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Written by Puff Staff

Monday, 24 February 2003

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Rob Shibata visits the Graycliff Hotel and Cigar Company, and finds old world hospitality can be found today as well.

A Day at the Graycliff Hotel and Cigar Company
Rob Shibata - Top25Cigar

Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, presents a special charm which captures the elegance of the old world.  Here one will find well-preserved colonial buildings, pristine beaches, one of the largest straw markets in the Caribbean, land and sea sports as well as duty free shopping. 

But these are not what drew me to Nassau, I had a different purpose:  to meet Enrico Garzaroli, the man behind the famous Graycliff Hotel and the Graycliff Cigar Company.

A Brief History

At the Graycliff they say colorful places give way to colorful people and colorful stories.  Color is, perhaps, a common thread between Enrico Garzaroli, the hotel and the cigar company.

The Hotel

The Graycliff Hotel, built in the 1740’s by John Howard Graysmith, was a base for his piracy in the Caribbean.  Later the hotel served as the first Anglican Church in the Bahamas and in 1844 became Nassau’s first public inn witnessing the transition to British rule.  As an icon in Bahamian history, it is no wonder that the Graycliff has become a landmark listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

During the Civil War the 14 room Georgian style mansion’s cellars served as jails and were later used for liquor storage during prohibition.  Today the cellars house one of the largest private wine collections in the world with over 200,000 bottles.  The Graycliff wine list isn’t a list at all but rather a compendium of the world’s fine wines.

Graycliff RoomThe wine list compliments the world class Bahamian / Continental infusion cuisine offered at the Graycliff’s restaurant.  Specialty dishes at Graycliff include Bahamian Crawfish in Puff Pastry; Grouper with Cream and Dijon Mustard as acclaimed in Gourmet Magazine; Roast Rack of Lamb marinated in Graycliff's secret recipe; Pepper Filet with Sweet, Hot, White and Black Peppers, Cream, Onions and Cognac.  Fittingly, the Graycliff was the first 5 star hotel to grace the city of Nassau.

The Graycliff’s colorful heritage is further enhanced by the hotel’s impressive roster of former guests.  True to its historic past, the Graycliff has hosted an array of the rich and famous:  To name a few; Princess Caroline of Monaco, King Constantine of Greece, Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Lord Beaverbrook, Michael Caine, Paul Newman, Richard Harris, Lord Mountbatten, Sir Winston Churchill, Aristotle Onasis, and members of the Beatles.

The Proprietor

Enrico Garzaroli is a man of passion.  His zeal for excellence is evident in everyEnrico and the former Bahamanian Goveners Wife plan a party. endeavor he undertakes.  The Graycliff Hotel and the Graycliff Cigar Co. express his passion and his philosophy that nothing is impossible.  With his gregarious, outgoing style, Enrico has an incredible rapport with everyone he meets or does business with.  He goes about his work without the aloofness typical of busy executives.

Enrico and Anne Marie Garzaroli continue the Graycliff tradition of excellence with exceptional hospitality.  That tradition includes creating colorful experiences for all who visit them.  I learned this firsthand during my visit with Enrico and his family.

The Graycliff Cigar Co.

What kind of man has such a passion for cigars that he starts his own cigar company… and just as the cigar boom is winding down?  What are the expectations of someone who employs Avelino Lara, the man responsible for Castro’s personal cigars and the El Laguito factory, home of Cohiba?

With his passion for excellence as a hotelier and restaurateur, it is no surprise that Enrico decided to find further expression in fine cigars.  He set out to create a company that would produce world-class cigars second to none.  True to his uncompromising standards, he arranged to have one of the world’s acknowledged cigar masters head his operations:  Avelino Lara. 

Avelino Lara’s credentials speak for themselves.  He grew up in the Cuban cigarPaolo with Graycliff Rollers industry and in the late 60’s became responsible for establishing and running the famous El Laguito factory in Havana.  Under Lara’s watchful eye, the Cohiba brand was established at El Laguito.  Lara personally selected the tobaccos for Cohiba and later for the Trinidad lines, both of which were only available as diplomatic gifts at the time.  He was also responsible for manufacturing Castro’s personal cigars.  In the mid 90’s, Lara’s superiors decided that he could no longer select his own tobaccos.  Can you imagine what this would mean to any great cigar maker?  Lara chose to “retire” rather than be forced to use whatever tobacco was allocated to him.

An aficionado for many years, it is no surprise that Enrico Garzaroli was the most successful Habanos SA merchant in the Caribbean.  The selection of Havanas at the Graycliff was unsurpassed   But shortly after Lara was joined Garzaroli’s new cigar company, Habanos revoked Graycliff’s license to distribute Havana cigars…. unless Lara returned to Cuba.  Undaunted, the ever optimistic Garzaroli pressed ahead with the Graycliff Cigar Co. and Avelino Lara.  It was under these circumstances that Graycliff released its first cigars in October of 1997.

