2008 La Aurora Tour: a day with José Blanco
by David "Doc" Diaz
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Last week, I was in Santiago, Dominican Republic and had the opportunity to chat with cigar manufacturers from Aurora, Arganese, Cusano and Davidoff. My experiences over there were the stuff that cigar fantasies are made of, and I will be reporting on those experiences over the next few weeks.
Below: José Blanco in his office at La Aurora Factory
During the week, I spent a lot of time with Aurora’s National Sales Director José Blanco and was treated to a fantastic combination of education and experimentation. I toured two factories, smoked the cigars, and even rolled cigars. But the most fascinating aspects of my trip were my conversations with a true icon of the cigar industry: José Blanco. In this first article in a three-part series, I will describe my visit to Aurora Cigars and relate my rumination with José about all things cigar.
The city of Santiago de los Caballeros in the Dominican Republic is the heart and soul of one of the world’s most important cigar tobacco regions. Santiago is the birthplace of cigars from such popular brands as: Aurora, Davidoff, Fuente, Cohiba, Montecristo, and Romeo y Julieta, just to name a few.
After the nationalization of tobacco farms by Castro in the late 1950s, many cigar manufacturers fled Cuba and took their seeds and their knowledge of tobacco to the Dominican Republic where the soils were rich and the conditions ideal for growing tobacco. However, there is one factory that holds a place of distinction as the oldest factory in the Dominican Republic. Its name is La Aurora.
Below: Standing in front of a replica of the original La Aurora factory
Founded in 1903, La Aurora has been making cigars for 105 years, long before the revolution caused the exodus of cigar makers from Cuba. Though rich in history and tradition, La Aurora is a medium-sized company and the smallest division in Grupo León Jimenes, a conglomerate that produces beer, cigarettes and cigars. In recent years, La Aurora has reestablished itself as a premiere premium cigar company. In 2004, Cigar Aficionado magazine named the Aurora 100 Años as the second best cigar of the year.
La Aurora’s recent resurgence of popularity did not happen overnight, but rather it was a series of changes in their cigar lines that have pushed their brand into the limelight once again. The La Aurora Preferidos, a spindle-shaped cigar, was the first cigar made by La Aurora when the factory was established over 100 years ago and was the cigar that first gave the company recognition. The re-release of the Preferido in 1999 started the company’s rise once again to prominence in the premium cigar industry. The “Preferidos Connecticut No. 1” and the “Preferido Emerald,” ascended to the top 10 of Cigar Aficionado’s yearly best; ranking number 6 and 7 in 2005 and 2006, respectively.
The next success was with the 1495 Series, which was released in 2005 and commemorated the founding of Santiago de los Caballeros by Christopher Columbus over 500 years ago.
For the last 9 years, José Blanco has helped to forge the changes in the company that have led it back to preeminence in the cigar world. He is a man who has a rich cigar legacy and who has a passion for cigars that is not exceeded by any other person I have met in the industry.
Below: José Blanco inspecting barrel aged tobacco
From the moment we met at the airport in Santiago, I knew he was a special individual. Within minutes, like two old friends, we were talking vigorously about every aspect of the cigar industry. Even though I had finished my third flight of the day and had spent between 8-9 hours of flying time and a total transit time of 11 hours, I was invigorated by our discussions of cigars, cigar reviews, what’s hot in the industry, and more. As he dropped me off at my hotel, José told me to get a good night’s sleep, because the next day would be a long one.
In spite of José’s advice, I could not sleep. I was filled with wonder at what the coming days would bring. So, with a full 3 hours of sleep under my belt, I met José in front of the hotel the next morning and we took the quick drive through the sprawling city of Santiago to the new La Aurora factory.
I say the factory is new, but it has been in operation for just under 4 months. It is a cavernous 100,000 square foot facility with a high ceiling and spacious interior for the production of fine cigars. As soon as we arrived to José’s office, it was time to enjoy a cup of coffee and a cigar. José, ever the prankster, gave me an unbanded cigar and asked me to give him my thoughts. Hmmm, would he give me a great cigar first thing in the morning? Would he give me a dog rocket to test my perceptions? I was in a quandary. The first inch was smooth and medium in body, with a slight spicy character.
“Is this a Cameroon wrapper?” I asked. “Nope” was José’s reply.
