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A Glorified Smoke: Ernesto Carrillo and El Credito Cigars

James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Groucho Marx, Spring 93

"A corpadito for me and my friend," says Ernesto Carillo as he strolls up to the Cafeteria San José with a chunky, pyramid-shaped cigar dangling from his mouth. In between large puffs of blue tinted smoke and sips of hot coffee, he talks of the day's news to Ismenia, the proprietor of the tiny eatery. A few other locals walk up and join the conversation in Spanish.

A pungent, spicy aroma from Ernesto Carillo's cigar engulfs his tiny entourage as it mixes with the hot, humid air. The thick, stout coffee spiked with warm milk perks them up for the start of another muggy morning. One of the men with fiery eyes and a slightly bent smile begins to rant about the difficulties of living under Fidel Castro's rule. Some of the group simply roll their eyes in ambivalence and clutch their Cuban coffees, hoping that he might go away. Carillo hides behind his smoking cigar.

It could have been like any other day in one of the streets of downtown Havana, but this was Miami. Carillo, 41, has not been in Cuba since 1959 when he left to start a new life in America. Here, in the section of Miami called Little Havana, Carillo proudly maintains his Cuban heritage by producing excellent handmade cigars in several adjoining small shops at the corner of 11th Avenue and Calle Ocho Street.

His El Credito Cigars factory doesn't look like much from the outside. The fabrica is comprised of a handful of small stores built in the 1950s. At a glance, these simple structures resemble used furniture stores or junk shops more than anything else. The "El Credito Cigars" etched on the large window of the main building is barely legible through the iron security bars. What his company may lack in style, it more than makes up for in substance.

Walking into the factory is like a journey back in time. Seated behind small wooden desks piled high with tobacco and finished cigars, three rows of men and women methodically roll various sizes and shapes of cigars. They roll, singing Cuban folk songs and discussing the day's events among themselves. In a small adjoining back room, Carillo deals with administration, occasionally seeing to customers who walk in from the street to buy cigars. It is just how it was at the turn of the century in Havana when hundreds of small, family-run, cigar-rolling shops filled the old section of the romantic city. Today, Cuba may remain a forbidden fruit to most Americans, but some of its former glory can be savored through El Credito Cigars.

For the rest of the world, El Credito produces Cuban-quality cigars at prices long forgotten. "We make our cigars just like we were in Cuba," says Carillo, who vividly remembers spending long hours as a young boy with his father in tobacco fields in Cuba's prime growing region, the Vuelta Abajo. "Each person makes his own cigar here from start to finish. You get more control that way, and this method is part of a Cuban culture for cigar rolling that has been going on for decades."

Each year a few dozen rollers (all Cuban immigrants who worked in the best factories in Havana) produce about one million cigars for El Credito--about one-tenth the size of major cigar factories in Cuba or the Dominican Republic. Their cigars are sold under four primary brands: La Gloria Cubana, La Hoja Selecta, El Rico Habano and Dos Gonzales. La Gloria Cubana--a brand founded in Cuba and still produced there--is the best with the robusto-sized Wavell (5 inches long by 50 ring gauge) and the pyramid-shaped Torpedo No. 1 (6 inches long) rivaling some of the top cigars in the world.

Some people may question whether La Gloria Cubana can live up to such a lofty rating for quality, but no one can argue that it does not represent one of the best values in hand crafted cigars. Some may be as inexpensive as one-third the price of cigars from well-known companies. For example, La Gloria Cubana cigars range in price from $1.15 for the panetela-sized Medaille d'Or No. 4 (6 inches long by 32 ring gauge) to $2.65 for the large pyramid-shaped Piramides (7 1/4 inches long and tapered). A standard corona cigar (5 1/2 inches by a 43 ring) costs $1.35.

"I am charging a fair price," says Carillo. "There is not a lot that goes into making a cigar, and I don't have the overhead of the big companies. We sell at a price that we are not getting rich on, but we are doing well."

Modesty wears well on Carillo, an unassuming man with jet-black, curly hair and a wide, friendly smile that gives him more than just a passing resemblance to a young Omar Sharif. Wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt, he calls nearly everyone his amigo. Driving down the road near his factory in a well-faded red Mitsubishi pick--up with "El Credito" painted on the doors, he continually waves at friends. He and his wife, Elena, 40, and his two children, Lissette, 19, and Ernesto, 10, live in a humble three-bedroom house, a short distance from the factory. They also run a small tobacco shop called Continental Cigar, about four miles from the factory.

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