Pro Cigar Video 2016
I can't think of a better way to celebrate Dominican tobacco than to visit the beautiful country during Pro Cigar Festival. This year celebrated the ninth annual celebration of the festival with over 350 visitors from 20 different countries. Needless to say it was an event to remember.
Upon arriving into Santiago I was greeted by a lovely woman holding a "Pro Cigar" sign who made entry through customs a speedy process. After the lengthly travel night from California, I was exceptionally grateful.
I arrived to my hotel, the Hodelpa Garden Court, and after checking in decided to enjoy an ice cold Presidente beer with my first cigar of the day: Macanudo Estate Reserve Limitado. After a few hours by the pool it was time to get ready for the welcome cocktail reception at the main hotel; Hodelpa Gran Almirante. Pro Cigar guests were hosted poolside with open bar, cigars and friendly faces.
The following morning I visited an old but dear friend, La Aurora. It had been a few years since I last stopped into their factory and I was happy to see a lot of great additions to the tour. Immediately upon entering, the familiar faces of Guillermo León, Manuel Inoa and Gustavo greeted us all with open arms. We began the tour with a brief video about the history of La Aurora demonstrating it's long past of being the oldest cigar factory in the Dominican Republic, as well as the passion and dedication involved in making their wonderful cigars. Walking through the room showing mini mock ups of the different stages of growing tobacco, a curing barn, fermentation and rolling table was a unique and fun way to demonstrate the process of creating a cigar. It reminded me of visiting a bourbon distillery in it's almost museum-like display. Of course it became even more enjoyable after we all lit up the La Aurora Corojo cigar during our tour. We even had the pleasure of Miami Cigar and Company's Nestor Miranda & Jason Wood along with our group. Strolling through the factory one can appreciate the extensive history, evolution, quality and consistency of what this family owned company truly stands for. After seeing the rolling and packaging rooms, we moved on to a new area of the factory. There we participated in a very elaborate pairing seminar with Master Blender Manuel Inoa and sommelier [insert name]. La Aurora Diamond Prominente and the infamous La Aurora rum were the winning combination. A delicious lunch was waiting for us following the pairing, and we were left with enough time to enjoy an espresso and cigar in the beautiful La Aurora lounge.
Later that afternoon I returned to the Gran Almirante for the International Press Conference where all members of the Pro Cigar board were present, including it's newest member: Abe Flores with PDR Cigars.
After recaps of the TPD2 and FDA problems were addressed, we were left with the outcome that we are still in a waiting period. Not much assurance was met other than to agreed as an industry we must overcome and speak out with one voice again government interference over cigars.
Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard, CEO of Oettinger Davidoff AG, said: “The EU’s new Tobacco Directive 2 (TPD2), taking effect in May 2016, is the single largest change in the history of the cigar industry. Article 11 in the new law makes exemption for cigars from the most draconian measures, but it’s up to each country to decide on this. So far, draft legislation shows that exemptions are likely or confirmed in Spain, Germany, Italy and a number of smaller countries. But exemption does not mean no change - we will still have to increase the size of the health warning to cover 65% of the packaging and also feature health warnings on the inside lid of a cigar box. This causes huge cost increases for our industry, packaging needing to be revised and redesigned. In Travel Retail some countries will require not only English language health warnings, but also local languages – eventually ending up with 5 or 27 languages on a cigar pack. This will lead to a drastic reduction in SKUs and lines, because it’s not viable to produce small quantities, and smaller companies cannot afford this”.
Members also touched briefly on last years tobacco grown in a drier season. Nirka Reyes of De Los Reyes Cigars mentioned that overall most of the farms in the D.R. have ample irrigation, but even so about 20% less tobacco was grown last year as a result of less rainfall. It was also mentioned that currently there are about 20 different tobacco varieties being grown in the D.R.. Litto Gomez commented that the tremendous variety and multiple choices in blends are what gives the Dominican Republic such an edge on the tobacco being produced here. I noticed the annual production/exportation numbers seemed to be slightly different than what Nicaragua reported. However the numbers seemed to show less of a gap between the two countries than in prior years. Still the Dominican Republic remained on top. Hans-Kristen of Davidoff also stated that 2015 was a tougher year than anticipated. U.S. market growth was up by only 2%, while the European market decreased by 5%. However both Spain and Germany are said to be showing improvement over prior years. It was noted that Asia's market grew overall in 2015 as well.
