Top Dominican Cigar Makers, Part 2 – The Boutique Factories
By Gary Korb
For this report I’ve focused on five of the boutique Dominican cigar makers. The big difference here is, the founders of these smaller tabacaleras have been trailblazers, in some cases, starting from scratch with very little money, limited experience, or both, and yet, their brands have all become cigar industry mainstays. As I did in Part One, I’ve included some historical background on each brand and one signature cigar which, in my opinion, best represents the brand as a whole.
* * *
If you were to begin putting together a list of cigar industry icons, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo would undoubtedly be at or near the top. Ernesto’s story (his friends call him “Ernie”) begins in the late 1970s when the 20-something, would-be jazz drummer found his true destiny after a humbling band audition for tenor sax icon, Stan Getz. As fate would have it, Ernesto left the New York City music scene behind and headed for Miami to make cigars with his father, Ernesto Sr. at his El Credito factory in the city’s “Little Havana” district.
By the time his father passed away in 1980, Ernesto had mastered the art of cigar blending and rolling and was running the factory full-time. The company’s future success would be inspired by a Cuban Davidoff he discovered in 1982 calling it, “a total sensuous smoke.” Ernesto’s new blend would be called La Gloria Cubana.
Fast-forward to the Cigar Boom 90s. In 1992, following a glowing 90 and higher reviews in Cigar Aficionado, Ernesto’s La Gloria Cubana cigars had become the juggernaut of the premium cigar business almost overnight.
Production eventually moved to the Dominican Republic and the company continued to grow by leaps and bounds. More critically-acclaimed La Glorias followed, including the La Gloria Cubana Serie R, the industry’s first wide-ring format cigars.
In 1999, Ernesto sold El Credito and the La Gloria Cubana brand to General Cigar/Swedish Match, but stayed on until 2009, mostly as an advisor and ambassador for the brand.
That same year, Ernesto returned to full-time blending and production by founding a new family-owned and operated cigar company that would be called, E.P. Carrillo Cigars – E.P.C., for short. His son Ernesto Perez-Carrillo III (a.k.a., “Ernie Jr.”), and daughter, Lissette, signed-on, too, and the E.P.C. brand debuted in April of 2010 with the release of the E.P.C. CORE Line.
Since then, E.P.C.’s Tabacalera La Alianza has released one new blend a year, each remarkably different, and since the company’s founding, their cigars have annually appeared in the “Cigars of The Year” lists in every major cigar publication. Their impressive portfolio has even taken hold in Europe, especially the super-sized INCH cigars collection.
Ernesto has always loved experimenting with new seed strains, and has done several outside projects, including blends for Crowned Heads Cigars. In November of last year, it was announced that Ernesto was bringing on another legendary cigar figure, José Blanco of Las Cumbres Tabaco, as the new Senior Vice President for E.P.C Cigars. With their new creations now in the works, few premium cigar releases will be more highly anticipated.
The Cigar: E.P. Carrillo La Historia E-III (6 7/8″ x 54)
The Churchill-sized E.P. Carrillo La Historia E-III is a tribute to the cigar-making tradition that Ernesto, his mother and father before him, and his children after him, have worked so hard to maintain. Using Nicaraguan and Dominican fillers, plus an Ecuador binder box-pressed inside a dark, flawless Mexican San Andrés wrapper, the result is an ultra-smooth, complex smoke brimming with coffee, cocoa, and citrus notes. Moreover, this cigar captured the No.2 slot in Aficionado‘s “Top 25 Cigars of 2014” with a “Classic” 95 rating. An avid jazz fan like Ernesto might even describe this cigar – with reference to John Coltrane’s masterpiece – as “a love supreme.”
When it comes to “American Dream” success stories, there’s no better example than Rafael Nodal, one of the founders of Boutique Blends and Aging Room Cigars.
Arriving from Cuba during the 1980 Mariel boatlift in his teens, Rafael, like Ernesto above, dreamt of a life in music. Instead, the classically-trained violinist found a career in the health care industry, as the Executive Director for a national psychiatric corporation.
