Cigar Aficionado

Cigars Across America: U.S. Cigar Makers

An intense August heat blows in through the narrow doorway of a dimly lit, hallway-shaped store in Union City, New Jersey. A few yellowing posters look as if they are melting into the stucco walls behind them. The air inside is thick with the aroma of cured tobacco and recently smoked cigars. On a tabletop blackened by oily wrapper leaf and scarred by thousands of tiny knife cuts, an old man's hands move with precise regularity, rolling a narrow, long panetela cigar while he talks with a fellow roller.

At the front of the store, a customer patiently leans on the wobbly, glass-fronted display case. Eventually a middle-aged woman gets up from her chair where she has been banding cigars and shows the customer a cigar-shape chart. No words are exchanged--they don't speak the same language--but the man points to the panetela cigar in the photo and holds up four fingers. "Quatro?" the woman asks. The customer nods, but when she pokes a hand into the case to grab four dried-out panetelas, the man says, "No, no!" and points wildly at the rolling table where three bundles of hour-old panetelas are resting. She slowly relents and retrieves four cigars from one of the bundles. The man hands the woman $4 and some change and lights up in a cloud of strong, rich smoke, which follows him out onto the boiling sidewalk.

At one time, a transaction like the one described above was common in large and small-town America. In 1905 there were 80,000 cigar-manufacturing businesses in the United States. Most of these were small drugstore-type shops where families sat and rolled cigars and sold them immediately.

Today, though buying a newly rolled cigar isn't as easy as it used to be, handmade, long-filler cigars can be purchased for about $1 each on certain streets in a few American cities. And the experience of smoking what was just rolled in front of you is something every cigar aficionado should try.

Finding a chinchal (a Cuban term meaning "sweatshop," though the connotation is less derogatory in the world of cigars) is only half the battle. In each city, the history of the cigar business invariably dictates both the kind and quality of cigars being made today. In three markets--Miami; Union City, New Jersey; and Tampa, Florida--the local production of cigars also is determined by the availability of tobacco, the vitality of the local smokers' market and the primary difficulty: hiring and keeping skilled cigar makers. But this is nothing new. As one roller put it, making cigars "is a life's work." That work is different in each city and, accordingly, in each chinchal, and the cigars reflect a distinctive character of place.

The hand-rolled cigar industry in Miami existed in one form or another for at least 100 years prior to the Revolution in Cuba. But it was Castro's rise to power that provided the impetus for making cigars in Miami. Beyond easy access to Central and South American tobacco, the South Florida location has given Miami first crack at fleeing Cuban cigar makers--still considered to be the most talented in the world.

As more Cubans left their homeland bound for Miami's Little Havana, the once dormant section of town became a dynamic center of economic and social vitality. The new arrivals smoked more cigars per capita than any other group of Americans and also preferred freshly rolled product. Those factors drove chinchal-production levels up.

The new arrivals also demanded something similar to what they had smoked back home: a strong, fast-burning cigar. Many of the blends commonly found in Miami's chinchal-produced cigars replicate that style, and explain the popularity of short-filler cigars, which are cheaper and pack a lot of smoke because they burn much faster.

Makers in Miami claim to use Dominican seed tobacco as filler, a Mexican binder and either Ecuador-grown Sumatra seed wrapper or Connecticut shade grown in the United States. These two blends, which are similar in almost every Miami chinchal, result in a relatively strong smoke, with some pleasant spiciness. However, most cigars made here lack a certain body in the smoke. In a cigar that hasn't been aged and cured for very long and in which the tobaccos have not had time to marry, nothing, it seems, can replace the sharp pungency of Honduran tobacco.

It should be noted that the chinchales listed below are a small sampling of what can be found in Miami. There are several more, some of them even well known to many cigar smokers. However, these owners were suspicious of the publicity or any possible critique and refused interviews or visits.

Antelo Cigars in Little Havana is owned by Arnaldo Laurencio, who speaks a smattering of English. His immediate, excitable love of the business gives Antelo an amicable feeling missing in other chinchales. Equally rare, Antelo makes several different blends for its cigars. And Antelo employs about 15 rollers, the most, next to El Credito (La Gloria Cubana and El Rico Habano) in Miami. The rollers sit four to a row, each rolling table connected to the next. Seen from behind, the workers' hands are a blur in the otherwise sedate one-room shop. They roll and talk quietly to one another in Spanish.

