Posted: Apr 22, 2008 10:20am ETI had lunch the other day with Litto Gomez, who makes La Flor Dominicana cigars. We ate at Otto, part of the Mario Batali/Joe Bastianich Italian food empire. Litto is as slim as a spear, but you’d never know it if you watched him tuck into a table set with great Italian food. The guy can eat about as much as I can, and that tells you something.
It was a great lunch, with delicious, casual food, some good wine and easy conversation. Between bites of house-made salumi and a plate of spaghetti carbonara that Litto dubbed better than any he’d had in Italy, we got to talking about business.
Like half of New York, I commute to work on a train every day. Litto is also a commuter, but his is a longer, tougher ride—most Mondays he leaves Florida for the Miami International Airport and hops onto a plane to Santiago, Dominican Republic. On Fridays he heads home. It’s a two-hour flight.
Even if you love to fly, that routine can get to be a grind. But it doesn’t bother Litto, because he simply loves what he does. He took a vacation recently, and one night he woke up in the middle of the morning, grabbed the laptop computer and began typing, waking his wife. “I had too many ideas in my head,” he said.
This is a guy who loves making cigars. He’s been doing it since 1994. When he started making smokes (he was previously a jeweler), he was dizzy, unsure of what to do, a newcomer in a strange new world. Today he’s a master of his craft, the man behind some of the world’s best cigars.
I asked him how long it took for him to fall in love with the cigar business. “Two months,” he said with an easy smile. “Now, I’m raring to go on Monday morning.”
Litto isn’t alone. Most of the guys I know in this business bleed cigars, and love everything about the process of making them. Remember—it hasn’t always been such a lucrative career. Many of the men I write about who make cigars got into this business when cigar sales were slumping, not growing, as they are now. Many of them chose this career path when the future for cigars looked very, very uncertain.
Posted: Apr 16, 2008 10:30am ETIt’s Night to Remember week here in New York, which means just about the entire cigar industry is coming to town. It's been a busy week.
I started the week off right with Alan Rubin, owner of Alec Bradley cigars. He came by the office Monday morning to give me a sample of his newest brand, Alec Bradley Tempus, which goes on sale next week. He handed me a dark lancero, which I quickly clipped and lit.
Alan told me he built the cigar around the outer leaf, which is grown in Honduras near the border of Nicaragua. “It all started because of the wrapper,” he said. The wrapper is nice and dark, with a dryish texture to it, not seeping with oils but promising big flavor. You can’t always judge a cigar by its wrapper, but this one delivered as promised—from the first puff, it was gutsy and strong. Here’s Alan in my office talking about the brand.
The cigar had a red meat flavor, lots of minerals, roasted nuts, and good old-fashioned strength. I lit it up around noon, before lunch. I’d recommend waiting until after a meal to fully enjoy it.
The cigar is from the small Raisas Cubanas in Danlí, Honduras, and it’s excellent. Rubin originally wanted this blend to be his Maxx cigar a couple of years ago, but at the time he was concerned with getting a consistent product from that factory. He’s confident it can be done now.
I’m a big fan of lanceros, and more and more cigarmakers are making them. This is Alec Bradley’s first. Alan originally wanted to make it the classic lancero ring gauge of 38, but at that thickness the cigar was too powerful. “The wrapper has a lot to it,” he said. “We needed to put one more leaf [of filler into the blend.] We were concerned with being over the top strong.”
Adding that one more leaf meant no more 38 ring gauge. The end results is a 7 1/2 inch long, 41 ring gauge lancero that is strong, but has a good amount of balance to it. That’s just one of the little quirks about making handmade cigars.
Posted: Apr 11, 2008 10:40am ETSo I walk to the driveway and pick up my newspaper the other day, and there it is right on page one—blogging kills. Apparently there have been a couple of deaths by blogging, where stressed out writers have succumbed to the pressures of the job and died.
Who knew our jobs were so dangerous to merit a page one story in The New York Times? Sure, I’ve bit my nails down to the quick on a Cubana Airlines flight, and those close encounters with tarantulas in Honduras and erupting volcanoes in Ecuador have given me a bit of agita, but I never knew that the roughest part of my work was what I’m doing now, sitting in front of a Mac and typing away about my thoughts.
