I’m smoking something right now that you’ve never smoked. Nobody has. It’s a combination of Dominican and Nicaraguan ligero with a Brazilian Oscuro wrapper, but it’s all blended around a particularly mouth-coating bunch of Connecticut Broadleaf. I put it together myself. Or, more truthfully, I told Abe Flores of PDR Cigars what I wanted in terms of flavor and he chose the tobaccos during my visit to his factory. This was at last week’s ProCigar Fest. Though not officially part of the ProCigar tour, it was one of my many stops during this annual Caribbean celebration of the Dominican Republic’s cigar industry. More on my blend later.
It’s difficult to figure out a way to write about the ProCigar Festival without sounding like some kind of brochure from the Dominican Republic’s tourist commission. I say this because the trip really is as fun and enlightening as all the promotional literature tells you. Especially when the trip happens to fall in the dead of winter. I go from freezing temperatures straight to a summer-like climate in a matter of three hours. As soon as you step out of the airport terminal you’re handed a Presidente beer and a cigar. Literally. I’m not exaggerating. I don’t think people are aware of just how generous the industry is during the time of the festival and just how many cigars each company is willing to hand out. You land in Santiago, get your bag, clear customs, and there is a ProCigar stand outside full of beer and smokes for you to enjoy while you’re waiting for your cab. And yes, you are allowed to smoke and drink right there at the airport. The sky is blue, palm trees rustle in the warm breeze and you don’t need a jacket anymore. This pretty much sets the tone for the entire festival—my fourth one so far, and this little touch still gives me a thrill.
Tuesday afternoon. I register at the hotel and am handed a military grade canvas goodie bag loaded with merchandise: an ashtray, coffee mug, coffee, magazines, polo shirt, hat, Xikar cutter, Xikar torch lighter and, of course, a sampler box of cigars. Great cigars. And I’d be lying if I told you that my eyes didn’t go right to the Fuente Fuente OpusX The Angel’s Share. Now before I’m accused of favoritism or political incorrectness, I just want to be clear about something. I’m not saying that the Opus is any better or worse than any other cigar in that box. But you have to understand that Fuente only rejoined the ProCigar consortium last year, so I’m not exactly used to seeing OpusX, let alone any Fuente products at all, in the swag bag. Considering that Carlos “Carlito” Fuente Jr. couldn’t be present for the festival, I took this as a gesture of good will from the Fuente family. They also included a Churchill sized Don Arturo Aniversario Destino al Siglo. I’ve never even seen one of these, period.
Lots of other great smokes in the bag: Davidoff threw in a short perfecto with a special edition Colorado Claro cover leaf—a series released only a few times a year. And they included a Puro d’Oro Gigantes as well. What else? A Quesada Seleccion España Robusto; La Aurora’s Guillermo Leon Perfecto; General Cigar’s Partagas and a Macanudo 1968; a Romeo by Romeo y Julieta and VegaFina Sumum from Altadis; two giant cigars from Augusto Reyes. Lots of thick cigars in this box. Juan Clement kept it elegant and classic with a slimmer perfecto and toro. Not that I even got to smoking anything in that box. With cigarmakers constantly around handing out smokes as soon I saw them, there was never any need.
The evening ended with reception cocktail party at the Gran Almirante hotel in Santiago and cigars were being passed out to every attendant. It marked the official beginning of the tour’s second leg. The Festival began in La Romana, where golf and beach activities revolved around a tour of Altadis’s Tabacalera de Garcia factory. I still haven’t experienced that part of the tour. I hear the beaches are beautiful, and judging by everyone’s tan and generally relaxed comportment at the cocktail reception, I’m guessing that the rumors are true.
On Wednesday, I drove out to Tamboril to see the PDR Cigars factory. It’s a surprisingly large facility in the La Palma free zone, about 25 minutes from the hotel. The roads on the way are bumpy and swarmed with mini motor bikes and these boxy turquoise Daihatsu trucks that I didn’t know even existed anymore. And there is little regard for the rules of the road. Everyone makes their own lane. Seems to work for them. You go through a landscape of tropical flowers and ruddy concrete buildings painted cheery shades of yellow, pink, blue with very little trace of the Western world. No Starbucks. No Gaps. No McDonald’s. Few professionally minted corporate logos. The tire shops, soda vendors and cafes all have hand-painted signs and are furnished with plastic lawn chairs. You do, however, see official banners and posters for Presidente beer, an entity in Santiago as omnipresent as the city’s mountainous backdrop.
The PDR Cigars factory is owned and operated by Abe Flores and Luis Rodriguez. It’s about 45,000 square feet where the top floor is used to store bales and bales of tobacco, the bottom floor for rolling brands like the namesake PDR 1875 cigars, of which there are many varieties, but also contract brands like the Gurkha 125 Anniversary Edition, Gurkha Ghost, La Palina Classic and El Primer Mundo. The first thing I sampled was PDR’s new Half Corona.
