Made in Miami
Florida's Little Havana is emerging as a showcase and "mad lab" for major brands that use boutique fabricas to roll cigars — sometimes quirky ones — and introduce visitors to the theater of cigar making
From the Print Edition:
Fred Thompson, March/April 2009
If you love great cigars, you owe it to yourself to watch them being made. But your favorite brands are likely to be rolled in places not meant for tourists. Some of the best-known cigar brands are born in the working-class towns of Honduras and Nicaragua, worlds away from the nearest luxury hotel, or behind the forbidding walls of a free-trade zone in Santiago, Dominican Republic, where visitors are not typically invited. What's a curious cigar smoker to do? Go to Miami.
You already know it's the place where La Gloria Cubanas, Tatuajes, Don Pepin Garcias and a host of lesser-known smokes are already made, but in the past six months a trio of new cigar factories have opened: Casa Felipe, Fabrica de Tabacos Padilla and Reyes Family Cigars. These tiny factories—ranging in size from one to six cigar rollers—put the aficionado at center stage to the production process. Visitors are more than welcome to walk in, watch how cigars are made and puff away in the heart of cigar town U.S.A.
"There's a certain romance to making cigars in Miami," says Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, the former owner of the La Gloria Cubana brand and the longtime don of Miami cigar making. "A lot of people say if you can't get cigars from Cuba, you can get them in Miami made by Cubans."
Miami has long been a great place to see cigars being made. Now it's become a must-stop for cigar lovers.
Ernesto Padilla looks completely at ease sitting in a dark leather chair in the front section of his new cigar factory, Fabrica de Tabacos Padilla. The 36-year-old cigarmaker has a black goatee, a thick head of shortly cropped black hair, and seems always to be smoking a cigar. Padilla (pronounced Pah-DEE-yah) created his brand in 2003, but originally had the cigars made under contract by various cigar factories. This new space, which has been open since October, represents an entirely new level of commitment to making cigars. It's one part high-end cigar shop, one part smoky cigar lounge and one part cigar factory.
"The idea is to have people hang out and smoke as they watch cigars being made," says Padilla, looking around the 2,600-square-foot space while lazy ceiling fans spin high overhead. "People need to understand [that cigars are] a luxury product. You don't need it to breathe, you don't need it for food. You should appreciate it—and I think people should appreciate how much work goes into making a cigar. It's something I've always wanted to build."
The room is stunning, more akin to a swank Manhattan cigar club than a gritty Central American cigar factory. Outside, bold, red awnings advertise the factory, which is located on Little Havana's historic Calle Ocho, or Eighth Street, across the street from Domino Park, where locals gather for spirited games of dominoes. The corner building, which dates from 1926, previously housed a social club and a pharmacy. The terrazzo floor is original, revived from decades of abuse, as are the glass blocks in the store windows on the factory's Eighth Street side.
A huge, cedar cabinet awaits the cigars that will be made here—at press time, Padilla had hired rollers, and had the permits required to import tobacco, but was waiting on another permit from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to begin production. (He hoped to be rolling with four cigarmakers by mid to late March.) "I'm eager to get going," he says. "Probably the most important thing I've done since I made the brand is to open my own factory."
Padilla's vision is not that the small factory will become the sole manufacturer of his cigars—many will continue to be rolled offshore. But he sees Miami as an untapped gem, a showcase where he can interact directly with the people who love his smokes. He also wants to make special Miami versions of cigars for other cigar companies.
"I want it to be kind of a mad lab, [where we] can do something as silly as [a run of] 100 boxes," says Padilla. "I think there's an audience for it. My strength is in my size—being a small boutique maker."
Padilla has already lined up his first contract project—the Nub Miami. Nubs are squat, short smokes rolled by Oliva Cigar Co. in Nicaragua. The brainchild of Sam Leccia (who rolled the prototypical Nub shape himself, in his garage), Nubs appeal to a hip audience, and Leccia thinks Padilla's Miami-made spin on the Nub will be a hit.
"It's not going to be about mass distribution. It's really just fun. I'm a big fan of collector's cigars," says Leccia, puffing away on a Nub. The Miami Nub will likely be a miniature diadema, something with power but refinement. He and Padilla hadn't settled on the final shape or blend at press time. "We're still tweaking it," says Leccia, estimating that Miami Nubs could be on the market by June.
