Say “cigar” to a North American or a European and the conversation will turn to Cuba, the world’s pre-eminent tobacconist. Sadly, little time is given to the traditions and top-grade products of Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.
And those Central American and Caribbean nations are only the main rivals to Havana’s cigar industry, which ironically fed its own competition as Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution – and wholesale industrial nationalizations – drove prominent tobacco families out of the country.
While many stayed in the region, the industry has thrived elsewhere as well, surprisingly in Puerto Rico, to a lesser degree in Mexico, Costa Rica Ecuador, Brazil and, in Asia, the Philippines.
While broad agreement puts “Cubans” at the apex of the cigar industry, the experts, the entrepreneurs, the consumers and historians agree the Nicaraguans run a close qualitative second, boasting no fewer than 57 brands.
The adjective “qualitative” is paramount. Critics divide on whether Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic – which produces 73 brands – is superior.
“Even though Cuban cigars may be more recognizable, Dominican Republic cigars are of the same superior quality,” says the authoritative CigarCabana.com website.
“Although Dominican cigars are not known to be as strong as Cuban cigars, they tend to be mild to medium with many different full-flavored brands that are tasteful and with many unusually complex blends. They come in a wide variety of mixed aromas, colors and price points, in which many cannot resist a fine Dominican cigar.”
Cigars in the Dominican Republic
Like Nicaragua and Honduras, the “DR” was the beneficiary of many of the cigar-making families that fled Castro’s Cuba in the early ‘60s. Less than 200 miles east of Cuba, the country became one of the main bases for factory owners, attracted by not only the soil and climate, but also by relatively stable politics and economics. The country exports more than 350 million cigars annually.
The primary region for DR tobacco production, in a climate similar to Cuba’s, is the Yaque Valley and Cibao River Valley, 85 miles north of the capital of Santo Domingo,
Known for its binders and fillers, the DR did not grow wrappers due to topography and wind, meaning manufacturers relied on imports from Cameroon, Nicaragua, Brazil, Ecuador and – surprisingly – the U.S. state of Connecticut – where tobacco has been cultivated since at least 1630, today producing, at nine tented farms, large, caramel-colored, smooth-veined leaf prized globally for wrappers.
Finally, in the early 1990s, Carlos Fuente Jr. of Arturo Fuente Cigars, among the DR’s top cigar firms, sought to produce wrapper tobacco, using – as in both Connecticut and Honduras’s Jamastran Valley – giant tents to protect against the wind. In 1992, he created the first DR wrapper and the first pure Dominican puro, Opus X.
According to one review, the cigar features an oily wrapper “seamlessly constructed and very toothy.” To create “an oak-like flavor mixed with subtle spices, each hand of tobacco is aged in charcoaled wooden barrels … creat[ing] a unique flavor never experienced while enjoying any other Dominican blend.”
According to Cigar.com, the Opus X “is almost impossible to find … widely considered the best of the best.
“It is full-bodied and the aromas in each size are distinctly different, but the one characteristic each has in common is near perfect taste and quality.”
So difficult is the Opus X to find that Cigar.com restricts orders to three per customer, referring greater demand to “a cigar specialist to check availability.”
Prices range from U.S.$60 for the “Love Affair” to $23 for “Perfection 5.”
Leading cigar makers
Arturo Fuentes Cigars is among three-dozen top Dominican cigar-makers, which include Swiss cigar-maker – formerly exclusive to Cuba – Zino Davidoff, Dunhill, Hemingway, Juan Clemente, Padron and Partigas.
Yet just last year, Manhattan’s Cigar Aficionado magazine – considered the industry’s leading publication – ranked the Fuente Fuente Opus X PerfectXion X sixth in its annual Top 25 global list.
In first place was Nicaragua’s Oliva Serie V Melanio Figurado, made by Gilberto Oliva’s Oliva Cigar Company.
In second place was another “Dominican,” E.P. Carrillo La Historia E-III, while another Nicaraguan, Illusione Fume d’Amour Clements, placed third.
The top Cuban on the list – the Hoya de Monterrey Epicure Especial – came only fourth in the rankings. The Nicaraguans also placed fifth and seventh, the Dominicans sixth, eighth, ninth and tenth.
The 2014 rankings, selected from 737 cigars, are notable for the sparse-at-best presence of Cubans, reflecting, essentially, even the magazine’s 2013 top-25 list, which, while placing the Cuban Montecristo no. 2, at the top, listed only two other Havana cigars.
By contrast, no fewer than 11 on the roster were Dominican, another 10 were Nicaraguan and one Honduran. The prevailing sentiment at Cigar Aficionado was not so much that the Cuban industry had declined, but rather that the others had significantly improved.
