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David Savona

Day Three in the Dominican Republic

Posted: Feb 11, 2011 12:00am ET

Beautiful sunshine and balmy temperatures greeted more than 200 cigar lovers on Thursday here in Santiago. As the day began some headed to cigar factories, others to tobacco fields, and a few set out on tours of the city and other areas of the Dominican Republic.

The fourth annual ProCigar festival was in full swing, and no matter what their agenda was, each was here for one reason-the love of fine cigars. Every tour, every dinner, every gathering included premium cigars made by the member companies of ProCigar.

I went on my own on Thursday, heading to the biggest cigar factory in Santiago on my own—General Cigar Dominicana. This bustling factory (which in actuality incorporates several buildings in the Zona Franca de Santiago Numero Uno, Santiago's original free trade zone) is the place where Macanudo, La Gloria Cubana, Partagas and many other cigars are made.

I spent the entire morning with General Cigar's president, Dan Carr, who explained some of the changes that have been going on at General. One of the things he stressed is how despite its size (General is a unit of Scandinavian Tobacco Group, the world's second largest cigar company), he wants General to operate as if it were several small companies. This dates back to 2008 when General created what's known as the business venture group. "It started to change the way we do things," he said.

I walked with Carr through the huge operation with the team from General that runs the Dominican operation on a day-to-day basis, led by Jhonys Diaz. As we walked from room to room in the vast (and exceptionally clean) facility, Diaz explained the steps General takes to make millions upon millions of cigars each year.

One of the most noteworthy things about General Cigar is the vast amount of tobacco it has within these walls. Bale after bale, crate after crate and barrel after barrel of tobacco from around the world is processed and stored here. "Tobacco processing is a very long and expensive process," said Diaz. "It's a very cumbersome process-but it pays off in quality." One of the ways General tracks how its tobacco is performing is by test smoking leaf in the factory. This means taking a leaf of filler or other tobacco, rolling it into a rustic cigar—not making a blend, but smoking only that one leaf—and puffing away. Viso, seco, ligero—you name it, that's what you smoke. I took a rough little cigar made entirely of dark, thick, Dominican piloto Cubano ligero and lit up, and was hit by the power of the tobacco. It's not for the meek. I shot a little video of the process-take a look.

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Day Two in the Dominican Republic

Posted: Feb 10, 2011 12:00am ET

I found out about the wrapper on Tuesday, the official start of the ProCigar Festival in Santiago. In the morning, I spilled out of the Gran Almirante with dozens of other festival goers and we loaded up in buses to go to whichever spot on the agenda we had selected. I had heard the Quesadas were going to launch something new, so I opted to go to Matasa.

We were ushered into the factory in the Santiago Free Zone (which is being moved—see my previous blog) and after a shot of coffee and a cigar, we were shown into the main rolling gallery, which had been set up for a press conference. The lights were off.

When they came on, they revealed a series of rolling tables, each one slightly different than the other. Each represented a decade for the factory, beginning in the 1970s when it was founded. That modest rolling table represented how things looked in the early days at Matasa, and the woman rolling cigars at it was the very first roller from Matasa back in 1974. Her name is Ana Celia and she's worked at Matasa for 37 years.

The show was impressive, and at the end the Quesada clan revealed the new smoke-the Fonseca 120th Anniversary. It's a one-size line made with a Dominican wrapper, Dominican binder and a mix of Dominican and Nicaraguan filler. I found it nutty, medium bodied and with good balance.

After the morning tours, the heads of ProCigar held a press conference. Hendrik Kelner, maker of Davidoff, led the presentation.

"We have the longest history of tobacco in the world," he said. "The Dominican Republic was the first country to export tobacco to Europe...In 1995, the Dominican Republic became the number one exporter of cigars in the world, and we've maintained that."

Kelner had some interesting facts: 65,000 people work in the tobacco industry in the Dominican Republic (55,000 of them on farms), and in 2010, the industry accounted for around $320 million in exports. He said tobacco is the number one agricultural crop in the country.

