The world's leading premium cigar-producing region has enjoyed a wide resurgence, a perfect backdrop for the country's annual Procigar Festival.

By Frank Seltzer

Optimism, and the sweet smell of fine tobacco, was in the air at the seventh annual Procigar Festival in the Dominican Republic in February, where a record 280 attendees came to see and experience the tobacco fields, cigar factories, and finished cigars of the association's 10 premium cigar-making members. At night - during the festival's high-energy parties - those numbers swelled to between 600 and 700 people. Procigar is a Dominican association representing the island nation's largest cigar makers, who - among other efforts - band together to promote the idea that the Dominican Republic is "cigar country."

Cigar imports from the Caribbean nation rose between three and four percent in 2013, according to Henke Kelner, Davidoff master blender and president of Procigar. Against this backdrop, cigar fans and industry partners form several continents converged on the tropical island for a week of festivities and exploration dedicated to their mutual passion for hand-made cigars.

The festival began on Monday, February 16, in the southern coastal city of La Romana, which is home not only to the sprawling Casa de Campo golf resort and its famed Teeth of the Dog course, but also to the huge Tabacalera de Garcia factory owned by Britain's Imperial Tobacco Group, the source of all of Altadis U.S.A.'s Dominican-made products. Over a leisurely two days, participants had the chance to golf, catamaran, swim - and ultimately - tour the inner workings of the world's largest cigar factory, a model of modern efficiency where Romeo y Julieta, H. Upmann, Montecristo, Vega Fina, and numerous other cigars are produced. In recent years, Altadis U.S.A. has been rolling out heartier versions of many of its classic brands, featuring Ecuadorean Habano or Cubano wrappers, including Romeo by Romeo y Julieta, Monte by Montecristo, as well as the Ecuadorean Sumatra-wrapped H. Upmann Legacy. These "modern" interpretations of classic brands also bear non-traditional bands, graphics, and packaging for a more contemporary image. Samplers were in abundant supply throughout the festival.

As it turns out, La Romana is also home to another, albeit much smaller, facility - Tabacalera La Matilde, a new venture of Procigar honorary founding member Jose Seijas. The proximity of the two factories is no coincidence: for many years, Seijas ran the Tabacalera de Garcia factory, but after retiring from Altadis several years ago, he was itching to do something on his own. His small factory began as a joint venture with Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana, in a partnership where Seijas recreated the La Flor Dominicana experience for visitors in tourist-rich La Romana, rolling several of La Flor Dominicana's cigars. But knowing he wanted to do more, Seijas began developing his own brand, the name of which comes from the very first cigar factory ever established in the Dominican Republic - La Matilde.

Working with his son Ricardo, Seijas developed what he calls a very smokable cigar that has a medium-to-full profile and combines Dominican and Nicaraguan filler, a Dominican binder, and a top-grade Ecuadorean Habano wrapper. Matilde Renacer ("Matilde reborn") is the result. The cigars began shipping in late March from La Matilde Cigar Company, but with only a handful of rollers, the little factory will be limited in its production, most likely crafting only 300,000 cigars this year. "We have the ability to grow to about one million cigars per year," says Seijas, "but we will not sacrifice quality for quantity." To that end, Seijas pays his rollers hourly rather than by the (industry standard) piece, thereby encouraging quality over quantity which is further ensured by limiting workers to rolling no more than 200 cigars per day. Renacer retails from $7 to $9 per stick, before taxes, and come in four sizes ranging from corona to a large-ring gauge grande.

Once in Santiago - a five hour drive into the island's northern region, where the vast majority of country's cigar makers are concentrated - the festival kicks into high gear. The addition of two new cigar making members last year meant the debut of two new tours at this year's festival, and both proved very popular. Litto Gomez and his son Antonio escorted participants through their factory as well as the fields of their La Flor Dominicana farm a short distance outside of Santiago in La Canela, while over at Tabacalera La Alianza, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo showed off his own facility. Perez-Carrillo, besides making his E.P. Carrillo core lines, Short Run cigars, E-Stunner, and a new special limited edition of his Inch cigar, has also come up with a joint project in partnership with Michael Giannini, the creative director of General Cigar Company who also who heads up the firm's boutique operation, Foundry Cigar Company. The pair worked together for years following General Cigar's purchase of Perez-Carrillo's previous cigar company, El Credito, and have remained friends ever since Ernesto left General in 2009 to venture out on his own once again.

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SMOKE Volume 18, Issue 3


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