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Article: CIGAR.com Member's Lounge, Vol. VI - September 2020

Herrera Esteli Habano Piramide

If you’re a fan of Drew Estate, then it’s likely you know the name Willy Herrera; if their product isn’t always in your humidor, however, then I think you might want to get to know Willy and his story.


Always a cigar smoker, Willy only joined the industry in a professional capacity in the early 2000s. Living in Miami, he became acquainted with El Titan de Bronze, a very important – albeit small – boutique factory in Little Havana. El Titan has historically been home to many key members of the former Cuban cigar-rolling and blending elite who, like many of their expat peers, came to Miami in search of a better life. Although Willy knew the types of cigars he enjoyed, he didn’t know how to blend, so he took it upon himself to learn the craft through a mixture of trial-and-error, and leaning on the knowledge of the older, more experienced members of the El Titan team.


Herrera caught the eye of Jonathan Drew only a few years after working in Little Havana, honing his craft. In 2010, Drew approached Willy about going down to Estelí to work at La Gran Fábrica, but for such a job, the interview was anything but traditional. Over the course of a few days in Nicaragua, Willy’s abilities were put to the test: he worked nearly non-stop, and at center-stage. The result? A blend that would eventually become Drew Estate’s Pappy van Winkle Tradition, and the other, the basis for the Herrera Estelí brand. Proving he was up to the task, Willy Herrera officially joined Drew Estate as its Master Blender in 2011.


How does one create something new in a sea of unique and award-winning cigars, though? Herrera’s process starts out by simply looking for gaps in the Drew Estate portfolio – a little trick of the trade he picked up from the original masters at El Titan de Bronze. Once that missing piece is identified comes the hard, sometimes overwhelming work of physically creating the brand itself. Luckily even during his trial period at Drew, Willy was given access to every single tobacco available in the factory. Unlike some of his peers who try to create blends to placate the palates of the general public, Willy without hesitation will admit that his personal preferences always come into play, as he would not put his name on something he himself would not smoke given the opportunity.


Herrera Estelí was not just a new brand for the expansive Drew Estate portfolio, but it was Willy’s debut to a huge cross-section of the cigar-smoking public. Gone were the early days of his career working in very small batches and selling to a mostly local clientele; instead, he wanted to mimic many of Drew’s previous releases by making a bold statement. It took two years of aging, but 2013 saw Willy’s first large-scale release with the Herrera Estelí Habano. This premium was immediately met with high praise, including a ‘90’ rating from Cigar Aficionado. Between its construction and Cuban-esque profile, it was clear that this was something undoubtedly missing from the traditional Drew offerings.


Sporting a chestnut-hued Ecuadorian Habano wrapper, one of the most impressive things I noticed about this cigar even years ago was its uncanny ability to both work as a unit, and allow individual tobaccos to shine on their own. A Nicaraguan core held together with a Honduran binder, there is an overall toasty quality to this blend thanks to its wrapper, but the binder allows occasional sweet notes to come through with ease. As for the long-filler tobaccos, it’s Nicaraguan through-and-through, with well-developed notes of black and white pepper, roasted nuts, earth, and a bit of dark chocolate. In tandem there’s this beautiful dark chocolate-sea salt-caramel character that is both intoxicating on the palate and in aroma; factor in the fluid draw and even burn, and it’s like enjoying a rich dessert without cheating on your diet.

Don Pepín García Cuban Classic 1970

I really hope you all are not sick of me talking about Pepín-made blends, as the man is too prolific and too important to the post-Castro cigar industry as a whole to be ignored. Many of you who receive CIGAR.com’s Cigar of the Month Club, or perhaps purchase our “Expert Picks” already know my fondness for the man, his family and, of course, his output; if this is your first time, however, buckle up as it’s going to become fairly apparent just how much I enjoy Pepín’s talents.


Known simply today as “Don Pepín,” José García began work in an uncle’s cigar factory at the age of 11. He was born into a large family of seasoned tobacco farmers and cigar rollers in Báez, in Cuba’s Villa Clara province. Pepín achieved Class 8 status, which in Cuba is the highest-possible level for a torecedor, having being labeled island-wide as a master of his craft. One accolade awarded to him was the Productivity Prize, as he rolled 320 Julietas (7.0”x48) in four hours. García was often profiled in the press, where he was described as a “cigar magician,” given his unusual dexterity at the rolling table. 


