Cuban cigar smokers know the name Hamlet, not for the Shakespearean play but for the tobacco roller bearing the same name. Hamlet Paredes was one of Cuba's star rollers, representing Habanos in various smoke shops around the globe, making custom shapes with his talented hands. Today, Paredes, 41, is part of Rocky Patel Premium Cigars Inc., and he has come out with a brand bearing his name under the Rocky Patel umbrella. Cigar Aficionado's David Savona sat down with Paredes recently in New York City.
Savona: You once said that when you were growing up, you never wanted to be third best, or fourth. Can you elaborate on that?
Paredes: That's what my family told me to do in life. Don't be like the 1 million. Be between one and two, whatever you're doing. If you're a mechanic, be the best one. And that was a tool that I used against them when I quit. I said "I cannot be a doctor. This is not for me."
Q: You were studying to be a medical doctor?
A: Yes. I said I can become a doctor, but I don't want to be a doctor.
Q: You're obviously good with your hands. Where did that come from?
A: My great-grandmother was a piano teacher and my great-grandpa was a sculpture teacher in the best art school in Havana, San Alejandro. It's still there.
Q: Did you grow up doing sculpture and playing piano?
A: No, my first interest was to be a designer. I applied for the industry to do all these building designs, but I found out there were cigars. Thank God.
Q: What was your first cigar job?
A: It was at the Partagás Factory. In 1993. My mom introduced me to this guy who used to be the cigar roller at La Cecilia restaurant [in Havana]. He was a famous roller. He brought me to the Partagás Factory, and I got the lowest job in the factory—pushing around boxes. And then when I came back home, my mom handed me a piece of paper with a name and a number. She said "That's your English teacher. You're going to learn English, two days a week."
Q: How old were you?
A: I was 17. Later, when I started rolling at age 18, I was sitting between the two oldest rollers at the factory. They told me they worked there since they were 13, 14 years old. In the same chair. I said, one thing I know is that I have to get out of here. I don't want to spend my whole life here.
Q: When did you start traveling? How did it happen?
A: At 19, I got married to a girl I met at the factory. We went on our honeymoon to the Sierra Maestra hotel, in the mountains. It's a tourist place. We were at the bar, and there was a German couple who needed help to find the bathroom. Nobody spoke English. I did a translation. This girl who overheard said "You speak good English. I work in a tourist agency in Havana. We get everybody for the hotels and the tourist industry." I'm in the middle of nowhere. She gave me her card, and I got into the tourist system. And I was the only roller who was in that system.
Q: So learning English was a game changer for you?
A: That changed my life. I went to a top-roller competition in the Partagás Store festival, and I won. I was a young kid who spoke English, and I got to travel all over the world. I spent five years in the factory, then I moved to the cigar store company, Cubanacan.
Q: Did you roll at Casa del Habano stores too?
A: The first store where I rolled was at the Tropicana Cabaret. Then after that, I spent nine months on a cruise ship.
Q: What was your first international trip?
A: That cruise ship. We did the Caribbean, from Habana to Mexico, Grand Cayman.
Q: Your first time out of Cuba—what did you think?
A: I was excited. I was in my early 20s.
Q: Talk about rolling cigars.
A: I just wanted the best tobacco. When you're rolling, the bigger the tobacco is, the easier it is for you to handle. If the binder is small, and you're making a Churchill, maybe you have to use three binders instead of two. The only way to make it bigger is to add. And that's more difficult.
Q: Would you ever make a cigar with one binder leaf in Cuba?
Q: Two leaves—were they the same type?
Q: So not two leaves to blend.
A: It's two half leaves. The difference between the way we make cigars in Cuba, and the way it's done outside, when they give the roller the binder [in Cuba] it's the whole leaf, with the vein inside. If I'm going to make a cigar, I take out the vein.
Q: What cigars were you rolling at Partagás?
Q: How many leaves of ligero went into that cigar?
A: It's not a map. If the ligero leaf that you're using is small, maybe you use one-and-a-half. The next one maybe smaller, and you put two, just to make it. But normally it's one full leaf.
Q: You have to improvise.
A: Every time. We have millions of cigar rollers in Cuba, who roll cigars in millions of ways.
Q: Just looking at a cigar, can you tell if you made it?
A: Yes. Everyone has their seal. Everybody has their unique way of doing things.
Q: What is the biggest difference in strength between cigars in Cuba and outside of Cuba?
A: I've been on both sides. If we were in Havana, and you ask me for your first cigar, what am I going to give you? A Montecristo No. 5, a [Cohiba] Siglo I or a Romeo Petit Corona. I will not give you a Bolivar, but I will always give you a slim cigar and a short cigar. I don't want to scare you. I want you to come back. And I want to give you the mildest cigar I can. But if you ask me for a mild one in the U.S., I would give you a 6 by 60. Or a toro. It's the opposite.
Q: What's your favorite Cuban cigar?
A: Partagás Lusitania. That's my favorite. My second one is Ramon Allones Gigantes. You know what's good about that brand? It's not very big. Very consistent.
Q: What do you tell people about buying cigars in Cuba?
A: Don't buy cigars in the street, don't buy cigars in the bar, buy them in the cigar store. In La Casa del Habanos.
Q: Let's talk about creating the blend for the Tabaquero Hamlet Paredes brand.
A: I did 124 blends to make that brand. And the final blend was the first. Rocky brought me tobacco from everywhere. I was assuming that any package of tobacco that says a region, and didn't say the country, was from Nicaragua. So I'm blending. After six, seven months, I got my blend. And it got rated in Cigar Insider. So I begin to read—it says Nicaraguan filler. Binder, half Mexican, half Brazilian. I freak out. Brazilian tobacco? I never used Brazilian tobacco. I'm calling Rocky, Nimish [Desai], marketing, everybody. A half hour later, Nimish called me back. He said, "Can you tell me the regions you used in the cigar?" I said Mata Fina... He said hold on. Mata Fina is in Brazil. Are you kidding me? That's how blind I was. It was all about my palate.
This article first appeared in the February 7 edition of Cigar Insider.