All in the Family: Cigar Makers Who Learned from Their Fathers
I never had the opportunity to get into the “family business.” Mostly because we don’t have one. But that’s probably a good thing, because for as much as I love my Dad, one of us would probably end up murdering the other if we had to work together (Kidding! Sort of.). But what struck me is the amazing lineage stories in the cigar world – how (almost) every cigar maker learned the craft from his (or her, there are a few ladies of the leaf) father. So I’d like to take today to introduce you to some of these father-son dynasties that produce the great cigars we enjoy.
Two things factor very prominently in these cigar maker’s stories. First, it’s obvious the tobacco life is one that’s “all in the family” – it’s a family farm, after all, so it makes sense that much like any farm here in America, fathers pass their working knowledge down to their children in order to keep the business operating. And like any family business, it’s part of their DNA – a sense of pride, responsibility and duty. Second, most of these stories involve Castro’s theft of it all. Some were exiled. Some were arrested. Others, much worse. All of them had everything stolen from their families; but like any family business, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back to work…just like Dad taught you.
Silvio Perdomo, Nick’s grandfather, was born and raised just outside of Havana, and worked in Cuba’s most prestigious factories; his son, Nick Perdomo Sr., began his cigar making apprenticeship in 1948 – and having earned such high praise for his craftsmanship, was soon working alongside his father at Partagás. But as outspoken critics of the Castro regime, both endured being jailed, beaten and worse during and after the Revolution. Separately, they fled Castro’s oppression by the mid-70’s for a fresh start in America. Enter Nick Perdomo Jr.: determined to follow his family’s cigar legacy, Nick Jr. and his wife formed the company in their garage in 1992 with just 3 rollers. The Perdomo Champagne cements the proud family heritage, featuring Nicaraguan tobaccos under a Connecticut wrapper that bursts with more flavor than you could imagine from a CT-wrapped smoke.
As with many Cuban émigrés, the Perez-Carrillo family fled to Miami in 1959 flat broke. Ernesto Sr. was a cigar maker, but took every odd job available to support his family until he could purchase his own cigar factory. He opened the El Credito factory in Little Havana 9 long years later. His son, Ernesto Jr., was a drummer gigging his way across the NYC jazz scene…that is, until he returned to Miami to work for his father. Sr. was almost ready to sell El Credito in 1976; the younger Ernesto changed his old man’s mind, and learned the ins and outs of the craft by working alongside his father. Ernesto Sr. passed in 1980, leaving EPC Jr. to run the business – whereby La Gloria Cubana was born, as were his bona fides as master blender. Your evidence: the EP Carrillo Core Line marries well-aged Nicaraguan and Dominican tobaccos, 2 binders, and an extra-aged Ecuadorian Habano wrapper for a rich & creamy, medium-bodied smoke that smacks with both sweet and spice.
The Toraño calling card has always been tobacco growing, providing leaf to the biggest names in the business…but it wasn’t until the mid-90’s that Carlos Toraño put his family’s name on a cigar. And it was his son, Charlie, who brought some of the family’s spiciest secrets out of their fabled blend book. Turn the clock back to 1916, when Santiago Toraño left Spain for Cuba and one simple business proposition: buy and sell Cuban tobacco. Big money could be had in growing and brokering Corojo and Connecticut shade wrapper leaf, and the Toraños were very successful – until Castro took over. This is one of their finest: Carlos Toraño 1916 Cameroon commemorates Santiago’s move to Cuba, a tribute smoke that burns sweet and smooth thanks to a mild-medium blend of earthy Nicaraguan & Honduran longfillers wrapped in delicate Cameroon. A must-smoke.
Born in Cuba to a tobacco family, José Pepin Garcia (or Don Pepin, as you know him) was already a Master cigar roller and blender in Cuba, working with Cohiba, Partagas and Montecristo. Don Pepin left for Nicaragua in 2001; shortly after he landed in Little Havana, opening the El Rey de los Habanos cigar factory. El Rey quickly became the epicenter of the boutique cigar movement, introducing smokers to his signature full-bodied blend of pepper and spice. Pepin’s son – Jaime Garcia – made his way into the family business not long after, picking up his father’s knack for replicating the Cuban cigar profile without using Cuban tobacco. He showcases it in his Jaime Garcia Reserva Especial, a smoke that’s full of intense flavor from the Nicaraguan longfillers and sweetened by a rich Connecticut Broadleaf maduro wrapper. Like father, like son.
