Thursday morning Joanna and I began our day at Tabacalera A. Fuente, which occupies two very large buildings in the Zona Franca.
One of two giant Fuente factories in Zona Franca
We were greeted on the sidewalk by José Blanco, who, on the previous night was the first person at the Fuente table to get up and get some food from the large buffet as everyone else remained talking.
“Fuck this, I gotta eat” uttered José, who encouraged me to follow his lead. Ever the hungry one, I did just that.
Compared to EPC the day before, the Fuente tour group was over double the size of participants, totaling north of 60.
After being greeted by traditional Dominican costumed dancers (called ‘Lechón’) and a speech from Cito Cascella, visitors were led down a red carpet at the entrance (it’s actually a painted floor made to look like a red carpet with yellow trim).
This is where the factory’s many employees typically tread across to first put their belongings in lockers before getting to their stations to begin the livelong day. The company insists that due to the uniquely skilled manner of their work, the workers are of “celebrity status” to them, and aims to make them feel revered and special.
The workers work away to the sound of loud latin music, which they seem to enjoy as they collectively forge some of the world’s most sought after cigars.
A Fuente worker applies labels to the acclaimed OpusX cigar
Guests were quickly provided audio headsets and a fine selection of Fuente cigars that included Don Carlos, OpusX, Chateau Fuente and Magnum R. Within no time flat, a large cloud of smoke emerged and made its way roving around the factory.
Tabacalera A. Fuente (also called the Catedral del Tobacco) is monstrous.
A large portion of it is very new, and everywhere you turn there are large murals, framed paintings, awards, articles, and countless Fuente-associated cigar iconography.
At times, the Fuente factory feels like a cross between a Planet Hollywood and a cigar factory.
The likeness of Carlos Sr. and Carlito is everywhere, and can even be seen in an Andy Warhol-style painting. Images of Ybor City, Florida line many of its walls. Ybor City is where Carlito’s Grandfather, Arturo A. Fuente first arrived in America to begin making cigars.
Being the first tour of a group this size since remodeling, the tour lagged at times, as guests got bottlenecked in hallways and sometimes got lost from the group. However, despite this small setback, I’m certain they’ll properly iron out the tour formula in due time.
When they do – there’ll be no tour or facility like it of it’s kind anywhere.
An overly large group size meant frequent tour delays at Fuente
About 60% of the way through the tour Carlito himself surprised happy guests, as he appeared in a room that was made to resemble the humble little house that he grew up in in Ybor City that he so fondly reminisces about.
After an exuberant welcome, Carlito went into a few meandering antidotes and analogies that somehow always manage to circle back to his original point.
He’s a real character, that Carlito – and most likely THE biggest icon within the entire industry today.
Ultimately Carlito led guests through a dazzling new rolling area called The Grand Cathedral and to the adjacent factory where boxes and packaging is created before ending things off with lunch fare, speeches and Fuente-sized entertainment.
Once again I enjoyed sitting beside Blanco and Newman, who despite decades of tenure in the industry, never seem to tire of discussing the industry, and their stronger than ever love for cigars.
At one point Newman asked Blanco if he thinks today’s cigar boom is bigger than the one that took place in the 1990s.
Blanco replied that not only is the average cigar of today superior in quality than the typical subpar “Don Nobody” cigars that were being churned out back then, but he also cited that people were shown to be typically buying robusto-sized cigars, whereas today it’s the larger toro-sized cigars that are leading the charge.
This in turn results in the selling of greater quantities of tobacco.
I guess they don’t call José The Professor for nothing.
Carlito’s Way: ‘Papa Del Humo’ is seen getting his groove on with guests
Before we knew it, Carlito was dancing with guests to the sounds of latin music and a spectacular saxophone player. Shortly afterwards, Carlito said his goodbyes, and posed for pictures before seeing us out the door. We were full and content.
Enjoying some cigar talk with Carlito (L) and John Paul Garrido (c)
As if Tabacalera Fuente wasn’t enough, Joanna and I then decided to squeeze in a private tour of nearby La Aurora – the Dominican Republic’s oldest cigar factory.
As Joanna was a former employee of La Aurora prior to relocating to Canada, we received an intimate tour for two, guided by Eugenio Polanco, a La Aurora veteran who’s expertly honed his craft for providing a tour of the factory to a T.
I enjoyed a 1903 Edition Ecuador Robusto and enjoyed watching one of their longest-tenured rollers (35 years) roll a gordo-sized cigar specifically for me.
At one point, Eugenio (or Eugene as the employes call him) bestowed upon me a great little tip.
Before I cut my cigar, he asked what I do after I cut it. “Um, well, I light it I guess”, I muttered. He shook his head with a smile and told me to go ahead and cut my cigar. After cutting my cigar he told me to open the palm of the empty hand and gently tap the cut cap against the meaty outside of my palm. This resulted in a small pile of tobacco debris coming off into my palm – the same debris that I usually have to spit out or remove from my mouth after my first few puffs.
I blew the debris from my palm into the air, lit my cigar and placed it in my mouth.
No more small tobacco debris. Thanks Eugene.
Colleague Joanna Liriano and Eugenio Polanco of La Aurora
Thursday evening featured the Festival’s not to be missed White Party.
I donned my white linen shirt and pants, threw on a Panama hat and danced the night away while enjoying yet another Opus X alongside 3 solid pours of Dewar’s 25 at the always bumpin’ Fuente table. I enjoyed a few laughs with La Aurora’s Master Blender Manuel Inoa. Behind me sat the country’s Vice President, Raquel Peña who was seemed deep in conversation with Fuente’s Ciro Cascella.
For the event, guests put a lot of thought into their white attire and it certainly showed, as they were handed yet another gorgeous collector’s box of cigars. This time the box had been adorned with the print of a painting by Dominican artist Omar Garcia Angurria who depicts everyday images of Dominican life in a dazzling airbrushed like manner.