lounge room, but as far as I know the only CD it ever played was a Best of The Seekers compilation my mother had, and that only on Christmas. I guess my older sister must have listened to at least some music, because she had a Radiohead poster in her room, but if she did she did it with headphones. People occasionally ask my what the first CD I ever bought was, and I can honestly say that I haven’t bought one yet.

In my late teens I developed a love of film, and through that I came to at least appreciate the cinematic quality that music can add to life. In my twenties, once I got a little disposable income, I started to go concerts. Without a strong relationship with any particular genre, I would go to anything that promised a spectacular or visceral experience. I went to KISS a lot of times. To AC/DC. Meatloaf. The Flaming Lips. Gorillaz. I saw Pubic Enemy three times at the Corner Hotel, a tiny, dank little room, where it feels good to be drenched in the sweat of a few hundred other humans while Flava Flav spouts nonsense. I saw Ennio Morricone conduct an orchestra. And naturally, in 2012 when Prince came to town, I bought a ticket. Matter of fact, I bought two.

My tickets were three weeks apart, on the first and last nights of the tour. I figured that if the first show wasn’t any good, I could always scalp the second one. I didn’t end up needing to. The first show was phenomenal.

The shows were in the round in a 15,000 seat stadium, on a stage shaped like Prince’s love symbol, and the real takeaway for me was that this was my first time looking at a real musician. Prince was mostly playing the hits, but he has a lot of hits, and the set list seemed to change at his whim, the band well drilled enough to follow his cues. He was a great singer, with a voice that moves effortlessly between a deep bass growl and a shrill falsetto, but his real talent was in his guitar, and his amazing, uplifting solos. I’ve heard Prince describe his musical genre as “inspirational,” and that’s exactly what it was. I felt the funk songs in my crotch, and the ballads in my heart. I took the lovely Shortcake to the second show, and she literally fainted during Purple Rain.

There was one show in Melbourne on that tour that I missed. On a Monday night at 2am he played one of his illusive secret shows, just Prince and the band jamming for three hours to an audience of eighty in a dingy jazz club. The next morning I read the reviews with envy, and made a note to find the secret show if I was ever in the same city as Prince again.

Custom cigar with an inch smoked

At the mid-point the custom cigar is dry, with flavours of sandy earth and straw. There is a strong cocoa element that reminds me of packaged cake mix, with the bite of dehydrated egg. It’s a complex cigar, to be honest – no sooner have I tasted cake mix then it switches to a fresher, more tannic sting. It’s pleasant enough.

In February of this year, Prince announced some shows in Australia. There wasn’t a lot of build-up. Tickets were on sale a week after the announcement, the shows the week after. He was playing four shows over two nights in Melbourne, and the same in Sydney. As luck would have it would be in the right town for both. The venues were small concert halls, 2000 seats or less, and the shows billed as an intimate, special experience. No band. No lights. Not even a guitar. Just Prince, a piano, and a microphone. Ticket prices were pegged at $100, $200, and $400. I figured $200 would get me a pretty good seat. I could take Shortcake again.

The day tickets went on sale was chaos, with the typical server congestion. I reached the front of the queue a few times, but by the time I did all the $200 pairs of tickets were sold out (as it happened, 90% of the venue turned out to be at the $400 price point), and each new search sent me to the back of the line. By the time I had come to terms with going alone, the best available seat was a $400 one in row X, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it.

As soon as Prince landed in Melbourne, I was all over him. I followed the Twitter feed of anyone with a slight association to Prince, or who might be in the loop of the Melbourne music scene. I spent my nights stalking the jazz bars and clubs on the lookout for a Purple light that might signal a secret show, and didn’t go to bed before 4:00am. Alas, it seemed that the rigorous pace of this tour – four hours or more solo singing a night for two nights in a row – left no room for secret shows.

As I drove up to Sydney an announcement pinged on my phone. Due to popular demand, they had decided to do the Sydney Opera Hours shows in the round. Seats in the boxes to the side and rear of the stage were now available. From Wodonga to Gundagai I contemplated it, but decided I had no choice. It was a lot of money for two hours of entertainment, but I had been losing sleep over Prince for a week. By Jugiong I had a $400 charge on my credit card.

My seat was in the second row of the stage left box. Prince’s piano, close enough that I could have easily thrown my wallet onto it, was lengthways on the stage. The people in the VIP row of the stalls were marginally closer, but seated at the piano he was facing me. I had the best seat in the house.

The set was all deep cuts, almost none of which I knew, but each one filled with pure, raw emotion, taking me back to the most brutal of my many heartbreaks, or to the ecstasy of new love. Prince’s mastery of his art was awe inspiring, as was his vocal range, his ability to put so much into every note, his ease with the crowd, and his charisma. By the second encore my voice was among the 2000 screaming for more, our roar reverberating around incredible acoustics of the shell roof. On stage Prince giggled. “I’ve never felt so welcome in Australia in my life.”

At midnight it was over and I was completely emotionally drained. My plan had been to get a cab the five kilometres or so back to the apartment, but in a Zen state I decided it was better to walk. I drifted through Saturday night, past the drunks and the scumbags, the strip clubs and the pimps and the thug cops. “On any other weekend that would be me” I thought to myself. “Why have I wasted my life on this garbage? Why haven’t I dedicated it to truth and beauty?” I wondered. “How will I ever achieved the perfection of someone like Prince if my life is half over and I haven’t even begun.”

Two kilometres out it started to rain, but I didn’t mind. I was a man of love now, and rain didn’t bother me.

Davidé is the physical embodiment of a creature of hate. His body, army honed, is a hard mound of muscle and scar tissue. On his back he proudly wears a tattoo of a naked woman riding the Nagasaki bomb. Across his belly march the silhouettes of a company of storm troopers. He was sharing my apartment, and I had left him with the only key, so had to tap on the window to get let in. Shirtless, he opened the door, and contemplated me with his cold sneer, ready to launch into some rant or other. I embraced him.

