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A Glorified Smoke: Ernesto Carrillo and El Credito Cigars

| By James Suckling | From Groucho Marx, Spring 93

"A corpadito for me and my friend," says Ernesto Carillo as he strolls up to the Cafeteria San José with a chunky, pyramid-shaped cigar dangling from his mouth. In between large puffs of blue tinted smoke and sips of hot coffee, he talks of the day's news to Ismenia, the proprietor of the tiny eatery. A few other locals walk up and join the conversation in Spanish.

A pungent, spicy aroma from Ernesto Carillo's cigar engulfs his tiny entourage as it mixes with the hot, humid air. The thick, stout coffee spiked with warm milk perks them up for the start of another muggy morning. One of the men with fiery eyes and a slightly bent smile begins to rant about the difficulties of living under Fidel Castro's rule. Some of the group simply roll their eyes in ambivalence and clutch their Cuban coffees, hoping that he might go away. Carillo hides behind his smoking cigar.

It could have been like any other day in one of the streets of downtown Havana, but this was Miami. Carillo, 41, has not been in Cuba since 1959 when he left to start a new life in America. Here, in the section of Miami called Little Havana, Carillo proudly maintains his Cuban heritage by producing excellent handmade cigars in several adjoining small shops at the corner of 11th Avenue and Calle Ocho Street.

His El Credito Cigars factory doesn't look like much from the outside. The fabrica is comprised of a handful of small stores built in the 1950s. At a glance, these simple structures resemble used furniture stores or junk shops more than anything else. The "El Credito Cigars" etched on the large window of the main building is barely legible through the iron security bars. What his company may lack in style, it more than makes up for in substance.

Walking into the factory is like a journey back in time. Seated behind small wooden desks piled high with tobacco and finished cigars, three rows of men and women methodically roll various sizes and shapes of cigars. They roll, singing Cuban folk songs and discussing the day's events among themselves. In a small adjoining back room, Carillo deals with administration, occasionally seeing to customers who walk in from the street to buy cigars. It is just how it was at the turn of the century in Havana when hundreds of small, family-run, cigar-rolling shops filled the old section of the romantic city. Today, Cuba may remain a forbidden fruit to most Americans, but some of its former glory can be savored through El Credito Cigars.

For the rest of the world, El Credito produces Cuban-quality cigars at prices long forgotten. "We make our cigars just like we were in Cuba," says Carillo, who vividly remembers spending long hours as a young boy with his father in tobacco fields in Cuba's prime growing region, the Vuelta Abajo. "Each person makes his own cigar here from start to finish. You get more control that way, and this method is part of a Cuban culture for cigar rolling that has been going on for decades."

Each year a few dozen rollers (all Cuban immigrants who worked in the best factories in Havana) produce about one million cigars for El Credito--about one-tenth the size of major cigar factories in Cuba or the Dominican Republic. Their cigars are sold under four primary brands: La Gloria Cubana, La Hoja Selecta, El Rico Habano and Dos Gonzales. La Gloria Cubana--a brand founded in Cuba and still produced there--is the best with the robusto-sized Wavell (5 inches long by 50 ring gauge) and the pyramid-shaped Torpedo No. 1 (6 inches long) rivaling some of the top cigars in the world.

Some people may question whether La Gloria Cubana can live up to such a lofty rating for quality, but no one can argue that it does not represent one of the best values in hand crafted cigars. Some may be as inexpensive as one-third the price of cigars from well-known companies. For example, La Gloria Cubana cigars range in price from $1.15 for the panetela-sized Medaille d'Or No. 4 (6 inches long by 32 ring gauge) to $2.65 for the large pyramid-shaped Piramides (7 1/4 inches long and tapered). A standard corona cigar (5 1/2 inches by a 43 ring) costs $1.35.

"I am charging a fair price," says Carillo. "There is not a lot that goes into making a cigar, and I don't have the overhead of the big companies. We sell at a price that we are not getting rich on, but we are doing well."

