Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, some Cohiba limiteds burn much brighter in the public consciousness than others; the 2004 Sublimes is held up as an all-time great, while the (superior in my opinion) 2003 Double Corona and 2006 Pyramid are largely forgotten. It is the same for the 2014 Robustos Supremos and its immediate neighbours, the 1966 in 2011 and the Talisman in 2017.

The Robsutos Supremos arrived reasonably on-time and with little fanfare. Sufficient quantity was available that all who wanted one could obtain one, even as a single, and there were neither frenzied mark-ups and reselling nor long shelf life and discounting. There were some bad reviews, along with the usual pearl clutching you would expect from the release of a 58 ring-gauge out of Cuba, but nothing so severe that the cigar would be remembered as a great debacle. It was simply largely forgotten.

Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014 unlit

I light the beast, and it begins very well. It is smooth and sweet, with an umami roasted mushroom note under clove and cinnamon. Light to medium tobacco, which surprises in a brute like this.

In a recent Dusky Beauty, I alluded to a crime long past; a vicious theft perpetrated by one (or more) of my closest friends, who in the early 2000s assaulted my precious store of fine whisky, along with the jewel of my father’s vinegar collection, a bottle of 1970 Penfold’s Grange Hemitage.

An update for you all: the case is closed.

While my grandparents were alive and copacetic, they were the custodians of the Groom family Christmas ritual. My father’s parents would host a lunch for their four children, many grandchildren, and various spinster aunts and other hangers on. My mother’s parents would host a dinner for their smaller family (still four children, but less grandchildren and hangers on). On both sides there are members of my parents’ generation who live away from Melbourne, and in those days they would all usually make the trip down for Christmas. Sometimes some of my interstate cousins would stay with my family for weeks over the summer break, or the whole tribe would head down to the family seaside compound between Christmas and New Year.

Since my grandparents have gone, the interstate relatives don’t come any more. There was bad blood on both sides over the division of the estates. Christmas is a lunch only affair, that alternates in host between my mother and one of my Melbourne based aunts.

The guest list includes my parents, my aunt and uncle, my sister and her husband, and my two cousins and their husbands. Being a marginally less disappointing child than I am, my sister has sired a five-year-old daughter. My two Melbourne based cousins have five children between them.

This year just passed was to be my aunt’s turn to host, until on Christmas Eve I received a phone call from my mother. My niece, who had spent the last five days with her other grandparents, was in hospital. She had contracted viral gastro and had been throwing up all day. It had been decided that she shouldn’t be around the other children. Christmas was cancelled. In its place, we would have a small affair with the immediate family. Very casual. Cold chicken. No dessert.

When I arrived the next day, everyone was in a jovial mood. My niece was in bed, being waited on by her parents. In the family room, my mother rolled her eyes and muttered about how spoiled her grandchild is.

My brother-in-law, being of different blood to me, is into tech and start-ups, and is a bit of a wine guy besides, and at some point the conversation turned to the grape. I was waxing lyrical about Rockford, a Barossa winery that I had visited the previous summer, when my father piped up.

“I’ve actually still got a few old bottles of wine from Uncle John left,” he said. “No time like the present.”

He disappeared into the laundry for some time, clinking through the numerous racks, before eventually returning with a ‘70s bottle of Henschke.

“I could have sworn I had an old bottle of Grange in there somewhere” he said. “I guess I must have drunk it.”

As the age-old tradition goes, the rotten cork crumbled into the wine, and we strained it out through a tea strainer.

Four glasses were poured, and one by one we each took a tentative sip. I was the first to call it.

“Pure vinegar.”

Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014 halfway burnt

By the mid-point the Robustos Supremos is a little meatier, with mid-tobacco, which is still surprisingly low for a fat boy like this one. On the palate a sweetness propounds, with an undertone of the forest floor in the aftertaste; mushrooms, pine needles, and damp wood. Really first rate.

When my father uttered the words “I must have drunk it,” thus was one of my youthful indiscretions concluded. He wrote the bottle off. I didn’t get grounded. He didn’t seem perturbed, and is unlikely to mention it again.

Except… nobody ever did confess to being the culprit.

I looked up the old email I sent on that fateful morning after the night before in 2007. Of the sixteen recipients, I still count four among my closest friends. A further seven I am still in periodic, if ever diminishing contact with. The final five I haven’t spoken to in more than a decade.

Figuring it was worth a shot, I hit ‘reply all’, and reached out again. This time around, my tone was conciliatory.

“A lot of water has run under the bridge” I wrote. “Most of you have kids of your own. You have adult lives. You have careers. You own property. Those heady days of youth are far behind us. What idiots we were. Nobody is going to care or give you a hard time about this. I personally committed untold social crimes at parties in my misspent youth, many of them against each of you. Like those crimes, this will just be a funny story of youthful japery. At worst I might give you some good-natured ribbing.”

“When I think of heaven, I picture it as watching your life over, but with all the unanswered questions revealed; ‘where did I lose that,’ ‘what did she really think’, and ‘why did she act that way.’ I want to know who had a secret crush on me, and who hated me. I want to know where I lost my keys. I want to know what happened to the wallet I dropped on the train. I want the thought process behind every awkward social interaction explained. And I also want to know how that whisky tasted.”

“Why don’t you and I make a little slice of heaven here on earth today?”

Three emails bounced, their mailboxes long abandoned and filled with spam.

Two others replied, repeating their protests of innocence.

The other eleven accounts remained silent.

The wolf walks among us still.

Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014 burnt just above the bands

For its entire length, the burn on the Cohiba Robustos Supremos has been impeccable; a razor-sharp line from tip to nub. The draw is a long way from a Cuban draw, but perfectly acceptable for a fat boy like this. The ash is solid, and falls on demand in heavy chunks. This would be a good cigar for a long ash competition.

The end is beautiful, with the slightest hint of the rich bitterness of coffee and cocoa in the final inch. The flavour is full with earthy, fungal notes. A fantastic cigar, that I must somewhat reluctantly admit, is better than the 2006 Pyramid, and at time of writing is the best cigar of my Cohiba vertical. One can only hope that a future entry will improve on it, and save the Harem from being known as a publication that endorses the idea of a 58 ring cigar.

Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014 nub and ashes

Cohiba Robustos Supremos Edición Limitada 2014 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2001

I was barely beginning my smoking journey in 2002, when the Pirámides EL hit the market, and I wouldn’t graduate to Cohiba for another few years. The old Cohiba that this cigar wears is a rare sight for me. The design was laid out apparently by someone with little training. Even to my amateur eye, the symmetry is all wrong, with La Habana Cuba far too close to the bottom edge, and the ratio of black to yellow off kilter. Embossing and holograms aside, Cuba has come a long way in twenty years.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2001 unlit

The first few puffs hold some harshness, although punchiness at this point in a twenty-year-old cigar is probably more a positive than a negative as it shows that the leaf still has something to give. Once the harshness fades, there is not terribly much too it: the cigar is smooth, light tobacco, and a little dry earthiness. There is a pleasant coffee note in the aftertaste.

About three quarters of an inch in, it goes out for the first time, a classic trait in turn-of-the-millennium ELs.

I am the black sheep of my extended family, who are unvaryingly modest living Christians; middle class, working people, with no apparent aspirations beyond their station. One of my grandfathers was an engineer, the other an accountant. Among my parents’ generation there are farmers on both sides, teachers, more accountants, and a public servant. My generation is more of the same. There are no artists or writers. There are no entrepreneurs. There are no unemployables.

The biggest family scandal is that one of my aunts got married and swiftly divorced in her early twenties, a fact which I have only heard mentioned once when my grandmother was showing some photos and came across one of my aunt in a wedding dress. One of my great aunts never married, and seemed to spend a lot of time with a close female friend, and I have wondered later in life if they may have been lovers, although this is entirely unsubstantiated and never talked about.

There are few vices. Nobody drinks heavily, or uses drugs, or smokes, or gambles, or stays up late. They don’t travel widely. Nobody has been arrested. If anybody has ever had an affair, I don’t know of it.

All except for my great uncle John.

John died around the time this Cohiba Pirámides was being rolled, some fifteen years before his older brothers.  He was a bachelor, and wealthy thanks to the sale of his civil engineering business, which had given him the ownership of a number of apartment blocks. He had retired in his early 50s, and devoted his life to his hobbies. In his sprawling Toorak home, he had an extensive library of rare books, and a large dark room for his photography. Up the mountains he had 80 acres of bushland where he had someday planned to build a weekender, although at the time of his death the only completed structure on the property was a marble tryptic fountain with classical statuary.

He was a member of all the best clubs, and his funeral was attended by his peers: rotund lawyers and businessmen in expensive suits, who no doubt held a wake for him at the Melbourne Club after the service. My family were not impressed, and scowled disapprovingly across the aisle, no doubt uncomfortable in their ill-fitting polyester-blends.

I only ever met John twice, and barely remember either occasion. I mainly know the man through his possessions. What I know of him is that John liked the finer things.

