I flew into Santo Domingo—the capital of the Dominican Republic—on Monday to visit the Arturo Fuente Cigar Club, a lounge I’ve heard lots about but never visited. While traffic in Santo Domingo is inhospitable, the Arturo Fuente Cigar Club was anything but. Ciro Cascella, president of Arturo Fuente, opened the club in 1996, and it underwent a major renovation some years ago. The end result is a stunning lounge with great food, fantastic art, and a lot of Fuente products.
While Santo Domingo is the capital, Santiago de los Caballeros is the cigar capital of the Dominican Republic. A quick flight Tuesday morning transported me to Santiago where I then fought through that city’s traffic to make it to Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia Factory #1, the company’s grand factory where it rolls cigars like OpusX, Hemingway and others. There’s no factory that looks like Fuente’s main factory—it has a water fountain inside, after all—but what I really wanted to see were the other parts of the Fuente operation, including the company’s two-year-old box factory which is the most impressive box factory I’ve been into. At some point, halfwheel will do a comprehensive walkthrough of Fuente’s factories, but Tuesday wasn’t that. To give you some idea, Fuente has a Haas CNC machine to make custom molds on-premise. It’s unlike any of the dozen or so box factories I’ve been to over the years.
Tuesday night there was a welcome cocktail hour which I missed (oops) and then the unofficial dinner at Saga, which I also missed in favor of trying to get more than seven hours of sleep. That didn’t happen either and Tuesday morning came soon enough.
For those unfamiliar with Procigar, it can refer to two things. First and foremost, it’s the Dominican Republic’s premium cigar manufacturers’ association. Its main members are largely listed by the factories they represent, which include:
- De Los Reyes
- General Cigar Dominicana (General Cigar Co./STG)
- La Aurora
- La Flor Dominicana
- PDR Cigars
- Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia (Arturo Fuente)
- Tabacalera de García (Altadis U.S.A./Tabacalera USA)
- Tabacalera La Alianza S.A. (E.P. Carrillo)
- Tabacalera Palma (La Galera)
- Tabadom Holding, Inc. (Davidoff)
You may have encountered Procigar, the organization, thanks to the Procigar stickers that can be found on the bottom of boxes produced at the above factories.
Secondly—and more to the point of this week—there is the annual Procigar Festival, which takes place the week after Valentine’s Day in the Dominican Republic. Typically, it consists of two phases: a smaller gathering that begins on Sunday in La Romana, on the Eastern tip of the island; and then the main phase which begins Tuesday night in Santiago.
This year, there’s no La Romana portion because Tabacalera de García—the factory in La Romana that is the catalyst for that leg—is in the process of replacing its current factory with a new one. That meant that this year’s event started Tuesday evening in Santiago, though the event doesn’t really begin in earnest until Wednesday morning.
A typical day at the Procigar Festival starts at 8:45ish in the morning, when participants get in tour buses to travel to the farm and/or factory they signed up to visit. Each day there are around six or seven options—though Davidoff isn’t giving tours this year—and then participants are shuttled to the farm or factory where they are given a tour and provided lunch. Each company does their tours a bit differently, though the basic premise is the same: show off your operations. Historically, there have been some non-cigar activities that people can sign up for including a beach day, golf, and a poker tournament, though only the beach day was listed as an option for 2022. Sometimes there are seminars in the late afternoon—on Wednesday Altadis U.S.A. and Arturo Fuente held a tasting seminar—and then there’s a party in the evening.
My Wednesday itinerary was to spend the day with De Los Reyes, the company that makes brands including Debonaire, Patoro, SAGA and others. According to the schedule, our tour was supposed to leave at 8:30 a.m., 15 minutes earlier than the other tours. In reality, we left right around 9:00 a.m., more or less the same time as everyone else.
This is my seventh time attending the Procigar Festival and much like visiting a cigar factory, one of the more interesting things to me are the small changes that are made each year. One change that applies to most of the events is the use of QR codes instead of physical tickets or, in the case of the daily tours, an elementary school-like roll call to determine who is on the bus and who isn’t. I haven’t had any issues with the QR codes and it seems like they are more or less working just fine.
Of note, this is also not my first time attending a De Los Reyes tour; I believe this is my third or fourth visit. One other noticeable change was that we were immediately given a small piece of paper to select which food items we wanted for lunch at SAGA restaurant. This is one of those small changes that likely makes things a lot easier, particularly as we ended up running a bit late.
Nirka Reyes Estrella, president of De Los Reyes S.R.L. joined us on the bus and announced the itinerary: we were heading first to Navarrete, about 15 miles away from Santiago, to visit one of the Reyes family farms. This would not only be a different farm than previous tours but also a different experience as this particular farm is a new one for the family.
The farm is called Potrero and the Reyes family bought it around six months ago. It’s located in front of a mountain range and has enough change in altitude within the farm that the views are particularly stunning, even in a country with many pretty-looking tobacco farms. The farm was previously used to grow fruit, though had been dormant for some time before the Reyes family bought it and began work on growing tobacco. That meant I got to see something a bit different: a farm very much under construction.
