riving at dusk from Managua, Nicaragua to the northern cigar-producing town of Estelí is nothing to be taken lightly. The Pan American Highway, which connects the two cities as it snakes along the western edge of Central America, is a pock-marked road with no lighting and plenty of hazards. Cars and trucks leap-frog past one another in a kamikaze-tinged competition, as those on a mission dart past those who seem to be in no particular hurry. Avoiding roadside peddlers, stray livestock, and oncoming traffic - which is just as likely to be in the right lane as the left - present a constant challenge. Finally, the terrain itself has to be overcome, since Estelí rests on a plateau surrounded by volcanic mountains and river valleys. Some would call the experience harrowing; others might call it exhilarating. Certainly no one in his right mind would say it was boring.
The same can be said about the Nicaraguan cigar industry. Having emerged from the post-boom shakeout with several solid manufacturers - traditional family-held operations and a number of newborn boutique brands that have quickly proven their mettle - the cigar business in Nicaragua is well-positioned to continue its tradition of producing high quality cigars.
Seasoned veterans like Cubanica Cigars, S.A. (Padrón), Tobacos de Oriente de Nicaragua, S.A. (Plasencia), Nicaraguan American Tobacco, S.A. (Natsa), and Nica Habanos (Carlos Toraño) duly weathered the turbulence over the last decade. Others, such as Tabacalera Perdomo (Nick’s) and Estelí Cigar (Cupido) tenaciously battled the turmoil of the volatile boom-time market while trying to launch their businesses and get their factories up and running.
While the boom was good for most, meaning, of course, high demand and increased revenue, it also meant a shortage of quality tobacco and cigars, and in some cases, even a shortage of experienced rollers. Now, with the hard times seemingly behind them and recovery nearly complete, manufacturers are once again fully focused on the future and developing unique, top-notch Nicaraguan cigars
Don Orlando Padrón, a husky man with a voice that commands attention, is very discerning when it comes to his cigars. With little interest in developing new labels just to gain a small percentage share of the marketplace or boost profits, Padron is content in keeping a very watchful eye on his factory, continuing to put in 10+ hour days supervising rollers, sorters, and managing the company’s farms.
Along with his sons Jorge and Orlando Jr., Don Orlando is overseeing an operation that has slowly but very consistently grown into one of the industry’s top cigar companies.
“We’ll end up producing more than four million cigar this year,” says Jorge, who splits time between Miami and Estelí. “About half a million will be for the 1964 Anniversary Series,” he says. The rest will support the company’s lone brand - Padrón.
Our visit to the factory revealed full-steam-ahead production, with nearly 400 workers producing Don Orlando’s prized cigars. Although the Padrón brands currently remain back-ordered, Don Orlando refuses to spike production to meet demand. Tobacco is aged until it meets the senior Padron’s exacting standards, and rollers are limited to making no more than 350 cigars a day.
“If we wanted them to,” says Don Orlando, “we could have them rolling 500 cigars a day, but then quality suffers.”
The latest Padrón offering, the Torpedo, is in high demand, and the most skilled rollers are busy producing the difficult shape. Jorge says the company is developing a Belicoso-sized cigar, although it may not be ready for the 2000 RTDA trade show.
That doesn’t bother the Padróns, however. Don Orlando’s patient cigar philosophy and his sense of timing have firmly positioned the company where it is today - at the top of the industry.
Carlos Toraño’s Nicaraguan factory is only one of his concerns. He also has operations in the Dominican Republic (producing the new Carlos Toraño Signature Collection) and in Honduras (source of the very handsome Carlos Toraño Reserva Selecta). The Nica Habanos factory is home to Toraño’s Nicaraguan Selection, a line the company has developed as a classic medium- to full-bodied Nicaraguan smoke.
The factory, a medium sized-facility with 60 to 80 full-time rollers and bunchers, was running at nearly full capacity when we visited. Although small compared to some other Nicaraguan producers, looks can be deceiving: Nica Habanos’ employees can turn out anywhere between 10 and 15 thousand cigars every week. The factory manager, Fidel Olivas, is one of Esteli’s old guard tobacco men.
“It’s funny,” says Charlie Toraño, son of Carlos and vice president of Toraño Cigars. “Now that the boom is over, Estelí has basically the same group of guys making cigars that were there before it all began.”
