As is the norm, this year’s Procigar festival kicked off on the eastern side of the Dominican Republic, though this year it was a bit more east than last year as Punta Cana played host to the first activities of the country’s cigar celebration.
The first days feature Altadis U.S.A., with the company hosting a pair of cigar dinners that cap of days that are generally focused on relaxation for the travelers who come from around the world to take part in the Procigar Festival. With the Westin Punta Cana as the host hotel, many folks opted to hang around the pool and cigar bar, or enjoy a dip in the Caribbean Sea. The first evening was also highlighted by a visit to Coco Bongo, a show club that features some 40 performers in a Las Vegas-style review with a DJ-fueled disco taking over in between set changes.
On Tuesday morning, the buses departed for Altadis U.S.A.’s Tabacalera de García in La Romana, the largest premium cigar factory both in the D.R. and the world. It was here that the group would get its first look at a cigar factory in operation.
Both Charlie Minato and I have visited the factory previously, but its enormity wasn’t lost on either of us. While the word factory gets used quite a bit in the cigar industry, it can mean anything from a small house to a facility that spans multiple buildings and tens of thousands of square feet, and Tabacalera de García exemplifies the word. It’s ISO certified and reminders about safety, efficiency and conservation of resources are everywhere, as are charts about performance, waste and other metrics pertinent to the department. The immersion begins at the main entrance, where accident totals for the past four years are on display, with a reminder to all entering to work safe today.
Tabacalera de García presents an interesting duality of both impressive scale and efficiency, but also a bit too machinated of a process for someone to walk in and find romance with the cigar making process. While there’s no doubt that the cigars are handmade, the use of machinery is everywhere, from the hydraulic presses used on the molds to a vacuum chamber that helps prepare leaves coming out of bales for their journey to becoming a cigar. Sadly, the jazzy rhythm of chavetas on wood tables gets drowned out as a result, a sound I look forward to hearing in cigar factories, replaced with the sounds that come with the systems, people and machines needed to produce the millions of cigars that come out of TdG.
There are some differences that one notices while walking the floor: the bunchers and rollers don’t sit with each other, but rather in groups based on their duty. Sorting of the rolled cigars is done on black tables as opposed to white ones, as different factories believe one provides better contrast than the other, and it seems like I’ve been visiting ones that are fans of the white version recently. Unfortunately the tour was a bit quicker than originally planned due to a late departure from the hotel so we weren’t able to dive as deep into all the specifics, but one that did get brought up was that daily meetings are held with supervisors and managers throughout the factory to discuss safety and ways to improve the operation, as cutting out any unnecessary steps or wasting a resource is clearly a high priority.
After lunch at Tabacalera de García, the group boarded the bus for the drive to Santiago, with the inevitable crawl through Santo Domingo, the country’s capitol. While a highway is under construction that will allow travelers to bypass the heart of the city, it’s not operational yet, so the trudge was once again part of the trek. However, there is a fair amount of infrastructure under construction at the moment between La Romana and Santiago, with new overpasses being built and roads being refreshed and widened, a good sign for the country’s continued development and growth.
It also included a stop at Panaderia Miguelina, a fairly well-known bakery and cafeteria in Bonao that also happens to carry a more diverse selection of beer than you might expect, and that usually includes Bucañero, a beer from Cuba—a personal favorite—but they were out and said there isn’t any to be found in the country at the moment, so that was a bit of a disappointment.
The Santiago portion of Procigar starts with an evening of cocktails and appetizers at the Hotel Gran Almirante, a couple hours of cigars and socializing with the much larger group of attendees that includes several manufacturers from Santiago. With light appetizers to tide one over, it meant that many folks would head to a late dinner, and for us, it meant a trip to Saga, the restaurant owned by Augusto Reyes of De Los Reyes and Swisher Dominicana. It’s a cigar-friendly restaurant that is highly recommended for its selection of well-crafted dishes that mesh American favorites with Dominican touches and high quality service.
With a full belly it was off to bed in hopes of resting up for three days packed full of events, including visits to factories and farms, recreational and educational activities, nightly dinners and after parties that often last well into the wee hours of the morning.