Cigar Makers

5 Cigars That Made My Career: Ernesto Perez-Carrillo of EPC Cigars

5 Cigars That Made My Career: Ernesto Perez-Carrillo of EPC Cigars

By John Pullo with Gary Korb

Settling in Miami was supposed to be temporary.

“Things happen for a reason,” says Ernesto Perez-Carrillo. But it turns out that Little Havana was “the place that pushed me to discover – and master – my true calling in life.”

If you’re not familiar with the EPC Cigars story, it starts with the Perez-Carrillo family fleeing Cuba in 1959; landing in south Florida, Ernesto Sr. took on every odd job he could find to support his family. Nine years later, he had scraped together enough money to purchase a local cigar factory, and named it El Credito.

EPC didn’t intend to get into his father’s cigar business, choosing to carve his path as a jazz drummer in New York instead. But after some less-than-savory experiences – including being robbed at knifepoint – Ernesto decided the family business was a safer bet.

Ernesto worked as an apprentice to his father, and quickly realized this was his calling. And even though El Credito would have its fair share of ups and downs, EPC was continually on the hunt for a blend that would truly excite the senses.

That’s how La Gloria Cubana was born.

But what got him there? In this edition of “5 Cigars”, you’ll learn a few of his secrets for blending EPC cigars, along with what inspires E.P. Carrillo: the cigars and the tastes that influenced his blending, along with some of the history that helped him put E.P. Carrillo cigars on the map.

Watch the video now:

John Pullo: This is 5 Cigars That Made My Career…today we’re with the Godfather, the namesake of Ernesto Perez-Carrillo Cigars, EPC Cigars – Ernesto Perez-Carrillo…great to have you with us today.

Ernesto Perez-Carrillo: Thank you for having me.

J: So, a quick look back at the 5 cigars that made a difference to you, over the course of however many years it’s been since you were blending, you were working for your father in the factory, or even just as somebody who appreciated a good smoke. So we wanted to sit here, and Gary and I want to pick your brain a little bit and say, let’s look back at those milestone cigars…the cigars that really made a difference to you, or that you feel just made a difference out there as an important turning point whether it be for La Gloria, for EPC cigars, and a short something interesting that you think people should need to know about that cigar and why it was so important at that point in time.

E: I would have to say…I started with my father back in 1970. And in 1980 when he passed away, we were kind of very limited to what you know we could blend as far as tobacco. And in 1980 I took over the company. And although I worked for him for all those years, I still had that experience with cigars outside of what we were making. So, in 1982, a gentleman who used to work with me, he brought back from, uh, he went on a trip to England and he gave me a five pack or a 3 pack or something of the Davidoff Dom Perignon. From Cuba. And realistically I have to say that cigar kind of woke me up and said, “Hey – there’s something out there you’re not familiar with.” So, I think it was a great cigar. I remember I was smoking it, I was sitting down and when I try to get up – it was smooth, but it when I try to get up it was , “wait…what happened here?” You know?

cuban davidoff cigars dom perignon EPC Cigars Ernesto Perez-Carrillo
THIS is the cigar that totally changed Ernesto Perez-Carillo’s way of thinking about blending: the Cuban Davidoff Dom Perignon. The rest is EPC cigars history. Photo courtesy of Anthony Tusa.

So that kinda said, “wait a minute” – you have to find your niche, you have to do something that’s different than what you’re doing now if you want to succeed in this business. We had just started promoting La Gloria Cubana…and basically from that time to about 1990, ’91, was when I was able to really do something to, I guess you could say, come out on my own – and that was because I started working with some Nicaraguan tobacco from the ASP family. And this completely changed the whole way I was blending cigars. Before Miami, basically everybody – most everybody would blend using Dominican, Brazilian Mata Fina, Cameroon wrapper, Connecticut wrapper, you know – those were basically the blends. So when I added this leaf of Nicaragua it just changed the whole complexion of the cigar. And I had tried something from Nicaragua way before – I remember I was sitting one day with Carlitos Fuente and Cucho [Angel] Oliva – who was really my Godfather you know, he was a great guy, and we smoked some of the Flor de Orlandos that were made in Nicaragua by the Fuente family years ago and that was an amazing cigar…you know, so…I always wanted to get some of that Nicaraguan tobacco. And I think the first blends that we made with that in La Gloria Cubana, I think that’s what got us notoriety in Cigar Aficionado where we got the high ratings.

Gary Korb: And that was the Wavell, correct?

