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Schooled in cigars

For many cigar aficionados, a visit from master cigar roller Lazaro Rodriguez is a once-in-a-lifetime event.

"It is rare to have the opportunity to see this done in this country," said Laura Hodges, co-owner of the Cedar Box in Alton, which hosted the demonstration. "Quality rollers are getting harder and harder to even get."

Rodriquez came to the United States 20 years ago, spending eight days on a raft during the trip from Cuba to America. He learned to roll cigars in Cuba and says it is an art passed down as a family tradition.

Seven years ago, he opened his own tobacco company called Havana Dreams Cigars. Featuring its own factory and seven experienced cigar rollers, Rodriquez says he plans to have four more rollers by the end of the year.

"This is a big industry," he said. "I am trying to bring back the tradition of teaching people how to properly roll a cigar.

"Companies have their cigars rolled in the Dominican Republic. I say why not teach people how to do it properly here in the United States."

Rodriguez opened his shop in Ybor City, Fla., once known as the cigar capital of America. He brought some of his best rollers to the Cedar Box's demonstration, including "Diego," Gustavo Vieyto, and Hector Ruben del Toro. Del Toro, 76, has mastered the art of cigar rolling for 64 years, and was once the No. 1 cigar maker in Cuba. He has rolled cigars for Fidel Castro and several U.S. presidents.

Rodriguez is a "master roller," which takes 15 years of intense training to achieve. He led the class of about 30 people, answering questions and using narration simultaneously with hands-on demonstrations.

"It was quite a production," Hodges said.

Rodriguez told the room that tobacco needs to be aged for two years before rolling. He demonstrated how cigars achieve their flavor by spraying the leaf with wine or rum, and soaking the leaf in water and brown sugar. He said that during rolling, it is imperative that the leaf stays moist.

Vieyto and Del Toro demonstrated how to cut a tobacco leaf using a crescent shaped knife called a chavetas and properly roll the cigar itself. After it is rolled, the cigar is stored in wooden molds until it is dry.

The troupe also sold authentic Cuban cigars they brought with them. Thirty boxes, containing 25 cigars each, were all rolled within the past week. Seven experienced rollers worked overtime to prepare enough cigars for the demonstration.

China King in Alton catered the event.

"We decided to have Chinese food today in honor of the Olympics," Hodges said.

Door prizes were awarded throughout the day, and raffle prizes included a bottle of rare wine and Montecristo platinum cigars. A business card drawing was also held for a box of authentic Cuban cigars.

John Pawloski helped the Cedar Box organize the event and introduced the guests to the crowd. Pawloski is himself a passionate cigar lover.

"I have smoked one or two in my day," he said, laughing.

The Cedar Box opened in April 2006. The shop, 117 Market St. in Alton, is one of the last public places where smoking is allowed.

"There are still a lot of people in the area who don't realize they can smoke here and won't be breaking the law," Hodges said.

Specializing in rare, exotic and unique cigars, the inventory available includes Romeo Y Julieta, Montecristo, Arturo Fuente, Jose Seijes and Romman Tobacco. Much of the inventory has been aged for years to achieve the perfect flavor and freshness.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Source: Alton Telegraph

Schooled in cigars