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Gregory Mottola

Equity in Ecuador's Cuban-Seed Wrapper

Posted: Jan 14, 2014 12:00pm ET

I still haven't cleaned the Ecuadoran soil off my boots. Something about that dusty patina on top of the black leather makes me think for a second or two that I'm some sort of a cowboy, or at the very least a rugged ranch hand. Never mind.

In November I went to Ecuador to check out the recent crop of Havana-seed wrapper grown by the Tampa-based Oliva Tobacco Co. It's quite an impressive operation, and whether you know it or not, you've probably smoked at least one cigar with Oliva's wrappers. So why am I writing about this now? Well, the full article appears in the recent issue of Cigar Aficionado, and is full of great pics of tobacco farms as well as objective information on the tobacco, so you could regard this entry as a sort of digital appendage to the main text. But thinking back to the article, I realize that although I imply it, I never come out and say what I've been thinking for the last two months: John Oliva Jr. is one of the unsung tobacco men of the premium cigar industry. Not that he regards himself in that light. Not at all. But if you take a look at the Top 25 Cigars of 2013 and years passed, you'll find his wrappers appear on cigars up and down those lists.

Here is a guy who, along with his family, is the primary supplier of Ecuador Havana wrapper to the entire premium industry and each year one of his main goals is to produce a better crop than the last. If you'll allow me to intellectualize his work, I'd say that he produces an expression of Ecuadoran terroir through tobacco just as profoundly as the country's best cocoa, coffee or fruit (yes, I've had all three).

The harvest period has just wrapped up in Ecuador, but I was lucky enough to see fields full of tobacco before the crops were culled and hung to dry. The soil itself is beyond fine. It doesn't even look or feel like dirt, but has the sifted consistency of cocoa powder. Oliva focuses on growing Havana 2000 and Corojo '99, both native seeds of Cuba. He grows Sumatra-seed as well and his farms are a patchwork of plantations, some of which are in the Los Rios province near Quevedo, others in Guayas at the foot of the Andes mountains. Although the seed varietals are the same, different plots of land will produce a wrapper leaf with different properties.

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On IPCPR: Musings & Magic

Posted: Aug 7, 2013 12:00pm ET

We're in the middle of our IPCPR wrap-up coverage. By "we" I mean the Cigar Insider, and by wrap-up coverage, I mean an A to Z recap of everything we saw at the trade show in as much detail as possible. Or as much detail as we deem to be relevant. We released our first Cigar Insider installment a week ago and made it to the letter "D."

In recalling the show, I can't help but remember some of the odd or different or annoying things that happened. While it's great to see so much of the industry all together in one place, some things just keep popping back into my head.

Like the mechanical bull at E.P.C. Cigar Co.'s booth. It was there one day, gone the nextnot exactly sure why. The bull was a clever way to play off the E-Stunner, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo's newest brand, and the strongest cigar he makes. There's a bull on the band. Ernesto tried to shame me into taking a ride on that mechanical beast and to tell you the truth, I would have done it, save for one thing—the Internet. Sure, I would have mounted it, and yes, I eventually would have been flung off. No problem. But I also know that the second I straddled the saddle, ten camera phones would have come out all held by jeering cigar smokers just waiting for me to be tossed directly into the adjacent booth. The way I figure, I probably would have been jettisoned straight into General Cigar. I decided to walk over to General instead.

At 6,000 square feet (60 booths), General tied with Davidoff for biggest set of the show. Their pavilion was more like a World's Fair exhibition than a simple convention-type setup. Makes perfect sense. Fifty years ago, General Cigar constructed an entire 15,000 square foot building at the legendary 1964-65 World's Fair in New York City (the building's renowned architect, Cecil Alexander, just passed away on July 30). It featured daily magic shows by Mark Wilson in the General Cigar Hall of Magic where "a pretty girl floats in the air...another is cut in half...a pair of detached hands perform amazing acts." Or so the World's Fair program claimed. A giant outdoor smoke machine blew smoke rings 10 feet in diameter into the open sky every 20 seconds and there was a display of "the world's most expensive box of cigars" at the pavilion's "Galerie du Tabac." Whatever those cigars were, they went for $500 per box. Again, this was in 1964-65.

