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The Next Big Thing in Cigars, Pepin

A star roller from Cuba, now in Miami, José "Pepin" Garcia is making some of the world's finest cigars.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007

(continued from page 1)

As much as they loved Cuba, the Garcias yearned to do more. Janny, 28, was the first family member to arrive in the United States, coming in 1997. Pepin and Jaime, 37, came in 2002. The two men emigrated first to Nicaragua, then to Mexico, where they crossed the U.S. border and were welcomed into the country, thanks to their Cuban passports.

In Nicaragua, Pepin and Jaime worked for tobacco grower Eduardo Fernandez, and Pepin soon found to his surprise that the sun didn't rise and set on tobacco grown in Cuba. "I thought only in Cuba could you make good cigars," says Pepin, who sees similarities between Nicaragua's growing regions and Cuba's. "Estelí is similar to Las Villas, Jalapa is like Pinar del Río, Condega like Habana. The combination? Cubano!"

In the United States, after a short stint with Tabacalera Tropical, the cigar-rolling arm of Fernandez's operation, the family opened El Rey de los Habanos, with Fernandez as a financial backer (his percentage of ownership in the company is undisclosed) and the primary supplier of tobacco leaf. It's uncommon for a cigar roller to have success opening a cigar factory of his own: perhaps the only other example of a cigar roller who has opened and maintained a prominent cigar factory is Rolando Reyes Sr., patriarch of Puros Indios and Cuba Aliados cigars.

Garcia with his son JaimeIt's cliché to describe the members of a family company as closely knit, but the Garcias take it to an extreme: father, son, daughter, spouses and children all live together in one house in Miami, as they did in Cuba. "It's not usual in the U.S., but in Cuba, we lived all together," says Janny with a smile and a wave of her hand. "It's impossible for my father to live without us, and it's impossible for us to live without him."

Being together virtually all the time, at work and at home, makes it easy to focus on the one subject that matters: tobacco. "In my home, we only speak tobacco," says Jaime, a powerfully built, soft-spoken man with sleepy eyes and a tremendous pride in his cigars. "When we talk, it's only cigars. Every day, every time, every week, only cigars."

The family recently took a short vacation—together—to the Dominican Republic, but it quickly evolved into a working trip. "We smoked 60 cigars in three days," says Janny. Pepin acquiesced to leisure but once. He wanted to leave the beaches of Puerto Plata and take a trip to the cigar factories in Santiago, but his children convinced him to stay and get some modicum of relaxation.

The Garcias expanded El Rey de los Habanos in May 2006, essentially doubling its space, but one could hardly tell. They added a small area, about the same size as the rolling room, where cigars are banded and packed, and a shop in the front that sells various cigars made by the company, including the Don Pepin lines and Tatuajes. In back of the rolling room is a tobacco preparation area, where piles of tobacco sit in plastic bins. Jaime takes out leaf after leaf, and offers a visitor a sniff of the tobacco's rich aroma. "Secret," he says when asked from what part of Nicaragua the tobacco comes. Then he beams with his contagious smile.

In the equally tiny aging room, which is nothing more than a few shelves in a humidified cooler, cigars sit half wrapped in newspaper (for protection) on a rolling cart. There are perhaps 20 bundles, gorgeous chocolate-brown pyramids, proud and long "A" sizes and diminutive coronas. It is half the entire factory's daily production.

At the same time as the expansion in Miami, the Garcias embarked on their most ambitious project to date, opening a much larger cigar factory in Estelí, Nicaragua. Tabacalera Cubana, which is also a partnership with Fernandez, has enabled the Garcias to substantially increase the number of cigars they can roll. The cigars in Nicaragua are made in the same style as those in Miami, with two binders and mounted heads, but in the new plant production is divided between bunchers and rollers. "Teaching the people was hard," admits Pepin. "In Cuba, one roller makes everything. In Nicaragua and Honduras, they work in pairs."

Nicaragua has brought the Garcias their most high-profile client to date: Ashton Cigars. The Philadelphia company recently signed a deal to have a new brand—San Cristobal—made by the Garcias in Nicaragua. The signing of such a prestigious customer has humbled the Garcias. "It's like a dream to do a cigar for Ashton," says Janny.

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