I have done a few cool things in my life, but nothing can compare to the opportunity I recently had to visit the Honduras American Tobacco SA (HATSA) Danli factory in Danli Honduras. As a special guest of Rick Rodriguez, Master Blender for General Cigar’s CAO cigar brand, I was able to learn and observe how their quality cigars come to fruition from farm to brick and mortar store.
Day 1 Flying into Tegucigalpa, Honduras, I was able to see immediately the pride that the Honduran people have for their country and the things they produce. June 15th (our arrival day) just happened to be the day that the Honduran soccer team was playing in the World Cup, and from the airport to the hotel in which we stayed, the Blue and White flags and jerseys were on full display. My new friend Bruce and I had the pleasure of watching the entire match on a huge movie screen poolside in our hotel with hundreds of passionate fans. And while the national team fell short that night, the odyssey that Bruce and I were about to experience was nothing short of incredible!
Day 2 Driving through the countryside of Honduras quickly reminded me of all my many blessings I often take for granted here in the US. The narrow, winding mountain highway was lined with modest homes, stores and towns full of people that are working to live as opposed to living to work. I also noticed that as we saw men and women working and large groups of children walking to schools, we never once saw a desolate look on a face, as the people looked content with what they had and happy with what they were doing. This was a theme that we would be reminded of throughout our week.
After a two hour drive, we arrived at our home for the week, the HATSA, Danli factory. Upon entering the grounds, we immediately became like kids in a candy store, as the smell of cigar tobacco filled the air. I could not wait to throw my bags anywhere and run into the buildings and see what was going on! I had to pause though because our caregiver for the week, Mariana, had prepared a much needed lunch for us, as we had a long day ahead.
Walking up the sidewalk preparing to enter the factory, I literally held my breath imagining what was on the other side of the doors. The entrance that Rick choose to take us through lead straight to the belly of the beast, the rolling floor where hundreds of thousands of cigars were being made for different General Cigar brands; CAO, Don Tomas, Punch, La Gloria Cubana, Foundry and Hoya de Monterrey to name a few.
After the initial shock was over and the factory managers made us settle down, Bruce and I accompanied Rick to a set of tables in the middle of the floor were beverages and snacks were being laid out for us. As we sat, tray after tray of generically labelled cigars were brought over. We realized that the “work” Rick had been speaking of was about to commence. Bruce and I were visiting for what we thought was pleasure, but our host was there to create and evaluate blends for upcoming General Cigar releases. He thought enough of us and our knowledge and love of cigars to ask us to participate in the process…and to try a couple of upcoming releases (phenomenal ones I might add…but they’re Top Secret for now.). I’m still humbled that I was able to contribute my two cents as I sat among cigar masters with over 100 combined years of experience in blending.
That afternoon we toured some of the areas that most don’t think about when it comes to cigar production, the stripping room (stop giggling) and the tobacco aging room where it’s stored until ready for use. Stripping tobacco has to be the hardest and most stressful job in that place! This process entails taking a brittle, fragile leaf and ripping half of the stem out of it without damaging the leaf. Because it was time for the workers in the room to leave for the day, they all were lining up next to the table where Bruce and I were making our horrible attempts to replicate their work. As you can imagine, there were plenty of stares and laughter from the crowd as I managed to rip up every single piece I touched! Luckily I don’t speak Spanish so I had no idea what the punchlines were in the crowd.
Our first full day in Danli was just that, full. Full of excitement, full of learning, and full of amazement at the skill and attention to detail at every step in the cigar making process. The perfect way to end it was with a great dinner and a couple of cigars in the picnic area of our home for the week. We were sure not to hang out too late, as Rick had a HUGE surprise for us the following morning.
Stay tuned friends! You don’t want to miss Part II of our Cigar Odyssey…complete with a photo slideshow!