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A $20 Nassau

An old Cuban master and an Italian Entrepreneur make Graycliff cigars in the Bahamas
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

The thick heat of August hangs over the capital city of the Bahamas, a resort town known for its beaches, casinos and tax shelters. High atop a hill that affords a view of massive cruise ships as they lazily pull in and out of the port of Nassau is a stately building known as Graycliff, home of the finest restaurant in the city. Just behind it, however, is a small factory where two men are engaged in an enterprise that has nothing to do with tourism: crafting handmade cigars.

This Wine Spectator Grand Award perennial -- some 175,000 bottles fill the restaurant's wine cellar -- has long been a haven for cigar smokers, having for a time housed one of the Caribbean's best-stocked Casa del Habano cigar stores. Today, Graycliff-brand cigars are rolled in-house. When visitors enter the Graycliff restaurant, they can't help but notice the cigarmaker seated at the dark wood rolling station directly in front of them. On most nights, it's Avelino Lara who sits at the table. On others, his 20-year-old son, Avelino Jr., takes his place.

"I think he'll be better than I was -- he's much better with his hands," Lara says of his boy. That's high praise -- Lara is a living legend in the cigar business. He was once in charge of the El Laguito factory in Havana, the legendary birthplace of the Cohiba cigar brand, and once guarded the blends to Cohiba and Trinidad, both of which were originally distributed only as gifts of the Cuban government.

Lara, who turns 80 in March, looks like Albert Einstein, his wispy locks of long white hair hanging nearly to his shoulders, a big pair of glasses perched on his nose. He works slowly, his hands moving easily across the wooden board in front of him, his fingers effortlessly turning tobacco leaves into pyramids and lanceros, his specialty.

After Lara retired from the Cuban cigar industry, he was hired by Enrico Garzaroli, the gregarious owner of Graycliff. Garzaroli, a cigar lover for four decades, wanted to make his own cigars to sell at his restaurant alongside the world-class Cubans he had sold for more than two decades. Garzaroli helped get Lara out of Cuba in 1993. He says Lara came as a tourist, made a few trips, then received permission to stay permanently from a high-level Cuban official.

Once Lara was in the Bahamas, he and Garzaroli set out to create a cigar blend using imported tobaccos to make the Graycliff brand. The cigar always contains Brazilian, Nicaraguan and Honduran tobacco, but the creators sometimes use Ecuadoran and even Cameroon inside the cigars, which are wrapped with the oiliest Indonesian wrappers in the cigar business. They were released in the United States in October 1997.

Lara gets that shine on his wrappers by treating them with bethune, a blend of alcohol and spices used to enhance a tobacco's flavor and improve its burn. (The Jamaican tobacco inside Royal Jamaica cigars is treated with a rum-based bethune.) Garzaroli says one ingredient in Graycliff bethune is Sauternes sweet wine -- he won't disclose the rest.

Graycliff cigars are made in a small room located about 50 paces away from the restaurant and the Graycliff hotel. The rolling room is modest, with only 12 rolling stations. Cigar rollers work from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. It isn't quick work, and the hands rolling the cigars aren't built for speed.

Garzaroli staffed his small factory with retired Cuban cigar rollers whom he brought from Cuba. "As far as Cuba is concerned, everybody is out legally," says Garzaroli. "Everybody pays fees to the Cuban embassy -- $1 per day." It cost Garzaroli about $500 per worker to get them out of Cuba.

Aside from the younger Lara, the average age of the Graycliff rollers is 64. Four rollers are pushing 80. In the world of cigar making, the hands that make Graycliffs are antiques.

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