During that period, Rafael met his future wife, Alina Cordoves – a psychiatrist and the company’s Medical Director – and Hank Bischoff, a mental health therapist. All three would later become partners in the cigar business. (Coincidentally, Alina was also from Cuba, and a tobacco business family.)
In 1998, Rafael and Hank began selling cigars online for the Habana Cuba Cigar Co. whose core brand was Oliveros Cigars – a mostly flavored cigar line. In 2002, Rafael, Alina, and Hank bought the company, and eventually released an unflavored premium line, Habana Premier Selection, made in Nicaragua by Perdomo Cigars.
More premium-quality cigars followed, like the 2005 XL for Men, a wide-ring selection marketed to newer cigar smokers, and the Oliveros King Havano, made by Plasencia with an all-Nicaraguan blend. Some fared better than others, but trying to make cigars to satisfy every cigar smoker had the partners singing the blues by the end of the decade.
It wasn’t until the SWAG Puro Dominicano cigars were released in 2010 that the company found its niche – the small batch, boutique cigar market. One year later, the fittingly named Aging Room Small Batch M356 cigars garnered this Dominican cigar maker’s first major hit by making Aficionado‘s “Top 25 Cigars” of 2011 list.
But it was the release of the box-pressed Aging Room Small Batch Quattro F55 cigars that really catapulted Boutique Brands to the top of the boutique cigar food chain. The Quattro F55 Concerto received a “Classic” 95 rating score and landed the No.2 spot in Aficionado‘s “Top 25 Cigars” of 2013, making it the #1 rated cigar in the U.S.
All three of the above cigars were blended at Jochy Blanco’s Tabacalera Palma facility in Santiago, DR, which today is home to many other highly-rated boutique cigars.
“Boutique Blends is a reflection of our new philosophy,” says Rafael. “We no longer try to make cigars for everyone; rather, we have been introducing new blends and exciting blends to meet the ever expanding palates of cigar smokers in the USA and around the world.”
The Cigar: Aging Room Quattro F55 Concerto (7″ x 50)
The Aging Room Quattro F55 Concerto is the cigar that launched Boutique Blends into small batch cigar prime-time. Originally, the cigars were made with Dominican tobaccos box-pressed inside a rare and uber-flavorful 2003 Indonesian Sumatra wrapper that Jochy had in very limited supply. The wrapper eventually ran its course, but it’s this updated version with a new Indonesian wrapper that landed the cigar its “95.” The full-flavored smoke is drop-dead stunning with perfectly-balanced flavors of earthy spice, sweet cedar, and roasted coffee.
It could be a pitch for a TV series: Set in the mid-2000s, Glen, a successful Midwestern banking executive in the midst of a mid-life crisis gives-up his career to make cigars in the Dominican Republic. Glen founds a company under the name Exclusive Brands and produces a line of cigars called Kristoff (named for his son, Christopher). With no experience other than his own passion for fine cigars, he puts together a team of master tobacco blenders, all with generations of expertise in Cuban cigar making. Trials and tribulations ensue as Glen and his team work to create a premium cigar brand with legs.
In fact, that’s exactly what Glen Case did, and the Kristoff brand has become one of the most critically-acclaimed in the boutique cigar market. Between them, the Kristoff Corojo Limitada, Kristoff Sumatra, GC Signature, and Kristoff Ligero Maduro, have all received scores ranging from 90 to 93 points.
Glen’s wife, Teri, and her father were both successful tobacco brokers, and prior to his going “all-in,” Glen got his first taste of the business as an independent cigar sales rep. Six months later, one of their top customers bought the company and Glen was jobless.
Enter Rolando Villamil, of the Charles Fairmorn factory in the D.R. During a meeting with Glen in Chicago, Glen tells Rolando that he wants to make his own line of cigars. Following an invite to the factory, a month later, Glen’s first cigars were being made while Rolando supervised their production.
Those first cigars were a bundle line called Exclusive Cigars (the parent company was named Exclusive Brands). Kristoff Cigars debuted a year later with the Kristoff Criollo, followed by the Kristoff Maduro. All Kristoff cigars are made with double and triple fermented longfillers rolled in sumptuous looking wrappers with pigtail caps and closed feet that have become a trademark of the brand.
