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It should come as no surprise that everyone at CIGAR.com loves cigars and premium tobacco, and it’s truly a passion we convey to all customers, but what about an even more detailed discussion?
Welcome to the Member’s Lounge, a monthly digest where the current “top picks” around the CIGAR.com office are highlighted. Let us provide the same detailed scoop you'd come to expect if we sat down in a smoking lounge together, as we share our knowledge and passion for all things cigar with you.
Don’t fret if the name Ernesto Pérez-Carrillo sounds unfamiliar to you –- he’s actually what I like to refer to as a “quiet giant” –- as his resume is massive, but he’s never one to brag. Old-school cigar enthusiasts will definitely remember his early work, but others may have had their introduction to his talents once Carrillo began his own company in 2009. Regardless of how you learned of Ernesto, there is no denying his supreme talents for tobacco and reinventing himself.
He began work as a disinterested employee at El Crédito Cigar Co., his father’s small, yet struggling business in Miami. When his father was about to sell the business in 1976, Ernesto had a sixth sense that it would be a mistake, and thus the sale was canceled. His father passed away in 1980 and Pérez-Carrillo took over, putting his efforts behind a brand called La Gloria Cubana, which came to be one of the hottest cigars of the 1990s.
The brand got the attention of General Cigar Co., which purchased La Gloria in 1999. Pérez-Carrillo worked with General for a decade, before leaving to reinvent himself once again, creating EPC Cigar Co. in 2009 with children, Lisette and Ernie.
Since opening his own factory in the Dominican Republic, Ernesto has released a number of blends -- some more successful than others -- but none as brilliant as the E.P. Carrillo Encore. This was not the first time he’s worked with Nicaraguan tobacco, but Encore marks the first time he’s made a Nicaraguan puro. Ernesto first previewed Encore at the 2016 IPCPR trade show, but he didn’t think the wrapper was quite ready, so going with his gut once again, the cigar was put on-hold to give the wrappers more time to age -- nearly two more years in total. Yet again, Pérez-Carrillo’s instincts paid off.
Encore’s rose-gold band is the same one found on 2014’s La Historia, only a different color. (This cigar is the “encore” performance to the ‘95’-rated La Historia, hence the name.) The long-filler blend is from Nicaragua’s three primary growing regions — Estelí, Condega, and Jalapa — and it all comes together with flavors that range from oak and tea to sweet caramel with citrus and bursts of candied orange peel. It’s elegant, refined and nuanced from first puff to last, but is also the culmination of a long career in tobacco, and the result of a man who was never afraid to follow his instincts.
Whether you’ve smoked them or not, it’s almost impossible to be a modern cigar lover and not know the name RoMa Craft. Named for co-owners Mike Rosales and Skip Martin, these two men unapologetically burst onto the scene rejecting the “boutique” moniker often attributed to their brand. In fact their company’s formal name is RoMa Craft Tobac, as they insisted on being a “craft” producer of cigars, allowing them to remain in control on all levels, and not allowing demand to cause a decline in quality.
Instead of focusing on broad appeal, both Mike and Skip agreed that when they started their company, they wanted to make cigars that they themselves would want to smoke. Skip became an avid enthusiast during the boom in the ‘90s and, in 2006, was asked by a friend opening a cigar shop in Galveston, TX for some assistance. A mere few days into his consulting gig and he bought the business out-right; for two years, Skip operated a successful B&M before Hurricane Ike plowed through coastal Texas and decimated everything in its path.
The pre-RoMa Craft days between Martin and Rosales were seemingly happenstance, as Skip decided to create a private label cigar he could sell via mail order to generate income. He teamed up with Mike Rosales of Costa Rican Imports, but their efforts didn’t yield blends suitable for the project, so they shifted gears to Estelí and began work with Esteban Disla on what later would be the infamous CroMagnon. This collaboration not only birthed RoMa Craft Tobac, but it also led to the building of the company’s Nicaraguan factory aptly named, Nica Sueño, or “Nicaraguan Dream.”
RoMa Craft is still a young company despite nearly a decade in business, but their focus on exacting standards not swayed by profit put them in a very different camp than other names in the industry. They don’t align with more retailers than they can supply, and they boast a very impressive record of having sold every single unit ready for distribution each time a shipment from their factory makes its way to their US Corporate HQ. RoMa Craft is also known for taking care of its Nica Sueño staff so well that most of those working 9+ years later are the same rollers who were there on day one.
The CroMagnon Blockhead Gran Toro LE is a limited-production offering which introduces a box-pressed vitola into the greater Aquitaine line. A popular variant of the original CroMagnon blend, the Aquitaine instead uses a dark brown Ecuadorian Habano Ligero wrapper with reddish undertones on a Cameroon binder, similar to the one utilized in the regular CroMagnon line. A filler blend with leaves from Estelí, Condega, and a small farm near the Honduran border called Pueblo Nuevo, the third leaf is Ligero, and together it brings a smoky, savory essence to the blend as a whole. The flavor profile of the Blockhead Gran Toro LE is highly complex, encompassing noted nuances of wood, baking spice, nuts, floral essence, dried cherry, and cocoa. Never harsh, even with pepper toward the end this full-bodied cigar burns cool; its draw is always fluid and its burn razor-sharp. Fans of the Aquitaine overall will really enjoy this new take on the blend thanks to the box-press, while those who simply enjoy big-bodied cigars will revel in an unparalleled smoking experience.
