Attorney Tommy Lemann, in his 90s, has been known to credit his longevity to his habit of having a daily cigar. In fact, once when he was seated at a luncheon next to the late Dr. Alton Ochsner (a staunch foe of tobacco), Lemann posed the question: “Winston Churchill was known to smoke 10 cigars a day, and he lived to age 90. What do you think of that?”
Ochsner didn’t hesitate to reply: “If he hadn’t smoked, he’d be alive today.”
In the view of Lemann, and of many others, a life without cigars would be a life without a necessary pleasure.
When Cuban cigars were readily available, Lemann favored Upmann’s. He is a bit more wide-ranging in his brand choices today, and admits that he was favorably impressed with the product of the local New Orleans Cigar Factory, having been presented with a box as a favor at a wedding and later ordering some online.
In the 19th century, the best local cigar brand was La Belle Creole, made by S. Hernsheim Brothers on Magazine Street at Julia Street, where the Deutsch Kerrigan law firm is now. The most famous local cigar worker was Benito Juarez, later President of Mexico, who held that job in the 1850s while in exile.
Perhaps the last of the original cigar makers in New Orleans was the Trellis family. Manuel Trellis’ grandfather came from Spain, and Manuel’s father worked for the company, but Manuel never did. “I don’t even smoke,” he admits.
The family’s cigars were favorably mentioned in the fall 2008 issue of Smoke Magazine (SmokeMag.com) for “what most people in the industry thought was the best cigar made at the time, an El Trellis Triangle – a brand from New Orleans. It was considered an upscale smoke. They also made Keep Moving, which was a big seller down in south Louisiana.”
Manuel Trellis explains that the wrappers were made from Connecticut shade tobacco, and the filler was Havana tobacco. Their factory was first located at 701 South Peters St., but the company moved to Donaldsonville when a plant there closed, leaving many experienced cigar makers looking for work. After cigar making machines were introduced, the company was sold.
Being a cigar maker was considered a good career for New Orleans high school female graduates in 1928, when the city directory listed 18 different cigar factories, half of them located in the business district and the French Quarter, with the rest downtown below Canal Street. “Left handed girls and quick-eyed girls and girls with lusty noses are the girls who can get rich making cigars in New Orleans,” said a story in The Times-Picayune on Aug. 5 of that year. According to the article, those who rolled the cigar in its wrapper had to be left handed.
That is no longer the case, says Amanda Fuoco, office manager of Cigar Factory New Orleans, “most of the time they use both hands.” Visitors to their location at 415 Decatur St. can view an exhibit on cigar history and see cigar makers at work. (There is another location at 905 Decatur St., one at 206 Bourbon St. and one in Destin, Florida.)
Cigar Factory New Orleans has been manufacturing their own cigars since 1999. “We don’t sell anybody’s but our own,” Fuoco says proudly.
“Most of our master cigar makers come from the Dominican Republic – and we have different generations of the same families. One is a lady from Cuba.” According to Fuoco, they each produce about 250 cigars a day. “We get our tobacco from Nicaragua and Brazil, and for wrappers we use Connecticut shade, a wrapper from Cameroon, Africa, and a Brazilian one.”
Just last month, President Obama lifted the remaining restrictions on bringing back cigars from Cuba. When asked how importing Cuban cigars could affect American cigar makers, Fucco says, “It would level the playing field. It will let people compare them to ours!”
As for Fuoco, she grew up in “an Italian family, lots of wine and cigars,” so she does have a personal favorite. “Every morning with my coffee, I like our Robusto Social Club Maduro.” (And, if you were wondering, she has her own humidor to store them and she uses a “classic Guillotine cutter.”)