Posted: Apr 8, 2009 10:12am ETI’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.
Posted: Mar 19, 2009 3:21pm ETCano 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.)
Posted: Mar 17, 2009 2:46pm ETLast 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.
Posted: Mar 10, 2009 4:41pm ETThis 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?
Posted: Feb 27, 2009 1:06pm ETCigar 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?
Posted: Feb 20, 2009 4:12pm ETMy shoes were dusted with a thin layer of reddish brown dirt. My bare arms were being baked by the tropical sun and the smell of curing tobacco was in my nostrils. I was back on a tobacco farm.
I took the long drive from Santiago out to Mao today with a group of about 30 other people here for the final day of the ProCigar Festival. Some went to see a rum distillery, others to see where chocolate is made and others still to a Davidoff tobacco field (which I saw last year). We were headed to Copata, the farm company in Mao where General Cigar Co. grows most of its Dominican tobacco. I was last here some four years ago when the project was in its infancy. Today it’s a mega-complex and one of the most impressive tobacco farms in the world. It’s partially self sufficient—in addition to growing filler, binder and even wrapper tobacco, the 1,200 acre area grows vegetables, trees, produces a natural pesticide, has a fish farm, all kinds of livestock, a three million gallon reservoir and too many other things to mention here.
What stands out immediately, even to the unseasoned visitor, is the quality of the casas de tabacos, or curing barns. The Dominican Republic historically has some of the most meager curing barns in the cigar world — creaky looking things known as quisqueyas. The simplest offer some protection from the elements, but not enough, allowing in the weather and resulting in poor yields. Some of the ones General has here are incredible.
The biggest are a group of wooden monsters that General actually took apart in Honduras and rebuilt here, piece by piece. (I’ll have more on that in another blog, along with a video.) The barns are part of $8 million in equipment that General brought in from Honduras, Connecticut and elsewhere in the Dominican Republic.
This is the brainchild of Angel Daniel Núñez, the president and chief operating officer of General who is retiring soon. He’ll remain as a consultant, which is good for the company, as he knows this place like the back of his hand. Every cigar rolled at the massive General Cigar Dominicana factory in Santiago contains some tobacco grown in Mao.
Posted: Feb 19, 2009 3:34pm ETLast night was opening night in Santiago at the ProCigar Festival. I was sitting in a gorgeous setting, a table in the middle of an old estate once owned by a pal of former Dominican dictator Trujillo. Each table was resplendent with elaborate exotic plants, some as tall as a yardstick. Everything was green, orange and white, the entire setting for some 175 people set beneath a canopy of bright white, blowing in the gentle evening breeze. I was enjoying an Aurora 100 Años Lancero and patting my belly, which was sated on roast pork, roast goat, yucca, plantains and other Dominican delicacies.
Then I heard my name called to the stage.
The Dominican Republic is famous for its merengue, the fast paced dance with the non-stop beat. The ProCigar guys like to entertain, so they had a troupe of professional dancers doing the merengue while people finished their dinner. Then Jose Blanco of La Aurora took the microphone and announced a surprise: there was going to be a dancing contest. He began to call 10 people up to the stage.
Now if you’re Dominican, it’s likely that you can do the merengue pretty well. If you’re a cigar writer with very little rhythm, your chances are considerably lower. In fact, any kind of dancing really isn’t my thing. When I heard Blanco call my name, I uttered a few expletives under my breath and reluctantly walked up to the stage.
Ah, the lovely feeling of standing in front of nearly 200 people, knowing that you are about to embarrass yourself. I introduced myself to my dancing partner, a very patient young woman who knows how to dance the merengue very well, and she helped me do a few steps and spins. We didn’t win (big shock there) but I managed to dance without killing anyone on stage, so I consider the whole thing a modest success.
Note to Jose Blanco: I won’t forget this. Expect some form of revenge at the Vegas Big Smoke.
Today is day two of the ProCigar Festival, and my group headed out to the oldest free trade zone in the Dominican Republic to visit the first cigar factory to open there: Manufactura de Tabacos S.A., also known as Matasa. The fabrica, known for making Fonseca and Cubita cigars, opened its doors in 1975.
Posted: Feb 18, 2009 4:21pm ETThe Airbus swooped down from the clouds, revealing the lush, tropical landscape below. Fields of yucca, plantain and tobacco covered the land, flanked by mountains brimming with trees, each one cloaked by thick mist.
I’m back in Santiago, and it feels good.
