The Next Big Thing in Cigars, Pepin
A star roller from Cuba, now in Miami, José “Pepin” Garcia is making some of the world’s finest cigars.
The uninitiated might be forgiven for walking right by El Rey de los Habanos Inc. From the street the tiny cigar factory looks just like any other shop in Little Havana, Miami. There’s the Cuban flag on prominent display in the window, the word “cigars” in large letters, and the de rigueur plastic sign high above, emblazoned with the name of the place. Inside, only a dozen cigarmakers work in the surprisingly quiet atmosphere. The casual visitor might assume that the cigars rolled here would be like those found at any other chinchalle in Little Havana, Ybor City or Union City: something fun for a quick puff but not a serious smoke.
The person making that assumption couldn’t be more wrong.
The grandly named El Rey de los Habanos, or King of the Cuban Cigars, factory is the home of one of the world’s most talented cigarmakers, Jose “Pepin” Garcia, and the birthplace of some of the market’s hottest brands. Twenty-one times since opening its doors in 2003, the company has scored 90 points or more in blind taste tests in Cigar Aficionado and Cigar Insider, the magazine’s semimonthly newsletter. The 57-year-old Pepin runs the show here as well as in a new, larger factory in Nicaragua. He works alongside his son, Jaime, and daughter, Janny, to make under contract such highly acclaimed cigars as Tatuaje and Padilla, as well as producing his own Don Pepin Garcia brand.
Pepin’s cigars are bold, impeccably crafted and memorably flavorful. They have appeared in the Cigar Aficionado Top 25 list of best cigars in the world for three years running, and the company makes two of the cigars on the most current list, including the No. 9 smoke of the year, the Tatuaje Cabinet Noella. It’s a performance to be envied by virtually every cigar company, save for Padrón Cigars Inc. and Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia.
“To me, in the last five years, the most exciting person and cigar concept to hit the industry has been Pepin Garcia,” says Jose Blanco, the marketing director for La Aurora S.A., a leading producer of Dominican cigars. “Not only does he make great cigars, but he is a very humble man, which makes him even greater. He has a special way of blending that has not been seen in the industry.”
The cigar factory on Miami’s historic Calle Ocho, or Eighth Street, is located between 11th and 12th avenues, next door to El Credito Cigars, the birthplace of the non-Cuban La Gloria Cubana. El Rey is easily one of the world’s smallest cigar factories: midsize cigar companies might have 80 to 100 cigarmakers, and the largest employ several hundred. In the slim rolling gallery of El Rey de los Habanos, they sit two abreast at wooden rolling stations in a sparse room that is decorated with photographs of lush Nicaraguan tobacco fields and a large Cuban flag. The employees here work slowly and carefully, and don’t use the bunching machines known as Temscos, or Liebermans, that are common throughout the Dominican Republic. Each cigar contains two binder leaves rather than one, adding to its complexity. It’s something rarely seen outside of Cuba or Miami. Each maker does both the bunching and the rolling—jobs that most factories typically split between two workers—and they finish each cigar with a mounted, triple-seam cap, giving the cigars a clean look reminiscent of Cubans.
“When the boom in the U.S. came, anything was a cigar. Whatever you could do. But we started in 2003. The cigar is more complete with the triple cap. It’s pretty,” says Pepin Garcia, who looks younger than his age, with a solid head of hair (black on top, gray on the sides) combed back and the ever-present smile of a man doing precisely what makes him happy in life. Another nod to his Cuban heritage is that every box of cigars he makes bears the date the product was placed in the container.
Pepin Garcia learned the art of making great cigars in his hometown of Báez, Cuba, a small town in the Villa Clara province of central Cuba east of Havana. Pepin sat down for the first time at his rolling station at the age of 11 in a small cigar factory run by his uncle, who taught Pepin how to make a cigar in the Cuban style. The youngster quickly excelled at the task. Pepin eventually began working at the Félix Rodriguez cigar factory in Báez, this time making cigars for export. He says he rolled such famous marques as Montecristo, Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta, Quai d’Orsay and Ramon Allones.
