My arm hurts.
That’s not how Friday morning started. It actually started outside, alongside Patrick Lagreid, some Drew Estate and Altadis U.S.A. employees and Rafael Nodal until about 3 a.m. After a few hours of sleep, Patrick Lagreid was off to visit De Los Reyes and I was off to visit Jose Mendez & Co.
After about an hour on the bus we arrived at a farm and were greeted by Siegfried P. Maruschke Méndez and, his father, Siegfried Maruschke Méndez. The son is the company’s current head, the ever-present father is the company’s patriarch and clearly still very much involved in the company’s growing operation.
We briefly looked at plants and were given a basic rundown of tobacco. Plant seeds in seedbeds, transfer to farm, water and maintain the crop, harvest from bottom top and then move to barns. Sounds easy, but it’s not, particularly at the scale that this family does it: absolutely massive.
An interesting note at this farm was that the company was curing tobacco in two different methods. One was the traditional Dominican method of taking the leaves off the plant one by one, sorting them and then hanging them on a string in the curing barn. The other was something much more common in Connecticut, stalk-cutting. The entire plant with the leaves intact is transported into the barn and hung as the leaves go from green to brown.
Maruschke noted that this produced different results on tobacco and was part of the company’s efforts to continue to try to innovate in the Dominican Republic.
The company’s largest client is Imperial Tobacco’s Altadis U.S.A.—or more specifically the Tabacalera de García factory in La Romana—a factory that just released a cigar called Henry Clay Stalk Cut.
After finishing in the barns, Maruschke spoke for another 20 minutes and we boarded the buses to head to the company’s processing center in Moca.
As we arrived and navigated around the facility to find our place for lunch, I was taken back by just how large it is. Maruschke told me that they will process around 4 million pounds of tobacco this year at the 25,000-square-foot facility, all of it grown by the family or under its supervision.
The Altadis U.S.A. marketing staff would like everyone to notice how clean the facility is, and it is very clean. When I walked in and saw the operation running, it reminded me of going to NICAPROSA in Estelí, another large tobacco processing facility that is both methodical in how the operation runs and very clean. I think the fact that neither operation rolls cigars there helps in the cleanliness factor as there’s just less hustle and bustle.
We walked through rooms of tobacco piles, some larger than I’ve ever seen before, and at times the buildings seemed a bit too empty. It’s a bit challenging to imagine the amount of employees we saw process the amount of tobacco I saw, but perhaps it was a Friday thing.
The highlight of the tour was a stripping contest, a tobacco stripping contest.
I lost, and will remain at a keyboard. I give Altadis/Jose Mendez credit for making special, comical t-shirts for the event. As always, Altadis was more than generous with gift packs (I think I ended up with three of their ashtrays on this trip alone.)
For the first time all week, I arrived back at the hotel with time to spare. While I thought about taking a nap, I contacted Victor Nicolás of Chogüí Cigars, who was supposed to drop something off for me at the hotel. Neither Chogüí, nor the small factory that makes his cigars are a member and like many non-members, he spent all week generally avoiding any Procigar functions making our meeting a bit difficult, despite the fact he is now living in Santiago. More on that later.
After over an hour of chatting and almost falling asleep outside I got changed and headed to the gala dinner.
The final gala is interesting. While it’s the last and grandest night, many people leave Friday and almost all of those talk about how the white party is truly the highlight of Procigar. I disagree with that notion, particularly this year.
The gala features auction lots with each of the members donating something, usually quite unique, to benefit charities: this year one to help the elderly and one to help children.
— La Flor Dominicana (@LFDcigars) February 26, 2016
One interesting auction was a humidor from La Flor Dominicana containing unique cigars with different art on each wrapper. It lights up to display the cigars. One thing I thought was great was that LFD included a box of an extra set of the cigars so that the winner could smoke the cigars while still having the humidor. It also sort of looks like our logo.
— Beat Hauenstein (@DavidoffCEO) February 27, 2016
This year’s auction shattered last year’s record of $100,000.
A custom Davidoff travel suitcase humidor containing a box each of the last four Year of/Chinese Zodiac Limited Editions along with a box of Oro Blanco topped the night at $58,000, a Procigar record, immediately followed by a special carriage humidor from De Los Reyes that went for $50,000. After two years of auctioning off Litto Gomez’s signature hat—and two years of Lisa Nielsen from Cigar Press winning it—Litto took revenge and raised money to have auction co-host Manuel “Manolo” Quesada Jr.’s mustache shaved off, for charity.
