The thick heat of August hangs over the capital city of the Bahamas, a resort town known for its beaches, casinos and tax shelters. High atop a hill that affords a view of massive cruise ships as they lazily pull in and out of the port of Nassau is a stately building known as Graycliff, home of the finest restaurant in the city. Just behind it, however, is a small factory where two men are engaged in an enterprise that has nothing to do with tourism: crafting handmade cigars.
This Wine Spectator Grand Award perennial -- some 175,000 bottles fill the restaurant's wine cellar -- has long been a haven for cigar smokers, having for a time housed one of the Caribbean's best-stocked Casa del Habano cigar stores. Today, Graycliff-brand cigars are rolled in-house. When visitors enter the Graycliff restaurant, they can't help but notice the cigarmaker seated at the dark wood rolling station directly in front of them. On most nights, it's Avelino Lara who sits at the table. On others, his 20-year-old son, Avelino Jr., takes his place.
"I think he'll be better than I was -- he's much better with his hands," Lara says of his boy. That's high praise -- Lara is a living legend in the cigar business. He was once in charge of the El Laguito factory in Havana, the legendary birthplace of the Cohiba cigar brand, and once guarded the blends to Cohiba and Trinidad, both of which were originally distributed only as gifts of the Cuban government.
Lara, who turns 80 in March, looks like Albert Einstein, his wispy locks of long white hair hanging nearly to his shoulders, a big pair of glasses perched on his nose. He works slowly, his hands moving easily across the wooden board in front of him, his fingers effortlessly turning tobacco leaves into pyramids and lanceros, his specialty.
After Lara retired from the Cuban cigar industry, he was hired by Enrico Garzaroli, the gregarious owner of Graycliff. Garzaroli, a cigar lover for four decades, wanted to make his own cigars to sell at his restaurant alongside the world-class Cubans he had sold for more than two decades. Garzaroli helped get Lara out of Cuba in 1993. He says Lara came as a tourist, made a few trips, then received permission to stay permanently from a high-level Cuban official.
Once Lara was in the Bahamas, he and Garzaroli set out to create a cigar blend using imported tobaccos to make the Graycliff brand. The cigar always contains Brazilian, Nicaraguan and Honduran tobacco, but the creators sometimes use Ecuadoran and even Cameroon inside the cigars, which are wrapped with the oiliest Indonesian wrappers in the cigar business. They were released in the United States in October 1997.
Lara gets that shine on his wrappers by treating them with bethune, a blend of alcohol and spices used to enhance a tobacco's flavor and improve its burn. (The Jamaican tobacco inside Royal Jamaica cigars is treated with a rum-based bethune.) Garzaroli says one ingredient in Graycliff bethune is Sauternes sweet wine -- he won't disclose the rest.
Graycliff cigars are made in a small room located about 50 paces away from the restaurant and the Graycliff hotel. The rolling room is modest, with only 12 rolling stations. Cigar rollers work from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. It isn't quick work, and the hands rolling the cigars aren't built for speed.
Garzaroli staffed his small factory with retired Cuban cigar rollers whom he brought from Cuba. "As far as Cuba is concerned, everybody is out legally," says Garzaroli. "Everybody pays fees to the Cuban embassy -- $1 per day." It cost Garzaroli about $500 per worker to get them out of Cuba.
Aside from the younger Lara, the average age of the Graycliff rollers is 64. Four rollers are pushing 80. In the world of cigar making, the hands that make Graycliffs are antiques.
"All the rollers here are stars. They were the best from Cuba," says Lara. "The experience and tradition of Cuban cigarmaking is being used here."
Lara compares himself to a conductor, with the gallery as his orchestra. Unlike the London Philharmonic, however, the working area for this orchestra shouldn't be described as a pit. The rolling room is air conditioned, a rarity in the cigar-making world, and the workers sit on chairs that look as if they've come straight out of a Staples catalogue, rather than the typical wooden chairs found in most cigar factories. It's about as pleasant as a cigar factory can be.
"I like living here, because the work is very good, much better than in Cuba," says Felicia Lazo, who rolled cigars at Havana's H. Upmann factory before coming to Graycliff. "We are very few, so we work well together."
This is not a big cigar company. Garzaroli says his workers made 650,000 cigars in 1999. In August, he released a new brand called Bahiba (the name, says Garzaroli, is a combination of Bahamas and Cohiba). If his new brand is a hit, Garzaroli hopes to push annual production closer to 1 million.
The work at Graycliff is unhurried. A roller and buncher team combines to make about 320 cigars over the workday. Workers take their time, rolling Graycliffs without the aid of bunching machines, the same way it is done in Cuba. They share a joke amongst themselves, or poke fun at Garzaroli's Spanish, which has heavy traces of his Italian accent, like his English. The good-natured boss enjoys the ribbing, and gives it back with a hearty chuckle.
"In Cuba, they had all this pressure when they worked; they worried how they could help their families. Over here, it's tranquil," says Garzaroli. "Here their mindset is to make the best cigar -- everything else is taken care of."