“The construction of the cigars in Las Villas [the former name of Villa Clara] is better than in Havana,” says Pepin, still proud of his roots. “It’s a small town—the quality control is more strict than in Havana.” To this day, he says he can tell the difference between two otherwise identical Cuban cigars if one was made in Havana, the other in Villa Clara. One testament to his belief in the quality of cigars rolled in his hometown is that 60 percent of his workers hail from it.
Aside from a three-year hiatus for mandatory service in the Cuban military, Pepin had worked tobacco all his life, and eventually became one of Cuba’s best cigarmakers, spending time teaching other rollers how to construct cigars. “I taught more than 200 people in Cuba,” he says. Today, his hands are among the most talented in the business, and he can make complex shapes from cigar tobacco, from pipes to rocket ships. He is also the only roller in the factory who makes the oversized diademas called Salomones, slowly trimming a wrapper leaf, first with a chavetta, then with a razor blade, and slowly sealing up the curves until it’s nearly impossible to see the seams in the dark brown leaf.
As much as they loved Cuba, the Garcias yearned to do more. Janny, 28, was the first family member to arrive in the United States, coming in 1997. Pepin and Jaime, 37, came in 2002. The two men emigrated first to Nicaragua, then to Mexico, where they crossed the U.S. border and were welcomed into the country, thanks to their Cuban passports.
In Nicaragua, Pepin and Jaime worked for tobacco grower Eduardo Fernandez, and Pepin soon found to his surprise that the sun didn’t rise and set on tobacco grown in Cuba. “I thought only in Cuba could you make good cigars,” says Pepin, who sees similarities between Nicaragua’s growing regions and Cuba’s. “Estelí is similar to Las Villas, Jalapa is like Pinar del Río, Condega like Habana. The combination? Cubano!”
In the United States, after a short stint with Tabacalera Tropical, the cigar-rolling arm of Fernandez’s operation, the family opened El Rey de los Habanos, with Fernandez as a financial backer (his percentage of ownership in the company is undisclosed) and the primary supplier of tobacco leaf. It’s uncommon for a cigar roller to have success opening a cigar factory of his own: perhaps the only other example of a cigar roller who has opened and maintained a prominent cigar factory is Rolando Reyes Sr., patriarch of Puros Indios and Cuba Aliados cigars.
It’s cliché to describe the members of a family company as closely knit, but the Garcias take it to an extreme: father, son, daughter, spouses and children all live together in one house in Miami, as they did in Cuba. “It’s not usual in the U.S., but in Cuba, we lived all together,” says Janny with a smile and a wave of her hand. “It’s impossible for my father to live without us, and it’s impossible for us to live without him.”
Being together virtually all the time, at work and at home, makes it easy to focus on the one subject that matters: tobacco. “In my home, we only speak tobacco,” says Jaime, a powerfully built, soft-spoken man with sleepy eyes and a tremendous pride in his cigars. “When we talk, it’s only cigars. Every day, every time, every week, only cigars.”
The family recently took a short vacation—together—to the Dominican Republic, but it quickly evolved into a working trip. “We smoked 60 cigars in three days,” says Janny. Pepin acquiesced to leisure but once. He wanted to leave the beaches of Puerto Plata and take a trip to the cigar factories in Santiago, but his children convinced him to stay and get some modicum of relaxation.
The Garcias expanded El Rey de los Habanos in May 2006, essentially doubling its space, but one could hardly tell. They added a small area, about the same size as the rolling room, where cigars are banded and packed, and a shop in the front that sells various cigars made by the company, including the Don Pepin lines and Tatuajes. In back of the rolling room is a tobacco preparation area, where piles of tobacco sit in plastic bins. Jaime takes out leaf after leaf, and offers a visitor a sniff of the tobacco’s rich aroma. “Secret,” he says when asked from what part of Nicaragua the tobacco comes. Then he beams with his contagious smile.
