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A Glorified Smoke: Ernesto Carrillo and El Credito Cigars

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

(continued from page 2)

The older Carillo grew tired of running the bar after about five years and went into the catering business, besides working in a shoe factory to make extra money. "He made $48 a week making tennis shoes and that was with overtime," Carillo says. "It is strange now thinking about all the struggles my parents went through."

The Carillos never seemed to put roots down in Miami for many years because they continually hoped to return to Havana. "We all kept thinking that maybe next year we would be returning to Cuba," Carillo says. "But then we realized that it was not going to happen and more of our relatives came over."

It wasn't until 1967 that Carillo senior began working with tobacco again. He worked as a roller with the Tropicana Cigar Company for a little more than a year, and while intently rolling his daily ration of cigars, he began to think about owning his own cigar factory. He restarted El Credito Cigars in 1969, hiring another Cuban to do the rolling while he contended with buying tobacco and selling cigars. "My father has a lot of spirit and enthusiasm, which kept the business going," Carillo says. "Even at 65, he would never give up no matter what happened. He wanted a better life for his family."

The business grew slowly, and Ernesto Sr. began to think about the day when his son would join the company. However, his teenage son had other aspirations. Ernesto Jr. had become one of Miami's leading jazz drummers, and after graduating from high school, Carillo enrolled at the local college and worked part-time at El Credito and played his music at night in various Spanish nightclubs and hotels. He married at age 19 and shared his dream of being a famous musician with his young Cuban wife. His life as a part-time musician continued until 1976.

"I finally decided to go to New York and tried to make it a jazz musician that year," Carillo says. "I was into modern jazz, music from people like Bill Evans and Tony Williams. It broke my father's heart. He wanted me to take over the business but there was always this thing that I had to try to make it as a jazz musician."

Carillo admits that it wasn't easy in New York, especially since his wife and their newly-born daughter remained behind in Miami. He lived with some friends in midtown Manhattan and worked during the day with cigar merchant, Nat Sherman. At night, he picked up gigs in various nightclubs, always hoping for a big break. The closest he got to it was an audition with jazz legend Stan Getz, but he didn't get the job. "It was something that my family understood that I had to do," he says, laughing and shaking his head with some disbelief. "My wife once said that I had to do it to get it out of my system."

His quest for the spotlight in the Big Apple lasted about seven months. His father's health had declined a few months after he left for New York, and Ernesto Sr. told him that he would have to sell the business unless he returned. "I came back, and after a while I realized that music was not my calling," admits Carillo. "That was when I really started working hard at the factory and working alongside my father to try to learn everything he could teach me."

His father, who died at 76 in 1980, was a master blender of tobaccos, and after a short while, Carillo found it fascinating working with tobacco. The Carillos have always liked a mixture of the rich character of Sumatra-seed tobacco from Ecuador and the mild style of Connecticut shade tobacco from the United States. In fact, the Carillos were some of the first to advocate the use of Ecuadorian tobacco when others were turning to Jamaica, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. In his blends Carillo also uses tobacco from Nicaragua, Brazil and Mexico. "Each tobacco has its own character," he says. "You have to handle all the tobaccos differently and understand how they work together."

This multinational blend continues to be an essential factor in why El Credito is making outstanding cigars in its La Gloria Cubana range. Whether a panetela or a double corona, La Gloria Cubana cigars have a captivating complexity of character on the nose and palate. (See tasting notes.) "My father believed that if you wanted to succeed, you had to make something different," says Carillo. "We didn't want to be like Cuban cigars or like other cigars. We just wanted to do something different. So, we devised our special blends."

Sourcing excellent tobacco from all over the world is easy, says Carillo, considering his location in what has been called the de facto capital of Latin America. He usually buys preprocessed tobaccos which need no further fermentation or aging, although he ages a tiny amount in his warehouse. He would like to mature more tobacco on his premises, but he does not have the storage space. In fact, most of his finished cigars are shipped almost immediately after being made since Carillo claims they are already in perfect condition for smoking, although a few months of age can further mellow their character.

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