I remember going through his house after his death with three stickers to put on anything I wanted, and having my mother veto my selection of his set of crystal decanters. I don’t remember what else I selected – I’m sure all my first choices were rejected – but I ended up with a heavy gold silk robe and large detailed map of Melbourne in the 1950s that hangs on my wall to this day.

My family had a big furniture upgrade after John died. Our home furniture had previously been cheap and miss-matched, mostly purchased by my parents after their marriage in the 1970s. After John we had heavy antiques in dark wood, and guilt framed ancestral paintings on the walls. Two decades later, and the trickle-down continues; my own apartment is furnished mostly by John, and came to me after my parents upgraded their stuff with John’s nicer pieces from my grandparents’ home.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2001 somewhat burned

At the midway, the Pirámides is still on the mild side, but with a sweet nutty note on the back palate. There is also that lingering lactic thickness that I prize in a cigar. Walnut up front, and almond milk in the aftertaste.

Among the few items bequeathed to a specific individual was the “family silver:” a 200-piece set of antique silverware that John had had engraved with the crest of a dubious ancestor, and left to my mother. His will, although recently updated, also left a multi-million-dollar block of flats to a woman he’d dated decades prior, and not spoken to in years. He gave no explanation for this. It was the exact kind of pathos riddled gesture that a well-resourced Groom would make, and my sensible cousins wouldn’t.

I was still a teenager when John died, and had little input into the disposal of the smaller items. I remember my mother poured the contents of the decanters down the sink, along with a large number of other half empty spirits bottles, paying no heed at all to whether the labels were red or black or blue, or if the number below the name read 12 or 18 or 30. My dad does like a glass of wine with dinner, and the thousand or so bottles of wine that filled John’s garage did make it to our house, with the theft of one of them later becoming the subject of a Dusky Beauty.

Bag after bag of ephemera went to the op shop, including many vintage sunglasses (and monocles, for some reason), the aforementioned decanters, and old watches, along with hundreds of books, and dozens of bespoke suits.

“Were there any cigars?” is something I’ve often wondered: I’m quite sure there would have been. Even if John didn’t smoke himself, I have no doubt that a Melbourne Club buddy would have handed him a box of Dunhill Cabinetta at some point as a gift for some or other favour. Whichever of my family came across the humidor, I’m quite sure they would have emptied it into the garbage and sent it to the op shop labelled “storage box.”

The biggest pity of all, of course, is that he didn’t live another ten years. He might have enjoyed not being the only black sheep.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 burned to just above the band

With an inch and a half left in the Pirámides, the chocolate comes in strong. Lindt 80%. Fantastic. I smoke it as low as I realistically can.

Ultimately this is what you want in an old cigar. Mild for the first two thirds, but in a way that allows you to appreciate the nuances, and not flavourless cardboard as some over-old cigars can be. Once it has built up a head of tar, the flavours are strong, but never overpowering.

Between this and the ’06 rendition though, I’d probably give it to the younger version by a hair. They are both excellent cigars, but the younger one has a bit more to it.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 nub

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2001 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011

The Cohiba Cohiba 1966; a cigar named for the year the marca Cohiba was given a name, having previously just been “those cigars Fidel smokes.” Being a Limited Edition from 2011, the 1966 celebrated the 45th anniversary of the brand. At 52 x 166mm, the dimensions of the cigar are nothing too outlandish, and should please those wish their 52 x 150mm Siglo VI lasted fifteen minutes longer. It’s hard to find a negative review of any Cohiba Limited, and this one is no exception.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 unlit

Once lit, the first puff from the cigar hits me like a bucket bong: the thing is a wind-tunnel. In no sense is this a Cuban draw. It feels like an entire leaf is missing from the middle. I squeeze up and down the length, checking for soft spots, but don’t find any. Can this be intentional? After moderating my smoking technique somewhat to only sip the slightest sips, I get to a place where some flavour is discernible. It is burning too hot, and is a little bitter, but there is dry grass and vanilla bean behind it.

2011 was a grim time for old Groom. I had arrived back in Australia at the start of 2010, having been dismissed and despatched from my job in China with a few days’ notice due to a visa issue, coupled with a general over-paid, over-entitled gwailou attitude on my part.

At first it wasn’t so bad. I was living with my parents, and with few expenses and a bucket of cash saved from my offshore revenue, getting a job didn’t seem like a high priority. I spent my days in my room playing video games and re-watching Seinfeld. I spent my nights drinking and smoking cigars with my buddies.

My friend Buckley had remained in Japan while I was in China, and in 2011 he too was newly returned and unemployed. Where I had had a fat foreign consultant package on my overseas adventure, Buckley had worked a lowly grad job in a university. Back in Australia, he too was living with his parents, but with the government teat for succour. He had videogames to play and sitcoms to watch also, but on Friday mornings after his pension cheque cleared, he usually felt like a little socialisation, and we would usually hang out.

On some Fridays we would go to the local shopping centre and drift aimlessly down the fluorescent lit mezzanines checking out the girls who worked in the fashion stores. On other occasions we would walk down to the Not Quite Right discount supermarket, which sold expired food and products that had failed disastrously in the marketplace for cents on the dollar. My fondest memory of the time is when Buckley purchased ten packets of grape flavour liquid-centre gum for a dollar, and crammed at least fifty pieces in his mouth at once. “I’ve always wanted to do that” he declared, with purple goo dripping down his chin. The girls at NQR weren’t as well dressed as the fashion store girls, but they had a certain scruffy charm.

Eventually though, my blissful unemployment began to wear a bit thin, or at least, my mother’s nagging me about it did. I began to search for a job. In China I had felt like a king, with my salary providing me many times more than I could ever hope to spend in that country, and the simple virtue of being the only white guy in an all Chinese company giving me an authority well beyond my job description. I applied for many jobs, but few would even interview me, and the ones that did I saw as far below my station. It made their eventual rejection of my application sting all the more. When one eventually made me an offer, it was with a heavy heart that I accepted. It was an office job in the outer suburbs, where an hourlong commute in rush hour traffic would bookend my every day. “Just for a few months” I thought. “Something better will come along.”

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 somewhat burnt

With a few inches burnt, the cigar is quite delightful. Somewhat implausibly, the draw has tightened up, and while nowhere near Cuban, it is perfectly acceptable. The taste is smooth and sweet, with honey and hazelnut. When I talk of cream in a cigar, it is usually a lactic thickness on the roof of the mouth, which isn’t present here, but there is something milky in the aftertaste, which reminds one of honey nut cereal.

A year later, when the Cohiba 1966 made their way to Australia, I was in the deepest funk of my life. Our office was a rundown cream-brick box in a light industrial park. The blinds were perpetually drawn against any hint of natural light or outside stimulation. My colleagues were all ten or fifteen years older than me, and used to nervously laugh and say I was a “whizz kid” when I would make some suggestion that seemed to me like it should have been elementary to anyone who was remotely abreast of the  technology we were working with. I hated them on the deep level that only someone who you are confined in a box with for most of your waking hours can be hated; for their incompetence, sure, but also for the way they chewed sunflower seeds, or ate apples loudly, or told the same stories about their kids again and again, or took personal phone calls at their desks, or squeaked their chairs, or sniffed, or blew their noses, or their smell, or the sight of them, or everything. We were perpetually behind on our deadlines, and had a culture of working late in pursuit of them, until at least nine each night and often later, and some weekends too. I kept a log of this unpaid overtime and passive-aggressively emailed the running total to my boss each night. Theoretically it would be reimbursed in leave, but it had accumulated to more than three weeks, which seemed to large a sum to ever materialise.

Between twelve hours at the office a day, and two on the road, I didn’t have much time for anything else in my life. It was the Era Before Tinder, but I wouldn’t have been a lot of fun on a date even if I’d had one, and hadn’t been laid in a year or more. I’d struggle to fall asleep often, tossing and turning and ranting to myself. Sometimes I would smoke weed to knock me out, until one incident where it filled me with energy and I spent all night staring with loathing at myself in the mirror.

I bought my box of ten Cohiba 1966 for $470 AUD delivered. It was an impulse buy, the small solace of a luxury item in a dark time. I never touched them. The cigar I am smoking today is a single I picked up somewhere else along the way.

The darkness is long behind me now, vanquished later in 2012 by the scent of feminine perfume, although that’s a story for another time. The 1966 box gives me solace still: today on the secondary market they are going cheap if you find them below $2000 AUD.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 burned to the band

Throughout its consumption, the burn of the 1966 has been disgraceful. I keep my humidors a little wetter than conventional wisdom dictates, my theory being that for aging the preservation of oils is key. Normally if I plan to smoke something, I will take it out a few days beforehand and let it dry a little, but in this case the perfect afternoon came on the back of a week of rain, and I pulled one straight from my aging box to take advantage. Perhaps then it is me who is to blame, but nonetheless the cigar has gone out three times, and burned unevenly for the duration.