The cigar graduated to medium-full body and flavor by the halfway mark and displayed subtle tobacco sweetness. “Is the wrapper a Criollo?” I proffered, somewhat more tentatively this time. “No. It’s Corojo,” said José.
As it turned out, I was smoking the still unreleased “La Aurora Barrel Aged” blend (should be shipping in March, 2008). This is an excellent and challenging cigar with a lot of flavor activity. It changes seductively throughout the smoke and is unique in its flavor profile. José is quick to say that he favors complex cigars and that any cigar whose flavor does not change during the course of the smoke is, at best, a “good, boring cigar.”
After finishing our cigars, we exited into the factory where I was greeted by the wonderful sights, sounds and aromas that are only found in cigar factories. The smell of ripe tobacco, resins, and the ammonia of fermentation were mixed with the hustle and bustle of “bunchers” and rollers engrossed in the process of making cigars.
While I was watching some of the expert cigar rollers, José asked if I would like to try my hand at it. “Of course!” was my reply. After all, how hard could it be? I watched the rollers put a wrapper on a cigar in just less than 30 seconds. Certainly I could twist a wrapper leaf onto a hot-dog-sized lump of tobacco in at least a minute, or two.
So, after showing me the finer points of using a “chaveta” the curved blade used to trim the tobacco, and after showing me the basic technique and how to use the “goma” or glue to hold it all together, my teacher Fidel (not a name one could easily forget) watched me finish up my first cigar in just a hair over 5 minutes and 30 seconds. Five cigars later, I had shaved my time to 5 minutes flat. I have a new respect for these skilled artisans, who can fashion any size and shape with the precision of a sculptor and the flair of a ballerina.
We then made our way to the many rooms where the tobaccos are stripped, cut, sorted, and fermented, and where the cigars are aged and packaged. La Aurora uses barrels from the rum industry to age their tobacco, which imparts delicate flavors and nuances.
Above: Doc poses no threat to the job security of cigar rollers
Below: Guillermo León, vice president Aurora Cigars present Doc with a gift
Before breaking for lunch, I had the great pleasure of meeting and chatting with Guillermo León, vice president of Aurora Cigars. Guillermo is a thoughtful and warm individual, who showed a genuine interest in Stogie Fresh and in making sure I felt welcomed. Guillermo is also a technophile and was very interested in my miniature field recording equipment. He later signed and presented me with a box of 1495 Series Belicosos, a very special moment for me.
After a delicious meal at a local restaurant (lunch is the biggest meal of the day in the Dominican Republic), José and I headed to the site of the original La Aurora factory. Though the original factory no longer exists, the company has created a replica of the factory that is used solely for the production of the famed “Preferidos.”
The workers who construct the Preferidos are the most skilled in the industry and typically have 7-8 years of experience. In most factories, teams of two people perform cigar construction. One person will bunch the filler tobacco and wrap it into a binder leaf; these are called bunchers or, “boncheros,” in Spanish. The second person, called the roller (“torcedor”), puts the wrapper leaf around the bunch. However, in the case of the Preferidos, one person performs both jobs, as it takes a highly skilled worker to bunch and roll these tapered cigars. It is truly mesmerizing to watch a skilled cigar roller at work. The consistency with which they apply their trade is as meditative as it is methodical. Years of practice have given grace to these artisans, enabling them to roll perfectly formed figurados, time after time.
The day ended as it started, with a delightful and spirited conversation about cigars. José is tireless in his pursuit of perfection and in his vigor for promoting cigars. During dinner, though I was still full from lunch, I engaged José in several controversial topics like the current industry love affair with blind cigar reviews, and the reticence of some cigar manufacturers to provide timely, accurate and comprehensive information to consumers and to the press. We also talked about the relative significance of aging cigars, the importance of consistency as regards construction and flavor, anti-tobacco legislation and much more. In typical fashion, José was open, honest, and straightforward in his answers. He harbored no secrets, answered every question directly, and pulled no punches.
Below: Doc in the tobacco aging room
I learned a lot from José Blanco during my short stay in Santiago. He is knowledgeable about cigars and about the cigar industry; but more importantly, in my opinion, he proved himself a man of respect and integrity, and one who is willing to help the up and coming publications like Stogie Fresh to reach our common goal: to promote the pleasures of smoking premium cigars.blog comments powered by Disqus