La Corona Panetelas

On a long enough timeline everything becomes exotic. We’ve had discontinued cigars on The Harem before, but never a discontinued brand. La Corona was once a fine house, producing the very best in premium cigars; once in a while you see a cigar butt half smoked by Winston Churchill go to auction, and when you do it’s usually a La Corona. Romeo may get the credit, but La Corona is what the big man really smoked. The La Corona factory is no longer in the same colonial building that was built in 1904 to house their production, but the modern incarnation still bears the old name, and is still the largest factory in Cuba. The once proud marque of La Corona though, is done. It has been done since 1979. When the brand reappeared in the 1990s it was a shadow of its former self, nine cellophane wrapped machine made small cigars, little better than the Belinda of today. It was gone within a decade. Today’s dusky beauty is one from this era, a La Corona Panetelas. On a long enough timeline everything becomes exotic.

La Corona Panetelas unlit

I’m not sure that I’ve ever smoked a plastic wrapped cigar before – it takes me a minute to figure out that the red band is a pull tab that separates the plastic into halves. The wrapper is brutal, a mess of spots and lumps, peaks and valleys. The tip is nice though, a hot bullet, almost too conical to open with my nail. I get there in the end. Once lit it begins a little tannic, with a lot more force than you’d expect from a quarter century old machine made. Min Ron Nee describes these cigars as very mild, and maybe they were in 1995, but in 2015 this one has some guts.

As a youth I identified a lot with the Tom Cruise character in Risky Business:  I was young and timid, my parents had a great house and went on trips a lot, and I never really saw any huge moral problem with hiring sharp featured prostitutes with legs that went all the way down to the floor. As time went by things changed: I did a business degree, developed a lot of unrealised aspirations, and formed close bonds with older mentors who would ultimately betray me. I also had a penchant for poetry. In short, I became Tom Cruise from Cocktail. There was also a period when I was really into volleyball, but the less said about that the better.

There is a point to all my ‘80s movie jokes, which is that in addition to being a world class cigar aficionado, a decent computer programmer, and a mediocre author of bawdy anecdotes, I’m also pretty good at mixing drinks; in fact, I have one with me today in the form of a sports bottle full of ice and Savoy Milk Punch No. 1. True fact: in the novel that Cocktail is based off (also named Cocktail), the two main characters bartend while they aspire to be novelists, not plutocrats. All that Wall Street business stuff was added just because it was the ‘80s and making bank was popular.

La Corona Panetelas two thirds remaining

I think I’m starting to understand what they mean when they refer to the ‘90s La Corona cigars as very mild, because the tobacco flavour and the level of nicotine are really both very light. That said, the amount of flavour, the pure volume of tastebuds that are stimulated and the length that flavour persists on the palette is anything but. There is a strong kick of oak and fruit, the first mouthful of cheap white wine.  It is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but it is very distinct and anything but mild. I can feel it coating my mouth in a thin layer of viscous film.

About halfway through the cigar goes through as drastic and sudden a flavour change as I’ve ever encountered. The white wine oak disappears, leaving behind it a mild creamy coffee. Somewhere behind that is a hint of tobacco, the first I’ve seen in this cigar.

The Savoy Cocktail Book is one of the quintessential old cocktail books, first emerging as a manual for the bartenders at the Savoy Hotel in London’s American Bar in the 1920s, and being periodically supplemented and rereleased since then. It contains over a thousand recipes, although almost all of them are slight variations on a martini. In the very back there is a section on punches, and one of those is the Milk Punch No. 1.

The idea of a milk punch is that you take a bunch of fruit, herbs, spices, and sugar and leave it to marinate in brandy and rum for a few days. Once sufficiently infused you strain out the chunks and add lemon juice and lightly heated milk. When the milk touches the booze and the citrus it curdles, and the curdling process acts as a kind of filter, pulling the impurities out of the booze. Several days of straining follow, but once you have successfully filtered the cheese out you are left with a clear, glowing punch. It’s hard to say how alcoholic it is: the extracted cheese smells like somebody spilled a bottle of metho, while the punch tastes like a child’s breakfast drink, but half a bottle is definitely enough to noticeably lift my spirits.

I made this batch a few days ago: four litres for a party that only ten people attended. My Risky Business days are long behind me. Concealed in my sports flask it should remain undetected unless law enforcement do a specific gravity test. Through the bulk of the cigar the mild pineapple flavour has complimented but not overpowered the tobacco’s flavour. During the bitter final third it is sufficient to take the edge off the tar.

