Back in the Dominican Republic—Day One

There’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 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.”

Gene has surrounded himself with experienced cigar people, and he showed Michael and I three new cigars he’s working on. We tried them all, and each was fairly strong. There was a Churchill made with Ecuador wrapper that I really enjoyed, an Ecuador robusto that I found a bit linear and a real spicy maduro robusto that should please those who like a very strong cigar. Take a look at this video of our post-dinner smoking session.

Later, we checked into the Gran Almirante, which will be our home for the next few days. Waiting for the elevator I bumped into Larry Palombo, the former president of US Cigar Sales Inc., who now buys tobacco for Altadis. I said hello—I’m sure we’ll meet up later in the week—and headed upstairs. It’s the start of a long week. Tomorrow we’re heading out to tobacco fields and factories to get a first-hand look at what’s going on here in cigar country.
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