Drew Estate’s Cigar Safari

I know I haven’t written here in a long time. My life has been a busy place. With business and productivity comes an increased need for downtime. I recently took some in the form of a vacation.

On April 13th, (my wife Kelly’s birthday) I left for Managua, Nicaragua, for a tour of the Drew Estate cigar factory. On leaving Minneapolis, it looked like this:

What I Left

30 degrees, and a few inches of snow. Snow! in April. Minnesota doesn’t seem to believe in spring this year.

On my arrival in Nicaragua, it was more like this:

What I Went To

That’s the courtyard in my hotel in Managua. We’ll get to that in a moment.

I hooked up with champster29 from Reddit in Atlanta. We grabbed lunch in the terminal, then headed to the Delta sky lounge to weather the rest of our long layover. There we were joined by Speedgeek, also of Reddit, passing through on his way to Houston to see the rest of the crew that we’d be meeting for the safari! What a small world. It was great to meet Speed in person and share a drink.

The first overnight in Managua was nice. After being crowded by begging children at the airport, we got on the shuttle to El Camino Real, a hotel down the street, and shared a pleasant night. A late dinner, and a later cigar (we just shared two Baccarat “The Game” I’d brought along while poolside) we were pumped for the goings-on of the next day. We crashed, ready to face the awesomeness of the morrow.

The next morning we were back to the airport to meet up with rest of the safari. Shortly after our arrival, Willy Herrera approached us to ask if we were there for the safari, and we were pulled over to meet the rest of the crew.

It was here we met Pedro Gomez.

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Let me tell you about Pedro. He’s an incredible guy. He grew up in Esteli, when the city was torn by war and violence. Later in life, he got a scholarship, went to Iowa to study, and went back home. He’s intelligent, educated, and exceedingly patient. He can juggle 40 things at once, and somehow make sure everything gets done. he can see to the needs of 18 crazy gringos and jonathan Drew, all at the same time, and do it with a smile. Pedro was the first hint I got of the real ethos of Drew Estate as a business.

Here, I must tell you a tale of woe. I took many pictures that first day, and I have none of them. The flash card they were on died a horrible death later that night, and has proven to be irrecoverable. I’ll use my inferior words to tell you the goings on of that first day.

As a group, we got on the bus, getting to know each other. Cigars were passed out, and much joking and conversation broke out everywhere as we rolled into the heart of Managua. We stopped at El Tiscapa for one of the best lunches I’ve had in my life!

I’ll break here again for a moment to tell you about the food in Nicaragua. The food we had here easily deserves its own blog. At El Tiscapa I had the best steak I’d had in years. We were introduced to everyone’s favorite Nicaraguan appetizer, Queso Frito, a cube of fried cheese served on a fried plantain chip. We feasted on steak and rum drinks, and in the midst of all this Jonathan Drew and Jessi Flores rolled in to join us.

My first meeting with JD was incredible. For a man of his fame, he’s very humble. He took time to talk to every one of us, joked around with us for a bit, and continued conversations as lunch resumed.

I was nearly as excited to meet Jessi Flores, and was right to be. Jessi is probably the reason I got into cigar smoking in the first place. Although the romance of cigar smoking had its appeal, I’d always seen it as too stodgy for someone like me. Through his graffiti art, his dirty rat designs, and his taking Joey Drew’s iconic art and placing it on everything he could get his hands on, Jessi brought cigar smoking into a place I could relate to it. The hobby of cigar smoking has probably brought more friends and connections into my life than any other, and in many ways I have Jessi to thank for that. Jessi’s a thoughtful and quiet guy, but he’ll get talking once you bring something up to him. The rest of the time you can see him gazing at the world around him. I imagine he’s mentally covering everything in sight with tags, reworking the world a into place of vibrant words and images in his mind.

After lunch we jumped back on the bus, heading to Lake Nicaragua for a boat tour. JD was on the bus with us, chatting up a storm. We smoked and talked, and took a zillion photos of the beautiful countryside. As you know, I sadly have none of them.

At Lake Nicaragua, we jumped on some boats and went for a tour. The breeze was refreshing, and the lake is beautiful. It’s one of the few places on earth with freshwater sharks. We saw egrets and cranes, and monkeys everywhere. Fabulous islands are all throughout the lake, with beautiful houses on many of them, a few of which are available for rent. Jessi and I sat in the back of our boat, cigar-free, since we were about 2 feet from a bunch of gasoline containers.

After the boat tour, we went to our hotel in Granada, the Hotel Colonial. The overall atmosphere of Granada is excellent. The colonial architecture is beautiful, and the people are friendly. We spent some time wandering the open air market in the central square, after which we went to dinner.

