Posted: Jan 14, 2008 11:39pm ETThere’s something about that first glimpse of a palm tree, that first smell of the air, the initial shock of feeling warmth in the middle of the winter that tells you you’re back in the tropics. It hit me today as I walked off the plane at the Santiago airport. I’m back in the Dominican Republic, back in cigar country.
I’ll be spending the week here in and around Santiago, where most premium Dominican cigars are made. This is the busiest cigar capital in the world.
I'm traveling with Michael Moretti, the manager of Cigar Aficionado Online, and we were met at the airport by Gene Arganese, owner of the Arganese cigar brand. We were off to a late start—a huge snowstorm had been forecast to hit the New York City area, and with flashbacks of the Chicago Big Smoke and many trips back from Miami that were spoiled by snowstorms, I switched us from the 6 am flight out of JFK to the later flight. Perfect planning, careful foresight...so what happened? The apocalyptic snow every weatherman promised we would have turned out to be about an inch of slush, so it was a wasted effort. We missed our time in the Arganese fields, but we made up for it with dinner. (And we’ll adjust our schedule later.)
We headed to Gene's house here in Santiago, not far from the city center. We sat down to a hearty meal of soup, rare steak and rice, which I washed down with a frosty Presidente beer. Gene is a friendly guy who is new to the cigar business. He’s been smoking cigars since college (he recently turned 40) and after doing well in real estate he decided he wanted to give cigars a try. His hobby has turned serious—he bought a house in the Dominican Republic, he has a new factory, tobacco fields, tobacco warehousing—and he’s interested in making a great cigar. “That’s what motivates me,” he said. “Anybody in the world can make a standard cigar, but you gotta do something different. I didn’t come into this business just to build an average cigar.”
Posted: Jan 7, 2008 12:27pm ETThis is the time of year my cigar travels get into full swing. Winter in New York means tobacco season in the Caribbean and Central America, and a week from today I’ll be stomping my boots in Santiago, Dominican Republic, looking at tobacco in the fields and watching cigars being rolled in the city’s myriad cigar factories.
The Dominican Republic is the world’s leading producer of premium cigars. More cigars are rolled by hand in the Dominican Republic than in any other country. Honduras, Nicaragua and even Cuba pale in comparison. It’s an amazing statistic, especially when you consider that as recently as 1980 few cigars were rolled there.
I’ll spend the week in the Dominican, meeting up with cigarmakers, filling my notebooks and shooting videos for this web site. I’m going to be joined by Michael Moretti, who manages www.cigaraficionado.com, who will be getting his feet wet on his first trip into the cigar factories. You’ll be able to follow our travels as I file daily blogs.
Before I headed out, I wanted to give you a chance to have some input on the trip. Do you have a question about Dominican cigars, either for me or for one of your favorite cigarmakers? Ask it here.
Posted: Dec 31, 2007 1:42pm ETThere’s only a few hours left of 2007, so I’m taking a moment to reflect on the year gone by.
First, this was as fast a year as any I remember. I’m sure part of the reason is the four-year-old who is playing in front of me as I type this (now I know what dad was talking about when I was younger), and the other reason is the full year I had at work.
I did a fair amount of travel for business this year, touching down in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Miami (a couple of times), Charleston, Houston and Las Vegas. The web site had a banner year, with the launch of two great new sections, our Editor’s Blogs and Cigar Cinema, a.k.a. our video gallery. From your responses, you enjoy reading and watching them as much as we love making them for you. We have a number of great new videos coming in January, including ones of Gordon Mott, James Suckling and myself puffing away on the best cigars of the year. Stay tuned.
This year’s cigars were amazing. I’ve been working for Cigar Aficionado for more than 12 years, and I can’t remember a better year in terms of cigar quality. There are so many wonderful smokes out there, Cuban and non-Cuban, that it’s often hard to choose what you want to smoke. I puffed one great cigar after another this year. Some of the cigars simply blew me away with their flavor.