Berta Davila, a spirited woman in her mid-50s, sits toward the back of the room, separating wrapper leaves according to color, removing the center stem once the leaves are categorized. The leaves are then bundled in sets of 52. The two extra leaves (cigars are usually bundled in sets of 50 or 25) are added "in case a wrapper is broken or the cigar maker wants to smoke one," according to Laurencio. (Rollers are each entitled to three cigars at the end of the day, and they may smoke all day while working.)

There is a strong feeling of community at Antelo. The workers are old friends and even in silence they seem at ease with one another. Still, most of the workers at Antelo echo a common sentiment heard in Little Havana: "If Castro fell, the next day we'd go running back." In this case, the speaker is Antonio Concepcion, a roller in his mid-50s who was forced to leave a pregnant wife in Cuba "for political reasons."

Concepcion is quick to say that he has grown to like the perks of making cigars in America: "I like the air-conditioning in the U.S." This is one of the advantages to rolling cigars in a First World country. Yet in Honduras, the Dominican Republic and at one time in Cuba, cigar rollers were respected craftsmen, and even today their wage can support a family. But in Miami, at places like Antelo where the art is appreciated, the pay only supplements retirement funds or Social Security benefits. It is not a job for the young, not even for the children of these rollers. Most here, like Petra Hurtado, are happy that her children don't smoke or make cigars. Hurtado's son is a policeman, and she clearly has no regrets that the family tradition will die with her.

On the other side of Little Havana, only a five-minute drive away, is El Canelo ("the cockfighter"). It is a small shop, employing four to six rollers, depending on the pace of business. Perhaps the most dignified of all rollers to be found in Miami (also one of the more skillful makers of panetelas) is Adolfo Cuevas, who works here. Cuevas came to Miami when he was 48. A judge in Havana, Cuevas was forced to make a fresh start. He returned to the job of rolling cigars, which is how he worked his way through law school. Now 78, Cuevas augments retirement income by rolling at El Canelo, and his panetelas have the tightly rolled appearance of Cohiba Lanceros.

Cuevas' boss, Orlando Rodriguez, the owner of El Canelo, is a quiet salesman. He will show you the humidor, but he doesn't force anything on you. And he is relaxed about his Cuban heritage, too. "Even if Castro fell, at my age, what am I going to do in Cuba?" Rodriguez did say he would use Cuban tobacco if it ever becomes available. Clearly, however, he doesn't need to change his blend. Rodriguez claims that almost all his customers are "Americans" (not Cuban-Americans), and he seems very content with the job he is doing. For a mere $17 for 25 panetelas, it is not hard to see why business is humming.

Across the street from El Pub, a diner that has become an institution in Little Havana, it is hot and sticky in the bright, tidy shop of Moore & Bode. Despite the lack of air-conditioning, the reserved and very serene Sharon Moore Bode seems undaunted by the heat. But she is used to defying expectations. An enigma in the cigar business, Bode is not only a woman, but a Caucasian with a limited understanding of Spanish. Her entrée into the business has as much to do with her husband, Roberto Bode, a Cuban-born exile, as her own artistic longings. According to Sharon Moore Bode, "art is the No. 1 reason for being in the business."

Moore & Bode cigars are truly works of art, especially the small and large pyramids, 5 1/2 and 7 1/2 inches long, respectively. They also are pricier than cigars made at other chinchales. Bode, again acting very American and untraditional, justifies the high prices by saying that her rollers are paid more than those at other shops. "The bottom line is that other rollers in Miami are paid about $200 per 1,000 cigars, while we pay about $650 per 1,000."

Bode claims that the industry is dying in the United States because rollers are underpaid. "The owner eats out of the same rice bowl as the cigar maker," she says, and she "abhors" a quota system where each roller is required to make a certain number of cigars for a fixed price. Bode pays by the hour, a very unusual practice in the old world of cigar making.

