The Women of Carrillo Cigars: A Women’s History Month Tribute
By: Armando Yanez
As Women’s History Month has now come to an end, we wanted to make one final tribute to the women of Carrillo Cigars.
Everyone has heard the expression “Behind every great man is a great woman.” But in Ernesto Perez-Carrillo’s case, he has been blessed with no less than three great women — women who have shaped the contours of his dreams, women who have supported him through highs and lows, and women who have granted him the freedom to devote his life to the profession that has brought him international renown. For without these three great women — his mother Felicia, his wife Elena, and his daughter Lissette — the Hall of Fame Master Blender who has gained legions of fans with his top-rated cigars might not have fully realized his dreams. These are also the women who inspired La Historia: Elena, the namesake of a cigar; Felicia, depicted on the bands of the Perez-Carrillo series; and Lissette, sitting opposite of her grandmother on a band she designed. As such, it is only fitting that we celebrate their contributions to Ernesto’s dreams as Women’s History Month comes to a close.
By Ernesto’s own admission, his career as a jazz drum player was unlikely. It is not that he was not a good musician, but rather that others simply were in a better position to succeed. As is the case with families who are uprooted from their homeland, money in the Perez-Carrillo home was tight. While his father had set up El Credito Cigars in Little Havana, the business was not what it is today. Felicia often had to pay the cigar workers from her earnings as a seamstress. It was she who also supported her son’s dream of playing drums, purchasing a set when the budget permitted and encouraging him through gigs and when he moved to New York to try his luck with the big names in Latin jazz. But Ernesto quickly understood that with a wife and child to feed, he could not devote his time exclusively to music as other talents could. Fortunately, Felicia’s sacrifices in shouldering the cigar business indirectly gave Ernesto the most important gift of his budding career — a workshop where he could experiment, one where he would go on to master his craft.
Much like Felicia who encouraged Ernesto to try his luck with music, Elena understood that for Ernesto to satiate his Wanderlust he would need to give his dreams a chance. Never one to stand in the way of her husband’s vision, Elena is most comfortable standing in the background and simply observing. Elena knew from the very beginning that the odds Ernesto would succeed were not in his favor. For one, he had to work to support himself in Manhattan and his growing family back in Miami. But there is value in the struggle, and she knew that for Ernesto to get serious about cigars he would have to get music out of his system.
And this is the approach she continues to take to this day: giving her opinion when asked and offering her no nonsense feedback when she senses Ernesto is off track. In doing so, she provides her husband the necessary space to experiment and innovate, to fail and succeed and fail again until he gets the blend just right. Ernesto is the first to admit that the input Elena gives is not the one that he necessarily likes to hear. But you cannot argue with what is right and his wife is preternaturally gifted in such matters. It is a system that has defined their now fifty years of marriage. Fifty years together, years that span Ernesto’s beginnings with his father at El Credito Cigars to his induction into the Cigar Hall of a Fame and, most recently, the highest rated Cigar of the Year in Cigar Aficionado history, the Pledge Prequel.
If Elena takes a wait and see approach to her husband’s work, Lissette’s is the polar opposite. Her domain runs the gamut — from operations to legal, marketing to Human Resources and more. With her legal training from Columbia and her work ethic forged at one of the most respected law firms in the world, Lissette was made for this moment. As a young girl, she observed Ernesto’s handling of his cigars with her mother’s critical gaze. It is this fascination and respect for the cigar, along with her tireless work ethic, that has propelled her into one of the most visible and powerful women in the industry. Ernesto knows his company is in capable hands. He is also cognizant of the fact that his daughter’s involvement in the company frees him to do what he does best: blend the finest tobaccos he can source to produce the best cigars the market has to offer. It is what keeps him happy. Doing a job he loves together with his family, a job that brings him incalculable happiness because they are doing it together.