I hope you all enjoyed 2007 as much as I did, and I wish you happiness, health and success for 2008. Light up something great tonight to celebrate. I’m going to fire up something with a little age on it, a Padrón Millennium Series.
What’s your special smoke for New Year’s Eve?
Posted: Dec 22, 2007 11:26am ETI’m flying out of Miami early this afternoon, but I had time to fit one last meeting into my schedule before I left. This morning I had breakfast with Litto Gomez, maker of La Flor Dominicana, LG Diez and Coronado by La Flor cigars.
I’ve known Litto for more than 12 years now, and he’s making his best cigars ever. His Coronado by La Flor Double Corona was named our No. 2 Cigar of 2006. As Litto asked the waiter for “an emergency espresso,” he took a pressed corona from his Ziplok bag. It was a La Flor 2000 Series No. 3, his first cigar of this and every day.
Did I mention how much I love Miami? When we walked up to the maitre d' station at the Biltmore, we asked for a table where we could smoke cigars. We were seated in the midst of several other tables full of diners, and when the aroma of cigar smoke began to waft from our group no one blinked or said a word. A large cigar ashtray appeared promptly, and all was right with the world.
Litto flew in from Santiago last night, and he showed me photos of his new tobacco field. He recently acquired 45 acres adjacent to his existing farm in La Canela. Unlike the first property, which he shares with Jochi Blanco, this one is all his own.
The Dominican Republic was recently slammed by a freak December tropical storm. “To have a storm like we had the other day is just crazy,” said Litto. “It’s just not supposed to happen.”
His farm weathered the rains just fine, and he showed me photos of vibrant, green plans in various stages of planting. Since the 2004/05 crop, when the weather was absolutely dismal for growing tobacco, Litto has staggered his plantings to minimize the threat of damage from one weather event. “The weather has become unpredictable in the last four years, so we don’t plant the farm all at once [anymore]. We plant in three stages.” In 2004/05, he lost 70 percent of his crop, and the remainder wasn’t anything to brag about. “The 30 percent we picked, I know I’ll never use it,” he said.
Posted: Dec 22, 2007 12:27am ETI’m back in my hotel room after a long, full day in Miami. I started in Hialeah, at a cigar factory/shop I had never visited before called Flor de Gonzalez. If you want to try a smoke made in the United States, you don’t have to limit your search to 8th Street. Flor de Gonzalez makes very good smokes in a small space about one mile from the Miami International Airport. The Gonzalez family has about five rollers—three were working today—making cigars, and they’ve done fairly well in Cigar Aficionado tastings.
My second stop was with Puros Indios, now known as Reyes Family Cigars. I sat down with the newly named president, Carlos Diez, and I found out something new about him--He’s a New York Giants fan. (Go Big Blue.) I was originally supposed to meet with him and his grandfather, Rolando Reyes Sr., but the elder Reyes was under the weather.
Carlos has some new plans for his grandfather’s company’s brands. He showed me the new logo for the company, and explained how they are working on a new brand called Premier. As far as Puros Indios and Cuba Aliados, the names may change. Stay tuned.
Carlos and I spoke for a few hours, and toward the end he took me to his storage area, where he has all kinds of old cigars. A lot of cigarmakers aren’t big believers in cigar aging, but not Carlos. He handed me a gorgeous Cuba Aliados Piramide No. 1 from 1988. You’ll be reading about that 20-year-old beauty in an upcoming Connoisseur’s Corner in Cigar Aficionado.
I spent the rest of the day with Ernesto Padilla, who I was interviewing for Cigar Aficionado. Ernesto has a number of great cigars, including one of my all-time favorite small cigars, the Padilla 1932 La Perla. This 4 1/2 by 40 cigar comes in boxes of 50, and it’s rolled by Pepin Garcia in Nicaragua. They’re little flavor bombs, just packed with taste.
Posted: Dec 21, 2007 1:12am ETThere’s clearly something wrong with me. I spent the other night standing in my driveway, swinging a 10-pound sledgehammer into the ground to break the inch-thick coating of ice that was just about everywhere. Now I’m walking around in short sleeves and sunglasses in Miami, where the weather is absolutely perfect.
