Ernesto Perez-Carrillo Jr. has got tobacco in his blood.
His grandfather made cigar rolling his life’s work in Cuba, and his father followed suit. After decades of ups and downs, including a move to Miami, Ernesto Jr. joined and began running his father's operation – all before the age of 30.
The business grew slowly but surely as Ernesto learned the ropes of the industry. That is, until the early '90s when the company encountered a boom thanks to some critical acclaim and a surge in demand. Production expanded, and Ernesto sold the company to work alongside a larger manufacturer with entire libraries of tobacco.
In 2009, the family business began anew as Ernesto teamed up with his son and daughter to form a new company: E.P. Carrillo. They’ve since gone from an unknown, small-time group of a few dedicated rollers and experts to receiving rave reviews on their greatly expanded line.
Simply put: the man knows his cigars. After selecting a custom blend for our Churchill box, Ernesto taught us a thing or two about his area of expertise.
What drew you to cigar making, other than family ties?
I’ve been in the business 40 years, and in the beginning you start with a description to show what the cigar is about – but it’s all subjective. The more you read them, the more subjective it seems: people claim their cigars taste like alfalfa, or chocolate, or rum, or whatever. Tobacco is tobacco and that’s what it should taste like, but I thought, "There’s got to be a reason people say that."
Why do people smoke certain cigars, and what does it do for them? Is it a power, a status, an enjoyment? I want to understand it more, as I work with different climates and areas. That’s what inspires me – not to get more market share, or anything like that. That doesn’t make sense. A cigar has got to be unique, something that people are going to enjoy because of what it is.
How much variation is possible?
You can make hundreds of blends with different tobaccos. Just by changing the zone in each country, or the seed, you’re going to get different tobaccos. I’ve found that the most important thing for taste and complexity, though, is the wrapper. You can use different wrappers from Connecticut, Cuba, or wherever for a completely different cigar. That’s what’s so challenging about making a new one: to get the right blend, you have to keep using the new tobaccos to find what you’re looking for.
Is it possible to aim for different flavors?
It’s all subjective, but I don’t ever make a cigar that doesn’t mean anything. From the minute you light it up, I want to make sure you’re going to see that there’s something different. You’re not copying anybody, or even yourself. It’s got to be unique to that cigar. I don’t find, personally, that any real flavors can come through in a cigar – it’s only about taste, mildness, and complexity. The way the cigar’s taste changes as you’re smoking has a lot to do with the types of tobacco we use. I can focus on getting a certain tobacco taste and strength, but not necessarily a certain flavor or pairing aspect.
What’s the selection process like for choosing the right tobacco blend?
We use different kinds of tobaccos from three different regions. When I’m going to work on a new blend, I’m looking at tobacco by going on trips to the fields, where they cure and age the tobacco in processing houses. When I see something that will be unique, or will complement a blend I already have, that’s how the process starts. It’s a question of constantly working, tweaking blends, and always working to improve what you have now. Or coming up with new blends based on what we have in inventory, which we also do.
I like to do it constantly — looking for a certain taste, strength, or concept. Going into a concept, I’m not looking for minor specifics, like "it’s going to be strong," or "it’s going to taste like chocolate or vanilla." Rather I’m looking for how someone will feel when they smoke it. Not just in their palate, but in their body. It’s a challenge to arrive at that moment. I want people to say something like, ‘When I smoked that cigar, I felt like I was on vacation in the mountains.’ Or if someone smokes a certain blend with their brother or father, that they felt something special in that moment.