Having earned titles like “Cuba’s Most Productive Master Roller,” “Master Blender,” and working for legendary labels Cohiba, Partagás, and Montecristo, leaving Cuba was the only way to a better life, and he did just that in 2001. Pepín first went to Nicaragua before settling in Miami, quickly establishing his first company and factory, known simply as El Rey de los Habanos (“The King of Cuban Cigars”) in June 2002. Despite being a small factory, the dozen rollers Pepín employed there were all Class 8 just like him, and they churned out 800,000 cigars per year. Soon García had to open up another small factory just to keep up with demand. 


After five years in the States, it was clear to everyone in the industry that José García was a tour de force, and very determined to be the best in the business. Ashton contracted him to create their first new brand in many years (San Cristóbal), but brick & mortar stores as well as other brands came knocking at his door to bring something illusive to their customers: cigars whose characters were wholly Cuban, yet used no Cuban tobacco. This ultimately became Pepín’s calling card.


One year prior to joining forces with Ashton for their new blend, the Cuban Classic line debuted. Showcasing Pepín’s extraordinary talent for Cuban-style cigars without the use of illicit tobacco, it’s complex and refined; using symbolic yet non-flashy artwork, it emphasizes history and heritage. Each vitola has a year associated with it, marking important occasions for the García family. Shortly after the Cuban Classic hit the market, Cigar Aficionado called Pepín “the next big thing in cigars,” and rightfully so: his handiwork from 2003 to 2007 earned him 90+ ratings in the magazine 21 times during blind taste tests, even appearing in the illustrious Top 25 List multiple times. If any of you ever traveled to Little Havana during these years to indulge in a bit of cigar tourism, I’m sure you’d never think such acclaim could result from a tiny factory with a plastic sign hanging over it.


I would be remiss to not mention my personal favorite vitola in the blend is the long-since discontinued Petit Lancero. I’m a sucker for the more classical sizes, but I also cannot negate the fact that I’ve smoked multiple boxes of each vitola over the course of many years. Although we all have our personal favorites around the CIGAR.com offices, it was a clear choice for me to elect the Belicoso (5.0”x54) as the “best representative” of the Cuban Classic still available today.


A Nicaraguan puro, the 1970 Belicoso – to bluntly state it – eats like a meal. Remember that scene in “Willy Wonka” when the kids tried the experimental gum that was created to emulate a multi-course dinner? Welcome to the cigar version of that experience. There’s a complex array of qualities in this ‘92’ rated premium: woods such as cedar, hickory, and mesquite are masterfully interwoven with more delicate nuances. Its smoked meat essence never dwarfs roasted almonds, black pepper, citrus peel, or even the black tea-like finish which highlights a bit of floral mixed with a toasted sweetness. The Don Pepín Cuban Classic 1970 is pure, unadulterated richness, and you don’t have to be rich to afford the indulgence, either.


Tatuaje 10-Year Anniversary Bon Chasseur

Owned by Pete Johnson – heavy metal guitarist-turned-cigar brand owner – I’d be remiss to point out that despite Pete’s vision and palate, there would be no Tatuaje without Don Pepín García. The two are very much a pair, and over the years, Pete – even long before marrying Janny García – was integrated into the family. It actually makes sense that these two men began working together in 2003 as Pete was always an active admirer of great Havana cigars, and Pepín had spent most of his life making those exact cigars in Havana.


Pete grew up in Maine before making his way to the West Coast at 18 years of age. Even today you’ll find him wearing black t-shirts, jeans, and boots, and decked out in tattoos and chunky silver jewelry – his style hasn’t changed much from his rocker days. What did change was his hobby of cigar-smoking turning into a full-fledged career, beginning with his days working at the illustrious Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills. Johnson started out as a bass guitarist on the Sunset Strip -- smoking while on stage in famous clubs – but cigars eventually eclipsed his original dream. The road to get there, however, is an interesting one.