Maybe it isn’t blogging per se, but the type of blogging that poses the risk. I’d like to think that the Cigar Aficionado blogger is a more relaxed blogger than your typical web log journalist. Ours is a lifestyle magazine, so our blogs reflect that. We typically write about the best part of our days, that time when we sit back with a great smoke and savor it in all its glory.
So just in case you were worried about all of us after reading that story, rest assured. We’re gonna be OK.
Posted: Apr 3, 2008 1:47pm ETI’m on my way back from the annual Tobacconist Association of America conference, which was held in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The TAA, as it’s known, is a small group of American cigar shop owners and many cigarmakers. They gather annually to discuss important issues facing the cigar industry and to do a little business. I look upon it as a much smaller, more social version of what used to be called the RTDA show.
Traditionally cigarmakers release their new wares at the summer trade show, but many are uncorking new items now. Four years ago, the TAA would have been a lousy place to do that, because there just weren’t that many retailers at the show. That’s changed. This year’s show was busy and vibrant, and at the mini-trade show that took place Wednesday one cigarmaker said with a smile “this is the first time this show has had more retailers than manufacturers.” That’s a good thing. A once sleepy show has turned into a serious gathering.
I tried two of the new cigars at dinners. The first I smoked after dinner in downtown Puerto Vallarta at Café des Artistes, an ultra-fancy restaurant with wonderful food. I ate with the folks from Altadis U.S.A. Inc., and we did a version of a tasting menu. The standout dishes for me were the sea scallops in a seafood broth, and the local sea bass done with some hollandaise. We’re right on the Pacific Ocean here, so I’ve taken advantage of the fresh fish.
Café des Artistes has a posh, small smoking room, replete with leather chairs and a selection of Cognac that would make Jack Bettridge drool. The room is operated by Gerald Cohen, who runs the local La Casa del Habano, so it was full of legit Cuban cigars. We took a look, but the restaurant owners bent their rules and let us light up right at the table.
Jim Colucci handed me a dark robusto, and asked my opinion. It was great—verging on a full body, with lots of wood, smoky meat and earthy notes. As we talked, I found myself going back to it often. It’s a cigar that will come out at RTDA (I have a hard time calling it by its new name, ICCPR). He said it would be called Cuevo y Sobrinos, and it has a wrapper grown from Cuban seed in Ecuador. Real nice stuff.
Posted: Mar 26, 2008 12:16pm ETI spent last week on the island of Saint Barth’s, which is also known as Saint Bart’s and officially called Saint Barthélemy. Whatever name you use, it’s a gorgeous, hilly eight-square mile island in the French West Indies with superb beaches, wonderful cuisine, balmy weather and Cuban cigars.
My wife, Manuela, and I went on the trip with two other couples, great friends of ours from home. Within an hour of landing at the tiny airport, we drove into the town of St. Jean for lunch at the Eden Rock Hotel. After filling our bellies with fresh seafood and quenching our thirst with two magnums of Rosé, the girls headed back to the villa for some pool time while the guys went for a quick dip in the ocean before walking down the street to the Casa del Habano to load up on smokes.
It’s a well-stocked shop, with just about every Cohiba and Montecristo in stock (even the rare Monte No. 4 Reserva), Vegas Robaina, Romeo y Julieta and many more. I shot a little video to give you an idea of the selection—take a look.
The Diplomaticos looked gorgeous, but there were only a few left in the box. I knew we would be smoking quite a bit, so I asked Sandrine, who runs the shop, if she had anything with a little age on it. She smiled and reached for a full box of H. Upmann No. 2s from August 2006. Perfect.
I grabbed the Upmanns, took out my cutter, and me and my buddies lit up. We walked out into the sun and enjoyed the leathery pyramids, which were medium to full bodied with a touch of black pepper, wood and a nice blast of cedar. The wrappers weren't as exquisite as you tend to see on the finest Monte 2s, but the cigars made up for their looks with tons of taste. I'll take flavor over appearance any day.
The Upmanns were great company on the trip. We spent our days sleeping in (did I mention we all left our kids at home?) then sat down to breakfasts of fresh bread and pastries, rich cheese and strong coffee. Then it was time to bask on the deck, take a few dips in the pool, play a little cards or read a book, then we would head to a restaurant for lunch, always paired with magnums of rose. (We soon jokingly dubbed 750 ml bottles half bottles.) Then it was time to hit one of the island’s great beaches.
