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David Savona

Welcome to the Machine

Posted: Sep 2, 2009 1:15pm ET
I’m in Tampa, Florida, which once was the heart of American cigar production. In the 1950s, some 500 million cigars a year were made here. Things are a bit different now. When Havatampa Inc. closed its doors in July, it left only one cigar company making cigars in any volume in the Tampa area: J.C. Newman Cigar Co.

I visited J.C. Newman yesterday, dropping in on Eric and Bobby Newman, who run the company. Most of their business involves premium, handmade cigars: J.C. Newman owns the Diamond Crown, Cuesta-Rey and El Baton brands, among others, and is the sales partner of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., selling the cigars the company rolls. But on the second floor of its historic Ybor City building are several decades-old cigar making machines.

From left to right, Armando Garcia and Eric Newman.

I seldom smoke machine-made cigars. Most are made like cigarettes, with homogenized tobacco leaf as a wrapper. Nothing wrong with that if that’s your thing, but to me it doesn’t taste like a cigar. The cigars made by the Newmans have real tobacco leaf wrappers, a homogenized tobacco leaf binder and the chopped filler tobacco on the inside is leftover from Fuente’s handmade cigar production.

I stepped up to a gigantic, green metal machine, which seemed like a relic from the Industrial Age. A woman sat at the front, stretching out wrapper leaf over an aluminum plate with air holes. When she moved her hand, a die cut out the proper shape, then moved it to the rolling area. Every 20 seconds or so the floor shook as the hopper vibrated and chopped tobacco leaf into a scale, which was then dumped into the proper place to go into the homogenized binder. A little while later, a cigar was dropped into a tray by a mechanical arm.
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Bargain Cigars

Posted: Aug 28, 2009 12:23pm ET
What do you consider a bargain-priced cigar? A $5 smoke? One retailing for $4? Less than $4? Or maybe it’s simply a cigar that gives you a great smoking experience for less than you would expect.

Every year at Cigar Insider, we survey cigar shops from around the country to get an idea of the buying habits of the premium cigar smoker. This year price was a major concern. “People are buying cheaper cigars,” said Craig Cass, who owns four Tinderbox stores in (and around) Charlotte, North Carolina. “The $10 guy,” he said, “is now at $8.” Others agreed.

Everyone seems to be making do with a little less in their pockets today, so finding some bang for your buck in your neighborhood walk-in humidor is extremely welcome. Looking over the new cigars from the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers trade show, various cigar companies have come out with cheaper smokes this year, no doubt in response to the ailing economy.

One of those cheaper smokes is Brioso, from General Cigar Co. This new Dominican brand is made from a mix of Honduran, Connecticut, Dominican, Nicaraguan and Mexican tobaccos. It comes in four sizes, ranging in price from $2.99 (yes, a sub $3 cigar!) to $3.75. The brand is handmade from long-filler tobacco. How do they keep the price so low? No box. The cigar, which hits the market in October, will come in a display tray, and refills will be shipped in bundles. No box, lower price.

Brick House, a new J.C. Newman Cigar Co. brand, is made in Nicaragua from all Nicaraguan tobaccos. It comes in four sizes and sells for $4.75 to $5.75 per cigar. “We are in a recession, and post SCHIP,” said Eric Newman, president of the Tampa, Florida company. “I want to offer the marketplace a very flavorful cigar with a lot of spice, between $4.75 and $5.75. Everybody can’t afford a Diamond Crown.”
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Remembering Dad

Posted: Aug 17, 2009 4:17pm ET
My father died on July 28. He was ill for a short time, went through a tough operation, gave us hope that he would soon be back on his feet, but died very quickly of a heart attack on a Tuesday morning. One day he was there, the next he was gone.

His sudden passing was a dignified and painless way to go, but it was hard on those he left behind. Dad was 77, and he lived a great life. Everyone who knew him wished for more, of course, but he lived life to the fullest, saw his children have children of their own, and enjoyed his days. Dad was a great guy, and like any good father he was a teacher, passing on life’s lessons to help his sons grow into men.

