I think my first tobacco experience was at age 14 or so, behind the tennis courts of my school boarding house. This had once been a lovely Victorian gentlemen’s residence, and over the years the school had gradually subsumed a variety of such properties bordering their land as and when more capacity was required. The property was on the fringes of the school’s land, and the courts were out of sight of the house, nestling into woodland, thereby affording excellent cover for our various nefarious activities. On this occasion, the resident “bad boy” had acquired a packet of St Moritz. Stolen – probably from home, he proceeded to share amongst a few of us. These smokes were posh, coming in a lovely green and gold box, with the cigarettes all white with a gold band. I was not very keen to try, but, with the assurance from the supplier that this particular brand was ” good for you as they are menthol” I had a go. It did not go well. I tried to inhale – but aside from choking on the actual fumes, my brain simply did not want my body to inhale a noxious gas. Most struggled, others succeeding, but for me that was the first and last flirtation with cigarettes!
At about the same time I was experimenting with fags, my Mother was also imbibing. My Mother was ahead of her time really, experimentally cooking meals with garlic and olive oil – mainly courtesy of recipes from a vast collection of Cordon Bleu magazines. These were collected – I think every week, and were ultimately stored in some 6 special box binders. We also went to France a fair bit in those days and there my Mother developed a liking for Gauloise, unfiltered, in their trademark blue soft packages. I think she liked the smell (which for a cigarette was really quite nice – compared to say Rothmans), but they also provided an air of foreign sophistication. The Gauloise were sometimes complimented by Henri Wintermans Senoritas, in their gold and brown flat boxes of 5, or their small Cafe Creme siblings in a square flat tin of 10. This, in fact, neatly brings me to a watch connection! At some point, I imagine that Mother’s tobacconist rewarded her pretty frequent custom with a small Henri Wintermans gold-effect quartz watch! I had in fact totally forgotten about this horological marvel, and it only came to light when I had to move her a few years ago into a care home. I nearly threw it away, but paused. It looked like it had never been worn and was in good condition. Of course it was not working as the battery would have run out decades before. No, it reminded me of Mother and her smoking prowess and the Seventies – a period that remains my favourite! I have yet to get it going as, whilst I have some small watch batteries, the one required is seriously minuscule! Although it was a “give away” sales gimmick and is worth nothing, I reckon it must be quite rare!
Moving on, my next encounter with tobacco was probably when I was 23 or so. Presumably, and at my request, Mother bought for my birthday; a pipe, tobacco, pouch, reamer/tamper, pipe cleaners, and matches! I did not smoke it much – maybe only a couple of times a week. Regarding tobacco I quite liked the very popular Clan – it had a delicate and sweet aroma. Later I progressed to a Balkan Sobranie which was much coarser and had a pungent and medicinal smell – the closest I can liken this to is an island malt whiskey. A little later I recall getting a “Falcon” pipe whose exposed aluminium stem and plumbing was supposed to give a “cooler” smoke. My last pipe was an Amphora, into which you could insert a disposable cylindrical filter, the hope presumably being that it would help reduce the risk of future nasties!
I started interspersing the pipe with the odd cigar probably in my thirties. Initially they were in fact Mother’s old favourite, the Henri Wintermans Senoritas. However, I also became a bit more adventurous, sampling the joys of King Edward Imperials and Invincible sticks. If I recall, I think the former had a sugary substance coating the wrapper and although I must have enjoyed at the time, the thought of reprising now would probably make me nauseous!
I was probably now in my mid forties and business was good. I began to dip my toes in the watch world and could indulge my passion of classic cars and nice clothes and shoes. It was about this time that I became a minor patron of The Academy of Ancient Music – the small British orchestra that plays period instruments and specialises in the baroque period. Anyway, one of the perks was to accompany them on foreign trips, and one frequent destination was to Amsterdam where they had a periodic residency at the Concertgebouw. I sometimes stayed an extra day in order to visit – no, not the red light district, but some of the fine museums and art galleries! However, my main target was the emporium of PGC Hajenius, the oldest (1826) tobacconist in Amsterdam and they have been in their purpose built headquarters since 1914. Once ensconced within, one could easily while away a few hours – not only chatting to the knowledgeable staff and other patrons, but also viewing the interesting artifacts in their museum section. Oh, whilst of course drinking coffee and sampling a nice big cigar! I would return from these trips laden with cigars as they were so much cheaper due to the significantly lower Dutch tax levied.