Dinner was at a restaurant whose name I do not recall, but was delicious. Even better was the conversation! I was seated with Tom Navarro Sr, Willy Herrera, and Gary (JD’s dad). We talked about a multitude of topics, and the conversation made the night.

Next morning was the bus ride to Esteli. Conversation ran rampant. Talk ranged from firearms to scotch (I was passing around my flask of Balvenie 12 Doublewood) to Chocolate Milk (at a refuel stop, JD bought a half gallon of milk with fresh cacao nibs blended into it. It was like chocolate heaven) to every cigar you could imagine. Time flew by.

In Esteli, drove in to the DE Factory compound. On getting off the bus, we were greeted with this:

The Wall

That’s the wall of the factory. You can’t even see it all here, it’s a huge hand-painted mural done by Jessi and his crew. It’s beautiful.

Here we are getting off the bus:

The Crew

And here’s the entrance to Subculture Studios:

Subculture Studios

From there we were introduced to the place we’d be staying for a few days. Here’s the view:

View from Drew Estate

Some of the Reddit crew by the pool:

Some Crew

That’s litui, champster29, and downvote…I mean xXReckonerXx.

The poolside hang. Many a cigar was smoked, a delicious meal was had, and a game of Cards Against Humanity was played.

La Hacienda

Tom Navarro Sr and Anna Taylor on the patio:

Tom and Anna

The Undercrown Imperial IPA shade sign:

La Hacienda Screen

We then ate another phenomenal meal and headed to the Joya de Nicaragua factory, to see a traditional cigar factory in action.

The Joya de Nicaragua Factory

There JD introduced us to Mario from Joya de Nicaragua. Mario is a wealth of knowledge on traditional cigar making.

JD and Mario

Here’s the floor as we walked into the factory:

Joya de Nic Floor

Here Mario dissects a cigar for us, going over the differences between wrapper, binder, and filler:

Cigar Dissection

He then went into the different types of tobacco used for filler. The three types are Seco, Viso, and Ligero. Mario went into what traditionally differs between these tobacco types. We’d find out later this is only partly true.

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A close-up of the three types:

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Mario talked at length about different tobacco regions, growth types, and soil types. His knowledge was excellent, and he was always open to questions.

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Here’s what a new opened bale of tobacco in the factory looks like as it’s readied to be sorted:

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Here’s me on the Joya floor. Special thanks to JD for snapping this shot!

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The tobacco is then sorted in a few different ways. The tobacco sorters check each leaf after it’s been prepped.

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The tobacco then heads to the floor for the buncheros to do their thing. Here are some torpedos being made:

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After being hand rolled, they’re placed in the mold to be pressed and shaped.

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They then go to the rolleros to have the wrapper and cap placed.

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They’re then bundled in half wheels..

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After that, they go through a number of quality control steps. They’re weighed in the half wheels, and if they’re outside spec, each cigar is then weighed individually.

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The half wheels are then moved to a resting room, where John Krump manhandles them, as seen below:

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On the way out of the resting room, we saw this, a box for a cigar for European release.

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After not much persuading, Mario broke the box open and gave us each one! It’s a Flor de Nicaragua Ventus Aurum, the Flower of Nicaragua Gold Wind. I have it resting in my humidor even now.

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The half wheels are then moved to the packaging floor.

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As seen above, they’re sorted by color, banded, boxed, and packed for shipping.

After that, we headed to a Joya de Nicaragua blending session. I was so excited I forgot to take much in the way of pictures. I blended a light cigar for kelly for her Birthday, since she was kind enough to let me go on the trip when leaving on her birthday.

My Joya Blending Sheet.

Giovanni Zelko selects his tobaccos:

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The old Joya sign as we left the factory:

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We then went back to Casa de Drew for dinner. Along the way we stopped at a local leather shop. Many leather goods were purchased!

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Rooms were assigned on our return to Drew Estate, and I was given the Chateau Real room. Each room is themed after a different DE Cigar. The art on the walls in mine was cool.

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Then over dinner JD had a surprise for us! A local mariachi band played for us over dinner, entertaining us with fabulous music! I have recordings, but sadly this blog won’t allow me to upload them. Hopefully someone else can get them up on youtube for sharing.

After dinner, a rum tasting! Ron Flor de Cana is the most famous Nicaraguan rum, and we went through a full flight of rums, from Extra Light, 5 year, 7 year, 12 year, and 18 year. My favorite was the 7 year for it’s full body and more subtle flavors, but we had rather a lot of each of them.

After the rum tasting, we were shown a pre-finish version of Giovanni’s film, The Algerian. If you get a chance to see this film on its release, do so. With a solid script and some good acting, it’s well worth it. Most importantly it brings up some good societal concerns in an entertaining way.

