Hoyo de Monterrey Double Epicure Duty Free Exclusivo 2010

In the main, Habanos SA doesn’t put a lot of effort into the Duty Free Exclusive line, and frankly, why would they? These are cigars that will sit for years in an unhumidified plexiglass cabinet in the perpetually airconditioned day-night of an airport, tended to by sales people more accustomed to moving jumbo-sized bottles of Malibu and cartons of discount Holiday cigarettes than fine Havana leaf. When they are finally purchased, it will be as a last-minute gift; “oh, we forgot Groom! He likes cigars, doesn’t he? Get him this fancy white box.” For most duty-free exclusives, Habanos simply commissions a lacquered box from China, drop-ships them a few master cases of whichever regular production cigar they have spare, and calls it a day. Once in a while though they decide to make an effort. The Hoyo Double Epicure is only found in this one release; 4,000 units of fifteen cigars. That makes it rarer than most anything else out there. Rarer than Grand Reservas. Rarer than most regionals.

How they arrived at “Double” for this Epicure I’m not quite sure – it’s the same ring and twenty per cent longer than an Epicure 2, and a little under ten percent longer than an Epicure Especial. With the ring a comparatively classy 50 though, it’s better not to ask too many questions.

Hoyo de Monterrey Double Epicure unlit

Once lit, the cigar is mild, with a perfectly pleasant aroma of light tobacco and buttered toast. My cut, unfortunately, was a little vigorous, and I have damaged the head, causing it to unravel somewhat. Once my saliva has thoroughly soaked into it, everything will be fine, but for the moment though I must sip the smoke ever so gently.

Perhaps not for society as a whole, but amoungst my friends I think I sit about two thirds of the way down the dodginess scale. Sure, I’ll have a puff or two of a joint if someone is passing one around, and I’ll attend a cockfight if it’s Brahma night, and I probably know a guy who can get what you’re looking for, but in general I am a productive and clean-living member of society. I have a job. I own a home. I pay taxes. My arrests are rare and never lead to any charges.

I’m sure some of my friends, those lily-livered tenderfoots, consider me their dodgy mate. They should see my dodgy mate. Lance Hendrix is an unemployable drug addict, and he’s the guy I call when I’m trying to get you what you’re looking for. And yet, on the scale of dodgy mates, he’s not really all that dodgy. Sure, he is high all day every day, but he rarely causes anybody any trouble. He lives in his parents’ middle-class home and watches a lot of conspiracy-theory videos on YouTube. He manages to get by on the dole money without committing too many crimes to supplement it.

Lance’s dodgy mate is Pete, and Pete is a proper lowlife. My occasional run-ins with him generally all begin the same way: I’ll be meeting Lance for coffee, and afterwards he’ll ask if I can drive him down to Fitzroy to run an errand (Lance, understandably, doesn’t like to drive). The errand is to buy weed from Pete.

Pete is half-Thai and half Caucasian. He’s about five-foot-tall, and weighs all of 40kg. His front teeth are dead and blackened, and he has a nervous twitch and stutter. He likes to punctuate his sentences with a cry of “yeeeaah booiiii.”

When Lance calls Pete to announce our imminent arrival, Pete always asks the same favour: “can you bring me a couple of bottles of coke?” He lives deep in a block of low rise housing commission flats. We park in a nearby alley, and then wind our way through the complex, through the overgrown courtyard with an abandoned couch, and past some rusted play equipment. The place always seems empty. People keep their blinds drawn.

Pete lives with his mother, who is sometimes there and sometimes not. When she’s there, she’s usually on the couch watching TV and doesn’t acknowledge us as we walk past her on the way to her son’s room. Their house is overflowing with stuff: in the kitchen every counter is covered with groceries. In the lounge room, every surface is home to a vast community of little animal figurines. Pete has a small white dog with a bad skin condition, that sniffs at us as we pass through. He treats it very gently.

As soon as you enter Pete’s room, he immediately lays a rolled-up towel in front of the door gap, I assume as a concession to his mother, who otherwise doesn’t seem to question why he has a string of people visiting him for ten-minute intervals at all hours of the day and night. His room is small and decorated with posters of Asian women with implausibly full busts. Across one shelf is his collection of My Little Ponies. He usually seems to be watching a movie and will skip back and forth to show you the good bits.

I usually enjoy these little visits: a refreshing glass of Coke, a bit of a chat about the “clever girl” scene in Jurassic Park, some insights into the life of an interesting character. Lance, however, does not. As soon as the deal is done, he’ll start looking for an excuse to leave. Pete is too dodgy for him.

