For the Love of Leaf|
In the heart of the Dominican Republic, cigars are not just a business, they are a tradition. For cigar maker Emilio Reyes, that tradition builds on deep family roots.
My taxi makes an abrupt, forced landing at the curb alongside Flor de Los Reyes, the cigar factory of Emilio Reyes on the outskirts of Santiago, Dominican Republic. The May heat is already in full effect this morning, and a couple greets me in the nude. Except, that is, for the fig leaves. Actually, it’s a Renaissance painting on the front wall of the small building hailing the company’s flagship premium brand, Adan y Eva cigars. Inside the factory, about 30 people are busy at work, tending to the intricacies of crafting handmade cigars. Despite the heat, Don Emilio insists on the traditional start to the day and my visit: sweet, powerful, Cuban-style espresso.
His humor is impish—he cocks his head toward you slightly, throwing a sidelong, almost conspiratorial glance, and breaks a crooked, boyish grin. Thoughtfully quiet, the 58-year old Dominican tabacalera shares an endearing quality with other giants in the world of tobacco and cigars. These talented craftsmen don’t self-aggrandize; their accomplishments tell the story. They are also immediately likeable—regular guys you can smoke with. Reyes himself would rather be head-high in tobacco than under a spotlight—or in an interview. Restrained, yes, but he speaks with authority when the subject’s cigars or tobacco.
Reyes’ three sons are the family’s sixth generation involved in tobacco, which began with his great-great grandfather in 1840. His father, Don Priamo, pioneered the introduction of Cuban seed into the Dominican Republic in 1962, says Reyes. “My three brothers and I were born here, and grew up under tobacco plants on my father’s plantations.” At age 11, Reyes worked with his father as a young tabacalero, growing, harvesting, and fermenting tobacco, and preparing pacas—140-pound tobacco bales—for cigar makers.
Now, Reyes’ family owns three factories in Santiago, plus 5,000 acres of tobacco land nearby. They employ about 5,000 workers on the plantations, plus another 4,500 in leaf preparation, bunching, and rolling…almost 10,000 people total. Don Emilio, with brothers Augusto, Leonardo, and Priamo Ernesto, supply dark tobacco to some of the most prestigious brands on the U.S. and international markets, as well as to the Cuban cigar industry. That statement draws my surprise, and Reyes explains his family has regularly supplied Cuba since his grandfather Julio’s time, about 100 years ago.
Showing them How it’s Done
“I went to Cuba, supposedly for two weeks,” Reyes recalls. “After arriving, I realized the problem was serious. They were losing too much of the delicate wrapper leaf during processing. Our family has grown Connecticut shade for decades, so I had expertise they needed.” Reyes realized the traditional Cuban pilones—bunches of tobacco leaves stacked for fermentation in precisely arranged layers—were too high. “Weights of more than 200 pounds damages Connecticut tobacco, and they were exceeding that. I taught them to arrange the leaves differently, instituted better humidity control in the fermentation rooms, and took other steps to prevent damage during fermentation.”
Two weeks became five years. His expertise made him a prized teacher of the art and alchemy of transforming raw, biting leaves from the curing barn into sweet-tasting, delicately fragrant cigars.
“Properly grown and processed Cuban tobacco is the world’s best,” says Reyes, leaving the door wide open to judgments on actual production from the famed island. “Cuba’s secret—their magic touch—is the island’s constant 90%-plus relative humidity,” Reyes continues. The Caribbean dominates the narrow island’s humidity, which benefits fermentation. In virtually all other countries, humidity is lower, and workers commonly sprinkle moisture on the layers as they build the pilone. “It’s not the same —the humidity change from their pilone’s moist center to its drier outside edges creates an uneven fermentation across the leaves.”
His next words would stun me: “Except for the years 1993 and 1994, when I was there, Cuba has and does not ferment their wrapper tobacco,” he offers. Perhaps that explains the “modern” Cuban taste I find so unpalatable, born from the residual impurities in the country’s unfermented wrappers that can burn one’s throat, leave a nasty wake, and even cause wooziness.
Don Emilio learned equally from the Cuban tabacaleros, as he worked in everything from seed to finished cigars. He took their knowledge of cultivation back to Santiago, a vital addition to his own 47 years of experience. It was also invaluable to the vertically-structured Reyes operation, growing and processing all their own tobacco, as well as making cigars.
Reyes loads me into his mercifully air-conditioned SUV. We enter a yawning barn door in an enormous building on a nearby side street. As my eyes grow accustomed to the darkness, scores of men can be seen briskly moving pacas, about the size of loveseats, here and there. Others dismantle and rebuild fermentation pilones. Huge five-foot-tall stacks of tobacco wait in enormous rooms. In one area, women sort, size, and grade tobacco into separate, tagged containers, ready for the huge rolling gallery. Meringue on a radio drives the pace.
We enter the warehouse section, and the scene is mesmerizing: 5,000 pacas, stacked nearly to the top of the high-bay ceiling, disappearing into infinity down the dark aisles. A little smile appears briefly as Don Emilio says, “We’ll soon add 11,000 more, when they’re done fermenting. Each is worth about $1,000.” Caramba! That’s $16 million in raw material, and I’m beginning to comprehend the scope of the Reyes family’s influence in the cigar world. “The real value in this much inventory,” explains Don Emilio, “is that all our customers worldwide know it guarantees we can supply their needs for about 10 years, without any change in the blend. With two other warehouses, even a disaster at one facility wouldn’t stop us.”