Despite her husband's desire that she take up the mainstream career of stockbroker, Bode runs the shop, buys the tobacco and is unabashedly proud to turn some heads in the business. "We import our own leaf. I stand in line at customs with my little daughter, Margarite. I'm a little lady among all the guys. I wait my turn and select my own leaves." But Bode denies any grand pretense: "We are not a mass-produced cigar--we never desire to be." Still, Bode will not reveal the secret of her blend, which she guards with the same quiet but firm politeness she most certainly uses when buying tobacco.

Chavelo is nothing like Moore & Bode. Large, dimly lit, with an old patriarch, Mariano Martinez, in charge, it is a typical chinchal. Despite the modest production capacity of the place (800 cigars a day), there is a walk-in humidor, and Chavelo is more modern than it appears. Mario Martinez, the owner's son, has created slick brochures that advertise 800-numbers and invite customers to use credit cards.

Mario Martinez is unassuming. A tall man in his mid-30s, he dutifully stands by and translates his father's Spanish. Mario explains that the elder Martinez began Chavelo in Cuba in 1955, but finally left in 1972 with his wife and son--and not a shred of his original business. Despite his father's uphill struggle to make something in the United States, Mario is uninterested in taking over. "I could maintain the business," Mario acknowledges, "but there's experience I don't have. I can't buy that from my father. That, only time can give you."

Gazing across the Hudson River from Pier 78 in Manhattan, the heart of Union City, New Jersey, is not visible, but a few relics of once grandiose summer homes are outlined on top of the cliffs. A brief ferry ride can alter this first impression. Once on the bustling streets of Union City, the community is vibrant, relatively young and has the same nuances of any ethnic American neighborhood. It has a proud cigar history, too.

Unlike Miami, much of the Cuban population came to Union City long before Castro. These new Americans arrived in the '20s and '30s at the behest of American cigar manufacturers. Labor prices skyrocketed in Cuba because of unionization. To maintain profits, major corporations like American Tobacco shifted operations onshore to places like Trenton, New Jersey, and Union City--beating the unions while still importing cured tobacco from Cuba (which was taxed at 10 percent rather than the exorbitant 100 percent rate on finished cigars). A few decades later, labor prices at home would escalate, and major manufacturers would shift their operations back to the Caribbean; but the Cuban community in New Jersey stayed behind to make cigars for its own consumption--and occasional outsiders.

La Isla ("the Island") is a cigar factory that looks more like a one-chair barbershop. There is an almost bare counter display--something like the way state stores looked in television images from the former Soviet Union--and to the left, three rollers sit so close they literally touch shoulders as they make cigars and talk quietly. They gaze at their gringo guests with a bit of wariness.

In the back, a bathroom doubles as a makeshift kitchen, with an ancient, two-burner stovetop keeping the morning coffee warm. The presses and molds used to hold and shape finished cigars look as old as the burners, and Berto Ale, the owner of La Isla, says he cannot remember when they were purchased, but he speculates that they have been around since 1970. At the front on the unadorned counter, three old Partagas boxes hold whatever the three rollers produce daily. However, if you look through the glass and don't see what you want, don't be shy. Persistence pays at La Isla. If you like what you see on the rollers' table, ask for it. If your Spanish is rusty, point.

Berto Ale has owned the business for eight years. At 58, he is relatively young for this segment of the cigar industry, which is dominated by 70-year-old men. Still, his wife Elsie, who runs the outlet store in Manhattan (May Rosa) laments that both stores will be gone in a few years. "My children don't want to have anything to do with the business, and even if we sell the store, the new owners wouldn't be able to find workers."

A few blocks from the heavily trafficked streets of downtown Union City, Boquilla Cigar looks abandoned. Inside, that feeling doesn't change much. Composed of little more than a countertop, four walls and a three-dimensional plastic relief of the Last Supper, a healthy skepticism about the quality of the product seems in order. But after speaking with the very genial owner, José Suarez, and his tiny staff, the expectations grow. Suarez was a former employee of Rolando Reyes Sr. (see Cuba Aliados, below) in Cuba and learned to roll cigars in his factory.

Now, some 25 years later, Suarez is making cigars to compete with the cheap, short-filler bundle cigars sold in every drugstore in Union City. He uses the same blend for each size: filler from Honduras or the Dominican Republic, binder from Brazil or Mexico and Mexican wrapper because, according to Suarez, "it is the strongest," and the locals like strong cigars. Suarez says most of his clients are older, and most like a soberano or Churchill size. They also like the price; 25 soberanos, 7 1/2 by 52 ring gauge, go for a very modest $30.