At times I feel like a broken record, but I honestly cannot say enough good things about Southern Draw both as a company, and their blend portfolio. Headed by founder and owner Robert Holt, the Southern Draw family is mix of US military veterans who live a life centered on honor and respect – throw in some philanthropy along with cigars rolled by AJ Fernandez, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for success.
Holt insists that his muse, aka his wife, Sharon -- yes, that Sharon -- has always stressed the importance of loving all people. He refers to everyone involved in his business as family, and treats them as such. Talk to him and he’ll wax poetic about honoring the history of all those who have cultivated and cured tobacco for generations, the current people of Nicaragua he’s grown to love, and his friendship with AJ Fernandez, who’s factory helps bring Southern Draw cigars to life. In all honesty, it’s impossible to look at Robert or Sharon Holt and not be moved by their unwavering passion for this industry and all who are involved in it.
As a relative newcomer, Southern Draw’s portfolio is small, but mighty, as they’re committed to producing the very best cigars with the resources they have available. Their focus on consistency and sustainability means producing a limited amount of each blend, and executed by a selected pair of Master Rollers. While perfection is technically unachievable, that certainly doesn’t deter Holt from trying, and this tenacity has paid off in spades.
The Kudzu Oscuro is not only special in that it was Southern Draw’s original blend, but it’s also featured as part of their IGNITE Series. The brand has partnered with the 501(c)3 Cigars for Warriors, a charitable organization which sends care packages to troops overseas. The purchase of each 10-ct decorated jar of Kudzu Oscuro results in a donation to Cigars for Warriors from us at CIGAR.com and Southern Draw, so your enthusiasm for premium tobacco is not in vein. Whether you choose a black or white jar, please note the cigars inside are the same blend and vitola.
Kudzu is covered in a double-fermented wrapper and Cuban-seed Nicaraguan fillers, delivering a full-body that emits nuances of cocoa, cedar, charred oak, tart citrus, and spice, all of which pair perfectly with a fine Scotch, smoky Bourbon, or even a bold IPA. In fact, this cigar was designed with beverage pairing in mind, but I encourage you to try a few with just water, some with coffee, and others with a beverage of your choosing. I guarantee the experience, while always premium, will present itself differently on the palate; if I may speak from experience, smoke this cigar with Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage Bourbon, and you can thank me later.
I don’t think more questions and mystery surround a business and its owner more than Illusione. Its owner, Dion Giolito, is a witty man with an exacting palate and quiet demeanor which almost doesn’t match his exceedingly tall stature. He tends to enjoy conspiracy theories, and thus many theories often surround why his cigars have names which are not easily explainable. A Nevada native who sports a pompadour, his innate talent for blending tobaccos was once only known by Reno locals who patronized his shop after Illusione Cigars came to market in 2006.
The factory known as TABSA (Tabacos Valle de Jalapa S.A) in Estelí began its life as a local school, and by most industry standards it’s small -- the building is only one-story, but it’s busy. Although he looks nothing like a stereotypical blender or manufacturer, Giolito spends serious time in Nicaragua working, observing, and never afraid to instruct seasoned torcedores in his broken Spanish. While TABSA is actually owned by Eduardo Fernandez of AGANORSA fame, Dion still selects the tobaccos to be used for his cigars, and his pickiness has resulted in numerous Top 25 List appearances in Cigar Aficionado. Unlike his regular output, however, the ONEOFF reads more like a twisted tobacco fairytale.
Originally launched in the early 2000s by Andrea Molinari of La Casa del Habano Milano (Italy), ONEOFF was born from an attempt to create a blend for the lounge made in Cuba. Molinari tried multiple avenues before eventually turning his attention to the Plasencia family in Nicaragua. From there his cigar was made and became iconic, with its simple packaging and bands complete with peace symbols on them.
From the ONEOFF launch until 2004, U.S. distribution was handled by Felipe Gregorio Cigars, Inc., but the line eventually ended up in the hands of Cuban Crafters, a Miami-based retailer. Dion Giolito purchased the line from Cuban Crafters in 2017, when the version we have today was re-blended to feature all Nicaraguan tobaccos grown by AGANORSA. Dion was acquainted with Molinari, and so he felt comfortable proclaiming the original vision for the cigar was not unknown to him; however, Giolito made sure to be respectful of the idea behind ONEOFF, while still imparting his own fingerprint to the relaunched brand.
Packaged in convenient boxes of 10, ONEOFF is a handsome medium to full-bodied puro. The cigar itself is a bit firm, but the foot pre-light smells like a basket of freshly-baked bread, while the cold draw tastes like a macchiato topped with a light dusting of cinnamon. Light spices exist throughout the smoking experience, interwoven among notes of earth, cedar, peat, graham cracker, and confectioner’s sugar. I’ve smoked all of the sizes at one point or another, but the Canonazo (6.2”x52) and the Julieta (7.0”x47) are easily my preferred vitolas. The draw is always good, but don’t be deterred if the burn in the beginning needs a bit of touching up: there’s definitely some natural sugar to the leaves used in the blend, so chemically-speaking, sugar burns hot and often uneven. Regardless of which box you choose, rest assured ONEOFF is a solid choice whether you’re an enthusiast or aficionado, and worthy of your regular rotation.
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