After a 3.5 hour flight, and a winding, tumultuous, 1.5 hour drive in from Puerto Plata that traversed two large mountains (the traffic in the Dominican Republic is exceptionally chaotic and haphazard), I successfully arrived in the nation’s second largest city, Santiago de los Caballeros, for the Pro Cigar Festival in late February of 2022.
A Return To Form
My colleague Joanna Liriano and I had recently been made aware that we would likely be among a very small handful of Canadians participating in this major annual cigar event that had recently been tripped up by Covid. Despite the winding down of a two year pandemic, most Canadian factions within the industry decided to still hold off on participation – which left us more than happy to represent the country.
Participating on behalf of House Of Horvath in Toronto, Canada, I was eager to pick up on what was once an annual tradition for the company. My modus operandi was basically to visit our multiple suppliers and further cross paths with them and other key industry players at the various day and evening events that had been scheduled.
Upon checking in at the Hodelpha Garden Court Hotel, I was soon off to register where I was greeted by a resounding “hola!” by 11 lovely ladies. These ladies were all working the event for the week to help guests with any questions, to help with tours – and to generally help socialize any weary post-pandemic attendees.
After registering, I was provided an impressive limited Pro Cigar Festival backpack, which came loaded with Pro Cigar swag, Colibri cutter and torch lighter, a Pro Cigar ashtray, and a stunning box that featured 11 premium cigars made by Pro Cigar members including La Aurora, La Flor Dominicana, Davidoff, Arturo and more.
DOMINICAN CIGAR PROFILE: E.P. Carrillo New Wave Brilliante Connecticut
New Wave Connecticut are gorgeous at first glance with a beautiful wrapper from Ecuador. They have a taste profile that has both sweet and creamy notes and also a noticeable touch of spice. These characteristics last throughout the cigar with added notes of earth and wood in the second half.
These ladies were all working the event for the week to help guests with any questions, to help with tours – and to generally help socialize any weary post-pandemic attendees.“
My first night was spent at the at the Welcome Cocktail Event that was conveniently being held on the lovely poolside terrace at my hotel.
Guests were treated to a selection of complimentary Brugal rums as well as Remy Martin cognac, as they puffed away and began to effectively shake off any residual tension from their travels, or from the the familiar domestic environment they left behind.
On Wednesday, our first full day began at the La Alianza cigar factory, where E.P. Carrillo cigars are made within Zona Franca, a walled-off section of the city where goods are made for export only.
Upon arrival, were greeted by a smiling Emmanuel Diaz. Diaz, alongside Jorge Fernández Maique and Jorge (Jose) Manuel Vega, currently represent the trinity of Ernesto Perez Carrillo’s successors when it comes to the overseeing of making of EPC cigars at La Alianza.
I enjoyed a gordo-sized EPC Capa de Sol cigar and coffee, before we were guided through the facility to see how highly acclaimed cigars such as the Encore, La Historia and The Pledge are made. Guests were told that they could take cigars from a table that was lined with a bounty of boxes of E.P. Carrillo releases.
Unlike say, Tabacalera A. Fuente’s newer and much larger-scale facility, La Alianza’s appeal lay in its traditional layout and smaller, more intimate surroundings.
This made for a very informative and easy-to-digest tour.
After the tour, guests enjoyed a guided tasting of a cigar that incorporated 3 different wrappers in an attempt to demonstrate the flavor and aroma differences between a San Andrés (Mexican), Ecuadorian Sumatra and Connecticut wrapper. All 3 wrappers cloaked the cigar at different points in the burn, effectively demonstrating the different nuances between each variety.
A wonderful lunch with team EPC followed at a nearby restaurant.
On Wednesday evening, attendees were treated to a lavish welcome dinner at the beautiful Parque Central, where for a second time we were handed a box of 11 fine Dominican cigars before enjoying traditional Dominican cuisine and some cocktails.
Upon entering, I enjoyed a few short, spirited interactions with the likes of Fredrick Vandermarliere (J. Cortez/Oliva), Nirka Reyes (De Los Reyes/Swisher), Lito Gomez (La Flor Dominicana) as well as Eric Newman, 3rd generation owner and President of J.C. Newman Cigar Co. – America’s oldest factory located in Tampa, FLA.
I enjoyed the bulk of the evening spent at the Arturo Fuente table, in the company of Latin America Sales Director John Paul Garrido. John Paul quickly handed me a Fuente Magnum R cigar, a sun grown Rosado wrapper stick that is potentially destined for the Canadian market in due time. A medium-full bodied smoke, it delivered mesquite and a cayenne pepper-like spice with great complexity, great burn – and loads of chewy smoke.