I stayed up entirely too late hanging with Josh Mandle, Derek Stewart, and Matt Zeigler smoking cigars. You guys made my night, many thanks!

After a short sleep, breakfast, and a smoke we headed to the tobacco fields.

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Pedro and JD gave us the lowdown on growing tobacco. JD gave us a lot of good info on what differentiates the different tobacco growing regions, and what makes each have different flavors and aromas.

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As with any plant, the soil is the key. Soil, water, sun, wind.

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Pedro lays the knowledge on us:

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We also met the guy who runs this particular farm:

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Then we were off to the curing barns.

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They have netted windows that can be opened to help regulate humidity. They use a mix of drying fires, opening and closing windows, and wetting the floors.

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Inside the curing barns, the tobacco is prepped, going from green to yellow to brown to red-brown. It’s moved from place to place in the barn to maintain consistent humidity and temperature.

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The tobacco leaves are sewn back to back before being hung, and ribbons are used to differentiate between the different tobacco primings and leaf types.

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After base curing in the barn, the tobacco moves to holding warehouses where it’s aged.

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Fermentation is completed in pilons, where it’s important to hold the tobacco until it is ready.

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JD gave us a ton of great info here. We went into a lot of the business side of cigars over the course of the day. It’s always important to remember that yield and quality are the two main desires of the cigar manufacturer. I won’t go into great detail here, but JD’s passion and knowledge really shined through over this day.

Here’s a completed pilon.

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We got to place our hand inside a pilon, and feel the yeast at work. The temperature inside these can get quite high.

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The temperature and aging time of each pilon is carefully tracked.

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Then we had lunch, and we were off to La Gran Fabrica!

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Inside administration, we met the accounting team. As with any manufacturing facility, there are entirely too many things to count.

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We also got to meet Marvin (we think, no one can come to a consensus on his name. Shame on me.) , who runs the administration offices there. I had dinner with him that evening, and he was very nice to speak with. Everyone I came across in Nicaragua was exceedingly friendly.

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We toured the factory, seeing many of the same steps we’d seen at Joya de Nicaragua. I must say, though, the feeling and atmosphere at the Drew Estate factory is entirely different.

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We started in packaging. Art adorns every wall throughout the factory. Lighting is brighter, and people seem happier.

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It is my absolute belief that this tour showed the true ethos of Drew Estate, which centers on its employees. JD seems to believe that if he surrounds himself with great people, DE will be a great company. I’ve always believed this is the best way to achieve greatness as a business, and I’m glad to see it in my favorite cigar company. It shows through in every DE employee I’ve spoken with, and in how they speak of the company. It shows through in JD’s belief that middle management and efficiency will bring profit to the company.

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After that we headed to one of the resting rooms. We began in a rest room for Tabak Especial, Java, and Isla del Sol, all coffee infused cigars. It was an orgasm for the nose. The scent was incredible!

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Even in each resting room, art adorns the walls.

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The artwork continues in the factory.

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JD is big on putting people to work in places where they can do what they do best. In many cases those traditionally considered handicapped are great at certain things. The blind may work in quality control, hand weighing each cigar without a scale. If you have a good attitude and a willingness to work you may have a place at Drew Estate.

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Here’s shipping and receiving. I can’t wait for some DE swag with this MUWAT design on it to be mine.

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Here bands and boxes are stored, waiting to be used.

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The theme of art everywhere is continued.

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As we toured the factory, I felt like although people were working hard, they seemed happy. Having worked in a few factories over the years, I know that’s a hard thing to bring to a factory floor. It’s impressive.

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JD, Willy Herrera, and JD’s dad, Gary. Litui’s on the right, but we all know he doesn’t count. 😉

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After touring more of the factory, we headed to the new construction across the street. Hard hats required.

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As (seemingly) seen in this photo, JD is so grand, the hard hat is not allowed to touch his head. Pedro carries it just above his crown, in case.

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First built was the new cafeteria. JD takes care of his employees, again showing how he believes great people build a great company.

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Also under construction is a new aging/sorting facility. When completed in a few months, this will allow DE to no longer have to rent space for long term aging storage for their pilons.

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Then it was back to the factory!

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We toured through the rolling floors, seeing Ligas of all kinda being made, along with all the other DE brands and blends. It was a fabulous experience.

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Drew Estate’s use of technology is pretty impressive. Bar code scanning is used for each step of manufacturing, so if quality issues arise during any step of production they can be backtracked and resolved.

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Angry young men are wield barcode scanners everywhere.

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Not really. He gave me a grin and a big thumbs up after I thanked him for letting me take his picture.

We then headed to the tobacco staging area. It seems a huge facility for storing bales of tobacco from around the world, but in reality it holds 6 to 8 weeks of tobacco for the facility. They churn through it damned quick, and they still can’t meet demand.

