by Marc Phillips
Have I told you about my trip to Australia this summer?
That’s kind of an in-joke around here, since I can’t seem to shut up about it and I’m really starting to drive people crazy. But it’s a big deal for me. Five years ago, when I started importing and distributing high-end audio gear from places such as Italy, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, I imagined that I’d become an instant jet-setter and travel the globe in a noble effort to bring the world’s best equipment back to the United States. Instead, I find myself traveling all over the US instead, visiting dealers, picking up shipments directly at ports of entry and exhibiting at US trade shows.
I’m certainly not complaining about that—I love to travel. The problem is I had a telecommunications job for eight years where I had to go wherever they told me to go on a moment’s notice, and I averaged about 65,000 miles per year. Them’s white-cargo-van-with-orange-ladders-on-top miles, not cruising-comfortably-at-30,000-feet-in-the-air miles. As a result, I’m thoroughly well-traveled here in the US. Wherever you live, I’ve probably been there, pulling Cat 6 cable across the attics of your local supermarket.
But I’ve never really been off the continent. I’ve gone to Mexico twice and Canada twice, long before a passport was needed to go to those places, and I’ve also been to Hawaii twice if you want to call me out on that “I’ve never been off the continent” claim. In 2006, I went through the process of getting my first U.S. passport because a buddy and I were going to hang out in London for a week. He busted up his knee a few weeks before we were set to go, and by the time he recovered enough to travel to Europe I no longer had the extra cash to go. So for the last nine years, my virgin passport has mocked me from its somewhat dusty resting place in my bedroom nightstand drawer.
A few months ago, I saw my opportunity to travel abroad. For the last two or three years I’ve been working with Brad Serhan, the Australian designer of the Axis loudspeaker that we import for CCI. He and his business partner David Allen brought a product sample with them to CES last January, and left them with me for six months for evaluation here in Colorado. Once the evaluation period ended, we tried to make arrangements to send them back to Sydney, and at the same time, swap them for their bigger siblings. Both pairs of speakers are quite heavy for their size, and when we looked at our shipping costs, they were alarmingly high. At that moment, while Colleen and I were Skype-ing with Brad and David, I had a really good and somewhat self-serving idea.
“Why don’t I just fly to Sydney with the little speakers, and evaluate the big speakers while I’m there?” I asked. I said that with tongue in cheek—you know, Marc’s never traveled the world like the rest of you, and he’s always scheming to rectify that oversight. But to my surprise, the other three said “That’s a great idea!”
David Allen then asked me, “Would you really be willing to do that for us?”
“David,” I replied, “I’ll make the sacrifice.”
The first phase of my evil plan worked!
Goal #1, of course, was to get that elusive first stamp in my passport. The second goal was revealed to the others once we agreed, via Skype, on my trip. I looked at David and wiggled my eyebrows and said, “You know, David…I’ve heard that you guys can smoke Cuban cigars in Australia.”
Everybody laughed, of course, but within a couple of days David had contacted Laura Brown, who is Marketing & Events Manager for the Watershed Hotel and Cohibar in Darling Harbour, one of the most picturesque spots in all of Sydney. He told her that the world-famous writer of The Smoking Jacket series of articles at Part-Time Audiophile was coming to Australia for the first time—and he expected bushels and bushels of Cuban cigars to be thrown at his feet as soon as he exited his plane.
“As discussed, we would love to host Marc here when he is in town,” she replied in an email to David, which he forwarded to me. “If you could let me know what date suits him best I will organise Ren to be there to take him through the humidor. We will also put on a bar tab to make his visit more enjoyable.”
And so the second phase of my evil plan was set in place, and I laughed my evil laugh.
Over the last few columns of The Smoking Jacket, I’ve discussed herfing—the social aspect of gathering with other cigar smokers in a comfortable setting–and its importance to the hobby. When I think about the memorable herfs I’ve had over the years, a smile suddenly appears on my face and I have a hankering to light up something special in commemoration. There’s the time Colleen and I met a friend at Club Macanudo in Manhattan—two cigars, seven single-malt scotches, three Cuban sandwiches and $500 later, we felt like true captains of industry planning to take over the world. Then there’s the time we met another couple at the Brown Palace Hotel in downtown Denver and the most beautiful server in the world, a blonde Swedish girl straight out of central casting, presented me with an exquisite Davidoff Anniversario. She cut it perfectly and even toasted the foot. Then there’s the time I visited Cigar King in Chicago on a Monday morning and the place was packed with fellow cigar smokers playing pool, watching ESPN and creating huge plumes of a smoke that pegged the local AQI meters. On a Monday. At 10 in the morning. I felt like I was an extra in a reboot of The Sting.
All three of those herfs were extraordinary, each in their own way, but something was missing. The cigars enjoyed on those occasions were indeed special, but they weren’t, uh, what’s the word I’m looking for? Oh yeah…Cuban. And while I’m certainly fond of New York City, Denver and Chicago, they aren’t in, uh, what’s the name of that place? Oh yeah…Australia.
So on a cool rainy evening in early September, the beginning of spring in the southern half of the world, I grabbed Brad Serhan, David Allen and their good friend Les Davis, who is currently working on his own constrained layer damping material for high-end components, and we grabbed the light rail from the suburbs into the heart of the city and headed for Darling Harbour’s Cohibar.
