La Aurora Factory and Field Tour
June 6, 2010
The plane ducked under the clouds revealing the orange glow of Dominican civilization 15,000 feet below. After an exhausting day of travel a couple pint-sized bottles of wine drained the tension from my shoulders and numbed my conscience. I shrugged the weariness from my back and slung my carry-on over my shoulder. When the cabin door opened a humid Santiago breeze dried the sweat from my face. It’s a feeling that helped me get through the last leg of my trip from Los Angeles. The next day I would be paying a visit to the Dominican Republic’s oldest cigar factory, La Aurora.
Packed with a caddy full of Cien Años,1495s, and Aurora panatelas I think about their journey from seed to civilization. Flown out of the Dominican Republic into the U.S., then across the country and eventually into my humidor.
Day break. A Cien Años corona burns my lips and I toss the charred nub in front of a whizzing scooter on the road. Jose Blanco pulls up and greets me with a warm smile and cigar.
“Welcome back to the Dominican Republic. Smoke this,” he immediately hands me a natural light brown colored wrapper with dark filler.
“Do you know what that is?” he asks as I feel and smell it.
“I have no idea what this is,” I was ashamed to admit.
It was earthy, salty, but had this rich sweetness. Whatever it was, it wasn’t like anything I had much experience with. He made me guess what it was anyway, so after rattling off a number of familiar tobacco regions like Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Indonesia, Peru…I started to feel like an idiot as Jose shook his head in disappointment. But I left out the one country I assumed it was not from – Cuba. Just the wrapper was Cuban, the rest of it was made from Dominican tobaccos. It is a world of blending that is just waiting to be explored, and obviously already is. Unfortunately we will have to wait a little longer to see things like this in the U.S. market.
Straight from the hotel we headed to Navarrete, which is close to Santiago and past the Tabadom factory, home of Davidoff cigars. We arrived in Navarrete, which is where La Aurora grows their corojo wrapper. We pulled off of the pavement and onto a small dirt road. It was the week of Duarte’s Birthday, which is a nationally celebrated holiday, so there were only about three workers there that day. The humidity rose with the sun. The tobacco fields were still and silent. Some areas had tobacco plants just a few weeks old, and others were already harvested up to the last priming of the plant, the ligero priming.
Curing barns sat adjacent to some of the tobacco fields. Packed to the roof with curing leaves, the barn held all stages of leaf transformation. Green, yellow, brown, and multi-colored – you could literally see the curing process happen right in front of your eyes.
“Most of this will hopefully end up being used as wrappers for the Cien Años,” Jose said as he peered from over the top of his glasses, nose to nose with the leaf.
We maneuvered out of the barn and walked over to two of the workers. They were sorting freshly picked primings. They neatly stacked them into boxes for easy transport to the barns. They’d briefly shake the leaves out and stack them on top of each other. The sweat stuck like glue to their faces. I felt like a wet Pigpen from Peanuts while the workers barely broke a sweat.
I suddenly felt like I was in an old western movie. The air was so still you didn’t just hear the wings of the hawk flying overhead, you could feel a breeze from them. Jose and I grabbed a stack of leaves and took a closer look. Immediately my fingers were tacky and stuck together. Maybe it was dehydration kicking in, or maybe I was reminiscing.
“Jose,” I said, “I’ve only been in close contact with one other plant that got my fingers this sticky.”
I smiled and Jose shook his head pushing his glasses back up onto the brim of his nose.
He motioned to the car, “Let’s get to the factory, there is plenty more to see.”
Visiting La Aurora has one distinct characteristic that distinguishes it from anywhere else. When you step out of the car the air is not only assaulting you with heat and humidity, it is packed with an aroma similar to roasting cocoa beans. It overtakes the air like a barbeque grill in summertime. This aroma is very distinct in all of Aurora’s cigars. When you drive into Santiago and approach the La Aurora factory, you learn there is much more to it than the cigar factory alone. Within the gates of the factory stands the Dominican Republic’s foremost art museum, the León Museum, as well as a replica of the first La Aurora cigar rolling factory, which was the oldest in the Dominican Republic. There is also a large bird sanctuary, home to most of the Dominican’s indigenous birds. And if that is not enough, there is a large Presidente beer distribution center there as well.