Like many with musical dreams, young Pete was low on money, so he supplemented any income made from performing working as a bouncer in a strip club. He shopped at the now-closed Gus’s Smoke Shop in Sherman Oaks in the early ‘90s, and Gus’s was somewhat of an institution: having opened in 1927, Pete became friendly with its fourth owner, Jimmy Hurwitz, after a fellow customer recommended Johnson for a job. Pete worked on Sundays for six months assisting in the humidor and mixing pipe tobacco before Jimmy made him a full-time employee, essentially transforming the humidor into one that showcased a new plethora of premiums. Once it became apparent to Johnson that he harbored a more natural instinct with tobacco rather than music, he shifted his sights toward making a brand.


Visiting factories, devouring books, and trying to find someone to make a cigar for him was all-consuming, but he left Gus’s before joining another business in 1996. Sometime around 1998, Pete caught word that the Grand Havana Room was having an issue with their humidor, and a conversation with its owner led to a job with high-profile clientele. Even while working his full-time job, Johnson continued his search for a manufacturer before meeting Pepín. Once Pete and Pepín crossed paths, the two men talked about Cuba, what was wanted, and Johnson took out a Habano that was smoking well at the time as an example; according Pete, he told Pepín to do what he does best, and thus samples were rolled on the spot. García even quipped after lighting up Pete’s example that it was an easy one to mimic, and the two agreed to work together. Within a month, Pepín and son, Jaime, were boxing up the first release for Tatuaje, which I’m sure by now most know is the Spanish word for “tattoo.” (Early on some industry personnel called him “Tattoo Pete,” and despite some push-back regarding Tatuaje, Johnson stuck to his guns.)


Although there was a mixed reception among Grand Havana Room clientele when the new brand was placed in the humidor, one thing was for certain: all who tried the first blend agreed it was unique amongst a sea of cigars bearing old Cuban brand names, but none of the Cuban flavor. Over the next couple of years, Pete slowly but surely began securing new accounts, and once his Tatuaje Cabinet Taíno was named the #4 Cigar of 2005, the world took notice. That following year he quit his job at Grand Havana, knowing that if he didn’t make a move now, there was no point in continuing to pursue this dream.


Fast-forward to 2013, and we have the blend that caused an obscure brand to become a break-out hit, but this time it’s a bit updated. Despite the original Brown Label having been made in Pepín’s old El Rey de los Habanos factory on Calle Ocho, this line extension of sorts is crafted at the current My Father complex in Nicaragua. When Tatuaje first hit the shelves, the Garcías were just cementing themselves in the US market; the runaway success of Pete’s brand made it clear that a larger facility was in order, hence the move to a vertically-integrated operation in Estelí. While the two men may have been able to exist without one another in some alternate universe, it’s impossible to not think of one and conjure up thoughts of the other these days. 


All Tatuaje 10th Anniversary vitolas come with a redesigned label embossed with gold foil, and are rolled with an uncut foot. The Bon Chasseur, or “Good Hunter” aptly received a ‘90’ rating from Cigar Aficionado just like its predecessor, and with it carries some of Pepín’s trademark flavor profile. The only other change would be the wrapper, as the anniversary blend utilizes an Ecuador Habano leaf, but this alteration doesn’t detract from the superb delivery – or the memories of the original release. Medium to full-bodied, this Robusto Extra of sorts presents heavy notes of dark chocolate, raisin, walnut, spice, and leather before a finish punctuated by cinnamon. Given all of the blends and brands created under the Tatuaje umbrella in the past 17 years, if you’re anything like me, you can’t wait to see what Pete 20th anniversary will have in store for your humidor.


Arturo Fuente Don Carlos Presidente

For many a cigar enthusiast, there is no other name more iconic than Arturo Fuente: this family brand has enjoyed cult-like status for decades due to a combination of fantastic marketing, consistency of product, and their hard-to-procure selections such as the coveted OpusX line. While I could easily write a book on the Fuentes and their work within the industry, I think it’s best to discuss some of the family’s history and work leading up to the Don Carlos blend that’s being featured here.


