A steadfast group of small-output factories brings cigar making back to New York
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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.
It's hard to know where the next La Gloria will surface, but a cigar smoker in New York City with a little time on his hands and a MetroCard can easily visit four cigar factories and leave with several quality cigars—and most importantly, can watch them being rolled by hand. You may have walked right by one of them already, for if you only see the signs of some of these places, you'd think you were in front of a typical cigar store.
The place to start is the grand old dame of New York's mini cigar factories, La Rosa Cubana, at 862 Avenue of the Americas, aka Sixth Avenue between 30th and 31st streets.
The second-floor store and factory is about the size of a typical Manhattan studio apartment. There's a creaky table and chair in front, which serves as the smoking lounge. To the left of the door is a glass countertop with boxes of cigars bearing the La Rosa brand name, each finished with a copper, orange and white band with a checkerboard pattern vaguely reminiscent of the Cohiba band. The display is stocked with inexpensive lighters, a few humidors, cans of butane and a few copies of a certain cigar magazine.
Behind the counter is the factory proper, which takes up about two-thirds of the entire space. It's a no-nonsense workspace. There's a tightly packed group of wooden tables, two of which are usually occupied by cigarmakers. The walls are plastered with posters and photographs of women wearing little, inspiration for the arduous work of making coronas, robustos and pyramids.
La Rosa is owned and operated by Frank Almanzar, an affable and quiet 40-year-old with a trim build who could easily pass for a decade younger. The shop employs two cigar rollers, and Almanzar also rolls cigars.
Almanzar learned how to make cigars starting at the age of 10, at the side of his father, Antonio, who founded the company in 1958. (Although the weathered operation looks as if it has been open for nearly 50 years, the shop and factory started around the corner. Almanzar has been on Sixth Avenue only 15 years.) Antonio Almanzar was born in the heart of cigar country, Santiago, Dominican Republic, and worked for 17 years at La Aurora, the nation's oldest cigarmaker. He emigrated to the United States and opened La Rosa on 30th Street.
"We had a very small space down there," says Frank Almanzar, "and the rent was very high." In 1989, the Almanzars moved to Sixth Avenue.
La Rosas are inexpensive smokes. A robusto will set you back about $2.50, a Churchill about $3.50. They're not bad. A maduro torpedo, made with a dark leaf of Dominican wrapper, had a rich, earthy smell before lighting, with a hint of licorice in the aroma. The cigar was fairly well made, with a head that was a bit softer than it should have been. The draw was perfect and the flavor was gutsy, woody and chewy, with solid flavor. (To see how smokes from a few New York factories stacked up in a Cigar Aficionado taste test, see the sidebar on the next page.)
The cigarmakers work from a limited selection of tobaccos, using all-Dominican tobacco for the fillers and binders, and either Connecticut shade or Dominican for the wrappers.
At La Rosa, as with other chinchales, a customer can walk in and watch his cigars being made, can ask for special shapes, and can buy them right from the rolling table, giving the smoker a chance to try a factory-fresh smoke. (It won't burn as well, and the flavor will be stronger and less balanced than a cigar that has rested, but it's something a cigar lover should experience at least once in his life.)
Business isn't booming. Frank's father died in 1997 at the height of cigar sales, when New Yorkers were free to light up in any bar and several restaurants. Frank now speaks wistfully of the days of the cigar boom.
"In 1997, '98—those years were very good," he says. "The laws against smoking in bars and restaurants have hurt most of the cigar industry." Almanzar operates a side business in which he sends rollers to weddings and other events.
Business has been better at Reserva Dominicana, a one-roller shop at 37A Seventh Avenue, between 12th and 13th streets. Owner Israel Capellan started the business there three years ago by importing cigars that his family made in the Dominican Republic. Sales increased when he added a cigar roller, who came in on Fridays.
"I find that the American market loves cigars right off the table," says Capellan. "On Fridays [the roller] makes 200 cigars, and all 200 will be gone by the end of the day." The roller now comes in three times a week. Capellan also has a larger operation in the Bronx, with five rollers, to make cigars for the Manhattan shop.
P.B. Cuban Cigars, at 137 West 22nd Street between Avenue of the Americas and Seventh Avenue, is trying to profit from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's smoking ban in bars by providing a comfortable legal smoking lounge in the front of the cigar factory/shop. The walls are freshly painted orange. "It was yellow-white, from the smoke," says a man behind the counter. (These operations often stress the word "Cuban" to lure customers, a nod to the seed variety used in the tobacco filling that fills the cigars, as in Dominican Cuban-seed filler tobacco.)
All the cigars for sale at P.B. are rolled by four cigarmakers, using Dominican filler and binder, and a choice of Connecticut shade, Dominican or Sumatra wrappers. The company does a few box-pressed smokes and some with the trendy double wrappers resembling barber poles. The cigars sell for between $2 and $6.
A bit west and north of P.B., at 506 Ninth Avenue between 38th and 29th streets, is Taino Cigars, one of the local chinchale success stories. Owner Julio Suris opened Taino in the heart of Hell's Kitchen in 2000. He had learned how to roll cigars in Cuba, so in the true American spirit he set up a small table in his storefront, rolled a bunch of cigars and called them Tainos.
Business has been good. "We opened, five months ago, a store downtown," Suris says, talking about his new shop at 93-99 Nassau Street, at the corner of Fulton Street. The Hell's Kitchen store no longer has a rolling table—he's moved that downtown—and he couldn't keep up with demand, so most of his cigars are now made by his brother in Miami, who has 10 rollers. "We didn't have the space for 10 rollers here," says Suris. He uses a variety of tobaccos for his Tainos, working with Nicaraguan and Dominican fillers and Sumatra-seed wrappers grown in Ecuador.
Thanks to a few intrepid entrepreneurs, a New Yorker with a pair of comfortable shoes and a lighter can tour the town's miniature cigar factories and get a taste for the old, old days of the cigar business.
The little factories can't compete with national brands for tobacco. They don't have the money or the space to accumulate vast quantities of tobacco and let them sit and age for years. The cigars don't offer the same complexity as the big manufacturers' smokes, and the taste you get one day might be very different from the next.
But the corner factory does afford the cigar lover an opportunity to get up close and personal with an important part of America's cigar-making heritage. It's a dying breed, however, and something that the cigar aficionado should strive to support. For while you might not have the time to take the tour of Havana's Partagas factory or sip a beer and smoke a Preferido at La Aurora in the Dominican Republic, you will probably find your way to New York City, Miami or Union City, New Jersey. And there you will find a handful of cigar rollers—perhaps only one—doing something that's rare in twenty-first-century America: rolling cigars entirely by hand.