La Corona Panetelas final third

The La Corona finishes a little bitter, but is none the weaker for it. Flavoursome and punchy, this delivers far more than you would expect from a twenty year old, low cost machine made. For what it’s worth, I would say that the La Corona is better than the Quintero Favoritos, the closest comparable modern cigar that has graced these pages. If you have the means I highly recommend you pick one up.

La Corona Panetelas nub

La Corona Panetelas on the Cuban Cigar Website

H. Upmann Monarcas

Homewood bound, The Blue Valkyrie, a 1990 Mercedes-Benz 300CE coupe cruiser, charges through the empty brown fields of rural Australia, my maladroit manservant, Davidé, at the wheel. It is hour five of a Sydney-Melbourne run, a journey of some 900kms, and having recently completed our rest stop at Wagga Wagga, my driving duties are over, and I recline in the passenger side with a tubed H. Upmann Monarcas.

The exact difference between the proletarian Monarcas and its upper crust cousin, the Sir Winston, has never been entirely clear to me: they are the same size, and particularly with some age, present similar notes, yet it is always the Winston that aficionados speak of in hushed and reverent tones. This particular Monarch comes from the final run of tubos before their discontinuation. Eight remain in my possession: the dearly departed were all excellent, elegant smokes, and this one promises to be the same, with its mid-brown glossy wrapper and perfect texture.

H. Upmann Monarcas unlit

For appearances sake I attempt to light her with the provided lighter (which, I note, the manual refers to exclusively as a cigar lighter), but alas, the quarter-century old electrics provide only enough heat to slightly blacken the foot. I switch to my trusty mini-blowtorch, which does the job, but, Australian country roads not being as smooth as the autobahn to which The Valkyrie is accustomed, my juddering hands blacken most of the first inch. I chastise Davidé, but he is unrepentant. The first notes are mild, light, smooth tobacco with a heavy sweetness on the back palette. Davidé notes that the aroma is like beer freshly spilled in a country pub, and he’s right, there is an element of malt in there that I have often tasted before in Upmann cigars but never thought to name. As the first inch burns away a light spice appears.

I bought this car five years ago, choosing it because a friend (perhaps sarcastically) told me that the 300CE was the best car ever made, and because as an aspirational youth I felt an urge to trade in my aging Honda Civic hatchback for something with some heft to it. I initially aspired slightly higher even than the humble E-Class, looking instead to this car’s Sir Winston, the 560SEC, which adds some rear legroom, and more importantly replaces the 3.0L V6 of the CE with a 5.6L V8. In the twenty-teens there is precisely one kind of Australian male who drives an old Mercedes coupe: an ethnic thug from the suburbs, and so although I spent a few months visiting car yards in the outer suburbs looking at SECs, I was unable to find one that hadn’t been lowered and had the once ample boot space diminished by a phat woofer. Eventually I found a CE in light blue at a lot out in Werribee: the miles were low (suspiciously low, a more experienced used car buyer might have noted), but everything seemed to be original (right down to the unopened first aid kit), it boasted a full service history, and the price was right. A boy with an unbroken voice answered when I rang up to enquire: “oh yeah, the blue one? Yeah, that’s a real beauty, come on down.”

H. Upmann Monarcas, two thirds gone, in a car ashtray

At the midpoint the cigar remains mild, slightly thicker than the first puffs, but still on the light side of medium. The sweetness has faded a little, but still remains. To my palette the malt has been replaced by heavy cedar and grass; Davidé notes that beer is still the chief aroma he is detecting, although it’s highly likely that his palette (along with everything else) has been dulled by decades of heavy indulgence in the stuff.

The dealership, like many of the suburban used car yards with which I had developed a recent familiarity, was a chain-link fenced paddock filled with the classic cars of yesteryear in varying stages of decomposition: some pristine, some that had obviously recently been an integral part of a heavy impact, and others on blocks, rusting hulks stripped for parts. Leaning next to the door of the fibro shack that passed for an office was a gypsy boy in his early teens, casually smoking a cigarette. He hailed me as I approached: “can I help you sir?” Dubiously, and expecting that the request would be immediately relayed to some authority figure, I asked after the blue 300CE, and he immediately lit up. “Ah, yeah, the blue Merc, a real beauty, just over here.”