Father and son Guillermo and George Rico are the forces behind Gran Habano cigars…and they had quite the lineage of teachers. Guillermo’s grandfather grew tobacco in Cuba in the 1920’s; Rico’s father took the reigns of the family operation in 1946, where Guillermo’s early experiences included following his father through the family’s tobacco fields; his mother rolled cigars at home. Maintaining the family tradition with his son George, the Rico family continues to produce some of the most consistent Honduran handmades out of Danlí. Gran Habano Habano #3 smokes medium, thanks to a complex blend of Nicaraguan, Mexican, and Costa Rican tobaccos that have been rolled in a potent Nicaraguan Habano wrapper. If you’re looking for rich, smooth and affordable – the Rico boys have done it with this.
Arnaldo Gonzalez is the namesake of Flor de Gonzalez, and the tobacco lineage is strong: like his preceding generation, he was trained in the tobacco craft by his father in Santa Clara, Cuba. But Gonzalez, too, felt Castro’s heavy hand…and escaped the island in 1980 for American freedom. He set up shop in a Hialeah, Florida storefront, but failed; a second try in 1993 founded Flor de Gonzalez, which now churns out boutiques made of the finest Nicaraguan tobaccos, especially regarded for their wrapper quality. Gonzalez introduced his daughter, Yadi Gonzalez-Vargas, to the business, and she’s all-in on production of cigars like 90 Miles – FdG’s original, highly-rated puro, rolled in red-hued Ecuadorian Habano to produce a spicy-sweet smoke that’s medium in body. Yadi calls her father’s cigar a “tribute to the United States” – commemorating Arnaldo’s escape to America, and a damn fine smoke.
Jesus Fuego’s roots run deep…born in 1971, his family has called Pinar del Rio, Cuba home since they emigrated from Spain in 1876. They grew tobacco and sold it to brokers, who in turn sold to Cuban cigar factories. It was Jesus’s grandfather who bought into the legendary El Corojo farm, and began selling tobacco direct to the factories; Jesus father continued the business, and taught his son the life of leaf. (Interesting fact: the Fuegos’ next-door neighbors were the Plasencias. Those Plasencias…and they were pretty tight friends.) Jesus took his old man’s wisdom with him to college (Jesus is a formally educated agriculturist) and began experimenting with Criollo and Corojo tobacco hybrids on Plasencia’s land. The result? Masterful blends like Sangre de Toro, his first Nicaraguan puro. Big, bold, and in-yo’-face is this Fuego smoke’s signature, a stout brew that offers an ample sweetness to match.
The Oliva story begins in Cuba, where Melanio Oliva is growing tobacco in the Vuelta Abajo region of Pinar Del Rio. Melanio passes the farm over to his son, Hipolito, in the 1920’s; Castro takes over the farms, so Hipolito and his son Gilberto become tobacco brokers. But the itch to get dirty and grow is strong, so the Olivas settle with other exiles in Nicaragua and start farming again. Gilberto also worked the earth in Honduras, Mexico, and the Philippines before opening a Nicaragua factory with his sons Carlos and Gilberto Jr. Next-gen Oliva man José says, “cigars are a way of life for my family.” No kidding. Their Connecticut Reserve moves the flavor meter off of the “easy” setting, leaving other CT cigars in the dust; great aroma, delicious flavor and everything you want in a mild smoking cigar.
Meet Nestor Plasencia Sr.: highly regarded as “one of the foremost tobacco experts in the world,” his Honduran and Nicaraguan factories roll in excess of 30 million sticks a year, supply tobacco to just about everyone else in the cigar world, and is one of the most influential people in the Central American cigar business. Not bad for a guy who learned everything from his father. The Plasencia family left Cuba in ’59, after the Revolution, but took the important stuff – the knowledge – with them. And what Nestor Sr. learned from his father, he’s now passing to his son, Nestor A. Plasencia Jr. And he’s put it to good use: introducing the world’s first “Certified Organic” cigar tobacco, used exclusively in the construction of his Plasencia Reserva Organica cigars. No chemicals, no pesticides, just mineral-rich Nicaraguan soil doing its job: producing some of the globe’s purest-tasting tobacco that’s aged 3 years to make a mild-medium smoke.