Dad taught me how to make a proper fire, how to hammer a nail, the right time to flip a hamburger, and how to shuck oysters and clams. He taught me never to start a plumbing job on a Sunday night, because if you mess it up you’ll have a long wait until help arrives (or have to pay dearly for overtime.) He taught me how to pack a car, tie a solid knot, and cook breakfast for a dozen people. He was a man of great humor, and always had a joke. When he was on a breathing tube, only hours after his surgery, he asked for pen and paper and sketched out jokes by hand, bringing smiles to our faces. Taking care of us when we were trying to take care of him.

Dad taught me how to respect my neighbors and elders, how to love my country and how to have compassion for my fellow man. He showed me how to welcome guests with a cold drink and a warm smile, and how good friends can be as close to you as a member of the family. He patched up my cuts when I fell off my bike and drove me to the hospital when I broke my finger playing football in the front yard. When someone hit me, he held up his palms and taught me how to hit back, thumb outside my fists to protect them from harm. He taught me to take responsibility for my mistakes, to never be afraid to fail, and empowered me with the belief that I could overcome any obstacle set in my path.
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Trade Show, Day Three

Posted: Aug 12, 2009 10:21am ET
Monday night was a busy one. Barry and I walked to the Alec Bradley party. On the way we stumbled across the Cigar Factory of New Orleans, which I’d consider a must stop for any cigar smoker coming to the Big Easy. They had 8 rollers working when I visited, pumping out handmade cigars in a very rustic atmosphere. Owner David Sharrof told us the location had been going for ten years, and it seemed popular with the tourists. I didn’t try the smokes yet, but regardless of the quality this is a fine place to stop to see how cigars are made by hand.

Next up was a stop at the Alec Bradley party. I had a glass of Johnny Walker Black and toasted Alan Rubin and his team, firing up an Alec Bradley Family Blend.
Great story behind this cigar: Rubin made the cigar in honor of his father, plus his close associates George Sosa and Ralph Montero, and put the names of the fathers on the box. Quite a tribute. The smoke is very tasty, with an elegant, medium body, the kind of cigar you can smoke one after the other. The wrapper is grown in Trojes, Honduras, near the border of Nicaragua. Good stuff.

I finished the night with an incredible dinner at Commander’s Palace. I’ve had two meals at this temple of New Orleans cuisine, once on my first visit to New Orleans as a much younger man (some 14 years ago) and then on Monday night. Each time was incredibly memorable. We were greeted warmly by owners Ella and Dottie Brennan, and their dining companions Ambassador Lindy Boggs and Cokie Roberts. The meal included the finest fried oysters I’ve ever had, along with far too many rich New Orleans delights, including a dish of spicy gulf shrimp in a sauce of pepper jelly that I’m determined to try myself at home (even though I know I’ll never duplicate it to the level achieved at the restaurant.) The service was spectacular and unhurried, and we concluded in the restaurant’s spacious and covered patio with cigars and single-malt Scotch. “We’re one of few restaurants in the city that have covered seating outdoors,” said wine director Dan Davis.What a civilized, luxurious meal.
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Trade Show, Day Two

Posted: Aug 10, 2009 6:19pm ET
After several cups of strong coffee and a bracing breakfast, I headed back to the convention center on Monday morning with Gordon Mott, Greg Mottola and Barry Abrams from the magazine. We got out of the cab and headed our separate ways to cover the trade show floor.

I said hello to Ernesto Padilla, and asked when he would begin rolling cigars in his Miami factory. He’s hoping for September. He handed me a new Padilla Dominus, but I put it aside for later—from what he’s told me, this is not a morning cigar. We walked together to the Tabacalera Tropical booth to talk to president Paul Palmer and tobacco grower Arsenio Ramos from Aganorsa. Ramos once worked for Cubatabaco, and he’s knows Jose Orlando Padrón very well. We spoke about the differences between Nicaraguan and Cuban tobacco growing. Ramos talked about the humidity differences, saying Cuba averages 80 percent humidity while Nicaraugan humidity can drop to 50 percent. “In Nicaragua, you have to work a little more,” he said.

