Dropping in on Pepin in Miami

I spent yesterday in Little Havana with Jose “Pepin” Garcia in his factory, El Rey de los Habanos. You know the place: the tiny operation in Miami that creates amazing cigars. He has only about a dozen rollers, and they work slowly and carefully making beautiful smokes, among them Tatuajes (the brown label versions are made here) some Padillas (such as the 1932 Perla, a sublime small smoke) and some Don Pepins.

I’ve seen some incredible cigar rollers in my travels, but Pepin has to be the best. He started rolling cigars in Cuba when he was 12 years old, and he’s been doing it non-stop (aside from a two-year break to serve in the military) ever since. He can make just about anything out of tobacco leaves—I’ve seen cigars shaped like ladders and rocket ships—and he specializes in those extremely difficult large figurados called diademas or Salamones. Imagine a torpedo head and supple curves as you get toward the foot, which has a big bulb then a small nipple. It takes a lot of cuts to make that work, and Pepin makes it look simple. He trained rollers in Cuba, and now he trains them in Miami and in his new factory in Nicaragua.

He always seems to smile as he rolls. He really enjoys what he’s doing.

El Rey de los Habanos is a real family business. Pepin works alongside his son Jaime, his daughter Janny, and several other members of the family. Some of the rollers come from Báez, the same town in Cuba from where the Garcias hail—and all the workers in the office area next door are cousins or other family members. It’s a small, intimate operation.

Pete Johnson, owner of the Tatuaje brand, was there as well. He comes often from California, spending time with Pepin to sample tobaccos and get close to his great cigars. Ernesto Padilla, owner of Padilla cigars, dropped by as well, nicking a cigar here and there. “I have a technique,” he says with a smile, putting another cigar in his mouth.

I arrived at the factory just after lunch, having flown in that morning from New York, and I started with a Don Pepin Garcia Cuban Classic Maduro, which everyone calls Black Label. The maduro wrapper is Nicaraguan leaf, as Nicaraguan tobacco is now Pepin’s favorite type of tobacco. Most of his cigars are Nicaraguan puros. The second I smoked was a San Cristobal Guajiro, a new brand made by Pepin for Ashton. I finished with a standard Cuban Classic after dinner. Each cigar was lovely, with good amounts of power but no bite, and plenty of complexity. Each displayed great tobacco that was artfully constructed.

Pepin, Jaime, Janny, Pete and myself spent the day and much of the evening talking about tobacco, Cuba, Nicaragua and the future of cigars. Toward the end of the night, when we were outside a Coral  Gables restaurant smoking the last of our cigars, I asked Pepin what tobaccos he would use to make his finest cigar. Would it be all Cuban? All Nicaraguan?

He smiles again. The wrapper would be Cuban. The binder would come from Nicaragua, as would two leaves of ligero filler. The seco and viso filler would come from Cuba. Earlier he had asked what the highest score our magazine ever gave to a standard cigar. I told him 99 points. “That cigar,” he says with confidence, talking about his dream smoke, “would score 100 points.”

"along with padron, one of the best damn cigar factories on the planet. i'll second that bear hug request. without pepin, my humidors would be in a sorry state. and as for that dream cigar of his... can you think of a better argument for the u.s. to open up to cuba? (or wish fidel would punt the bucket, already)" —September 5, 2007 15:51 PM
"If I knew you were going, I'd have asked you to bear hug that glorious son of a bitch for me. I can't imagine ending my week (and sometimes beginning it) without either a Tatuaje Taino or Don Pepin Magnate -- both double coronas and both well worth making time for. It's amazing to think that, with so many cigar making operations out there collectively employing tens of thousands of rollers, probably 30% of the cigars I regularly smoke are made by the same 12 rollers in one tiny little factory in Miami. " —September 5, 2007 12:17 PM