I’ve been coming here since 1996, and returning to this cigar-producing haven feels a lot like coming home. I’m here for the second annual ProCigar Festival, where many of the country’s cigar producers open their factories and fields to curious cigar lovers from around the world.
I landed at lunchtime and met part of the group at a new restaurant called Pedro. When I first started coming to Santiago, the dining scene was extremely limited. Today there are all kinds of fine places to eat, and Pedro more than fits the bill. I sat down with Guillermo León of La Aurora, Manuel “Manolo” Quesada of Manufactura de Tabacos S.A. (the guy who makes our Cigar of the Year, Casa Magna), Nestor Miranda and Rene Castaneda from Miami Cigar & Co., and Michael Herklots of the Davidoff shops in New York. After tucking into a nice plate of paella, we fired up smokes and began catching up.
Manolo gave me a Fonseca Cubano Limitado. I torched it up and began puffing it with my espresso. It’s a fine cigar, rich and fairly bold with good balance. It has a Nicaraguan criollo wrapper, the same type that goes on Casa Magna, Manolo said, but different priming. Nice smoke.
Everyone was in great spirits. Manolo joked that we at Cigar Aficionado had given him a problem—he can’t keep Casa Magnas in stock! The smile on his face tells me how happy he is to have such a problem on his hands. Jose Blanco of La Aurora came over and slapped Manolo on his shoulder. “Now that he has Cigar of the Year, we all have to ask him when we want to leave the country!”
Posted: Feb 3, 2009 10:27am ETI like to think that I’m no Sally when it comes to the cold weather. I’ve lived in the northeast for my entire life, and winter can be pretty cold up here. But recently I encountered temperatures that kept me from enjoying a cigar—even for a very short time.
I was recently in Vermont with friends on the side of Okemo Mountain, staying in a ski house. I’m no skier, but I enjoy the après-ski activities. (Fair warning—if you ever see this guy on a pair of skis and you’re on the same mountain, grab everyone you love and get them the heck out of the way. I have as much control out there as a lit bottle rocket stripped of its fins.)
So on Saturday night, it was time to grill some dinner. I decided that would be the perfect time to enjoy a little pre-dinner smoke. I chose a cheroot, threw on a light jacket and walked outside to light the grill.
It was so cold I couldn’t light the Weber. I jumped back inside, slapping my hands to warm them up. My buddies chuckled. Now I bundled up properly—ski coat, boots, a hat and some gloves, and headed back out.
Did you ever watch that movie “The Day After Tomorrow?” There’s a scene where a trio of helicopters are downed by an intense blast of cold air swooping over the United Kingdom. I think the temperatures were –150 degrees.
Well, imagine that, only a little bit colder. That’s what it felt like.
So I went back inside, this time determined to get enough gear on to handle the cold. I put on some ski goggles, one of those face wraps that cover your nose and mouth, and would have added thermal underwear but I didn’t want the steaks to burn. Then I went outside, fired up the cheroot and moved the face wrap just enough to expose a little bit of my mouth.
Ah. Savory smoke.
The cigar was delicious, but even with all that wrapping on I couldn’t enjoy it. Not even close. And the howling wind (the wind chill that night was below zero) made the cigar difficult to stay lit.
Posted: Jan 29, 2009 3:48pm ETI met one of my sports idols on Monday night—Joe Frazier, the former heavyweight champion of the world. Frazier was being honored by the Friars Club in Manhattan. I took the subway uptown, checked my coat and walked up the narrow, steep staircase to the Lucille Ball Bar. I grabbed a cocktail, and there he was, holding court in a corner table—Joe Frazier.
When I was a kid, I knew Frazier as the foil for Muhammad Ali, the man who battled him toe-to-toe in three epic boxing matches. They call Ali The Greatest, but he needed Joe Frazier to push him to the limit. Frazier was an undersized heavyweight—he stood only 5 feet 11 1/2 inches tall—but he was a determined and incredibly conditioned warrior who moved ever forward, often taking shots to the head to get in close and do his damage. He had a rhythm to his movements, bobbing and crouching, keeping that head moving away from his opponent’s punches, trying to get into range for his killer hook. Rooting for Ali, huge Muhammad Ali, the self-proclaimed best fighter ever, was like rooting for someone who was always supposed to win. Frazier had that underdog spirit—grit, determination, killer instinct and not a shred of quit inside him.
I loved watching him fight.
I had the chance to sit down with Frazier at a back table at the Friars Club for an interview before the dinner. I sat down and stared him straight in the eye. He had just turned 65 on January 12, but he still looked tough enough to go a few rounds.