Palmer handed me a Casa Fernandez Lancero, which I lit up immediately. It’s not new, but it’s not a terribly well-known cigar. It’s all Nicaraguan, with lots of earth and power, maybe a medium bodied plus. Excellent smoke. Ramos, who grows the tobacco that goes into the cigar, took out one of his own, showed me that we were going to smoke the same thing and said, “That’s a man’s cigar.”

I next went to the Graycliff booth and spoke with Paolo Garzaroli. The newest from this company, which rolls cigars in the Bahamas, doesn’t yet have a name. “We’re having our customers name it for us,” he said. They hope to have a good suggestion by the end of the show, and the winner gets a free trip to Nassau. Good deal. I smoked the unnamed mini perfecto—it was very earthy, with a touch of a steely note and good balance. (Lots of balanced cigars so far at the show, which is a good thing.) The Bahamas being a high-cost place ot make cigars, this will retail for about $14. The Garzarolis are also making a cigar for Bill Paley, whose family founded CBS. Paley wasn’t at the booth, so I’ll get more on him later.
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Trade Show, Day One

Posted: Aug 10, 2009 11:08am ET
I took the early flight yesterday morning with Gordon Mott to New Orleans, taking off at 7 a.m. from JFK and landing in NOLA at 9. We were able to get to the convention center just after 10, right at the time the show floor opened for the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers show. Perfect. We stepped in and were immediately greeted by the aroma of fine cigars.

This trade show is the gathering of the premium cigar industry. They show off their latest creations and retailers—ideally lots of them—walk the aisles and buy (hopefully) lots of cigars. The editors at Cigar Aficionado? We walk around looking for great stuff to smoke so we can tell you all about it.

And I did indeed smoke some great ones yesterday. One of my favorites was the La Flor Dominicana Double Press.
Imagine a box of 10 cigars, each of them very flat, each of them in a little chamber. When you smoke all ten, flip it over and there’s the same presentation, with 10 more cigars. People often ask me what box pressing does to a cigar. In terms of flavor, the answer is nothing—a flat cigar tastes just as it would if it was round. But the pressing gives the wrapper an extra stretch. You stretch a wrapper to bring out its oils, and pressing takes that stretching to an extreme. Pressing it extra flat as with this cigar really stretches the wrapper, and makes it look absolutely gorgeous, slimming any veins. But forget the jazzy packaging and the flatness of the cigar—the Double Press is delicious. The kicker is the Habano seed wrapper grown in Ecuador, one of my favorites. Litto Gomez, the cigarmaker behind the brand, also uses the same wrapper (but a higher priming, I believe) on his Salomone, but this cigar is more nuanced, more balanced. “It’s not very aggressive,” Litto told me while we both smoked one at his booth. I found it very rich, nicely balanced and tasty indeed.
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Heading to the Trade Show

Posted: Aug 8, 2009 9:53pm ET
Tomorrow morning I’m catching an early flight to New Orelans for the IPCPR trade show, or what most people still call it, the RTDA. This is when the cigar industry gathers to show off its newest releases, and retailers go booth-to-booth ready to buy.

I have an empty notebook, a few lighters and I’m ready to go. I’ll be blogging as often as I can with info on the new cigars you can expect to see in smoke shops in the next few weeks and months.

I’m ready to smoke—hope you’re ready to read!

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Camp Smokes

Posted: Jul 24, 2009 4:43pm ET
My buddies and I took our children camping this past weekend. We pulled up to a small island off the Connecticut coast and waded ashore, using a small raft to bring in the kids. We started unloading the gear while the boys and girls began playing, enjoying the water and sand.

The weather was perfect. (Quite different from last year’s trip.) All was right with the world.