Even so, the Cohiba 1966 is impeccable. A little dirty on the finish, but otherwise very smooth, with notes of dry straw, sweet nut, and black coffee. The final inch is a little bitter, but nothing I can’t handle. A note of cocoa in there somewhere, and a sweet herbaceous tang. A fine end to a fine cigar. Better than the Novedosos, not as good as the 2006 Piramide.

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 nub and associated ashes

Cohiba Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006

When Cohiba first emerged in the 1980s it was marketed as Castro’s private brand, and had all the cachet that came with that; sipping from a Lanceros you pictured yourself in fatigues in the wood-panelled meeting room of the politburo, your smoke rings wafting from the kind of immaculate treasure that only a dutiful personality cult can produce. Today when you smoke a Cohiba it’s all about the status. The shiniest gold rings on the fattest cigars, matching the rings on the fat fingers that clutch them. You don’t smoke a Cohiba because they’re the best; you smoke them because you’re the best. The ultimate symbol of crass capitalism.

The 1996 release of the Siglo series was the first step Cohiba took away from Castro’s cigars. The second would come in 2007, with the Maduro line, but in 2006 the release of the Pirámides Edición Limitada still smelt of the old days. Along with the ‘A’ sized Gran Corona, the Cohiba Pirámides were a tradition unto themselves, wheeled out regularly for the most special of occasions. Getting a box of these in ’06 felt like you were in on something. It felt like a diplomatic gift.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006 unlit

The first puff is very bitter. I had picked this day for a smoke because it seemed perfect – still and warm – but in the time it took me to walk down to the smoking spot a breeze has sprung up, and it is doing the cigar no good at all. Things improve somewhat after I build a little fort for the coal out of my various paraphernalia: the taste is strongly woody, with coffee notes.

The last time I smoked one of these cigars was around five years ago, when I passed around a box at the stag night of a friend. Aside from being a waste of good cigars, the night was a non-event, just the regulation debauchery, but I recall it mainly as my first encounter with Mark.

Mark had a nervous energy, and brought a frenetic tension with him into every room. He talked fast, and repeated himself frequently. Specifically, there was factoid he would drop at absolutely every opportunity. Mark was dating a stripper.

“Hey Mark, how’s it going?”
“I’m so tired today, had to pick my girlfriend up from work really late last night. She’s a stripper, so she has crazy hours sometimes.”

“Hey Mark, your share of dinner is $30.”
“No worries, you mind if I pay with fives? I have heaps because I’m dating a stripper.”

It always seemed like a weird flex to me. As a man who has dated several models (and one escort), I know full well the pleasure of dropping your girlfriend’s occupation, a social shorthand no less potent than “man, I gotta go to the doctor, the band on my Rolex is giving me a rash,” or “sorry I’m late, my bloody Mercedes has the worst satnav.” Where I come from though, “stripper” is a bit of a loaded term. Yes, your girlfriend is attractive enough that men will pay to see her naked, but is that really such a high bar to clear? The fantasy of the beautiful girl who is only doing this because it gives her more time to study for her law exams is somewhat plausible where I live in the city centre, but Mark was not from where I live. Mark was from somewhere thirty kilometres passed Frankston. There aren’t a lot of law schools out there. In the outer suburbs, stripping is a career you choose when you need drug money and you don’t have a lot of options.

Mark evidentially didn’t feel there was any dubiousness at all about it. He dropped the brag with such frequency that it became an easy shorthand when referring to him. “You know Mark?”
“Oh, the guy who’s dating the stripper?”

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006 halfway done

At the midway the cigar has mellowed significantly, although is still on the strong side for a teenage Cohiba. The predominant note is mid-tobacco, a little grassy on the back of the throat, with strong burnt coffee and bitter cacao notes. It tastes more or less like a badly made cappuccino, with over-roasted beans.

After years of Mark being the guy dating the stripper, he suddenly wasn’t. I encountered him at a party one night and found him hot to trot, pointing out girls, asking who was single, and articulating what he wanted to do to this or that one. He was a man on the prowl. When I asked what happened to his girlfriend, it was evidentially a sore subject. “Man” he told me, “fuck that bitch.”

It had turned out that she had been cheating on him for years, and in the end had left him for the other man. Before their relationship began, Mark had owned a house – his dream home, in his telling – which he had bought with factory sweat in his early twenties, when house prices were much lower than today. He had dated the stripper for more than five years, and the law considered them a de-facto couple. When they parted ways, the house was sold and the profits divided. He was living with his parents. “Man,” he said, by way of an exclamation point. “Forget that bitch. I am going to get laid tonight!”

He didn’t. Some five hours later he was paralytic drunk, and I poured him into a cab for his long ride back to the suburbs.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006 final third

As the first band comes off, the cigar is sweet with dark chocolate and a strong coffee note. The aftertaste is dry and dusty, but with a gingernut spice that sticks to the roof of your mouth.

A year or so after my last encounter with Mark, I received an unexpected message on Facebook. I had never met her, but after some mild internet sleuthing, I recognised the sender as Mark’s ex-girlfriend. Her name was Crystal. “Hi” she said “I’m organising a party for Mark next weekend. Can you come?”
“Sure.” I replied. Why not?

It wasn’t much of a party. The house two-bedroom fibreboard near a freeway offramp in a far-flung suburb. On the kitchen island the ‘bar’ was laid out: Midori, Chambord, Galliano, Blue Curaçao, and honey flavoured Jack Daniels. No gin or whisky or vodka or anything that could be used to make an actual drink. Crystal and a girlfriend sat inside with UDLs. In the backyard, Mark and two of his mates sipped Woodstock and Cola cans around a firepit. His friends had beards, beer bellies, and Metallica t-shirts.

After a while I asked Mark what the story with the stripper was. “I thought you guys broke up?”

He rolled his eyes.

“Fuck, mate” he said. “I had the best house. My dreamhouse. Had to sell it. Two hundred grand I gave that bitch when we split up, and in six months she blows through the lot traveling and getting high with some douchebag. Then we get back together and now all I can afford is this shithole.”

At that point Crystal appeared at the screen door. “Are you ready, boys?” she called. “It’s time for Mark’s present.”

The girls had cleared the room, save for a single plastic bucket chair of a design familiar to anyone who has ever sat through a play in a school gymnasium. Mark sat on the chair, with his friends and I standing in a lose semi-circle around him. The room was lit by the unrelenting glare of two naked fluorescent bulbs directly above Mark’s head. Crystal carried in a boombox that for some reason she had plugged in via an extension cord from the back yard. She pressed play, and the opening notes of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck rang out… and then immediately ceased. She swore, and fussed with the extension cord, which was apparently defective. After three more abortive starts, she assumed a position straddling the doorway, holding the ends of the cords together, and the music resumed.

Crystal’s friend appeared from the bathroom just as the first “thunder” and drum hit shot from the stereo. She wore a red costume cape over lacey black lingerie, with a plastic devil horn headband and pitchfork. Mark grinned. “Ho ho,” he said, glancing at Crystal. “You serious?” Crystal cackled in response.

The girl began to dance, gyrating her hips, and letting the cape fall from her shoulders. Thunderstruck’s screaming guitars do not lend themselves to a sensual strip tease, and her every move seemed just a little off the beat. It also was quickly apparent why strip clubs are not typically lit by bare fluorescents; I found myself fixated on the marks on her skin more than the dance. A small white scar ran up her bicep, ending just below her vaccination spot. There was a large bruise just above the left knee. When she unsnapped her bra, her skin was red from the tension. There was a pimple on her butt. There was a mole on her lower back that she probably should get checked out.

A few minutes in, the lap dance was reaching its conclusion: nude but for her panties, the girl was bent half in two at the waist; her legs straight, and her face down near her knees. One hand was wrapped around her ankle, while the other pulled aside the crotch of her panties to expose her vulva six inches from Mark’s face. At that moment the music cut out.

“Fuck! Crystal!” the dancer yelled, without straightening her pose. “Just skip to the next bloody song.”

It was A Whole Lotta Rosie.

After a minute or so more of gyrating on Mark, the now fully nude girl began to work to the room. She took a bowl of Allen’s Party Mix from the counter, and walked towards me. “Raspberry or banana?” she asked, batting her eyelids coquettishly.
“Ahh… banana?” I stammered. She giggled, and placed the banana just above her nipple, and then proffered it toward me. Awkwardly I reached and took it off her.

“Such a gentleman” she laughed. “Take it with your mouth.”

She placed another banana on her breast, and I uncomfortably bowed to remove it, again to titters from the room.

“He’s shy,” the girl remarked, and move on. “I’ll leave him alone.”

Mark’s friends were not so shy, and were evidentially familiar with this ritual. As she visited each in turn they handled her extensively, eating their sweet off her like a donkey eats an orange.

The show ended, and Crystal brought out a cake, her friend remaining casually nude while we sang happy birthday and Mark blew out the candles. I didn’t notice her get dressed, but she must have at some point, because shortly after that we were back around the firepit and the girls were back on the couch drinking UDLs. Mark at least seemed to appreciate his gift.

