Made in the USA: 5 Great American Cigars
By John Pullo
We Americans have a soft spot in our hearts for our cigars. They run in our blood: we smoke more of them than just about any other country in the world, and have still been producing them – and unabashedly enjoying them – for over 250 years. American cigars were one of the jewels in our nation’s manufacturing crown, starting with the story of Israel Putnam, veteran of the conflict and occupation of Havana, who returned to Connecticut with a hefty personal stash of smokes (about 30,000 or so) and enough cigar tobacco seed to get an industry rolling. The sale of tobacco even helped to fund the Revolution.
With a steady supply of leaf coming from Cuba, US cigar makers reached a “golden age” of sorts, from the late 1800’s to just after World War I. American cigars were being produced in ridiculous quantity, by the billions – yes, billions with a b – by the many hands of workers at the tens of thousands of U.S. cigar factories. They churned out dozens of cigar shapes and sizes, featuring a wide variety of tobacco varietals grown right here in America, in addition to blending with Cuban-grown leaf. But even before Castro’s Revolution, there was one product, and a confluence of events, that would begin the gradual decline of the cigar: the cigarette.
Cigarettes became the go-to for millions. They had been included in war rations, and society embraced them as an “in-style” pleasure for both men and women to enjoy in clubs and music halls – even through Prohibition. And once the automated cigar rolling machines started being imported from Europe, it was pretty much curtains for handmade American cigars.
But there would always be holdouts – small shops on back streets and longstanding store fronts that would house a few torcedors, rolling and boxing some fine American-made cigars for sale fresh off the bench. Others are more recent additions to the neighborhood, having fled their home countries and set up shop here in the States. Using great tobaccos from around the world, these places gave rise to the boutique class – very Cuban in their construction, but are carrying on the great tradition of making American cigars. Here are 5 you need to try:
Don Pepin Garcia Original (Don Pepin Blue)
Turns out that Jose Pepin Garcia’s El Rey de los Habanos (“The King of the Cuban Cigars”) factory is home to the Pepin Original. The name rings true: Cuban by birth, Garcia is an incredibly skilled roller – and is gifted with equally impressive blending skills. Pepin’s factory produces in the neighborhood of 350,000 cigars per year, including the Don Pepin Blue: a Nicaraguan puro blended with Corojo & Criollo long fillers, exquisitely rolled in Corojo for that bold and peppery flavor.
La Palina Mr. Sam
Enter the world of Calle Ocho – Little Havana’s 8th Street – and the esteemed El Titan de Bronze cigar factory. El Titan de Bronze has been crafting private blends in Miami for the who’s who for over 20 years; La Palina’s Bill Paley is one of them. Paley revived this all-but–forgotten brand of American cigars (founded by his grandfather, Samuel) and turned to this Miami boutique to help him launch the Mr. Sam edition: select Nicaraguan fillers and binders smoke with medium bodied intensity, made even more flavorful with a smooth Ecuadorian-grown Habano wrapper.
Barracuda STK Miami by George Rico
While we’re in the neighborhood…Barracuda STK cigars hail from the G.R. Tabacaleras factory in Little Havana, made under the keen eye of Gran Habano’s George Rico. The flagship of his American cigar portfolio, Rico does Barracuda small batch style: rich, top-drawer Nicaraguan fillers from Estelí and Jalapa are finished in savory Habano wrapper, by expert Cuban rollers right in Miami. Look for the authenticity, as many of the Barracuda’s vitolas are finished with a pigtail cap.
Padilla Miami Maduro
Because El Titan is one of America’s go-to tabacaleras for small batch and short run cigars, Ernesto Padilla saw fit to hit them up for the return of Padilla Miami Maduro (they’re also responsible for his highly regarded, and highly rated, Padilla Miami 8/11). Padilla’s feisty luxury blend showcases how deep the skills run here: Cuban-seed Nicaraguan long fillers are bunched entubado, then wrapped (and triple capped) in shimmering, dark San Andres. They’re all traditional techniques, as the factory employs a number of Category 9 rollers – including some who rolled Cohibas at Havana’s El Laguito for years.
Follow the bouncing ball: tobacco seeds leave Cuba, find their way to the Garcia family farms at My Father in Nicaragua. They’re grown, harvested and fermented, then blended into a super-tasty morsel by Pete Johnson before it’s all moved to Pepin’s El Rey de los Habanos for assembly. Or something like that. By the time this journey is done, Don Pepin Garcia’s finest rollers will have hand rolled a small but high quality batch of super-premium Tatuajes made to Pete’s order. Crafted to taste like Havanas, but they’re all American cigars rolled right in the Sunshine state.
Yes, there are countless more small scale cigar factories still in business here in America, and there are even more marques that El Titan de Bronze, Pepin and others are making on behalf of other brands. So take it all as proof that the making of American cigars is still alive and well: find one of these out-of-the-way places, or a small shop near you that rolls and sells their own – and see for yourself.