ProCigar Festival: Ernesto and an Earthquake

If you're looking for a draw-testing machine at Ernesto Perez-Carrillo's Tabacalera La Alianza factory in the Dominican Republic, you're wasting your time. "If you need a draw tester, than you shouldn't be making cigars," he said succinctly. He didn't just say it to me, but to an entire group of attendees at the ProCigar Festival. The tour of his factory was one of many being offered at this week's Dominican Cigar fest.

The way Ernesto sees it he puts so much time and effort training his rollers to make cigars in the entubado method that he feels he doesn't need a draw tester. He told me that his rollers are so good, his rejection rate is less than 2 percent. Any factory owner will either say that this is an outstanding rate, or that his numbers are BS. Personally, I'll go with the former.

I had a lot of options that morning as I woke up to the sweeping and verdant mountain views up in the high altitudes of Camp David. It seems that although I thought I registered for the La Alianza tour that morning, the only thing I registered for was the dinners and nothing else. Who would do something like that? So I just jumped on the bus heading over to the free zone where La Alianza is located.

Naturally, Ernesto was surprised to see me. My name wasn't on the list. It was my first time in his factory, and there's a lot going on. Firstly, production of his La Historia is up 30 percent since Cigar Aficionado announced it as the No 2 cigar of 2014. That means that he still has 70,000 of these cigars back-ordered. He can't keep up, and that's a good thing. He doesn't strain his rollers though. They work an eight-hour shift and are limited to making a maximum of 300 cigars per day. He's seen other factories where rollers have much higher quotas, but he thinks that just results in sloppy cigars. Besides, the entubado method requires more time anyway. It's a style of rolling cigars where the bunch is formed in a tube shape and the tobacco is evenly scrolled throughout the entire cigar. That means that the draw is better, the different tobaccos are dispersed more evenly, and you get improved combustion over easier rolling methods.

Behind the rolling gallery is a beautifully tiled aging room. Perez-Carrillo found a tile manufacturer in the Dominican Republic that holds the patents for all these vintage Cuban designs. One time he saw a tile pattern paving the floor of a barbershop in Cuba. He never forgot it. And when he saw it again in the Dominican Republic, he didn't hesitate to have these tiles laid, giving his aging room an almost sacrosanct feel where groups of cigars sit tidily bundled on wooden shelves as if each bunch was a Vatican tome of the world's secrets. You'll find everything in there from the E.P. Carrillo New Wave Connecticut cigars to the monstrously thick, border-line obscene, Inch cigars. You'll also find bundles of unboxed E.P. Carrillo Connecticut Reservas. It's a great stick as far as Connecticut cigars go and David Perez, president of A.S.P. Enterprises told me why. A.S.P. is the world's premiere grower of Ecuadoran Connecticut wrapper. He grows mostly two types of wrapper from Connecticut seeds under the cloud-covered skies of Ecuador's Los Rios province. The clouds naturally filter the sun making the area so ideal for growing wrapper that even the Cuban grower Hirochi Robaina once told me that God himself created Ecuador for cultivating wrapper. But every once in awhile, Perez told me, he contracts a limited production of proprietary seeds for specific clients. For Perez-Carrillo, he grew a special hybrid of wrapper that's slightly stronger than the usual strains of Connecticut leaf that he normally grows for the rest of the market. "Connecticut Plus" he calls it. It was good talking to David, but I had to sort of corner him later at lunch to get any information. When I went to the Ecuador, he was in Miami, so I didn't get to see him. When I asked him to speak at my Big Smoke panel on tobacco varietals in November, he was busy that weekend too. I'm beginning to think that he's been ducking me.

I didn't get to smoke one of those Connecticut Reservas at the factory, but I did get one of those No. 2 cigars of the year to puff on while Perez-Carrillo showed us the different corridors of his factory. Ever smell tobacco undergoing a sweating process? To give you an idea, go into your cabinet of household cleaners, open up that bottle bleach you haven't touched in a year and take a strong whiff. Sweating tobacco smells no different. It's one of the necessary steps before the fermentation process to help exorcise foul elements from the tobacco. After the tobacco ferments in large pilons, it's rehydrated and then gets apportioned for the tobacco rollers to put into a blend. Perez- Carrillo's daughter Lissette, is supposedly instrumental in his operation, but she wasn't in the factory that day. The only place I saw her was memorialized on the label of those La Historias. She's the gal on the right, and she looks good. You can thank the Dutch lithographers Vrjidag for that. That company celebrates its 110th anniversary this year. Both Peter Vrijdag and his wife were in the group too, and both seem to think that the ornate label helped to jettison the cigar to its No. 2 spot. (Despite the fact that we taste cigars with the bands removed.) Perez-Carrillo agreed, though I'm not sure if he was just humoring them, or really believes this.

Later, after the tour was over, our small group headed over to a place called Saga, a nice indoor/outdoor restaurant owned by Augusto "Fufi" Reyes, who also owns Corporación Cigar Export. Great lunch. Outside, the restaurant seems encumbered by the clusters of concrete buildings that make up downtown Santiago, but once you're in the back, you find yourself in a florid little oasis where you can eat, drink and smoke. There's even a wine cellar and walk-in humidor. The intimacy of the lunch made me forget that there were lunches like this going on all over Santiago during the festival of factory and field tours. I had, perhaps the greatest flan of my life for dessert. I know that flan can be point of pride for a lot of people, and everyone you meet who makes flan makes the best (or their mother does), but this flan was sticky in the right places and creamy in the right places. Afterward, I got to light up one of those E.P. Carrillo Connecticut Reservas. Connecticut plus indeed! Certainly had more kick than the New Wave, but character too.

Later, I went back to the Gran Almirante Hotel where the tribune of ProCigar ambassadors gave their yearly state of the Dominican Republic address. While Davidoff CEO Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard was going over statistics of international market, the ground rumbled. A lot. From what I later found out, that grumbling was a 4.3 level earthquake. You could hear people behind the doors outside the conference room freaking out. Hans-Kristian didn't seem to notice. Why would he? The rest of the world is fertile ground for developing markets and the myriad business travellers channeling through international airports are just waiting to spend their money on Dominican cigars.

I headed back up to the hills of Camp David. I had to get ready for the ProCigar White party, which is always held at the Monumento a los Héroes de la Restauración. It's a nice monument and the party should be fun, assuming, of course, that the monument is still standing.