Within one courtyard you can see the León museum, the sanctuary, and the replica factory, that is actually functional, and one of the only open to the public in the Dominican Republic. Granted you won’t see everything within the factory’s walls but you can check out the spot where they roll their Preferido lines (in the replica factory), one of the hardest sizes to produce due to the nature of its shape. Attached to the Preferido rolling room is a gift shop where you can find just about any La Aurora cigar you would want to get your hands on. This is the best part – being able to engulf yourself in the culture of La Aurora while tasting the luring aroma that lingers in the air.
As many cigars as La Aurora produces, it holds onto to something that is usually only characteristic of specialized boutique brands. It is unique to any other cigar on the market. Despite the large numbers of cigars they produce, when you light up an Aurora cigar, it is unmistakably an Aurora. There are not a lot of cigars out there that you can taste and immediately tell what they are hands down. La Aurora is one of them. Many cigar makers try to impress consumers with big numbers, and try to make us believe that they are the best because they produce a lot of cigars. Thankfully La Aurora is among the few that offer a distinctive aroma and taste, and that will always set them apart.
The actual cigar factory is surprisingly small but very efficient. The first floor is filled with rollers, antique de-veining machines, and outstanding quality control. We walked through all these areas taking enough photos to make a film reel. We finally came across the draw test room. Every single cigar that comes out of the this factory is put on one of these machines. The cigar is put up to a suction device called a “draw tester” and a switch is hit. This measures the amount of air pressure allowed through the cigar. If a cigar is rolled too tight or too loose then this is the process that flags them, and they will be pulled from production.
We walked our way to the back corner of the factory to a small spiral staircase. This is one of the best parts of the factory. Upstairs are the old Cuban rum barrels. It is a very common practice to age tobacco in rum barrels, and is actually an old Cuban tradition. The tobacco ages in the barrels until it meets La Aurora’s approval. After diving into the labyrinth of barrels we walked back downstairs to the pilones. Workers were re-wetting and flipping the stack to start the fermentation process again.
“You never know how long the tobacco takes to ferment, there is no specific time. It will tell you when it’s ready. By constant monitoring temperature, burn quality, flavor and aroma, the tobacco will let you know it’s finally ready and at its peak potential,” Jose explains.
After checking out the workers re-wetting and flipping the pilones we headed to the one place where it all comes together, the place where all the effort and care from concept to product come together, the aging room. Years of trial and error can be found here. Including experiments that the market may not see for years, and some of the best current production cigars that La Aurora makes. To think about everything that is inside this room is overwhelming. From seed to curing, fermentation to rolling…hundreds of hands have worked together to get each cigar to this point. Stacked from the floor to the ceiling are thousands of cigars in every size and shape that bear the La Aurora name. There are also many secrets in this room. Cigars not yet available to the public, simply described in scribbled ink on a small piece of paper on the aging bins.
The best part about smoking cigars right from the aging room is that there is no fancy packaging or marketing concepts to cloud your taste – just beautiful, naked cigars. Only smoke is left to make an impression. Jose handed me the oiliest salomon I have ever touched. It melted in my fingers and tickled my senses. Unfortunately, Jose would not tell me anything about it. After romancing it for a few hours I finally sparked that sonofabitch up. It tasted like it felt. It took me away from everywhere I had ever been and made me yearn for the experience again. I wanted more but Jose said they were not ready and he wouldn’t tell me any more about them.
“Nothing rushes time in this business, not if it’s done properly,” he explained.
He wanted to wait until the cigars were ready for the market to tell me what they were. After smoking the Barrel Aged months later, it rang close to home. I put one and one together and Jose fessed up.
It’s not a proper trip to a cigar factory without a smoke, coffee, and lunch – especially when you’re already a few full-bodied cigars into the morning and the nicotine starts to catch up with you. A little sugar in your system neutralizes the nicotine nausea. On the way back to the hotel we stop for lunch. The outdoor café, a warm breeze, a few ice cold Presidente beers and a Cuban sandwich; I sank into my seat, took in the rhythm of the street and thought about the new ground that passed under my feet. I was finally able to relax. The Dominican plays a song, begging me not to leave. No matter how many times I return La Aurora and the Dominican, it always welcomes me back with open arms. There are moments in your cigar life that will always stay with you. Some moments plant themselves inside you without warning. After visiting La Aurora, a simple smoking experience turns into an epic love story that pulls you in deeper with every draw.