Sydney’s Cohibar boasts of having the best views of Sydney Harbour in the city, and they ain’t kidding. From the outside smoking deck, you can see all of the famous landmarks—the downtown skyline, the Harbour Bridge and of course the world-famous Sydney Opera House. At night you see the city lights in all their glory, and you’re reminded of just how big Sydney is—at well over four million it has a larger population than the City of Los Angeles. Due to recent tobacco legislation in Sydney, however, the covered outdoor deck is the only place to smoke, so all of the inside areas of Cohibar, including a sultry private room adorned with movie memorabilia, are for food and drink only. I didn’t mind. Even with the light rain and the occasional stiff breeze, it was still perfectly ideal for the herf of a lifetime.
The four of us were met by Josh Smith, the manager, and Renata “Ren” Dare, the bartender. Josh was your typical athletic young Aussie with plenty of amazing tales of his extreme adventures. He grew up in the Blue Mountains, just west of Sydney, where the deadly funnel-web spiders roam freely and strike at will. Ren was a lovely, vivacious and funny woman who had a bit of a strange accent—for the middle of Sydney, that is. It turned out that Ren was originally from New York, but she’s lived in Australia for so many years that the accent is starting to creep in, sort of like the anti-Mel Gibson. Since only Josh and I wanted to smoke Cuban cigars, Brad and David and Les spent more time with Ren indoors while the real men stepped outside and lit up.
The humidor at Cohibar was smaller than I expected—I didn’t think there would be a huge walk-in like at many of the US cigar stores, but at first glance it seemed like I didn’t have many choices within the armoire-sized cabinet. Josh instantly apologized, saying that the new order of fresh cigars he had expected that day hadn’t arrived in time for my arrival. I looked at the selection and at first I was confused. All of the bands looked exactly the same, sort of dull with solid colors, the same as you’d see on a plain-wrap “house” blend from an online vendor. That’s when Josh explained Australia’s Plain Packaging Act of 2011, where manufacturer logos and packaging designs are replaced with lovely photos of diseased gums, missing teeth, rotting lungs and people dying in hospital beds. I’d seen these images before when an Australian friend of mine brought me a couple of stogies as a gift at last year’s CES.
With Cuban cigars, however, the disgusting images are relegated to pamphlets inside the humidor, and the beautiful factory bands have been merely covered with plain bands that peel off quite easily. Considering that I’m a seasoned cigar smoker who sees the factory bands as beacons in a crowded humidor, and that I can usually spot a Cohiba or a Montecristo or a Davidoff or a Padron from a hundred feet away, I felt suddenly disoriented and had no idea how to choose my stick for the evening. That’s when Josh stepped in and started identifying all the cigars for me—Partagas, H. Upmann, Romeo y Julieta and much more. Then he said the magic words: “Montecristo No.2.” I’m not sure what he said after that. I had already made my choice.
The Montecristo No. 2 from Havana is one of those all-time classics that still stand head-and-shoulders above most of the other cigars out there. It placed #1 in Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 list in 2013, 78 years after it was first released. It’s a 6.1”, 52-ring torpedo that is widely regarded as the most famous stick to come out of Havana. It’s everything you want a great cigar to be—it has a bold, well-balanced character that exudes tons of flavor without being overwhelming. It’s the kind of cigar you give to someone who has never smoked a fine cigar before, a certain someone you’re trying to convert into a permanent smoking buddy. Josh grabbed a Partagas—it was a torpedo about the size of my No. 2 so I assumed it was Serie P No. 2. I ordered a Lagavulin to accompany my Monte, and we headed out to the patio for what I expected would be the herf of my life.
This isn’t the first Montecristo No. 2 I’ve smoked. I think I’ve had one twice before. I’m sure they were excellent cigars, among the best I’ve ever smoked. But there was something about this one that placed it in the Top 5, maybe even the Top 3. Maybe it was the finest cigar I’ve ever smoked. The view, the company, the circumstances, the idea that I was smoking a Cuban cigar legally for the very first time in my life—all of these variables contributed to those wonderful and rich notes of cinnamon and leather, the perfect draw and burn and the exquisite clouds of smoke that drifted over a harbor over 8000 miles from home.
Josh and I talked a lot about cigars over the next hour or two, how he had only started smoking them a few years ago but was instantly hooked from the first puff. I told him tales of all the great Cubans I had smoked over the years, what they were, where I smoked them and how they tasted. He spoke of how the popularity of premium cigar smoking in Sydney had ebbed and flowed over the years, and that recent smoking restrictions in the city might have caused a slight decline. But he also mentioned that serious cigar smokers had migrated toward private smoking clubs where you could pay a small annual membership fee and herf to your heart’s content.
When I think about the night of September 3, 2015, that’s one of the first things that comes to mind—these people have the ability to smoke one of the finest cigars in the world in a breathtaking setting such as the Cohibar. It’s a shame to temper that with talk about smoking restrictions, but deep down I understand the reasons why and I refuse to sound like an attorney working for Philip Morris by whining about it. I came away from the Cohibar thinking mostly about how lucky Australians are, and that Sydney is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and I can’t wait to go back soon and hang with Josh and Ren and all my new mates.
Thanks, of course, go out to Laura Brown for making the night such a success, Josh and Ren for being such gracious and entertaining hosts, and for David and Brad and Les for being part of it as well!
Needless to say, if you ever visit Sydney you must visit the Cohibar. Be sure to check out their website at http://cohibar.com.au/.
And now I can finally shut up about my trip to Australia. Maybe.