An Industry Icon's Quest For The Signature Cigar

Ernesto Perez-Carrillo stands with the product that made him famous: his La Gloria Cubana cigars. i i

hide captionErnesto Perez-Carrillo stands with the product that made him famous: his La Gloria Cubana cigars.

Greg Allen/NPR
Ernesto Perez-Carrillo stands with the product that made him famous: his La Gloria Cubana cigars.

Ernesto Perez-Carrillo stands with the product that made him famous: his La Gloria Cubana cigars.

Greg Allen/NPR

It's not a great time to be a smoker. New laws subject tobacco — and its use — to more restrictions than ever before. New taxes are being imposed, raising the cost of smoking.

None of this, however, daunts Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, a third-generation cigar maker in Miami. With his shaved head and hawk-like glare, he is almost an intimidating presence. He has been involved in the cigar business for most of his 57 years.

At his warehouse in Miami's Little Havana, he is working with his son and daughter to create a new signature cigar.

He pulls out boxes of tobacco from Nicaragua. These leaves of tobacco, called fillers and binders, will go into his new cigars.

"This is all basically Cuban seed tobacco," he says.

Perez-Carrillo has long been impressed by how those Cuban seeds thrive in Nicaragua. He pulls out leaves from two different batches and compares the feel and the smell. He pulls out a lighter and smells a bit from each leaf as it burns.

It's all part of his research in finding the right blend for his new cigar.

The Cigar That Changed His Life

Not a lot of cigars are made in Miami anymore. Most companies have long since moved production offshore. There was a time, though, in the 1960s and early '70s, when cigar factories in Miami and Tampa were at the heart of a thriving industry.

But by the late 1970s, when Perez-Carrillo took over his father's business, cigar sales were in decline. Perez-Carrillo wasn't making much money. Then, in 1982, he tasted what he considers a truly great cigar — a Cuban-made Davidoff that a friend brought from London.

He began a quest to re-create that experience with his own cigar.

"I smoke because I want to feel, not just the senses around my palate, but the whole body," he says. "And with this particular cigar, that's what I felt. And then, when I finally got the blend of La Gloria Cubana, I had that same feeling."

That cigar — La Gloria Cubana — changed Perez-Carrillo's life. In 1992, it received a top rating from what was a brand new magazine at the time: Cigar Aficionado.

In the office at his Little Havana warehouse, Perez-Carrillo recalls the morning he attended a breakfast introducing the magazine at the industry's annual trade show.

"And then when I get back to the booth, I see a line of people," he says. "And I'm thinking, what is this?"

That first day, he took $25,000 in orders, and there was no looking back. It was the beginning of an industry-wide boom in cigar sales. La Gloria Cubana became one of the most sought-after brands. Perez-Carrillo opened a second, larger factory in the Dominican Republic and soon was producing more than 7 million cigars a year.

By then, his daughter Lissette was working part-time at the Miami store and planned to return to the business full-time after she finished law school. But in 1999, the family got an offer too good to refuse. A big corporation, Swedish Match, agreed to buy the cigar company, reportedly for more than $20 million.

Lissette says it was a difficult decision, but her family decided to accept the offer.

"I was very disappointed," she says. "To me, La Gloria is still part of us. That's the cigar I give out at my house and that's the cigar that is just part of our lives for so long."

Carrying On The Family Tradition

Lissette Perez-Carrillo says she smokes two or three cigars a week — not many compared to her father's 10 a day. She is proud of her family's connection to cigar-making — a tradition that began with her great-grandfather, who started out making penny cigars on Havana street corners.

Among the people she has met, she says, there has never been a stigma attached to cigars — in fact, quite the opposite.

Regarding health concerns associated with tobacco and the FDA's new authority over tobacco products, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo says he's not worried. Cigars, he says, are a natural product.

"You know, I've been in the cigar business since the early '70s. And, quite frankly," he says, "I've never heard of anybody getting any type of disease or anything from cigars."

Michele Bloch, a researcher with the National Cancer Institute, says the health risks are very real.

"There is no question," she says. "There are definitive studies showing that cigar use is hazardous to health."

Bloch says cigar smokers particularly have an increased risk of oral or esophageal cancer. However, she says, health risks are strongly linked to how much a person smokes — and as many as three-quarters of cigar smokers smoke only occasionally.

A New Wave Of Independent Cigar Makers

Despite increasing regulation and an economic recession, the Perez-Carrillo family is excited about its new business venture. They plan to release their first product — a limited edition "Inaugural" cigar — this fall.

It will be a small business, they say, one of a growing number of "boutique" cigar makers specializing in premium cigars that are priced under $10. In charge of marketing research is 27-year-old Ernesto Perez-Carrillo III, who has worked as a management consultant and on Wall Street.

He acknowledges that starting a new cigar company might seem risky. "If we were trying to be a big, big company, I think we'd be very, very concerned right now," he says.

But last year, he says, 300 million cigars were sold in the U.S.

"Where the market is, there is always going to be a role for someone like my father who's just an expert, a master blender — someone who creates great cigars," he says.

For marketing research, there are few places better than Sabor Havana in Coral Gables, Fla. It's a cigar store and smoking lounge, where there is usually smoke in the air and a domino game in progress.

Cigar blogger and columnist Gary Arzt quotes Charles Dickens, saying that with the rise of new boutique brands like Perez-Carrillo's, it's "the best of times and the worst of times for cigar smokers."

"We have the finest array of cigars available to us, but we are beset on all sides by taxes and ... anti-smoking people," Arzt says.

He notes that a number of communities are now moving toward bans on smoking in public places outdoors.

The Perez-Carrillo family is ready for that trend as well. They're working at their Little Havana warehouse to create their own retail store and smoking lounge.

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