Aside from making Toraño Cigars, the company produces several well-known private label and boutique brands. Cano A. Ozgener first approached Carlos Toraño about producing his C.A.O. Gold line in the mid 1990s. The facility also makes the Casa de Nicaragua brand for Europe’s Villiger.
“We’re very proud to make the C.A.O. Gold line,” says Charlie Toraño. “The reputation of that cigar has grown steadily over that past couple of years, and we’re very happy to be involved with C.A.O.”
Current production estimates for the company’s own Nicaraguan Selection see the factory rolling around 300,000 cigars this year. While the company will be emphasizing its Carlos Toraño Signature Collection - a Dominican cigar with a chocolatey Brazilian wrapper - and the Reserva Selecta at this year’s RTDA show - they will continue showcasing the Nicaraguan line as one of the top cigars made in Nicaragua.
Nicaragua American Tobacco, S.A.
Natsa has recently struggled to cope from the loss of Don Juan Bermejo, Sr., the company’s president and cigar patriarch, who passed away in early June after battling a lengthy illness.
The seventy-year-old Don Juan (as he was known) was a true cigar industry pioneer. Born in the heart Cuba’s Pinar del Río tobacco region, he opened his first cigar factory in Cuba at age 18. After Castro’s revolution, Don Juan fled Cuba, taking his passion and knowledge of cigars wherever he went. He eventually worked in some capacity of the cigar business in every producing country in Central America. His innovations were many, including planting the first ever Cuban-seed tobacco outside of Cuba (Bermejo had smuggled eight ounces of Cuban tobacco seed out of Cuba in 1961). He will be greatly missed, not just by friends and family, but by numerous members of the cigar industry who knew Don Juan as a mentor and trusted advisor.
Nevertheless, in the tradition of the multi-generational cigar industry, the torch at Natsa, which Don Juan founded in 1995, has been passed on to Don Juan’s son, Juan “Triki” Bermejo, Jr. Under Triki’s supervision, the factory, which is the primary producer of Nicaraguan cigars for Lew Rothman’s Cigars by Santa Clara, has become the largest producer volume-wise in Nicaragua. Triki has also updated the company’s facilities by bringing in high-tech, temperature-controlled aging units and cryogenic coolers to eliminate tobacco infestation.
Among the many cigars being produced at Natsa are Rosa Cuba, Villar y Villar, José Martí, and La Trinidad. Currently, the facility is running at full-capacity to meet the demands of the largest distributor in the U.S.
But the Bermejos have brought more than just steady work and a large factory to Estelí. A recent study by a Managuan newspaper singled out Natsa as an exemplar of the compassionate employer, as the company provides workers with benefits like medical, dental, and nursery care, that many others don’t.
With a grateful well-trained workforce, a forward-looking company president, and continued demand for its cigars, Natsa shows no signs of slowing down in the future.
Nick’s Cigar Co.
Nick Perdomo, Sr., a tough-looking, wrecking ball of a man, is as proud as can be with the way things are going at the new Tabacalera Perdomo facility - the one that he supervises for his son Nick Perdomo, Jr., president of Nick’s Cigar; the ambitiously large facility that locals call “El Monstro.”
The clatter of worker’s chavetas slicing wrapper leaves on their tobacco blocks blankets the cavernous rolling room with a rhythmic din as Nick Sr. and Nick Jr. - a former air traffic controller with the FAA - show off their new digs. Also onsite, part of the Perdomo “compound,” is a box factory, horse stables, and guest houses behind the massive 80,000 square-foot factory, which sits on nine acres on the outskirts of Estelí. The Perdomos consider the facility a culmination of their efforts to rise to the top of the industry.
The quest began as the dream of the another Perdomo - Silvio, Nick, Jr.’s grandfather. Silvio first joined the cigar industry in the 1930s, working at the H. Upmann factory in Cuba. As the years went on, he gained a reputation for developing innovative shapes and blends. The family’s affiliation with the Cuban cigar industry ended in 1959 when the Castro regime imprisoned Silvio for “anti-communist activities.” Nick, Sr. was himself ambushed and shot by Castro rebels, subsequently escaping to the U.S.