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Day One in the Dominican Republic

Posted: Feb 9, 2011 12:00am ET

The fourth annual ProCigar Festival in the Dominican Republic has begun. On Tuesday I landed in Santiago, greeted by bright sunshine and tropical warmth. I've left winter behind. Here, it feels like summer.

The ProCigar Festival is thrown by some of the big names in Dominican cigars-General Cigar Co. (Macanudo, Partagas and many other brands), Altadis U.S.A. Inc. (Montecristo and H. Upmann, to name a few), Tabadom Holding (Davidoff, Avo), La Aurora S.A. (Guillermo Leon, La Aurora), Matasa (Quesada, Fonseca) and Tabacos Quisqueya (Juan Clemente). More than 200 people attend.

My flight included Pete Johnson, owner of the Tatuaje brand, which is made in Nicaragua and Ron Melendi, who runs De La Concha cigars in New York City. At the airport we soon met up with Michael Herklots, general manager of the New York Davidoff stores, and within moments of leaving the terminal we were handed frosty cups of Presidente beer and an open humidor of cigars.

The rest of the group went to check into their hotels, but I was off to a meeting with Manuel "Manolo" Quesada. I rode over with his nephews, Jose Manuel Bermudez (aka Blondie) and Terence Reilly, and Blondie handed me a baggie of unbanded cigars.

"What are they?" I asked.

"They're for you," he said, adding nothing else. I tried to grill him and Terence, but they wouldn't tell me a thing about them. I twisted the pigtail off of one and lit up.

We met Manolo in Licey, an agricultural town where Quesada houses his tobacco operations. He has made cigars in the free trade zone in Santiago for 37 years, but today the operation in Licey was busy with construction, as they are raising the roof in preparation to bring the rolling gallery and all their operations into this one facility. (If you read Cigar Insider, you read about this a few issues ago.)

We toured the facility and I shot a little video of Manolo describing what he's doing. Take a look.

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Smoking in the Cold

Posted: Jan 24, 2011 12:00am ET

I spent the weekend in Central Vermont with my family and a great group of friends. They skied, I didn't (call me crazy, but strapping greased planks to my feet before pointing my toes down an icy mountain sounds like suicide, not fun) but I enjoyed myself quite a bit with some quiet time by a roaring fire. At night, there were bourbon cocktails and great conversation.

Like many households, this one didn't smile upon cigar smoke, so one afternoon my two buddies and I suited up and headed to the deck for a cigar. I lit up a fat Room 101 Conjura Edition and puffed away quite happily. The cigar was delicious. We hung out for a bit, even posed for a photograph, but the thermometer was flirting with one degree as the sun began to set. We lasted only about 20 minutes before the cold got the better of us and we headed back to the (indoor) fire to shake it off.

I feel funny complaining about how cold Vermont was this weekend, because as I sit here in New York writing my blog I find the morning temperatures back in Vermont dropped all the way down to 22 below zero, with considerably colder wind chills. I don't think I would have braved a cigar under such circumstances. I may not have even ventured outside. It's brutally cold throughout the entire northeast today, and few cities will get above freezing. Northern Maine, according to the Weather Channel, will have a high of zero degrees.

Cigar retailers fear abnormally cold temperatures because it affects business. With so many cigar lovers forced to smoke outside, low temperatures often mean reduced cigar sales. When a person's only smoking room is the chair on his deck, and said chair is covered by six inches of snow, he's likely to take a pass on the Padrón for the evening. It was not always so. One imagines that back in the day when cigar smoking was an indoor activity, a little cold weather wasn't likely to hamper anyone's love of a fine cigar. In fact, on cold, snowy evenings, one might have been likely to puff a little more.

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Cuba, in Bullet Points, Part One

Posted: Dec 22, 2010 12:00am ET

It's been almost two weeks since Gordon Mott and I returned from our trip to Cuba. We sat down this morning for a chat and compared notes. Here are some small details about the Cuban cigar industry and Cuba in general that we thought you'd enjoy. Gordon is going to follow up with some more items later on.

