Life has a funny way of working out. For this week’s dusky beauty I was in need of a sidekick. For the final cigar in my Romeo y Julieta retrospective I had lined up a Churchills Reserva and, much as I did a few years ago with the Monte Gran Reserva, I wanted to smoke it side by side with someone smoking its regular production equivalent. Davidé (the swine), was off in the tropics indulging his baser urges in some sweltering hive of scum and villainy, and nobody else seemed too interested. The weather was perfect and I was seriously smoking the two cigars simultaneously when a text message came through. It was my friend Bogus’ birthday, he was feeling depressed, and was wondering if I wanted to get a drink and talk. “I can do you one better” I replied. “Eat a banana and head over. I’ve got the sure-fire depression cure for you: nicotine and Vitamin D.”
“Holy shit,” my companion remarks, moments after lighting. “Now that is a delicious cigar.” The reserva at this point is just getting its legs, and is still a little bitter from the light, so I have a puff of the regular Churchills. The boy is right. The cigar is amazing. One of the sweetest, creamiest cigars I’ve ever had the pleasure of. Tastes like butterscotch. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. By two centimetres in the Churchill regular is black coffee, with dirty earth notes. The reserva is a much lighter (and, frankly, superior) version of the same thing: smooth coffee cream and cedar.
Bogus today is an upstanding member of society: he’s married with kids, runs his own business, and is deeply involved in the political fundraiser networking circuit. It was not always this way. I’ll never forget the first day we met. I was sitting in a university tutorial at the start of second semester, waiting for class to begin, when a gungy looking skinhead thug sat down next to me. He really had it all going on – heavily studded leather jacket, ripped jeans, boots, tartan flannel shirt, and he offered me his hand, saying “hey man, I’m so glad there’s somebody I know in this class.” I had never seen this person before in my life, and was about to say so, when the second words out of his mouth gave me pause: “I’m so happy today, man. It’s the last day of my suspended sentence.”
We became fast friends, and ten years later, long after his rebellion against society had ended, he sent me a text. It was Grand Final Day (the final match of the year for our home grown football code), which is a sort of public holiday in Melbourne, when your average male traditionally has a barbecue and watches the game, or go to a pub and watches the game. Bookish nerds like me traditionally stay home and play video games in protest. Bogus’ text was inviting me to a pub crawl. “Just me and some friends,” it read. “It’s okay but they’re a bunch of punks.”
Assuming he meant “punks” in the same sense as “kids,” I decided to dress in the most neutral way I could, so as not to affiliate myself with any football team. The final ensemble – a beige guayabera, chinos, and a calf-length chestnut coloured overcoat – looked good, but it was weird as hell. I looked like a moneyed eccentric, home from the equatorial colonies. When I walked into the pub and found myself in a room full of leather, tartan, Mohawks and piercings, I looked even more out of place; in a room full of non-conformist weirdos, I was the non-conformist weirdo.
The event turned out to be the annual Punk Crawl, a decades long tradition on Melbourne Grand Final Day, where a hundred or so punks trek around the CBD, occupying various bars. Outside each venue, and accompanying the walk between them, was a heavy police presence. I had joined the crawl at pub number three. We stayed there for about forty-five minutes before walking down the street to pub four, only to find that the cops had phoned ahead, and the owner had closed the place in anticipation. The thing about punks is that they’re anarchists. They lack strong leadership. With the planned venue closed to them, the crawl pretty much disbanded. Some punks went to the next pub on the list. Others went back to the place we had just come from. Some scattered to various nearby bars, while a final group stayed outside the closed bar, yelling indignantly that it was a free country and they were just trying to have some fun. For my own part I wound up around the corner at a university bar that did not feature on the official list.
The Churchills Reserva has a bit of tighter draw than the regular production model and, perhaps because of this, or perhaps my more practiced smoking technique, it is burning a good deal slower. Its flavours are light, with coffee and a distinct sour cherry note. It’s an artificial cherry flavour – red Starburst, specifically. By contrast the regular Churchills is much fuller tobacco, with bitter coffee and earthy tones.