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Matt Zeigler lets his freak flag fly in front of one of the giant cooling fans.

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Tobacco everywhere! The entire experience was incredible. The smells, the sounds, the heat. If you get the chance, you need to do a cigar safari.

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Here JD shows us how the tobacco is prepped for use by being dipped in water, shook, and stacked, so it reabsorbs humidity and becomes pliable. This is necessary for it to be worked at all stages in the factory.

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Here, behind JD, we see the new way of prepping the tobacco. It’s hung from these racks, and moved around a room with a Texas Cooler in it, which gently humidifies the leaves. This results in 3-4% less loss of tobacco due to damage.

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We then moved to Drew Estate quality control. DE QC is pretty strict, with the sticks undergoing quality checks all along the way.

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JD showed us some of the common things that can occur that cause quality problems, how they check for them, and what they do in each case.

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The chart behind him shows some of the quality vs production goals of the company.

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We then went to the blending room for the Drew Estate blending session. before that took place, though, JD pulled out another surprise!

The inestimable John Krump had supplied JD with a gift of an old German cigar mold earlier in the week. Before hanging it on the wall in the factory, JD used it to make a special limited edition cigar.

Behold, the Liga K-9 Krump!

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13.5″ long, with a tweaked version of the Liga #9 filler and the wrapper of a Herrera Esteli. Only 20 were made.

We then got into our blending. I’d like to especially thank Willy Herrera for some insight into the blending process. Again, not many pictures were taken, I was just too busy.

We did have a good time rolling up leaves of specific types and giving them a quick smoke, though.

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I went with the blend below:

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Mine was similar to but different from Matt Zeigler’s. I have to say, having tasted his, if mine is even half as delicious I’ll consider it a win. Check out the KFC in my blend. Craziness!

We then went back to Casa de Drew for dinner. I decided to wind down with a smoke.

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We then finished out the night with drinks, smokes, and conversation. It was one hell of a party! A great game of Cards Against Humanity showed that despite his ruggedly handsome exterior, john Brooke of Drew Estate is corrupt like a Chicago politician on the inside.

Special thanks to Marielos, John Krump, Aaron Taylor, Matt Zeigler, Giovanni Zelkos, John Reiner, Greg Shahbazian of Hollywood Smoke and Tom Navarro Sr for the conversations and music of that evening! You made the night great.

The next morning, the last of the Safari, we toured Subculture Studios with the rockstar Jessi Flores. I’ll let his art speak for itself.

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Remember folks, it’s all about the technics. Art can be anywhere. If you don’t think it can be where you’re looking, Jessi can show you otherwise.

Me and the man hisself.

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I even got to see inside his office! Caution, many of the images below are NSFW.

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Here are the other beer themed doors from inside subculture studios.These beers don’t exist. The original designs are Joey Drew’s (originating from a conversation about what each of the Liga sticks would be if they were beers), but as a homebrewer I will be making these and getting some to the DE crew. They deserve a good beer (or six).

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The car outside on our exit:

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Hanging with MJZ before we all had to split:

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Leaving the DE compound:

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What I returned with:

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Even more importantly, of course, I have memories and thoughts. I have friends and stories. `The cigar safari was an incredible experience. It showed what kind of man Jonathan Drew and his friends and employees are, and the type of company they’ve built. They have passion, integrity, style, and joy. They instill those feelings in their customers as they bring them together through the shared love of cigars.

Truly, they are cigars reborn.

I’d like to throw out a special thanks to every person on the safari! Jonathan Drew, Johnny Brooke, Pedro Gomez, Marielos, Jessi Flores, Willy Herrera, Gary Drew, Tom Navarro, Gloria Navarro, Thomas Adams, Matthew Zeigler, Derek Stewart, Josh Mandle, John Krump, Aaron Taylor, Anna Taylor, Andrew Pete, Tom Clune, Derek Matthews, Aron/litui(Did I ever hear your last name? Sneaky bastid), Giovanni Zelko, and Greg Shahbazian, you made this trip an incredible and delightful experience. I cannot thank you enough. (Did I miss someone? I missed someone.)

My flight home involved hours of delays and rebookings. I got in at 2am, and the next morning it looked like this:

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I still had a smile on my face. It was that damned good.

For any who want to see even more photos, full photobooks are being placed up at my IMGUR page by many. Stop on over and take a look!

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~ by Benjamin Kenneally on April 20, 2013.

One Response to “Drew Estate’s Cigar Safari”

  1. Beautiful writing and pictures buddy. Glad you Reddit and C.A.T.S. crew had such a dam good time. Reading this I felt like I was there. I wish I could have been there with yall this year, things I couldnt resolve came about, but so happy to see all of you had a trip of a lifetime!

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