More recently, Case has become active with organizations such as Cigar Rights of America, who have been fighting FDA’s new tobacco regulations that went into effect in August of 2016. In an interview with Cigars & Leisure, Glen said, “It’s critical that everyone gets involved and supports these organizations – manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike. . .We all need to come together to shape and mold this process for maximum protection of the industry.”
The highly-rated Kristoff Ligero Maduro takes the original, 2005 Kristoff Maduro to a whole new dimension. Bedecked with Kristoff’s trademark pigtail cap and closed foot, the Brazilian Maduro wrapper has a dark, oily patina that gets your juices flowing just by looking at it. The core blend consists of mostly Nicaraguan ligero along with Dominican Cuban seed, framed in a Dominican Cuban seed binder. The smoke is medium-full and notably creamy with copious amounts of cedar, roasted coffee, and cocoa bean underpinned by a ribbon of sweet spice throughout.
The protagonist of the PDR Cigars story is another unlikely character, a web developer, who finds his way into the boutique group of Dominican cigar makers through a number of fortuitous circumstances.
Abe Flores, was born in Queens, NY, but moved to the D.R. as a toddler and spent his formative years growing up on his grandfather’s farm in the mountain village of Bonao. Besides raising cattle, the farm also grew coffee and tobacco, but unfortunately, farm livin’ was not the life for Abe. Meanwhile, his father had a grocery business in Santo Domingo, but when the business closed in 1989, the family relocated to Salem, Massachusetts.
Abe went on to college, received a degree in Marketing, and found work as a tech support specialist for a French-owned software company. It was then that Abe became interested in premium cigars. A cousin who worked in New York City would bring cigars back from the D.R. In addition to smoking, Abe began selling cigars in his spare time, mostly to buy musical instruments. (Abe is also a very formidable jazz bassist.)
Abe’s next gig propelled him into the real cigar business when he was hired as a web developer for the Tinder Box chain of retail cigars stores and built the company’s website. It also helped him get to know the people working at the factories. Enter, Juan Rodriguez, president of Don Leoncio Cigars in Tamboril, D.R. This is the part where you would usually read, “and the rest is history,” but, not so fast . . .
Abe started as a broker for Don Leoncio, then became a blender making private labels for various retail cigar stores. Next came the big one – creating a new brand for Don Leoncio. They named it Pinar Del Rio, which made its debut at the 2008 IPCPR Trade Show.
A year later, Abe followed-up with the PDR 1878 Cigars collection. Named for the year Pinar Del Rio was founded in Cuba, the difference between the two brands was the PDR 1878 blend also had Nicaraguan tobacco. Remarkably, they sold over 100,000 cigars in the first three months. That boost came from the under $5 price point, plus, the richer-tasting Dominican-Nicaraguan blend and Brazilian Arapiraca wrapper was the kind of taste cigar smokers were looking for.
Abe subsequently bought Juan out, but he stayed-on to oversee the factory operations. After Abe received a cease and desist order from Habanos S.A. who claimed the name implied his cigars were of Cuban origin, the Pinar del Rio brand name was phased out. According to Abe, most cigar smokers referred to Pinar Del Rio as “PDR” anyway, so it was a wash.
All PDR cigars are distinguished by using the Cuban entubado style of cigar rolling and distinctive-looking triple caps, including a number of Dominican puros. In addition to their own brands, Tabacalera Flores y Rodriguez has also made cigars for Gurkha, La Palina, and Kristoff, among others. Not bad for a talented musician and web developer who way back when couldn’t wait to get off the tobacco farm.
The Cigar: PDR 1878 Oscuro Robusto (5″ x 52)
PDR 1878 Reserva Dominicana Oscuro belongs to Abe’s original PDR line. But unlike the first PDR’s made with Dominican and Nicaraguan tobaccos, this later release is a Dominican puro wrapped in a dark, oily, Oscuro Habano leaf that surrounds a Habano binder and a Criollo & Corojo ’98 core. The smoke is medium-full, incredibly smooth, and brimming with earth and sweet spicy notes –affordably-priced, too.