Worlds Fair cigar.
The page from the 1964-65 World's Fair program highlighting General Cigar's Hall of Magic.
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Rare Cigars Raise Cash for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

Posted: Jun 14, 2013 12:00am ET

If you've followed Fuente's elusive lines of exotic smokes, you've probably seen a Fuente Fuente OpusX in the BBMF shape. And if you've been to Las Vegas, you've seen a ForbiddenX in the BBMF shape. But have you ever seen an Ashton VSG in the signature Fuente BBMF shape? I'll explain all these acronyms momentarily.

For most of you, the answer to my question is no. Unless you were at the 20th Annual Smoker fund raiser for the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, you've never seen such a specimen of cigar, but let me assure you: an Ashton VSG BBMF does indeed exist. It was one of the cigars offered at the St. Jude charitable cigar dinner on June 7, an event that is spearheaded by Dr. Jude Barbera and heavily supported by Carlos "Carlito" Fuente Jr. as well as Ashton Distributors Inc. It was held in New York at the Grand Havana Room, which sits on the 39th floor atop the 666 Fifth Avenue building.

This year, Barbera wanted something unique to his event. Something that you could only get if you attended, and so, with the cooperation and generosity of Ashton and Fuente, the Ashton VSG BBMF was born. And yes, I have one.

Getting back to those acronyms: the VSG in Ashton stands for Virgin Sun Grown, and is a fairly full-bodied cigar made by the Fuentes in the Dominican Republic for Ashton. The BBMF? That was a creation of Carlos "Carlito" Fuente Jr., who was in attendance. It's basically an OpusX rolled in a double-tapered perfecto shape with a twisted mop-top cap and high-octane blend. The letters BBMF stand for Big Bad Mother...you get the idea. But Fuente is not in the habit of making the BBMF shape in anything outside of the OpusX brand. As far as I know, this is the first time he's done this. The first time I've ever seen it, anyway.

Not that there weren't plenty of other interesting smokes throughout the night. During cocktail hour, the first cigar handed out was an advanced sample of the new Ashton ESG (Estate Sun Grown) 24 Year Salute. It's a beautiful double perfecto that measures 6 5/8 inches by 47 ring. I asked Ashton vice president Sathya Levin if these cigars will make it to the IPCPR trade show coming up this summer. He wasn't sure, but told me that it's the same blend as the rest of the line, which surprised me a bit. They seemed a bit milder than I had remembered the ESG line to be. This isn't a knock on it. It smoked great and was still full of flavor but I guess I just expect every new cigar I light up to rip my head off with strength.

Ashton BBMF.
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10 Years of Tatuaje, Don 'Pepin' Garcia

Posted: May 7, 2013 12:00am ET

I fell from the sky last week and landed directly on the My Father Cigars/Tatuaje 10th Anniversary party in Miami. Let me explain. If you were in South Florida (or like to watch The Weather Channel), you'd know that the region recently experienced monsoon-like storms. Well, I flew in those storms, if you can call that flying. After being chewed up and spit out by one storm cloud after the next, my plane was the last one to land before Fort Lauderdale airport finally suspended service for a while. I'm an anxious air traveler as it is, but once the flight crew could no longer hide their panic, I didn't think we were going to make it.

Needless to say, we survived the heavy turbulence, and by the time I made it to the My Father/Tatuaje 10th Anniversary party on Saturday night, I felt about 10 years older myself.

It's been a decade now since El Rey de los Habanos first opened its doors on Calle Ocho in Miami. Pete Johnson's Tatuaje brand was José "Pepin" Garcia's first client. The business relationship has since grown into a true friendship, and both Johnson's and Garcia's brands have since outgrown that small Calle Ocho operation. Though most of their production has relocated to Nicaragua, they still do a small amount of rolling in Miami. It's no longer called El Rey de los Habanos and is no longer in downtown Miami, but is now called My Father Cigars and is headquartered in an industrial park in Doral, Florida.

Last Saturday, the Garcias converted their warehouse space into a full-fledged nightclub. The flowing white drapery and Caribbean theme reminded me of the old Asia de Cuba before it closed down in New York. In other words, very professionally done.

"This is nicer than some of the Miami nightclubs I've been to " said José Ortega, My Father's vice president of sales. He gave a speech about how the Garcia's long journey brought them to this point and also thanked Cigar Aficionado for naming the company's Flor de las Antillas Toro 2012's Cigar of the Year. But before the speeches and before the live band and before the dancing, I sat down with Pete Johnson.