Not Every Cuban Cigar
One might think that traveling to Cuba would mean you could buy any and all Cuban cigars. That's largely true, but not entirely true. A reader asked in our blogs if the Regional Edition cigars from around the world were available in Cuba. They are not. The only Regional Edition cigar we saw on sale in Cuba is the one made specifically for Cuba, the La Gloria Cubana Delicioso, which is 5 inches long by 48 ring gauge and comes in a lovely white ceramic jar of 25 cigars. They were selling for 246.30 CUCS (about $308) per jar. Cuba was also low on Cohiba Behike BHK cigars. Several shops we visited had none in stock, others had a few boxes.

Fakes
Fake cigars are still a problem in Cuba. We were only approached in one location, but it was quite blatant, as we walked into and out of the Partagas Cigar Factory. "Sir, I work here," said a man in a baseball hat. I was puffing on a cigar. "Good cigars, good price." Don't believe the stories, and suspect any cigar sold outside of a traditional outlet will be counterfeit.

Lots of Flights
People were shocked when we told them we were flying directly from the United States to Cuba. I'll admit, it was bizarre watching the silver 737 with the American Airlines logo coming in for a landing at José Martí Airport in Havana (it was a chartered flight). We were told some 60 charters a week are flying between the United States and Cuba, and the pre-Revolution peak was 70 flights. There are people going from the U.S. to Cuba and back, primarily people visiting their families back in Cuba.

No Booze/No Cigars
Just because there are lots of flights doesn't mean there are boxes of Bolivars and bottles of Havana Club coming back. One used to be able to come back to the United States on a direct flight to Cuba with up to $100 worth of Cuban goods. No more. You can't bring back a single item. "You can't even bring in a bottle of cologne this big," a Customs agent told me, holding his fingers all of a quarter inch apart.

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Cigar Report: Current Cubans

Posted: Dec 16, 2010 12:00am ET

Spending last week in Cuba gave me the opportunity to smoke many of the island's current production cigars. Gordon Mott and I puffed away each and every day, starting early in the morning (I joked that our Cuban breakfast was a Cohiba and a cup of Cuban coffee) and ending sometimes fairly late in the evening.

These were hardly scientific tastings. The cigars were not smoked blind, as we do here in our offices. We smoked them in various places, sometimes during or after meals, sometimes with libations and some cigars were bought in stores or bars while others were given to us in factories or by officials from Habanos S.A. I don't give scores for cigars that we taste this way, but I will give you a description of the smokes to provide you with a snapshot of how the current production Cubans are smoking right now, in the country in which they're made. And I even added a little video footage taken from one of Cuba's best shops so you can see some of the cigars we smoked.

We puffed two of the three Cuban ELs for 2010, the Trinidad Short Robusto T Edición Limitada and the Montecristo Grand Edmundo Edición Limitada (we didn't smoke the Partagas Serie D Especial EL 2010 while in the country.) The Trinidad was, for me, a slow starter. It measures four by 50 and had some oily notes at first and was fairly aggressive, but it warmed up beautifully about a half an inch in and really improved. The dark, thickish wrapper didn't burn so well throughout the smoke, but I'll forgive some burn problems for good flavor. Gordon and I both enjoyed the cigar.

I enjoyed the Montecristo Grand Edmundo even better. From the first puff this cigar wowed me with balanced, intense flavors. The Grand Edmundo is a canonazo size, same size as the Cohiba Siglo VI, and Cuban cigars in this size always seem to impress me. This cigar was delicious from start to finish, very flavorful and nicely balanced with a medium to full body. The construction on these (I smoked two while in Cuba) was also exceptional. If I had been scoring these, it would have rated "outstanding."