My friend Mark showed off an insider’s tip he learned from a north shore Boston resident to find quahogs and steamers—you throw a rock toward the sand (a big one), and the vibration scares the clams into jetting out streams of water, giving away their position. A little digging with a shovel and you have shellfish. The kids loved the show, but we freed the bivalves later, sparing them the knife (and Tabasco sauce.)

The kids played in the sun all day, and fairly long into the night around the campfire. We dined on real haute cuisine—hot dogs—but Russ turned the food up a notch with some good cheese and bread from a local shop.

When the little ones were finally asleep in the tents, Russ, Mark and I relaxed on the beach chairs and clipped the heads off of cigars. I had some old Aurora 100 Años Belicosos I had been saving for a few years—they were still nice and strong, very earthy, and pleasantly leathery, fine smokes for a perfect starry night by the fire. A little Buffalo Trace bourbon on ice completed the picture.

The next morning it was back to the beach for the kids, and time for a pancake and sausage breakfast. Yours truly forgot to bring the spatula, so we crafted one from a Jiffy Pop popcorn shaker, trimming the foil and folding it onto itself for strength. Gotta love Swiss Army knives!

The kids had a blast and the dads did as well.

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Rooting for the Cigar Guy

Posted: Jul 16, 2009 3:39pm ET
I was at my desk this afternoon when a buddy called. He was watching the British Open. “Jimenez just shot a 64,” he said. “He’s in the lead. And he’s smoking a robusto with a red band on it.”

Miguel Angel Jimenez, Spanish golfer, loves cigars, especially Cubans. “Partagas D 4?” I asked.

“I think that’s it,” the buddy said.

Sounds right to me. If I shot a 64 in the opening round at the British Open—heck, if I shot an 84 at my local munie on any Sunday—I’d fire up a celebratory smoke as well. Probably two.

You have to love Jimenez, whose nickname is “The Mechanic,” if not for his cool demeanor on the course, but for his unapologetic puffing. The man loves a great cigar, and he’s not going to let a little golf match on the world stage get in the way of his smoke. (Best description award goes to BBC Sport writer Ben Dirs, who wrote Jimenez up today as “The Fozzie Bear lookalike,” citing his amber colored bushy ponytail protruding from the back of his cap. Classic.)

I’m a huge fan of the British Open. Thanks to the time difference, when I wake up on Saturday and Sunday morning I can turn on the TV and get right to watching great golf. Now, with a guy who loves cigars as much as I do the leader in the clubhouse, I have another reason to watch.

I’m going to root for the cigar guy. Go Jimenez.
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The Cigar Guys (And Gals) Come to Town

Posted: Jul 2, 2009 1:58pm ET
This has been a short but busy work week, especially Monday: I spent the early afternoon with the Perez-Carrillo family, and the early evening with the Quesada family.

There are some similarities here beyond the obvious—each family is among the elite of cigarmakers. You all know Ernesto Perez-Carrillo for his La Gloria Cubana brand, which he shepherded until March, and Manuel Quesada is the famous face behind Fonseca and Casa Magna (our reining Cigar of the Year.) What you might not know is that each man has a younger generation coming up in the business, people in their 20s and 30s who are getting deeply involved in the cigar industry.

Perez-Carrillo left La Gloria to start up a new cigar company with his daughter, Lissette, and son, Ernesto III. (Although we don’t use it in our stories, Perez-Carrillo is actually Ernesto Perez-Carrillo Jr.) Lissette is a lawyer, and Ernesto III (who goes by the knickname Ernie) was in private equity. They are extremely excited to be working with their dad.

Quesada’s two daughters have been working with him for several years now. Patricia, the elder daughter, does administration and accounting, while Raquel is a cigar blender. They are two members of the company’s fifth generation, also known as “The Young Ones,” who have taken a bigger role at their father’s company. They were all there Monday night at the Davidoff store on Madison Avenue showing off a cigar they created together: Patricia and Raquel, their cousins Esther Quesada, Jose Manuel Bermudez, Hostos Fernandez Quesada and the newest member of the next generation, Terence Joseph Reilly.

“The young ones,” their father told me, “are building the pillars for my monument.”
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