In the equally tiny aging room, which is nothing more than a few shelves in a humidified cooler, cigars sit half wrapped in newspaper (for protection) on a rolling cart. There are perhaps 20 bundles, gorgeous chocolate-brown pyramids, proud and long “A” sizes and diminutive coronas. It is half the entire factory’s daily production.
At the same time as the expansion in Miami, the Garcias embarked on their most ambitious project to date, opening a much larger cigar factory in Estelí, Nicaragua. Tabacalera Cubana, which is also a partnership with Fernandez, has enabled the Garcias to substantially increase the number of cigars they can roll. The cigars in Nicaragua are made in the same style as those in Miami, with two binders and mounted heads, but in the new plant production is divided between bunchers and rollers. “Teaching the people was hard,” admits Pepin. “In Cuba, one roller makes everything. In Nicaragua and Honduras, they work in pairs.”
Nicaragua has brought the Garcias their most high-profile client to date: Ashton Cigars. The Philadelphia company recently signed a deal to have a new brand—San Cristobal—made by the Garcias in Nicaragua. The signing of such a prestigious customer has humbled the Garcias. “It’s like a dream to do a cigar for Ashton,” says Janny.
The large factory has given the company more room to work: all fermentation and tobacco sorting is done in Nicaragua, and the finishing steps are done in Miami.
Some were concerned about the Garcias’ ability to maintain quality standards when the Nicaraguan factory opened, but so far the results are impressive. Nicaraguan cigars are responsible for some of the family’s highest ratings, including the 93 points recently awarded to the Tatuaje Havana VI. The new factory’s first full year in operation, 2007, should bring the Garcias’ total production to nearly 5 million cigars, up from 2 million in 2006. The family’s long-term goal is to get to about 7 million cigars.
Despite the recent success, it’s a tough life, and it’s uncertain how long the Garcias will stay in their current, cramped Miami location. “We’re probably going to move,” says Janny, who spends a total of two hours each day commuting in Miami-area traffic to and from work, starting at the factory at 7 a.m. and leaving at 6 at night. “We’re looking for something closer to the house.”
Pepin is happy with his ratings, and the industry accolades. “I feel like a millionaire when people come to me and say you’re making good cigars: it makes me feel proud,” he says.
Late one evening after a meal in a local restaurant, Pepin and his family are sitting outdoors puffing away on more cigars, discussing Cigar Aficionado ratings. Pepin wants to know the highest rating ever given a cigar in a blind taste test. “Ninety-nine points, for the Hoyo Double Corona,” he is told. “Long ago.”
He takes another puff of his cigar, and thinks to the future. “Once Cuba opens, the Cubans are going to take leaf from Central America. They have more rollers than the leaf that they have,” he says. He is asked if he would keep making cigars in Nicaragua if the embargo is dropped. He says he would. Then he is asked to blend the perfect cigar in his head.
He smiles broadly at the question, and says without hesitation that it would be a combination of Cuban-seed tobaccos grown in Nicaragua and Cuba. The wrapper would be from Cuba. The binder leaves would be from Nicaragua. For the ligero tobacco in the filler, he would use two types, one from Estelí and the other from Jalapa in Nicaragua. The other filler components, seco and viso, would come from Cuba, the former from Villa Clara, the latter from Pinar del Río.
“That cigar,” he says with pride, “would score 100 points.”
The Star Client: Tatuaje
Pete Johnson was 22 years old when he traded in his bass guitar for a job at Gus’s Smoke Shop in Sherman Oaks, California. “I took a Sunday job, because I wanted to leave the music industry.” His long-term goal was to move back to his home state of Maine and open a cigar store, but the plan soon changed.
Johnson had a real knack for the business, and was soon buying hard-to-find cigars such as Padróns and Puros Indios for the cigar shop’s clientele. That gig led to work at the Big Easy in Los Angeles, then a job with the Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills, as director of retail operations.