Modesty wears well on Carillo, an unassuming man with jet-black, curly hair and a wide, friendly smile that gives him more than just a passing resemblance to a young Omar Sharif. Wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt, he calls nearly everyone his amigo. Driving down the road near his factory in a well-faded red Mitsubishi pick--up with "El Credito" painted on the doors, he continually waves at friends. He and his wife, Elena, 40, and his two children, Lissette, 19, and Ernesto, 10, live in a humble three-bedroom house, a short distance from the factory. They also run a small tobacco shop called Continental Cigar, about four miles from the factory.

"I married a woman who is obsessed with quality," says Carillo. He started dating Elena when they were both 15. "She is my biggest critic. She will taste a cigar and say, 'Ernie, this bites,' or whatever." It drives me crazy but she is right. We get in fights about it ... now my daughter wants to show me how to run my business!"

Obviously the Carillo family is dedicated to quality, and it is increasingly difficult for them to remain so modest about their cigars as aficionados become more aware of El Credito. In recent months, many of Carillo's most popular sizes have been out of stock. For instance, he had back orders for 25,000 Wavell Robustos in November. Some of this was due to problems created by Hurricane Andrew, which struck South Florida last August. Although the factory was undamaged, many of the rollers did not work for a few weeks because they had to sort out personal problems caused by the storm. The shortage of El Credito cigars has been more a question of demand outpacing supply than anything else.

"I have so much demand now that I can't make enough cigars, "Carillo says. He annually sells about 30 percent of his cigars directly to consumers through the mail. Many are from overseas. "I can't get enough quality rollers--which means that I can't get enough Cubans."

Carillo is incredibly proud of his all-Cuban team of rollers, and he is the first to point out to a visitor that this roller worked at the Romeo y Julieta factory while another worked at El Laguito, producer of Cuba's legendary Cohibas. He has tried rollers from the Dominican Republic, Honduras and other countries, but no one, in his opinion, can roll cigars like a Cuban. "Nearly everyone working here is Cuban," he says proudly. "The people here are very proud and conscientious about what they do. They get very upset if things are not just right with the tobacco and the rolling."

El Credito Cigars was purchased by the Carillo family in 1928, although the firm was still based in Cuba at the time. It was originally in the town of San Antonio de los Banos in Cuba. The family was well-respected in the region and also owned several tobacco plantations near the city of Pinar del Rio. Carillo's father, Ernesto, was a leading politician and was a member of the Cuban Senate.

It all changed, however, with the Communist revolution. "I remember when Castro came into Havana in 1959," says Carillo. "I looked up in the sky and saw warplanes. Tanks were in the streets. It was a wild scene. I was only six at the time. I didn't think it was the end of the world, but there was a sense of insecurity. I didn't know if I would ever see my parents again."

Carillo's father was arrested several times, and the government took most of their property including the factory, warehouses and plantations. His father finally had to go into hiding and later escaped to Miami. "They say that a lot of politicians who lived in Cuba before the revolution were rich," he says. "My father certainly wasn't. We lived in a small three bedroom apartment, and my father was only interested in helping people."

His mother soon followed her husband to Miami, leaving Carillo with his aunt. He was an only child and his mother did not want to raise the suspicions of authorities, which would certainly have happened if both she and her son left together. A few months after his mother's departure, his aunt bought a return ticket to Miami for Carillo. "I was told that I was going to visit Miami," he says. "I didn't know that I was leaving my country. But my aunt was crying as she packed my suitcase, and I knew something was happening. All I could think of was that I was going to be with my parents."

Dressed in his Sunday-best gray suit, tie and hat, Carillo boarded a DC-3 for the hour-long trip to Miami. He can't remember much about the flight other than the various people who were friendly to the young boy traveling alone. His parents met him at the airport with tears in their eyes. For a while, the Carillos lived in a hotel in downtown Miami, and while his father searched for work, he and his mother spent the day at the Dixie movie theater across the street.

Finally, with the help of some money from a relative in the states, Carillo's father began a restaurant in Miami called the Pan American and found an apartment in today's Little Havana area. After a year, he sold the restaurant and bought a bar called The Kirby. "All the Cubans used to go there," says Carillo. "As soon as a Cuban got into town, he would go to The Kirby."

