My trip to the Dominican Republic began with a detour in Miami. Instead of flying into MIA in time catch the flight down to the Dominican Republic, I hopped on an earlier flight and hung out with Jason Woods of Miami Cigar Company (our chaperon for the trip) and the other earlier arrivals in the Cigar 1 Lounge a little south of the airport. It’s a great shop, half humidor, half bar and lounge, no wasted space.
Our stay in the Dominican Republic got off to a great start. Once through customs (a pleasant breeze compared with the same process at MIA), we were greeted by Jose Blanco and a bus loaded with La Aurora cigars and a cooler full of ice cold Presidente Light. I’m not ordinarily a light beer drinker, but there’s no arguing with how refreshing the beer was after hours in transit. In no time, we were driving up the steep, winding road to Camp David Ranch in the hills a little north of Santiago.
Camp David boasts of a beautiful views of Santiago, spacious, spartan rooms, and great food. Guillermo Leon met us there for dinner, followed by hours of conversation, Ron Barceló Imperial Rum and, of course, more cigars. Guillermo enjoys his rum on ice, topped up with 7-Up, a drink I referred to as “The Gato Grande” for the rest of our stay.
Tobacco matters. Aging matters. Storage matters. Maintenance matters. Consistency matters. These are all things that were emphasized during the La Aurora factory tour the next day. A failure on any of these points can and will result in a substandard smoking experience for the consumer. Or worse still, some lucky beetle’s lunch buffet. La Aurora does everything it can do on their end address these points, including aging, draw testing every stick and freezing (well below zero), with the hopes that you and your retailer will provide a safe, stable home for their cigars on your end. That means a properly functioning humidor with consistent humidity and temperature, preferably well below the 74 or 75 degrees that wakes up the little tobacco stowaways.
After the whirlwind tour of the factory, where we saw the journey of the of the tobacco leaf from bale to cigar (a process that is all at once intricate, massive and overwhelming, something that must be witnessed to fully appreciate), we headed to a conference room for the tasting seminar, led by Jose Blanco. If you’ve been to one of the seminars he hosts, you know that the idea is to smoke a number of unbanded samples, and try to discern characteristics of the tobacco and the wrapper’s country of origin. Much to our collective embarrassment, the group did a poor job of identifying wrapper countries of origin based upon taste alone. In our defense, it’s harder than you might think. (Also, your accuracy is a little compromised if you’re up the late the night before drinking Ron Barceló rum with The Big Cat.) In addition to being a humbling experience, it also serves as a reminder that tobacco variety grown in the one country is not going to have an identical flavor to the same variety grown in another. Also, when in doubt, guess Cameroon.
The tasting seminar is something you can approximate at home. Grab a bottle of club soda (the palate cleaner Jose Blanco recommends) and a cigar you don’t know the composition of, smoke it, think about it and make an educated guess as to it’s composition. See if you’re right. If you are, reward yourself with some rum. If you’re not, spank your liver with some rum. As with any activity, the more often you evaluate the characteristics of the tobacco, the better you will become.
While on the tour I never did get to smoke another Escogido, the exclusive cigar of the La Aurora factory tours, but I didn’t even notice it was missing, there were too many exclusives and rarities going up in smoke. To name a few, we sampled two versions of the Leon Jimenes Don Fernando No. 4, the Cameroon one that you can find occasionally in the States, and a Dominican Corojo wrapped one that you can’t. The latter is the last cigar made for Guillermo Leon’s father, and was never released. And then there was the yet-to-be-released Guillermo Leon Robusto, and an original release Cien Años Churchill. Between those, the half dozen tasting seminar cigars (I hope blend No. 4 makes the cut, I’d like to smoke it again), there was barely enough time for lunch.
