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Key West Cigars

J. Bennett Alexander Alexander's picture

J. Bennett Alexander

At the Rodriguez Cigar Factory in Key West, Florida, the oldest on the island, you can take a tour that includes trying your hand at hand-rolling a cigar. Frankly, I’d rather smoke the ones rolled by an expert, but the tour will give you an idea of the history of Key West as the first in the United States to be called “Cigar City.”

Hand-rolled Cigars in Key West, The Beginnings

Key West is not only the southern-most point in the continental United States, but also the US territory that is geographically closest to Cuba. So, not surprisingly, in the 1800s, Key West was the primary port in South Florida, especially for exports from Cuba, the Caribbean and Central America. Cuban cigars and tobacco were among the principal products that arrived in Key West. It didn’t take long for a cigar factory to start operating there.

The founder, William H. Wall, advertised in 1831 that "he imports the very best tobacco from Havana." The operation employed about 50 laborers. It burned down in 1859. Other manufacturers had already followed Wall’s lead and set up shop in Key West. Within 30 years, spurred by labor unrest in Cuba, more cigar factories opened in Key West. For the next 50 years, the cigar industry boomed, making cigars with Cuban tobacco. It’s the first place that a well-known brand of today got its start. In 1912, Arturo Fuente began making cigars in Key West before later moving to Tampa.

In fact, among the first large operators in Key West was Vincente Martinez Ybor. Labor troubles, a devastating fire in 1886, and hurricanes in Key West led him to relocate to Tampa, which ultimately claimed the title of “Cigar City” after other manufacturers followed.

Cigars in Key West, Today

Rodriguez Cigar Factory is Key West’s most prominent manufacturer and today makes several cigars with tobaccos NOT from Cuba. Cuban cigars in Key West are the same as anywhere else in the United States: illegal. And, again, be forewarned that many, many Cuban cigars you might be offered are counterfeit.

Rodriguez makes most of its cigars in Nicaragua but has about 10 rollers in the Key West facility. The Rodriguez Primera Clase line sports an elegant blue and gold band. Choose from a Corona, $9.25, a Perfecto, $8, Robusto, $8.50, or Toro, about $9. These medium-full cigars contain Nicaraguan filler and binder, wrapped in a San Andrés leaf. The Rodriguez Reserva Privada line is mild-medium and boasts an Ecuador Connecticut wrapper, that is aged four years, around Nicaraguan filler and binder. The vitolas are Toro, Torpedo, Corona, and Robusto. They sell for around $9 each.

The Original Key West Cigar Factory has changed hands several times and is now owned by the folks who own Cork & Stogie, a retail shop on the main drag, Duval Street. There, or online, you can buy the Talmaege, named after a longtime roller. It’s available in a Corona, Robusto or Toro, all about $10. The wrapper is Habano Sun Grown with Dominican and Honduran fillers.

The Best Cigars in Key West

I think it’s always worth trying the local cigars, but if you want to get a premium cigar that you already love, try Greene Street Cigars. They’ve got a large walk-in humidor, a bar (beer and wine only) and a smoking lounge. You’ll find something great to smoke among the usual excellent well-known brands.

Key West has many places with outdoor seating that allow cigar smoking. Be sure to check with them in advance as the rules can change. I would recommend trying out Historic Cigar Alley in Duval Square. It has a very good selection of microbrews as well as cigars. Rum Row, at the Gates Hotel, offers the Rodriguez Cigar Lounge.

If you haven’t been to Key West, wait until it gets really cold where you live. Then go. Change your latitude and change your attitude. Nothing will be quite the same. (Yeah, Jimmy Buffett wrote that. Or something like it.)

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