In-and-out conversation between others seated at the table included banter with José Blanco, Eric Newman (who as it turns out has cigars made at Tabacalera A. Fuente) and Fuente Executive Vice President and restaurateur Ciro Cascella, who handed me succession of Fuente Fuente OpusX sticks as the night wore on.
If you don’t know, Ciro stands directly adjacent to Carlito Fuente at the Fuente helm – and is to be his clear successor in the undetermined future.
After the event I hopped on a shuttle bus and occupied a spot sitting next to Eric Newman at the front of the bus.
Surprised that he was taking the bus, I joked with him, saying that his “limo driver must have got lost”.
Mr. Newman – or should I say Eric – like so many other Goliath names in this industry, is a down to earth and accessible person who talks to you like he’s known you for years.
Despite appearing somewhat tired, Eric chatted about his history with the Horvath family, and also insisted on providing me with an in-depth retelling of his version on the history of J.C. Newman, which he intends to compile and release in a book.
I certainly hope he gets around to it.
“At times, the Fuente factory feels like a cross between a Planet Hollywood and a cigar factory.“
Thursday morning Joanna and I began our day at Tabacalera A. Fuente, which occupies two very large buildings in the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
DOMINICAN CIGAR PROFILE: La Aurora 1903 Cameroon
With a large portfolio of different vitolas and rings that have a range from 30 to 58 thickness, La Aurora Cameroon gets its name from the country Cameroon, Africa, where its red and shiny wrapper was formerly harvested (nowadays is Cameroon seed grown in Ecuador).
The next morning I woke to be inundated with text messages from friends who had noticed that Pro Cigar had posted my likeness as an image on their Instagram page that was taken at the Fuente Factory the previous day. I was seen leaning against a wall of Piloto tobacco bags enjoying a Magnum R.
Later that morning was the Member’s Field Day, which was situated in a large tent deep within the seemingly endless tobacco fields of the Carretera Jacagua region of Santiago.
Guests enjoyed plenty of food stations, drinks, music and even cigar bingo. Along the perimeter of the tent were tables that featured each of the Pro Cigar Association Member companies that you could go up and get a special cigar from.
If you were lucky, you could catch Pro Cigar member icons like Jochy Blanco (Tabacalera Palma), Abe Flores (PDR) or the always enchanting Nirka Reyes (De los Reyes/Swisher), as you were personally handed one of their creations to light up and enjoy.
The Field Day turned out to be the sunniest day in the festival, which, up to this point had been somewhat overcast – but very agreeable nonetheless.
On Friday evening, the Festival was capped off in style by a lavish Gala Dinner, a black tie affair that saw attendees dressed to the nines to smoke, eat, drink and partake in the popular charity auction.
Each year, Pro Cigar hosts an auction of often rare cigars, humidors (typically lined with cigars) as well as other special items to benefit the Voluntariado Jesús Con Niños (a non-profit for sick children) and the Hospicio San Vincente de Paul (a retirement home for low-income elderly).
Each year Pro Cigar also builds a home and gives it to an industry employee.
Proceeds of nearly $350,000.00 broke the record from the previous event. Among the items auctioned off by auctioneer Michael Herklots were Elie Bleu and Brizard & Co. humidors and the Orgullosamente, Patrio painting by Omar Garcia Angurria that graced our cigar boxes the night before.
On this final evening, we were once again handed a beautifully decorated box containing 11 premium Dominican cigars which included LFD Cameroon Cabinets, Saga Golden Age and Opus X Forbidden X among others.
Onstage, members of the Pro Cigar Association gathered to toast to what had unquestionably been a very successful 2022 event.
For the evening, we were invited to join the E.P. Carrillo table, and as with all the companies we associate with within this industry, we were made to feel just like family. Emmanuel Diaz made certain that I immediately had a La Historia Gordo to enjoy while in the company of those at EPC. I enjoyed the oily, full-bodied La Historia immensely, and then proceeded to gorge on fine Dominican chocolates by Dominican chocolatier Kah Kow after dinner.
All in all, the Pro Cigar Festival in Santiago, Dominican Republic is quite possibly the industry’s best event.
Instead of congregating in a standard, typically cloudy convention hall roaming from table to table, the Pro Cigar Festival immerses guests into the authentic factory and field surroundings from where these glorious cigars are born.
With the exception of the Gala, each evening event is situated within an elaborately decorated open-air space to comfortably enjoy cigars and second-to-none entertainment at every turn.
If you’re a cigar lover (after all, you’re reading this, aren’t you?) and you missed Pro Cigar 2022 – be sure to do yourself a favor and pencil it in for 2023.
You’ll be glad you did.