Cigar Aficionado

Part Three: Las Vegas Big Smoke Sunday Seminars

Cigar Lovers Roll Their Own
A well-fed horde of cigar enthusiasts made a mass exodus from the Versailles room to the Champagne ballroom of the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas. Coming off of Charlie Palmer's hearty yet elegant breakfast, attendees were ready to participate in the Roll Your Own seminar, hosted by Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, president of El Credito Cigars. All attendees were handed a La Gloria Cubana Wavell cigar as they filed in. Master of ceremonies Michael Giannini, director of marketing for El Credito cigars, brought energy to the air by reminding everyone that the seminar was not only a learning experience, but also a competition. The person to roll the best cigar would win an all-expense-paid trip to Miami for a factory tour.

Giannini introduced guest roller "Papa" Leo from Little Havana, Miami before turning the mic over to Perez-Carrillo.

"A lot of people have asked me to give them some tips about rolling a cigar," said Perez-Carrillo, "and all I can tell you is: if I was into zen, I would say, 'Become one with the leaf.' "

This was something for everyone to contemplate while they took their seats, some of whom were still smoking the PadrĂ³n cigars from breakfast. At each place setting was a makeshift board, a razor blade serving as a chavetta, a corona without its wrapper, a cup of water to moisten the leaf and a small cup of gomma, a natural gum used as an adhesive. Participants were handed a rich Ecuadoran Sumatra leaf, which they were instructed to lay across the board. Papa Leo took center stage while a camera zoomed in on his workstation, projecting his image onto an enormous screen.

Torcedors in training concentrate for the perfect roll.
The first step was to finesse the wrapper by stretching it out, making it as wrinkle-free as possible without tearing the leaf. Papa Leo demonstrated and all eyes were on the screen. A dab of water now and then moistened the leaf to render it more pliable. Perez-Carrillo walked around surveying the initial steps of the rolling process.

"So what do you think, Ernesto?" asked Giannini.

"Let me tell you, there's a lot of talented people here, a lot of talented people," said Perez-Carrillo. "Maybe not cigarmakers, but a lot of talent in here."

For many of the attendees, this was not their first time rolling under Perez-Carrillo's tutelage. It was the eighth year that he put on a rolling event in conjunction with the Las Vegas Big Smoke. Some of the participants were actually former winners.

The next step was to cut the perimeter of the leaf in order to smooth out the edges and create a more aesthetically pleasing cigar. Perez-Carrillo continued to circulate, checking everyone's progress until he came across someone who had decided to roll his cigar early. "You really think you're an expert, don't you?" said Perez-Carrillo, taking a playful jab. Giannini added, "You see, the ladies are always the ones who roll the best cigars. You know why? Because they know how to listen. They know how to pay attention."

An enthusiastic cigar roller shows his Sumatra leaf.
Meanwhile, Papa Leo deftly handled the chavetta and showed the audience how to cut a long half-moon arc shape from the bottom of the wrapper. The cut went the expanse of the leaf.

Perez-Carrillo leaned over and looked at another participant's work. "That looks like chewed-up bubble gum, but you may still win." He comforted the room by saying that it normally takes a cigar roller six months of training before he or she can roll a cigar properly.

Then the moment of true torcedor talent was tested. Perez-Carrillo walked around placing participants' wrapperless cigars in the correct place for rolling -- head down at an angle on top of the leaf. Giannini suggested that rolling a cigar incorrectly is like wearing your pants inside out -- you see the seams. "Don't think about it, just do it," he encouraged.

An expert torcedor, or cigar roller, will stretch and roll simultaneously for smoothness and tightness. On screen, Papa Leo's veteran hands made it look easy, like second nature. He produced a box-ready cigar as casually as someone would remove it from its cellophane wrapper. He then unrolled it and did it again, and again and then again. A small dab of gomma along the leading edge of the wrapper made it stick to the bunch, followed by a quick twist at the top to form a pigtail cap, which was cut an eighth of an inch from the end. By this time, many people had fired up their La Gloria Cubana Wavells and were better appreciating Perez-Carrillo's wry sense of humor as he circled the room.

A contestant's Artiste cigar commemorates the 10th anniversary of Big Smoke.
An interesting subset, dubbed Artiste cigars by Giannini, were crafted by a few members of the audience. Some rollers got creative and produced novelty cigars in odd shapes. One resembled a man in a top hat smoking a cigar. Another cigar was rolled into the shape of a lady with golden ringlets of hair and a small straw hat. In the end, the first-place Artiste cigar went to the Marvin Shanken cigar, which bore a band with the face of Marvin R. Shanken, Cigar Aficionado's editor and publisher, on it.

After the preliminary judging, the real judging commenced and every rolled stick was collected. Some of the cigars looked tight enough to go straight into the retail market, while others looked better with the wrapper off. All the while, Papa Leo continued to stretch, roll and twist, banging out one perfect cigar after another as though he was in the factory. The running was narrowed down to three cigars and three winners.

The third-place winner won a box of La Gloria Cubana Corona Gordas and a bag of Cigar Aficionado clothing. The second-place winner went home with a box of La Gloria Cubana Serie R No. 7 Maduros and a ticket for next year's Big Smoke. Finally, the first- and grand prize winner was Gerry Curry of San Diego, California, who was presented with a Danny Marshall humidor, an El Credito guayabera, shirt, a combination golf bag/humidor/beer cooler, a box from Perez-Carrillo's private stock of La Gloria Cubana Reserva Figurado Piramides Classicas Maduros (unavailable in the retail market), and an all-expense-paid trip to Miami where he and a guest will tour the El Credito factory, see beautiful south Florida and compete for the Super Roll championship.

Curry approached the stage with an ear-to-ear smile, a bit overwhelmed by his good fortune. "I'm shaking," he said as he was congratulated.

"Any secret to rolling the best cigar this morning?" asked Giannini.

"A misspent youth," answered Curry. "I'm a child of the Sixties."

Not everyone understood what he meant, but everyone received a beautiful certificate decorated with the traditional La Gloria Cubana box art, bestowing the title of "Honorary Cigar Roller of the El Credito Cigar Factory."

Photos by Camilla Sjodin Hadowanetz