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The Next Big Thing in Cigars, Pepin

A star roller from Cuba, now in Miami, José "Pepin" Garcia is making some of the world's finest cigars.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007

The uninitiated might be forgiven for walking right by El Rey de los Habanos Inc. From the street the tiny cigar factory looks just like any other shop in Little Havana, Miami. There's the Cuban flag on prominent display in the window, the word "cigars" in large letters, and the de rigueur plastic sign high above, emblazoned with the name of the place. Inside, only a dozen cigarmakers work in the surprisingly quiet atmosphere. The casual visitor might assume that the cigars rolled here would be like those found at any other chinchalle in Little Havana, Ybor City or Union City: something fun for a quick puff but not a serious smoke. 

The person making that assumption couldn't be more wrong.

The grandly named El Rey de los Habanos, or King of the Cuban Cigars, factory is the home of one of the world's most talented cigarmakers, Jose "Pepin" Garcia, and the birthplace of some of the market's hottest brands. Twenty-one times since opening its doors in 2003, the company has scored 90 points or more in blind taste tests (see table on this page) in Cigar Aficionado and Cigar Insider, the magazine's semimonthly newsletter. The 57-year-old Pepin runs the show here as well as in a new, larger factory in Nicaragua. He works alongside his son, Jaime, and daughter, Janny, to make under contract such highly acclaimed cigars as Tatuaje and Padilla, as well as producing his own Don Pepin Garcia brand.

Pepin's cigars are bold, impeccably crafted and memorably flavorful. They have appeared in the Cigar Aficionado Top 25 list of best cigars in the world for three years running, and the company makes two of the cigars on the most current list, including the No. 9 smoke of the year, the Tatuaje Cabinet Noella. It's a performance to be envied by virtually every cigar company, save for Padrón Cigars Inc. and Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia.

"To me, in the last five years, the most exciting person and cigar concept to hit the industry has been Pepin Garcia," says Jose Blanco, the marketing director for La Aurora S.A., a leading producer of Dominican cigars. "Not only does he make great cigars, but he is a very humble man, which makes him even greater. He has a special way of blending that has not been seen in the industry."

The cigar factory on Miami's historic Calle Ocho, or Eighth Street, is located between 11th and 12th avenues, next door to El Credito Cigars, the birthplace of the non-Cuban La Gloria Cubana. El Rey is easily one of the world's smallest cigar factories: midsize cigar companies might have 80 to 100 cigarmakers, and the largest employ several hundred. In the slim rolling gallery of El Rey de los Habanos, they sit two abreast at wooden rolling stations in a sparse room that is decorated with photographs of lush Nicaraguan tobacco fields and a large Cuban flag. The employees here work slowly and carefully, and don't use the bunching machines known as Temscos, or Liebermans, that are common throughout the Dominican Republic. Each cigar contains two binder leaves rather than one, adding to its complexity. It's something rarely seen outside of Cuba or Miami. Each maker does both the bunching and the rolling—jobs that most factories typically split between two workers—and they finish each cigar with a mounted, triple-seam cap, giving the cigars a clean look reminiscent of Cubans.

"When the boom in the U.S. came, anything was a cigar. Whatever you could do. But we started in 2003. The cigar is more complete with the triple cap. It's pretty," says Pepin Garcia, who looks younger than his age, with a solid head of hair (black on top, gray on the sides) combed back and the ever-present smile of a man doing precisely what makes him happy in life. Another nod to his Cuban heritage is that every box of cigars he makes bears the date the product was placed in the container.

Pepin Garcia learned the art of making great cigars in his hometown of Báez, Cuba, a small town in the Villa Clara province of central Cuba east of Havana. Pepin sat down for the first time at his rolling station at the age of 11 in a small cigar factory run by his uncle, who taught Pepin how to make a cigar in the Cuban style. The youngster quickly excelled at the task. Pepin eventually began working at the Félix Rodriguez cigar factory in Báez, this time making cigars for export. He says he rolled such famous marques as Montecristo, Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta, Quai d'Orsay and Ramon Allones.

"The construction of the cigars in Las Villas [the former name of Villa Clara] is better than in Havana," says Pepin, still proud of his roots. "It's a small town—the quality control is more strict than in Havana." To this day, he says he can tell the difference between two otherwise identical Cuban cigars if one was made in Havana, the other in Villa Clara. One testament to his belief in the quality of cigars rolled in his hometown is that 60 percent of his workers hail from it.

Aside from a three-year hiatus for mandatory service in the Cuban military, Pepin had worked tobacco all his life, and eventually became one of Cuba's best cigarmakers, spending time teaching other rollers how to construct cigars. "I taught more than 200 people in Cuba," he says. Today, his hands are among the most talented in the business, and he can make complex shapes from cigar tobacco, from pipes to rocket ships. He is also the only roller in the factory who makes the oversized diademas called Salomones, slowly trimming a wrapper leaf, first with a chavetta, then with a razor blade, and slowly sealing up the curves until it's nearly impossible to see the seams in the dark brown leaf.

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