Remind me why I live in the New York area again?
I’m in south Florida on business for a couple of days. Miami, after all, is where many of the world’s premium cigarmakers make their headquarters. I don’t have time to see them all, sadly, but I’m going to do as much as I can while I’m here.
I started the day with Guillermo and George Rico, the father-and-son team behind Gran Habano cigars. Gran Habano is a small brand made in Honduras that comes in colorful boxes, and always seems to do pretty well in our tastings. I first met George out in Las Vegas at our Big Smoke in November, and I told him I’d drop in on his office the next time I came to town.
The Ricos have an interesting story. They’re from Colombia, and Guillermo’s mother used to work with the local cigar tobacco, known as Cubita. During its heyday most of the production went to Europe, particularly Germany, and locals got in the habit of flattening the leaves into thin sheets that could be easily fed into machines that make mass-market cigars. The Ricos, like some other cigarmakers, use some Cubita in their filler blends, and it still comes pretty flat. I looked over a few leaves, and gave them a test sniff—it’s dusky, earthy stuff that you wouldn’t use to make a puro, but the Ricos say it works great as a small addition to a blend.
The Ricos had to leave Colombia for New York, then they came to Miami. Times were tough. A job making furniture led to orders for cigar boxes during the cigar boom, and that’s when Guillermo figured that what people really wanted was cigars. He opened a tiny factory, and later expanded to create a larger place in Danlí, Honduras.
Posted: Dec 17, 2007 1:21pm ETI’ve always admired Sir Winston Churchill. Half American, half British, a man of words and a man of action, he stood up to the Nazi threat, all while puffing more cigars than 20 men would normally smoke. How can you not admire him?
I recently picked up the tidy (192 page) biography on him by John Keegan, which came out this year in paperback, published by Penguin. It’s as much a surprise to see such a short book by Keegan, he of the epic tomes on both World Wars, as it is to imagine a sub-200 pager giving anyone a complete view of as complex a man as Winston Churchill. But it’s a fine read, with just enough insight on Churchill's amazing life.
Here’s a great little nugget: In 1901, as a freshman in England’s House of Commons, Churchill criticized a proposed army buildup, while uttering what turned out to be a most prescient warning. “A European war cannot be anything but a cruel, heartrending struggle, which, if we are ever to enjoy the fruits of victory, must demand, perhaps for several years, the whole manhood of the nation the entire suspension of peaceful industries, and the concentration to one end of every vital energy of the community.”
Even if you dismiss the history, it’s nearly impossible for cigar lovers not to adore Churchill. The man had a passion for cigars rivaling almost anyone in history. While the Keegan book won’t reveal much about Churchill as a cigar smoker, this story from the Cigar Aficionado archives tells virtually all. He acquired his taste for Cubans in 1895 on a trip to Havana, where he virtually lived on oranges in cigars. He was constantly burning his clothes with his cigars. He had 3,000 to 4,000 stocked in his study at any given time. And, of course, his name has been given to a widely popular cigar size, the 7 inch long, 47 ring gauge Churchill.
Winston Churchill has graced our cover twice, most recently on the 10th Anniversary issue, where he was named Man of the Century. Count me as a fan.
Posted: Nov 30, 2007 11:55am ETI opened one of the cabinet humidors in the office this morning, spied a box of cigars in a corner, and couldn’t help feeling a bit sad. It’s a box of Alfons Mayer cigars, and I’ve had them since 2005.
Alfons Mayer was an outstanding tobacco man, one of the world’s best, and for years he was the tobacco buyer for General Cigar Co. Think of this for a moment—he bought all of the tobacco for a company making tens of millions of cigars every year. He lived on a plane, visited virtually every country that grows usable cigar tobacco and was a walking encyclopedia of tobacco knowledge.
Alfons died just over a year ago, in October 2006.