"I want to be able to come to Miami and see Nubs being made," says Leccia. "You have such a deep Cuban tradition in Miami."
Cigar culture in Miami is old, but not as old as you might think. Simon Camacho is credited with opening the city's first cigar factory, but that didn't take place until 1961. (At that time, the vast majority of American cigars were rolled in Tampa; before that, in the nineteenth century, most had been made in Key West, until hurricanes forced the industry to move north.) In 1964, three men opened factories within months of one another in Miami: José Orlando Padrón, Efraim Gonzalez, who later created the Dos Gonzalez brand, and Juan Sosa, who now works for Arturo Fuente. Four years later, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo Sr., a former member of the Cuban senate, opened El Credito Cigars Inc., bringing the La Gloria Cubana name to the United States.
The expensive labor of Miami doomed it as a major outpost from which to make cigars, and companies moved offshore to expand. Padrón shifted production to Nicaragua. El Credito moved to the Dominican Republic (while keeping a small Miami factory.) Consolidated Cigar Corp. (today Altadis U.S.A. Inc.) closed El Moro Cigar in the early 1970s, shifting production of Primo del Rey from the Florida city to the Dominican Republic. Reyes Family Cigars, long known as Puros Indios Cigars and before that as Cuba Aliados, made cigars in Miami during the late 1980s, but relocated to Honduras.
Carlos Diez, of Reyes Family Cigars, uses his Miami factory to roll stronger cigars than are made in the company's Honduras facility.
In November, Reyes Family Cigars started making cigars again in Miami for the first time in nearly 10 years, installing wooden roller's stations and employing six locals to make specialty cigars for sale there and on a national basis.
"People just like hearing that cigars are made in Miami. It does add prestige to a cigar," says Carlos Diez, president of Reyes Family Cigars. "I've always wanted to do it. I'm not in Honduras every day. I want to get away from the whole sales thing, and get more into manufacturing. Having the factory here was a positive for me."
Diez had to deal with a dissenting opinion at first—that of his grandfather, Reyes Family patriarch Rolando Reyes Sr., who runs the company's cigar factory in Danlí, Honduras. "At first he was doubting it—he's a control freak," says Diez.
"I can make my own brands here that [my grandfather] doesn't want to do. They're stronger—a lot stronger. These blends aren't being made in Honduras," he says. "The fact that we have the rollers here allows me to make very limited runs, very little projects that I'm excited about."
To find rollers, Diez simply turned to the local Cuban workforce. "They walk to work," says Diez. "We're doing everything Cuban-style. The rollers, in my opinion, are better than anywhere in Latin America…. It allows us to put out a better product."
While a cigar made without Cuban tobacco will never taste completely like a Cuban cigar, many of the cigars made in Miami certainly exhibit some Cuban-style touches that you don't get from most Central American or Dominican factories.
The first element is the true hand roll done in Miami; you almost never see a Lieberman or Temsco bunching machine on a roller's table in Miami (the hand-powered devices are ubiquitous in the Dominican Republic). The process is done entirely by hand, and is performed by one worker who—in the Cuban style—both bunches and rolls the cigar. In Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, one worker typically makes the bunch while another rolls the wrapper around the cigar.
"There's no pairs in the Cuban way of making cigars. You bunch it, you wrap it; [such a cigarmaker] is a lot more familiar with the way of making cigars," says Padilla.
In addition, Miami cigar factories make cigars with mounted heads, also known as three-seam caps, which is how it's done in Cuba. Few factories elsewhere make cigars this way.
Perez-Carrillo feels a close bond with cigar rollers, and admires their artistry. He waxes poetic about the old days, when Cuban rollers made cigars stubbornly in their own way. One man even used rubber bands instead of molds, for that's how he was taught. There was considerable pride in the process.
"Just the way they sat at the table—they were made to be making cigars. There was such a finesse, such a flow. Pre-Castro cigars were made in a certain way," says Perez-Carrillo. "After that, there was a different style, in my opinion.
