As I sipped on a less-than-mediocre cup of airport coffee while waiting to board the departing flight one special Saturday morning, I was trying hard to formulate some additional questions to have ready for my appointment with Eric Newman that following Monday. About 2 months prior, I had finalized my plans to make way down to the Tampa Bay area after being invited to come down by the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. Now that it was actually happening, it was hard to believe.
My little brother, Sean (affectionately known as “Bronose” to fans of the channel), was traveling with me to assist in the filming of the content. Our flight was a mere 2 hours long and uneventful, so we arrived in Tampa still full of energy and excitement. Our first task was to check in at our lodgings, the beautiful Hotel Haya located right in the heart of Ybor City. We knew we were in an amazing place once we noticed a fully stocked humidor cabinet right there in the hotel lobby. A very good sign! Now having taken care of the practical items, it was now time to take in as much of this town as possible.
The day before our flight, I’d called a few local cigar shops to see if they would be willing to be filmed for an impromptu interview. One of those places was a simple but amazing little shop called Tabanero Cigars, owned and operated by the incredibly hospitable and charming Yanko Maceda. Not only does this gentleman offer the best coffee I have ever had in my life (seriously, after that cup of crap I had that morning, his brew tasted like nirvana) but his cigars which he makes himself were some of the best I have ever puffed!
Much of our afternoon was spent smoking and conversing with the delightful Yanko. He made us feel welcome, comfortable and relaxed all while exuding emphatic passion for his craft. After several hours of absolute enjoyment and having been given a number of cigar and coffee related gifts from our host, we reluctantly said farewell to Señor Meceda and made our way to dinner. You can see more of the shop in this interview we filmed with Yanko.
The restaurant scene in Ybor also impresses, with local eateries offering everything from upscale, white tablecloth dining at places like The Columbia, to more casual stops such as Amici’s Pizza or Carmine’s (where we eventually ate that night) which offers a laid-back bar atmosphere with Cuban inspired fare. If you get chance to go, don’t miss out on the deviled crab! After leaving Carmine’s – just off of Angel Oliva Sr. Street – well fed and ready for more, we continued our exploration of 7th Ave to see what else looked promising.
It being a Saturday night, 7th was ALIVE. Walking down this main corridor of Cigar City at this time was a rather festive sight. The entire road was lined with store fronts and shops, all their facades constructed in that familiar and lovely Latin inspired architecture. The seemingly endless series of night club, bar, restaurant, tattoo parlor, novelty shop, and cigar lounges went as far the eye could see. People were lining up at every club entrance. An exciting blend of music poured into the street from every direction – jazz, Latin, all of it acting as the collective heartbeat of this vibrant avenue. Each step brings new, thick aromas of roasted meats, hot grills, spices, cigar smoke and occasionally cannabis. Everyone is obviously enjoying themselves, but one can’t help being struck by how many different things are happening all at once. By contrast, the tranquility of the numerous cigar lounges was remarkable. As busy as the rest of the street was, the peace in these havens was unbreakable. We eventually stopped in at La Faraona Cigars, another local brand that makes their own cigars right here in town.
The owner, a 36-year master roller named Odelma Matos was unavailable to speak to us that evening. Rene, the manager of the lounge, was very amenable and happily showed us Matos’ work. Walking into the La Faraona humidor was a trip! The aroma first of all was unlike anything I have ever experienced. You could practically taste the tobacco and feel the oils in the air upon entering. The cigars themselves were visually stunning, shapes and wrapper designs that just sprang out at you from the shelves. The name “La Faraona” literally means The Pharaoh, and one of the more popular cigars that Odelma created is shaped very much like an Egyptian sarcophagus. Rene graciously answered all of our questions, you can see the interview and more of this shop in this video.
After talking with Rene for a while and picking up a nice sampler of La Faraona cigars to sample later, we made our way back to the hotel, enjoyed a cigar in their courtyard by the saltwater swimming pool, organized the video footage from the day, and eventually turned in.
Sunday started with breakfast in the hotel café and another coffee, this time café con leche, before heading out to our next destination: the amazing Grand Cathedral Cigars. Owner Angela Yue only opened this monument to the cigar lifestyle last year, you would never know that from how impeccably decorated, furnished and staffed the establishment is. This oasis offers both private and public lounge space, full bar, outdoor patios with lush landscaping, excellent coffee offerings and of course a cigar selection second to none!
I am very grateful that Angela was able to sit for an interview and was so enthusiastic to share her knowledge and talk tobacco. This is someone who clearly knows cigars and is eager to help anyone in pick out just the right smoke for any occasion that life might throw at them. Over time, Angela has developed strong relationships with across the industry, including the teams at J.C. Newman, Fuente, Padron and Rocky Patel. Footage from inside the Grand Cathedral, as well as the interview, is available to watch here.
While we there we met up with Brian Desind and Clark Thornton of the Privada Cigar Club, such a treat! They both treated us like kings, buying us drinks, cigars and talking at length about the club, our channel, the industry at large and just life in general. Brian brought something up that really stuck with me that day. He tells me, “All the club members in Privada are really my friends”. Somehow, I could tell that if he could, he would most definitely spend the same sort of time with each and every one of his 10,000+ club members as he did with us that day.
Another cigar-rich day came to a close, but we still had one more interview to complete before heading home. Monday had arrived, so we drove to J.C. Newman’s historic “El Reloj” factory. We are warmly greeted by Adria, the company’s Digital Marketing Director, and given our own tour – which spanned each of the factory’s three levels, even the basement where the raw tobaccos are received, sorted and aged before going upstairs for rolling. The 1st and main floor is a beautiful museum documenting the Newman family’s history and the cigar industry at large. Up to the 2nd floor where the machine-made cigars are produced to meet orders from numerous distributors. The machines on this floor are a marvel to behold in what they accomplish and are there very same ones used by the company since the early 20th century. This floor produces an average of 4000 cigars each day!
Finally, we reach the top floor, the rolling room, where we get to witness The American being rolled. The rollers themselves work with consummate skill and grace, and their handiwork is on display with luscious sheen all over. It was in this room that we finally meet Eric Newman, 3rd generation owner of the family business and an all-around joyful and humble man. After a very informative interview, available to watch here, he tells us how hopeful and happy he is to see a new generation taking an interest in this craft. He also beams with a pride about his own son, Drew, who thought up the concept of “The American” cigar in the first place.
I finish this trip by having yet another café con leche, and pair it with a Perla del Mar, sitting bayside before making our way back to the airport to return home. The trip was not only a success in terms of interviews conducted, footage recorded, and knowledge gained, but also as an unparalleled experience for a cigar lover to get to have. I would return in a heartbeat. The sights, sounds, cigars, and hospitality were all too great to keep me away for long. Thank you, Ybor!
Have you visited Cigar City? What does your dream cigar trip look like? Let everyone know the comments below!