He led Davidé and I over to a corrugated iron barn, where The Valkyrie reposed under a thick layer of dust. Lighting a fresh cigarette from the butt of his fast diminishing one, he found the keys and a jerry can of fuel, and pulled her around for me, waxing lyrical all the while about her low miles, intact accessories, and general status as a real beauty. The previous owner, he claimed, was the flamboyant publican of a fashionable inner-city night spot, and were I to mention the purchase of this machine to the bouncer there I would no doubt be whisked immediately passed the lengthy line and straight to the owner’s table, where he would be delighted to receive a fellow connoisseur of the finer things in life. As we departed on our test drive he sucked his lip wistfully. “Great car,” he said. “Lot of potential. You just gotta drop it a couple of inches and put a big sound system in the back.”

We ran around the block, and parked in the parking lot of a local school to get up close and personal with the engine. Despite a lifetime of buying used cars, Davidé’s assessment only ran as far as a glance at the underside and the observation of “no drips.” When I reminded him that he was here precisely because he was my deputised expert, the oaf merely shrugged, and said “you should have brought one of my friends, they’d be pulling parts off the car right now.”

H. Upmann Monarcas half left, on some Ray-Ban 42 Round

Perhaps it’s the confinement of the small ashtray that is doing it, but the cigar is having a lot of trouble staying lit, and my shaky road relights are not doing it any favours. With two and a half inches remaining it comes back from the relight spoiled, its elegance replaced by sour ash and bitter tar. I try the old smoker’s purge, a hearty exhale through the cigar in an attempt to blow out the crap, but it is ineffective. In desperation I hold the cigar head first up through the open sunroof for a few moments to see if the 120kph headwind can do what my feeble lungs cannot. I bring it back in and am delighted to find that it has worked: the bitter ash is gone, replaced by a thick, toasted mid tobacco, balanced and strongly herbaceous.

We arrived back at the dealer to find our young salesman waiting for us, his trademark Holiday between his lips. I said I was interested, and after a little coy banter, where I tried to established whether or not he really had the authority to negotiate, we settled on a number about twenty per cent below the asking. He spat in his palm, and shook my hand gleefully when I told him that I would be paying with the only currency that really talks at used car dealerships in Werribee: folding cash. He walked me back to the office, and it was only there that I finally encountered an employee of an age legally able to enter into a contract.

About three days passed before I realised that the odometer wasn’t turning, and after sober examination of the ‘full service history’ concluded that it hadn’t turned for more than a decade and presumably 150,000 kilometres. Nonetheless, The Valkyrie has for five years been as reliable a whip as any man could ask for, never leaving me stranded or requiring a major repair. Even now, as we approach the outskirts of Melbourne, having covered the better part of 2000 kilometres in the last two days, she purrs along with power, grace, and most importantly, heft. Whenever I pass through the outer suburbs her elegant, swooping  lines still attract the odd longing stare from a certain type of ethnic thug, no doubt mulling how she’d look an inch or two lower, and with a booming woofer in the back. We come from different worlds, these men and I, but we still have something in common: I didn’t choose the thug life, the thug life chose me.

H. Upmann Monarcas final third, on an honest lighter

The cigar ends quite wonderfully, thick tobacco but never bitter, the sweetness remaining to the end in the form of a thick musk, with the woody tang of Speyside whisky. A great cigar, that is the poor cousin of no one.

H. Upmann Monarcas nub

H. Upmann Monarcas on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Montecristo Dunhill Selección No.1

This is essentially a Montecristo No. 1 that has been banded as a Dunhill Selection. In the late 1960’s the Dunhill company reached a deal with the Cubans to produce a few brands for them and them alone, namely Don Candido, Don Alfredo and Flor Del Punto, as well as a number of cigars from other marques that were sold as Dunhill Selección cigars with special bands and boxes, of which this is one. All of these were discontinued in 1982 with the introduction of the Dunhill brand, and the Dunhill brand itself was discontinued in 1991 after a spat between Dunhill and the Cubans, but that’s a story for another day.

Montecristo Dunhill Selección No.1 unlit

Like many of my singles, this cigar was given to me a gift and I can’t speak for certain as to its age, however, given the discontinuation date, it must be at least 30 years old, and quite possibly older. The Dunhill exclusive brands have all gone on to become legendary cigars, much sought after at vintage cigar auctions, however not so much these selection cigars. I think you’d struggle to find someone with specific enough insider knowledge of the late 1970s Cuban cigar industry to say for certain one way or the other whether these cigars were the same blend as the regular production Monte 1s (and I lack the necessary 30 year old regular Monte to tell you myself), but my suspicion is that they are probably identical. The difference, if there is one, would come from superior quality control on Dunhill’s end.

