And so we end where we really should have begun: with the H. Upmann Connoisseur No. 1.
Many moons ago when I began my Upmann chronicles I lamented my inability to find a Connie 1. As the cigar you most often hear talked about by cigar aficionados, I think of it as the consensus building Upmann, and presumed that were I to run a simple query of the holdings of the members of the cigar encyclopaedia I edit, the Connie 1 would be by far the most widely held Upmann. As it turns out however, I was mistaken: the honour goes to the H. Upmann Half Corona (at 8th overall), followed closely by the Magnum 46 (9th); even the Royal Robusto (22nd), an exotic cigar, outranks the humble Connie 1 (25th).
I didn’t seek the Connie 1 out after that first fateful day, content to run with what I had and keep the mediocre Petite Corona (a miserable 81st) as my comparison point, but as it turned out a Connie 1 found me. I was at a herf, a small gathering of friends and brothers in the leaf when, as often happens at these events, everyone started handing out cigars. I’m not sure who handed this one to me, but whoever you are: thank you. The afternoon is sunny and I’m in the courtyard with a friend, a few beers and a mostly full bottle of mid-range blended scotch, an environment where the Connie 1 is sure to thrive.
The cigar is a little hot on the light, and feels a bit dry. I neglected to give this one a rinse before smoking, which I think might have helped it. I puff enough to make sure it’s fully lit, and then let it sit awhile. When I return the cigar has mellowed out to a light tobacco with barnyard notes and a herbal tang. At this early stage it has all the makings of a very pleasant casual smoke.
The whisky of the day is Johnny Walker Gold Label, a drop I’ve had both more and less than my fair share of over the years. In Japan Gold costs less than Black Label does in Australia, and I used to drink a ton of the stuff in the time I lived there. My apartment in China had a feature wall that was boldly decorated with a swirling pattern of red paint and gold leaf, and to complement it I maintained a bar of only red and gold labelled bottles, in which Johnny Gold figured heavily. It’s not a great scotch, but it is a very easy scotch: not very challenging, but it goes down quietly. A little like the Connie 1, come to think of it.
In Australia Gold Label is too expensive to buy casually. If I want a nice scotch then my coin is better spent on an interesting single malt, and if I want to put scotch inside of my coke at the movies then the Red Label will do just fine. On rare occasion though I will bring a bottle back through duty free, and it was such a bottle that many years ago figured in the crime.
Throughout my teens and early twenties, I was blessed with the two key elements for the youthful party host: a large house and parents who went away a lot. I’ve never quite understood my parents’ thinking in their renovation schemes; they are barely drinkers, and have little interest in entertaining. Over the thirty years they’ve owned their home I can think of maybe five occasions when they hosted a gathering of more than ten people there, and yet, over the years they have consistently and methodically renovated a ramshackle, pokey mess of a place into a party palace. The house today has huge, open rooms, two big enough for dance floors, and a large billiard room complete with a bar, wood panelling, and bench seats set into the walls. The big rooms are at the back of the house, far from the street and the neighbours’ bedrooms, so nobody ever complains about the noise. At the front of the house there are many small nooks, intimate spaces with couches and beds where people can slip away to. Outside there is a big area with tables that can be covered in summer and heated in winter. There is a spa for goodness sake! Suffice to say, the bacchanals of my late teens were legendary.
I was about twenty two on the night of the crime, and was burning the party card pretty hard, throwing at least ten a year. Perhaps because of this, enthusiasm for my elaborate themes was waning, and attendance had dropped considerably from the days when I could expect at least a hundred guests at any bash I threw. The night in question was in the middle of winter, cold and wet, and just sixteen guests showed up, all of them close friends. I had recently returned from Singapore, and so my already substantial bar had been bolstered by the booty of duty free, one bottle of Glenfiddich 21, and my first ever bottle of Johnny Walker Gold. I stashed the whisky in the oven, my traditional hiding place for the good stuff, the theory being that I could point those I considered worthy in the right direction, but that the hoi polloi could content themselves with the plentiful cheap booze that had been laid out, and not pour my $100 scotch into their glasses of coke. By the night in question the scheme was compromised somewhat as most of my intimates already knew about the hiding place, but I didn’t fret it: “once worthy, forever worthy” I decreed.
Like most good parties, my memory of the morning after is clearer than the night before. I was going about my usual ritual, collecting the bottles that were scattered around my house, when I came upon the first offence: the bottle of Glenfiddich 21 on the floor in the library, half empty. I snorted in disgust at the presumption, but let it go. A little while later I was in the billiard room where, on the bar, I discovered a far greater crime. My father had, years before, inherited a large collection of old wine from my great uncle. It had been kept without much care in a damp garage, and much of it had spoiled, but he had hung onto a few bottles anyway, including the bottle of 1970 Penfold’s Grange that now sat, open on the bar. It was two thirds full, and the remains of the cork were floating on the top of the liquid, having been pushed into the bottle. I sniffed it: pure vinegar. I was sure my father would never notice – to him they were just a few old, mouldy bottles, but still… the presumption! The final crime I didn’t discover until the clean-up was complete: the bottle of Johnny Gold, unopened at the start of the evening, was gone. No empty bottle. No box. Nothing. A straight up abduction.
That afternoon I fired off a furious email to the sixteen attendees, outlining the offences. Eight replied with denials. There were no confessions. Had it been one of my regular bacchanals I wouldn’t have given it a second thought, but this was not: each of the sixteen guests was an intimate friend, and many of them remain so. Over the intervening decade I have eyed every bottle of Johnny Gold that they have produced with great suspicion, but I am still no closer to an answer than I was that first morning; the thief, the vandal, the wolf: they walk among us still!
My friend catches me inspecting the bottle of Johnny Gold he has brought for us, looking for a mark that would indicate its date of manufacture, and knowing the story well, he winks at me. “Nah mate,” he says, “I filed off the VIN.”
The Connoisseur No. 1 ends extremely well with no tar and a lighter tobacco note than it has had at any point before. It’s not the richest smoke in the world, but it isn’t supposed to be, and is fantastic for it. I always smoke faster when I’m talking, and I demolished this one in less than 45 minutes. Generally the faster you smoke a cigar the hotter it burns and the worse it is, but this one did not suffer at all for the brevity; it was better, say, than the 160th Anniversary version of the same thing that took me at least twice as long. A great, business like smoke. Better than the Petite Coronas.