E: It was the Wavell, yeah. So that was one of the first cigars that really impressed me, and then of course the Wavell when I started smoking it, I said this is what I’m looking for.

G: Think about how prophetic that was…because you had that Nicaragua leaf, way back when –

E: About 1990, 1991, yeah…

G: And now Nicaragua is it – I mean, it’s the place.

E: Well we also made at that time an all-Nicaraguan cigar called El Rico Habano. You know? So that was also part of the blends. Unfortunately at that time, it was too strong a cigar for the market just like La Gloria was, you know. So that cigar – the El Rico Habano, the original La Gloria Cubana, and then of course I have to say the Inch. That’s a cigar also people they may think well he made a big ring gauge cigar just to be different, whatever…but that wasn’t the case. I really worked on that blend and I had been working on it for a time till I decided to say let’s bring it out for the RTDA at that time. So that was also a very special cigar for me.

J: So if it was the Cuban Davidoff that kinda sparked that something – to you – do you think there’s a potential future value to using Cuban tobacco, or is it already…it’s kind of a known quantity, there’s still a lot to do with Nicaraguan, and Dominican and Honduran and Sumatra…

E: Each country, the secret of tobacco is the soil. That’s basically why we may use the same seeds in Dominican, Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba, wherever, but they’re going to come out differently because of the soil. It’s not just the soil of the whole country, it’s the soil of a certain area of that country is going to make growing tobacco there be different. So, I do think that in the future, if that ever happens, that’s going to be another venue – blending Nicaraguan, Dominican, Cuban tobaccos, Honduran…I think that’s going to be very exciting if that ever happens.

J: You already got some plans in mind?

E: Ahhh, well I…there’s a saying in Spanish which I’m not going to repeat…but I’d like to see that, I like to be able to someday do that, but I think there’s still a long ways to go blending like you were saying in blending Nicaraguan and Dominican and Honduran tobaccos.

J: As far as the La Gloria Wavell…when you hear from somebody and they say, “that was my first serious cigar”…“that’s how I knew that I really enjoyed cigars, that I really wanted to get into cigars”…what’s your takeaway when you hear that from somebody?

E: Well, definitely it’s a cigar that for its time, it did cause a lot of excitement in the market. It opened up to a certain degree Little Havana, where people during that time there were a lot of factories that opened up in Little Havana and I think that had a lot to do with the ratings with Cigar Aficionado to a certain extent. Because before that, people don’t realize, before that in the early 70s, there were about 26, 30 cigar factories – chinchalles – in Miami. And unfortunately, those people that came from Cuba, eventually they started dying off…their kids didn’t want to get into the cigar business because it was not really a lucrative business…and I got in it because, in spite of the fact that I loved playing music and wanted to be a Jazz musician, in the end, that was what I really wanted to do, be a cigar maker.

EPC cigars factory
“In spite of the fact that I loved playing music and wanted to be a Jazz musician, in the end, that was what I really wanted to do, be a cigar maker.” – Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, pictured at El Credito in Little Havana.

J: Now, being a musician, what do you listen to when you blend? What do you listen to when you smoke?

E: I can listen to classical music, I listen to Cuban music a lot, I listen to a lot of different music. But I think that what kind of defines what I like about the industry, you know, the cigars that I make, is a song by Chick Corea called “Spain.”

G: Oh yeah, I know it very well –

(Both start singing)

E: That’s kind of what defines how I see my cigars evolving. But I like to listen to all types of music.

G: I love Cuban Jazz, I listen to jazz generally even though I play a lot of rock n roll. But yeah, I just love that stuff. I probably listen to it more because I appreciate it and I can’t play it – or attempt to do it.

E: Yeah, and let me tell you – people don’t realize there are a lot of musicians – a lot of rock musicians that smoke cigars. You know? I mean, it’s just a natural.

G: So we have the Wavell, and the Inch…

J: We have the Wavell, we have the Inch, we have the Davidoff…

E: Right…

G: Oh, so that’s one of his five?

E: The Davidoff from Cuba, yeah. Then we have one, outside my lines that really impressed me was the Arturo Fuente Chateau, the Rothschild. That was a cigar that really impressed me.

G: That’s been a very consistent cigar over the years too.

E: Yes, very consistent.

J: What is it that brings that one to mind?

