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David Savona

Notes from Don Carlos

Posted: May 21, 2009 2:20pm ET
Details are key in the magazine business, and sometimes one word can hold you up for hours. I’m not talking about a frustrated writer hunched over a keyboard searching for the proper way to describe how a night was dark and stormy—I’m talking about facts, and getting them right. I found myself in such a situation earlier this week as we were making the final edits on the May 19 Cigar Insider.

We conducted a vertical brand tasting of the Arturo Fuente Don Carlos brand, one of my all-time favorite cigars. To fill out the brand summary, I found myself searching through the notebooks of my cigar country travels to flesh out the origins of the brand. I picked up a reporter’s notebook from June 2006, when I was researching my Fathers and Sons piece for Cigar Aficionado. That book held an interview I did with Carlos Fuente Sr. (the Don Carlos behind the Don Carlos brand) and his son, Carlos Fuente Jr. I found the fact I was looking for (did you know the first Don Carlos cigars were made in Nicaragua, more than 30 years ago?) but during the search I couldn’t help but reread the interview. When you research a story, you end up with tons of notes and plenty of quotes, most of which don’t make it to the final story due. I thought I’d share some of the tidbits with you.

June is a very hot month in the Dominican Republic, and that day was one of the hottest I’d ever experienced in my more than 10 years of taveling to the Santiago area. The Fuentes and I sat down at their incredible tobacco farm, Chateau de la Fuente. We sat around a rustic table, which was covered with Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars and had a simple thermos filled with hot, Cuban-style coffee. Each of us lit cigars, took our seats in the oppressive heat, and started talking about a little bit of everything.

I had known both men for years, especially Carlos Jr., but my meetings with his father were more rare. Carlos Sr. is a quiet man, a man not known for giving interviews or spending time with the press. He really opened up that day, and told me things I had never heard before about his entry into the cigar business—which was a far different world when he started making cigars than it is today.
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Derby Day

Posted: May 6, 2009 4:39pm ET
Memorial Day might be the traditional kickoff for outdoor activities for most people in America, but the Kentucky Derby is my personal clarion call to spring. That’s because our good friends Jay and Tammy throw a killer Kentucky Derby party, a wonderful affair with southern food, great music and cold, sweet Makers Mark mint juleps.

Saturday was a gorgeous afternoon, one made all the more precious by the ominous forecast (rain) and the cloudy, drizzly sky we all woke to. But by the three p.m. party start time, the sun had broken through the sky.

My wife and all the ladies came dressed in their Derby finest, with wide brimmed hats and festive dresses. Most of the men were in jackets; my buddy Russ even broke out the seersucker just for this occasion, and my pal Tim had a bright green tie that would have looked appropriate even in the infield at Churchill Downs. I went with a Cuban theme, breaking out a white guayabera (with a front pocket loaded with cigars) and a straw hat.

The cigars in my shirt were for me (long party—can’t run out of smokes) and I brought several boxes of goodies for the crowd. I had some A. Turrent 6 Generations and J. Fuegos for those looking for a medium-bodied smoke, and for those who wanted a more powerful cigar I had Rocky Patel Winter Blends and Alec Bradley Tempus Creos.

Jay and Tammy live on a cul-de-sac, and that quickly became party central—everyone wanted a taste of the sweet, spring breeze. By four, the cul-de-sac was full of guests dressed in their finest, many of them puffing on cigars and enjoying the great weather and the fine food, especially the biscuits with southern ham.

We had an auction for the Derby (which raised money for a great cause, the Tommy Foundation for pediatric cancer research), and piled into Jay’s basement bar to watch the most exciting race I have seen in a long time, with Mine That Bird (a 50-to-1 longshot!) darting from the inside and screaming to the finish line. Wish I could say I had a bet on him!
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A Smoky New York City Restaurant

Posted: Apr 27, 2009 4:22pm ET
I had dinner Thursday night at a great New York City restaurant. The food was lovely, but the best part was the cigar (two, in fact) that I puffed during cocktails, appetizers, entrée and dessert. The only bad part? The restaurant is only open a half-dozen times a year, and it only seats about 30 guests.

The “restaurant” was dubbed De La Rue, a combination of the Manhattan cigar shop De La Concha and the nearby restaurant Rue 57. The cigar shop closed for a short time in the early evening while the restaurant staff set up tables on the perimeter of the large shop, providing seating for about 34 guests. At 8 p.m., the doors opened, and the customers poured in for a dinner featuring Padrón cigars and a fine meal from Rue 57.