“Crystal can be a real shit sometimes,” he said “but she’s all right sometimes too. Nice of her to get me that. She knows I’ve wanted a dance from that girl for a while.”

From that night, unfortunately, my relationship with Mark ended; like ships in the night, we drifted apart. I heard he and Crystal had a baby not all that long after the party, and I think another one a few years later.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006 nub

The cigar ends well, smoother and sweeter in the nub than it has been at any point in its duration, with cocoa and coffee predominant. A truly first-class cigar. Better than the Novedosos and the Siglo II by a decent margin.

Cohiba Pirámides Edición Limitada 2006 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Hoyo de Monterrey Particulares Edición Limitada 2000

2000. A chaotic year for Cuban cigars. A decade prior the Soviet Union had collapsed, and forty years of a Cuban economy propped up by subsidised sugar had come to an end. The last two tobacco harvests had been bad. Hurricanes Georges and Irene had flooded fields and demolished curing barns, and the crop was almost completely lost. The nineties had been a boom decade for cigars, and its legacy showed in Havana’s empty tobacco storehouses.

What was lacking most of all were the wrapper leaves. Traditionally, the wrapper for a Habano comes from a single large middle leaf of a shade grown plant, pale brown, and thinner than paper. In Havana in 2000, these were in short supply. They did, however, have a few of the upper leaves. Thicker and much darker, these sun exposed leaves were normally deemed unfit for the export grade Habanos, and were used instead for domestic cigars. But times were hard, and quotas had to be met.

This is the origin story of the Edición Limitada program. Those first four cigars, wrapped in thick, dark, and oily domestic wrapper leaves, pumped out to fill out a quota. Today, the program is considered a great success, and the black and gold bands signal high prices, low supply, and a good opportunity for a speculator to flip them at margin. Back in 2000 though, the sticks were priced very reasonably, and the bands were more of a scarlet letter. “Don’t worry too much about these” they read. “There aren’t many of them. They’re only here for a year.”

An ‘A’ size cigar is always a journey, and at 12:33 in the afternoon I touch the flame and begin this one, the Hoyo de Monterrey Particulares Edición Limitada 2000.

Hoyo de Monterrey Particulares Edición Limitada 2000 unlit

The first few centimetres surprise on all fronts: of an old cigar, of a giant cigar, and of a Hoyo de Monterrey, one expects mildness. Instead, the cigar is quite punchy, high medium tobacco notes, with burnt toast and charred mushroom. There is a touch of cedar, and just a little bitterness to the aftertaste.

The blue smoke curling ever upward, my memory strays to Victoria Sargent, the next in my half-decade long reminiscence of girls I liked in high school; of that which could have been, and wasn’t.

I first became aware of Victoria when we were fifteen or so. My school was boys only and she went to McRobinson’s, our all-girls sister school down the street. It was considered very cool to complain about how ugly the McRob girls were (“McDog” got thrown around a lot), and yet we all seemed to wind up dating them. My clique at school was the film geeks crew; a bunch of greasy dorks with long hair, who talked a lot about the twin idols of every teenage film nerd in the ‘90s, Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. I wore a beret completely unironically on more than one occasion.

We were a band apart, but at parties there was a lot of overlap with a few of the other cliques who didn’t take scholarship too seriously: the stoners, the music club, and the theatre kids. The theatre kids’ parties were the ones you wanted to go to. The theatre kids did a lot of mixed productions, and the theatre kids knew girls.

At some point I had would up with a McDog of my very own. Minh Nguyen was short and squat, with bad skin and braces, and my friends teased me relentlessly for dating her. I was fifteen though and she smelled like shampoo and let me French her and that was good enough for me. Besides, those dudes were gay, anyway.

Minh wasn’t one of the theatre clique. I’d met her at one of their parties, but she was a film geek through and through. Somehow, she and a few of her friends managed to infiltrate themselves into our movie nights, where the etiquette remained unchanged, despite the addition of females. No drinking, no drugs, and no public displays of affection; just eight guys and three girls soberly watching art-movies until late, then all sleeping on somebody’s parent’s loungeroom floor.  Once the lights were out, the couples would exchange furtive caresses, while the others pretended to be asleep, and stifled giggles at any unconcealed noises.

A taken man, and still subscribed to the fairytale of monogamy, I would appreciate Victoria only from afar in those early days. Minh was very much a creature of this earth. Her short legs were purpose built for squatting in the gutter in a south-Asian market, and her powerful forearms were ideal for separating the heads from chickens with a cleaver. Victoria, by contrast, was an ethereal. Victoria was built for the lobbies of luxury hotels. She was tall and lithe, with perfect teeth and sparkling green eyes, and a smile that raised her high cheekbones and lit up her flawless white skin. She was a ballerina, trained since childhood, and the practice was evident in her every move. She glided across rooms. She reached for drinks en pointe. Usually at a theatre party I would be slumped in a beanbag in some darkened corner with the other movie nerds, when across the room I would catch Victoria throwing out a spontaneous arabesque, her friends laughing, and falling over trying to imitate her. Her form was perfect.

After high-school, and with Minh long behind me, I began to develop something of a friendship with Victoria. She went to a ballet university, and once in a while I’d see her clomping around the city in her leg warmers, and she would smile and hug me and if nobody was in a rush we’d get a coffee. When I saw her at parties we would always gravitate to each other, the two of us on a couch in some quiet room, our easy conversation flowing unceasingly. She always seemed to be dating a much older guy, or an athlete, or someone else beside whom I was grossly inadequate, but she was always polite enough not to mention him when we were together.

Eventually I would lose track of Victoria for a year or so, and somewhere in there I started dating Audrey (who, by the way, was also a McDog, although she was far too aloof and standoffish for even the theatre clique). Our relationship was about eight months in, and the cracks were starting to show a little, when out of the blue Victoria started chatting to me on MSN Messenger.

It turned out that I had lost track of Victoria for a reason: she was overseas. She had graduated from ballet school and, having already been rejected from all the big Australian ballet companies, had moved to London to try out for the European ones. She was alone, house sitting a flat that belonged to an aunt, and was lonely. Her days were filled with training, try-outs, and eventually rejection. She was struggling with the looming reality that most of those who devote their youth to a high aspiration must someday face: that she wasn’t going to make it. At 24, she would have to completely rebuild herself.

We talked most nights, often for hours. As ever, the conversation flowed easily and unceasingly, me about my life of IT drudgery, and her of her trails and fading dreams, and it began to become clear that she was developing a pretty big crush on me. She would send me pictures of her on her travels, en pointe in front of European landmarks. Once in a while there would be one that seemed like it was taken just for me, her in a leotard in her messy bedroom, an arabesque with perfect form. We made plans together, of things we would do when she came back, keeping a list of restaurants and bars and sights that we should see together. In my head I was doing the calculation of Victoria’s return date verses my lengthening cracks with Audrey. Of course, I was polite enough to never mention her to Victoria.

One night I found myself at bar with the old set, the film geeks, the stoners, the music club, and the theatre kids all strongly represented; mostly people I hadn’t seen in years. It was a farewell party for Julia, a theatre kid from way back, who was off on a European gap year. First stop: London. “Are you going to see Victoria?” I asked her. “Sure,” she replied. “I’m staying with her tomorrow night.” With her typical grace, Minh barged into the conversation. “Oh my God, Julia” she squawked. “Have you the goss about Alex? He’s dating Audrey Cates.”

Two nights later I saw Victoria online at the usual time, and sent her my normal greeting. I could feel her hurting through the screen. “You didn’t tell me you were dating Audrey Cates.” I fumbled a response: “Oh, didn’t I? Well, it’s not that serious.” It was to no avail. We were through. She never messaged me again.

Hoyo de Monterrey Particulares Edición Limitada 2000, somewhat burnt

The initial robustness of the Hoyo de Monterrey Particulares lasted longer than you’d expect, and even at the halfway there are still some signs of it. The Hoyo wood has arrived, as always, but there is a strong char to it – a campfire in a cedar forest. In the aftertaste is a sweetness that is not at all unpleasant. Although not as bad as either the Monte or the Party of the same vintage, the Particulares does suffer from the famous flame-retardant tobacco of the early 2000s. It has extinguished itself perhaps five times already, and been touched up a few others, and even when it remains lit I feel like I must puff more than usual in order to keep it so. I suspect that all this is keeping the coal too hot, and is probably the source of some of the cigar’s strength.

It was about three years later when I next saw Victoria. She had circulated an open invitation to her Facebook friends to come up to her family’s hobby vineyard to help with the annual harvest. I was probably the last person she was expecting to respond, but time had passed and wounds had healed, and when I messaged her to ask if I could come she said “sure.”

It was a big mistake.