A Day at The Graycliff

I arrived at the stately Graycliff Hotel after the short flight from Miami.  Bags in tow, I asked for Mr. Garzaroli and was promptly led into the hotel kitchen.  As I entered, Enrico exclaimed in a booming voice:

“Ahhh.. Top25Cigar…. You finally made it!“ referring to several of my aborted attempts to visit him.   “I’m Enrico, welcome to the Graycliff!!"

One of Graycliffs Dining roomsWe exchanged greetings as we moved to a sunlit dining area adjacent to the main living room.   Conferring briefly with his chef, he ordered a “snack” for me:  freshly made mushroom soup followed by pan seared sea bass with vegetables al dente and garlic mashed potatoes!

“Do you like wine?” he inquired?

“Yes I do” I replied.

“Good”, he said in his now trademark booming voice.  Appearing content that I was comfortable, he exclaimed,  “Let’s smoke a cigar!”

I rarely smoke immediately before a meal much less during a meal, but I had come to the Graycliff to talk about and smoke cigars so why argue?  Enrico pulled out several Graycliff Pirate torpedoes, and handed one to me after clipping it.  “You remember these, don’t you?” he said with a laugh, knowing that I was part of a T25C staff review of the Pirate.  He lit his cigar carefully, using, what else:  Graycliff wooden matches.

“How is your cigar?” he asked as he puffed on his torpedo and motioned for the waiter to pour us some wine.

“Very smooth.  Great aroma.”  I answered after several draws.

“Have you tried the new Professionale line?"

“No, not yet,” I answered.  They are not even sold in my area of California.

“Ah, California,” He said shaking his head.  “That is a problem.  We sell very few cigars in California.

A young man approaches the table and Enrico announces with arms outstretched “This is my son. Paolo.”  I had met Paolo briefly 2 years earlier at the CA Las Vegas Big Smoke.

I re-introduced myself and Paolo smiled and said “Oh, the Top25Cigar guy… youPaolo and humidor once owned by Napolean finally made it.”  Paolo and Enrico both laughed as Paolo sipped some wine.  They exchanged a few words in Italian, then Enrico offered Paolo the cigars I had brought.

I had decided to bring Graycliff some samples of the newer “full bodied” cigars from the major manufacturers to see what they thought.  Paolo at once opened the cigars and started to smell the unlit aroma of each cigar’s tobacco.  After a few minutes, he announced, “I think this will be the best cigar in the group”, as he held up one of the smokes.  He then proceeded to light the cigar.

I was intrigued by Paolo’s focused, deliberate inspection of the cigars.  I watched as he lit one cigar and after eight or nine draws, lit another and took 8 or 9 more draws.  Then he lit the third and repeated the procedure.  In the meantime, Enrico picked up the first and second smokes and sampled them himself.  Both Garzarolis commented on the draw and burn characteristics   I didn’t detect a hint of competitive malice in either man.  Brands were not mentioned, only candid observations about each cigar.

Enrico's personal humidor“I don’t like any of them!” Enrico pronounced unhappily with a frown.

“ I don’t really like any of them either” said Paolo, “but this one is the best of the 3,” holding up a well known brand.

“That’s the problem with the new cigars,” said Enrico as he put down the third sample.  “They look for an easy way to make a strong cigar and instead they only get a harsh cigar.”

Paolo smiled as he sat forward and said, “What my dad is saying is that many of the brands don’t take all the necessary steps to create a consistent-quality cigar much less a strong, consistent-quality cigar.”  Paolo cut the samples open to show me the construction.

I was in a different world now.  I was beyond the boundaries of the cigar smoking public or even the group of hard core cigar smokers I meet online.  I was in the realm of the cigar manufacturer, where cigars are more than a hobby or simple pleasure.  This is their business.  I had just witnessed Graycliff market research at work.  In 15 minutes, father and son had evaluated three of the hottest new “full bodied” smokes on the market and made objective and subjective observations.  They didn’t appear to feel threatened by these newcomers.

As lunch came to a close, Enrico excused himself and said that Paolo would give me a tour of the hotel and the cigar manufacturing.  “I’ll see you this evening” he exclaimed with a smile as he disappeared through the maze of rooms.

As we walked, I asked Paolo about his role was in the company.  He smiled and replied, “Officially, I do the sales and marketing for the cigar company.”  “Actually, I do a little bit of everything.  This is a family business, so every day you do whatever is necessary to make the business run.  A lot of the time, my dad makes the deals and I take care of the day to day stuff, but we both know how to do everything.”

As we walked the hotel grounds, Paolo pointed out features of historical interest, all the while telling me about the cigar company.  He talked about creating a company culture where all the necessary elements are present to make high quality cigars.   I asked Paolo what he meant specifically.

