With the lady-friend away this past weekend at a bachelorette party, probably draped in penis necklaces, I decided to embrace a quiet Saturday evening with the most manliest of indulgences: my favorite scotch and a cigar. I find the combination of the two are a lesson in patience - a practice which I am in much need of refining.
Months ago my parents attended their regular gala circuit to bloat the endowments of the schools that my sister and I attended in our youth. There are a slew of items which are auctioned off by both silent and verbal acts. Most items are fit for the home or neckline, while others cater to the sports enthusiast and traveler. My parents are very generous with their budgets and their intentions while attending such events and usually capture a gift or two for my sister and I. This year I was bestowed a box of H Upmann Chairman's Reserve cigars.
Being somewhat of a runner, I never smoke. I find cigarettes repulsive and don't care to tango with Mary Jane either. It's the act of inhaling that I can't get behind - like swallowing sandpaper only to regurgitate lethal exhaust. But once or twice a year I will light up a cigar as an affirmation of both ruggedness and refinement. The tightly rolled leafy shaft has equal ties to western ranches and urban mahogany clubs. Lighting one torches more than just tobacco, it ignites a machismo as well.
I grew up with a grandfather who constantly had cheap cigars pursed from his lips. The caveat: they were never lit. It was mostly for effect, a stylistic trademark which complimented his overall unique persona. He would sit, chewing on the end of a cheap stogie to advance his role as the stark but approachable, WWII vet that he was - a Polish mutant of Archie Bunker and Robert Mitchum. I never quite understood his intent but then again that was a generation and a man unlike any other and everything had a purpose. For all that he had seen and been through he could do whatever he damn well pleased. Now, as an older lad, discovering that personality is as much a treasured asset as any tangible object, I look back and laugh at this trait. It was a simple signature that made him standout, never causing any harm or annoyance to himself or others around him. It was actually genius. The oral equivalent of a pocket square or unique spectacles.
But on to the events of the evening. First a little background on the night's menu.
As I matured, I began to see a cigar as a masculine ritual - a way to bond with male family and friends. I had cheap ones in college, Cubans in the Caribbean and various classes in between. Upon receiving this box from my parents I thought nothing of sharing my gift with other gents in my life. I was handing them out like I was perched in a 1950's maternity ward on the verge of fathering twins. Then I received an e-mail from a close family friend - Subject: "Some details I found on the item that you are sharing!". As it turns out the H Upmann Chairman's Reserve was wrapped with a flawless Connecticut shade wrapper specifically for Ronald Perelman, the Chairman of the brand. Apparently, production of the medium body blend was stopped in 2001 and since then the cigar is nearly impossible to find! It was a classic example of ignorance causing extreme generosity. But then I thought, what am I going to do with an entire box of cigars other than look like a menacing tycoon? Smoking them at a rate of two a year will cause half the box to be wasted! In the grand scheme of things, why bother having something so rare if you can't share the experience with those closest to you?
Its partner in crime would be The Balvenie 12 Year Double Wood. Aged first in American whiskey oak casks and then in European Sherry casks makes for a taste explosion on the palette. I happened upon the brand randomly at a party in the Financial District of Manhattan. Surrounded by a room full of strangers, I quickly honed in on a conversation involving scotch and eagerly interjected. Much to my delight, one of my fellow guests had invited a bottle of The Balvenie to be his guest and was gracious enough to allow me a tasting. Up to that point, I had been drinking Macallan 10 Fine Oak but after the first golden drop slid down my throat I had found a new favorite.
This Speyside whiskey is almost as smooth as Macallan 12 for a fraction of the cost. The double maturation provides for a mellow taste with robust flavors. I am partial to sherried whiskeys and the Balvenie caters to my demands without being overly sweet. A buttery approach leads to the complexity of flavors that include sherry, honey, caramel, vanilla and a slight fruitiness. Compared to the overly peaty and briny Islay malts, this is a joy to sip. A reviewer from whiskeyparty.net summed the bottle up nicely- "The traditional whisky cask makes sure the DoubleWood grows up to be a fine, upstanding Scotch, while the sherry cask acts as a finishing school designed to add depth and character."