Hoyo de Monterrey Double Epicure with about a quarter smoked

After a bitter spell ten minutes in, the cigar has slackened off, and if it wasn’t for the visible smoke I would wonder if it was even lit. The flavours are extremely mild. Somewhere in there I can detect the slightest hint of tobacco. Perhaps, if I’m pushing it, there’s something sweet. Vanilla maybe. Full disclosure, I am enjoying this cigar with a Bloody Mary. I make my Marys with fresh tomatoes rather than concentrate, and as such they are a much milder beverage than is typically had over brunch. They do, nonetheless, have plenty of Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce, so it’s more than possible I’ve ruined my palate for a delicate cigar like this.

Pete may be a weed dealer but, like most people, he likes to look outside his business for his recreation. His real passion is for crystal methamphetamine. As a casual acquaintance, who only really knew him in a professional capacity, I was only dimly aware of this hobby until after coffee one Saturday, when Lance asked me to drive him on an errand. He wanted to go visit Pete in the hospital.

Pete, it eventuated, had suffered a collapsed lung. Crystal meth is hard stuff, and Pete had been enjoying it on a more than casual basis. Eventually, he’d caused a part of his lung to rot and a hole had developed. Having a hole in a lung is not ideal, but it’s survivable: Pete, it seemed, had been carrying his around for some time without too many issues. The problem came when one of his clients bought around a new bong for show and tell. It was a glorious double chambered thing, eighteen inches long, and made of lab-grade Pyrex. Dishwasher safe. He insisted they christen it together; Pete huffed in a giant hit, some air got out through the hole in his lung, and when he exhaled the pressure differential between the air outside his lung and the absence of air inside it caused it to collapse.

Short of breath, with a racing heart and stabbing pain in his chest, Pete thought he was just too high. “Man” he said, “that is an awesome bong.” He delayed seeking treatment for almost a day, but eventually had his mum drive him to the hospital.

When Lance and I saw him, Pete was a miserable customer indeed, lying in bed with a tube of bloody fluid coming out of him, and numerous other tubes of (less bloody) fluids going in. He was watching American History X in bed. We sat with him a while as he skipped around, showing us the good bits, and loudly speaking along to the dialogue, either unaware of unconcerned that the ward of people around him could hear every word.

A few weeks later, Lance and I visited Pete again, now back at home and seemingly fully recovered. As always, he weighed Lance out his ounce, and then rolled us a joint, before waxing philosophical: “Guys” he said, “I’ve learned something from all this. Nothing wrong with smoking, nothing wrong with a little meth, but stay away from the fuckin bongs. Yeeeaah booiiii.”

Hoyo de Monterrey Double Epicure smoked just above the band.

In the final third the cigar grows coffee bitter, never acrid, and honestly, it’s a welcome change from the bland two thirds that proceeded it. My over-enthusiastic cut, which hasn’t troubled me at all after the first few minutes, finally catches up with me in a sloppy nub that falls apart.

There’s not too much to the Hoyo Double Epicure, but what there is is no way offensive. If you’re in the duty-free shop looking for a gift and the Upmanns are available, take them every day of the week. If they only have Hoyos? Well, get me these over the Epicure 1s.

Hoyo de Monterrey Double Epicure nub

Hoyo de Monterrey Double Epicure Duty Free Exclusivo 2010 on the Cuban Cigar Website

H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007

Every Cuban cigar marque has its own character in its distinctive flavour profile, but a few novelty brands aside (Cuaba comes to mind), when it comes to sizes they generally sell a pretty standard line-up. Every brand has got to have its take on a Churchill, on a Petite Corona, on a Pirámides and a Dalia, and every brand has got to have its version of a Robusto.

Except, predictably, for one: H. Upmann.

The duty free exclusive release series is not a series where you typically expect to find very good cigars, mainly because duty free shops are not the kind of places you typically expect to find very good cigars. Yes, there are a few big, modern hub airports in luxury oriented destinations that have dedicated, premium cigar stores, with trained staff and properly respected stock – I think Dubai has one, and probably London – but in general airport cigars are stored at ambient humidity and temperature, and pitched to you by leggy sales girls whose expertise lies in 2L bottles of Baileys Irish Cream and cartons of Menthol Super-slims, not the nuances of fine Cuban leaf.

Perhaps because of this, when the H. Upmann Robusto travel humidor came out in 2007 – a handsome leather 10 cigar travel case – it didn’t get a lot of play in the aficionado scene. For a few years they were widely available, but I guess some people bought them – most likely big collectors seeking completeness, or perhaps one or two took a fancy to the case, and bought it with the intention of swiftly refilling it with something more to their taste – because eventually word got around the aficionado community that the cigars inside were fantastic. The run didn’t last long: a few non-duty free retailers picked up the unsold stock, and flipped it as quick as they could. I’ve had a few of these cigars over the years and they’ve always been great. This is my last one, and today it burns.