A few minutes and $15,000 later, including $5,500 from José “Jochy” Blanco of Tabacalera Palma alone, Quesada was without his mustache for the first time in 47 years.
At the end, the crowd had raised $201,000 for charity—and then the dancing would begin.
Patrick and I would follow a few others to a local bar for some more dancing and then it was back to the hotel. Patrick left back for the U.S. on Saturday morning while I stayed for an unofficial Procigar tradition: the Saturday poker game hosted by the Quesadas.
After getting my first full night of sleep in over 10 days I headed to the Quesada factory to catch the tail end of lunch and just in time for Frank Seltzer’s birthday cake. Despite vowing not to play poker all week, I bought in once and managed to play for about four hours. The game is noted for the camaraderie, the late night (early morning) ending and the fact that Augusto Reyes seems to win, or at least wins every other year.
At some point, Quesada’s Terence Reilly and I decided that it would be a good idea for us to finish every bottle of Ron Zacapa that was available to us. At the time, this meant that three of us would likely have to finish one last bottle, or so we thought. While I think we finished that bottle, turns out, there were a lot more bottles. And after successfully, yet really unsuccessfully, getting back to the hotel, I—with a lot of help from Christian Hutson of Just For Him and Fred Rewey of Nomad—stumbled into my room with none of my luggage packed and only a few hours before we were supposed to head to the airport.
Judging by how Terence looked in the Santiago airport a few hours later, his night couldn’t have ended very well. The good news for him is that he didn’t slip in his shower and land on his elbow. The good news for me is that my elbow is just bruised, not broken. It hurts, but it’s a good reminder that too much of a good thing is a very bad thing, even if it’s fun.
While my final night ended in a manner that could only be described as “sloppy”—Procigar is anything but. It’s a well-run, well thought out machine, but also one that’s not afraid to take risks, even if they don’t work out.
There’s no question the award ceremony before the first dinner in Santiago was a good idea, but it also was somewhat of a mess. Having people not begin to eat until 8:30 pm is not a good idea and it made the first night end somewhat abruptly. In terms of other changes, I think the farm tours should take place on Wednesday, not Friday. By the end of the week, people’s tolerance and enthusiasm for walking around tobacco fields under a hot sun will be limited at best. Furthermore, it’s always easier to understand the process when it’s in chronological order.
Procigar doesn’t really need fixing, it probably doesn’t need tweaking. It is an incredibly well run operation considering how many people it serves. But if the organization wants to take a risk on an idea for next year, I think it would be worth trying to figure out how to to get people like Victor Nicolás from Chogüí involved.
The reality is that Victor and the factory that make his cigars will unlikely ever be Procigar members barring some massive change to the organization or a lottery-like success for Victor, and that’s fine. But, the organization needs to understand that unlike Cuba, Honduras and Nicaragua; the Dominican Republic has a local cigar industry and it’s one that seems to be growing quite quickly.
It’s one where locals buy cigars at local shops, and some of those customers then find a passion for cigars and find a way to start a cigar company. It’s something that is unique to the Dominican Republic and likely will be for sometime. The organization doesn’t need to set up tours to tiny factories in Tamboril, there doesn’t need to be a best local brand award, but it would be nice to see one night where all the local Dominican cigarmakers and brand owners felt welcome during Procigar week. It’s something that Nicaragua’s Puro Sabor has most certainly changed in the last year and a place where Procigar could use some growth.
I’m not sure who the next member of Procigar will be. There’s none that really stand out as a frontrunner. Agio, Charles Fairmon, Kelner Boutique Factory or Tabacalera William Ventura/Caldwell seem like the four best choices, but none seem like glaring omissions like Fuente or PDR have been until their recent admissions. Whatever the case is, it will be interesting to see who and when Procigar adds as its next member and I plan on being there at the press conference the first day in Santiago when they are announced whether it’s next year or many years from now.
Disclosure: Procigar covered the cost of lodging and food while we were in the Dominican Republic; halfwheel paid for airfare and some meals. Procigar also advertised on halfwheel.