Back in November, for my 62nd birthday, I decided I needed a laid back, unwinding, relaxing vacation after a long year that had some seriously stressing moments. When this happens, my favorite go to spot is the Florida Keys, especially the city of Key West. I have been there well over 25 times and I tend to know America’s Caribbean Island like the back of my hand. Back in the day, I would spend days and nights finding the newest or oldest bar on the island but now as I am older, I have come to appreciate the island for what it is, a relaxing vacation spot filled with great American history, folklore, and amazing food.
Of course, as an avid cigar enthusiast, I enjoy my cigar stash also. I like to sit on a deck or patio of the hotel or resort and people watch. But when it comes to visiting a cigar shop on the Island – there is no better place than Rodriguez Cigars. It is the oldest running cigar factory on the Island and their craft is second to none. Founded in 1984, the shop has passed down within the family from grandfather to grandson (Danny DiFabio). It is a family owned business that began in Cuba in 1947 where Danny’s grandfather (Angel) and family, grew and harvested tobacco on the family plantation, La Finca de Carmencita, located in the Las Villas province of Cuba. Of course this was before the Castro run government nationalized the industry. The family found their way over to the United States and settled in Key West, Florida in 1971 and eventually opened the Rodriguez Cigar Co. and factory in 1984.
I remember visiting this quaint Key West cigar shop back in the late 1980’s and 1990’s and enjoyed watching Danny’s grandmother (Daniela) rolling panatelas. Angel tended to the shop and greeted those who entered with the same infectious smile that Danny has now. Due to work and family commitments my visits to the island slowed down but about a decade ago, I once again made treks to the island and visit the shop – that his when I met Danny and learned of his grandfathers passing.
Danny explained that he took over the business after graduating college with a business degree. It was not his first choice of a career but with the passing of his grandfather, he knew in his heart that this was what he needed to do in order to keep the family legacy alive. With Danny at the helm, he made numerous changes over the past decade. He started with a collaboration with Guillermo Peña, a master cigar blender who immigrated from Cuba. Guillermo opened a small factory in 2009 in Miami and now owns and operates the La Perla Cigar Factory in Nicaragua. This collaboration led to the first Rodriguez cigar not produced in Key West. Danny named the blend, the Series 84, paying tribute to the year his family started operations in Key West and to always remember his grandfather. Born out of that collaboration, Danny and Guillermo have created a full line of highly acclaimed blends.
The Expansion of Rodriguez Cigars
Danny went on to build out an aging and storage room on the second floor of the shop so he could maintain inventory and subsequently launched a website where consumers can order cigars directly from the store. He slowly and meticulously formed relationships with about 100 shops in the USA that carry the Rodriguez Cigars line. Working with local merchants on Key West, he set up humidors in some of the hotels and resorts on the island to further build brand awareness and even forged a relationship with the Papa’s Pilar rum factory to create rum flavored cigars using the company’s rum barrels.
If that wasn’t enough, Danny acquired the building next door and expanded the shop, both on the ground floor and the second floor aging room, and rearranged it, increased the number of rolling tables, and added a seating area to greet customers and conduct business. With the shop and factory laid out to his liking he made his next business move and started the Rodriguez Cigars Key West factory tour.
The tour costs $35.00/person and lasts about 1 hour and 15 minutes. It is designed to guide and educate guests through 4 different stations of preparing wrapping tobacco, constructing the filler, applying the final wrapper and explaining the aging process. The process highlights traditional Cuban techniques to manufacture cigars and includes one cigar and a complimentary Cuban espresso. There is even a short movie that tells the Rodriguez family story.
During my visit, Danny invited me to join him on the tour and I have to say, this is a must for any cigar enthusiast who visits Key West.
