I spent Monday afternoon in Santiago, Dominican Republic, with one of the true masters of the cigar business, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo. You know him from his years at La Gloria Cubana, first in Miami, later in the Dominican Republic. La Gloria was the first real star of the American cigar boom of the mid-1990s, and that was due to the hard work of Ernesto, who made a damn fine cigar and sold it at an honest price
He’s no longer with La Gloria, and now he’s making a new cigar brand in a new cigar factory called Tabacalera La Alianza. The name harkens to the alliance he’s created with his son Ernesto Perez-Carrillo III and his daughter Lissette.
The factory, which the Carrillo’s are renting, has only been open since September. When they found it, it was vacant, having last served as a textile factory. With many textile jobs leaving the country in search of lower wages, this is a good time to rent or buy a factory in a Dominican free trade zone.
It’s a big factory with a small operation—for now. “We started with four people,” Perez-Carrillo told me as we walked around. “Little by little, we’ve been adding on.” Now there are 18 cigarmakers, half bunchers, half rollers, making this a very small operation, despite the 40,000 square feet of space around them. So far this factory has only shipped 65,000 Encores. The hopes were to reach 150,000 cigars, but they might fall short. In May or June they will start rolling the less expensive, larger production core E.P. Carrillo brand. The final blend remains to be chosen.
The workers are making cigars slowly and methodically. They are focusing on one brand right now, which consists solely of one size: the E.P. Carrillo Edición Inaugural 2009 Encore. The $13 cigars measure 5 3/8 inches long by 52 ring gauge. (Click here to see the Cigar Insider rating, which is quite good.)
Each cigar rolled at the factory is made with a three-seam, Cuban-style head (also known as a mounted head) with filler rolled entubado style. This is what Perez-Carrillo originally wanted to do when he began making La Gloria Cubanas here years ago, but he simply couldn’t—demand was too great, and the workers couldn’t adjust to the method. Dominican cigars just aren’t usually made this way.
The three-seam cap takes a lot longer to produce. It doesn’t make a cigar taste different, but it looks great. I shot a little video as one of Ernesto’s workers rolled a cigar. You can get an idea of just how hard it is (and how long it can take) to do a three-seam cap.
After the factory tour, Ernesto, his son and his supervisor Junior headed out on a long, harrowing drive to La Vega. Dominican driving tip: Beware of drivers on motor scooters who do unpredictable U-turns, often while riding vehicles entirely devoid of reflectors or brake lights. “Kamikaze,” Ernesto said, as one darted far too close to harm's way.
The ride was worth it. We ended up at one of the Perez-Carrillo’s favorite places to eat traditional Dominican fare, called El Zaguan. We took seats in the breezy dining room, under a canopy of palm fronds. We didn’t need menus—Ernesto asked if I was hungry, then ordered a ton of food. Soon, the waiter brought out what looked like two huge wooden candlesticks—they were filled with a pasty, tan food called Mofongo.
Mofongo is a mash of green plantains studded with crackling, crispy pork and garlic. It was very, very hearty, and equally delicious. We also tucked into perfectly cooked churrasco steak, topped with a salsa of fresh tomatoes, and yucca done two ways, boiled with a garnish of red onion, as well as fried. It was wonderful. Then we lit up cigars. I smoked a prototype of what could become the Perez-Carrillo’s main cigar line. It was made with an Ecuador Sumatra seed wrapper, and had a mix of Dominican and Nicaraguan tobacco on the inside. It had some similarities to the Encore, but was fuller in body, richer, with a creamy, cappuccino texture and just a touch of black pepper. A fine smoke indeed.
The trip is off to a good start. Tomorrow there’s a lot more in store.
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