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.
Posted: Jan 20, 2009 3:31pm ETLast week I dropped in on Ernesto Padilla. I’ve always enjoyed Ernesto’s smokes (his Padilla 1932 La Perla is my go-to short cigar) and I needed to see his new base of operations. Like several Miami cigar guys, he is interested in rolling cigars in the United States.
Padillas have been around for a few years, but have always been made by someone else. Ernesto is taking the very big step of opening his own Miami cigar factory, complete with a comfortable smoking lounge and retail operation. The idea is to bring the concept of a cigar factory to U.S. shores and have the space for people to hang out and watch as cigars are made.
He has the space, a gorgeous spot right on Calle Ocho (8th Street) at the corner of 15th Avenue, across the street from Domino Park. He’s just waiting on the proper permits to begin rolling. In addition to Padillas, the factory will create a new version of Nub cigar called Nub Miami. In the meantime, it’s a pretty cool place to light up one of his cigars, which at this point are all made offshore.
I grabbed a smoke and took a little footage of Ernesto in his shop/lounge/fabrica. Check it out.
I love Little Havana, and it’s great to have Ernesto in the mix. Now you can visit a bunch of great cigar factories all within a few blocks: Padilla, El Credito Cigars, the home of La Gloria Cubana (down 8th Street a bit, near the corner of 12th Avenue), Pepin Garcia (right next store to El Credito), Casa Felipe, where some special Felipe Gregorios are rolled (a little farther down the street, between 9th and 10th avenue.) If you go slightly off Calle Ocho, you now have yet another option: Reyes Family Cigars, formerly Puros Indios, has about six rollers cranking out special Miami smokes at its smoking lounge, located at 114 NW 22nd Ave. (For a detailed smoking tour of Little Havana, including great places to indulge in a traditional Cuban sandwich or some hearty ropa vieja, click here.)
Posted: Jan 17, 2009 12:51pm ETYesterday in Miami I stopped at El Rey de los Habanos Inc., the tiny Little Havana fabrica where Pepin Garcia, his family, and 11 cigar rollers make some of the best cigars on the U.S. market. Pepin splits his time now between Nicaragua (where he has a much, much larger operation) and the U.S., so I was happy to catch him stateside during my too-short visit to south Florida.
The Garcias keep knocking it out of the park with their cigars. They have considerable expansion plans and several new projects including growing their own wrapper, increasing production capacity and adding new sizes. Look for more on that in an upcoming Cigar insider.
We sat down in his small backroom office with John Gonzalez, his vice president of sales, and they offered me my choice of size in the My Father blend. I asked for a No. 3, also called the Crema. It’s six inches long by 49 ring, with a slightly tapered head that makes it look like a shorter version of Cuba’s Conde 109.
I lit up, and the cigar instantly delivered a nice kick of earthy flavor. It went perectly with the little cup of Cuban coffee I sipped. (I think it was No. 5 of the day for me at that point.) I love the Crema, and so did the rest of the tasting panel. (We gave it a score of 93 points in a November issue of Cigar Insider. Check out the ratings in our tasting database.) It has exceptional balance, with toasty qualities and a touch of cocoa. There’s just a touch of dry character on the finish, not so much that it’s a negative. Pepin talked about the dry flavor, saying that effect was an intention of the blend. However it was put together, it works great.
Pepin and Gonzalez told me a great story about the cigar. The blend was created by Pepin’s son, Jaime, and he didn’t want his dad to know what he was doing. So he swore the Nicaraguan factory to secrecy and started working on the blend in private.
Posted: Jan 15, 2009 4:21pm ETI flew into Miami this morning, leaving New York’s LaGuardia at the crack of dawn, just as an Alberta clipper was moving into town with some snowfall and dropping temperatures. I’m in Miami for a very quick visit to meet with some of the town’s cigar executives.
I spent the morning and early afternoon in Miami Lakes, at the headquarters of Oliva Cigar Co. I met with Jose Oliva, vice president of the company, and Sam Leccia, the former Oliva sales representative who created the very popular Nub cigar.
I knew Sam came up with the concept for Nub, but I only found out today that he actually rolled the concept cigar himself. Sam knows how to make a cigar, and he made the first one at his home. “I rolled Nub in my garage,” Leccia said, puffing on one of his short, squat smokes, which is made in the Oliva Cigar Co. factory in Nicaragua. “Some people rock—I roll.”
Leccia is building on the Nub brand with in-store events, and at those events he rolls cigars himself. Later this year, he’s going to start a series of high-energy Nub events featuring live music. He’s also working with Ernesto Padilla (who I’m seeing tomorrow) on a Miami-made version of the cigar. Look for more details on the tour and the new cigar on this site.
We puffed away, and Jose started me off with a new cigar, one that he smokes each morning with a cup of Cuban-style coffee. It was an Oliva Connecticut Wrapper Reserve, which will go on sale next month.
“We do more than 500 events a year,” said Oliva. “At these events, people would say, ‘I’ve heard of Oliva cigars—do you guys have anything light?’”
The Connecticut Wrapper Reserve is light, very easygoing with a pleasant taste and a creamy undertone. The inside is all Nicaraguan, but it’s strictly viso and seco tobaccos, no ligeros like you find on Serie V cigars. Oliva hopes people will puff them as an entry smoke into their bolder cigars. It’s a good mild smoke, not bad for the first puff of the day.
Posted: Dec 23, 2008 2:31pm ETThere’s snow on the ground, the New York Giants are in the playoffs, and the family is gathering for holiday meals. It’s hard to top this time of year.