I set this one on fire, and my first thought is that is has a lot of punch for a cigar this old. Strong, rich, toasted tobacco right through the nose. Draw is perfect. Wonderful. I’m pairing this cigar with Ron Zacapa XO, a fine old rum for a fine old cigar. Zacapa XO is a blended rum (which is to say, rum blended with quite a lot of sugar if you ask me), and their copy tells us that it is composed of rums aged six to twenty five years. To think, a quarter of a century ago this rum was sugarcane, this cigar was fairly fresh, and I was wearing short pants.

Montecristo Dunhill Selección No.1 partially burnt, with a Ron Zacapa XO bottle

An inch or so in and the flavour has mellowed out into something like what you expect from a very old cigar, but the cigar is having trouble holding its burn; I’ve had to retouch it several times. There is a gentle gusty breeze on the loose, and although I have moved the cigar into the lee of the Zacapa, it is nonetheless having trouble holding its ash. The ash itself is a dark, mottled grey, not the pure white that one often finds in elderly cigars like this.

Montecristo Dunhill Selección No.1 half left

I remember my first Monte No. 1. I purchased it for my 19th birthday, and took it to a very nice cocktail bar with some friends. There were four of us, with two cigars between us, and being 19 year old boys with a lot more knowledge of James Bond than of life, we ordered martinis (quite possibly my first martini), which were listed on the menu for a then exorbitant price of $15. “We usually make them with Tanqueray” the waitress said, “but I can do them with Tanq 10 if you like… it’s a little smoother.” “Yes, yes, of course” we enthusiastically replied, having no idea what Tanqueray or Tanq 10 were, but wanting nothing but the best. The drinks came, and being nineteen and more accustomed to vodka raspberry than anything else (I don’t think I was even drinking beer at 19), we found them disgusting, and when the bill arrived at our table, which of course included the upsell price of $25 for the Tanq 10, we found ourselves disinclined to order another drink. The Monte No. 1, however, is not a short cigar, and so we soldiered on. We were laughing loudly, I’m sure, like the young hooligans we were, and one of my non-smoking compatriots was tearing up a box of candy cigarettes he had in his pocket and throwing the pieces into the candle, which was burning like a small bonfire. Eventually the glass candle holder cracked and melted wax leaked all over the table, and moments later we were thrown out. I clipped the end from my Monte (of which three or so inches remained) and put it in a tube to smoke at a later date.

Two months later that very same pyromaniac (he came from a good Christian family), got married. It was an afternoon reception, and so, at 7pm, filled to the brim with boyish glee and free champagne, my friend Andrew and I found ourselves out on the town and ready to celebrate. We headed, of course, to a strip club; the dirtiest, and more importantly, the cheapest strip club we could find, and I produced from my pocket the remains of my Montecristo No. 1 (aficionado hot tip, people: cigars should not be half smoked and then stored in a tube for two months). I can’t image how it tasted, but I loved it, and in we plunged, taking two seats, right up against the main stage. We were there for 45 minutes or so, and turned down all the girls who asked us if we wanted a private dance. Eventually one came up with a jug full of money and explained that they were having a lesbian show on the stage in 5 minutes, and requested that we contribute. Being a diplomat above all else, I gave her a token amount, $5, but Andrew, he waved her away. “No thank you”, he said. In increasingly forceful tones the girl explained that we were sitting right on the stage, and had been for some time, and that he really had to contribute some money or cede his seat. At this, Andrew defiantly withdrew a five cent coin from his pocket (the smallest unit of Australian currency) and tossed it contemptuously into the jug.

Suffice to say, we were thrown out shortly after. I don’t remember what happened to the cigar. I suppose I left it in the ashtray.

Two thirds in, this cigar is delightful, an aged, creamy elegance, with just a touch of spice. A little tar on the back palette is easily dissolved by the rum. I take it down till it burns my fingers, and it grows a little bitter, but not very, the age has taken away a lot of the tar. In the last few puffs something strange materialises… a tangy herb… cilantro, maybe? Perhaps the bite of a nasturtium? It’s interesting, but it lasts for only a moment. A wonderful, elegant cigar.

Better than a Monte 4.

Montecristo Dunhill Selección No.1 nub

Montecristo Dunhill Selección No. 1 on the Cuban Cigar Website.