“Peace be on you, brother” I said. “Peace be on you.”

Custom cigar about an inch unsmoked

I keep waiting for the cigar to get bitter, as it has been loose the whole way down, and doesn’t seem to be aged particularly long, so I would expect a hot mess of tar to be its final notes. Not so. The custom ends with a nice sweet cream and rich espresso. I’d recommend you pick one up, but I have no idea how you’d do such a thing.

Custom cigar nub

Ranier Custom

An overcast but pleasant day at the Groom compound, where the ancestral lands are under threat; once a sizable pastoral holding, generations of divided wealth have whittled the family seat down to just a few blocks, and a dispute between my immediate forbears has led to the subdivision of those. Just off the deck I can see a line of new saplings cutting through the old front lawn, demarcating the new border of the property. Of course, that which remains is still very pleasant, but what’s the point of having a family compound if it’s not a vast fiefdom where your indolent sons can take drugs and throw parties without having to worry about the neighbours? The new neighbours are a long way from starting construction, but someday soon there will be a house just beyond those saplings, possibly even overlooking my smoking chair.

Ranier Custom unlit

Today I’m smoking a custom cigar from Ranier, a level eight roller at the Partagás factory, and brother of Hamlet, himself a level eight roller (and now a big wheel at the Romeo y Julieta factory). Hamlet is a darling of the custom cigar aficionados thanks to a period when he toured the world regularly, rolling in bigger cigar shops. Professional Cuban cigar rollers fall into four categories: the level fives who roll the domestic production, the sixes who roll your Monte 4s and whatnot, the sevens who roll the middle size cigars, the Corona Gordas, Edmundos etc, and the eights who roll the perfectos and the big cigars. Levels one through four are strictly amateur hour. At one stage there were level nines as well (and indeed, Ranier was one of them), but they don’t have those any more.

I never entirely got the point of custom cigars. There’d be a great deal of pleasure to be found in making your own brand, with custom blends and packaging, but few have the skill or the resources to do that, and as it stands the vast majority of customs are commissioned as singles. If you’re only buying one or two cigars you’re hardly going to get a petite corona (I’ve had difficulty even getting Lanceros rolled), and so custom cigars generally all end up the same: double coronas (although Hamlet has been known to make flying pigs, short fat little things from time to time). I didn’t measure the cigar in question, but it’s a double corona or something very similar. It does have a pig tail and a shaggy foot, I suppose, both things you’d be hard pressed to find in production double coronas.

Ranier Custom, three quarters left, with a rum and sarsaparilla

Of course, as is the cliché on A Harem of Dusky Beauties whenever I spend a paragraph tearing down a particular cigar, I must now admit that this one is delicious, with a light to medium earthy tobacco flavour and a little cream. It reminds me of a less refined Cohiba.

I’m considering this cigar in my Partagás horizontal because Rainer rolls at the Partagás factory (or at least the La Casa Del Habano store at the site of the former Partagás factory, which is being converted into a museum), but really it doesn’t belong there. In 1980 an outbreak of blue mould wiped out virtually the entire Cuban tobacco crop and with the factories sitting idle, a massive reform and rationalisation of the industry occurred. Many small factories were closed, many small volume sizes were discontinued, and the big factories all began to produce each other’s cigars. Partagás cigars today are mainly produced at the El Rey del Mundo Factory, at the same benches that put out Bolivar, Ramon Allones, La Gloria Cubana and a much else besides. I didn’t commission this cigar myself – it came to me though a friend – but it would have been rolled with whatever tobacco happened to have been issued to Ranier that day, and so the blend could be absolutely anything. A roller may ask you what sort of cigars you like as a bit of lip service, but in the main the only thing you can get by way of an altered blend is if you tell him you like strong cigars and egg him on until he slips an extra ligero leaf in there.

Ranier Custom, final third

I have built a little fort out of my various bottles to protect my cigar from the ocean breezes, although it’s hard to say with surety how effective it is. About halfway down the cigar is still very earthy, and a little bitterer than I’d like.

With two inches to go it extinguishes itself, and when I relight it does not come back well, bitter and ashy with a lot of sulphur on the nose. Ten minutes later it starts to tunnel something hard-core. I touch up and persist, but it gets worse. I’m sorry, Ranier, you’re a good roller, the problem here is all on the smoker, but this cigar is quickly becoming very unpleasant.

The last few centimetres are awful, just bitter, bitter tar. I’m sipping on my sarsaparilla often, but even with that cloying sweetness on my palette, or perhaps because of it, I can’t help but spit between each puff, my saliva falling onto a section of the deck that is sheltered from the rain where it will petrify, a white indelible stain on the wood. It’s mostly my fault, I’m sure of it. I let the cigar go out and then left it to sit for a while, and the smoke pooled in the nub, ruining the tobacco there. One could make the argument that a good cigar is balanced and that Ranier should have balanced this one, rolled the cigar such that the meat, the heavier sun ripened part of the leaf, was at one end so the accumulated tar would be lessened overall. One could also make the argument that double corona cigars are not supposed to be smoked down until you burn your fingers. I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the level eight roller and blame the smoker on this one. I take the cigar down as far as I am able and let it go. Disgusting.

All told the Ranier custom was a good cigar, and had I extinguished it after a PSD4’s 4.9 inches it would have been by far the superior of that cigar, but unfortunately I let it go too far and paid the price. As it stands, with the last forty-five minutes tarnishing the memory of the first hour, I have to rate it worse than a PSD4.

Ranier Custom, nub, and many spent matches

You won’t find a Ranier Custom on the Cuban Cigar Website.