I’m sitting in my office, puffing on an old El Rico Habano Double Corona (it has aged very well—you’ll read about it in an upcoming Connoisseur’s Corner) and wrapping up a few final tasks before heading home. The office is closed for the rest of the week, and I’m taking a few additional days of vacation to spend some time with my family. I’m looking forward to the break.
Tomorrow night my wife and I will host Christmas Eve dinner. I’m half Sicilian, so that means a big fish feast. Traditionally it's called the Feast of the Seven Fishes, and while we don't always get all the way to seven, we will this year. For starters we’ll have a cold spread of shrimp cocktail and crab claws, which are two of my favorites, plus some marinated mushrooms and peppers. My dad is making stuffed clams, which should be great, and my brother, a chef, is making octopus. He also bought some scungilli, which he’ll probably cook up in a chowder. My wife is making branzino under a salt crust, which she does very well. It should all be delicious.
After dinner, I’ll head downstairs to my basement with my dad and my brother. The basement is my little getaway, with a few couches, a big TV set and plenty of cigars. Best of all, it’s smoker-friendly. We’re going to fire up some Padrón Serie 1926 40th Anniversary Maduros that look just about perfect for a Christmas Eve smoke. My dad enjoys a little Port now and then, so we’ll have some of that while we puff.
My wife and I will spend Christmas morning at home, and I’m looking forward to watching our little boy tear open his presents. (He’s as excited as a kid can be right now, which brings back great old memories of growing up.) That afternoon, we’ll head to my brother’s house to rejoin the family and have another great meal. I have an El Rey del Mundo El Vikingo, the Regional Edicion Cuban smoke made for the Baltic region. It’s an impressive looking cigar, one that I’ve never tried. A friend in the cigar business gave it to me over the summer; it looks like it will be just the thing to fire up after the big rib roast he’s cooking.
Posted: Dec 9, 2008 11:35am ETEvery year around this time, I get together with a bunch of buddies from the neighborhood and we beat the tar out of one another.
It’s a Thanksgiving tradition, a flag football game (which, inevitably, always includes a fair share of tackling) organized by my good friend Mark. He typically recruits about 20 guys for the game, and we gather on an elementary school field on a cold day not long after Turkey Day, clad in all manner of odd outfits aimed at protecting us against both weather and injury. By the time the slugfest is over, everyone is bone-tired, but happy. The guys slake their thirst at a keg and then fire up cigars provided by yours truly.
This year included a slightly different angle, however, and its name was Andy.
I’m 40 years old, and the guys in this contest usually range from age 33 to around 43. Now Mark, who is a competitive sort, doesn’t really enjoy losing, so he stacked the deck a bit this year by bringing Andy, a coworker of his imported straight from Manhattan. I walked onto the field with my buddy Rick, and saw Andy doing a few stretches. First impressions: Andy weighs 200 pounds (OK, I can handle that, a lot of guys on the field are 200 pounders), 6 foot 3 (that’s kinda bad); and carrying, by my amateur estimates, absolutely no body fat and what can only be described as slabs of muscle on an athletic build. (Uh-oh).
And now for the truly distressing part: he’s 25 years old.
I wasn’t overly concerned at first. I warmed up as usual, stretching as much as I could to make sure I didn’t tear anything other than my pants. We traded good-natured insults. I made fun of Tim for wearing golf shoes instead of cleats. Tim, Jay and Mark dared me to try kicking off (I never will again, after what can only be described as the low-hook debacle of ‘06.) And we all expressed our thanks that Russ didn’t break out his lime-green tights.
I pulled on my hat, tried (unsuccessfully) to catch a few warm up passes from Tim, our team’s QB, then dug my cleats into the muddy gridiron to prepare for the kickoff.
Posted: Nov 21, 2008 3:13pm ET
I’ve been traveling to cigar country for 13 years. They’re wonderful places, but if you’re visiting a tobacco field or a cigar factory, odds are you won’t be sleeping in a Four Seasons Hotel. There’s even a chance you might have a close encounter with something exotic.
Like a tarantula.
My close encounter with the Arnold Schwarzenegger of spiders took place back in September 1999, long before we had blogs on this Web site. I was looking through some old photos today, which reminded me of the incident, so I thought I’d share it with you here.
It was my first visit to Central America. I started in Nicaragua, spending about one week in cigar factories and tobacco fields, then drove along the Pan American Highway from Estelí, Nicaragua, to Danlí, Honduras. I met with a few cigarmakers, visiting a few factories in the town, and then I drove with Christian and Julio Eiroa to their farmhouse in the Jamastrán Valley.
The house was beautiful, and the Eiroas are wonderful hosts. They made me feel right at home. As you can imagine, you don’t grow tobacco in big cities—these are farms, out in the middle of nowhere. It was a good drive to the farm, and we arrived after the sun had set. As we drove up a hill to the house, I saw some kind of deer running away from the headlights.
We had a great dinner, and soon it was time for bed. I went to my room, and felt like reading a bit before turning in. The lamp by the bed wasn’t plugged in. I saw the outline of an outlet behind a pillow, so I took the cord and moved the pillow to plug it in. And that’s when I saw the tarantula.
Don’t call it a spider. I know tarantulas are spiders, but calling this thing a spider is a gross understatement. It was bigger than a hockey puck and it was covered in hair. And it didn’t look happy.
This is the time in the story when I should mention that I’m afraid of spiders.
So what did I do? First of all I figured no one back home would believe my story, so I grabbed my camera and snapped a photo. Check it out.