Don’t ever start a ProCigar Festival with an empty stomach. I don’t care how tough you think your gut is, if you start smoking at 8:30, that’s about 4 hours of power puffing until lunch, and I refused to make that mistake. My key to survival was this: mangú. It’s a dense dish of mashed plantains often eaten for breakfast in the Dominican Republic. This is why I could spend each morning smoking one cigar after the next without keeling over.
Thursday morning. Some changes at Corporacion Cigar Export since I was there last year. The small facility is owned by Augusto “Fufi” Reyes and I figured I’d hit two birds with one stone by taking this tour, which also featured the MATASA factory.
On the machine-made end, Reyes has taken on a contract for producing Swisher Sweets. He produces them in a separate building, and this is smart, because no matter how hermetic you think your operation is, flavors will travel. There is no sense in denying it. Tobacco is highly absorbent. Flavorings and infusions are very strong. They will find each other.
Export’s main facility got a bit of a face-lift. Each room off the main rolling gallery has a pastel facade decorated with a type of Caribbean Victorian trim, as though it were someone’s island home. Destemming and sorting take place on the same floor and the factory is responsible for brands like Augusto Reyes, Augusto Reyes Platinum, Urban and a new brand called Debonair, which was first unveiled at last year’s IPCPR show.
Debonair is owned by Phil Zanghi, part owner of Durfort Holdings, a company that owns part of the facility. Zangi, who started Indian Tabac with Rocky Patel, has been in the machine-made business for quite some time, but decided last year to come back to premium. Samples of Debonair were available. I grabbed a robusto. Indeed a tasty smoke and one that Zangi is quite proud of. He’s growing the brand at a slow pace. Right now, it’s only in 30 shops, but is certainly worth trying. Keep your eye on that guy.
Hendrik Kelner’s son (Hendrik Jr.) produces his Smoking Jacket brand in an adjacent building. He has his own operation under Corporacion Cigar Export called Kelner Boutique Factory, or KBF, where the cigar is made. It hasn’t been released yet, but Kelner is looking to get it out to market in the summer. It comes in an Ecuadoran Habano wrapper and will come in four sizes. In actuality, the brand has been around since last year, but only at the Gran Almirante hotel cigar shop, or given out at the festivals. Smoking Jacket is available in two varieties in the Dominican, but for the U.S., it will only come in one.
After lunch at Corporacion Cigar Export’s hospitality villa, I visited the MATASA factory, owned by Manuel Quesada. This is the factory that produces the entire line of Fonseca cigars, Quesada Tributo, Quesada d’Etat and the Nat Sherman Timeless Collection. A tour of the box factory, rolling gallery and tobacco storage facility lead to a tasting of three cigars hosted by Michael Herklots. He’s the wunderkind that used to run the Davidoff shops in New York City before moving to Nat Sherman and developing the Nat Sherman Timeless Collection with the Quesadas. It’s a great cigar. The No. 2 torpedo size won the No. 10 spot in Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 Cigars of 2012.
Now, Nat Sherman and the Quesadas are working on a blend that commemorates the long-standing relationship between the Quesada and Sherman families. They narrowed it down to three blends and wanted us, the ProCigar tour, to taste them and help decide on the final product. At this tasting, the Quesadas and Shermans asked the attendees to decide which blend they liked best and why. They even asked for packaging formats and brand-name suggestions. I picked blend No. 3 and suggested the name Coat of Arms. It’s a little cheesy, I know, but the project is also a sentimental one, and besides, it’s the best I could come up with on the spot. I also suggested Sherman Tank, but it isn’t really emblematic of either family. Plus, that name is better suited to the Q d’Etat line anyway. I’m sure that they’ll choose neither. We were sent off with a slide-lid box of four cigars: a Heisenberg Project Robusto, the new box-pressed Fonseca Cubano Exclusivo; the award-winning Nat Sherman Timeless Collection No. 2 that I mentioned before; and a Quesada Seleccion Espana Lancero. Those have got to be some of the tastiest smokes coming out of that factory right now.
That evening, I took a tour bus to the White Party, a hillside event held on the marble steps of the Monumento a Los Heroes de la Restauración. I hear that the city rarely authorizes use of the monument, but makes one of the few exceptions for ProCigar. It grants a beautiful view of the city at night and everyone there is expected to wear white. Like the previous night, packets were handed out as soon as you walked in. Tonight, the selection was as follows: an E.P. Carrillo Edicion Limitada 2012; Davidoff’s Master Edition Club House, a Fuente Don Carlos Robusto; and what General Cigar calls its Special Blend ADP 6. From what I understand, the cigar is a thick, 56 ring gauge version of the slim La Gloria Cubana Rabitos de Cochino released in 2011. I know that our senior editor David Savona enjoyed the cigar very much. I’ve yet to try it, but I’m sure it’s good.
The dinner at the white party had less of a culinary theme as the previous night. It was more a medley that included turkey with corn and bacon stuffing, beef filet with pesto, smoked salmon carpaccio, spinach and ricotta crepes and a mille feuille of artichoke and caramelized garlic.
Of course, Presidente beer was on every table and music raged into the night. Or at least played into the night. They brought in this saxophone player whose horn looked as though it were dipped in white enamel. And he played these “smooth jazz” versions of familiar standards on his alto sax to a background track. Kind of like a sax karaoke. Or maybe it’s called “fusion jazz.” Either way, the style reminded me of Spyro Gyra from the late ‘80s, or early ‘90s. But I wonder what the locals think of something like this.
The normally public monument is suddenly guarded off for what appears to be a rather exclusive party. Often times, the general public doesn’t take kindly to events like that if they feel they’re being purposely excluded. I tried to get a feel for it when I descended the Monument with Ernesto Perez-Carrillo on our way to his car. Nobody seemed to mind. In fact, a child who looked as though he were about six years old tried selling us beer. Presidente.