Since establishing EPC Cigars in late 2009 with his children, Lissette and Ernesto III, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo has regularly introduced new cigars—both long-term brands and limited editions—to much acclaim. And this year’s International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association trade show in Las Vegas was no different. There seems to be no stopping the fertile and creative mind of Perez-Carrillo. The maestro behind La Gloria Cubana, one of the world’s best-known and most popular cigars, continues to innovate and bring his own unique blending aesthetic to the premium cigar industry.
Unafraid of risks and trusting a storehouse of tobacco knowledge he had racked up over more than 40 years as a cigarmaker, Perez-Carrillo still enjoys making cigars as much as ever—constantly playing with tobaccos until a blend emerges. Passionate? Obsessive? Passionately obsessive? Any of these terms could be used to describe the 67-year-old, and they are the traits that he thinks are necessary to be a great cigarmaker.
“Billy Keene said that to play the blues you have to live it,” says Perez-Carrillo, referring to one of his favorite musicians to make an analogy about his work ethic. “To make great cigars you have to really live and want to be a part of it, too.”
From Jazz to Stogies
It should come as no surprise to those who know Perez-Carrillo that he would quote a favorite musician to explain his love of cigars, because passions for music and tobacco are intertwined within him. His family’s involvement in the cigar industry dates back to 1907, when Perez-Carrillo’s grandfather and great-uncle sold cigars on the streets of Havana, Cuba. His father, Ernesto Sr., worked in Cuba as a tobacco buyer before purchasing the small El Credito cigar factory in Havana. Opposed to the Castro regime, Ernesto Sr. was jailed many times, and all of the family’s possessions were confiscated. Eventually, the family escaped Cuba and settled in Miami. Nine years after escaping Cuba, Ernesto Sr. scraped together enough money to purchase a cigar factory in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. He named his new business “El Credito” in remembrance of his lost Cuban cigar factory.
As a young man growing up in Miami, Perez-Carrillo dreamed of becoming a jazz drummer after listening to his first jazz album when he was 15 years old. Despite having started a career working at his family’s El Credito cigar factory, Perez-Carrillo moved to New York City in 1976, when he was 25 years old, to pursue a music career. Though he secured a few gigs, he also experienced a number of setbacks. When a promised gig to play with saxophonist Stan Getz fell through, Perez-Carrillo recognized that his career as a musician had come to an end. He moved back to Miami and joined his father at El Credito.
“Once you get involved in tobacco, it keeps pulling you back,” Perez-Carrillo explains. “Though my dream of becoming the next Buddy Rich didn’t work out, I’ve got no regrets.”
Secure in the knowledge that he had chased his dream, Perez-Carrillo then threw himself into learning the cigar business with the same gusto he had shown in New York City’s jazz clubs. After his father’s death in 1980, Perez-Carrillo assumed ownership of El Credito.
Trying to replicate the experience he had of smoking a Cuban-made Davidoff cigar, Perez-Carrillo created La Gloria Cubana, an immediate hit among Miami-area cigar smokers. The rest of the country learned about La Gloria Cubana in the early 1990s when Cigar Aficionado gave the cigar high ratings and the Cigar Boom in the United States took hold.
Throughout the 1990s, La Gloria Cubana grew to national and then international distribution. Demand for the cigars consistently outstripped Perez-Carrillo’s ability to make them. By the end of the decade, Perez-Carrillo had sold El Credito to Swedish Match, and La Gloria Cubana became part of General Cigar Company’s offerings. Perez-Carrillo stayed with the company for 10 more years, serving as an ambassador and consultant for La Gloria Cubana before leaving the company with plans to retire.
“This was another moment when tobacco pulled me back,” Perez-Carrillo explains. “My children came to me and said that they would like to start a cigar company with me. So we started EPC Cigars in October 2009. The company is all about family love.”
As EPC Cigars’ ninth anniversary approaches, the company remains much the same as it did in October 2009. Perez-Carrillo spends the bulk of his time in Santiago, overseeing the daily operations of the Tabacalera La Alianza factory where all of the company’s cigars are made. Ernesto III serves as a consultant on all aspects of EPC Cigars’ business strategies while managing his own hedge fund. Lissette oversees all aspects of the company’s U.S. operations.
The biggest change that EPC Cigars has experienced over its nearly nine years of existence has been its tremendous growth. In the company’s early days, just a few cigarmaking teams made the first EPC cigars—E.P. Carrillo Edicion Inaugural 2009 and E.P. Carrillo Short Run. Now there are 32 teams of rollers and bunchers making the 24 different EPC Cigars brands, and the factory employs more than 140 people altogether.
“It’s been a success,” Perez-Carrillo says, making perhaps the slightest bit of an understatement. “This year has started out very well, too. We’re getting calls from all over the world asking for our cigars, and we haven’t really done any marketing. It’s just something that is growing on its own, which tells you that the brand is gaining recognition worldwide. It’s organic—people are just telling other people about them. We have orders from Angola, China, Poland and all other sorts of countries where we haven’t done any marketing. How are they hearing about us? Word of mouth is the best form of advertising, so I am very happy about this phenomena.”
This story first appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.
– By Stephen A. Ross, senior editor of Tobacco Business Magazine.