Beautiful sunshine and balmy temperatures greeted more than 200 cigar lovers on Thursday here in Santiago. As the day began some headed to cigar factories, others to tobacco fields, and a few set out on tours of the city and other areas of the Dominican Republic.
The fourth annual ProCigar festival was in full swing, and no matter what their agenda was, each was here for one reason-the love of fine cigars. Every tour, every dinner, every gathering included premium cigars made by the member companies of ProCigar.
I went on my own on Thursday, heading to the biggest cigar factory in Santiago on my own—General Cigar Dominicana. This bustling factory (which in actuality incorporates several buildings in the Zona Franca de Santiago Numero Uno, Santiago's original free trade zone) is the place where Macanudo, La Gloria Cubana, Partagas and many other cigars are made.
I spent the entire morning with General Cigar's president, Dan Carr, who explained some of the changes that have been going on at General. One of the things he stressed is how despite its size (General is a unit of Scandinavian Tobacco Group, the world's second largest cigar company), he wants General to operate as if it were several small companies. This dates back to 2008 when General created what's known as the business venture group. "It started to change the way we do things," he said.
I walked with Carr through the huge operation with the team from General that runs the Dominican operation on a day-to-day basis, led by Jhonys Diaz. As we walked from room to room in the vast (and exceptionally clean) facility, Diaz explained the steps General takes to make millions upon millions of cigars each year.
One of the most noteworthy things about General Cigar is the vast amount of tobacco it has within these walls. Bale after bale, crate after crate and barrel after barrel of tobacco from around the world is processed and stored here. "Tobacco processing is a very long and expensive process," said Diaz. "It's a very cumbersome process-but it pays off in quality." One of the ways General tracks how its tobacco is performing is by test smoking leaf in the factory. This means taking a leaf of filler or other tobacco, rolling it into a rustic cigar—not making a blend, but smoking only that one leaf—and puffing away. Viso, seco, ligero—you name it, that's what you smoke. I took a rough little cigar made entirely of dark, thick, Dominican piloto Cubano ligero and lit up, and was hit by the power of the tobacco. It's not for the meek. I shot a little video of the process-take a look.
General has quite a few new cigars in the works that won't be out for some time, but I got the skinny on several new smokes. One truly intriguing one was a new La Gloria Cubana with an uncut tuck (or foot) in a great shape, 6 1/2 by 42, with a twisted pigtail wound tight to the head. I love smoking cigars in this format-the extra leaf at the foot means you only taste the wrapper when you light up before moving into the full blend. It was tasty, and will come in three-packs wrapped in a ribbon inside a coffin-style box. They're going to call it a Rabito de Cochino. You'll read more about this and other new General smokes in an upcoming Cigar Insider.
Each evening here in Santiago ends with a party, and Thursday's party was held at the monument in the center of town (ProCigar says they're the only organization to hold a party by the monument.) It's a show-stopping venue, and everyone is supposed to wear white. It made for quite a dramatic evening.
I met an interesting person at the party, a cigar retailer from Berlin named Michael Diersch. Germany is a very good cigar market, so there's nothing odd about a retailer from Germany attending a cigar festival, but this guy's shop-Miguel Private Cigars-sells only Dominican cigars. He has his own private brand, along with Fuentes, Avos, Macanudos and others. He says he's doing well. He's one of many Europeans here at the festival (there's quite the international presence, some 22 countries are represented) and I think his shop is truly indicative of how Dominican cigars have earned a spot on the world stage.
The parties went long into the night, with free-flowing cigars. Friday is the final day of the festival, so there's more to come.