Having a look around Aliados is a look into the future, or would-be future, of every chinchal in the United States. Cigars are no longer made here, they are manufactured in Honduras, with a "showpiece" roller who comes in occasionally yet adds little to the massive stock of Aliados cigars. Still, the enticing aroma of spicy tobacco permeates the walls of the upstairs room of this cigar store, and in a shed out back 20,000 cigars are aging. Most of what is sold here are Cuba Aliados, which explains the smell; these Honduran-made cigars are very fresh and the aroma is much stronger for that reason.

Rolando Reyes Jr. runs the shop in Union City while his father oversees the operation in Honduras. According to the younger Reyes, his father began working in the cigar business when he was 17, as an unpaid apprentice for Cuba Aliados, an obscure Cuban brand made in Sancti-Spiritus, a city about 200 miles southeast of Havana. After seven years of unpaid work, Reyes earned the respect of the old woman who owned Aliados. She gave him the rights to the brand when she became ill, and Reyes eventually moved the company to Havana. "He had a hard time making cigars there," says the younger Reyes. Eventually though, Partagas, Por Larrañaga, El Rey del Mundo, and H. Upmann began to buy cigars from Reyes and labal them with their own brands. Business was booming.

And despite the rise of the Castro regime, Reyes managed to keep his business until 1968. "All the Cubans in Cuba kept on saying the same thing: 'He'll fall next year'." When the Cuban government took over "they took everything--even the chairs," says the younger Reyes, his voice shaded with bitterness.

When the elder Reyes moved to the United States, he chose to raise his family in Union City. "My uncle lent my dad $500 to start his business in 1970. My father had one, two, three cigar makers at the most here. My father was working in the day in the store and at night in a knitting factory."

But the elder Reyes encountered the same problems all present-day owners have. "We started making the cigars here in 1974. We didn't have enough cigars for the customers because we couldn't get enough makers. So we moved. First to the D.R. and then to Miami. In Miami, we went in 1979. We opened, and we had a lot of cigar makers. But we still didn't have enough cigars being made," recounts the younger Reyes.

To keep up with demand, Cuba Aliados went to Honduras in 1988 and solved their labor problems for good. "Face it. In Honduras there are cigar makers who are younger; there's always people learning because you can make good money on it." And Reyes says it is simply easier to make cigars where the tobacco is grown. His customers keep coming back. "I still have the same customers I had 15 years ago. Even if they move away, they send for the cigars from there."

The Tampa horizon is littered with them. Walk up three stories in any Ybor City building, and as far as the eye can see, there are giant brick factories, each running longitudinally, from north to south, and each, without much exception, is empty. In many ways Ybor City is a cigar-industry ghost town; the ghost of Vincente Ybor is the namesake for this section of Tampa.

Ybor moved a thriving Key West cigar business north to Tampa in the mid-1860s. His goal was to build a company town where every form of sustenance was provided by the Principe de Gales (Prince of Wales) factory. But labor unrest delayed the factory's debut, and rival Flor de Sanchez & Haya was the first factory to produce cigars in Tampa.

But it was Ybor who first dreamed of a cigar town, and eventually Tampa grew to become the center of worldwide cigar production. That dream has since faded, and only M&N Cigar Manufacturers (United States distributors of Arturo Fuente and Cuesta-Rey brands under the cooperative FANCO), has survived. Of course, there are still a few chinchales, or "buckeyes," as they are known locally. According to Stanford Newman, chairman of M&N, the term buckeye came from Ohio when his father's business (and many other cigar factories) moved operations to Florida. A buckeye in Ohio is "a nut that's too small," says Newman.

Whether you call the factory a buckeye or a chinchal, the Vincent & Tampa Cigar Co. is certainly small and old. On the site of the now-defunct Eden cigar factory, Vincent is a one-story brick structure that's seen better days. Inside, in the very back around some automated bunching machines and a large fumigation locker, six elderly women sit at their tables, rolling and not talking. Ruilovo Vincent and his wife Ida are side by side; he stands and bunches cigars, pressing them into molds while she takes them from the molds and forms wrapper leaf over their oblong surfaces.