In the intervening years, Victoria had given up on ballet, and like every person who gives up on something they love, had gone for the most practical choice possible. She was doing an Information Systems degree. The other takers for this winery invitation were three of her friends from uni, all nineteen-year-old guys. Worst of all, Victoria was clearly smitten with one of them.

Although Victoria and I were the same age, in the eyes of the others she was one of them and I was some random old man. In deference, I was given the front seat on the drive up, and watched jealously in the rear vision mirror as Victoria leaned into her beau far more than was necessary with each bend in the road. Once we had arrived at the farm, the four of them mostly ignored me, leaving me to chat with her brother and parents, while they gossiped about people in their course.

The bedroom we were to share had one bed and a few camping mattresses on the floor. “Victoria should have the bed” I declared, “it’s her place,” but the others we adamant it should be me. One of the guys snored loudly all night – loud enough to keep me awake, but not enough to drown out the sharp intakes of breath, and slurps and squeaks and moans and muffled giggles of Victoria and her guy exchanging furtive caresses on the floor below me.

The final twist of the knife came the next day. I was standing with Victoria and her mum, watching Victoria casually do a few barre exercises on the side of a plastic grape bin.

“Alex changed my life, y’know mum,” She remarked, offhandedly. “When I was in England we used to chat a bit, and he gave me the idea to go into IT. It just seemed like pretty easy work.”

Hoyo de Monterrey Particulares Edición Limitada 2000, mostly burnt

By the three-quarter mark, the strength has faded out of the Particulares, and smoking it is a constant struggle. If I puff on the cigar to keep it lit then the coal will core. When I touch a flame around the edge to burn the wrapper, it will become too hot, and the flavour will be bitter tar. If I leave it a moment to let it cool, the cigar will extinguish itself, and I’ll need to relight it, and the process will begin again. Perhaps a more skilled smoker than I am could get something out of it, but for me it fluctuates between bitterness and tastelessness.

It is 4:45 in the afternoon by the time I finally lay it down, a little over four hours since the flame first touched the foot. It has never really been unpleasant at any point during the journey, but it also has never been easy. With a better wrapper I’d take this over two Epi. 1s, but as it stands it’s only really better for the novelty value.

Hoyo de Monterrey Particulares Edición Limitada 2000 nub

A postscript: Years later, Victoria would wind up marrying Rod Plumber, another from the periphery of the old set (one of the stoners), and as undeserving a doofus as could win a girl like Victoria. Their courtship? She was working as a product manager at IBM, and he was doing a multi-month walking tour down the east coast of the US. He had downtime in the evenings, which coincided with the time when she was bored at work. They did a lot of chatting online.

Hoyo de Monterrey Particulares Edición Limitada 2000 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Hoyo de Monterrey Piramide Edición Limitada 2003

In 2003, when the Hoyo de Monterrey Piramide came into this life, the Edición Limitada program had yet to fully find its feet. Habanos was still releasing five EL cigars a year, one from each of the big marques, and none from the 2003 cohort are remembered especially fondly. The stand out is the Cohiba Double Corona, a cigar for which I have a very soft spot indeed, but even that is deeply overshadowed by the 2004 Sublime when people reminisce about the Cohiba limiteds of yesteryear.

The Hoyo de Monterrey Piramide I have with me today has been badly abused, having spent several weeks rattling around in the bottom of my day-bag, unloved and unhumidified. As a result, it is a bit on the dry side. The wrapper crackles when I roll it between my fingers. Lit, the initial notes are spicy; hay, with a dusty mushroom scent underneath, and most of all tobacco.

As I moved from my mid-twenties into my late-twenties, one by one the great bachelors started to disappear. Where once my weekends had runneth over with parties and card nights and trips to the dog-track, now, more and more, they stood empty. Where once a text sent into the ether on a Saturday night would have immediately discovered a brace of good-ol’-boys at a nearby bar, all delighted to welcome me amongst their number, now any such plea would come back two days later with “sorry mate, fell asleep early,” or “was at dinner with my wife’s family. Hope you had fun.”

Hoyo de Monterrey Piramide Edición Limitada 2003 unlit

And so it came to pass that by my thirtieth birthday I found myself with just a single bachelor friend left. T. Rex and I went back fifteen years, although we’d only been friends for ten. For the first three years I outright hated him. He grew on me through years four and five, before becoming a firm friend around the start of year six. T. Rex was an acquired taste, but also, he’d improved with age.

For the most part T. Rex’s problem was that he wasn’t great at reading a room. When a joke had run its course and everyone had finished laughing, T. Rex would always throw out one more zinger. Other times he’d make a crack that referenced some obscure piece of knowledge, and insist on explaining it at length. There were some landmine subjects that you needed to learn to avoid at all costs with T. Rex, because at the slightest whiff of a segue, he would deliver an insufferable lecture on them (European royal bloodlines were a particular favourite, but there were many, many others). I would get a lot of complaints about him when I invited him to parties.

By the end of my twenties though, T. Rex had sanded most of the corners off his obnoxiousness. Over the preceding half-decade, he had been on a perpetual self-improvement kick. He’d taken intonation lessons to liven up his monotone voice. Singing lessons had given him a karaoke setlist (mostly Chris Isaak, but it was something). He’d been to pick-up classes, and was very good at walking up to girls and saying some stupid shit and then turning that into a conversation. He was able to take them home more often that you’d expect. He was still obsessive and weird, and his room reading still wasn’t great, but he’d learned to go light on the royal bloodlines.

My thirtieth birthday party was sparsely attended, with most of the invitees texting in a last-minute excuse about kids been sick or having had “a hell of a day.” Amidst the rubble, T. Rex and I struck a deal. From now on, there would be no more Saturday nights wasted hanging around our bachelor pads. The great fear of every bachelor, that a routine slip-and-fall will lead to a lonely death and partial consumption by one’s housecat, would be eliminated for one night a week. We had a standing date for Saturday Night Bullshit.

Hoyo de Monterrey Piramide Edición Limitada 2003 somewhat consumed

Halfway through and the Petite Piramide has mellowed out to nothing. If I stoke the coal and blow the smoke out through my nose I can get a slight hit of tobacco spice, but in the normal course of things there is almost no flavour at all. A slight butteriness on the aftertaste. 

It didn’t take long for Saturday evenings to settle into a familiar routine. T. Rex and I would meet at my apartment around eight, wearing tuxedos. We would make ourselves at least three drinks from The Savoy Cocktail Book; classic cocktails, from an age before Midori, when drinks were mostly a question of whether you wanted sweet or dry vermouth in your gin. By about nine thirty we would be ready for some dinner, and would head to a restaurant where the staff, already starting to relax as their last customers finished their desserts, would roll their eyes as we strode through the door. “Table for two!”

After the restaurant, we would head to a bar or two. We liked the karaoke bars, most of which didn’t get busy until later in the evening, so we could get in a song or two without too long a wait. Sometimes we’d try a whisky bar, or whatever new cocktail place had come to our attention. It didn’t matter much. We were just killing time until midnight and last drinks at The Columbia Club.

In Melbourne, everybody knows that the coolest bars are found down alleyways, and The Columbia was down an alley off an alley. It was standing room only, capacity of ten. The staff were always quick to let you know that it was a classic cocktail bar, in the tradition of the 1920s. They didn’t sell vodka, they didn’t sell beer, there was no tequila, and you couldn’t have an anything-and-coke. There was a short menu of the usuals – Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Negroni, Aviation – but once you’d been there a few times you would generally just tell the bartender how you were feeling and they’d make something up for you. Drinks started at $22.

We became fixtures at the place: the guys in the suits who come around midnight. After two months we were exchanging knowing smirks with the bartenders whenever a drunk winced through the Americano they’d given him after denying his request for a rum and coke. After six months or so we were allowed to remain for a little while after closing for a couple of last amari on the house. After a year the bartenders would invite us out to a hospo bar afterwards, the kind of place that doesn’t really get started until bartenders and waitstaff get off work at 3:00am, and where the people would give us puzzled looks of semi-recognition.

Over three years and $15,000 in bar-tabs, T. Rex and I outlived many generations of Columbia bartenders, but as they worked in pairs there was always someone to let the new guy know that we were alright. The first to leave was Andre, a soft-spoken Spanish giant. Next was Henry, a hospitality lifer, who would tell us more than we wanted to know about his struggles with his battle-axe ex-wife, and who eventually left to open a bar even cooler than The Columbia Club (down two alleyways and up a fire-escape). Elsa was a boyish lesbian, who invited us to her art exhibition of nude self-portraits, modelled after ancient Greek athletic paintings, and showing off her impressive musculature. Florence was twenty, and filled with the radiant energy of the newly adult. She only lasted at the bar a few months, but after her departure she invited herself to my home one night, showing up at 11pm on a Wednesday. Together we shared at least twelve drinks, and she talked a lot about her boyfriend, before going home, apparently with no other intentions, an incident that still perplexes me to this day. Longest lasting of all was Rudy, Germain perfectionist, who introduced us to the Last Word and much else besides.

