The year is 1995. In a small Miami neighborhood known as Little Havana, along 8th Street, people are drinking Cuban coffee and going about their day … all except for dozens of cigar lovers who have been lined up for hours waiting for the La Gloria Cubana factory to open. This is a familiar scene for company owner Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, who navigates his way through the bustling crowd to open the factory. Carrillo, a Cuban transplant to Miami and an avid jazz lover, reached near overnight success with his acclaimed La Gloria Cubana cigars. With the cigar boom of the 1990s in full swing, Carrillo regularly sells out of his aged inventory in a matter of minutes. Several years later, Carrillo migrates some of his production to the Dominican Republic to keep up with unprecedented demand for his cigars. Today, Miami remains the cigar epicenter of the United States, and if you’re trying to get a taste of Cuba without leaving U.S. soil, then 8th street is the place to visit.
On a recent trip to 8th Street (famously known as Calle Ocho), I found myself surrounded by boutique cigar factories that lined the streets and couldn’t help but immerse myself in the rich, Cuban culture of the area. In a microcosm of just a few blocks, I found cafeterias brewing some of the best Cuban coffee outside of Havana, in addition to a steady flow of locals who spend hours playing dominos and gossiping, all with a cigar in hand. Be it the most popular factories on the row such as Raices Cubanas and El Titan de Bronze, or some of the smaller, local shops, Calle Ocho is still bustling all the time.
During the 1990s, the scene I described outside of the La Gloria Cubana factory was a common occurrence, even at several other locations along 8th Street, but you won’t see these long lines in Little Havana anymore. Today, the boutique cigar factories on 8th Street now have counterparts in Latin America to support their core production, with limited production being produced in Little Havana. “Little Havana is a small, yet very important part of the cigar industry, “explains George Rico of Gran Habano, who opened up his GR Tabacaleras factory in 2012. “While most of our production comes from Honduras, where we export more than 6,000,000 cigars per year, our Miami operation serves as a great destination for fans who would never consider going to Honduras, but want to experience the art of cigar making firsthand. There are also consumers in love with the rich tradition of cigar making in this area and are loyal to Miami-made cigars.” Building on this Miami market, George will soon debut a cigar rolled with 100% US-grown tobaccos, making it the first cigar handmade in the USA using all domestically grown leaf.
After one last espresso, I decided to leave Calle Ocho to visit Miami’s art district where my good friend Christian Eiroa built his new Wynwood factory. I spent one afternoon with Christian, where he introduced me to some of his new, prized Miami-made cigars. “Making cigars in Miami is more complicated than in Central America, but it is a challenge I am enjoying very much,” says Christian. His family is credited with being the first cigar makers to grow Cuban Corojo seeds in Honduras, which they used for their famed Camacho brand before selling it several years ago to industry giant Davidoff. Today, Christian is going in a boutique direction with his second venture in the cigar business and maintains a major focus on quality. He explains, “To get the quality we want, we’ve been working on getting visas for rollers we trust and have known for a long time. It is a complicated, expensive, and time consuming process but we are using these folks to train local cigar rollers in the way we do things.” Aside from cigars, Miami encompasses other parts of Cuban culture such as art and food, which have become a magnet for tourism as many buses full of visitors pass down the street, stopping at iconic destinations along the way.
As I burned the very last inch of my cigar while traveling back to Calle Ocho, I stopped by the El Rey de Los Habanos factory to scoop up a box of my personal favorite, Tatuaje Brown Label, and had a chance to visit with Janny Garcia, daughter of the owner and famed cigar blender Don Pepin Garcia. With the day behind me, it is easy to see why this small area is so popular among cigar enthusiasts and longtime aficionados. Cigars are very much an art form and the ritual of enjoying one is a tradition many carve out for themselves every day. In Miami, it all tends to collide in a traditional, relaxed atmosphere.