It’s my job to get close to people in the cigar and tobacco industry, and I know most of the players very, very well. I count many of them as friends. I’ve interviewed many of those people dozens of times. With Alfons, it was different. He was incredibly media shy, and he turned down my frequent requests for an interview. I later found out that he had been turning down requests to be interviewed by Cigar Aficionado even before I joined the company in 1995.
Still, I would call Alfons every now and then, getting a little insight here and some insight there. And I would usually end with a request for him to sit down so I could really hear his story. The game went on for years, until one day he said ‘yes.’ He invited me to his house in New Jersey.
I arrived on a brutally cold winter day. Alfons welcomed me with a broad smile. The photographers were there, finishing his photo shoot, and he seemed to be enjoying himself. He had a cigar in his mouth, and, as always, his shirt pocket was filled to nearly bursting with cigars at the ready. (His favorite was Canaria d’Oro, a brand no longer made by General, wrapped in his favorite leaf of tobacco, San Andres from Mexico.) He gave me a cigar, an Alfons Mayer Breakfast, and I lit up and we began to talk.
Posted: Nov 9, 2007 11:53am ETI landed yesterday in Las Vegas for our Big Smoke, and I wasted no time getting started Vegas style. After a long flight, I was hungry and ready for a cigar, so I dumped my bags at the Venetian Hotel and went straight to the Forums Shops at Caesars’ Palace.
I grabbed a great lunch at Spago, washed down by an Italian red, then headed around the corner to Casa Fuente. It was as if a mini Big Smoke was going on there, with most of the tables full of revelers puffing away and taking in the scenery. I sat down, lit up a Montecristo Petit Edmundo and ordered a drink.
The Big Smoke. It feels good.
Later that night, we hosted a dinner for the cigarmakers who are taking part in the show. With the new smoking rules in Las Vegas, we had it outside, but it was a gorgeous night for outdoor smoking with mild temperatures and a clear sky. We ate at the patio of Bouchon in the Venetian, the Tomas Keller restaurant.
Most of the cigar industry was there, and there’s no way I can remember them all: The Fuentes (Carlos Sr. and Carlos Jr., and Wayne Suarez, and others from the company); Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, Sherwin Seltzer, Mike Giannini from General Cigar; Jorge Padrón; Rocky Patel; Chip Goldeen from Ashton; the Turrents from Mexico, makers of Te Amo; Alan Rubin of Alec Bradley; Gary Hyams and Jon Huber from CAO; Joe Chiusano of Cusano Cigars; Gene Arganese, founder of Arganese cigars; Ron Reinders of Dunhill; Charlie Toraño; Jose Blanco; George Rico of Gran Habano….it was a huge list, and there were many others.
We puffed before and after dinner—I smoked an Ashton VSG. It was only the start of a long weekend of smoking.
Tonight it’s the first Big Smoke evening, and tomorrow is when the seminars start. Time to take in some of this great Vegas weather and get ready for the long weekend.
Posted: Nov 5, 2007 12:20pm ETJose Oliva was in town on Thursday, so I took a little drive after work to Club Perfecto in South Norwalk. Jose was hanging out with some of the members, smoking cigars and playing a little poker. (Don’t raid the place—they play for cigars, not money.)
Jose was in the middle of a cigar tour. His family’s Oliva Serie V line, which is their fullest-bodied brand, is a big deal to the company, and they decided that every retailer who is going to sell the cigar will have a presentation from a family member to describe their philosophy with the brand.
That’s a great way to help promote a cigar, but the Olivas got a big boost soon after the release—a 94 point rating in Cigar Insider and Cigar Aficionado for the Oliva Serie V Torpedo. It’s a lip-smacking smoke that is full of flavor yet balanced. And it’s only about $7, so it’s relatively affordable.
I brought along my new Flip Video camera that we’re using here (hey, I can’t let James and Marvin have all the fun) and I interviewed Jose about the new line. Check it out.
Jose will be out in Vegas this week (along with most of the premium cigar industry) at our Big Smoke, but it won’t be long before he’s back out there talking about the Serie V. And with that 94 rating, he’ll have no shortage of people interested in the Serie V.