We were the most regular of regulars, and then we skipped a couple of weeks. I had a wedding, T. Rex had a family thing, and when we came back there were two guys behind the bar we had never seen before. “Good evening sirs, have you been here before? We’re just about to call last drinks. Do you know what a classic cocktail is?”

With that, the magic was gone. We’d spent thousands of dollars and endured a lot of hangovers, but in the end we were just two wankers in overstuffed monkey suits. The next week I told T. Rex I was busy while I stayed home, read for a while and went to bed early. The week after was the same, and the week after that. The week after that he stopped calling.

Hoyo de Monterrey Piramide Edición Limitada 2003 burnt just above the bands.

The bands come off the Petit Piramide. The tobacco level is still very light, with a slight vegetal taste, mild tannins, cedar, not much else. Put delicately, the cigar is delicate. A more forthright man might say it was flavourless.

I saw T. Rex just one more time after the end of the Bullshit. It was some years later, and I found myself in a karaoke bar we had been together from time to time. He was seated the corner with half-a-dozen Chinese people, drinking whiskey and green-tea. He wore a salmon pink dinner jacket that I remembered from when it was an immaculately tailored garment worn by a man at his wrestling weight; today he bulged out of it, the sleeves tight around the shoulders, and a roll of white bellyfat visible where his shirt buttons buckled open. Clinging to his side was what I took to be his new girlfriend, her face as flat and broad as the Yangtze floodplain she had so recently departed. I watched him for a while. He didn’t seem to see me. For the most part he just started vacantly in to the middle distance, his expression only interrupted by a grimace every time his girl shouted mandarin into his ear. The closest he came to an emotion was when she tried to feed him cake from a spoon. “No!” He snapped at her. “Too many carbs!”

When his song finally came on, he took the stage and belted it out with the same passion he always had, while his girlfriend vogued behind him, her friends yelling at her to pose for a photo. Finally, he acknowledged her presence, looking right at her as he howled the chorus. “What a wicked game you play” he sang. “To make me feel this way.”

As he left the stage I approached him, and we chatted for a minute. “Nice girl,” I said “been together long?”
   “Oh, six months or so. She’s actually going back to China next week… her visa ran out. I’m going to bring her back on the spouse ticket though… just need a couple of months to sort out the paperwork.”
   “Oh, congrats man. Another one bites the dust. Last of the great bachelors.”

He smiled a vague sort of smile and went back to his table.

A few months later word arrived that T. Rex had passed. He’d slipped while carrying some glassware down the stairs, and bled out on the living room floor. They didn’t find him for more than a week. No word on the housecat.

In 2018 the Hoyo Petite Piramide is probably dead. When great cigars sail beyond the sunset – think an old Lanceros or 1492 – they can become light and delicate. With the tar and bitterness of the tobacco all gone, they reveal new and complex flavours; milk, vanilla, egg white, and honey; notes that would be drowned out in a younger cigar. When lesser puros make the same journey, they can be flat and unpleasant, with ash, old newspaper, and musty attic notes. The Petite Piramide falls somewhere in-between. It’s not unpleasant, but there’s not a lot too it. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. They aint getting any younger.

Still better than an Epicure No. 1.

Hoyo de Monterrey Piramide Edición Limitada 2003 nub in ashes.

Hoyo de Monterrey Piramide Edición Limitada 2003 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure Edición Limitada 2013

The Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure was released in 2013 to mixed reviews. Some liked the profile, which was a bit more in keeping with its marque than most Edición Limitadas. Others complained about the erratic construction. Its stable mates were the Romeo De Luxe and the Punch Serie D’Oro No. 2; of the three, the D’Oro got the press. The first limited from Punch, and a Pyramid in a brand where those are very thin on the ground. Ultimately, though, all three of 2013’s ELs would slip away into the mists of forgettability.

Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure Edición Limitada 2013 unlit

The Grand Epicure is about as vulgar as they come, with its 55-ring gauge and double-sized custom band, but if you put aside the design then this example looks to be a good one. The wrapper is dark and oily, and construction appears perfect. The draw could be firmer but is well within the threshold of acceptability.

Lit, the cigar is smooth and rich. The predominant flavours are of the forest floor – fungus and wet dirt. The wood is there, of course, but it isn’t the standard dry cedar or the tannins of fresh cut sapling; it’s something darker. Cuban mahogany.

There are few triter clichés than that of the favourite teacher; the sage whose lips let spill the viscous pearl of wisdom into a wiling teenage ear, converting a wild hoodlum into a productive member of society. For me, the Sage’s name was Dr. Penny Marceau.

The high school I attended was a select entry college for academic boys. The faculty at all times placed great emphasis on preserving the culture of the place. Classes were formal business, and to be taken seriously. Competition was high. Discipline was expected. The VCE literature master was Giorgio Demetriou, well known throughout the school for his short fuse and fits of rage. Even the non-literature inclined knew him well, as any classroom remotely near his would inevitably find themselves snickering at the sound of his screaming rampages coming through the walls, and the line of boys outside his door who had been thrown out for some infraction or other.

In year eleven it was my turn to spend time with Giorgio, but a last-minute reprieve changed the course of my life. Over the summer break, one extra student transferred into literature, taking the size of the class over the government mandated maximum. The cohort was cleft in twain, and I wound up in the B stream; eleven boys and a temp teacher named Dr. Marceau.

The class lacked the formalities of the rest of school life. With Dr. Marceau we sat on the floor and chatted casually. We read Shakespeare and Don DeLillo. Peter Carey and Tennessee Williams. Up to that point I’d always been an avid reader of pulp fantasy garbage: Dr. Marceau’s class changed that. One-week she saw something with a dragon on the cover sticking out of my blazer pocket, and the next she gave me her well-thumbed copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude to read on my own time. “Read this” she said. “It’s fantasy with meaning.” I’ve never looked back.

Since a young age I’d always written creatively, but never been met with anything more than an eye-roll from adults. Dr. Marceau took me seriously. One afternoon, instead of handing my essay back like she did everybody else’s, she held me after class and spent hours going through it sentence by sentence with me, trying to instil in me a feel for the rhythm of language.

At the end of the year, Dr. Marceu’s future was uncertain. She had been hired only to fill the gap in the literature course. Aping Dead Poet’s Society, me and the other boys stood on our desks to wish her farewell. “Oh Captain my Captain.”

Of course, the school kept her on, but I never had her again.

Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure Edición Limitada 2013 an inch or so smoked

At the mid-point the cigar is sweet, and extremely smooth. The term “elegant” fits it very well. It is soft and creamy. The tobacco is light and floral, with only the slightest high of cedar.

Fifteen years on I found myself in a hotel function room, seated up the back at an Old Boys dinner: steak and fish, served alternately. The speaker was a boy from a couple of years after me, who had found minor celebrity as a stand-up comic. He began by welcoming the various notables – a few politicians, a judge, a member of the class of 1933, and finally “our distinguished former faculty member, Dr. Penny Marceau.”

Excitedly I told my tablemates about her, about how she made me the man I am today, and after I’d finished my fish I headed up to the front of the room to seek her out. She was surrounded by other men my age, no doubt all with the same intentions as me, but I patiently waited my turn, finally catching her just as people started to return to their seats for dessert. “Dr. Marceau” I gushed. “I just wanted to say ‘hi.’ Alexander Groom.”

She looked at me blankly. “Class of 2001. It was a small class. I had long hair.”
“Oh, hi” she said, clearly without any memory of me.
“I just wanted to thank you… you really instilled in me a love of literature, and taught me so much about language, about the rhythm and beauty of prose.”
She brightened up. “Oh? So what are you doing now?”
“I’m the head of tech at a start-up,” I said, and watched her face fall.
“So nothing creative?”
“Well that’s just my day job,” I stammered. “I also run a cigar website… it’s very successful.”
With a sneer, she began to turn away. Desperately I called after her.
“I also write a blog. Sometimes I use big words. Petrichor!”

But she wasn’t listening. I was just another disappointment.

Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure Edición Limitada 2013 smoked just above the band.

Right to the end, the cigar remains extremely smooth, never bitter for an instant. Most of the final third is notes of buttered toast and nuts. In the last moments some of the forest floor from earlier returns, with fungal notes and the petrichor funk. Above all though, the chief attribute of the Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure is smoothness. An elegant, relaxing, and wonderful smoke. Quite a claim for a 55-ring gauge cigar with barely five years of age on it. A long way better than the Epicure 2.

Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure Edición Limitada 2013 nub.

Hoyo de Monterrey Grand Epicure Edición Limitada 2013 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Hoyo de Monterrey Regalos Edición Limitada 2007

It is the morning after the night before, and the well-trodden path has taken me to a shady nook in the Brisbane Botanical Gardens. It seemed very implausible to me that smoking would be allowed here, and certainly nobody else seems to be doing it, but on careful study of the rules board I found no prohibition. The sky is a flawless blue. A gentle tropical breeze takes the edge off the Australian sun. On the river, boats silently putter back and forth, and on the boardwalk girls stroll languidly by, tan legs flashing beneath summer dresses. One cannot imagine a better situation for a cigar smoker to find himself in.