What a great concept.

“This is the De La Concha smoking oasis,” said Ron Melendi, who manages De La Concha, which is on the Avenue of the Americas between 56 and 57 Streets. “The customers love it. We partner with Rue 57, and they transform the store into a restaurant.”

The counter where one would normally buy a lighter was turned into a bar, manned by an exceptionally friendly sommelier from Rue who pointed me in the right direction, a 2005 southern Cote du Rhone that was drinking perfectly. Several members of the waitstaff walked the half block from Rue 57 to De La Concha, carrying plates of goodies: Kobe beef sliders, which were juicy and delicious; bruscetta with lots of olive oil, another winner; and a few pigs in blankets, which everyone seemed to enjoy. The main course featured a choice of three dishes, a roasted herbed chicken, potato encrusted salmon, or a hanger steak with frites. Naturally, I went with the steak.

I had never eaten at Rue 57 before (or, at “De La Rue”) and I was more than pleased with the food. It was a fine steak. What made it even better was the Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series Exclusivo I was smoking during dinner, which is one of my favorite cigars. Capping it off was the presence of Jorge Padrón, who spoke to the crowd about his cigars and even raffled off a few killer boxes, including a box of Padrón Serie 1926 No. 9 (our No. 1 cigar of 2007), a few boxes of Padrón 80 Years (last year’s No. 2 cigar) and a handful of Padrón Family Reserves, which aren’t sold.
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A Greener (And Frostier) World

Posted: Apr 22, 2009 4:58pm ET
I like to think I’ve done my part in the fight against global warming—on a very localized level. I speak, of course, about the beer fridge.

A beer fridge typically evolves from an old refrigerator that someone in the house (usually the wife) has deemed inappropriate for use in the kitchen. Sure, it still works, as in it keeps things nice and cold, but no doubt it’s showing its age. Perhaps there are a few scratches on the doors, maybe the fan makes too much noise, or maybe the shelves in the door no longer function properly. When you whip open the door of your refrigerator to grab the milk, and bottles of ketchup and mustard fly across the room, it’s a sign that you need a new refrigerator. (I speak from experience.) And with it, a beer fridge is born.

I recently bought a new refrigerator, leaving me with three: the new one, for upstairs; the one with the cracked door shelves, which was otherwise perfectly functional; and the smallish one I had in my basement, keeping beers cold. My plan was to replace the old beer fridge with the larger one, leaving me one beer fridge too many.

My friend Rick was in the market for a beer fridge of his own. He was going to buy a new one. Instead, I gave him mine in exchange for an old sofa that was destined to clog another landfill. We hit upon a green solution.

Now much like the weathered refrigerator that no longer finds itself welcome in the civilized confines of a home, Rick’s sofa had been asked to leave his house by his significant other. But the flaws that ushered in its exile (some stains on the fabric here, a rip there) made it a perfect fit for the aesthetics of my subterranean cigar bunker, which yearned for more seating. The arrangement was perfect.

This weekend, right after driving from the Big Smoke at MGM Grand Foxwoods, I borrowed coworker Jack Bettridge’s pickup truck (yes, Bettridge drives a pickup truck—go figure) and drove it home to make the transfer. Rick pulled up to my home, a big smile on his face, and we got to work.
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Florida Smokers, Unite

Posted: Apr 14, 2009 9:57am ET
If you're anywhere near the Tampa, Florida, area, you owe it to yourself to grab a few fine cigars and head to 215 N. Dale Mabry Highway this afternoon. At 4:30, the Cigar Rights of America, Tampa’s own J.C. Newman Cigar Co. and Naples’ Rocky Patel Premium Cigars are leading a rally of cigar smokers to protest SB 1840, a bill that would tax cigars by the ounce, adding about 50 cents, 75 cents or more to each cigar you buy. (Click here for the details)

And that tax would come on top of the recent 35-cent per cigar boost that went into effect on April 1 thanks to SCHIP.

Eric and Bobby Newman of J.C. Newman, the company behind Diamond Crown and Cuesta-Rey cigars, will be there along with Rocky Patel. National media outlets are expected to attend, so get out there, fire up a heater and show your support for your fellow smokers.

“With the nation in one of its deepest recessions in history,” wrote the CRA in a call to action email, “now is not the time to burden Florida's struggling cigar consumers, local community cigar retailers and family-owned manufacturers with such an onerous tax.”