The older Carillo grew tired of running the bar after about five years and went into the catering business, besides working in a shoe factory to make extra money. "He made $48 a week making tennis shoes and that was with overtime," Carillo says. "It is strange now thinking about all the struggles my parents went through."

The Carillos never seemed to put roots down in Miami for many years because they continually hoped to return to Havana. "We all kept thinking that maybe next year we would be returning to Cuba," Carillo says. "But then we realized that it was not going to happen and more of our relatives came over."

It wasn't until 1967 that Carillo senior began working with tobacco again. He worked as a roller with the Tropicana Cigar Company for a little more than a year, and while intently rolling his daily ration of cigars, he began to think about owning his own cigar factory. He restarted El Credito Cigars in 1969, hiring another Cuban to do the rolling while he contended with buying tobacco and selling cigars. "My father has a lot of spirit and enthusiasm, which kept the business going," Carillo says. "Even at 65, he would never give up no matter what happened. He wanted a better life for his family."

The business grew slowly, and Ernesto Sr. began to think about the day when his son would join the company. However, his teenage son had other aspirations. Ernesto Jr. had become one of Miami's leading jazz drummers, and after graduating from high school, Carillo enrolled at the local college and worked part-time at El Credito and played his music at night in various Spanish nightclubs and hotels. He married at age 19 and shared his dream of being a famous musician with his young Cuban wife. His life as a part-time musician continued until 1976.

"I finally decided to go to New York and tried to make it a jazz musician that year," Carillo says. "I was into modern jazz, music from people like Bill Evans and Tony Williams. It broke my father's heart. He wanted me to take over the business but there was always this thing that I had to try to make it as a jazz musician."

Carillo admits that it wasn't easy in New York, especially since his wife and their newly-born daughter remained behind in Miami. He lived with some friends in midtown Manhattan and worked during the day with cigar merchant, Nat Sherman. At night, he picked up gigs in various nightclubs, always hoping for a big break. The closest he got to it was an audition with jazz legend Stan Getz, but he didn't get the job. "It was something that my family understood that I had to do," he says, laughing and shaking his head with some disbelief. "My wife once said that I had to do it to get it out of my system."

His quest for the spotlight in the Big Apple lasted about seven months. His father's health had declined a few months after he left for New York, and Ernesto Sr. told him that he would have to sell the business unless he returned. "I came back, and after a while I realized that music was not my calling," admits Carillo. "That was when I really started working hard at the factory and working alongside my father to try to learn everything he could teach me."

His father, who died at 76 in 1980, was a master blender of tobaccos, and after a short while, Carillo found it fascinating working with tobacco. The Carillos have always liked a mixture of the rich character of Sumatra-seed tobacco from Ecuador and the mild style of Connecticut shade tobacco from the United States. In fact, the Carillos were some of the first to advocate the use of Ecuadorian tobacco when others were turning to Jamaica, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. In his blends Carillo also uses tobacco from Nicaragua, Brazil and Mexico. "Each tobacco has its own character," he says. "You have to handle all the tobaccos differently and understand how they work together."

This multinational blend continues to be an essential factor in why El Credito is making outstanding cigars in its La Gloria Cubana range. Whether a panetela or a double corona, La Gloria Cubana cigars have a captivating complexity of character on the nose and palate. (See tasting notes.) "My father believed that if you wanted to succeed, you had to make something different," says Carillo. "We didn't want to be like Cuban cigars or like other cigars. We just wanted to do something different. So, we devised our special blends."

Sourcing excellent tobacco from all over the world is easy, says Carillo, considering his location in what has been called the de facto capital of Latin America. He usually buys preprocessed tobaccos which need no further fermentation or aging, although he ages a tiny amount in his warehouse. He would like to mature more tobacco on his premises, but he does not have the storage space. In fact, most of his finished cigars are shipped almost immediately after being made since Carillo claims they are already in perfect condition for smoking, although a few months of age can further mellow their character.

"My cigars are some of the closest cigars to Cuban ones," says Carillo, now smoking his La Gloria Cubana Medaille d'Or No. 1, a long, corona-sized cigar. He smokes about five or six cigars a day and constantly experiments with blends and wrappers. It may take five or six years before he is satisfied with a blend for a new cigar. "Some people may not agree, but when you make cigars, you have to like it yourself. If I don't like something, I don't sell it."

