Bryan Ott: Ernesto, you’ve had a long, successful career in the cigar industry. Can you give a brief history of how you got started to where you are today?
Ernesto Carrillo: I got started because it was in my blood. My father was in the business, and before that, family on both sides were involved with tobacco in Cuba. Early on in life, my passion was jazz and drums, and I tried this, as some of the readers may know. But I realized that tobacco was in me, and that’s what I should do. I started with my father on Calle Ocho (8th Street) in Miami at El Credito. We worked hard and ran the business with all the passion I had for jazz and drums. I realized that my artistic side was able to be portrayed in cigars, and I poured everything I knew and learned into making cigars. Years of work and trying new blends and tobacco lead me to try something outside the box at the time. La Gloria Cubana Serie R was the first of its kind as a big ring gauge cigar. It set the cigar world on its side with something the smoker had never seen. This catapulted my already successful company into another realm. After some time and great success with Serie R, General Cigar Company made me an offer that my family and I agreed was the next move in my career. I spent 10 years with General from 1999 to 2009, and then my role in the cigar industry changed again. E.P. Carrillo Cigar Company was born.
BO: When and why did you decide to begin E.P. Carrillo Cigars, and was it an easy decision?
EC: Great question. It was more my children, Ernie III and Lissette, that started it. They had the idea. They wanted me to make cigars with the family name, and I wanted to take a new direction and revisit my heritage and make cigars that stayed true to my Cuban heritage. Was this an easy decision? Yes and no. A lot changed in the industry over the 10 years I was with General Cigar. A lot was changing in the industry as we started E.P. Carrillo. But in the end, the decision was easy. I wanted to blend with my own tobacco and my own ideas. After all, I am a father, and the opportunity to work with my children was too big to pass up.
BO: Last year, EPC celebrated a 5th Anniversary. What were some of your greatest successes and challenges along the way?
EC: You know our industry is always a challenge, from the FDA knocking at our doors to the smoker always looking for the next new thing. My greatest success has also probably been my greatest challenge. I make cigars that stay true to how I learned to process tobacco and roll cigars. I will get into that more later, but when you try to stay true to your core philosophy about cigars and the industry and smoker keep changing around them, it is a challenge that I am glad to say I have successfully taken on. Clearly it seems to be working and every day I remind myself to stay true to this philosophy. My greatest success though is my family - the support of my wife Elena, two wonderful children Lissette and Ernie, and my 4 grandchildren that always give me the biggest smile. My life in cigars would not be the same without them.
BO: What is your philosophy on blending? What differentiates EPC cigars from the rest?
EC: My philosophy on blending is actually fairly simple. I will never put out a cigar into the marketplace that I am not 110% happy and satisfied with how it smokes. This may seem over-simplified, but in the end when I try to take into account the consumer and my style of making cigars — the final decision stops at my palette. If I am not seriously happy with the cigar, it stays in the blend book and we keep working on it until it’s 110% perfect. This means I am always working on blends and have a lot of them in the book, as they are still in process. The fact that I process all my tobacco in a traditional Cuban style, sort it to my specifications, use traditional Cuban methods to roll and age the cigars, and finally apply an overt amount of quality control at every step of the way may or may not differentiate my cigars from the rest. But, it’s what I do and the only way I will make my cigars, so if it does make me different, I will let the smoker decide that.
BO: Are there any tobaccos you enjoy working with more than others?
EC: There is a lot of great tobacco out there today. Much more so than in the past. I am constantly looking for new tobacco to try and work with. However, with that said, I truly enjoy Ecuadorian Sumatra as a wrapper and tobacco. It adds a nuance and flavor profile that is unique and reminds me of the tobacco my family worked with here in Miami and Cuba in the past. I also like Maduro, using both a Connecticut Broadleaf and Mexican San Andres wrapper. They offer a rich flavor and great mouth feel to the smoker. What you can do with them during processing is really nice, too. I am always playing around with these three wrappers and seeing what else I can do with them and how they work with certain blends I have in my blend book. Recently, I have also started to work with some new ways to use Connecticut Shade wrapper, and one of these new ways is on my New Wave Reserva cigar.