Sounds right to me. Everything seems to cost more these days, and money is tight—this isn’t the time to hit people with a second ridiculous price increase.

I’d be there if I could, but I’m not near Tampa today. If you are, get to the rally point: the parking lot of a restaurant called Village Inn, at 215 N. Dale Mabry Highway. It starts at 4:30 p.m. Bring some great cigars, grab a few cigar smoking buddies and stand up for what you love before someone makes it too expensive for you to enjoy.
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Smoking with Ernesto Perez-Carrillo

Posted: Apr 8, 2009 10:12am ET
I’m always happy when Ernesto Perez-Carrillo comes to New York. I’ve known him since my early days at Cigar Aficionado, and El Credito Cigars in Miami was the first cigar factory I ever visited. On that first meeting, he welcomed me with a baggie of unbanded lonsdales that blew me away with power, spice and flavor.

Ernesto is no longer at El Credito, no longer making La Gloria Cubana cigars. His last day with the company was March 15. He left to make cigars with his son and daughter, and he originally intended to take some time before getting started.

Plans have changed—he’s getting started now.

One of the reasons for the accelerated timetable is the impatience of youth—Ernesto was accompanied the other day by his 27-year-old son, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo III. (The elder Ernesto is actually Perez-Carrillo Jr.) Ernesto III, formerly with the private-equity firm of Kohlberg, Kravis and Roberts, is used to working 100-hour-weeks, firing off emails on the Blackberry and wasn’t quite ready to sit around relaxing—he’s eager to get started in the cigar business. So is his sister, Lissette McPhillips, a lawyer who is now working with her father and brother.

“I wasn’t thinking of opening until March 2010. Now they’re pushing me,” Ernesto the elder said.

The two Ernestos told me their plan for making cigars over lunch. The idea is to make limited-edition cigars, utilizing special tobaccos that aren’t available in large enough quantities to draw the interest of the big companies, but something with character. One of those special releases will be on the market around Thanksgiving. Then, months later, the company’s main brand will make its debut, something that the Perez-Carrillos will make consistently, and at a lower price than the limited-edition releases. You can read more about this in the current Cigar Insider.
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A Day With the Ozgeners

Posted: Mar 19, 2009 3:21pm ET
Cano and Tim Ozgener from C.A.O. International came to town yesterday, and I spent a good part of the day with the two of them. We met in the Cigar Aficionado offices and chatted while smoking C.A.O.’s newest blend, the Lx2, which I think is the best one they make. It has a mix of Nicaraguan and Dominican filler, a binder from Honduras and a sun-grown wrapper from Nicaragua. The combination makes for a hearty, sweet smoke with good balance. We gave the Lx2 Toro 91 points in the December 9 Cigar Insider.

I get to see Tim, who is president of C.A.O., quite a bit, but my meetings with Cano are less frequent. Cano founded C.A.O. back in 1968, when he turned his engineer’s mind to the meerschaum pipes that he so enjoyed, and figured out a way to improve upon the design. He began selling the pipes, marking them with his initials, and C.A.O. was born. Pipes led to humidors, which led to cigars.

Cano explained one big reason the cigar business is better than the pipe business. “Cigars burn,” he said with a chuckle. People hold onto pipes forever, but once you use a cigar you need to go out and buy another. However it happened, I’m happy he got into the cigar business. We convinced Cano to sit in front of our cameras for an interview about how he founded C.A.O. more than 40 years ago. You’ll see it soon on Cigar Cinema.

I joined Gordon Mott and the Ozgeners for lunch across the street at I Trulli, where I’ve probably had more business lunches than anyplace else. The food was great, as always, and I had sautéed striped bass with some tomato and escarole. We finished the meal with shots of espresso (caffeine is key in the cigar industry) and we said our temporary goodbyes, as I’d be seeing Tim and Cano later that night.

After work, I took the subway uptown with Greg Mottola, our former tasting coordinator and now the associate editor of Cigar Aficionado, and walked into the Grand Havana Room. We were warmly welcomed with C.A.O. Lx2 Lanceros, which have recently been added to the lineup as a regular size. (More on that Tuesday in Cigar Insider.)
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A Smoke With Avo

Posted: Mar 17, 2009 2:46pm ET
Last night I had the chance to pair some of my favorite things: steak, cigars, wine and great company. It was the kickoff dinner for the Avo Compañero tour, commemorating Avo Uvezian’s 83rd birthday and the release of the newest Avo celebratory cigar.