E: I like the size and the blend, you know the creaminess in that blend. It wasn’t necessarily overpowering but it just had a lot of flavor, a lot of complexity. And it was one of my favorite cigars, all-time cigars. And then I think another one, I think, like we were talking about before, is the [Edicion] Inaugural 2009. That was to me, completely different than whatever I had done before, like this cigar that we’re smoking now. It just kinda brought me back to that Davidoff at that time. The flavors – it wasn’t strong, but it had a lot of flavors and complexity, and has some of that creaminess that I enjoy so much in a cigar.

J: So what we’re smoking today is the EP Carrillo Family Series Encore…a Nicaraguan puro. What would you say you were going for when you were creating this blend?

E: Well first of all, I made a blend similar to this before I left General which was called the Artesanos de Miami. I loved that blend. When I started working with this particular blend, I wanted to do something similar in the sense of the creaminess, so I guess you could say a blend of the Inaugural and that cigar. I wanted some of the smoothness, I wanted some of the complexity, the flavors of the Inaugural, but maybe some of the strength of the Artesanos de Miami that I made back in 2007, I think it was.

EPC Cigars inaugural 2009
The EP Carrillo Edicion Inaugural 2009 marked Ernesto’s return to the premium cigar business, and the debut of EPC Cigars. Click to see his more recent work.

J: Now the Inaugural was the first real EP Carrillo/EPC Cigars cigar. Is there something you remember about how that was received? I remember reading that was very limited.

E: It was, and I have to say when I made that cigar people were expecting me to really come out with another La Gloria Cubana, another Serie R. And quite frankly, I wanted to do something that was different. Now at that time, unfortunately, it was received okay but it was not what we expected as far as the volume. But I’m very proud I’m very happy that I made that decision to make that cigar and not come out with something that was going to be another Gloria or another Rico Habano or something like that. First of all, because I wanted to send a message: “this is a different EP Carrillo.” And also out of respect for my former company, because I don’t think it would have been fair for me to come out and say yeah, let’s make another Serie R or another La Gloria Cubana, that wouldn’t have been the right thing to do. Especially the way those people treated me.

J: What did people first say when they set their eyes on the Inch for the first time? Big 70 ring or bigger, 64 ring, 70 ring cigars?

E: Well, let me tell you, I have to say that’s probably our biggest seller – overall – in all the lines. You know, the 64? The Inch 64, that’s probably our biggest seller in all of our lines. And the 70 also is very popular in Europe. That’s a very popular cigar in Europe.

G: That’s amazing, they smoked all those thin cigars for years…

E: Exactly, and now they have something that’s different.

G: It’s a revolution…

J: You see what he started?

E: And what we noticed is, you know, the Inch – I mean there’s a lot of big ring cigars out there – but people keep coming back to the Inch. It’s more expensive than some of the other cigars, but people keep coming back because of what we offer in it, the taste profiles – the blends – are very unique to us.

J: One more landmark smoke. What would you say? Out of your own portfolio.

E: My favorite – and I love torpedoes. I think one of my favorites is the Regalias d’Celia, in that particular blend of La Historia. Whenever I smoke that cigar, I say, “Hey – don’t forget me, because I’m here.” I’m really proud of those La Historia blends. And of course, listen – nowadays, there’s so many great blends out there…I smoked different cigars from different factories, and there’s a lot of good cigars out there, you know? Believe me, there’s more than five that I could say, “this is really good.”

J: Well I appreciate this trip down memory lane.

G: I picked up something as he was talking. Because we talk music all the time, we’re both musicians. He’s done something with cigars that the best bands do with their music. If you notice the best bands, they don’t repeat themselves – the second album doesn’t sound like the first album – those bands tend to go away. You think about Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, any of these big bands – even Jazz musicians, too – they keep reinventing themselves. And I think that’s what Ernesto has been doing here. He said it: “I don’t want another Serie R. We don’t need it, we have that.”

E: No, we have that already. It’s a question of always be evolving. And I think nowadays people that smoke cigars or drink whiskies or beers or whatever, they always go back to their core whiskies or wines or whatever, but they always want to try something new. And I think that in our case it’s not about being the biggest company, it’s about being a company that’s different and whenever you try one of our cigars it’s going to be special to us. Because if I know that somebody’s using a certain type of tobacco, or doing whatever, I want to stay away from that.

J: Do you have a certain drink you like to pair with a cigar? If you’re going to sit and you know you’re going to be able to relax with a cigar and it’s not work related, you’re not testing a blend, you have a favorite something that goes with it whether it be a food or drink or something?

E: Well, I don’t drink anymore – but when I used to drink, I used to love Wild Turkey 100 proof.