BO: At Cigar.com we’ve seen a lot of buzz around your new La Historia line. Can you tell us a little about the concept and the blend that we may not know?
EC: La Historia translates from Spanish to mean the history or story. This cigar is exactly that. It is the story of my heritage and family. In the band, my mother and daughter are depicted with scenes of my mother in the tobacco fields in Cuba and my daughter in Miami. The names of the cigars refer to my Family with El Señador as my father, Doña Elena as my wife, and E-III as my son. Remember before I mentioned that unless I am 110% satisfied, the cigar does not go to market? Well, this is a perfect example. La Historia has been over 2 years in the making. The blend required just the right tobacco using a Mexican San Andres wrapper that I sought out for some time. The binder is an Ecuadorian Sumatra, and the fillers are all Nicaraguan. I worked the blend over and over again as we also worked out the packing for this cigar. The label is a hand-drawn work of art from a local Miami artist, and the box concept went through many renditions until we landed on the final version. Shapes, sizes and even whether to box-press or not all played a role in how this cigar turned out. Clearly it seems to have been worth the wait. As you may know, the E-III size was given a great honor to be chosen by Cigar Aficionado as the #2 Cigar of the Year for 2014.
BO: Over your time in the industry, what are the biggest changes you have seen?
EC: I would say the two biggest changes I have seen throughout my time in the industry is the amount of new companies and great tobacco. When I started in the industry there were a handful of companies that had a known following and no matter what part of the country you were in people knew the brand. Today I think I have lost count how many companies there are. However, an even bigger change in my mind is the amount of tobacco that exists for blenders to work with. There is so much great tobacco out there and so many different places it is being grown. I love this! Our industry is getting the chance to work with new "ingredients" and make some really great cigars. I am always looking at new options for tobacco and when I find one that is right for me I buy it and bring it to market. A perfect example is the C-99 wrapper that I brought to market last year on the INCH Series. It is a new wrapper that has been out in the market now for only a couple of years. I think you will see more of it as time goes on.
BO: You recently re-released E.P. Carrillo Dark Rituals, what can our customers expect from this blend?
EC: Dark Rituals was a limited edition cigar I released in the past at E.P. Carrillo. In working with your organization we have redeveloped the brand as an exclusive item for Cigar.com and their customers. The cigar is rich and complex with great flavors throughout. It’s also beautiful to look at with a dark wrapper and the sight of ligeros in the foot. It is one of those cigars you want in your humidor, to smoke now or let it age and allow the oils to marry overtime. It is a cigar you crave, you want to smoke, you want to give one to a friend and you finish smoking it wanting another. It’s that good!
BO: While fading, there is still a stereotype that Dominican cigars are mellow, and not as full flavored as cigars from Nicaragua. We both know this couldn’t be further from the truth. What is your viewpoint on Dominican cigars?
EC: This is a great question. True while the stereotype is that Dominican cigars are mellow, that could not be further from the truth. It really depends on the maker, blender, factory and tobacco. There are some great full flavored and fuller bodied cigars coming out of the Dominican. Cigar enthusiasts today should rediscover what is being made, read about it, ask about it and frankly the next rule is to smoke it. At the end of the day even Nicaragua can make a mellow cigar - it just depends on what the maker/blender want to do.
BO: Is there anything you’d like to mention to our Cigar.com customers before we go?
EC: I leave you with this. I promise you I will continue to make the finest cigars that are true to my heritage and the knowledge of my many years of experience in this industry. When you take a moment to smoke one of my gems do yourself, and me if you don’t mind, the favor of taking a moment to relax and step away from your hectic day and remember why, who and what got you into enjoying cigars and the pleasure of smoking them.