An Industry Icon's Quest For The Signature Cigar Cigar icon Ernesto Perez-Carrillo is back in business at age 57, hoping to pass on his family's cigar-making tradition. Among a new wave of independent cigar makers, Perez-Carrillo is starting a new company in Miami with his son and daughter.
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An Industry Icon's Quest For The Signature Cigar

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An Industry Icon's Quest For The Signature Cigar

An Industry Icon's Quest For The Signature Cigar

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

It's not a great time to be a smoker. There are new restrictions and taxes on tobacco. It's also not the best economic environment to be starting a new venture. But none of that is daunting to Ernesto Perez-Carrillo. He's a third generation cigar maker in Miami. And in the world of cigars, he is a rock star. NPR's Greg Allen spend some time with Perez-Carrillo as he works with his son and daughter to create a new signature cigar.

GREG ALLEN: This is Ernesto Perez-Carrillo's laboratory, a warehouse in Miami's Little Havana section.

Mr. ERNESTO PEREZ-CARRILLO (Cigar Maker): Well, this particular tobacco comes from Nicaragua.

ALLEN: Perez-Carrillo has been involved in the cigar business for most of his 57 years. With his shaved head and hawklike glare, he's almost an intimidating presence as he inspects some tobacco samples. These leaves of tobacco are what are called fillers and binders that will go into his new cigars.

Mr. PEREZ-CARRILLO: This is all basically, you know, Cuban seed tobacco. And if you see, the texture - feel that.

ALLEN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PEREZ-CARRILLO: Now feel this one. You see the texture…

ALLEN: Yeah, yeah. That's drier. This has more oil.

Mr. PEREZ-CARRILLO: Exactly, exactly. Then you also - what you do, you also smell the tobacco. Can you smell that?

ALLEN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PEREZ-CARRILLO: Okay. Now you smell this one. It has completely different…

ALLEN: Yeah. This has got a, kind of, a more distinctive smell…


ALLEN: …you know.

Mr. PEREZ-CARRILLO: Exactly, exactly.

ALLEN: Not a lot of cigars are made any more in Miami. Most companies have long since moved production offshore. There was a time though in the 1960s and early '70s when cigar factories here in Miami and in Tampa were at the heart of a thriving industry. But by the late '70s, 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 recreate that experience with his own cigar.

Mr. PEREZ-CARRILLO: Some people smoke for strength. Other people smoke because of the brand or, you know, they like the band. I smoke because I want to feel, not just the senses around my palate, but the whole body. And with this particular cigar, that's what I felt, you know, and then when I finally got the blend of La Gloria Cubana, I had that same feeling.

ALLEN: That cigar — La Gloria Cubana — changed Perez-Carrillo's life. In 1992, it received a top rating from what, at the time, was a brand new magazine: Cigar Aficionado. In the office at his Little Havana warehouse with his son and daughter listening in, Perez-Carrillo recalls that he attended an event introducing the magazine at an industry trade show.

Mr. PEREZ-CARRILLO: And then when I get back to the booth, I see a line of people in front of my booth. And I'm looking at those people and I say, you know, because it was a little booth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEREZ-CARRILLO: So I go there and people started, hey, I mean I want to order (unintelligible). What is this?

ALLEN: How many orders did you come out then, from that day?

Mr. PEREZ-CARRILLO: That day - that first day was $25,000.

ALLEN: 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 over seven 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 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 her family decided, reluctantly, to accept the offer.

Ms. LISSETTE PEREZ-CARRILLO: It was a difficult decision for all of us.

ALLEN: You were a little bit disappointed, one part of you though was…

Ms. PEREZ-CARRILLO: I was - oh, yes. I was very disappointed. I mean to me, La Gloria is still part of, you know, is still part of us. I mean all my friends -you know, 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.

ALLEN: Lissette says she smokes two or three cigars a week — not many compared to her father's 10 a day. She's proud of her family's connection to cigar-making — a tradition that began with her grandfather, who started out making penny cigars on Havana street corners. Among the people she's met, she says there's never been a stigma attached to cigars — in fact, quite the opposite. When I ask about 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.

Mr. PEREZ-CARRILLO: You know, I've been in the cigar business since the early '70s. And, quite frankly, I've never heard of anybody, you know, getting any type of disease or anything from cigars.

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

Dr. MICHELE BLOCH (Researcher, National Cancer Institute): There is no question. There are definitive studies showing that cigar use is hazardous to health.

ALLEN: Bloch says cigar smokers especially have an increased risk of oral or esophageal cancer. However, she says, health risks are strongly linked to how much you smoke, and that as many as three-quarters of cigar smokers smoke only occasionally. 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, but priced under $10. In charge of marketing research is Ernesto Perez-Carrillo III, 27 years old, who's worked as a management consultant and on Wall Street. He acknowledges that in a recession and the current regulatory climate, starting a new cigar company might seem risky.

Mr. ERNESTO PEREZ-CARRILLO III: If we were trying to be a big, big company, I think we'd be very, very concerned right now.

ALLEN: But, he notes last year 300 million cigars were sold in the U.S.

Mr. PEREZ-CARRILLO III: I think where the market is, you know, 450 million, 300 million, you know, 100 million, there's always going to be a role for someone like my father who's just an expert, a master blender — someone who creates great cigars.

(Soundbite of smoking lounge)

ALLEN: For marketing research, there are few places better than Sabor Havana in Coral Gables. It's a cigar store and smoking lounge. There's 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.

Mr. GARY ARZT (Cigar Blogger; Columnist): We have the finest array of cigars available to us, but we are beset on all sides by taxes and by - I don't say they are anti-smoking people. They are people that probably don't enjoy their lives and don't want you to enjoy yours. They don't want you to smoke out of doors.

ALLEN: A number of communities are 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.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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