Time for some details! Last week, accompanied by 14 fellow bloggers and all around cigar fiends, I had the distinct pleasure of touring the General Cigar Company‘s Santiago, Dominican Republic facilities. Most of us converged on Sunday at the Miami Airport, as well as Michael Giannini, Yuri Guillen and Rick Rodriguez. Those of us who had met previously greeted one another and those of us who had not met made introductions. Upon our arrival in Santiago, Victoria McKee Jaworski, Director of Public Relations for GC, met us at the gate and shepherded us to a private lounge while our checked bags were retrieved, then filed smoothly through immigration. We got a firsthand look at the mayhem of driving in the DR, as a couple of young men on what appeared to be Honda Cub mopeds, or knock offs, with no lights, helmets or anything were literally run over by an SUV trying to pass our bus. Welcome to Domincan Republic! Leave the driving to the professionals! Ironically, Micheal Giannini had just been telling us about how the local law enforcement handles such incidents, they just take everyone to jail. We arrived at the Hodelpa Gran Almirante Hotel and were already checked in and there was even a gift bag in the room waiting for us. We quickly met up at the pool bar for cigars, beverages and snacks, and got to meet Benji Menendez and hang out with the group for a while. Already this was a great day!
Monday started with a fine breakfast in the hotel, followed by a presentation at the factory where we met Jhonys Diaz, the VP of Operations and his staff. They presented us with a slide show while we had coffee and cigars. The presentation touched upon every aspect of the operation, from seed to box, as well as the social programs they provide for the people. One really gets the feeling of family there, it’s quite amazing.
After the presentation, we moved through the factory to our first exercise, blending. Arranged on tables were about 15 piles of leaves, with bags of “fumas” in front of each. The fumas were small cigars of each single leaf. The idea was to smoke each one to get the flavor, then try to determine which ones would taste good together. This activity will burn up your tongue! Whoever suggested starting with the Ligero is an evil bastard! Like most things we’d see over the course of the trip, this is not an easy thing. The next step was to choose a couple tobaccos and have them rolled into another fuma, which we smoked, when that was a big mistake and tasted terrible, you made another. Of course, Michael, Benji, Rick, Yuri etc, were on hand to guide us. I have yet to try mine, and I have rather low expectations, no fault of the materials or guidance.
After the blending session it was lunch time. We were served a lovely buffet of Dominican fare (loved the rice and bacon!) in the conference room, along with coffee and cigars. We all relaxed in the air conditioning and reflected upon the difficulty of the blending exercise. By the way, it sometimes takes a year of trial and error to come up with a blend for a new cigar, so we shouldn’t feel too bad. Still, when one has the opportunity to actually play with different leaves like that it is a special event.
After lunch we were handed over to Edmundo Garcia, the Tobacco Operations Manager. He took us to one of the warehouses where the bales of tobacco are stored. This is another area where it’s amazing how they track everything with precision. Every bale is marked with the variety, size, color, etc, and kept in the climate controlled warehouse. They actually have tobacco beetle traps all over the place so they can react quickly if beetles are detected. Skip Martin (@chiefhava) was trying to weasel bales the whole time we were there, but he did ask some very good questions along the way, ones I wouldn’t have thought to ask.
Next we moved to one of the areas where they condition the leaves and hang them to rehumidify them. Then we saw pilons, or huge stacks of the leaves where the leaves ferment. There is a dizzying number of steps in the process, sorting, re-sorting, shaking, stacking, re-stacking. Each step is vital to the proper processing of the leaves and is carefully documented along the way. If you think the cigar your smoking is a simple pleasure, and that cigars are expensive, you have to see it first hand to know how many people and how much time is involved. The tobacco they were sorting to go into the production area was from 2003, to give an example of the time the tobacco spends in aging for a premium cigar.
After a very long day at the factory, having worked on blending, having toured several aspects of the manufacturing process, a weary group returned to the hotel, then went to a very nice Italian restaurant for a sumptuous feast, and another chance to enjoy one another’s company. Of course, we capped off the night with more cigars by the pool, and eventually retired to rest up for another action packed day. Throughout the day we were fed a delicious diet of Macanudo, Partagas, La Gloria Cubana and Cohiba cigars. Sometimes we dismiss these cigars as pedestrian, however I’ve mentioned before, and it came up among the group, that these are fine cigars, and when you’ve seen all that goes into making them, you change your thought process a bit. Personally, I’ve never strayed too far from the “Classics”, but still returned to some old favorites.
Watch for Day Two, coming soon! That’s it for now, until the next time,