I suppose now into my early fifties, I had been attending cigar tasting evenings for a little while. They would normally be at a nice hotel and would include a blow-out meal with drinks and possibly a stopover. I do recall that the “package” price was very reasonable. It was on one of these events that I met a really nice chap who was in the trade. I then met him again and we struck up a friendship with me occasionally buying from him after asking for recommendations.
So, to the cigar in question, the Partagus Maduro No 1 from Cuba. This was an early recommendation from my new best friend and remains my go-to stick. With a ring gauge (girth) of 52 and 130 mm in length, it is just a good size and on average good for a 45 minute smoke. Although a little on its own, the size is most like a Robusto type.
Partagas is one of Cuba’s premier and interesting producers. Started by Don Jaime Partagas in 1845, their factory was smack plum in the middle of Havana. Their main growing fields are in western part of the Island in the coveted Vuelta Abajo region. This terroir is considered the most fertile for tobacco growing and is unusual in that it is suitable for all tobacco plant types. Partagas make a fair number of different cigar sizes and types but mainly with fuller flavours. The Linea Maduro range comes in three sizes, but this particular version suits me personally. The cigar is totalmente a mano (hand-made), and the name maduro means mature (leaves) and denotes cigars with dark wrappers. In this case the wrappers are picked from the leaves found on the higher levels of tapado (shade- grown) tobacco plants. These leaves are larger and finer and are the most expensive to grow. This aspect, plus extra fermentation, means the leaves develop an intense flavour plus the characteristic darker colour. The filler and binder leaves come from sun-grown plants, with different strengths and flavours dependent on where the leaf come from on the plant. So, either volado (lower) and lighter, seco (medium), and ligero (higher) and fuller flavour. In general there will be around seven specific processes – including fermentation (two), drying and aging, and these can all total some 2 – 3 years plus. As these cigars are totally hand made, one could expect inconsistencies, however in my experience the flavour and draw have remained pretty constant. This is a testament to the high quality production and testing at Partagas and so are allowed to be exported by Habanos SA.
So what are my conclusions over smoking, and this cigar in particular. Well, regarding the former there are of course potential risks – as the warnings on the boxes can rather graphically depict. But, like with most things in life it is a calculated risk and this encompasses several factors and considerations. Clearly the highest risk is smoking cigarettes as 99% of folks inhale the smoke. Worst would be unfiltered, then filtered. Also, people can smoke say between 10/20 per day, but in the bad old days the phrase “he is a 40 a day smoker” was not unusual. I then guess that pipe and cigar smoking have one similarity, which is that most people do not inhale the smoke from these. I would then think that pipe smokers would light up more often that a premium cigar smoker, plus they would sometimes retain their pipe in the same position for periods which could increase risk. On balance, I feel that cigars are the “best” of the bunch in terms limiting risk, plus their aroma – new and old, is much more pleasant than fags! Oh, and cigar owners tend to be much more interesting! For myself, I try to limit myself to say, 3 per week and sometimes outside or in a ventilated room. OK, if I am with others and having a good time I may have a couple in an evening! Anyway, I feel that I have reduced my risk as much as I can – bearing in mind that I enjoy a cigar and have no wish to desist!
Regarding this particular cigar, well, I just think it tastes great and has a wonderful aroma. Also, 99% of the time, it has a good draw and burns evenly. So, all quality aspects have been satisfied. Cost, well of course Cuban cigars are expensive due to the fact that they are usually the best and are labour intensive to produce. In the UK the RRP is around £24.
Words/Images: The Writer – except Partagas factory image courtesy of Habanos SA.
Warning: Smoking may damage your health. If you can, don’t!