Hoyo de Monterrey Regalos Edición Limitada 2007 unlit, resting on some RayBan Caravans.

The Hoyo de Monterrey Regalos is one of the 2007 Edición Limitadas, and as far as I recall it’s considered largely forgettable, or at least, people largely have forgotten it. I haven’t seen a review of one of these in five years or more, and the ones when it came out weren’t glowing. Still, time changes cigars. It may have come into its own. Ignited, the opening of the cigar has a sharp bite, with musty, fungal undertones, and a good amount of dry straw. There is a bitterness there that I strongly suspect will become cocoa before too long. The tobacco strength is on the higher end of medium.

The reason for my trip for Brisbane – the aforementioned night before – was the Havanathon; a bi-annual bacchanal hosted by a local cigar retailer. It takes place in the shed that doubles as his headquarters, and consists of about two hundred large men carousing as only large men can. Four cigars apiece are included with admission, as is a buffet lunch, all the beer you can stomach, some lightly mixed mojitos and heavily mixed sangria.

The whole thing has the atmosphere of an extended buck’s night: a testosterone fuelled carnival of masculinity. There were waitresses in sequined bikinis, and the throng ogled them unabashedly. One of the girls seemed to be enjoying herself, or at least she was enough of a professional to pretend, all smiles and banter as she handed out the beers. On her buttock there was a tattooed lipstick mark, and she giggled coquettishly as guys posed as if they had just planted it. The other girl was less pleased with her lot in life, plonking each bottle down with a sneer, and shooting a poison glare at anyone who talked to her with anything more than a drink order. “She’d be pretty if she wasn’t such a bitch” a colleague observed to me. “That’s what makes her pretty,” another rejoindered.

Hoyo de Monterrey Regalos Edición Limitada 2007, two thirds remaining.

About a third in, and the cigar has mellowed, yet still the mustiness predominates, with a strong hint of a closet in a ramshackle ‘70s beach house. I’m sipping a Bundaberg Ginger Beer (luckily, the 7-11 didn’t carry the rum), and its sweetness takes any harshness from the cigar very nicely.

As the afternoon wore on, the shed grew stifling, as much from the combusted phlogiston of a few hundred Habanos as from the tropical sun beating on its iron. Most of the attendees migrated out the front, where the breeze provided welcome respite from the heat, even as it striped us of our ability to sustain a coal.

Soon our host called us back inside, where a trio of salsa dancers had materialised, all high kicks and swivelling hips. After a few numbers they lead us in a dance lesson, the moves to which more resembled the Hokey Pokey than the serpentine writhing they had shown us a few moments before. It ended with a conga line through the shed and out into the street. Cigar smokers have their talents: each of these men can hold down a drink, tell a tall tale, and wax lyrical about the tannic sting on the back-palate, but dancers they are not.

The afternoon wore on in much the same fashion: ribald conversation with the brothers of the leaf, punctuated by musical acts. By 6:00pm, with the third cigar fully combusted, my head was spinning from the nicotine and I needed a break. The crowd was starting to thin a bit, with most of the locals heading home to their lives. The men who stayed were the ones from interstate: true degenerates, with nowhere better to be. I stayed outside for about an hour, holding my fourth cigar, but leaving it unlit. The evening air cleared my head. I ate a light dinner of cold meats leftover from lunch, and drank more than one glass of water.

Hoyo de Monterrey Regalos Edición Limitada 2007 with one third remaining.

Into the final stretch and the cigar is firmly in the mid-strength. There is a strong tannic sting on the back-palate. The fungal mustiness has given way to muddy earth tones. The forecast cocoa has failed to eventuate.

The conclusion to the evening, naturally, was the karaoke contest. In Melbourne today, karaoke is somewhat popular. The expanding Asian influence of the last few decades has opened the bars, and those have gradually permeated the broader Australian culture, to the point where most youths of bar-hopping age would have had cause to belt out a rendition of Don’t Stop Believing on at least a few occasions. This was not always so. Even in my own salad days, karaoke was confined to the rare Wednesday night at the pub. At the Havanathon, where I fell on the younger end of the age scale, the level of experience was not high, and volunteers were few and far between.

The MC filled in the blanks with Elvis numbers, and a friend who is in a band gave us some very passable versions of ‘80s pop-songs, but after that the roster started to run dry. Eventually the MC took to wandering through the hall, offering each person the microphone, and declaring “pussy” when they turned it down. When he offered it to me I lingered for a second, then accepted.

My own karaoke repertoire was honed not with Australian youths, but with Japanese barflies. They have a machine over there that gives you an estimate of the amount of kilocalories you expended during your track, the algorithm for which seems to be based mainly on how loud you sing and how much your voice cracks. It trained me into a one trick pony: I sing power ballads and pretend to cry. It is an act utterly unsuited for this room, but nonetheless, I performed it, belting out Total Eclipse of the Heart with all I had, my voice mellifluous after three and a half cigars. Occasionally through screwed up eyes I would glance out at the crowed, who watched, stony-faced, unsure of what to make of the performance art. “Are you okay?” someone asked me after. “Just passionate,” I told him.

By ten the host had had enough, and led the assembled in a rousing chorus of that most proud Australian anthem, Thunderstruck, before turning on the lights. The stragglers stacked the chairs and stole the lighters, and embraced one another warmly. “Till next time, brother.” “Next year in Havana.”

There was an after party, of course, and a fifth cigar, and then a sixth, and somewhere along the way I found some Port wine, and somewhere else some KFC Popcorn Chicken. By four AM I was in bed, the fourteen hours of heavy drinking just enough to drown out the nicotine and put me straight to sleep.

Hoyo de Monterrey Regalos Edición Limitada 2007 nub and bands.

The cigar ends nicely, never bitter, but still with the dry, musty note that has predominated throughout. In the end there is nothing wrong with the Regalos, but when I tell the story of this afternoon, the details I relate will be of the bush turkey scratching in the dirt at my feet, and how he puffed his chest, and then charged, head lowered, to drive off flock of Ibis who came too near; of the big lizard who emerged from the brush to sun himself on the road, and almost got clipped by a cyclist; and of the two Japanese girls, who strolled by languidly, wrinkling their noses at the smell of my cigar. The Regalos, alas, is ultimately forgettable. The Havanathon, not so much.

Hoyo de Monterrey Regalos Edición Limitada 2007 on the Cuban Cigar Website.

Romeo y Julieta Petit Piramides Edición Limitada 2005

It’s as good a winter’s day as a boy could ask for – sunny, still and crisp – but even the finest winter’s day is still not especially pleasant for being outdoors. My fingers feel the bite whenever they emerge from my leather greatcoat to tap at my laptop keyboard, and will doubtless soon numb up holding a cigar.

The smoke of the moment is the 2005 Edición Limitada from Romeo y Julieta, a Petit Pirámides. It was one of the omissions from my recent Romeo Roundup – fortunately a kindly soul noticed the absence and sent a couple over. Many thanks. It’s a nice looking little pyramid wearing the short-lived all-gold Romeo band. As always when I encounter one of these bands, the reason they only lasted a couple of years is obvious: the printing is just appalling. It must be hard to prevent counterfeits when the genuine article looks like it was made by a high-schooler on work experience.

Romeo y Julieta Petit Piramides Edición Limitada 2005 unlit

I set fire to the beast. The first notes are very sharp for something with over a decade on it, offering up a sour, tannic bite. I inhale through my nose and probe the flavour, finding a bit of sweet musk on the back palate. Within ten puffs the sourness leaves and the cigar settles down, bringing medium-strong tobacco notes with a creamy aftertaste. Not bad at all. It reminds me a bit of the Partagás Serie P No. 1, which I always liked.

Being outdoors in this chill, with numb fingers and nose, takes me back to a very specific time of life. An adult and a homeowner who holds a desk job, there is seldom any need for me to suffer through this kind of discomfort (I could even smoke indoors if I wanted, but I generally choose two hours in the cold over two weeks trying to get stale cigar smoke out of my drapes). Once upon a time, however, things were different. Once upon a time I was a teenage boy with a great passion for canoodling, and after school I had nowhere to slake my thirst but city parks.

Honestly, I think it added to it. Who could ever forget the sensation of making out with their high-school girlfriend in a park on a winter’s day? With sweaty palms slipped inside blazers we would paw at one another. Cold backs and warm fronts! As we shifted position, her braces would sometimes knock against my teeth, and the tip of her nose would nuzzle my warm cheek, cold and damp like that of a Dalmatian puppy.

