ProCigar Festival: Beautiful Weather and an Abundance of Cigars
Here I am, at the Camp David Ranch, up in the mountains of Santiago in the Dominican Republic, listening to a warm mountain breeze rustle the leaves of all the exotic trees and vegetation outside of my window. Good news is, I can smoke in this room. It always makes me feel like Hemingway, smoking a cigar and typing away in a hotel room with a mountain view outside of my window. It's peaceful up here away from the narrow streets and congestion of Santiago. The streets are often choked up with lots of dumpy Toyota Corolas and little motor bikes buzzing in and out of traffic. Some people consider that sort of thing the life of the city. I prefer it up here.
I finished my first day of the second leg of the ProCigar Festival. The first leg started in Punta Cana. Right now, I'm surrounded by cigars. Before you even attend your first event, you get a swag bag full of $250 worth of gear. The main attraction is a case of 11 cigars. This is not counting all the cigars you're given at each event. If ProCigar is anything, it's generous.
On the first morning, I ended up at Tabacalera Palma, makers of Aging Room, La Bohéme and the new La Galera brand. It's owned by José "Jochy" Blanco who also grows tobacco throughout the Dominican Republic. Right outside his factory, he has a few acres of experimental tobacco. The seed type is a hybrid of Dominican Criollo '98 crossed with Nicaraguan Criollo '98 to form this kind of super Criollo that doesn't have a name. It doesn't have a cigar blend either.
This is only the second year that Jochy has planted on this plot and he's not sure exactly where the tobacco will be going. What he does know is that the tobacco will be strong. The dry season has resulted in tobacco that Blanco says is much more full bodied and concentrated than usual. And he has no shortage of tobacco either.
He just built a two-story, 40,000 square foot warehouse just across the street for fermentation of binder and filler tobacco as well as manual stemming. This can only indicate one thing: growth. At the factory, he seems to be making a big push behind his new La Galera brand. The racks are full of La Galera boxes, the aging room is full of rolled cigars marked "La Galera" and when I visited the packaging room, a good part of the employees were filling boxes of La Galera. But there was also a significant amount of Aging Room and La Bohéme as well. In the factory, I pulled a La Bohéme Poeta straight off the rolling table. Jochy says that he often prefers smoking cigars that way. I found that it drew and burned perfectly.
Later on, I attended the ProCigar press conference. It was the usual state-of-the industry presentation, which is normally a combination of nationalistic pride and rhetoric ("We make the best cigars in the world."), to more objective aspects like export numbers and crop reports. Here's a few of the most memorable points: According to Davidoff CEO Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard, 2015 turned out to be a tougher year for the Dominican Republic than anticipated. Growth in the U.S. was only 2 percent and Europe decreased by 5 percent. Asia is down too, thanks to what Hoejsgaard referred to as China's "anti-luxury and anti-spending campaign," as well as a policy that outlawed smoking in Macau's casinos. Some of you might remember how the Revel Hotel Casino in Atlantic City proclaimed itself a nonsmoking facility—not even on the gambling floor. Look at where Revel is now—shuttered, after less than three years. There's a lesson here.
And, starting on May 20, 65 percent of cigar packaging in Europe will have to be covered in warning stickers, plus the boxes have to include the number for a quit smoking hotline. "Of course," Hoejsgaard added "nobody knows what that number actually is."
A dry season in the Dominican Republic has resulted overall in 20 percent less tobacco from the farms. The season only affected growers who rely more on rain than irrigation. Those who had their own irrigation were not nearly as affected, though, according to Nirka Reyes, president of De Los Reyes Cigars (formerly known as Corporación Cigar Export), the lack of rain this year has made the tobacco stronger and more full bodied, which corroborates what Blanco said earlier.
Manolo Quesada, president of Quesada Family cigars, chimed in, expressing the same anxiety that everyone else has about the impending FDA ruling. Everything, at this point, is conjecture, though he assured us that the IPCPR and the CRA are advocating for better legislation. At the moment, nobody knows exactly what that means and Quesada expects to see a final ruling within the next 45 to 60 days.
As for me, I can't let angst like that ruin the ProCigar Festival. If the guillotine blade is about to drop on the entire cigar industry, then I will spend the next month or so celebrating what we have now rather than sitting and stewing in my own disdain like I normally do.
I'm finishing up Ernesto's Perez-Carrillo's Short Run 2016. It has a beautiful Ecuador Habano wrapper and was given to me the other night over a dinner at Saga restaurant, which is owned by Augusto Reyes. Jochy was at the dinner, too. It's always nice to dine and smoke with people who have naturally sunny dispositions and a lot of tobacco knowledge that they're willing to share.