"At one time, in the early '70s, there were 26 cigar factories here. There was Camacho, Padrón, El Moro—those were the pioneers," says Perez-Carrillo, who in March will depart as head of El Credito to make new cigars with his son and daughter. He's leaving behind not only his venerable brand name, but the Calle Ocho fabrica he's called home for decades. At one time in the mid-1990s, it had as many as 35 cigarmakers and made every La Gloria Cubana, but to expand the brand he had to add much larger production capacity in the Dominican Republic. Owners General Cigar Co. and Swedish Match AB have said they will keep the iconic cigar factory, the anchor to any cigar tourist's trip to Little Havana.
"We [now] have four, five cigar factories in a two- or three-mile distance," says Perez-Carrillo, puffing away on a La Gloria. "When Pepin started making cigars here, it revived the Miami thing. That definitely helped a lot." Pepin is Jose "Pepin" Garcia, Perez-Carrillo's next-door neighbor, a superb roller originally from Cuba, who opened his own factory, El Rey de los Habanos, in 2003.
Jose "Pepin" Garcia is a relative newcomer to the Miami cigar factory scene.
The back-to-basics approach in Little Havana is one of the things that make it special to cigar smokers. "It's all hand-rolled by Cubans—no machines are involved," says Garcia. His tiny fabrica, with all of a dozen rollers, has taken the cigar world by storm, first with the Tatuaje brand (made here for Pete Johnson), then with its own brand, Don Pepin Garcia (the lancero is Cigar Aficionado's current No. 8 cigar of the year).
While Miami is an outstanding outpost for rolling cigars, Garcia, like the Perez-Carrillos, Padróns and Reyeses who came before him, now makes most of his cigars offshore, in Nicaragua. Still, the Miami centerpiece remains. "Miami," says Garcia, "is still the cream of the crop."
Rolling cigars in Miami is far more expensive—a roller in Miami might make $100 a day, says Padilla, compared with $5 a day in Nicaragua. Diez says the salary difference is only one part of the equation—higher rent and taxes also figure in. But the prestige makes it worth the cost.
The surrounding area is also home to a number of small cigar factories. One of them, Flor de Gonzalez, has rolled in Hialeah (about a 15-minute drive from the cigar factories on Calle Ocho) since 1993. The company, whose American-made cigars have scored well in Cigar Aficionado, presently has three rollers and at busier times has had as many as five.
Also working on a very small scale is Philip Wynne, the owner of the Felipe Gregorio brand. Wynne still makes most of his cigars in the Dominican Republic, but in September, he opened Casa Felipe on Calle Ocho, between 9th and 10th avenues (between El Credito/El Rey de los Habanos and Padilla). The space is a showcase for his passions: visitors can walk into the brightly lit room, with its black-and-white checkerboard tile floor, light up a cigar rolled on the premises, play a game of dominoes and drink a glass of fine wine. (Wines are also available by the bottle.) There's also a selection of coffee, plus the many varieties of Felipe Gregorio cigars that are made in the Dominican Republic. Wynne has one cigar roller, working four days a week, and says he plans to expand soon to two rollers working daily.
"Miami is crucial for a number of reasons," says Wynne. "Besides Tampa, it is the traditional center for cigarmakers in the U.S....Tourism is of prime importance and the historic Calle Ocho corridor attracts a lot of attention. We are constantly getting tourists from all over the U.S. and world."
The idea behind having a roller working on premise helps foster the knowledge of cigar smoking. "Consumers are starved for cigar info, and in Miami they can touch and feel the heart of this process," says Wynne. "Many do not have a chance to travel abroad to visit factories, so by being in Miami they can experience what our cigar factory is about—hence they will appreciate more the cigars purchased on-site. I believe the more of us that have showroom factories here, the more our presence is a plus for the industry."
For Padilla, investing in Calle Ocho is something that gives him pride. "It's important to keep this neighborhood," he says, gesturing around him with his ever-present cigar. "The ethnic neighborhoods seem to be disappearing." He laments how New York City's Little Italy has shrunk to a fraction of its former size, and is a shadow of its former glory. He wants Little Havana to remain Cuban, and for that it needs cigars.
"For me, it was important to build something in Little Havana, because I'm Cuban," he says. "And it's important for the cigar industry to be here."
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