Abe had a bundle of them in his office and modeled this off of Cuba’s H. Upmann Half Corona, but decided to give this little cigar its own blend entirely. At 3 1/2 inches by 40 ring, his half corona is called the A. Flores 1975 Gran Reserva, and uses a Cuban-seed Brazilian wrapper around a blend of Dominican and Nicaraguan tobacco. The smoke is delicious. If it becomes popular, Abe will introduce more sizes, but for now, this little smoke is its own single-size line with its own unique blend.
He also showed me a tray full of toros, some in dark maduro wrappers, others wearing lighter, reddish cover leaves—prototypes for some of his contract brands. Future Gurkhas? Next year’s La Palina? He wouldn’t say, but I grabbed some nonetheless. On the factory floor, we came across a few bins of different tobaccos and suddenly I had delusions of being a blender. Flores is a very amicable guy, and he humored me when I picked out tobaccos and told him what kind of taste profile I was looking for. What can I say? I was inspired. You’ve heard of beer goggles. I suffered a case of tobacco goggles. A hefty bunch of Connecticut Broadleaf, some Dominican Corojo, some ligero from Estelí, a Brazilian Oscuro wrapper from Bahia, and I had my own blend. I didn’t actually roll this. Didn’t even attempt to. That’s where my fantasy stopped. Even in the world of make-believe, I know my limitations, but we smoked it on the spot. Personally, I loved it. When I asked Flores what he thought, he smiled and said “this will be a lot better in about a month.” That could be considered a compliment. Right? He even had someone print up a few personalized bands for my smokes. “Liga Gremax” the bands read. Not sure what that means exactly. Probably something along the lines of “rejected blend.”
When playtime was over, Flores took me back to the Gran Almirante for the press conference. The two most vocal members have always been Hendrik “Henke” Kelner, Davidoff’s operation manager and ProCigar president, as well as Manuel Quesada of S.A.G. Imports and MATASA. A few interesting notes here.
Firstly, according to ProCigar, the CAA (Cigar Association of America ) got it all wrong. It was previously reported by the CAA that Nicaragua surpassed the Dominican Republic in annual exports of premium cigars to the U.S. ProCigar disputes this claim, arguing that an arbitrary classification was given to Nicaragua in order to quantify it as the leader. Apparently, Nicaragua’s “premium” cigars were noted by the CAA as any cigar costing $0.23 to $0.76 to produce. However, for the Dominican Republic, only cigars costing $0.76 and above were given “premium” classification. As to why the two countries were given different standards, the reason was unclear, but this calculation skewed the numbers. When both standards are applied equally to both countries, ProCigar is pretty confident that the Dominican Republic is the unambiguous leader in terms of export volume.
Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard, CEO and president of Davidoff reported the findings of a Zurich University study that projects a 40 percent increase in worldwide smoking by 2025 and Quesada talked about the emergence of more cigars using exclusively Dominican tobacco as the country becomes more adept at cultivating wrapper leaf. Promising forecasts indeed until the subject of the FDA came up. Nobody in the premium cigar industry wants FDA regulation. ProCigar continues its efforts to educate legislators and explain the difference between premium cigars and Big Tobacco. No easy task.
The evening concluded with its pig roast gala—my personal favorite of all the dinners. While whole pigs roasted on spits over an open flame, ProCigar’s Catherine Llibre took the mic, welcoming the two newest members: Ernesto Perez-Carrillo of EPC Cigar and Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana. We were all handed a packet of five cigars: A Montecristo Epic No. 2; a hefty 58 ring gauge Don Julio by Corporacion Cigar Export; the new Fonseca Cubano Exclusivo; a La Aurora 100 Años Maduro Special Edition; and a pigtailed La Flor Dominicana Unidad.
They changed it up a bit this year. In previous festivals, beautiful cigar girls would walk around and pass out the cigars. This was, of course, a nice touch, but people tended to get a little…well…excited and take more than one, which inevitably meant that some people wouldn’t get the chance to try every cigar. People complained. ProCigar listened. Problem fixed.
I made my way to the pigs. Just to paint a picture, once the pigs were done, they were not deboned and presented in serving dishes. What fun would that be? The pigs were placed in their entirety on a carving board and each hunk of meat was hacked right off the steaming carcass and put on your plate. Much better for a few reasons. Firstly, this keeps the meat hotter. Secondly it keeps it from drying out. And thirdly, you can actually pick which cut of meat you want. Not to mention the big pieces of salty, crunchy skin (chicharrónes in Spanish) that you get with each serving. Me, I asked for the snout. Really. The meat is flavorful and no one seems to want it. This fascinated others at my table. Willy Herrera of Drew Estate had never eaten snout before. Neither had Courtney Smith of La Palina or even David Savona, Cigar Aficionado’s senior editor. And they weren’t about to start. Nose-to-tail dining isn’t for everyone. No matter.
I sat out the evening’s merengue contest and instead helped myself to more roast hog, puffing away on a Dominican-made La Palina Classic. I’m sure there was an after-party somewhere, but I needed rest for the next day’s factory tour. Not to mention that I may have eaten an entire pig over the course of the evening. That tends to take the salsa right out of you.