There were ten or so of the punks that came with us to the university bar, and I was hanging out chiefly with Bogus and his friend Moby. Like Bogus, Moby wasn’t really a practicing punk any more. At one time he had been as punk as they come, with leopard print and ACAB (“All Cops Are Bastards”) tattooed around the base of his Mohawk. The Mohawk had gone years ago though, and he’d grown his hair out to cover the tattoos, which were now starting to show again as his hair thinned with the approach of middle age. He wasn’t quite as square as Bogus – he worked at a combat gym, selling custom made knives and non-lethal weaponry to security guards, hunters and martial artists. At first he eyed me with suspicion, but when I started to smoke my cigar (Upmann Monarchas), much to the distaste of the straights in the outdoor dining area, he started to come around. “You dress like a fascist” he told me, “but actually, you’re pretty punk.”
The Punk Crawl had been scheduled to end with a concert at the Grey Duke Hotel, a dive bar in a bad area that was known for its heavy metal shows, and that seemed as good a place as any to rendezvous with the main body of the crawl. We arrived about 8:30pm, just as the second act was about to go on. By all accounts the first act hadn’t been much good, but the second were shaping up to be better, and the place was starting to fill up, as the scattered groups of punks began to trickle back in. The band started to play, a few people started to head-bang, the beer was flowing, there were some cute baby-punk girls in little tartan skirts around – all in all it was a good vibe. Yes, the crawl so far had been a bit of a disaster, but now we were back together. It felt good to be punk.
Just as things were starting to come together, Moby walked up to Bogus and I with a huge grin on his face. “Well guys,” he said, “it’s been fun, but I gotta go.” “Where are you off to?” asked Bogus. “Oh, nowhere. Just things are about to get a bit rough in here.” He winked, and handed Bogus something. “Enjoy yourselves.” Bogus inspected the item Moby had handed him. It was a small aerosol can on a keyring. Bogus sniffed it gingerly, and recoiled. “It’s a pepper spray can” he said. “And it’s empty.”
It quickly became obvious that the contents of the can had gone into the air-conditioning intake. Forewarned somewhat, Bogus and I were two of the first out the door, but we were still exposed enough that my eyes and nose were streaming, a feeling like the worst hay-fever imaginable. Within a minute the place was empty. On the footpath outside punks were coughing. Punks were crying. The dance floor seemed to have gotten it worst. One of the cute-baby punk girls throwing up in the gutter, while her friend sat next to her, crying and hyperventilating hysterically. The punks were upset. “It was the bastard cops,” I heard one say. “They must have maced someone right outside the window.” “Nah,” his friend replied. “It was the owner. He saw we were starting to have fun so he shut it down.” “C’mon man,” said Bogus. “Let’s get out of here before the cops show up.”
We headed up the road to a different pub, Bogus disposing of the mace can in a storm water drain along the way, and had a beer on the deck and watched while fire engines, ambulances and cop cars arrived one after another. After a while Moby showed up and joined us. “Why did you do it?” I asked him. “Those are your friends, shouldn’t you stick together?” “Because it’s punk” he replied with a sneer. “Those poseurs just don’t get it. Of course punks pepper spray other punks. Nothing is more punk than that.
By the last two inches the Reserva Churchills has gone much the same way as its brethren: bitter coffee, rough tobacco and tar. It’s not terrible, and I don’t need to spit, but I do need to take more regular sips of rum. These are big cigars, and a lot of crap is going to build up in two and a half hours of smoking. You have to expect that they’ll end like this.
And so the verdict: the Churchills Reserva is a way better cigar than the regular production Churchills, but it probably isn’t worth twice as much. When compared to the wider cigars of the world, it’s good, but it’s not transcendental. You could probably find a better use for your $100 in an aged EL or commemorative box. Way better than a Petit Coronas though.