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Interview With Ernesto Perez-Carrillo

Cigar.com: You've been busy reinventing yourself these last few years with your new E.P.Carrillo brand so let's start at the beginning. You created La Gloria Cubana, one of the most influential brands in the world. How did it come to fruition?

EPC: My grandfather began making cigars in Cuba in 1907. In 1959, we moved to Miami expecting to return to Cuba in a year or two once the political climate settled, but that never happened. While in Miami, my father took every odd job he could find until he finally raised enough money to purchase a small factory in Little Havana, Miami in 1968. He then registered the La Gloria Cubana brand in 1970. After my father passed away in 1980, I took over the business. My goal was to make La Gloria Cubana a national brand, but after years of slow sales I decided to change the blend. Still, it wasn't until 1993, when Cigar Aficionado came on the scene and gave our La Gloria Cubana Wavell a high rating that things really took off. Word quickly spread about La Gloria Cubana – I remember customers lined up outside our factory in Little Havana at 6 in the morning with empty suit cases. It was an incredible ride, and in 1999, we sold the business to Swedish Match. It was really hard to part with the brand, but at the time, my children wanted to follow their own career aspirations.

CC: Many people don't realize you were an accomplished musician before you entered the cigar world. What instrument did you play and what style?

EPC: Yes, I played the drums, mainly Jazz and Latin music.

CC: So how does someone go from a career in music to a career in cigars?

EPC: I always played the drums growing up, everything from ballroom music to Vegas style shows. But when I was 25, I decided to really go for it. I moved to New York City to try my luck with some of the great Jazz musicians at the time. It was one of the toughest periods of my life as my wife and my then 3-year-old daughter stayed in Miami. One day after auditioning with Stan Getz and not making the cut, I realized my calling was not in music. I moved back to Miami, dedicated myself to learning everything about tobacco and cigar making from my father, and I've never looked back.

CC: Two years ago you made the move to launch a new line sold under your namesake, what was your mission?

EPC: I decided to launch a new company because my children wanted to get back in the cigar industry. They both grew up in the cigar factory, but my daughter, Lissette, left to become a lawyer, and my son, Ernie, went to college and then to work in New York City in finance. They were both very successful at their jobs, so I was surprised when they told me that they wanted to get back in the business. I guess it's in our blood. When we started the company, we had one mission – to create a unique boutique brand with uncompromising quality and consistency that can be passed on from one Perez-Carrillo generation to the next.

CC: Since rolling out your core line, you've introduced several line extensions. Which are your favorites?

EPC: We now have 4 regular-production E.P. Carrillo lines – Core Natural, Core Maduro, New Wave Connecticut, and the Elencos Series. Although many cigar enthusiasts associate me with La Gloria Cubana, I wanted to expand into different flavor profiles with our new company. With E.P.Carrillo, we built a diverse product portfolio ranging from mild to medium (New Wave Connecticut) to full-bodied (Elencos Series) and spicy (Core Natural) to rich (Core Maduro). My favorite sizes by line are Encantos in Core Natural, Club 52 in Core Maduro, Gran Via in New Wave Connecticut, and Acto Mayor in the Elencos Series.

CC: You're best known for your talents as a blender. How do you work through a new project? How long does it take for you to bring a new blend to market from start to finish?

EPC: My greatest passion is blending tobaccos. If you look at the number of countries that grow tobacco, the number of different zones in each of these countries, and the number of different seeds that exist, there are thousands of potential blends. For me, I don't like to start the process with a pre-disposition of what I want the cigar to taste like. I let the tobaccos guide me. For our E.P.Carrillo Core Natural blend, I created about 15 blends before we decided on the final winner. And with each blend I created, we learned something new about the individual tobaccos and how they interacted with each other. Once we find a blend we like, we ask ourselves, "Is there anything in the market that tastes like this?" If there is, we won't use the blend – we want every E.P.Carrillo blend to be unique. Needless to say, the cigars we make are only as good as the tobaccos we use. Fortunately, after 40 years in the industry, I've built some great relationships with tobacco growers and have access to the best tobaccos. In terms of timing, it really depends, but on average, I would say it takes 2 years to introduce a new blend to the market.

CC: Since you expanded out of Miami, your factory has always been in the Dominican. What was your reasoning for working in the Dominican over other countries?

EPC: The Dominican Republic opened its door to me and my family in 1996, and thanks to its people we achieved much success in our family business. So when the time came to do it again, there was no other option than the D.R. I've been working in the D.R. for nearly 15 years, and some of the workers still with me now were actually with me when I opened my first factory in 1996. Many times they know exactly what I want before I even say it. Also, in the D.R., all of the cigar manufacturers are very close and we all help each other. I can't count the number of times that I've needed tobacco, boxes or something else, and Carlos, Litto, Manolo, Henke, or my friends at General Cigar have come to the rescue.

CC: What can we expect from your brand in 2012? Any new releases you can discuss?

EPC: In 2012, we will be introducing the maduro version of our Elencos Series. The Elencos Series is our full-bodied, high-end line. We only produce around 50,000 cigars of the Elencos Series each year. Like every year, we'll also be releasing some limited edition products – E.P.Carrillo Short Run 2012 and Edición Limitada 2012. I love working on limited edition blends because there are no boundaries. With our regular-production lines, we look for tobaccos that are sufficiently available that we can maintain a consistent blend from year to year. With our limited edition products, it's a one shot thing, so we look for the rarest and most interesting tobaccos we can find. Our Shorts Runs and Edición Limitada's have become so popular that we usually sell out of them in two to three days.

CC: Where do you see your brand five years from now?

EPC: Right now, our main focus is sourcing the best tobaccos available to make truly unique and distinguished cigars that can be enjoyed by all. I think we are off to a great start – in less than 2 years, we received four 90+ ratings across 4 different lines and a Top 10 Cigar of the Year. I know if we keep concentrating on making great cigars, the future will be very bright for our company.

CC: Thank you for taking time to meet with me. Is there anything else you'd like to add before we wrap up?

EPC: I want to thank you and all of our E.P.Carrillo supporters. I consider myself the luckiest man in the world being able to work with my family in an industry that I love so much, and this would not be possible if it weren't for you all. And to those that will be trying an E.P.Carrillo for the first time, we look forward to earning your patronage.