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The Corner Cigar Factory

A steadfast group of small-output factories brings cigar making back to New York
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Bill Murray, Nov/Dec 2004

You're torching up a dark robusto at your local bar on a Thursday, the scent of a dozen other cigars perfuming the air. The bartender puts a rocks glass holding two fingers of whiskey in front of you and eyes your choice of unbanded smoke. "Hey buddy," he asks with a squint. "What's that, a Cuban?" You say no, which gets him guessing, starting with the standards. Dominican? No. Honduran? Nope. Nicaraguan? Nah. Next come the more obscure choices. Mexican? Brazilian?

Canary Islands? Bahamian? Could it be Jamaican, from the Philippines or made in Miami?

Nope, nope, and nope, you say with a smile, puffing a perfect ring of smoke. This baby was made in Manhattan.

You know New York City for great bagels, pastrami and baseball, but you probably didn't know about its cigar factories. If you've always wanted to see a cigar made by hand right in front of your eyes, to smoke a cigar fresh from the roller's table, and to bask in the sweet, earthy smell of fermented tobacco that's ready to roll, visiting one of these tiny factories is a must.

The emphasis is on the word tiny. Some factories might have three or four benches where a cigarmaker works, not in teams as in the Dominican Republic or Central America, but by doing the whole thing himself. One person crafts the bunch of the cigar, taking several leaves of filler—most often Dominican—wrapping them with a rough binder (that's probably Dominican, too) and finishing the cigar with a wrapper leaf, probably Connecticut shade.

Some call the little factories chinchales, a somewhat derogatory Cuban term for a small factory. Others call them buckeyes, an American term given to tiny, old-time producers for their liberal use of tobacco from Ohio, the Buckeye State. Others simply call them the neighborhood cigar factories.

Before the days of national cigar brands, cigars were strictly a local product, and these tiny factories were major suppliers for a cigar-hungry America. And they were everywhere. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the United States had some 40,000 cigar factories, most of them small. Cigars would be rolled on one corner and sold a few blocks away—you could even buy them in grocery stores. Americans consumed some nine billion cigars a year in those days, or around 250 for every male over the age of 18.

Several of today's large cigar companies began as buckeyes or chinchales. Arturo Fuente, a brand that is among the most famous in the United States and is now sold in the tens of millions, started as a rolling table behind the Ybor City, Florida, home of company founder Arturo Fuente in 1912. Puros Indios began in 1972 with a three-roller cigar factory in Union City, New Jersey, run by Rolando Reyes Sr., who used his gifted hands to knit at night to pay the bills.

The J.C. Newman Cigar Co., owner of the Cuesta-Rey and Diamond Crown brands, began in 1895 with a few leaves, a cigar table made from old boards and the cigar-making skills of a young Julius Caesar Newman, who had apprenticed in a Cleveland cigar factory for three years. Armed with his knowledge, Newman converted the family barn to his one-man cigar factory. His was one of 300 in Cleveland at the time.

La Gloria Cubana was born as a local brand in Miami, in the Little Havana neighborhood of Calle Ocho, or Eighth Street. The shop was called El Credito Cigars, and long before La Glorias found their way into every major cigar store and every catalog of note, only a local who knew about the small shop could get them. After the brand's discovery in 1992, it became a legend.

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