J: Yikes…

E: What I liked about that, is that when you drink it, you know…in your throat…you feel that burn by the end, just the taste of the barrel – and that’s what I like in a cigar also. When I smoke a cigar, I want to feel it also in the throat where you have that nuttiness, you have that spice, you have that peppery, you just feel like…“man, you got something special here.”

J: You a coffee guy at all?

E: Coffee I drink, yeah. Once in a while…

J: Does it go well with a cigar? Or not your favorite combo?

E: Not really my favorite combo, no. I do drink coffee if I’m trying different blends; if I want to clean my palate, I do. But not necessarily. One thing that works great and I learned this from Mr. Edgar Cullman, may he rest in peace, is tomato juice.

G: Really?

E: Yeah, yeah, it’s incredible. Because it has some of that acidity, so it cleans the palate up completely.

G: I gotta try that. I like tomato juice.

J: Just straight tomato juice?

E: Yes.

J: I learned something right there…What do you recommend to somebody for their first EPC cigars? If they’ve never had an EPC cigar, what’s the first thing they should try?

E: Our lines, if you look – we have what’s called like a pyramid. So we have the classic lines. And what I would start with – in that classic line, you can go from a [mellow] to a medium to a fuller flavored smoke. So I would recommend starting with the New Wave Connecticut, which is a [mellow], flavorful cigar. And then I would go maybe into the Core Line which is with the Habanos [wrapper], and then go into the Dusk or the Cardinal Impact. Those are more on the fuller side. So those, for beginners, are perfect to get a feel of what EP Carrillo is about. And then, of course, once you want to get into a little different types of blends, probably the Elites line like the Reserva, the Oscuro, the Capa del Sol, the Elenco which we just came out with. And then of course we have the dimensions which are the Inches and the Original Rebel and those are more powerful types of cigars more for people who like bigger ring gauges, or longer or bigger cigars. And then you have the La Historia and the Encore, that should be more of when, I think, when you have the time to really…

G: A real relaxing cigar.

E: Exactly. But I would definitely start with the New Wave Connecticut because you’re going to get a Connecticut that I feel is different than a lot of Connecticuts that are out there now.

J: What was it like to go back and revisit the whole La Gloria heritage with the Colleccion Reserva?

E: Well let me tell you…that was something that really, to a certain degree, caught me by surprise. And the reason that we did that was because it was 25 years since La Gloria had been rated. I was very excited about it, it worked out to be a great project because it brought me back…as matter of fact the packaging, I had a lot to do with the packaging, with the color of the boxes. The blend was basically something that I had done before, as far as the tobaccos that I used, and for me was a very exciting project. It brought me…General and myself, our factories are close. And the relationship there has been tremendous ever since I left. So for me, it was very exciting and I’m very happy the way that it turned out.

J: We are too (laughs). That was another one that made our Top 25 new cigars list from last year, a consensus favorite.

E: Oh, great!

J: Just fantastic. And I’m really liking this a lot, too – this is the Encore. A Nicaraguan puro. What grabbed me when we started smoking this? The aroma, more than anything else.

G: I said that too, when you lit it up. This is the Majestic.

J: Overwhelming, lush, kind of tinged with a little bit of sweet, and a very warm room note to it. Fantastic.

G: I got kind of a chocolatey note off of it. Now I’m getting more of a hearty aroma from it.

E: This is what I would call…to me it’s kind of a classic smoke, you know? It’s a smoke that I think that for people who have been smoking a long time, will enjoy. But I think that it’s also a smoke for beginners, they can get into it. Now – when you smoke a cigar, you have to understand there’s different ways to smoke a cigar, and we all know this. This cigar I think you can control if you want the power, if you want the creaminess, if you want the spice or the peppery, there’s ways to get that – through retrohaling it, or taking it to the throat, or just keeping it in your mouth. Just let the smoke fill your palate.

J: I just did that, you let it roll across the tongue, little pinpricks here and there. It’s got a little bit of spice that hangs out in the background.

G: I can’t wait to try that.

J: It’s worth the wait.

G: And this is the Majestic, which is a 52 which I love, a 52 ring, by 5 and a quarter?

E: 5 3/8.

J: And box pressed.

G: Yeah, and I like that too.

J: So we got 5 cigars that “made” Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, here with Cigar Advisor. Ernesto, appreciate you taking some time with us and a trip down memory lane. And again, much continued success.

E: Thank you, thank you. Thank you very much.

G: Terrific.

Five Cigars That Made My Career is a recurring Cigar Advisor series. Comments are welcome, including a mention of your favorite EPC cigars.