Past retirement age, both Vincents are natives of Tampa, though they speak less English than Spanish. Their families and the families of almost every roller I met in Tampa were locals; but the language of cigars is Spanish, not English, so it was unnecessary for these people to learn what they would rarely speak.

The cigars here range from robusto-sized Barons at 5 1/2 inches by a 48 ring gauge to a soberano shape called the Supreme, 8 inches by a 52 ring. Regardless of shape, the blend is constant.

Much of the business is conducted by mail, yet today a customer strolls in. Vincent leaves his wife's side to help the customer, who happens to be from New Jersey and a customer of Boquilla in Union City. "These cigars are very good. But Boquilla is the only good cigar place in New Jersey, which is why I go there," says Chris Mara. Mara buys a couple of bundles in two different sizes after smoking one cigar just to test it.

Rodriguez & Menendez is the antithesis of the vibrant chinchales found in Miami or Union City. Isaac Rodriguez, 72, is the remaining half of the partnership at Rodriguez & Menendez. He stands alone in the center of the shop and says he will no longer take new customers through the mail, but doesn't mind if customers stop by. As we speak, a faithful regular enters, walks straight past the counter into the back of the store and grabs a bundle of the Dominican-made cigars. He pays and thanks Rodriguez. The whole transaction takes less than two minutes, held up only momentarily as Rodriguez digs for change in an old cigar box used as a cash register.

Rodriguez still makes about 300 cigars here a day, but the rest are rolled in the Dominican Republic and imported with the R&M band.

Once a master roller at the Havana Partagas factory, Rodriguez is not without pride, but he says, "I am old and tired. I couldn't fill many new orders now, and I don't really want to."

Like Sharon Moore Bode in Miami, Bob Schear in Las Vegas is an anomaly in the modern American cigar making business. Like Bode, Schear is a gringo in a field dominated by first and second-generation Latin Americans--most of them from Cuba. But Schear, an avid smoker since he was 18, never gave his heritage a thought when he started Don Pablo seven years ago. "I came through Vegas on business, and I couldn't find a decent cigar." Schear and a friend saw the immense potential of the tourist market in Las Vegas and set up shop in 1986 across the street from the Stardust hotel.

At first, according to Schear, things weren't easy. "If I had known what it would take, I wouldn't do it again." Now, however, Schear has more than 6,000 mail-order customers worldwide, most of whom discovered Don Pablo on a visit to Vegas.

The business of rolling cigars is based on the knowledge and expertise of Rubin Del Tauro, an old hand from Cuba and a master roller there. Del Tauro and fellow Cuban Alberto Medina assist in the tobacco selection, color grading and curing processes.

According to Schear, each cigar has a different blend, and five or six tobaccos go into each cigar; tobaccos from Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Brazil and the United States are the ones most often selected by Schear. But Schear's annual production isn't large--Don Pablo produces only 250,000 cigars annually. Measured against other buckeyes, an average daily output of 800 cigars isn't bad.

Schear does have a problem increasing production. All of his rollers are from Cuba originally, but he recruited them out of Miami chinchales, set them up with housing and raised their salaries. These measures are atypical in a business guided by 19th-century principles, but Schear needed some big incentives to bring people from Little Havana into a town with a paucity of Cuban culture. He still faces problems attracting workers to the desert.

Bob Schear is not the only man who's dreamed of taking tropical tobacco leaves to the arid Vegas Strip. Rich Goldieri "semi-retired" to Las Vegas four years ago, leaving a profitable dental-ceramics business behind in New Jersey to get away from the "aggravation." But Goldieri, 50, wasn't ready to sit on his hands. When he was approached by several Cuban-Americans, he decided to open the Las Vegas Cigar Co.

Fast-forward to 1993 and you'll find Goldieri's shop right across from the Dunes hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard. What started as a one-roller operation in 1989 has blossomed to six rollers producing about 1,000 cigars daily. Inside, it's a bit more homey than most chinchales. There's coffee and doughnuts for visitors who, according to Goldieri, often hang out and socialize or talk business over cigars for hours. "It's like the old barbershop used to be," says Goldieri.