After the press conference I had a chance to sit down one on one with the new President of General Cigar, Régis Broersma who basically stated their main focuses are brand development, quality control, listening to consumer demands and allowing his team flourish in the areas in which they do well.
Directly across the hall was the entertaining "Longest Ash" contest, judged by Tony Gomez of La Flor Dominicana and Hostos Fernandez of Quesada Cigars. Interestinly enough the cigar chosen for the contest was a slightly shorter version of the La Nox, which proved to be a bit overwhelming for a few of the contestants who got a little green by the end of the speedy competition. The winner was Lee Young who had only 2.6cm left on his La Nox.
That night I was blown away by the decor, location and overall presentation of the "Traditional Dominican Welcome Dinner". The event was held at the Teatro del Cibao and participants received a gorgeous box of cigars featuring a one of kind art piece decorating the cover. Inside the box Pro Cigar members shared new, limited or special release cigars for all to enjoy. The live music, spirits, ambiance and food made for an absolutely incredible evening.
The next day I was very excited to visit the farm and factory of La Flor Dominicana where we received amazing hospitality and education from both Litto and Tony Gómez. We arrived at their home on the farm and were immediately offered refreshments and a plethora of cigars to chose from before beginning our walk of the farm. This is probably my favorite part of visiting the cigar world! Seeing the tobacco leaves in the ground, then freshly hung in curing barns reminds me time and time again just how special a process it really is. It was such a treat to hear Litto share his techniques and growing experience with all of us. These are times when I wish the FDA and other regulatory government administrations could come experience the art, passion and beauty that is involved in creating a premium cigar. Perhaps then they would understand that cigars deserve to be in a league of their own!
After an amazing tour of LFD's farm in La Canela, we headed over to the factory back in Tamboríl for an awesome lunch in their gorgeous outside courtyard. There we were spoiled yet again with refreshments, an array of cigars including "that little cigar Litto smokes" as Tony calls it and the La Nox. A fresh seafood Paella and roasted pig were on the menu this time and in spite of the food coma most of us fell into afterwards, we proceeded to tour their impressive factory. To close the tour Litto, Ines and Tony generously gifted individual personalized cigar coffins to each and every one in our group. A real classy finale to an amazing day!
That night was the all white party at the monument in Santiago, with a breathtaking view of the city. This is for many, myself included, the highlight event of the festival. The night consisted of another gorgeous cigar box presented upon arrival to the guests, open bar, gourmet food, live music and plenty of dancing. A wonderful way to celebrate!
The following day I was off to the beach, this time visiting the breathtaking Gansevoort Resort in Sosua. I could attempt to describe it in words, but you'll have to see the photos to believe me. The day was one of my favorites, with a perfect combination of cigars, warm weather, beautiful scenery and relaxation.
The last event of the festival was the Gala dinner hosted at the Centro Español, a private club in Santiago. The spread was incredible to say the least. This night is dedicated to raising money for charity; in this case one benefitting ill children and the other low income elderly. Michael Herklots did the honor again of providing an entertaining auction, one that raised a record for Pro Cigar of over 200k dollars! The most memorable moment was when Litto Gómez changed the game and rather than auctioning his hat, challenged Manuel Quesdada to shave mustache for the first time in 47 years! This resulted in an additional 15k dollars and a live mustache shaving show.
All in all the festival was top notch and impressive as always. One that comes highly recommended. The toughest part is deciding which factory tours to attend. Any way you go, you are guaranteed to have a memorable experience, one that deserves to be shared. Join the fun next year for Pro Cigar February 19-24, 2017.