Posted: Mar 11, 2008 11:31am ETThe first ProCigar Festival is in the books, and it went pretty well. About 120 people had a chance to spend time with cigarmakers in their factories and fields, they smoked up a storm and they got a nice taste of Dominican culture. A few even did the extended stay and spent this weekend in La Romana, home to Tabacalera de Garcia, and played in a golf tournament. I wish I could have joined them, but I had to return home.
There were cigars passed out at all of the dinners and lunches, at the factory and field tours and at most of the activities, plus there was an attractive sampler box that everyone got when they arrived. I have mine right here, and I thought I’d give you a little look inside.
The festival has been a long time coming, and I’m happy that it finally happened. Hopefully it will become an annual event, just like the Habanos Festival held in Cuba.
The Habanos festival is much larger than the ProCigar Festival. I believe more than 1,000 people attended the gala dinner completing the Habanos Festival, while the ProCigar Festival had little more than 100 in attendance. But Cuba has been doing this for a decade. Give the Dominicans time to get themselves up to speed on throwing this type of party, and—with a little more promotion—the ProCigar Festival will only get bigger. I’m told Santiago will have another hotel in a few months, which will add needed tourist space to the city. Right now, they really couldn’t handle 1,000 guests.
The comparisons between the festivals seemed to be partisan. One Dominican I spoke to said the ProCigar Festival was much better organized and far superior to the Habanos Festival. I asked the same question to a Cuban who had attended both, and she said the Habanos Festival was head and shoulders above the ProCigar Festival.
Posted: Mar 10, 2008 12:45pm ETEvery night of the ProCigar Festival ended with a party. And they were pretty darn good ones, too.
I’ve been to the Dominican Republic dozens of times since joining Cigar Aficionado magazine in 1995, but I rarely see any more of the city than tobacco fields, cigar factories or restaurants. Thursday night was my first visit to the Monument to The Heroes of the Restoration in the town’s center, a 220 foot tall landmark created in the 1940s. The cocktail party began there, with locals dressed in the type of festive garb worn in parades and plenty of rum and great music.
Some of the kids were wielding whips that sounded like they were outfitted with firecrackers, so I spent my first 15 minutes or so holding a Brugal and Coke in one hand while trying to stay far enough away to avoid getting the old Indiana Jones treatment. Take a look.
This was one of the times at the Festival were there weren’t any cigars being passed around, which I found pretty strange. (Maybe it was for safety—no need to make an easier target for the kid with the whip.) That small criticism aside, after an hour or so we headed to Centro de Recreo, a private club dating back to the 1800s, for the party proper.
It was time for another Cuba Libre (rum and Coke), in this case one made with well-aged, amber colored Brugal, which makes a Cuba Libre with gusto and flavor, unlike those made with white rum, which I don’t like at all. And now there were cigars aplenty, passed out by elegant women with cigar trays, like the cigarette girls of Las Vegas.
I spoke for awhile with Daniel Núñez, president of General Cigar, chatted with Jose Seijas of Altadis U.S.A. Inc., caught up with Manuel Quesada, maker of Fonsecas, then had a short conversation with Benjie Menendez from General Cigar and Avo Uvezian, creator of the Avo brand. When it was time to sit down and watch the next show, I sat with Guillermo León, who was in good spirits.
Posted: Mar 7, 2008 5:18pm ETYesterday I headed out with the tour group to embark on ProCigar’s version of Cigar 101—trips to cigar factories and tobacco fields where the tour guides are some of the leading men in the cigar world. It was a gorgeous, sunny day and people were in a fine mood.
About 120 people signed up for this first festival, a little less than the organizers had hoped for but a good-sized crowd. To keep things manageable, the group had been broken up into three, each doing a different part of the agenda. One group went to Mao with General Cigar Co. and Angel Daniel Núñez, another to see the La Aurora factory with Guillermo León, then the Matasa factory with Manuel Quesada. The group I had been assigned to was slated to head to Jicomé, an agricultural town outside Santiago where Hendrik Kelner’s Tabacom group grows tobacco that’s used on Avo and Davidoff cigars.
