The Dominican Republic is an island known for its storied history for tobacco growers, rollers and blenders. Tamboril, Santiago on the Dominican Republic is often referred to as the ‘epicenter’ of cigar manufacturing, housing more cigar factories and rollers than anywhere else on the planet. Arturo Fuente Cigar Company is among the many cigar companies that call the Dominican Republic home.
Entombed deep below industry giants emerged a young man by the name of Franklin Pichardo. Unaware of his hidden talent, Pichardo was a 16-year-old boy relegated to washing cars in Santiago. He didn’t know the first thing about tobacco – until a dear friend changed his life forever. “A very good friend of mine, Andres Belliard, said to me one day, ‘Hey young man, do you want to start rolling cigars?’” Pichardo said. “I told him, ‘Sure. Nothing is impossible. Let’s try.’ So I did.”
That was 1995. Today Pichardo celebrates 21 years in the cigar industry, including the first 15 with Arturo Fuente as an Opus X roller (Tabaquero).
The Arturo Fuente Opus X cigar is one of the most highly regarded cigars in the world. It is the benchmark for which many cigar companies use to measure excellence, and Pichardo was one of the chosen few who had the opportunity to roll the majesty of the industry.
“I am a lucky guy because not many people can make the Opus X,” explained Pichardo. “The Fuente family is very careful and selective of whom they choose to roll the Opus X. They hand select a few of the best rollers in the world who they can trust handling the Opus tobacco.”
From neophyte to master, Pichardo, like all Fuente cigar rollers, attended the Fuente school of cigar rolling. He underwent a rigorous hands-on regimen where he learned about tobacco and how to cut, roll and control the leaf. He also saw firsthand, just how meticulous the Fuente family is about quality control, especially with their beloved Opus X.
“The Fuente school is one of the best schools in the world to make cigars,” Pichardo boasted. “They taught me and I didn’t know anything about tobacco.”
To become an Opus X roller, one has to have relaxed hands, very delicate, flexible fingers and a gentle touch. Pichardo’s natural-born talents were quickly discovered early in his training. He was chosen to join the existing 28 privileged tabaqueros as the only persons in the factory allowed to handle the delicate, highly-selective tobacco used exclusively for the Opus X cigars.
“If you work for Fuente you have to be highly qualified and precise. You have to control the leaf very well,” explained Pichardo. “You have to have concentration, love and passion if you want to make Opus X.”
Pichardo made one particular cigar throughout his entire tenure with Arturo Fuente Cigars – the Opus X Perfecxion #2. “From the beginning to my last day there, I can say they gave me the opportunity to learn and only make Opus X Perfexcion #2,” Pichardo pointed out. The Perfecxion #2 is an impeccably crafted cigar that is absolutely stunning. It is a 6 3/8 x 52-ring pyramid vitola. It is a highly sought after cigar that has earned numerous accolades and high ratings since its 1995 debut.
The Opus X cigar is a ‘special cigar that requires special attention.’ The blend is a top secret recipe of more than seven different tobaccos shrouded in an extremely delicate, ultra-rare Dominican wrapper leaf grown exclusively on the Fuente farm. In fact, 75% of all the tobacco grown on the Fuente farm is reserved for the Opus X cigars.
Today, Franklin Pichardo owns and operates his own cigar lounge, Tó Makao Fine Cigars, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. They regularly stock a large selection of Opus X, Anejo and other hard-to-find Fuente cigars. He also hosts events where he rolls one-of-a-kind artisan cigars personalized for each guest in attendance. “It feels like there is a piece of Fuente in my shop,” expressed Pichardo. “I have to thank the Fuente family for the great opportunity that I have with my shop. All that I am right now is because I come from there.”
Photo: Robert Levin. Carlos Fuente Sr., Franklin Pichardo, Carlos Fuente Jr.