Johnson met Pepin Garcia in April 2003, and although Johnson speaks little Spanish and Garcia little English, they communicated well enough for Johnson to describe what he wanted: a cigar similar to the Cuban cigars he enjoyed smoking. “Something that had more structure, more oomph,” says Johnson, now 36. “I said I want a Cuban cigar. Make me what you know best.” The first blend, says Johnson, was a little mild, but Garcia nailed it on the second try. “I was convinced the second samples he sent me were Cuban cigars,” says Johnson. “I pretty much sat there in awe all day.”
Tatuajes made their debut at the 2003 Retail Tobacco Dealers of America trade show and have been one of the industry’s hottest brands ever since, despite a high price tag that reflects the cost of Miami labor. “When I first started my brand, people said I was crazy, because they were expensive,” says Johnson. They also had a name few could pronounce and fewer could understand: Tatuaje [Tah-too-AHH-hey] is Spanish for tattoo, and one look at the inked sleeves on Johnson’s arms explains the reference.
In the Garcias, Johnson has found kindred spirits who share his appreciation for fine tobacco and his taste for flavorful cigars. “They listen to their clients,” Johnson says of the Garcia clan. “Pepin blends to my palate. If I can’t smoke them, I can’t sell them.”
The Mischievous Client: Padilla
Ernesto Padilla not only owns cigar brands made by Pepin Garcia, but he’s also an unabashed cigar fan. And he’s not afraid to grab a few here and there when he visits the factory. Standing near a pile of smokes near a roller’s station, the goateed 35-year-old jokingly imitates the motion of slipping a few double coronas into a nonexistent breast pocket.
Janny Garcia smiles wearily. “Every time he visits, a cigar here, a cigar there,” she says. In a place with such limited production, it’s easy to see that Padilla’s thirst for Garcia’s cigars could be costly.
Unfazed, Padilla flashes a devilish grin, puffing away happily. “I have a technique,” he says about his cigar filching, a gratis smoke clamped in his jaws. “I say ‘Fidel died!’ and everyone runs to the TV.”
Padilla got his start in the cigar industry in 2002, working for Tabacalera Perdomo in the marketing department.
He branched out in 2004, making a Padilla cigar in the Dominican Republic, incorporating a pen into his logo in honor of his late father, Heberto. (The elder Padilla was a highly honored Cuban poet.) Ernesto then began working with Garcia, who made his Padilla Miami 8&11 brand, named for the junction of street and avenue where El Rey de los Habanos is located. His latest venture is the Padilla Signature 1932, which commemorates the year of his father’s birth.
The Mega Client: Ashton
The Garcias make cigars for many customers, but their lives changed when Robert and Sathya Levin (left and right in photo), the father-son team behind the Ashton brand, smoked their cigars in 2005.
“The first time I smoked one [of Pepin’s cigars] it was a Don Pepin blue label,” says Sathya Levin, 27. “I was just blown away. I gave it to my dad, and he agreed it was outstanding.”
The Levins owned a brand they were looking to produce called San Cristobal. Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., the maker of all Ashtons, was their first choice, but Fuente “just couldn’t carve out the production to make a whole new brand,” says Sathya. The Ashton team had visited about a half dozen other factories looking for a producer before walking into El Rey de los Habanos about two years ago. “Our first meeting with Pepin,” says Levin, “we knew he was the guy.”
San Cristobal was developed by the Garcias, the Levins and Ashton vice president of sales Manny Ferrero. On a trip to Nicaragua, the straight-talking Ferrero asked the Garcias if they had enough leaf to make cigars consistently in the quantities Ashton required—300,000 for the first 12 months on the market—and potentially exceed that level in subsequent years. Shown piles of rich Nicaraguan leaf, he reveled in the quality and quantity. San Cristobals made their market debut at the RTDA this summer, and the first shipments went out at the end of August.
The Garcias are humbled by the interest from Ashton, the first huge company to have a cigar made by the Garcias. The feeling is mutual between client and contract manufacturer. “These people are very, very impressive,” says Sathya. “At this point they’ve exceeded all our expectations.”