After a sumptuous lunch and exquisite wine at Santiago’s most elegant Italian restaurant, we drive to Don Emilio’s third factory, named Esperanza (hope). Featuring traditional Spanish architecture and a fresh coat of paint, it’s obvious this is the Reyes family’s showplace and a refreshing change from the utilitarian starkness of most facilities. Inside, the work space is modern, brightly light, and meticulously efficient. But the real treat is the aging room, where tens of thousands of cigars peacefully rest, sweetening and mellowing as they exhale the last of their impurities. Hundreds of open-topped cedar boxes, each with ventilating holes in its front face, line the shelves, much like a cigar locker in a private club, only jumbo-sized. An employee selects a well-labeled box, slides it out of its place, and carries it to banding, packaging, and final inspection. It is the most orderly, convenient aging setup I’ve seen.
Tobacco remnants from production of Reyes’s handmade cigars are collected and used to produce premium blunt style flavored cigars in a special area of the factory, using cigar-making machines which Reyes designed himself. “We have 23 different flavors now,” he says while showing us his laboratory, where they are developing even more. Currently, Esperanza produces 80 million flavored cigars annually.
The Reyes family emigrated from Spain and Cuba to the Dominican Republic generations ago, and Don Emilio has worked in tobacco fields his entire life—by his own admission having “no other interests.” In 1974, he joined the Culbro Corporation, later to become General Cigar Company, which is now part of Swedish Match. He specialized in the selection of tobacco until 1981, when he left the company then, but continued consult with them, the Windsor Shade Tobacco Co. in Connecticut and others, specializing in leaf processing.
In 1981, Reyes joined his father’s company, Tabacos Amantina, which he was running by the late 1980s. “That was when I changed the company name to “Flor de los Reyes” (Flower of the Kings).
I light up a Connecticut shade-wrapped corona that Reyes has handed me to smoke, and quickly realize I’ve never tasted anything quite like it. There is an indescribable hint of exotic spice, but not peppery. The tawny cigar’s intriguing flavor profile squared nicely as an after-lunch smoke; clean, with no resinous aftertaste. Very mellow. Yet, Don Emilio surprises me by saying it’s a powerful cigar; no wonder, as he relates its curious path from inception to today.
“In 1997, my family developed a new tobacco we called ‘Reñe; (REN-yeh). Its oleoresins contained unusually powerful flavor elements, and its higher-than-average nicotine content gave it real power. We added Reñe to a blend we sold to the Russian market in particular, as well to as other special customers worldwide. Your cigar is blended with Reñe.”
Before his brands became available in the U.S., vacationing cigar cognoscenti plodded to his factory to buy literally thousands of boxes of his cigars. Buoyed by this, he says, “We prepared to introduce the Reyes name into the U.S. market with these moderately-priced cigars. I thought they would be very successful. But, after three years of difficulties with our U.S. importer/distributor, he went out of business. Virtually no one experienced this cigar. So, the tobacco and cigars have aged for 10 years now.” Like all other Reyes cigars, these smokes — now named “DRG” (Dominican Republic Gold) — retail for a wallet-easy $4.00-$5.00.
In 2001, Don Emilio created Adan y Eva (Adam and Eve), which he hopes will become his top brand. He has sold a small cigar version of it into the Bahamas, Boston, and Minas Gerais, Brazil for years. It has won awards and recognition in the cigar media, especially in ratings. No wonder; the tobacco in the present Adan y Eva inventory is also 10 years old, like DRG. There are 13 Adan y Eva shapes presently available. The Robusto XO Maduro is a mysterious cigar, with a secret wrapper and blend, and is also Reye’s costliest— $10 each, before taxes. The old-school graphics harkens back to the golden years of cigar making, when richly detailed boxes and cigar bands competed for smoker’s attention.
The Emilio Reyes Collection appeared on the market relatively recently, encompassing several lines: DRG, the top-drawer Traders Reserve, Emilio Reyes, Breves, Flor de los Reyes, Don Priamo (honoring his father), and Los Reyes Unidos (saluting his family’s solidarity). The cigars in the collection share seven shapes, several wrappers and blends, include conventional parejo as well box press formats, and range from mild to full bodied. If you can’t find it here, you’re not serious. All of Reyes’ brands, including Adan y Eva, are imported and distributed by Eden’s Gate Cigars, and retail between $3.25 to $5.50.
This summer, Adan y Eva will introduce tinned mini-cigars and possibly Don Emilio’s first handmade premium flavored cigars, in champagne and cognac.
“All I want,” he says quietly, “is for smokers everywhere to pick up one of my cigars and remark on its quality. You know, many smokers smoke the ring ... selecting cigars by their perceived prestige, rather than their actual performance and quality. We intend to make Adan y Eva and DRG the ‘rings’ they ask for.”
Asked about his dream for the future, he responds, “To see the embargo end, so we could blend Cuban and Dominican tobaccos. That would make incredible cigars ... I think they’re the two best in the world.”
So, this “little, unknown company” turns out to be a giant of sorts, and Don Emilio Reyes, a cornerstone in the cigar world, is finally gaining deserved recognition in the marketplace, matching his solid reputation among tobacco and cigar producers. He may know more about the agriculture and leaf process than anyone, on or off the island of Cuba, having instituted much of it. And, he makes a wide range of affordable cigars. How could a cigar lover possibly go wrong?
SMOKE - Summer, 2007