Like Bob Schear, most of Goldieri's business is conducted through the mail. Goldieri says that his 2,500-person mailing list is constantly growing because of his blend (all cigars have filler from the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Brazil, with wrapper and binder from Ecuador) and his Vegas location. Goldieri says that running a Nevada-based business hasn't deterred rollers from pulling up their Miami roots to make cigars in the West, and he uses one incentive to keep people happy: "Cash. I pay my employees very well, and I let them take their time. I'd rather have them make fewer cigars with better quality." And what will Goldieri do if Cuban leaf is available someday? "I'll have Cuban tobacco in my cigars." But for now, Goldieri isn't changing the blend. Why gamble with success?

OK, this is Los Angeles in Southern California, and you're definitely not in Little Havana anymore. Pinch yourself. The owner of La Plata, Victor Migenes Jr., is a serious drummer in a rock band. But La Plata isn't all hype. The business, started by Victor Migenes Sr. in 1947, is well established. True, the younger Migenes is only in his 30s, but he fits the scene when he says things like, "Cigars are working their way into creativity now. These Young guys are taking cigars into their own space, which is more diverse than it used to be."

Migenes knows what he's talking about. Celebrities smoke his cigars in public, like in the old days, and La Plata cigars were featured in a spot on Entertainment Tonight last summer.

Migenes also sponsors smoker nights at upscale Los Angeles restaurants like Pierre's, McCormick & Schmick's, and Ma Maison. All this is far from the way his late father ran the company, but Migenes is still very much in touch with the cigar making process. He buys leaf from Oliva Tobacco in Tampa and visits the Olivas regularly.

The effort has paid off--La Plata is selling cigars as fast as they are made. But Migenes knows that his rollers aren't getting any younger. "It's a dinosaur business, and the dinosaur is going to die. I'm not scared, but as the years go by it will he tougher."

Even with a booming business, Migenes says that someday La Plata will be gone from L.A. And there's no telling whether Migenes will want to try to make cigars someplace where the rollers are as young as the rich and famous smokers in Hollywood.

Knowing the Rules

Getting your hands on fresh cigars requires a bit of common sense and insight--along with the pure luck of living in the right part of the country or having the means or desire to get yourself there. Not surprisingly, most cigar making operations in the United States are confined to the coasts.

Miami, Union City, New Jersey; Tampa, Florida; Las Vegas and Los Angeles all have at least one cigar factory to their credit. But the factories, or chinchales, are rarely located next to the local mall. Finding them can be difficult and usually requires some patience.

Don't expect timely customer service. When you enter a chinchal you are really stepping onto the factory floor, even if the factory is only two or three rollers strong. In time you will be helped.

Now comes the hard part. If your Spanish skills are lacking or you have only a scant understanding of cigars, you may be bullied into buying something you don't like. Be firm. Even with the language barrier, your money speaks Esperanto, and you should demand that you get the cigar that you're looking for. Here are a few rules:

Consistency

The biggest knock against small operations is that they can't afford to buy and store large quantities of leaf. This is true. Most chinchales rely on the goodwill of men like John Oliva, president of Oliva Tobacco, one of the largest, privately owned tobacco-trading companies in the world. "We bend over backward to help these guys. They're all that's left." Oliva says that it is rarely profitable to store tobacco in small quantities, but with so few rolling operations left, he is happy to accommodate them. Oliva says the chinchales "pay more to carry less," but keeping less tobacco in-house is also costly because the maintenance of leaf quality is relinquished to another party. And once preaged cigar tobacco winds up in a chinchal, it is likely that other, more powerful cigar manufacturers rejected it.

There is also a problem at chinchales with inconsistent maintenance of cigar humidity. (Miami is the exception, where most chinchales have walk-in humidors.) At some shops, cigars are rolled and simply left out in a cupboard until they are purchased. Buying straight from the rollers' table is better in this case.

Sizes and Blends

At many chinchales, the blend is the same throughout the size range, so choosing a size is less important than finding a shop that creates the right blend for your taste. This takes some experimentation. If you ask politely, you may be able to determine which tobaccos are used, but there is no better barometer than your taste buds.

Some places actually make unusual sizes like pyramids, but it is more common to find simple sizes like double coronas or Churchills and even smaller ones, like miniatures.