History of Cigars in Key West and Growth of Rodriguez Cigars
The tour starts with a discussion of Key West cigar history starting back in 1813. The history is informative and well presented. Danny explains how Martinez Ybor, a Spanish entrepreneur, who first became a noted industrialist and cigar manufacturer in Cuba, then Key West, and finally Tampa, Florida. Yes that is how Ybor city got its name. While his business prospered, conflict between Spanish and Cuban workers, labor unrest, and the difficulty of transportation to and from the island city of Key West eventually led Martinez Ybor to decide that he should again relocate his business.
Cigar Leaf and Primings
The tour then goes into how the plants are grown, harvested, cured, and aged. Danny explains the different primings and hands you a stack of each priming – ligero, seco, viso – and has you stack them to the height that each leaf would be on the plant. This gives you an appreciation of how tall the plant is and also the harvesting process as he explains that the last leaves to be primed is the ligero, the top leaves of the plant. You can’t help but smell the aroma coming off those aged leaves you are holiding.
The Rodriguez Cigars Story
The next stop is a watching a short film presented on the front wall off the shop. As you watch the story of the Rodriquez family and the growth of the Key West factory and shop, you are served some Café Cubano, a most delicious sweet cup of Cuban espresso. Once you have some of this, you only want more, and once you have it made properly there is little comparison.
A factory tour would not be complete without learning how to roll your own cigar. Danny sits down at a rolling table and demonstrates how leaves are bunched together to create the filler blend and then applies the binder leaf. The unfinished cigars are then set in a mold and pressed to shape. Guests are taught, hands on, how to use the press. Once the cigars are pressed the molds, they are removed and the each cigar has a wrapper applied. Danny shows the guests how to apply the wrapper and then each guest tries their hand at the age old craft. It is not as easy as it looks but they seem to get through it with some guidance from the master.
Part of the tell is about the beauty and elasticity of the wrapper leaf and how you cut it with a chaveta, the cigar makers prize tool to trim the leaf. There is a special technique to trim and then properly apply the leaf to the cigar. Once finished you apply the cap and you have your own fresh rolled cigar! Of course it is not recommended to smoke it right away, but rather take it home and let it rest so that the blend of leaf can marry together over time and the moisture has a chance to balance out.
One of the other experiences you will have is smelling the aroma of a piece of rolled leaf. This is how blenders can sense the flavor characteristic of each leaf. Danny pint out that you should not put you nose right up to the smoldering leaf. Instead let the smoke expand in the air near you and then smell it, you will have a better grasp of the flavors that leaf produces when ignited.
The Storage and Aging Room
As noted earlier, Danny built out a large storage and aging room on the second floor. The first thing you notice is the much cooler temperature in the room. There are stacks of boxed cigars resting on shelves to be delivered to shops and customers around the countr. As this stop is the completion of the tour, Danny even presented each guest with a special cigar that is not sold on the market. It is known as the 1813, a special cigar that celebrates the year Key West started making cigars.
Danny will tell you:
“With over 67 years of being in the tobacco industry our primary mission still, and will always remains the same…To deliver a premium, consistent product enriched with the Cuban Heritage.”
I can attest that having been a fan of Rodriguez Cigars since the late 1980’s, and having the pleasure of knowing his Grandfather and Grandmother, Danny has made the family proud in the expansion of the brand and the shop/factory. While there may be other shops on the island, nothing compares to the experience you will have at Rodriguez Cigars Key West. The personal attention and passion for the craft is second to none and even the folks that I took the tour with were happy with the education they received during the 75 minute tour. They even purchased some boxes of Rodriguez cigars for themselves and to give as gifts to family and friends up north as a little part of Key West.
If you are planning to visit Key West anytime soon, add the Rodriguez Cigars Factory Tour to you list of fun things to do on the island.
Two tours a day are held Monday through Saturday:
- Morning Tour: 10:30 AM
- Afternoon Tour: 1:30 PM
You can book a tour directly from the company’s website here
Rodriguez Cigars Location, Contact, and Hours of Operation
Rodriguez Cigars Key West is located at 113 Fitzpatrick St Key West, FL 33040
- The Store is open 7 days a week from 9:30 Am to 4:30 PM