Friday morning started off a bit sluggish and I was actually a couple minutes late to the bus. After struggling to find the address for an Uber, which works well in Santiago, Catherine Kelner graciously offered to give me a ride to the free-trade zone.
I got to my destination, Tabacalera La Alianza S.A., just in time for a short introduction by the factory’s owner, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo Jr.
Alianza is the home to E.P. Carrillo, as well as Crowned Heads and a new project with Caldwell, but it’s largely about E.P. Carrillo.
Perez-Carrillo Jr. has just about seen it all. He once operated the El Credito factory in Little Havana, producing La Gloria Cubana. in the late 1990s he sold the company to Swedish Match and spent a decade at General Cigar Co. before launching E.P. Carrillo and Tabacalera La Alianza S.A. in 2009.
Alianza, which is smaller than another factory he had in the Dominican Republic during the boom, is an old clothing production facility in one of Santiago’s free-trade zones. Our tour was divided up pretty evenly: tobacco processing, cigar production, aging and packaging and a seminar.
Perez-Carrillo Jr. is not a tobacco grower, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t play a role in tobacco production. Like most factories, Tabacalera La Alianza S.A. finishes the tobacco in a stage known as “final fermentation,” a process where tobacco is stored in smaller pilones before it is ready to be aged.
One thing that I haven’t seen in many other factories are these barrels, which are used to store tobacco before it’s ready to be sorted and rolled. Interestingly, Rubbermaid-style tubs are also used, something that is much more common in other factories.
Another unique process is the use of tercios, which are containers made from royal palm. Perez-Carrillo Jr. isn’t the only one to use this, I know General and Quesada do as well, but it’s not widely-seen and I can’t recall seeing it outside of the Dominican Republic.
As for that tercios, it’s holding wrapper destined for a new line called La Historia Encore, which is expected to debut nationally in the summer.
After the aging, the tobacco is sorted before it is given to rollers and bunchers. One thing that struck me is that in one of the sorting rooms, the lights were dimmed quite a bit and each station was given an individual light.
Cigars are rolled using the entubado method that is far more common in Nicaragua than in the Dominican Republic. Essentially, the bunchers roll the leaves into thin tubes before they are placed inside a mold. The theory is that it should improve draw and avoid plugged cigars. It also takes a lot longer than a typical bunching style, something that ultimately costs a bit more money.
When we first started the tour, Perez-Carrillo Jr.—a man that I’ve always found to be utterly humble—stated that there was no aging room in the world like his. He wasn’t kidding; specialized tile—which interestingly, was originally installed wrong—is in the aging room, giving it a much different feel. He said that he wanted to produce an aging room that reminded him of how things used to be in Cuba.
From there it was onto a José Blanco blending seminar, though I think I might have been the only one that has done this before. If you haven’t done it, it’s great and you learn a lot, even if I disagree with some of Blanco’s thoughts. That being said, it’s not something I’d recommend doing more than about twice. I’ve seen it close to a dozen times and it certainly is far less impactful than the first time.
After the tour, we headed to lunch with the group at Saga, the restaurant owned by the Reyes family, the same company behind De Los Reyes. Saga’s food is always great and this lunch was no different, even if there wasn’t any tomahawk ribeye to be had.
While we were running a bit behind schedule, which meant that we were a bit late for the Cigar Aficionado seminar. I skipped it and headed up for a much needed nap before the formal dinner.
The final night, which is still my favorite night, was very much a similar affair as in years past, with two noticeable changes: it was raining and the food was much better than it typically is. The program included the traditional live band, churo truck, dance party and auction—which raised over $150,000 for two charities. It also included tributes to Carlos Fuente Sr. and Samuel Mendez, both of whom passed away last year.
Unfortunately, due to technical issues, our video from the festival did not save. There is this video, which was shown at the festival, narrated by Manuel “Manolo” Quesada Jr.
Speaking of Manolo Quesada, I am pretty sure he wants me to write about Saturday.
After some much needed rest, I headed over to Quesada Cigars for the company’s annual Saturday get-together. It’s described as a poker game—and there is one—though it also includes two very good meals: pig and sancocho, a Dominican stew. Plenty of people stop by without playing poker and it’s a nice mixture of attendees, retailers, other manufacturers and friends of the Quesada family.
As for the poker tournament, I survived and finished up a bit more than I started. Given I only play poker once per year, I’d say it’s a decent result. Most importantly, I didn’t drink two bottles of rum and avoided injuring myself.
Unfortunately, that lasted until 2 a.m.—or at my least my rendition did, others stay much later—and I wasn’t terribly well rested by the time my 6 a.m. alarm clock went off.
Last year, I argued that Procigar needed to be a bit more adventurous. I still think that approach is correct.
However, Procigar’s 2017 entry is going to be tough for anyone—including themselves—to beat. I think what sets Procigar apart are its people, all of whom very much want the organization and its festival to be the best. The atmosphere throughout the week is very much one of a large family reunion and it certainly pays off for everyone that attends, something I look forward to doing again next year. At this point, it’s difficult to imagine ever missing one.