Eduardo León Jimenes is a bit of a different story – no Cuban Revolution, no dictator to steal his land and business. A native of the Dominican Republic, Jimenes founded a cigar company because both his father, and his father’s father, grew tobacco. The Jimenes lineage goes back generations, but it was Eduardo who founded La Aurora with his family’s crops, delivering the finished product on the backs of donkeys throughout the local towns. Guillermo Leon had his whole family to learn from (they do run the oldest fabrica in the DR, after all) – and to complement the La Aurora offerings with something stronger, has rolled out his signature smoke. Guillermo Leon cigars start with a base of Dominican, Peruvian, Nicaraguan and Brazilian long fillers, treat them to Corojo and Cameroon double binders (for strength and sweetness, respectively) and top it off with a deep, dark Ecuadorian Habano wrapper.
Christian Luis Eiroa calls it “Growing Up Tobacco.” Patriarch Generoso Eiroa came to Cuba in the late 1800’s; he liked it so much, he bought land and began growing tobacco. The farm stayed in the family until the Revolution, and following the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Christian’s father Julio fled Cuba. He began growing his own leaf in the Jamastran and Talanga Valleys of Honduras, next door to Estelo Padron and Nestor Plasencia. And Christian was constantly surrounded by leaf: if he wasn’t traveling with his father from farm to farm to check the pilones of fermenting tobacco, Christian would harass the crop dusting pilots to take him for a ride. Christian officially entered the family business in 1995, launching his signature style of full-bodied blends. Even his Connecticut is potent, a mix of lush Honduran binders and fillers under a flavor-thick Ecuadorian Connecticut Shade wrapper that smacks with pepper and rounds out to creamy and smooth. Complex? Very. Satisfying? No doubt.
“America’s oldest family-owned premium cigar maker” started as a 1-man cigar factory: Julius Caeser Newman, rolling his own brand in the family’s Ohio barn in 1895. After WWII, J.C.’s sons, Stanford and Millard Newman moved the growing business’ 2 factories to Tampa because of the town’s cigar reputation, as well as its proximity to Cuba (easier to get Cuban tobacco there, than in Ohio, right?). But when the Embargo reared its ugly head 7 years later, the Newmans “made friends”: partnering with the Fuentes, the Newmans added Dominican tobacco to their lineup. The Newman family tobacco torch has been passed to brothers Eric and Bobby Newman, taking what they were taught and applying it to their Nicaraguan factory where Brick House is produced. This is, for sure, NOT a mild cigar…extra juicy Nicaraguan fillers are wrapped in Brazilian Arapiraca for a thick, rich n’ creamy fullness that lingers. It’s a house favorite.
A.J. Fernandez is a 3rd generation tobacco man, reaching back to his grandfather Andre’s blends to recreate the acclaimed San Lotano brand – which is what helped put A.J.’s skills on your radar. Andre’s son, Ismael, continued to work by his side in their native San Luis, Cuba even after the original San Lotano was put under, a victim of Castro’s Revolution. But the special “family edition” of the Fernandez clan’s work is New World: AJ created this blend in true tag-team fashion with papa Ismael, using filler tobaccos that are grown from seeds only in use by his family. Add the legendary Cuban production methods (patience, mostly) passed from father to son, and what lies before you is a medium-to-full Nicaraguan puro that bursts with peppery notes, before it mellows out to a smooth, creamy smoke.
Quite possibly the most legendary father and son team in the business: Carlos and Carlito Fuente. They owe it to Arturo, born in 1887 Cuba and taught by his father the intricacies of tobacco cultivation and cigar making. Arturo left the island for Key West (well before Castro’s time, FYI), finally settling in Ybor City in Tampa. The first “Arturo Fuente” cigar was made in 1912. Just like his father Arturo, Carlos was born into the family cigar business and learned the trade inside out; he would do the same for his son, Carlos Jr. (“Carlito”). It was Carlos who took the company to the DR, where the father-son team developed the Opus X. But today, honor thy father: the original Arturo Fuente blend follows the method and simple recipe that made Fuente cigars famous: specially selected and aged Dominican tobaccos plus rich African Cameroon wrappers. Roll, cut, light and enjoy a legendary smooth, mild smoke.
It’s Father’s Day. I hope you’ll take the opportunity to be inspired by these talented cigar makers, each fortunate enough to learn his craft working alongside his father, and make the time to enjoy one of these cigars in honor of you, your dad, or your son – today. That’s the best family business of all.