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Smoking with Avo

Posted: Apr 2, 2013 2:00pm ET

It was almost 12 years ago when I first had an Avo Uvezian cigar. I was on a business trip in downtown Chicago and ordered it from a cigar menu after dinner back when restaurants in the Windy City still allowed you to smoke and actually provided table side cigar service. I even convinced the waitress to ring it up on the bill as dessert so that it wouldn't look questionable on my expense report when I got home. This, of course, was before I worked for Cigar Aficionado. I recall it was a Domaine Avo Robusto. Believe it or not, I still have the band. Yes, I collect bands. Call it a form of philately combined with a generally geekish instinct to collect things. No matter.

That evening, I was dining alone, as I often do, and drifting a bit while smoking. Back then, even though I was a cigar smoker, I didn't know the story of Avo Uvezian's musical career and certainly never thought that nearly 12 years later I'd be dining with the man, much less celebrating his birthday. But that's exactly what I did last week. Uvezian turned 87 years old (or years "young" as Avo insisted) on Thursday. And, as has been the custom for Avo since 2001, he released a limited-edition anniversary cigar in honor of his birthday. The party was 39 stories above ground level at Manhattan's Grand Havana Room and even though there were plenty of Avo cigars being passed around during the celebratory dinner, I was really holding out for the Dominant 13th, which was the main cigar of the evening. Named after a complex jazz chord, the Dominant 13th is a 6 inch by 52 ring smoke made by Davidoff with mostly Dominican tobacco, a bit of Peruvian leaf and an Ecuadoran wrapper.

The dinner in New York kicked off Uvezian's promotional tour. Even at 87, he'll be visiting five more cities until May, but this is always the grandest event and actually falls right on Avo's birthday.

Jim Young, the North American president of Davidoff, took the microphone and announced to the room of about 75 people that the Avo brand is Davidoff's second best-selling cigar after the White Label. Avo makes up 20% of the company's cigar sales. I didn't know that, but it makes sense. There are plenty of smokers who have the taste for Davidoff cigars, but not necessarily the budget, so it seems to me that the Avo brand satisfies that demographic without sacrificing quality. Still, Avo Uvezian is by no means a cheap cigar.

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Smooth Jazz and Cigars

Posted: Feb 28, 2013 12:00am ET

Don’t ever start a ProCigar Festival with an empty stomach. I don’t care how tough you think your gut is, if you start smoking at 8:30, that’s about 4 hours of power puffing until lunch, and I refused to make that mistake. My key to survival was this: mangú. It’s a dense dish of mashed plantains often eaten for breakfast in the Dominican Republic. This is why I could spend each morning smoking one cigar after the next without keeling over.

Thursday morning. Some changes at Corporacion Cigar Export since I was there last year. The small facility is owned by Augusto “Fufi” Reyes and I figured I’d hit two birds with one stone by taking this tour, which also featured the MATASA factory.

On the machine-made end, Reyes has taken on a contract for producing Swisher Sweets. He produces them in a separate building, and this is smart, because no matter how hermetic you think your operation is, flavors will travel. There is no sense in denying it. Tobacco is highly absorbent. Flavorings and infusions are very strong. They will find each other.

Export’s main facility got a bit of a face-lift. Each room off the main rolling gallery has a pastel facade decorated with a type of Caribbean Victorian trim, as though it were someone’s island home. Destemming and sorting take place on the same floor and the factory is responsible for brands like Augusto Reyes, Augusto Reyes Platinum, Urban and a new brand called Debonair, which was first unveiled at last year’s IPCPR show.

Debonair is owned by Phil Zanghi, part owner of Durfort Holdings, a company that owns part of the facility. Zangi, who started Indian Tabac with Rocky Patel, has been in the machine-made business for quite some time, but decided last year to come back to premium. Samples of Debonair were available. I grabbed a robusto. Indeed a tasty smoke and one that Zangi is quite proud of. He’s growing the brand at a slow pace. Right now, it’s only in 30 shops, but is certainly worth trying. Keep your eye on that guy.