There is still something magical about anything Cuban for Carillo, despite his disappointment with the politics of his former homeland. "I want to one day open another factory but in another country," he says, smiling to himself. "I don't want to say, but it is about 90 miles south of here."

Cuba often enters Carillo's conversation, and at times he looks like a starry-eyed child who recently spent time with his grandparents. "My father used to take me into the tobacco fields when I was young in Cuba," he says. "I remember when I was about five years old, I tore up part of a tent on one of the wrapper plantations. My father was furious. He told me that tobacco fields were sacred and made me promise to never do something like that again."

He paused for a moment, deep in thought about Cuba's famous Vuelta Abajo. "My father said that tobacco fields were so sacred that workers would rather cut off their arms than break the leaf of a tobacco plant," he says. "There are some things that you never forget your country is your country and in your heart, you want to go back some day."

Until then, Carillo will continue to do the best he can in Miami. Little Havana may not be Havana and El Credito's La Gloria Cubana may not be Cuba's La Gloria Cubana, but they are the next best thing for Carillo--and for many cigar lovers. The Many Wonders of La Gloria Cubana Cigars

Glorias: A big, slightly one-dimensional smoke, this cigar is beautifully crafted and similar in shape and texture to the Montecristo No. 3 Cabinet Selection from Cuba. It has opulent spicy aromas and flavors with an easy draw. A heady cigar for a long afternoon. 84
Ring Gauge: 43
Length: 5 1/2"
Price $1.35

Corona Gorda: This is a gorgeous cigar to look at. It is medium brown with a shiny wrapper, firm and perfectly rolled. The aromas and flavors verge on fresh cream with hints of espresso. It smokes smoothly and slowly. 89
Ring gauge: 52
Length: 6"
Price: 1.65

Gloria Extra: Rightly named, this cigar gives you an extra zap of tobacco flavor. It is extremely well-crafted with a gorgeous dark-brown wrapper. With an even and medium draw, this cigar is rich and powerful with distinctive earth and coffee aromas and flavors. Try it after a hearty meal. 88
Ring gauge: 46
Length: 6 1/4"
Price: $1.60

Medaille D'Or No. 1: This is a very cool and mellow smoke. It is elegantly constructed with a refined and easy draw; fascinating aromas and flavors of spearmint and herbs tickle the palate. A fun cigar to smoke. 86
Ring gauge: 43
Length: 6 3/4"
Price: $1.55

Charlemagne: Truly a cigar fit for an emperor. This is a magnificent smoke, massive in size and shape yet it retains a wonderful amount of delicacy on the palate while smoking. The flavors are well-focused with lovely spicy character and soft, round mouth-feel. A wonderful cigar to spend a Sunday afternoon with. 91
Ring gauge: 54
Length: 7 1/4"
Price: $2.10

Soberano: This cigar looks and feels so good that it seems a shame to smoke it. Exquisitely firm and solid, it is silky and harmonious on the palate with lovely, creamy, slightly spicy flavors. 90
Ring gauge: 52
Length: 8"
Price: $1.95

Wavell: Another superlative cigar from La Gloria. If you had to smoke one cigar from this company on a regular basis, this should be it. A lovely draw, it shows plenty of alluring coffee, spicy flavors. 90
Ring gauge: 50
Length: 5"
Price: $1.50

Torpedo No. 1: This is the next best thing to a Montecristo No. 2 pyramid from Havana. Perfectly rolled with a taper to a point, this sets a precedent outside of Cuba for this shape. It is packed to the wrapper with flavor and richness. Not a cigar for the light-hearted, though; smoke after a big meal. 93
Ring gauge: Tapered
Length: 6 1/2"
Price: $2.10

Double Corona: Pleasing and easy to smoke; this is a big cigar but very delicate with good caramel, coffee character on the palate and an attractive finish. Not as powerful as you might expect in this format but delicious to smoke. 88
Ring gauge: 50
Length: 7"
Price: $1.90