The bus ride to Jicomé is about 50 minutes in morning traffic, so to make the ride go by quicker our tour guide Carla gave us a quick merengue lesson in the aisle. Here’s what I learned—as you move your hips to one side, you lift the heel of your opposite foot slightly off the ground, then repeat on the opposite side. Sounds easy, right? I’ll stick to writing—dancing to that type of beat just isn’t in my skill set.
We arrived in Jicomé at the tobacco farm, and were greeted by Kelner, who was holding a Davidoff Millennium. Standing next to him was a worker with a Davidoff humidor full of assorted cigars. The group—there were about 30 of us or so—dug into the humidor, lit up, and headed down the road to hear about growing tobacco. I’ve heard these lessons before, but to many in the group is was their first time in a tobacco field. Usually at this time of year, most of the tobacco in the Dominican Republic has been harvested, but many farmers planted late this year, or had to replant fields due to the pair of storms that hit the country in the fall. We were looking at a nice crop grown from a hybrid the Kelners developed from San Vicente seed (which is also a hybrid.) It’s a carefully maintained field, with a drip irrigation system and some encallado shading (shading around the perimeter) to fend off the wind, which can be strong this time of year.The tobacco looked very nice. Take a look:
Posted: Mar 6, 2008 2:33pm ETI walked into the lobby at the Gran Almirante last night and ran smack into Avo Uvezian, creator of the Avo brand. He was holding court, surrounded by six cigar fans that were tapping his brain about making cigars. I said hello to Avo and smiled.
This is why people had come to Santiago this week, for the first annual ProCigar festival: to get close to a big name in cigars. It’s hard to find a bigger one than Avo.
We were in the lobby preparing for the evening’s festivities, a big party at featuring local cuisine, a gala show with merengue dancing and Dominican cigars. The dinner and show were held at Centro León, the cultural center in Santiago donated by the parent company of Aurora S.A., the nation’s oldest cigar company. After a tour of the museum’s baseball exhibit, we walked across the courtyard to the replica of the old Aurora factory that was opened in 1903. Although Aurora moved from Santiago to Guazumal recently, it maintained this showcase mini factory, where all of its Preferidos are rolled. Aurora had the factory open for the event, and a few rollers were making the bomb-shaped perfectos. I chatted for a while with Jose Blanco, the Aurora sales manager, and had my first cold Presidente of the night.
Soon it was time to sit. The men (and one woman) behind ProCigar—Hendrik Kelner, Angel Daniel Núñez, Jose Seijas, Manuel Quesada, Guillermo León, Benjamin Menendez, Modesta Fondeur and Juan Clemente stood on the stage.
Quesada spoke a bit about the history of the Dominican and the cigars produced there, and spoke about the origins of ProCigar 16 years prior, which began with squabbles and competition between the nation’s cigarmakers during the cigar boom. “It is a gentleman’s agreement—a handshake,” he said, saying the association stood for “quality and cigars.”
Kelner, the president of ProCigar, said “Welcome to the Dominican Republic, welcome to Cigar Country and Welcome to the ProCigar Festival.”
Posted: Mar 5, 2008 4:13pm ETI’ve just arrived in Santiago for the first annual ProCigar Festival. This has been a long time coming, and I’m happy to be here. Cuba has had its cigar festival for more than a decade now, so why not a similar one in the Dominican Republic?
ProCigar is an association of leading Dominican cigarmakers. The member companies include General Cigar Co. (Macanudo, Partagas), Altadis U.S.A. Inc. (Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo), Davidoff (Davidoff and Avo), La Aurora (Aurora, León Jimenes) and Manufactura de Tabacos S.A. (Fonseca, Cubita). The idea is to have consumers tour the member companies’ factories, some tobacco fields, and spend a little time with the men who make the cigars.
Tonight things get into gear with a big dinner and a tribute to the nation’s favorite sport -- baseball. I’m here at the Gran Almirante, Santiago’s finest hotel, working out the kinks with the Internet service. (I wasn’t reduced to calling this blog in word-by-word, but it was close.) I’m looking forward to talking to the consumers attending the show. I figure most of these guys are going to smoke more cigars this week then they do in a typical month -- and they’re going to love every minute.
So far so good -- the weather is beautiful, sunny and warm, a nice change from the rain and wind I left behind this morning in New York, and I’m raring to go. For those of you who aren’t here, I’ll be your guide to what’s going on. Maybe you’ll take part next year.