Montecristo Grand Edmundo
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A Yankee Fan In Cuba

Posted: Dec 15, 2010 12:00am ET

I work in New York City, and I root for the New York Yankees, so you would be forgiven for assuming that I work in an environment surrounded by others who share my allegiance for the boys in pinstripes. Not so. In an odd twist of fate, I recently found my baseball fandom far more appreciated in Havana, Cuba, then here in the city that never sleeps.

Last Tuesday night I was sitting at a table in the very good La Imprenta, a government-run restaurant (read all about it in Gordon Mott's blog), when a waiter came up to us and asked where we were from. When we mentioned New York City, his face brightened. "The New York Yankees!" he said proudly. I smiled. Gordon frowned.

A little backstory for those of you new to this blog; I love the New York Yankees, and always have. I remember watching the 1977 World Series in my pajamas (I was nine years old, and sat with my mitt in my hand, as if a foul ball might come through the screen) and screaming as Reggie Jackson hit three, count 'em, three home runs in one game. Working in New York City, home of the New York Yankees, one might assume that I toil alongside fellow fans of the world's greatest baseball team.

But no. In fact, I'm surrounded by Yankee haters. My good buddy Jack Bettridge is an Orioles fan. (Tough life for Jack, but I suppose it's fair, since he ought to pay some price for all that fine booze he drinks.) Gordon Mott, my boss and Cuba travel companion, loves the Boston Red Sox.

Remember the 2004 baseball season? The one where the Red Sox broke the curse of the Bambino? Well, Gordon has a stuffed bear outfitted in a Red Sox uniform that he keeps in his office (don't ask why) and when the Sox came back and beat my Yankees, he called me into his office and made me kiss the bear's feet. (You see? It isn't all roses working here at Cigar Aficionado.) So it's safe to say he's a fervent Red Sox fan, and one who has no love for the Yankees.

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Freedom To Smoke In La Habana

Posted: Dec 13, 2010 12:00am ET

I had just finished a memorable dinner at El Aljibe, the must-see Cuban restaurant specializing in savory roast chicken, black beans and rice, when the urge hit me—I really wanted a cigar. I reached into my shirt pocket for a Montecristo Petit Edmundo, removed it from its metal tube and clipped off its head. A few flicks of my lighter and the heady aroma of good Cuban tobacco began wafting around the dining room.

A waiter appeared at my side within moments—bearing an ashtray. He set it down without a word, and walked away.

This is the reception given cigar smokers in Havana, and for most cigar lovers from around the world, it's a completely foreign concept, or a vestige of an age long gone by.

Cuba is a cigar smoker's paradise, not only for the stocks of fine cigars found in the city but for the appreciation and respect given cigar smokers. I puffed away on that very same Petit Edmundo as I wrote this blog while sitting in the lobby of the Melia Cohiba Hotel. No one blinked at my smoke, and the busy lobby had at least five other men smoking away in peace as I wrote.

It wasn't always so. In 2005 Cuba, like far too many other countries, went through it's own non-smoking movement, banning smoking in certain places in February of that year. But unlike other smoking bans, this one seems to be largely ignored. On my Sunday through Friday trip to Cuba, the only places I encountered no smoking signs were in the main breakfast restaurant at the Melia Cohiba (and even I don't wish to smoke while eating breakfast, at least not on most occasions), elevators and in taxicabs.

But signs don't necessarily stop a person from smoking. I've lit up in most of the cabs I've travelled in here with not a single complaint, and I've taken my cigar into the elevator a couple dozen times. No one blinks. This is a city where you can smoke.

At dinner at El Aljibe, I noticed a variation on a very familiar sign. It was the familiar black-and-white image of a burning cigarette one sees in the United States, but this sign was missing one very important thing—the red circle and line. This wasn't a no-smoking sign, it was a smoking sign.

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The Secret of Behike

Posted: Dec 10, 2010 12:00am ET

The secret ingredient to Cuba’s superb new cigar brand, Cohiba Behike BHK, is a rare kind of tobacco called medio tiempo. While you may have heard the name before, it’s likely that you don’t know precisely what it is—it has been described improperly.