Despite the huge Fuente footprint that exists in the Dominican Republic, the Arturo Fuente brand began its life in West Tampa, Florida in 1912. The company’s namesake was a 24-year-old immigrant who fled to the States in 1902, after the Spanish-American War ravaged his native Cuba. While today it’s hard to believe, at the time Fuente established his factory, he was one of approximately 200 cigar-making facilities in the Tampa area, and all of them imported tobacco from Cuba. (This was the process of manufacturing popular at the time, resulting in what became known as Clear Havana cigars.)


A dozen years passed before the company was incorporated, but by that time in 1924, Arturo Fuente employed 500 people. A. Fuente & Co. was steadily growing until later that year when their three-story building burned to the ground. All production was halted until 1946, when Fuente’s younger son, Carlos, was a mere 11 years old. It was a difficult road to get back to producing sizable quantities of again, and for this, Arturo enlisted not just the help of the whole family, but often included friends and neighbors. Carlos Sr., aka “Don Carlos,” always had fond memories of being a kid and rolling cigars after school, but his brother did not: the two, once done with their brotherly squabbles, decided working as a rolling team meant they’d finish faster, thus being allowed to play like kids sooner rather than later.


While Arturo was planning to pass on the business to his eldest son, Carlos – despite being the youngest – was always the more eager of the two to make cigars for the family. In 1956 at the tender age of 21, father offered the business to son, and Carlos bought out his brother for $1. Carlos’ purchase amounted to $1,161 in assets and zero debt, with the company only producing a few thousand cigars per year. He was ambitious, and first sought out to establish new accounts within the state of Florida before looking north toward New York. Leaning heavily on the Hispanic community to garner sales and increase brand awareness proved difficult, however, as at this point in time smokers were brand loyal, rarely being swayed to successfully switch to another manufacturer’s product. Another issue faced by Carlos Sr. occurred a few years after assuming control of the family business: the Embargo instituted by the US against Cuba.


Although most enthusiasts today associate the Arturo Fuente brand with the Dominican Republic due to their massive presence on the island, operations at what is known as Tabacalera A. Fuente didn’t begin in Santiago until 1980; four years before that, however, the world was first introduced to the Don Carlos blend. It also wasn’t something made in tribute to Carlos Sr., either, but actually a cigar blended to his specific taste. The blend concept itself is 44 years old now, but it still shines brightly thanks to its capa (or wrapper), which is none other than a genuine Meerapfel Cameroon leaf.

The history between both the Fuente and Meerapfel families is a long one, and the two together have created a number of legendary blends that continue to garner accolades from Cigar Aficionado and Cigar Journal worldwide. The Meerapfels are essentially the supplier for the none-too-frequently-utilized Central African tobacco, as it’s not easy to grow or work with, and thus can be expensive to those seeking wholesale quantities for cigar-rolling purposes. 

Now down to brass tacks as they say: what makes the Arturo Fuente Don Carlos such an important, and highly-rated blend? It’s sort of a love letter to cigar-making by the Fuentes and Meerapfels, each highlighting the lands which together make these families famous. An aged Cameroon wrapper atop a Dominican binder and long-filler blend have been made in limited quantities since its inception, and that’s because the Fuentes have, for 40+ years now, set aside bales of tobacco needed for special blends each year to continue the tradition. Like a vintner with a specific wine, it’s the responsibility of the masters behind the craft to keep things consistent, and that’s even more difficult when dealing with long-aged raw product whose characteristics can vastly change over time.


The Don Carlos blend has received numerous 90+ ratings in Cigar Aficionado, in 2015 it was award a ‘94’ and named the #4 Cigar of the Year. Its Cameroon wrapper provides just the right amount of sweet-and-sour to the woody, slightly spicy, and nutty Dominican interior. Together there is this zestiness that provides the palate with notes of candied citrus, dry-roasted almond, raw cacao, and cane sugar which makes for an exceptional experience. Carlos Fuente Sr. may no longer be with us, but his tastes and style very much live-on in his namesake blend: clean, well-dressed, sweet, engaging, and memorable, all of these adjectives could equally describe the man as much as they can describe his cigar.


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