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Cigar Kings

The Rolando Reyes family relies on time and traditional techniques to make Cuba Aliados cigars in Honduras.
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

(continued from page 1)

The secret of Cuba Aliados' success lies, first, in the quality of tobacco in the cigars and, second, in Reyes Sr.'s involvement in every step of the production process. Unlike other Honduran cigar makers, Reyes Sr. does not use locally grown Cuban-seed tobacco in his cigars. Despite increasing respect industrywide for the high quality of Honduran wrapper and filler leaf, he prefers to use Dominican grown Cuban-seed filler and Ecuadoran grown Sumatra-seed binder and wrapper in his cigars. Recently, he has also been buying some Cuban-seed filler from the Jalapa area of Nicaragua. All Aliados tobacco is processed and aged according to Reyes' specifications, which are a closely guarded secret. Both father and son are also tight-lipped about the tobacco blends that make up their cigars.

In judging tobacco, though, the senior Reyes has one overriding rule: Older is better. "Today, a lot of cigar makers are rushing the tobacco, and this is not right," he says. "You want high-quality tobacco, but you also want mature tobacco. If it is not aged for the proper time, the cigars will not be good." Aliados tobacco stocks include bundles from the '83, '85, '90 and '94 crops. In total, Cuba Aliados has nearly $2 million tied up in tobacco inventory. A heavy investment for a small, family-owned company, notes Reyes Jr., but a necessary one. "The tobacco has to be aged. You can't just buy leaf and make cigars the next day. Let's face it, cigars are only as good as the tobacco that's in them."

Don Rolando's mania for quality control is reflected in his attention to detail. A constant presence during work hours, he is continually on the move, supervising the tobacco handling, leaf stripping and grading, bunching and rolling, sorting and boxing. When tobacco shipments arrive, he supervises the unloading of each container, and when cigar shipments go out, he is there to see that the containers are properly loaded. After hours, often late into the night, he inspects and grades the day's production, sorting cigars for uniformity of size, shape and color. Many don't pass muster and are either sent back for re-rolling or set aside for his personal use.

"My quality control policy is very simple," says Reyes. "No tobacco comes into this factory and no cigars are shipped out without first passing by my hand. Sometimes I will inspect a single cigar six or seven times on its way from the rolling table to the shipping crates."

Reyes also maintains strict hiring and training policies for his cigar makers. Though the high demand for premium cigars worldwide has led some companies to hire inexperienced workers who are moved into full production after only a few weeks of training, Don Rolando insists that his employees have prior experience. He then retrains them to make cigars to his specifications, a process which, depending on the individual's skill, can take up to two years. "With demand as high as it is, we could use more cigar rollers," says Reyes Jr. "But you can't just take someone off the street, show them how to make a cigar and let them start rolling. It's practically an art form, and it takes a long time to master."

As in all Honduran cigar factories, at Cuba Aliados cigar makers work in teams, with one person bunching the leaves and fitting them into the pressing forms, and another rolling on the wrapper leaf, closing the end and sizing the finished cigar. (The only workers who both bunch and roll are Acuna and Salinas, which partly accounts for Aliados' small daily production of pyramids and diademas.) For quality considerations, each team is limited to making no more than 400 cigars per day. "Some teams could make up to 700 cigars, but we don't allow it because quality control would go out the window," says Reyes Jr. "My father has a reputation of turning people into perfect cigar makers, so they are in high demand all over town. We pay more than the other factories to keep our workers happy. Of course, my father is very demanding. If you don't want to do it his way, he tells you to leave."

Dawn comes early after the rains. By 6:30 a.m., the sun is up, dissipating the mist and drying Danli's mostly dirt streets to a fine, powdery dust. Despite three banks, a half-dozen pharmacies and a busy municipal market, the town is a backwater, little more than the last major settlement before the Nicaraguan border. From here the road rises steeply into the thickly forested mountains, where big cats roam at night and the cries of exotic birds and monkeys pierce the morning calm. During the U.S.-backed Contra War, Danli held the dubious distinction of being the primary staging area for the anti-Sandinista rebels. Today, tobacco and cigars save it from complete obscurity, with cultivation being constantly expanded and new factories coming on line in record time.

By 6:45, workers have begun arriving at the Cuba Aliados factory. Some come by company-sponsored bus, others walk and many ride bicycles, the most affordable rapid transit available in these distant Honduran hills. By 7 o'clock, they are at the rolling benches, turning out the first of the day's hand-rolled premium cigars. Don Rolando is already on hand, giving instructions, checking quality and supervising the packaging of a shipment to be sent out that afternoon. He wears the clothes of a serious working manager: a pair of worn pants, an old T-shirt, black Chinese slippers that have seen many miles. "My son said I should dress up today," says Reyes. "But I told him, 'Why should I dress up? Let people see me the way I am everyday.'"

By 7:30, a proud Don Rolando is leading a pair of journalists on a tour of his factory. At his side is his son, who has flown down from New Jersey for the event. After a visit to Cuba Aliados, Lew Rothman described it as "the strangest factory in all of cigardom." To be sure, even in the world of rough-and-tumble Honduran cigar making, the Aliados factory is unique. Housed in what was once a motel, and for a time a Catholic convent, it is decidedly bare-bones and no frills. From the outside, the low cinderblock-and-stucco building looks like a 1950s rest stop on the road from Phoenix to Albuquerque. Inside, a series of rooms open onto a central courtyard. Production takes place in what was once the dining room. Most of the other, smaller rooms hold stores of tobacco. In the courtyard, bicycles and picnic tables crowd together beneath giant rubber tree and bamboo plants. Chickens and ducks wander about pecking the bare earth. Over a PA system comes the voice of a reader, who sits on a central dais in the rolling room, reading the news of the day and selections from novels, to entertain and educate the workers.

"Here we do everything the way we used to do it in Havana," says Reyes Sr. "This is a little corner of old Cuba."

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