“To make a consistently great cigar takes more than buying good tobacco and rolling cigars.” He said with a grin.  “The attitude of all the workers has to be for one goal, to make high quality cigars.  We are probably the only manufacturer that doesn’t want the rollers to make too many cigars in a day.  If the roller pushes for production, then we know that the quality will be a sacrificed somewhere.”

“The tobacco must be top quality with at least a 3 to 4 year inventory on hand.  Not many people want to make that kind of investment, not only to buy the tobacco, but to store it also.  We have a little higher investment than other cigar makers because there is a 20% duty on imported tobacco and the storage rooms are temperature and humidity controlled 24 hours a day.”  I was impressed.

Then there are the rollers.  Graycliff has about a dozen rollers working under the vigilant eye of legendary Cuban master roller Avelino Lara.  “We have gone through a lot of rollers to get where we are today,” Paolo says flatly.  “We have great working conditions, but if the rollers can’t maintain our standards, then they cannot work here.  We are not just looking for production rollers.  We want people with the proper attitude who want to learn from Avelino how to consistently roll high quality cigars."

Paolo explained that there are specific rolling techniques necessary to make a cigar that draws and burns well.  “The rollers must master these techniques so that every cigar will have the same draw and burn characteristics.  Consistency, that is the key.”

Based on my own cigar smoking experience, consistent construction quality must be much easier to say than to do.  I have had my fair share of cigars that either are plugged or burn unevenly.

One indicator of consistency is the amount of tobacco used in each cigar.  As a measure of this, each size cigar is bundled and weighed.  Bundles of cigars that are above or below a specific weight range are rejected.

Next to the roller’s area is the aging room, where bundles of cigars are kept in wall sized mahogany cabinets until they are ready for release.  This room doubles as a dining room and smoking lounge for those who want the ultimate cigar experience.  One can watch the rollers at work while enjoying a gourmet meal and a cigar.

Paolo then took me to a special cigar dining room just outside the hotel’s garden entrance.  This room has a large wooden dining table in the center.  The perimeter of the room is lined with more boxes of Havana cigars and special edition humidors than I have ever seen in one place.  “Now this is a place to have the ultimate herf,” I thought to myself.

Graycliff Wine CellarFinally, Paolo led me into the “wine cellar” as he recounted its various uses in the hotel’s history.  The corridors were narrow and lined with cases of wine.  We wandered through the labyrinth of stone walled rooms, stooping in some places because of the low ceilings.  Every room was packed with cases of wine with little room to maneuver or walk between them.  Some cases were open, many covered with dust.   I told Paolo this was the Winchester Mystery House of wine cellars.  He laughed and continued to lead, occasionally looking back to see if I was still following him.

We emerged into the balmy afternoon air and climbed the stairway to the company offices.

“So what do you think?”  Said Paolo with a smile.

“Which part?” I said laughing out loud.  “Everything is fantastic!  The hotel, the wine cellar, the cigar company…..  all of it is fantastic.  You guys do a great job!”

I retired to my room for a rest before dinner.

That evening, Enrico greeted me in the hotel foyer with a sample of his new Professionale line.  The Professionale’s blend is fuller bodied than the original Graycliff line.  About a quarter of the way into the cigar Enrico asked how I liked it.  I made the mistake of saying “It’s okay”.

Enrico called to Avelito, Avelino Lara’s son, who was making freshly rolled cigars for dinner customers.  “Make him one with extra leaf of ligero.” Enrico said with a laugh.  He replaced my lit cigar with the freshly rolled one and gave me a light.

After four or five draws I had to sit down and Enrico asked with a grin “How do you like that one?”

“Wow!” I answered, fearing he would ask Avelito to roll an even stronger blend for me.

Paolo appeared with a handful of boxes of assorted Havana mini’s.  Enrico opened a box and gave me one to try even though I was still puffing away on the “Avelito special.”  The cigarillo wouldn’t draw.

“See what I mean?”  He exclaimed.  “Look at this sh*t,” he continued as he cut open several minis.  Is this the best that they can do down there?”

We moved into the main living room, where Enrico lit up one of Avelito’s freshly rolled cigars.Rob Shibata and Avelino Lara  Enrico greeted each of his well dressed guests that had come to dine at the Graycliff that evening.  Music from a Cuban salsa band filled the room as the guests relaxed, some enjoying cigars.  The rest of the evening was spent talking about business, cigars, the hotel, the economy and the cigar industry.  We talked into the early hours of the morning as we smoked several more cigars and enjoyed an excellent port.

Though morning came quickly Enrico joined me for a quick cup of coffee before I headed for the airport.  I had come to Nassau to meet the man behind the Graycliff Cigar Co. and hotel.  I received far more than I’d dreamed.  I met an entrepreneur of enormous energy, passion, and generosity who believes that everything is possible.  Enrico and his family prove that point daily.  I left feeling more a part of the Graycliff family than a visitor.  Thank you, Enrico, Anne Marie and Paolo.  I learned a lot more than how to make a good cigar.




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