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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

Night falls outside the Cuba Aliados cigar factory in Danli, Honduras, and with it comes a sudden storm. Huge drops, drumming steadily on the roof of the single-story complex, pick up momentum and quickly become a deluge. Inside, despite the storm, an after-hours calm prevails. Bundles of newly rolled cigars are stacked everywhere, waiting to be checked for quality, sorted by size and color and sent to the aging room. The chocolate and leather fragrance of premium tobacco permeates the air. Apart from the noise of the rain, the factory is quiet. Its 100 employees, having met their production quota, have all gone home.

All, that is, except for Nelson Acuna. Working at the table he shares with one other roller, the soft-spoken 29-year-old is finishing the last of his quota of pyramid- and diademas-shaped cigars. His hands move with the slow, steady precision of a fine craftsman, stretching the dark wrapper leaves, placing the filler and binder bunch just so, then neatly rolling, sealing and cutting it into a finished cigar. Acuna and his 31-year-old tablemate, Benito Salinas, are the only rollers in the factory qualified to make these demanding, highly prized cigars. Though their combined production of about 200 per day is less than half the daily average of most individual rollers, they occupy a position of honor: Their table is at the front center of the room, facing the other rollers.

Looking up before starting his next cigar, Acuna smiles shyly. "I used to make coronas and robustos, and I was the worst roller in the factory...too slow," he says above the clatter of the rain. "Then Don Rolando taught me how to make pyramids and diademas, which require slowness and patience, and now I am one of the best rollers in the factory. I owe everything to Don Rolando."

Don Rolando is Rolando Reyes Sr., founder, owner, operations manager, chief of quality control, factory public relations director and head cook and bottle washer for Aliados Cigars. The excitable, feisty Reyes is a living legend in the world of premium cigars, having owned and operated hand-rolling factories in Havana, the Dominican Republic, Miami and New Jersey, as well as in Honduras.

A slight, fair-skinned man with pale brown eyes and short-cropped silver hair, Reyes has lived full-time at Aliados' Danli factory since it opened in 1990. At 74, he has the energy and stamina of many men half his age. He routinely works 18-hour days, six days a week, taking only a two-week vacation each winter to visit his wife, children and grandchildren in the United States. Because he started working in the tobacco industry at age 14 and has always worked long hours, Reyes likes to claim that he has 120 years' experience in cigar making: 60 years of normal, eight-hour days, and another 60 years of overtime. While most of humanity works to live, he is one of the few who live to work, and he loves it.

"Retire? I am retired," he says in response to a question, a twinkle in his eye belying the seriousness in his voice and bearing testimony to a playful, philosophical nature. "How can I retire when there is so much work to be done?"

Reyes is also an anomaly among many of today's cigar company owners and factory managers in that he can actually roll cigars. In fact, his vast experience in the industry has included jobs in all phases of cigar making--purchasing and processing tobacco, hand-rolling cigars, supervising quality control, shipping and handling, managing a wholesale operation. He has even owned and operated a retail smoke shop. To say cigars are in his blood is somewhat off the mark; they actually seem to be in his genes.

"My father is crazy about cigars," says Rolando Reyes Jr., the 38-year-old president of Cuba Aliados Cigars Inc., who runs the company's wholesale and retail operations from its Union City, New Jersey, headquarters. "When I was a kid, he insisted I learn about tobacco and how to hand-roll a good cigar. Most of the time I just wanted to be outside playing with the other kids. But he always said I would never go hungry if I knew how to roll. And I know now it was good advice."

Don Rolando's passion for cigars is clearly evident in his Aliados brand. He began making cigars under that name in Havana in 1955, and the brand has followed him through various moves in his search for the perfect cigar-making country. Aliados often receive high ratings from the Cigar Aficionado tasting panel. As Lew Rothman, owner of J.R. Tobacco and a marketer of Aliados cigars, notes, "Reyes makes incredible cigars. If you check the ratings, Aliados consistently have received the highest average mark of any cigar of its type."

This August, Cuba Aliados Cigars introduced a new brand, Puros Indios, which is also made at its Danli factory. Like Aliados, Indios come in a variety of shapes and sizes. According to Reyes Jr., they are distinguished by their blend of ultrapremium tobaccos. Of the roughly 5 million cigars made annually at the Aliados factory, only half a million will carry the Puros Indios label. Prices range from $50 per box of 25 for the Petit Perla to $165 per box for the Churchill Especial. As with the Aliados brands, the highly regarded Indios are already on back order.

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