He smiles. "But Avelino is tough. They know they won't get paid [for bad cigars]," he says with a chuckle. "Unlike Cuba."
Garzaroli designed the Graycliff cigar factory to be the centerpiece of a new miniresort. The rolling room sits alongside the Humidor restaurant, a separate eatery from the Graycliff. Hotel rooms are only steps away from the factory, as is a gym and a swimming pool. The goal is to allow visitors the chance to experience luxury while witnessing cigars being made.
There aren't many places in the world where aficionados can tour a cigar factory. Havana's Partagas factory is open to visitors, as is the La Aurora factory in Santiago, Dominican Republic. But neither facility offers the resort atmosphere of Graycliff.
"I think this is really the only place in the world where you can come, sit in a cigar factory, eat dinner and smoke cigars," says Garzaroli. He's sitting in his aging room, which doubles as a posh cigar parlor. Pavarotti is belting out an aria on the CD player, and Garzaroli is turning another Bahiba into ash, sitting comfortably in a leather chair.
With its glass windows that look in on the factory, the aging room is ideal for enjoying a smoke. The idea is for guests of the hotel to sit and watch their cigars being made, while puffing away on a Graycliff in the dark wood room. In the Graycliff Cigar Company Hotel are seven guest rooms -- all named after Graycliff sizes -- plus the Humidor restaurant, which seats 90. This is in addition to the Graycliff proper, which has 14 rooms (one of them is Lara's home), and a restaurant that can seat 180.
Both dining rooms feature the cooking of chef Philip Bethell, who specializes in French and Continental cuisine. Don't come to Graycliff looking for Bahamian specialties. The only nod to the Caribbean is conch, grouper, crab and spiny lobster. Garzaroli is a veritable quartermaster, flying in fresh vegetables, seafood, salami, fresh pasta, even butter and sea salt on twice weekly flights from France.
Although the cigar factory hotel didn't open until Valentine's Day 2000, the entire Graycliff has been cigar friendly since Garzaroli opened it in 1974. It's impossible to escape the ashtrays at Graycliff, which seem to occupy every flat surface, from every table in a guest room to tables in the restaurant. After the meal is finished, a waiter will come to the table with a large tray of cigars, half of them Havanas, the other half Graycliffs. On any given night, diners at several tables will be puffing away.
"Forty years I have been smoking," says Garzaroli, a cigar in his hand, the last drops of a sublime 1948 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port in his glass. "I used to smoke in Italy -- the Romeo y Julieta Churchill. In Italy, there was not much choice. Then when I started coming here, I started smoking [Davidoff] Dom Perignons."
The wine and food at Graycliff don't come cheap -- neither do the cigars, which feature some of the highest suggested retail prices in the non-Cuban world. "When everybody was selling their cigars by the cents, we were selling by the dollar," says Garzaroli. Graycliffs begin at $12 and go up to $21 a cigar, a reflection of the high duties Garzaroli pays on the materials he imports to make his cigars. Imported tobacco is taxed at 20 percent and wooden boxes at 50 percent, and he pays a 200 percent duty on the cigars he imports from Cuba.
"Maybe coming out with those very high prices was something that helped to keep the brand together," says Garzaroli. "Maybe people said either these fellows are crazy, or they have a great product."
The brand is off to a decent start, succeeding where many cheaper brands have failed, but Garzaroli has paid a steep price for creating his own cigar brand. He's convinced that the Graycliff brand was the death knell for his Casa del Habano cigar store, which he had owned for seven years. Soon after Graycliffs hit the U.S. market, a short letter arrived from Cuba announcing that Garzaroli was no longer eligible to own his Casa del Habano. The Cubans had revoked his license.
"I think I lost it because of this," says Garzaroli, an uncharacteristically somber note creeping into his voice. It's a quiet Monday in the Bahamas, Emancipation Day. Most of his workers are off on holiday, allowing Garzaroli a quiet moment to reflect on the cost of his cigar company.
Although Lara had left Cuba legally, his departure sparked controversy over Garzaroli's venture. The Cubans didn't like their old master making a new cigar brand, especially one that was sold alongside Cuban cigars in the Graycliff's Casa del Habano.
"They said, 'Send Avelino back and we'll give you back the license,'" says Garzaroli. He never gave it a thought.
Lara is as happy as he's ever been, with his room up the stairs from his rolling station in the restaurant lobby, the good Nassau weather, and the freedom to work under his terms.
"I couldn't do this in Cuba," says Lara, gesturing to the rolling gallery. He's an animated speaker who uses his hands as much as his mouth, first clutching his chest, then conducting an invisible orchestra in front of him as his fingers punctuate his words.
Does the old master wish he could still blend Cuban tobacco? The hands rise again as he purses his lips.
"Cuban tobacco is the preference of all smokers," he says. "Cuban tobacco is the best tobacco in the world. We can't think of Cuban tobacco here. But it's not the same, Cuba. I can't think the same now as I did 20 years ago."