So off I went with Chuchillian gusto to my roof, soon to be unavoidably peering into the lives of the UES. Residing on the 6th floor of my pre-war building leaves but a flight to scale for rooftop access. The approach is full of an eerie loneliness as if you are being followed into an old church attic. A dank, gloomy landing leads to a vacant door that burrows out onto a bare tar roof. Its dark expanse houses a nest of ghostly eyes. You feel alone, yet know that someone is watching - but that can be said for all of New York. There was faint laughter from a hidden scene on a nearby balcony. The hum of traffic rose from below muffled by a breeze that swirled indecisively - first West to East and then redirecting on a dime. You are connected to life above and below yet removed from it all, as if looking through a giant peephole.
It took six matches to draw flavor from my tobacco torpedo, the wind playing tag with my striking efforts. Once ignited I set my scotch on the ledge and glared out over the obstructed horizon to my north. At first all I saw were the antiquarian wooden water towers dotting the landscape. I continually take note of them around the city and think back to the times of the Astors or Five Points. Soon lights stole my attention as the skyline developed into a string of defective christmas lights. Windows turned on/off, tv's flickered, shades opened and shut. The hidden lives of my neighbors were revealed in my ever changing periphery through transparent glass. My intention was not to spy, but it couldn't be helped. It brought a sense of calm to see the gruffness of urban life reduced to the comforts of home. I began to wonder what their lives were like and how different it must be to live at the various tiers of this community. What caused others to be home on this Saturday night, while many were drowning in a dark bar? What were those high above me toiling in? My income level separating me from the opulent activities of their world. This may be the closet I get to their penthouse views.
The intent of the evening was more for a process rather than for taste. I am no aficionado of either smoke or scotch. I have had my fair share of both but almost always exclusive of the other. My first foray into shared enjoyment was over Easter as a group of us men sat outside after dinner engaged in gentlemanly conversation. A present day Victorian affair, sans smoking jackets and a repeated use of the term "chap". I was surprised how the sting of scotch and cigar were in a pious correlation. Each battled for supremacy but neither prevailed as the dominant taste. In fact, what started out as taste war ended in sweet embrace.
There I sat alone with my thoughts and two manly vices staring out onto the mature playground that is New York City. The cool breeze lapped against my face and sent the pages of my notepad fluttering. I frequently stared back at the propped door to make sure I was actually alone, making me equally calm and jittery as the tastes began to bounce on my palette. My tongue was the dance floor as the scotch and smoke twirled around like two grade-schoolers at a social. Ever respectful and remaining innocent in approach, the scotch kept its hands firmly on the waist, complimenting the smoke's flavor without groping or overpowering the tobacco's taste.
It's hard not to feel powerful sitting on a roof holding a glass of scotch and a cigar. Both have a connotation of visceral strength but with dirty undertones. It was as if I should have been twirling my mustache and bellowing a sinister laugh over a kingdom that I had not earned the right to govern. I am not a captain of industry or bearer of bonds but with these in hand one feels ready to conquer and lead. Often I don't feel deserving of the right to live here and partake in my exuberant endeavors. Drinking scotch and smoking a cigar feels fraudulent considering my economic and social stance. My fascination with style and class or macho pursuits are misaligned with my actual existence stuck in the uninspired middle. But for a single night… confined in isolated moments I felt as mighty as the intangibles smacking my tongue.
The wind proved too strong and extinguished my blazed ash with a third left too go. As with most things, I had become distracted by my gazing and wondering and had abandoned attention to my purpose. I hoped this wasn't a metaphor - that my constant curiosity is destine to interfere with actual achievement. The hapless clutter of everyday chores and my ever-expanding bucket list forcing me to forever chase my tail. Self-awareness in the solitude of the night can be equally enlightening and punishing. I would never want to be ignorant of my progress, yet the reality of it can be overwhelming.
In the end I'd rather be forever wondering than numbly unaware. As men, with all that is required of us daily, and by design, it's important to carve out time to contemplate. And what better way to ease the mental digestion than with a scotch, a smoke and some fresh air.
I rubbed out the ash and gave one last salute to the night. It was fun to reflect but it was time to head back into the reality of my apartment doused in the repellent cologne of the evenings activities.