Unfortunately our plans to visit the fields that afternoon were changed due to heavy rain. But the sun did come out in time for each of us to get the obligatory “fat gringo in a tobacco field” picture. After a much needed nap, and a fine dinner at Nano’s Steakhouse in Santiago, there was the impromptu cigar blogger summit on the deck at Camp David. When you get cigar geeks with blogs together, sooner or later they’re going to talk shop. I won’t bore you with the details, other than to mention my bid to become “King of the Blogs”, the kindly authoritarian overseeing all cigar blogging activity, was rejected.
The wifi was unreliable at best at Camp David Ranch, keeping much of the trip offline, at least for those unwilling to risk hefty international roaming charges. And yet somehow, by the end of the trip, Jerry was mayor of Camp David and hillbilly Ben Lee (of Nice Tight Ash) was mayor of the Santiago airport on foursquare. And of course, everyone heard about Barry getting “married” on the beach with a local girl before the ceremony had even finished. Yes, on the second full day the trip became legendary.
With the education half of our stay done, the group climbed aboard the bus with cigars in hand Saturday morning and began the hour plus drive to Costámbar Beach. The drive itself was uneventful, other than the more conspiratorial among us theorizing that we were actually going to a surprise location somewhere other than the beach.
Costámbar Beach is beautiful, every inch of it is photogenic. Bright blue water, sand bars, picturesque windswept trees, you name it. But I have to wonder if that tropical paradise also has hallucinogenic properties. Because once there, the trip took a surreal turn, and people did silly things. Much of it captured on video. For example, I shot a spur of the moment commercial for Presidente Beer (possibly my finest work on anything ever), Jerry got called a “dirty bastard” by a inebriated stranger for eating his lobster and Barry (aka @nyisles) got married.
Yes, yes, Barry got married, or so it would appear. The improvised last-minute officialness of the proceedings left us all wondering if Barry would be sharing his second seat on the flight home with the mysterious girl from the beach. It was easily the largest, best executed practical joke I’ve ever been seen in person, complete with a small ceremony, an marriage document signing, champagne toast and dinner (an intriguing and hearty traditional stew called “sancocho” or “sancocho cruzado” according to wikipedia) at Guillermo Leon’s house in Santiago. And karaoke. (Speaking of karaoke, I’ve heard a quite a few rendition’s of Frank Sinatra’s My Way, but Jose Blanco topped them all.)
For a truly inspired write up of the event, be sure to check out Doc StogieFresh’s account here. After you finish reading this one, of course.
It was with a little sadness that we said adios that night and boarded the bus headed back to Camp David, because what lied ahead was sleep and repacking, and in a few short hours, a return trip to the airport. And then, horror of horrors, the Miami International Airport, but that’s a tale of terror for another day.
I’d like to thank La Aurora and Miami Cigar Company for sponsoring the trip, it was one of a kind. And a special thanks to Guillermo Leon and Jose Blanco for taking the time out of their busy schedules to make certain we had a wonderful time. And also a thanks to Jason Woods, the hardest shirking man in the cigar business, for his efforts in organizing this trip, and for showing us what hard work looks like. (It looks quite a bit like a Cuban guy drinking rum, it turns out. I kid. But you do make it look easy.)
Cast of Characters
Guillermo Leon – La Aurora – @GuillermoLeon_
Jose Blanco – La Aurora – @joseblanco809
Amaury Abreu – La Aurora – @LaAuroraCigars
Jason Woods – Miami Cigar Company – @MiamiCigar
Jerry – Stogie Review – @jcruz
Barry – A Cigar Smoker’s Journal – @nyisles
David “The Doc” – Doc StogieFresh – @Doc_StogieFresh
Hillbilly Ben – Nice Tight Ash – @NTA_Ben
Charlie – The Cigar Feed – @thecigarfeed
Tom – Tampa Cigar Examiner – @cigarsmokingman
Mario – Cigar Explorer – @cigarexplorer
David Jones – The Tiki Bar Online – @dmjones1009
Brian – Stogie Review – @brianhewitt
(There were also a couple guys who joined us on the trip who are not involved with cigar media
, unfortunately, I only remember the name of one of them, Gary. Gary and Anthony, I hope you guys had as much fun as we did. Something tells me you did.)