to the origins of a beloved passion is always an eye-opening experience. Years ago, it would have been quite unusual for the average cigar enthusiast to participate in a guided tour of the cigar making facilities of a major offshore cigar producer, led by the factory's owner or master blender himself, much less having the chance to visit several facilities over the course of a week, surrounded by a never-ending, 24/7 party.
Providing a fun forum for cigar lovers to get up close and personal with the people who make the Dominican Republic's preeminent cigars is the unique goal of the ProCigar festival, held each February in Santiago de los Caballeros, the tropical nation's "cigar capital" where most of its factories are clustered. There are actually a number of opportunities that can be pursued throughout the Caribbean and Central America for factory tours, but only ProCigar hosts a week-long party that's big yet intimate, relaxed and informal by day but glamorous at night. The organizers have gone to great lengths to fine-tune the experience each year and have resisted the temptation to rapidly expand the festival's size. In fact, the event has grown quite conservatively since it debuted in 2008, and this year welcomed over 300 guests from more than 20 countries. The crowd is a mixture of cigar enthusiasts, retailers, and others in the industry, sharing the opportunity to join the country's top cigar makers in celebrating the island's status as the world's leading exporter of premium cigars for 20 years running.
Amazingly, even with all of the new and expanding factories in Nicaragua and Honduras, Dominican Republic producers are also growing, a testament to growing demand. Premium cigar imports in the U.S. jumped by nearly 10 percent in 2012, and the Dominican Republic accounted for a dominant 44 percent of those fine smokes. This year alone, several top cigar makers have expanded their production with the addition of more cigar rollers.
Even ProCigar itself - the group of leading Dominican cigar makers that has been promoting Dominican Republic cigars and protecting the island's cigar interests for over 20 years - has added several prominent players into its fold recently. Last year, ProCigar welcomed back Tabacalera A. Fuente, one of the group's original founding members, following an absence of many years, while also inaugurating Corporación Cigar Export (Augusto Reyes Cigars). This year, two additional members and festival participants were introduced: Litto Gómez La Flor Dominicana, and Ernesto Perez-Carrillo at Tabacalera La Alianza (EP Carrillo Cigars). They join an already impressive group of cigar makers hosting ProCigar Festival 2013: General Cigar Co., Matasa (Quesada Cigars), Tabacalera de García (Altadis U.S.A.), La Aurora, Tabadom (Davidoff of Geneva), and Tabaquisa (Juan Clemente).
While the festival is based in Santiago, participants have the option to start the journey two days earlier in La Romana - a tourist hub on the eastern end of the Dominican Republic that's home to one of the biggest cigar factories in the world, Altadis U.S.A.'s Tabacalera de García. It's a low-key, relaxing way to start the week, staying at the luxurious Casa de Campo resort, enjoying a stunning catamaran ride to the pristine, turquoise-hued waters of Palmilla and Saona Islands, touring the Cave of Wonders (Las Cuevas de Las Maravillas) covered in ancient Taino cave paintings, or playing golf at the world-famous Teeth of the Dog Golf Course. The main event, of course, is the factory tour: three very famous brands are produced in La Romana - Montecristo, H. Upmann, and Romeo y Julieta - and guests were treated to samples of the company's Romeo by Romeo y Julieta brand.
Everyone ultimately meets up in the city of Santiago, the "heart of Cigar Country," where for three days everything kicks into high gear and there are endless opportunities to smoke old favorites and a number of brand new launches. Participants are always greeted at registration with a goodie bag packed with cigars, this year a 20-count sampler box containing some brand new (and at least one yet-to-be-released) cigars: Partagas 1845, Partagas 1968, Vega Fina Sumum Edición Especial, Romeo by Romeo y Julieta, Guillermo León, Fernando León Family Reserve, Augusto Reyes Gold Series, Augusto Reyes Platinum, A. Fuente Gran AniverXario Destino al Siglo, Fuente Fuente OpusX Angel's Share, Davidoff Colorado Claro, Davidoff Puro d'Oro Gigante, Quesada Selección España, Quesada Oktoberfest, Juan Clemente Obelisco, and Juan Clemente Chargango.
This year, guests could choose among guided tours of Matasa, La Aurora, General Cigar, Corporación Cigar Export, and Davidoff factories, as well a Davidoff tobacco farm. A number of other activities were also offered, including a Brugal rum factory tour, city tours, meringue lessons, and a beach day. New diversions for 2013 included an adventure tour to Saltos de Damajagua waterfalls and a seminar on pairing coffee with cigars. The ProCigar Poker Tournament, held for the first time last year, made a return appearance with proceeds benefiting a local charity. Houng Young, a cigar lover from Texas, took the crown, winning an all-expense-paid trip to the ProCigar Festival 2014 while Christian Hutson, a cigar retailer from Missouri, received a complimentary full registration as the second place winner.
At the traditional welcome dinner on the first night, guests were presented with the first of two five-packs of cigars, comprising a Montecristo Epic Selection ‘07 No. 2 from Tabacalera de García, a Don Julio from Corporación Cigar Export, Fonseca Cubano Exclusivo from Matasa, an Aurora Cien Años Maduro Especial Edition from La Aurora, and a Unidad from La Flor Dominicana. The popular annual meringue dance contest took place, and the winners received a special selection of 100 cigars of their choice from the members of ProCigar.
On the second evening, festival guests enjoyed a traditional "white attire dinner" at Santiago's Monumento a los Héroes de la Restauración overlooking Santiago, where guests received a second five-pack of cigars to smoke: General Cigar presented a Special Blend ADP6 (actually La Gloria Cubana Rabito de Cochino), Tabacalera La Alianza offered its Edición Limitada 2012, Tabadom Holding pre-launched the Davidoff Master Edition Club House, and Tabacalera Fuente offered the Don Carlos Robusto. After dinner, guests were invited to an after-party at Santiago's famous - and quite loud - night club, Vicci.
The closing ceremony took place at the Centro Español, a private Spanish club in Santiago, where guests enjoyed dinner and a show, and ProCigar members paid tribute to Raudy Torres, the Dominican Republic's most famous robalagallina or "chicken thief," one of the many characters typically seen at Dominican Carnival. A highlight is the annual raffle and auction of special cigars where collectors can score numerous one-of-a-kind cigar collections. All proceeds benefit two non-profit charities: Voluntariado de Jesús con los Niños, which offers spiritual and economic support to sick children, and Hospicio San Vicente de Paúl, a retirement home for impoverished elders. The evening culminated with a parade of Carnival characters and performances by rhythmic percussionist Pablito Drum, jazz artists Rafelito Mirabal and Cristina Alba, dancers, Dominican singers, and a DJ.
Davidoff master blender and ProCigar president, Hendrik Kelner said in closing remarks, "From this day on, the Dominican Republic is happy to have you among its goodwill ambassadors. We are not the richest country, but God gave us the best soil to grow tobacco. We don't have the best education, but our people are intelligent, skillful and responsible. We are a poor developing country, but we have the best smiles. Our houses are humble, but we welcome our guests with joy and appreciation. We are missing a lot of material things, but we thank God for those that he gave us. And, we are proud to admit that there are things that we do good."
Registration is currently open at www.procigar.org for the 2014 ProCigar Festival, scheduled for February 16–21 and which will, for the first time, include the option of tours at Tabacalera La Alianza, La Flor Dominicana, and the Fuente Foundation.