Cigar Hunter: On Bill Clinton’s big night, let’s smoke his big Gurkha
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Former President Bill Clinton is scheduled to speak Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Since the affair that made him famous involved a cigar, how could I resist revisiting it here?
But first, a warning: What follows contains some sexually explicit language, but it’s all part of history and already archived for posterity on The Washington Post’s website.
Clinton served two terms in the Oval Office, but it was his extracurricular activities there — not his balanced budgets — that made him unforgettable. The U.S. House of Representatives ultimately impeached him, though the Senate refused to convict, for lying under oath about his sexual peccadilloes with Monica Lewinsky, then a White House intern.
On Sept. 11, 1998, independent counsel Ken Starr, formerly a federal appeals judge and U.S. solicitor general, issued a comprehensive report on this and other Clinton White House scandals. (Starr is now president of Baylor University.)
The Starr report was made available online almost immediately, and the naughty parts became instant water-cooler talk. What made nearly everyone grimace was the bit about the cigar.
Today, we know exactly what kind of cigar it was: a Gurkha Grand Reserve. More on that below.
Here’s how the Starr Report described a few of the president’s sexual encounters with the then-22-year-old Lewinsky.
Ms. Lewinsky did perform oral sex on him. Afterward, she and the President moved to the Oval Office and talked. According to Ms. Lewinsky: “[H]e was chewing on a cigar. And then he had the cigar in his hand and he was kind of looking at the cigar in … sort of a naughty way. And so … I looked at the cigar and I looked at him and I said, we can do that, too, some time.”
And later on:
According to Ms. Lewinsky, the president telephoned her at her desk and suggested that she come to the Oval Office on the pretext of delivering papers to him. She went to the Oval Office and was admitted by a plainclothes Secret Service agent. In her folder was a gift for the president, a Hugo Boss necktie.
In the hallway by the study, the president and Ms. Lewinsky kissed. On this occasion, according to Ms. Lewinsky, “he focused on me pretty exclusively,” kissing her bare breasts and fondling her genitals. At one point, the president inserted a cigar into Ms. Lewinsky’s vagina, then put the cigar in his mouth and said: “It tastes good.” After they were finished, Ms. Lewinsky left the Oval Office and walked through the Rose Garden.
Clinton, Starr and Linda Tripp — Lewinsky’s foil in the scandal — seem content to leave a historical footnote alone. I emailed them all, but no dice. Gurkha Cigars, however, was willing to discuss it.
In 2009, when the HBO movie “The Special Relationship” came out, Gurkha’s then-VP of sales and marketing Roy MacLaren beamed in a statement about the role his company’s cigar played in history.
“Gurkha Cigars was pleased to learn that during Clinton’s administration, President Clinton was a huge fan of the Gurkha Grand Reserve Cigar. … Several inside sources have finally confirmed that Gurkha Cigars was indeed the cigar that was used between Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton. It was in fact the Grand Reserve Gurkha Cigar, which has been reported to be one of Bill Clinton’s favorite stogies!”
(It was all for naught, though, as Lewinsky was cut from the movie.)
“To my knowledge Mr. Clinton was a big fan of the Gurkha Grand Reserve Churchill natural,” Gurkha marketing manager Oliver Hyams added in an email to me. He was kind enough to send two of these beauties for me to smoke, although he couldn’t be sure “if it was that particular cigar vitola.”
In addition to the Churchill vitola, the Grand Reserve comes in a robusto and a torpedo. All three are in the ring-gauge range of 50 to 53, and they range in length from 6 to 7.5 inches. The two smaller sizes also come in a dark maduro version.
So if Hyams’ info is right, Bill chose the 7-and-a-half-incher (He wishes!) but settled for medium girth — a 52 ring-gauge.
The first thing you should know about the Grand Reserve is that the tobacco is blended with Rémy Martin cognac. That’s one possible explanation — but not a plausible one — for Clinton saying, “It tastes good.” The company swears there’s no spraying or dipping involved in the brandy infusion, but they’re not saying how the flavor gets into the wrapper leaf.
Each of these cigars typically comes in its own glass tube, although some online retailers sell them without. The tubes are capped off with hardened gold wax that’s a dead ringer — color aside — for the top of a Maker’s Mark bottle.
The good news is that I got to smoke this cigar. The natural-wrapped Churchill is mild-to-medium in body and strength, and you can definitely taste the cognac. (Yes, you fellow recovering alcoholics can have these: There’s no real alcohol remaining in the tobacco.)
I smoked one outdoors at the Republican National Convention late one night last week, and the other on my deck Sunday afternoon. Both situations were about 70 percent humidity, the former owing to Hurricane Isaac.
Gurkha sources the filler tobacco for the Grand Reserve from the Dominican Republic’s Cibao valley, a fertile region in the northern part of the country between two mountain ranges. Twenty miles to the north is Christopher Columbus’ old stomping ground. The binder leaf is also Dominican, and it’s topped off with a U.S. Connecticut shade wrapper.
The construction is excellent, although the mouth-end flattened on me when I was down to the last two inches. The burn was even, although the first cigar I tried needed relighting about a half-hour in. The draw was a little loose for me, but given the length of the cigar Gurkha probably had little choice but to assemble the Churchill a bit less tightly than the robusto.
Two words came to mind after I smoked the Grand Reserve: “mellow” and “soothing.” This is a calming smoke that’s not likely to excite anyone’s palate, but that makes it a great accompaniment to office work, outdoor reading, deep-thought writing or even a midday stroll.
The cognac hits the tongue first, of course, and there’s a faint creamy chocolate taste in the first third. It opens up toward the end to a hint of pepper, but again these are subtle shadings of a subtle cigar. Almost the entire aftertaste was cognac. Whatever they’re doing to infuse the tobacco is clearly working: Five minutes after the cigar was out, I could still taste the cognac.
Cigars this mild — and flavor-infused stogies in general — always give me pause when I see people smoking them while golfing, mowing the lawn or eating dinner. There’s usually enough saliva and sweat present on your face when you move your body or eat hot food that a salty-tasting cigar is bound to result. And from what I remember about drinking, cognac is not a margarita.
Still, the Grand Reserve is a truly pleasant experience if you set the scene right, and it’s generally priced online at around $11 with the glass tube. That’s not bad considering you get to taste a nice liqueur in the bargain.
I have seen the robustos for as little as $4 in bundles of 15, however — but without the glass tubes I don’t know how much of the Cognac taste would disappear.
Something tells me Bill Clinton would appreciate the idea of getting a white-tablecloth experience at a cheeseburger price, though. And call me crazy, but I think he has a box of these Grand Reserves stashed somewhere, awaiting their next adventure.
Or maybe he brought them all to Charlotte for the Occupy groupies. Who knows?
Note: This column was updated to reflect that the Grand Reserve is infused with Rémy Martin cognac, not Louis XIII cognac. Gurkha’s “His Majesty’s Reserve” cigar, which retails for an astonishing $850, holds that distinction, although several online cigar merchants are selling the Grand Reserve with that incorrect information. It was also updated to clarify that Mr. Hyams was not 100 percent definitive on the size and shape of the Grand Reserve that President Clinton favored.