All cigar smokers know Avo. He’s a wonderful guy with charm, style and his very own cigar brand. He has the energy of men a third his age, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes and a vibrant personality that lights up a room. Impossible to miss with his wide brimmed mimbre hat and impeccably tailored white suit, the talented musician sold his first cigars from his piano, and today is one of the best-known cigar stars in the world.

Since his 75th birthday eight years ago, Avo has celebrated each birthday by releasing a new limited-edition cigar. How could I say no?

Smoking while you dine is a lost art in New York. To make it work last night, Michael Herklots, the general manager of the Davidoff shops, turned his company’s Madison Avenue store into a cigar-friendly restaurant. Tables were brought in, about 60 enthusiasts sat down, and the wait staff from nearby Rothmann’s Steakhouse wheeled in steak dinners with all the trimmings, from seafood salad to a birthday cheesecake. Everyone smoked Avos while eating the delicious meal.

I really applaud all of you for being here tonight,” Herklots said at the start, a nod to the brutal economic climate. He spoke of the new Avo cigar, called the Compañero, which means “friend," or "comrade.”

The Compañero was passed out after we had finished our steaks. I find many Avos, like the Avo XO Intermezzo I smoked at the start of my meal, quite mild—this one is not. It reminded me somewhat of the Avo Signature (the second cigar I smoked at dinner), my favorite of the Avo blends. The Compañero is stronger still than the Signature, which I attribute to the heavy amount of Dominican ligero in the blend. There’s also a bit of Peruvian seco, and I tend to enjoy cigars made with a bit of Peruvian in the blend.
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Spring is Coming

Posted: Mar 10, 2009 4:41pm ET
This weekend we pushed ahead the clocks and, at least in the northeast, got a beautiful early taste of spring. On Sunday, I cleaned off our outdoor table while my wife sautéed some grey sole, and the family had our first outdoor lunch of the season. We got a bit fancy for a lazy Sunday afternoon, doing the full spread with the fish entree, some sauteed green beans in olive oil, some fresh Italian bread and a bottle of wine. Who could blame us for getting excited? The temperatures hit 70 degrees. After months indoors, it felt about as good as you can imagine.

I fired up an old Padrón 1964 Millennium Series to do the afternoon right. The cigars have aged gracefully, full of sweet coffee flavor with a little more spice than a typical Padrón. It was balanced and elegant, a fitting cigar for a great day.

When the weather starts to crack, it allows a lot of people to get back to their regular cigar-smoking schedule. Smoking indoors isn’t easy in many places. When it gets warm, the cigars come out. Before you know it baseball season will start, the golf clubs will be dusted off and out of the basement and the gray of winter will start to be replaced by green and colors of spring. I can’t wait.

Are you ready for cigar smoking weather?
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Puzzles and Cigar Barns

Posted: Feb 27, 2009 1:06pm ET
Cigar barns can be pretty darn big. They can also be pretty darn expensive. Making a sizeable one out of wood, the way it’s done in Connecticut and in Nicaragua, can cost $250,000 if you’re building it in the Dominican Republic. As my brother would say, that’s a lot of ‘scarole, especially in this economy.

So here’s a flash of genius from Daniel Núñez and the folks at General Cigar Co.—why build a new one when you can move an old one?

Check out the tobacco barn in this photo. It’s huge and it’s solid. I bet you never would imagine that it was moved 1,000 miles. Take a look.





That’s right—the big barn was originally constructed in the Talanga Valley of Honduras. General acquired the farm when it was awarded the cigar division of UST in 2004 to settle a lawsuit over smokeless tobacco (long story.) The farm was dormant, the cigar barns empty, when Núñez and his people decided to take it apart, number each board, and reassemble it here in Mao, the Dominican Republic. General has done the same thing with old barns from Connecticut, tractors, pipes and greenhouses.

After touring the farm, Daniel and I drove ot the highest point on Copata, which has a very large gazebo with views of the entire 1,200 acre farm. That was moved to, from another part of the Dominican Republic. “Are you good at puzzles?” I asked Daniel, who laughed heartily.

It’s a very impressive farm, and you have to applaud the ingenuity of utilizing assets that had long been written off the books and were otherwise going to waste. Who knew you could move something so large?
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