Born in Spain and raised in Uruguay, Litto Gomez is one of the true rock stars of the cigar business. His story begins in the early 1990’s as the owner of a North Beach Miami jewelry shop. One day, two men came into the shop, one of them put a gun to Litto’s head, they bound and gagged him, then robbed the store of about $400,000 in merchandise.
Enter our heroine – Ines Lorenzo, a former model, as smart as she was beautiful, and Litto’s future wife, whom he credits as responsible for their foray into the cigar business. Partnering with a Miami real estate investor in 1994, they created a Dominican-made cigar, Los Libertadores. Litto managed the modest factory in Villa Gonzalez, and Ines ran the sales and distribution side of the business from Miami, while also appearing in the brand’s ads.
Taking over the brand from their partner in 1996, Litto and Ines renamed the brand La Flor Dominicana. It was the height of the cigar boom, which helped the brand establish itself, but Litto, admittedly, knew nothing about growing tobacco or making cigars. Litto was a quick study, but it still took him 12 years to turn LFD into a cigar brand staple.
Litto’s tobacco-growing side of the business consisted of a 120-acre property shared with tobacco grower and cigar maker, Jochy Blanco, for filler and binder, plus another 40 acre farm use primarily for growing Corojo and Sumatra seed wrapper. By 2002 he was cultivating his own shade and sun grown wrapper leaf.
What really distinguished Litto from other cigar makers was his knack for innovation. In 1997, he released the “El Jocko,” a bold-tasting, odd-looking figurado shaped like a squared-off bowling pin. In 2003, it was the spicy and complex “Chisel,” a shape that took almost a year to perfect, and can be found among most of LFD’s lines.
In 2010 came the Air Bender. A mostly parejo-shaped line, it got its unique name not so much for its shape but for the copious amount of peppery smoke it put out. The Air Bender Chisel hooked a “94” rating and the No.10 spot in Aficionado‘s Top 25 Cigars list that year. Other unique shapes included the rectangular Factory Press, and the “Mysterio,” a sexy, double perfecto made in several versions. If you search the web for images, you’ll find some even more amazing Mysterios, some made with different colored wrappers – all a testament to Litto’s imagination and his rollers’ gifted hands.
The LG Diez selection, released in 2004 for his 10th anniversary in the business is one of Litto’s proudest achievements – a full-bodied puro made with estate-grown Dominican fillers and a shade grown Cuban seed wrapper.
It’s truly amazing how prolific the La Flor Dominicana brand has been since their first cigars rolled off the table over 23 years ago. So many La Flor’s have been released since then, there’s not enough space to account for them all.
In 2015, La Flor released the La Nox, which featured a dark Brazilian Maduro wrapper. As LFD’s website puts it: “It’s smooth smoke and rich flavor were crafted for elegance and power. The result is a cigar that embodies its name and the serene experience that only the night can provide.”
Most recently, the La Flor Dominicana Andalusian Bull cigar was awarded the “No.1 Cigar of the Year” in Cigar Aficionado‘s Top 25 Cigars of 2016. Of course, it’s just one of dozens of accolades Litto’s cigars have received over the years.
Although many others have come to the fore in the world of boutique cigars since he and Ines began, there is probably none other more original than Litto Gomez – and few would argue with that.
The Cigar: La Flor Dominicana Air Bender Chisel (6½” x 54)
La Flor Dominicana Air Bender represents two major facets of Litto’s talents. For one, its unique shape, and secondly, its plethora of flavor. Crafted with the perfectly cured and aged tobaccos grown on Litto’s La Canela farm, the full-bodied smoke is ultra-smooth, creamy, spicy and woody with savory dark chocolate notes from end-to-end.
* * *
Postscript: “Six Degrees of Jochy Blanco”
While doing my research for Part Two, I found one thread that just about all of these boutique Dominican cigar makers had in common. That was, a connection to Jochy Blanco of Tabacalera Palma in Santiago. Whether it was providing tobacco for Rafael Nodal, warehouse space for Abe Flores, a blend for Kristoff, or farmland for Litto Gomez, in some way Jochy has helped contribute to their mutual success. As a result, Tabacalera Palma has become one of the hottest boutique cigar factories in the Dominican and I hope to do a follow-up piece on Jochy in the not too distant future.