But before we started looking at tobacco, it was time for a De Los Reyes tradition: the hangover bar and coffee. Every De Los Reyes tour I’ve been on has included a bar with Bloody Marys and a separate coffee station, usually making coffee in a rather labor-intensive manner. Wednesday was no exception. There was also bread from Bismarck Abud, Nirka’s husband, and I wish I would have known where the bread came from. I opted to not have some, but had I known it was Bismarck’s, I would have likely ate lots of it. If you are ever here in Santiago, you should absolutely find a way to try ñangá, which is where he sells pastries and baked goods.
Once the bread and drinks were distributed, it was time for introductions, which included Jean Michel Louis, managing director of De Los Reyes; Augusto “Foofy” Reyes, Nirka’s father and the president of Swisher Dominicana; Monika Kelner de Reyes, a tobacco grower and Foofy’s wife; Phil S. Zanghi III of Debonaire; Patrik Martin of Patoro; and a few others who I have unfortunately forgotten about. Notably missing was Leo Reyes, Nirka’s uncle and a legendary tobacco grower, who was feeling ill. My Spanish is awful, so I haven’t been able to have very many conversations with Leo, but his presence was missed. It’s always interesting to see someone like Leo work in their natural habitat. Watching him walk a farm, observing the things he looks at, seeing him look at tobacco—it’s different and there are few people I’ve met that I would put in a similar category as Leo. You wouldn’t need to know who he is to see that this is his craft.
The running joke at Potrero was that it never rains at the farm, except for earlier in the week when it did rain. I suspect that limited some of what was planned. As someone that explored the field a bit, it was quite muddy in certain parts and so we didn’t do a group walk into a tobacco field. I’ve always thought that De Los Reyes is the tour people should take if they have never been to a cigar farm or factory because it’s well organized, friendly and at a scale that is approachable enough to avoid being completely overwhelmed. De Los Reyes is also committed to showing the whole process, starting with the seeds, soil and seedbeds.
Five years ago, I would have spent my time talking in the back and not paying as much attention to the tour itself, but I’m glad I’ve gotten a bit more mature in this regard. There’s always something to learn and for me, there’s no place where I learn more than at farms. This farm is growing Dominican broadleaf, something the De Los Reyes folks have been talking about to me for the last year or so and it’s interesting to hear the differences between this and other tobaccos the Reyes family grows. One of those differences is that the leaves on the plant are picked from the top to the bottom, which is the reverse of just about any other farm I’ve ever visited. The reason for this is because the leaves grow to be more or less the same size regardless of their position, meaning there’s no need to start at the bottom where the leaves are typically the largest.
Our time at the farm ended with a stop in a barn where workers were hanging leaves. Of note, this barn was built last week; that’s how new the farm is. As always, the Procigar Festival creates this interesting dynamic of dozens of people trying to take pictures and video while the employees are trying to do their day jobs.
From there it was back to Santiago to go to SAGA, the very popular restaurant owned by the Reyes family. It’s always a treat to go to Saga and while we were a bit rushed due to time, the food at Saga is great. I also got to try Sir Chill gin, which uses tobacco as one of its ingredients.
It was then back on the bus to head to a very quick tour of the De Los Reyes factory. It was rushed and it felt as such, but I appreciate De Los Reyes’ approach to tours. Rather than trying to have 50+ people move around in a monolithic group, De Los Reyes tries to split people into small groups; the plan for our tour was five groups of 10. From there, you are taken around the facility to various stations: filler sorting, wrapper sorting, rolling, quality control, aging, and packaging. At each stop, a different member of the De Los Reyes team is tasked with explaining what’s happening in a particular area. It means you are constantly moving and also never listening to the same person for very long.
If you are curious about the tour, I’d recommend reading this post but I will point out some differences.
I’m not sure if either of these things are new but I found them both interesting. First is a big cigar rest station (with numbers so you know which cigar is yours) that is placed outside of the aging room, the one area where smoking is not allowed. It’s so simple and so smart. Second, I spotted this painted cooler, which was one of the pastel colors that is used throughout the factory. A small touch, but something you don’t see in other factories.
Monika Kelner de Reyes was tasked with a new station for the factory tour: a sorting room for filler on the side of the factory. But the more notable feature on Wednesday was a group of Carnivale dancers who were dancing and cracking their whips in an outside area. At this point, I think I’ve seen Carnivale dancers at more Procigar factories than not, though these whip cracks were a lot louder than I recall.
One thing I noticed that I can’t remember seeing elsewhere, certainly not explicitly explained, are these types of molds. Most box-pressed cigars are rolled as round cigars and then pressed using dividers placed in between the cigars like this. The cigars are squeezed into a tray and the resulting pressure changes the shape from round to pressed. De Los Reyes does the pressing in molds where the cigars are bunched and then placed into molds that have a rectangular profile instead of the round channels of a normal mold.
De Los Reyes then passed out gift bags, said their goodbyes and we headed back to the hotel for some downtime before dinner.
If you are curious to know what dinner looked like, Procigar’s social media will have plenty of videos and pictures of the large gathering at Parque Central de Santiago. This is the more relaxed of the Procigar evenings compared to Thursday’s White Party and Friday’s gala. To me, it seemed like the food was a bit better this year, while the music was just as loud as always.
After the conclusion of the dance contest, I decided to head back to the hotel to finish this post and attempt to find some sleep.
The featured image was one of the more hilarious things I’ve seen at Procigar. A large contingent of people on our tour made custom shirts for the tour with a painting of Nirka’s face on it. Eventually, Nirka put one of the shirts on, but the posing of the group in the tobacco field was quite comical.