Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Ashton E.S.G.

It's a hot night in Ho Chi Minh City, and I've been seated outside a restaurant that specialises in not only cooking crab, but also having staff that, according to the menu, are "trying to be better".  My  waiter has been topping up my beer after each swig, and during dinner removed each piece of crab the instant I'd sucked the flesh from it. As he cleared the table I removed an Ashton Estate Sun Grown from my pocket, and he squawked for an ashtray in rapid Vietnamese. It's a handsome, Dominican, brute, the ESG, with a deep, tight, heavily-veined maduro wrapper, and a huge, garish, gold band that I can't help but like. Its 52 ring gauge fills my mouth and makes my eyes roll back in my head as the flame licks playfully at its foot.

I was last in Vietnam many years ago as a stupid 22 year old. I recall little of the trip between binge drinking tasteless lager and chain smoking third-world cigarettes, but one event is with me to this day. It was my final night in the city, and my traveling companion, Connor, was extremely sick, and had holed up in our room to alternately heave and strain into our leaking toilet. I'd left the room just to get some food and, in the days before WiFi-equipped devices, the promise of my swift return was all he could go by. I did have dinner, but then wandered down to our regular dive bar for some beer. I had long, greasy, hair and a beard of sparse pubes, and I smelled like a mixture of old smoke and body odor. This combination, strangely, was attractive to a certain class of woman. Enter Lexi.

In the first inch the Ashton knocks me back with heavy tobacco and even heavier tar. It makes me drink the Saigon Lager I've paired it with too fast, as I try to quell the acrid burn on my tongue. I like the refreshing simplicity of Vietnamese beer, and I feel it would nicely accompany a more complex cigar, rather than be swilled down to dilute this chemical burn.

Lexi was a charming and attractive Scottish lass who, after some cajoling, joined me for some bar-hopping. Vietnam had won a regional soccer tournament, and we purchased some little Vietnamese flags from some street kids and watched the locals celebrate. At the age I was, no lure of the flesh could compete with my alcohol seeking, and I was ignoring Lexi's suggestions of going to her hotel in favour of getting increasingly liquored up.

As my miserable carcass dragged this nice, disproportionately patient girl into yet another bar, the Vietnamese flag I'd tied above my elbow fluttered to the ground, in full view of a group of Vietnamese youths. "WHAT. DA. FAAAACK, America?" pierced the air just as a bottle whizzed past my head. Dumbstruck and scared, I could only shrug my shoulders and make apologetic noises with my slack mouth. Lexi picked up the flag and, under the cover of some actual Americans who fancied a brawl, whisked me away to her hotel.

At the 3/4 mark the bitterness fades, replaced with mild tobacco. It's not bad, but there's no complexity. My temples are already tight from the nicotine, and I'm letting the eager waiter dictate my beer consumption. I knock the ESG against the tiny ashtray and a great wedge falls off which, on investigation, was due to the woefully uneven burn beneath the wrapper that no amount of touching up has remedied. I also note with disappointment that the wrapper is dislodging and peeling off in two places along the veiny shaft, but isn't affecting the draw. I relight and the bland, mild, tobacco returns, and endures beyond the midpoint.

Lexi and I were standing outside her hotel and I, as she was arguing with the owner about her rights to take a non-guest inside, was struck with the urgent need to urinate. I ducked quickly around the side of the hotel, and unleashed my hot piss into the muggy tropical air. "WHAT. THE. FUCK" rang out behind me, and I dropped my limp noodle and stood sharply upright, my penis acting like a pendulum and spraying my cargo shorts and ankles with urine. It was Connor who, after my long absence, had been searching our district for hours, looking for me. He reeked of shit and vomit, and was ghostly pale. It was also 4am, and we had a flight to quite urgently catch. I snuck gutlessly away from Lexi, and lived through my hangover on the ten-hour flight back to Melbourne.

In the final inch, and after 2.5 hours of solid smoking, I am bored through. The cigar has remained tar-free until the end, and I find myself greedily sucking on it to increase my nicotine buzz. I note that I'm also shitfaced and staring angrily at other tourists. In the absence of anything to taste, I've been hammering beer into myself, and yet I don’t feel I’ve denied the ESG any justice. For what it's worth, the Ashton brand is 30 years old, and has been produced in the Dominican Republic since the Cuban Embargo stemmed U.S. import opportunities. That is, effectively, it. It's a boring history, for a boring cigar.

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