One particular instance stands out. Our usual bench for canoodling was deep out of view, a little nook in the more overgrown part of the park, but on this particular day it had been denied us by some old men chatting. Our second favourite, by the pond, was also occupied, and so we had wound up on the very edge of the park, ten meters from the road. We had been going at it for some time – probably about an hour and a half, as darkness had fallen, but I wasn’t yet in breach of my 6:30 curfew, when we both became aware of a light being shone on us. The cop cleared his throat. “You been here long?” he asked. “Ah, yeah… an hour or so. What’s the problem?”
“Did you see what happened when the car got stolen over here?”
I looked at him blankly, and he cast his torchlight on an empty car-space filled with broken safety glass, not more than fifteen meters from our bench.
“A car was stolen here sometime in the last half hour, you didn’t see or hear anything?”
My girl and I exchanged glances.
“No, sorry. We were busy.” We giggled.
The cop rolled his eyes and stomped off. “Bloody kids.”

Romeo y Julieta Petit Piramides Edición Limitada 2005 half smoked

By the midpoint the cigar has developed very strong espresso coffee notes, with a bit of old wallet mixed in – there is distinct leather, but also a slight copper, and sweat, and a little bit of banknote. As I progress into the last inch and a half it gets dirty, the flavour of wet earth and bitumen.

As it burns down, the asphalt element only grows, and it ends as a bitter little tar bomb. A slight citric tang is in there, which gives it something reminiscent of Campari. Even with the tar, the coffee note is still very strong. The ash in the final inch is very white for some reason, where the first two thirds were a dirty grey. All throughout the cigar has had a fantastic burn. I lit it initially with a match, and I didn’t do the best job of it, leaving an unblackened portion around the edge. Within moments it evened up, and was razor straight from then until I burnt my fingers, without a single touch up or corrective measure. It also held its ash very well. Total smoking time was around 90 minutes.

Romeo y Julieta Petit Piramides Edición Limitada 2005 smoked just above the bands

A good cigar sets a time and place for itself, and this one needs to be smoked at 10:00am with a coffee, preferably in café in a village in the South of France. It is a quintessential morning cigar, a flavourful little bomb of coffee and tobacco to start the day. Yes, there is a bit of tar, and yes, it will leave a bad taste in your mouth all day, but if you’re the kind of person who smokes before lunch you’re probably used to that. A decade old exotic might not be the most normal thing to fill the morning cigar void, but if you have that void, and you have the means, then this is the smoke for you.

Romeo y Julieta Petit Piramides Edición Limitada 2005 nub

Romeo y Julieta Petit Piramides Edición Limitada 2005 on the Cuban Cigar Website

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 1 Edición Limitada 2003

The day is pleasant, high twenties and humid, and I have spent much of it on foot – so much, in fact, that my pedometer has crested 25,000 for the first time in living memory. Now, however, I have reached my destination. I am in the back corner table of a nice suburban pub, my friends and I well shaded beneath an umbrella. The beers are cold, and there are no other patrons to bother. It’s a fine afternoon for cigars.

The dusky beauty in question is the 2003 Romeo Edición Limitada, the Hermosos No. 1. From what I recall, these were well received in 2003, but thirteen years changes a cigar, so in 2016? Who knows. 2003 was such a mixed bag for ELs – the phenomenal Cohiba DC, the reviled Monte C, and the not-especially-memorable Partagás D2. The Romeo could go either way.

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 1 Edición Limitada 2003 unlit

I’m lighting the cigar with a Bic lighter – there was a plane journey before my walk, and I didn’t like to bring a torch lighter in case it was confiscated – so it takes a little while to coax a coal from the Bic’s fitful fires. Eventually I get there. Perhaps a symptom of the slow light, the first puffs have no heat to them, and no bitterness at all. The tobacco is extremely light, the flavour slightly lactic, slightly herbal. All those things are marginal. Mostly it tastes like nothing. I wonder if perhaps this cigar is a little old.

The friends I’m with are old friends, school friends, and as we puff and laugh away, an ancient anecdote comes to mind. The year would have been around 1998, and I was in year 9, the youngest of the four forms at my high school. I was pimple faced pubescent with hair that was just marginally too long (by year 12 it would be a greasy mop that frequently earned me uniform citations for crossing the collar limit) and a voice that still cracked occasionally. My parents had become friendly with the parents of Fabian Swann, a classmate of mine. Fabian and I were largely ambivalent toward each other, but I guess it was convenient, so the Swanns had brought him over to my house, notionally so that we could do our homework together, while our parents attended the school’s Parents Trivia Night.

Fairly predictably, not a lot of homework was getting done, but Fabian and I felt that we had to at least make some show of it, so we were spreading our books out on the kitchen table when something fell out of Fabian’s diary. “Oh yeah,” he said “check this out.” It was a proto-selfie, taken on a disposable camera some weeks prior at school camp. The subject was one of our classmates, Stavros Dimitriadis. Even by the standards of a teenage boy, Stavros was enduring a particularly brutal puberty; he was overweight, with pale skin that acted as an ideal canvas to extenuate his acne, a big, nobly nose, thick glasses and braces. Stavros always copped a lot of shit (it didn’t help that he had an identical twin brother, lived above a fish and chip shop, and proudly wore the Christian fish symbol on his blazer lapel), but at the moment in question he was undergoing an especial moment of fame. A few weeks prior, at the aforementioned school camp, we had gone caving (essentially writhing through foot high tunnels in close quarters with your classmates). Stavros was one of the last of the class to exit, so we were all standing around in a circle watching when he popped out of the ground, his glasses fogged up, and wearing a miner’s helmet with a light on it. Somebody yelled out “it’s a mole-man,” and that was it: Stavros would never be known as anything else. Being still relatively fresh, any reference to moles, mole-men, or Stavros had the class in stiches.

The photo that Fabian produced was about as unflattering as any that has ever been taken: low angle, it captured both Stavros’ double chin and his nose, and the sun gleamed equally off his greasy skin and his braces. “Let’s put it on a chick’s body,” I suggested.

The year being 1998, my family internet connection was restricted to a 28.8 baud modem that connected to a server at my dad’s work (he worked at a university). He had cautioned me repeatedly that every site would be monitored by their IT department, so an AltaVista search for something like “female body” was completely out of the question. Instead we leafed through a coffee table book until we found a picture of Chloé, a rubenesque nude that famously hangs in a pub in Melbourne, and scanned her. Using a trial version of some editing software that I had gotten on a shareware CD, we successfully planted Stavros’ head on Chloé’s body. The editing was awful, but good enough: the dichotomy between the pale nude’s body and the Greek boy’s greasy face was hilarious.

We printed out two copies, and the next day at school Fabian had one in his folder, and discreetly we began to show our friends, who all found it just as funny as we did. It was all going swimmingly until Cameron Sprague got a hold of it and stuck it up on the whiteboard. The whole class pissed themselves except Stavros, who snatched it down and fled the room in tears. Half an hour later the year-level coordinator came to get me.

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 1 Edición Limitada 2003 somewhat smoked, on a bic lighter

The cigar at the mid-point has thickened considerably, although it is still only barely a mid-strength cigar. There are a few vague notes, some floral elements, the occasional lactic hint, but mostly at the moment it is dominated by a Mānuka honey taste stronger than I recall finding in any other cigar.

They only knew about me, but in the hopes of a lesser punishment, I immediately rolled on Fabian. It didn’t work. After a lot of shouting I was given a one-day suspension, a week of detention, and I had to have my parents sign the offending picture. I thought my parents would be the worst part of the punishment, but in the end it wasn’t too bad. They yelled at me a bit, but mostly they seemed mildly amused.

After I had served my detentions the incident died down. Stavros seemed to forgive me. Classmates would reminisce about it occasionally, and ask if I still had a copy, but alas, a condition of my parent’s punishment was that I delete the files from the computer, and the signed copy that I handed to the coordinator I never saw again.

There was something of an epilogue some years later, however, when Miss Kok (Miss Kok [she insisted it was pronounced “Coke”] too was the butt of a lot of our jokes, but also our pubescent fantasies: she was blonde, busty, wore a lot of singlet tops, and did a lot of jumping, leaping and jiggling around in her role as a drama teacher) asked me about it.
“Hey Alex, do you still have that picture of Stavros on the girl’s body that you made in year nine?”
“No, they made me destroy all the copies. How do you know about that?”
“Oh, we had that up in the staff room for weeks – that was hilarious.”

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 1 Edición Limitada 2003 final third

In the last few inches the Hermosos No. 1 firmly establishes itself as mid strength, but as it does the honey fizzles out and is replaced by a sort of chemical tang, not unreminiscent of high-quality fly spray. As it progresses the tar gets stronger and stronger, until I’m basically just smoking for the nicotine. It is neither bad nor good.

Overall, the Hermosos No. 1 is a fine cigar, and what notes there are are delicate and delicious. In 2016, however, there is not a whole lot to it. I suspect it may be five years too old. If you have a box and are saving them for something, now is the time.

Still better than a Petit Coronas though.

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 1 Edición Limitada 2003 nub

Romeo y Julieta Hermosos No. 1 Edición Limitada 2003 on the Cuban Cigar Website