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ProCigar and the Joy of Pig Snout

Posted: Feb 26, 2013 12:00am ET

I’m smoking something right now that you’ve never smoked. Nobody has. It’s a combination of Dominican and Nicaraguan ligero with a Brazilian Oscuro wrapper, but it’s all blended around a particularly mouth-coating bunch of Connecticut Broadleaf. I put it together myself. Or, more truthfully, I told Abe Flores of PDR Cigars what I wanted in terms of flavor and he chose the tobaccos during my visit to his factory. This was at last week’s ProCigar Fest. Though not officially part of the ProCigar tour, it was one of my many stops during this annual Caribbean celebration of the Dominican Republic’s cigar industry. More on my blend later.

It’s difficult to figure out a way to write about the ProCigar Festival without sounding like some kind of brochure from the Dominican Republic’s tourist commission. I say this because the trip really is as fun and enlightening as all the promotional literature tells you. Especially when the trip happens to fall in the dead of winter. I go from freezing temperatures straight to a summer-like climate in a matter of three hours. As soon as you step out of the airport terminal you’re handed a Presidente beer and a cigar. Literally. I’m not exaggerating. I don’t think people are aware of just how generous the industry is during the time of the festival and just how many cigars each company is willing to hand out. You land in Santiago, get your bag, clear customs, and there is a ProCigar stand outside full of beer and smokes for you to enjoy while you’re waiting for your cab. And yes, you are allowed to smoke and drink right there at the airport. The sky is blue, palm trees rustle in the warm breeze and you don’t need a jacket anymore. This pretty much sets the tone for the entire festival—my fourth one so far, and this little touch still gives me a thrill.

Tuesday afternoon. I register at the hotel and am handed a military grade canvas goodie bag loaded with merchandise: an ashtray, coffee mug, coffee, magazines, polo shirt, hat, Xikar cutter, Xikar torch lighter and, of course, a sampler box of cigars. Great cigars. And I’d be lying if I told you that my eyes didn’t go right to the Fuente Fuente OpusX The Angel’s Share. Now before I’m accused of favoritism or political incorrectness, I just want to be clear about something. I’m not saying that the Opus is any better or worse than any other cigar in that box. But you have to understand that Fuente only rejoined the ProCigar consortium last year, so I’m not exactly used to seeing OpusX, let alone any Fuente products at all, in the swag bag. Considering that Carlos “Carlito” Fuente Jr. couldn’t be present for the festival, I took this as a gesture of good will from the Fuente family. They also included a Churchill sized Don Arturo Aniversario Destino al Siglo. I’ve never even seen one of these, period.

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Fuente Restores Ybor City Factory Building

Posted: Nov 20, 2012 12:00am ET

Confession: Until this past weekend, I'd never been to Tampa or Ybor City before. I know, I know, for a cigar smoker it's a shame, but for an editor at Cigar Aficionado, it's closer to a disgrace. I admit it. That's why when I heard that the Fuente family was restoring their historical old red brick factory in Ybor over on North 22nd Street, I hopped on the first flight straight to Tampa and arrived in time for the dedication and cocktail party.

Now when many people talk about building "restoration," the project is often a half-hearted attempt that employs unqualified contractors who bid at the lowest price, use standard-quality materials and have no real understanding of period-construction or architecture. I've seen substandard "restoration" too many times-sculpted plaster ceilings covered by drop panels, mosaics ignominiously troweled over, Carrera marble replaced with cheap composites-my rant could fill a book. But this entry isn't about unskilled labor. It's about what Carlos "Carlito" Fuente Jr. has done to an old red-brick cigar factory and how his commitment pays tribute to the history of Ybor City.

"I don't even look at the bill, I don't care," said an enthusiastic Carlito as he took me around the building during the party. "It's not about money. It's about Tampa. About Ybor city and building a monument-no. I don't want to say monument. It's too strong a word. I want to give something tangible to my children. Passing the torch is just as important as making your mark in this world."

So what exactly has he done? Well, the family bought this brick building in 1964. It was originally a cigar factory when it was first built in 1903, but by the time the Fuentes bought it in 1964, it had been a shoe manufacturing facility. For a while this was the center of Fuente's entire logistic operation, from bringing in tobacco to actually rolling cigars. Then around the early 1980s, they moved the cigar-making side to the Dominican Republic and the building, although still used for shipping and receiving, was in slow decay. One day in 2009, when Carlito started replacing some windows on the upper floors, he noticed the neglected beauty of the building and it inspired him to start a full-fledged restoration process: All the exterior brick mortar was scraped out and re-applied; interior bricks were all ground down for a fresher appearance; original wood was salvaged from one floor to restore another; bricks from another demolished factory in Virginia were repurposed for the Fuente building; reproduction electrical fixtures were consistent with vintage photos; and really I could go on and on about the details. I even noticed all the bridge-style faucets and old-fashioned skeleton key covers over the locks.