First of all, medio tiempo does not come from the middle of a tobacco plant. Some have described it this way, perhaps due to the word “medio” in its name. Second, it doesn’t come from below the ligero grade of leaves. After several interviews in Havana, the tobacco growing region of Pinar del Río and even outside of Cuba, here is a detailed description of medio tiempo tobacco.

Tobacco leaves are classified by their position on the plant. In the world of Cuban cigars, working up the bottom of a plant, there is volado (the most mild), seco (somewhere in the middle) and then ligero, which is powerful. On some plants, but far from all, two additional tobacco leaves grow at the very top, above the ligero. Those leaves are called medio tiempo. And medio tiempo is in every Cohiba Behike BHK cigar.

The highest leaves on a tobacco plant take the longest amount of time to ripen. They also get the full benefit of sunlight—tobacco plants are by nature leafy objects, and the upper leaves provide some shade for those that grow below. Medio tiempo leaves get more light than any other on a plant.

“It’s a very complex leaf that comes from the two top leaves of the plant,” said Habanos subdirector of marketing Gonzalo Fernández de Navarrete Gonzalez-Valerio during an interview in Havana on a rainy Thursday morning. “Not every plant has it.”

Carlos Fuente Jr., the maestro behind Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars, once told me that medio tiempo leaves turned raisiny in the sun. He spoke of these rich, small leaves almost as someone would describe a most beautiful woman.

Medio tiempo is very rare. Some farmers estimate that fewer than one in ten tobacco plants grows medio tiempo leaves. So there are only so many. They’re also very small. I saw several leaves of fermented and aged medio tiempo at El Laguito, the factory where all Cohiba Behikes are made, when I visited the factory this week with Gordon Mott. They were considerably smaller than ligero leaves.

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A Tale of Two Cuban Factories

Posted: Dec 8, 2010 12:00am ET

The waves were crashing high over the Malecón seawall on Tuesday morning as I stepped out of my hotel here in Havana. A cold front was blowing through, and the mercury had dropped to 50 degrees. For the locals it was a seriously cold day, but for a visiting Yankee like myself it was just a cool breeze. No chill could bring a frown to my face—I was heading to El Laguito.

I've been travelling to Cuba since 1995, but this would be my first visit to El Laguito, the smallest of Cuba's major cigar factories but perhaps the best. This is where Cohibas were born and where Cohiba Behikes are made. The factory is seldom visited by outsiders, as it is off-limits to visitors without special permission. I'd been looking forward to this day for a long time.

Our taxi pulled up to the stately building, located in the classy Miramar suburb of Havana. I walked inside with Gordon Mott, Cigar Aficionado's executive editor, and the first thing I noticed was the oversized Cohiba logo in gold, black and white hanging over the receptionist's desk. We sat down with Arnaldo Ovalles Brioñes, who has run the fabrica since 2009, and he offered us Behikes. As I clipped the pigtail off the head of the perfectly rolled Cohiba BHK 52, I smiled—this was desayuno perfecto, the perfect breakfast in Havana.

El Laguito has been rolling cigars since 1966, first only Cohibas, then Trinidads as well. Today, only Cohibas are made here (Trinidad was moved to Pinar del Río some six year s ago) although not every Cuban Cohiba comes from El Laguito. The so-called mother factory of Cohiba, it sends tobacco to other fabricas to roll Cohibas when required, as the little factory simply can't make enough cigars to meet the need for Cohiba. But every Behike is made in these halls.

A former school, El Laguito is not set up like a typical cigar factory. The workers roll, bunch and sort in small rooms better suited for classes. While it would make a student of just-in-time delivery shudder, it adds soul and style to the factory. Each section is like a little world, separate from the outside. Perhaps 20 rollers work in each area, carefully bunching Cohiba Robustos, Behikes and Lanceros, and wrapping leaves from Pinar del Río over the bunch. The cigars made here are beautiful. There are only 262 workers and just 101 of those make cigars.

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