H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007 unlit

The first puffs are fantastic, light toasted, spicy tobacco with a grassy, herbal finish. After about puff number six it develops a sour note, but fortunately this quickly fades and the cigar comes back with the same herbal grassiness in a thicker, richer tobacco note.

It would have been around the time that the travel humidors started to run out that the Upmann robustos started to come in thick and fast: I’m not sure if it was the sudden success of the travel humidor that prompted it, or if the powers that be at Habanos S.A. simply decided that the Upmann robusto void remained sadly unfilled, but in 2011 there arrived the Royal Robusto as a La Casa del Habano exclusive, and then in 2012 there were two, a special 520 Aniversario Robusto, alongside that year’s Edition Limitada, another Upmann Robusto.

H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007 an inch smoked

In the early days of the Harem I would rant ad nauseam about my distaste for gourmet beer; today, it seems that times have changed. Australia, along with the rest of the developed world, has been deep in the craft beer craze for years now, and the humble, mass-market corporate swill of my youth barely exists anymore. Once every six months or so I sip a Carlton Draft at a racetrack or stadium and am instantly struck by what tasteless, sour swill it is. Today I’m drinking a Leather Britches Brewery Hairy Helmet golden ale, a beer I’d never heard of until I saw it in the Bottle-O just now, and it somehow seemed the most appealing of their mid-priced imported beers. I don’t know why I buy golden ales. The first one I ever had – from Two Birds Brewery, or something like that – was fantastic, but every one I’ve had since then has been a disappointment. This one is a beer for beer nerds:  too hoppy! It’s bitter, with an undercurrent of compost heap. It doesn’t pair so badly with the robusto though. The bitterness of the hops brings out the sweetness in the cigar, and it mixes with the herbal aftertaste quite nicely, and adds a depth to it.

That said, I do have to rinse my mouth out with water and puff out through the cigar to get a decent tasting note: light to mid tobacco, touch of cream, touch of spice, a little sweetness, and something of the aroma of an ancient hay wain.

The beer might have been a mistake, as more than anything else right now I need a bathroom. As a ten year old in red China, I remember vividly what constituted a public toilet at that time: a cinder block hut containing a row of faeces caked concrete holes that drained (by the power of gravity alone) into an open cesspool behind the structure. Periodically, the local peasantry would visit the pool and shovel its contents into wheelbarrows to dump on the nearby fields. I took one look and said “never again.” (I also refused to eat any more Chinese watermelons). For two years I held it from early morning until late evening every single day, and in the process I developed a bladder so strong that in six years of high school I visited the bathrooms only twice: once to hang posters for my ill-fated student body presidential campaign (more on that later), and once as a quiet place to replace the photograph of an honoured famous old boy with one of our more infamous alumni, mass murderer Julian Knight, as an end of year prank. Those days are long passed, however, and like a football left too long in the sun, my bladder has withered, and half a litre of beer is now too much for it.

H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007 two inches remaining

With a bit over an inch to go the cigar has thickened up a little, heavy tobacco now, with still a slightly sour note. It ends well. Not bitter, but sour on the back palette. Rich raw tobacco. A touch of charred whisky barrel. This was not, unfortunately, the best of travel humidor robusto that I’ve ever had, but still, the sky is blue, the sun is warm, and the beer is cold. A boy can’t complain too much, at least not after he finds a bathroom.

Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto: better than the Petit Corona, not as good as the Magnum 48.

H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007 nub

H. Upmann Travel Humidor Robusto Duty Free Exclusivo 2007 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Partagás Serie P No. 1

Before I begin, a word about jars.

Starting in the 1920s, Cuban cigars have occasionally been released packaged inside ceramic porcelain jars. Lined with a cedar sheet, and with an airtight seal and small humidifying sponge in the lid, these jars make nice little humidors. Aficionados opine that much like in aluminium tubes, the air circulates less inside a sealed jar than it does inside a porous cedar box, which means the oils in the leaf take longer to evaporate. Less oil movement means that the cigars (in theory, at any rate), age slower, and as the legends tell us, slower aging is better ageing.