Fuente Factory in Ybor City.
Fuente Factory building in Ybor City.
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A Tasting of Vintage Smokes

Posted: Oct 15, 2012 12:00am ET

It’s always been surprising to me how little scholarship there is on the subject of vintage cigars. Look at vintage wines, or antique furniture or other period-piece hobbies. They’re supported by voluminous documentation and have no shortage of experts or enthusiasts. Vintage cigars, in this respect, are different, so when one comes across a true, world-class expert and collector of vintage cigars, it’s like looking through a window into another era.

Ajay Patel is one of those people. He owns the Casa del Habano in Teddington, just outside of London, but unlike many of these official Habanos franchise shops, this one is also stocked with verticals of rare, vintage Cuban cigars. On top of collecting, documenting and selling these treasures, Ajay smokes them, too, which makes him not only knowledgeable about the subject, but a true authority with clear palate recall and a mental Rolodex of old Cuban brands and their respective flavor profiles. When he talks, I listen. And that’s what I did recently during a private dinner and tasting of vintage cigars in New York City.

He came over from England to attend Cigar Aficionado’s 20th Anniversary party, but while he was here, Ajay rallied a small group of New York’s cigar-smoking cognoscenti, and collectors of vintage cigars—a specialized group within a specialized group. He held court about the cigars we were smoking, and why they were relevant in the scheme of Cuban cigar history.

We started with a Montecristo Dunhill Selección Suprema No. 1 from 1959. The wrappers were strikingly dark and oily, the draw flawless, and the smoke of a dense chewy texture that left impressions of earth and cocoa on the palate with underpinnings of salt and cedar. Too often, vintage cigars can be light, papery and dusty tasting. These disappointments are examples of past-their-prime cigars that have aged out and weren’t terribly robust or age-worthy to begin with. They can also give vintage cigars a bad name, leading people to believe that this is how all old cigars taste. Obviously not the case for these particular Montecristos.

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Bad Oysters and Pity Smokes

Posted: Aug 20, 2010 12:00am ET

“Tell Jorge to save me a Padrón Family Reserve,” I managed to say. It was my last request before bolting out of John Besh’s Restaurant August in New Orleans to vomit up the first few courses of a perfectly good dinner.

Let me rewind.

That afternoon I was strolling the French Quarter the day before the start of the IPCPR trade show. To avoid getting soaked in a summer downpour, I ducked into an oyster bar with the intentions of nursing a beer or two until the rain subsided, and who happened to be there at the counter—Carlos “Carlito” Fuente Jr. And he’s eating raw oysters. Lots of them, judging by the pile of empty shells. Before I knew what was going on, he put an OpusX Lancero in one of my hands, an Abita beer in the other and ordered me a dozen raw gulf bivalves. “They’re fine,” Fuente assured. “ I eat them all the time and I never get sick.” The rain stopped, I slurped down my last oyster and was on my way.

Fast forward back to that evening at Restaurant August on Tchoupitoulas Street. I’m at a small dinner of only eight people, including Jorge Padrón and his wife, Mary, and Litto Gomez with his wife, Ines. Two courses was really all I could get through before I fell into a cold sweat and started drifting from the conversation.

First course is served. Some hollowed out egg, with—I don’t know—foam? Veloute? Summer truffles? I’m sure it’s great but my stomach gurgles so I send it away and sip some ice water with false hopes of relief. Next course: pork belly topped with cooked peaches. “Yes, that’s right, Ruston peaches are in the height of season now,” I say to myself as if reciting this will somehow erase my nausea. It looks great, and although my stomach was saying “Don’t you dare send that down here,” I did anyway, knowing full well the consequences. I had to excuse myself. “Are you alright?” I hear somewhere in the distance. I guess I couldn’t hide it any longer. Senior Editor Dave Savona orders me a club soda, but it’s too late. Associate Publisher Barry Abrams escorts me to the door, and before I leave, I belch out my last request: “Tell Jorge to save me a Padrón Family Reserve.”

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