Eventually, Silvio rejoined the Perdomo family in the U.S., and his influence on Nick, Jr. remains to this day. But it was many years before the Perdomos returned to the cigar industry, a quest pursued in ernest by Nick Jr. in the 1990s.
“He has my father, Silvio, in him,” says Nick, Sr., who himself worked as a master roller at Cuba’s Partagas and La Corona factories. “I’ve never seen anyone take to cigars like Nicky.”
“This is the place where we make cigars the only way we know how, the Cuban way,” says Nick, Jr., adding, “…along with a little help from technology.”
Silvio would hardly believe the new Estelí facility, which employs a high-tech cryogenic system which freezes the tobacco at -30°F for 72 hours to eliminate tobacco infestation problems and avoids the industry-standard use of fumigation. Mammoth Spanish cedar-lined aging chambers also benefit from state-of-the-art monitoring technology. In addition, a draw testing station checks each cigar before it leaves the factory to ensure an effortless smoke.
The Perdomos produce seven major cigar brands of their own, including the Perdomo Reserve and Perdomo2, which have received considerable praise over the past few years. Other Nick’s brands include La Tradición Cabinet Series, Las Tradición CS Perdomo Reserve, La Tradición CS Vintage 1993, Dos Rios, Cuban Bullet, and Inmenso. Every brand, every box, every cigar, is inspected to guarantee that nothing that doesn’t meet the Perdomo standards is released from the factory.
The family also makes numerous other brands for private label customers. One close relationship formed last year was with C.A.O., for whom Tabacalera Perdomo brought on board production of the L’Anniversaire Cameroon series, a cigar line that has helped the company rise to the top in a short period of time. Then in May, C.A.O. awarded Tabacalera Perdomo production of the L’Anniversaire 1968-1998 Maduro, benefitted from receiving the same attention Nick gives his own lines.
“This close partnership we’ve established with C.A.O., along with similar manufacturing arrangements with other distinguished names in the cigar industry, carries significant clout in strengthening and expanding our private branding program,” says Al Argenti, vice president of marketing, Tabacalera Perdomo.
The newest cigar from Nick’s Cigar, one that the family has dedicated to the memory of Silvo Perdomo, will debut at the RTDA trade show in San Antonio: the Perdomo Estate Seleccíon. A Nicaraguan puro (handrolled from all Nicaraguan-grown tobaccos), the Estate Seleccíon has truly impressive presentation: cigars are stored in palates within the mahogany box, humidor style. The box features a laser-engraved crest outside, and a humidification device within to ensure that cigars are stored at the proper humidity level.
“My grandfather dreamed of housing cigars like this thirty years ago,” says Nick. “He’s gone, but his ideas will live within me and my father always.”
Nick’s massive new Estelí facility is a far cry from the humble beginnings that Silvo helped Nick’s establish - a tiny, leased factory in Miami’s Little Havana that the company had outgrown by 1996, prompting the original move to Estelí. Tabacalera Perdomo, the third factory in the company’s relatively brief history, humbles many older, well-established manufacturing facilities.
“We’ve invested virtually every cent of our profits into making this factory a reality,” says Nick Jr. “Outside of Cuba, this is where my father, grandfather, and I dreamed of making the best cigars in the world.”
Perhaps the most striking cigar factory in Nicaragua, outside of shear size, is Nestor Plasencia’s “Cathedral of Tobacco.” Built by Dannemann, all aspects of the factory - and the farms providing the tobacco for that matter - are overseen by Plasencia, who has built a cigar empire during the last decade with production facilities in Nicaragua and Honduras, in addition to developing the widely renowned Habana2000 wrapper. Centered around a stunning fountain and garden courtyard, the factory is absolutely spotless. Arched walkways and windows give the structure an airy feel, and the peaceful environment must surely be the envy of workers at other facilities.
Plasencia, a friendly and hospitable but serious man, is one of the foremost tobacco experts in the world. His passion for tobacco, whether it be in farming, curing, rolling, or smoking, is clear to anyone who meets him. But even he is humble about his enterprise.
“Anyone who tells you they know everything there is to know about tobacco is either a liar or a fool,” says Plasencia, with only a hint of humor in his voice. “There are so many variables, so much is left to nature, that we can’t know or control everything. But we must control what we can to the best of our abilities.” Clearly Plasencia understands the tobacco world.
