While I suppose it will be like this all week, Wednesday started far too early for my tastes. At 7:15 a.m. I dragged myself out of bed and began to get ready for the day. Each of the last three days (Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) follow a similar format: pick a tour, usually a factory or farm, and then attend a dinner. In between there’s quite a bit of time spent transporting people around Santiago and a bit of downtime to rest, shower and change before dinner.
There are optional events—the Cigar Smoking World Championship qualifier on Thursday and a poker tournament on Friday—but Wednesday has the longest tours. I’ve done all of the cigar factories at one point or another, so this year is going to be places I haven’t been to in a while. Wednesday is for De Los Reyes, the factory behind its own Saga brand as well as Debonaire, Patoro and others.
The Reyes family—like a few others—has a wide influence in the Dominican cigar industry. Augusto “Foofy” Reyes runs the Swisher Dominicana factory, which produces well over a billion Swisher cigars per year. His daughter, Nirka, runs the De Los Reyes factory; his brother Leo is a renowned tobacco grower; and his wife is Mónika Kelner, daughter of Henke Kelner, and who is a tobacco farmer herself.
We started at a farm owned by Leo, one of the more respected growers in the industry. But first—as is De Los Reyes Procigar tradition—our day started with the Hangover Bar, complete with aspirin, Bloody Mary’s and cigars. There was also coffee, which was made in a rather unique and very labor intensive manner. My pictures of both activities are not my greatest work, something that was legitimately challenging due to just how many people were on this tour.
Nirka Reyes told me this is Procigar 2019’s largest Santiago tour with 80 people, though it certainly felt like more than 80 and it seemed like a good 77 of them were interested in taking pictures.
The tour itself is what a farm tour should be: ordered, educational and a medium-distance walk. Growing tobacco is quite a bit different than rolling cigars and there are so many small details that many spend decades trying to learn in hopes of mastering the practice. While some will find the discussions of how many times a crop gets watered, why you must deflower the plant and how large—or not large—tobacco seeds actually are to be boring, the alternative is awful.
I’ve been on tours where people have largely been left to just walk around aimlessly or chat amongst themselves; that’s not fun for anyone. There is a long list of tours that involve basically a zig-zag walk around a 40-acre plot of land, also not great. The Reyes approach had plenty of information and enough stations that I neither felt like I was just standing around nor was I spending my entire time walking.
From there we headed to another Reyes-owned business: Saga Restaurant & Cigar Club, one of Santiago’s best restaurants. The restaurant was started by Augusto Reyes and has become a very popular hangout for the cigar industry due both to its quality and the large area that allows for cigar smoking. As always, the food was great and the restaurant handled the unusually large lunch crowd very well. I should also point out that I’ve been to Saga on a Saturday night and the place is packed with Dominicans, so there’s that ringing endorsement if mine wasn’t good enough.
Then it was back on the bus to head to the De Los Reyes factory. I took the tour in 2015 in what had to be one of the more interesting cigar tours ever. Drew Estate was in attendance by way of Jonathan Drew and Willy Herrera, as well as—I seem to recall—Rocky Patel. One thing I loved about that tour is the factory was arranged in stations. Most tours are given in groups with a leader, but De Los Reyes has groups walk from part to part where a different person is stationed to explain what’s going on. In this case that meant Pedrom Almonte in tobacco processing, Patrik Martin of Patoro on the rolling floor, Phil Zanghi III of Debonaire in quality control, Nirka Reyes in the aging room and Jean-Michel Louis in packaging.
I find that this design makes for much more personable tours and a lot more interaction. In addition, De Los Reyes has one of the more interactive tours with visitors encouraged to sort tobacco, feel and inspect filler, put a wrapper on a cigar, sign a wall and commemorate their visit via a photo booth. Once again, I think it’s the right balance between standing and moving, but also the smaller nature of the groups means that it was much easier to see and hear things throughout, something that is a growing issue on the Procigar tours, which keep getting bigger and bigger.
Each guest left with a sampler of cigars and a guayabera. Procigar gives each one of its members a certain amount of money to help cover the costs of the tours. Nirka Reyes proudly told me that De Los Reyes spends significantly more than that to make sure its one tour is one to remember, something that is quite apparent.
Wednesday night’s party is described as the traditional night, highlighted by both the meal, a stew; and a dance contest. This year the event was held at Jardin Cabrera Vidal, a much larger space than where the last few have been, something that was needed.
This is certainly the most casual of the events, though it’s still an impressive party and seemed to go by very quickly this year, although we didn’t head back to the hotel until 11:15 p.m. By the time I arrived to finish this post, I realized that even if I went to sleep immediately, I would have to be on a bus for Thursday’s activities in less than eight hours.
- We were offered some sort of breakfast sandwich with either chicken or pork. Given the early start time, that was a very appreciated addition though I didn’t partake. Furthermore, our bus had servers who were willing to provide drinks to those of us on the bus. I don’t recall that ever being an option.
- This was my second visit to Saga, the restaurant, in 12 hours. I do know that’s not the first time this has happened.
- There are a lot more large groups of people from specific countries. While it’s not the first time there are groups here, the number of groups of 12+ people seems like a lot more than before. And some of those groups are 30+ people.
- It seems as if there are a lot of companies who are going to give tours for all three days in Santiago. While most only have one or two listed on the official schedule, those aforementioned large groups have arranged private tours. I’m sure the factories appreciate the attention, but giving tours is a lot of work and also distracts people from the main job—making cigars—and I certainly wouldn’t be overly excited for three consecutive tour days.
Update — This post originally stated that Augusto Reyes Jr. was giving part of the tour, that in fact was Pedro Almonte.