Prices

As a general rule, cigars at chinchales are less expensive than name brands. But be careful, sometimes they cost much more than they are worth. Also, be aware that cigars labeled fumas are cheaper (under $1) because they are made with short filler--the cuttings left over from the production of the long-filler smokes.

Buying Guide

A bit of caution should be used when purchasing chinchales-produced cigars. These cigars smoke best right off the rollers' table. If you can't buy them locally, be certain to revive them in a humidor--otherwise they'll be too dry to smoke. Also, these cigars are generally less complex than other commercially available products. Quantitatively, you get more cigars for your money at chinchales, but there's no comparing them to the quality of most premium cigars; that's the point. It's a different cigar and a new experience.

MIAMI

Antelo Cigars
437 S.W. 17th Ave. (305) 642-8911
Laurencio Double Corona: This cigar has an even draw, delivering a combination of lightly spicy aromas and a full-bodied taste. The finish is rather mild.
(Ring Gauge: 42 Length: 7 1/2" Price: $1.40)

El Canelo Cigar Factory
709 N.W. 27th Ave. (305) 541-6315
Miniatures: A slightly sweet smoke with a fast draw. A lot of smoke comes out of this little, no-nonsense cigar.
(Ring Gauge: 30 Length: 4 1/2" Price: $16 for 25 cigars)

Moore & Bode
810 S.W. 16th Ave. (305) 649-5308
Pyramid: A lovely looking cigar, with mild creamy aromas and flavors. Lacks a certain "punch," but the pyramid is a well-made, enjoyable smoke.
(Ring Gauge: tapered Length: 5 1/2" Price: $5)

Chavelo Cigars
7345 West Flagler St. (800) 222-9930
No. 1: The best feature of this cigar is a good fill and solid construction, which gives it an even draw. It emits sweet aromas, which evolve into spicy notes later in the smoke.
(Ring Gauge: 44 Length: 6 7/8" Price: $39 for 25 cigars)

UNION CITY, NEW JERSEY

La Isla
505 42nd St. (201) 864-2627
No. 1: An initial sweetness gives way to peppery tastes and full, spicy aromas. A genuinely Cuban style comes through.
(Ring Gauge: 38 Length: 6 1/2" Price: $1.40)

Boquilla
2116 Summit Ave. (201) 867-8260
Churchills: An easy-to-smoke, uncomplicated cigar. Smooth, rich taste, strong aroma and a very fast draw.
(Ring Gauge: 50 Length: 7" Price: $1.20)

TAMPA, FLORIDA

Vincent & Tampa Cigar Co.
2503 21st St. (813) 248-1511
La Eminencia Premier: A fairly plain smoke, with a fast burn and lots of smoke. The taste is mild with a bit of creaminess but little distinction.
(Ring Gauge: 44 Length: 7" Price: $13.25 for 25 cigars)

Rodriguez & Menendez

4321 Armenia Ave. (813) 879-9740
President: A sharp, bold flavor delivered with lots of smoke on the first 10 minutes of draw. Later, the draw tightens, but the flavor remains constant.
(Ring Gauge: 50 Length: 7 1/4" Price: $ 1)

LAS VEGAS

Don Pablo Cigar Co.
3025 Las Vegas Blvd. (800) 537-4957
Torpedo: A very well-made cigar with mellow aromas and stronger undertones of spice. A relaxing, savory cigar, consistent in bum rate and taste for the duration of the smoke.
(Ring Gauge: 58 Length: 7" Price: $44.50 for 10 cigars)

Las Vegas Cigar Co.
3665 South Las Vegas Blvd. (702) 262-6100
Churchill: A straight-ahead cigar with a very smooth, fast and smoky draw. Spicy notes with grassy undertones.
(Ring Gauge: 50 Length: 7 1/2" Price: $52.80 for 25 cigars)

LOS ANGELES

La Plata Cigars
1026 South Grand Ave. (213) 747-8561
Wilshire Maduro: Nice toothy wrapper, fast burn, but not hot. A very rich smoke, the Wilshire isn't complex. The maduro wrapper delivers much better taste than the colorado-wrapped La Platas, but the aroma is a bit flat in both.
(Ring Gauge: 52 Length: 7" Price: $36.25 for 25 cigars.)