When we visited him, Plasencia’s workers were busy producing Mayorgas - the Mayorga torpedo maduro will knock your socks off - and his own recently re-introduced Plasencia lines. The respect he commands was evident when, as we were checking out some wrapper in a curing barn, he stopped to explain a new plan for organizing and hanging wrapper since an extraordinarily large amount of tobacco was about to be harvested. The field workers wandering by all stopped and popped their heads into the barn to listen to Nestor’s plan the same way NBA players huddle around their coaches during a timeout.
Plasencia’s Estelí factory is running full blast, with high demand for his brands and those of Cigars by Santa Clara, for whom he also produces cigars. It’s clear that with the industry-wide popularity of his Habana2000 leaf, Nestor Plasencia is in a good position for the post-boom ride.
Henry “Don Kiki” Berger is among the most hospitable men in Estelí. As a host, Don Kiki, a native Cuban raised in Miami who had a former life in politics before joining the Nicaraguan cigar industry, loves to entertain, whether that means dancing at the local discos or inviting all the local tobaqueros over for a Cuban-style pig roast. It’s this genuine personal charm and his eagerness to succeed, that put Don Kiki in a position to glean invaluable lessons from the men he calls his teachers - Orlando Padron, Juan Bermejo, Sr., and Nestor Plasencia.
|Yossi Kviatkovski and Dixi Monaco, founders of Cupido Cigars, examining Connecticut shade wrapper leaf at MangoS.A. farms, a high-tech mango and plantain farm that is producing wrapper leaf at an immaculate facility outside Estelí.
Originally, he set up shop as Grafatam, S.A., where he was busy producing up to 15 private labels during the heart of the cigar boom. That changed, however, after a chance meeting with Yossi Kviatkovski and Dixi Monaco, founders of Cupido Cigars.
“Ironically,” says Don Kiki, “I met Yossi and Dixi in a Cuban restaurant that now houses our wrapper.”
“We had a stockpile of quality tobacco,” says Yossi, who, along with Dixi, happens to be visiting Kiki when we stop by. “We were looking for someone to produce our cigars, and, after a short conversation, we knew Kiki was our man.”
The result has been the growth of a top-notch boutique brand of cigars that has won high praise in tastings and reviews across the country. Cupido has four sizes, The Churchill, robusto, torpito, and toro negro, all backed by a high-profile marketing campaign and strong retailer support.
It hasn’t hurt that Don Kiki has been producing top, premium grade cigars. [Try this little trick Yossi showed me: Light a Cupido Churchill, and smoke a little over an inch down without removing the ash. Then, with moist fingertips, carefully remove the column of ash. Hang on to it. Take another draw, and then carefully replace the ash back on the end. After a few seconds, the ash will cling to the lit end of the cigar as though it had never been removed! Try that on most cigars, and you’ll have hand covered in soot.] The cigars promise a nice medium body and full flavor, with excellent construction.
Don Kiki recently moved his factory to a newly constructed facility with his apartment on the second floor. He has around fifty rollers producing his cigars, which now include the Don Kiki line, a value-priced line of bundled and boxed quality cigars that will retail for a dollar each. Another important note is the company’s newly signed limited partnership with MangoS.A. farms, a high-tech mango and plantain farm that is producing wrapper leaf at an immaculate facility outside Estelí. The farm raises Connecticut-shade broadleaf in an pest-resistant, weed-proof atmosphere that has to be seen to be believed. Anyone entering the shaded fields, must go through a corridor of netting and dip their feet in a pesticide tub. The dark, rich soil between rows is free of weeds, the leaves are absolutely enormous, and now, the secret is out.
Estelí Cigar, along with Cupido Cigars, is eagerly awaiting the release of the cigars featuring these pristine wrappers later this year. So should you.
So, with just these few companies remaining after the shakeout of the last few years, and top rolling talent having consolidated among them, expect Nicaraguan cigars to remain consistently high in quality. Technology, in farming and in manufacturing, is all the rage, and the benefits should be hitting the market by year’s end. Considering these developments and winnowing out of the “Don Nobodies,” the industry is in a great position, despite the what the naysayers preach, to make steady going in the upcoming years.
SMOKESHOP - August 2000