Miami's high-end cigar rollers create niche industry for top smokes

Fri Sep 27, 2013 8:13am EDT
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By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) - Inside a Little Havana cigar rolling business in the heart of Cuban Miami, Maria Sierra's gnarled fingers perform the same dance they did for more than three decades for Havana's famed El Laguito cigar factory.

She cuts a teardrop from a broad tobacco leaf then glues, wraps and twists it onto the end of a near-finished cigar, forming the small fan that's the signature of high-end Cuban cigar rollers.

More than five decades after a trade embargo banned imports of cigars from Communist-ruled Cuba, the majority of U.S. cigar imports come from other Caribbean countries as well as Central America.

Yet in Miami a niche industry is growing, centered on a few dozen elite Cuban rollers who make special edition cigars that sell for as much as $700 per box in Europe.

Cigar Aficionado, the industry's leading glossy magazine, recently highlighted Miami's cigar industry describing the city as a "a new hot spot for creative cigarmakers."

Sierra, at age 18, was one of 30 Cuban women selected from thousands to learn the craft from Fidel Castro's personal cigar roller Eduardo Rivera. Women entered male-dominated factories at the urging of Cuban revolutionary Celia Sanchez, a close confidant of Castro's in the 1960s and 70s.

"We would start with one little cigar and they would watch over us very closely, removing those who didn't do well enough," said Sierra, now 64. "A group of 30 or 40 women would come in to learn and after a couple of days only one or two were left."

Sierra is one of 10 rollers working at El Titan de Bronze (The Bronze Titan), a Little Havana store named after Antonio Maceo, a general in the war for Cuban independence from Spain.   Continued...

Niurka Perez packs a box of cigars at the El Titan de Bronze cigar factory and store in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, Florida September 18, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Skipper