The Millennium Jars in 1999 marked the return of the special edition porcelain jar to the modern era, and since them a special edition jar of some kind has appeared more or less annually. They’re very popular among collectors, and I can see why, as they are really very nice things. The cigar we consider today is the Partagás Serie P No. 1, which was released (in a jar) exclusively for duty free retail in 2010. The lid on my example sits on very lightly, held in place only by gravity and the slight grip of the rubber membrane that creates the seal. The very best jars from days of yore would have a seal made only by two pieces of perfectly milled porcelain, but our modern mass manufacturing techniques can’t match the old precision, at least not at the price Habanos S.A. is willing to pay.

Partagás Serie P No. 1 jar

As I discussed in my article on the Serie D No. 4 (and most every essay since), the letter in a Serie cigar theoretically denotes its gauge, and the number its length. Not so much in the P1: the P presumably stands for piramides, but the 1 should indicate a considerable length, which this does not have: by rights it should probably be a P4. What that means for the series overall though I don’t know: the P2 conforms to what you’d expect.

To me the P1 was always a working man’s sort of cigar: a knock about little pyramid of spice and tar for the tradesman on the go, and so I’ve brought this one today to a working man’s sort of venue: the smoking section of a McDonald’s restaurant in Osaka, Japan. I rarely pair cigars with food – I find the cigars tend to drown out the taste – but in this instance I think I may have found a perfect match: the Partagás Serie P No. 1 and a Medium Big Mac Value Meal.

Partagás Serie P No. 1 unlit, with a Big Mac Meal

Every McDonald’s in Japan has a smoking section, the size and pleasantness of which vary depending on the size of the restaurant. A larger branch will usually have a whole floor set aside for the smokers, but not so this one, where the smoking area is a small glassed off booth with eight seats. It’s not nearly as ventilated as I’d like. Besides myself there are four occupants, three teenage hoodlums and what appears to be a homeless man (a rare site in Japan), and between us we are adding a considerable pall to the air. There is an air-conditioner, but it seems to be blowing air around more than it is filtering it.

From the first puff the cigar doesn’t mess around, straight into dirt and spice and tarred cedar wood. When you’re only a three and a half inch cigar first impressions count, and the P1 is definitely a rough kid. Sometimes I like them rough.

Partagás Serie P No. 1 two thirds, remain

I’m not sure if it’s by design or by accident – although knowing both Japan and the McDonald’s corporation like I do, I’m going to bet design – but the ashtray they have provided fits perfectly within one half of the Big Mac burger box. The further I get into this meal I begin to think that perhaps the Medium Big Mac Value Meal has undergone a similarly intensive engineering process, with just one design goal in mind: to totally swamp a cigar aficionado’s palette. The salt of the chips, the sweet of the cola, and then the greasy mess that is the Big Mac touches sweet, salt, sour, umami – every taste button bar one: bitter. Fortunately the Partagás Serie P. No. 1 is happy to oblige and complete the sensory overload.

Confines are cramped in the smoking area; seated on a stool at a counter facing the wall I feel that my personal space begins and ends at the borders of my meal tray. My cigar makes its cyclical journey from the ashtray to lips within this zone, and small flecks of ash have dropped from it onto my chips. To my overloaded palette it is lending them a subtly peaty flavour, much like one might find in an Islay single malt. From the cigar has emerged a note of aniseed.

Partagás Serie P No. 1 an inch left

My visits to McDonald’s these days are generally limited only to the occasional particularly desperate morning after the night before, when only the most efficient mechanism for delivering a jolt of sugar and fat and salt and caffeine to my system will suffice, but I’m appreciating it tonight for reasons beyond the gimmick of smoking a cigar in the world’s most iconic family restaurant. The example of a Big Mac that one finds in Japan, a country where even punk teenagers in minimum-wage jobs have a work ethic, is substantially better put together than the Australian variety, but once one takes a bite they are utterly indistinguishable, both from each other, and from their ancestor I consumed twenty five years ago at my best friend’s birthday party, and from the countless others I have eaten all over the world. Consistency is important, and pleasant for its own sake.

Like the Big Mac, the Partagás Serie P No. 1 is a consistent cigar. I’ve smoked a heap of these little guys over the years, and always enjoyed them as no-nonsense firecrackers, an efficient tool for delivering the joy of a great Cuban smoke directly to your pleasure centre. They’re not the most complex things in the world, and I don’t really think they’re worthy of their packaging: these should be an everyday smoke, not a collector’s trophy to age and admire. In my overall ranking of the Partagás specials these will suffer for their length, but inch for inch they’re as good as anything out there. I just wish that they were regular production, because they’re more deserving of it than a PSD4.

Partagás Serie P No. 1 nub, with ashes and detritus

Partagás Serie P No. 1 at the Cuban Cigar Website.