The Hondurans produce 44 brands, grown largely in three areas of the 43,278 square mile country: the Jamastran Valley, in the southeast near the Nicaraguan border, and which produces a particularly high-quality tobacco; the Talanga Valley, centrally located and boasting rugged, mountainous terrain, two hours northwest from the Jamastran Valley, and where tobacco is grown inside enormous tents to protect it from wind damage; and the Copán region, a cradle of Mayan civilization in western Honduras, near the Guatemalan border, and which produces a wild tobacco called “copaneco.”
Recognizing the importance of the crop, the Spanish in 1765 established a tobacco-trading post in Copan, making it the country’s major cigar-producing area.
Rocky Patel; top in Honduras
Among the top Honduran brands is Rocky Patel, named for its Los Angeles entertainment lawyer and founder. Patel, Indian by birth, was initially exposed to cigars by Hollywood clients, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gene Hackman, and in the mid-90s, sold his practice and spent five years in Honduras building the brand.
Rocky Patel Premium Cigars has not traditionally, however, owned any plantations or factories. All materials in his product – filler, wrappers and binders, the three components in any cigar – are purchased elsewhere, and the cigars produced in a warehouse in El Paraíso, rented from Nestor Plasencia, himself a Cuban refugee whose factories in both Honduras and Nicaragua produce more than 30 million cigars every year. Plasencia himself is a leading figure in the Central American cigar industry.
Patel produces 17 Honduran and 20 Nicaraguan brands for general consumption and another 15 as “private label” brands for specific retailers.
His Rocky Patel Royale Toro ranked fifth in Cigar Aficionado’s 2014 list, and highlighted the proprietor’s 2013 expansion into Nicaragua and acquisition of his first factory – in the Esteli region of the country.
Esteli is Nicaragua’s second city, home to most of the country’s cigar production. The black, fertile soil produces a heavy, full-flavored tobacco, dark and rich with full aromas, body, and flavor, the most powerful of all Nicaraguan tobacco.
Major producers in the Esteli area include Cubanica Cigars, owned by José Orlando Padrón and his son Jorge; Tobacos de Oriente de Nicaragua, owned by Mr. Plasencia; Nicaraguan American Tobacco, owned by the eponymous company; and Nica Habanos, owned by the Charles Torano family.
North of Esteli is the Condega Valley, producing the second-strongest tobaccos in the country. The valley yields thin leaves
– because of heavy local cloud cover – used for filler and binder. Other oily and elastic leaves with rich colors are excellent for wrappers.
The Jalapa Valley, northeast of Esteli and Condega, along the Honduran border, produces tobacco often compared with that from Cuba’s Vuelta Abajo, often considered to produce the best cigar tobacco in the world. Jalapa tobacco is sweeter and less strong as that from Esteli, and is used largely for wrappers.
Finally, local growers produce a sweet, spicy tobacco from the volcanic soil of the 106-square-mile Island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. UpperCut Punch cigars from Honduras use the tobacco as filler, with a Nicaraguan binder and an Ecuadoran-grown Sumatra wrapper.
Most Nicaraguan tobaccos originated in seeds transplanted by fleeing Cuban entrepreneurs, much like vintners have transplanted vines in an effort to reproduce the best grapes.
For example, one of Nicaragua’s more recently developed varieties is the Habana 2000 Corojo hybrid, used for wrappers and based on Cuban seeds.
Another major Nicaraguan brand is Joya de Nicaragua, established in Esteli in 1968, and the first national cigar brand to be marketed worldwide.
Beside Joya, the company produces such other brands as Rosalones, The Fifty Club and Count Christopher.
The heart of cigar production
More than two dozen other countries boast some level of cigar production, although apart from the 51 brands made in the United States, no one comes close to Central America and the Caribbean.
Mexico boats 26 brands, Brazil and Holland, 22; Puerto Rico, 12; and the Philippines, 14. More obscurely, Egypt, Greece and Tunisia each have one native cigar brand; Belgium has three; Jamaica, Finland, the Bahamas, Italy and Israel each have two; Hungary has 15 and Turkey four.
Cayman’s own Raglan “Mr. Cigar” Roper, Havana Club owner, tells a story that, while involving only Cuban cigars, speaks so loudly and in such unlikely terms, that it can only – and amply – demonstrate the global popularity of the cigar.
“I used to have two boxes of cigars that belonged to Saddam Hussein,” he said, stopping for effect. He pronounced the cigars, custom designed and made for the Iraqi dictator, as “excellent.”
He declined to detail how he came to own them, although it appeared to involve an auction – and enormous expense – at Christie’s in London.
“The Cubans,” he said, “would sell 500 boxes at a time of special-order cigars, and these were in mint condition.”
“People would pay up to $100,000 for a box of cigars, €250,000,” he said meaning a humidor, which is 3 feet x 4 feet, containing between 300 cigars and 500 cigars, “of all different brands.”
Mr. Roper donated one of his Hussein and smoked the other, to great and lasting satisfaction.