igar manufacturers outside of Cuba have tried for more than four decades to reproduce the heady, distinct flavor of the Cuban cigar. Their efforts, even by tobacco-growing families who fled Cuba in the late 1950s and early 1960s with a stock of seed to set up farms in other countries, have met with varying degrees of success.
While many premium cigars with tobacco grown in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, and elsewhere provide excellent, nuanced flavor, none has yet matched the taste unique to Cuban cigars.
Not that cigar makers don't keep trying.
The most recent attempts to replicate the Cuban flavor involves the legendary Cuban Corojo wrapper, varieties of which have found their way in recent years to tobacco farms in Nicaragua, Honduras, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic. Varying challenges exist, however, about the authenticity of the Corojo tobacco being grown outside Cuba.
Among the ironies is that as Corojo wrapper has become more popular outside Cuba, Cuba has stopped growing the leaf because of its susceptibility to disease. In Cuba, Corojo has been replaced with Habana 2000, Criollo Especial, and other varieties of wrapper. Nonetheless, it's popularity among growers outside of Cuba continues to flourish.
"Realistically, it adds a flavor element to non-Cuban cigars that gives it a certain taste texture that resembles Cuban cigars," says Steve Barbella, president of Gran Reserve Cigars Inc., Syosset, N.Y., manufacturer of Breton Corojo Vintage and Corojo 2000 brands.
"It's definitely not a cigar for everyone," says Selim Hanono, national sales manager for Caribe Imported Cigars Inc., Miami, manufacturer of the Camacho Corojo brand. "It's only going to appeal to the full-bodied cigar smoker, or the smoker who likes the taste of a Cuban cigar."
The Corojo plant is named for El Corojo Vega - the Cuban plantation where it was developed in the 1930s to produce just one type of leaf, the wrapper for Cuban-made cigars.
Corojo appears to have emerged outside Cuba in the late 1990s with some degree of mystery. For several years, manufacturers had whispered about growers who were experimenting with second-generation Cuban seed in Mexico and Central America. Some tales had the tobacco being grown for cigars to be manufactured in Cuban factories - a circumstance to which, for reasons of national pride, Fidel Castro's government would never admit. Cuban tobacco officials continue to insist that Cuban cigars are made with tobacco grown only in Cuba. Published reports suggest Cuba stopped growing the Corojo leaf in 1997 because of its susceptibility blue mold and black shank disease.
Others talked about Corojo seeds being purloined from Cuba in envelopes stuck in a visitor's back pockets or vials of seeds being handed to them furtively on the airport tarmac in Havana.
Regardless how the seed migrated from Cuba, Corojo is now grown in Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic, and is used by a handful of companies, primarily to augment other brands in their line-up.
Characteristically, the Corojo leaf is delicate and difficult to work with, both in the fields and on the rolling tables. Typically only the top set of leaves on the Corojo plant has the quality to become a wrapper.
Growers outside Cuba also are experiencing some of the same difficulties with Corojo that Cuban farmers had. "It is a very expensive leaf to grow," says Barbella, whose company grows Corojo on a farm in the Dominican Republic for its Corojo 2000 and Breton Corojo Vintage brands. The later is named for Pedro Breton, who developed the Corojo leaf grown in the Dominican Republic and who currently is the country's minister of tobacco. "It doesn't get much density and it is a very, very perishable leaf that requires a lot of attention," Barbella says.
Doug Wood, president of Burlwood Group Inc., manufacturer of La Pearla Habana cigars, says he abandoned using Corojo as wrapper in La Pearla Habana's Black Pearl, but continues to use the leaf as filler. "It didn't work for us, because we couldn't keep up with the supply," Wood says. "We switched to Connecticut broadleaf. That worked much better for us."
La Perla began adding Corojo as filler to the Black Pearl ($8.80 retail) last year, and plans to introduce two new sizes at the RTDA show in Tampa. "I always look for flavor in a cigar," Wood says. "Corojo appeals to me as a filler because of its flavor and its strength."
Caribe Imported Cigars president Christian Eiroa questions whether tobacco other than that developed by agriculturist Diego Rodriguez on the Corojo plantation in Cuba can be called Corojo. "Mostly what people call Corojo was developed at the experimental station in Cuba," Eiroa says. "They call it Corojo 98. It is revamped Habana 2000 and we suspect it is a blend of Habanos and Connecticut wrapper."
By nature, the yield on an acre of Corojo tobacco is less than a quarter that of Connecticut shade tobacco, which is one of the reasons that it is grown in limited quantities. "The problem with authentic Corojo is that it is not commercially viable," Eiroa says.
Eiroa, who unsuccessfully attempted to register Corojo as a trademark after debuting the Camacho Corojo ($3.95 to $5.95, retail), grows a plot of second-generation Cuban Corojo seeds on a 1,000-acre farm in Danlí, Honduras with his father Julio. Eiroa says that the Corojo used in Caribe cigars was acquired from Rodriguez' family and that the company needed four years after acquiring Cuban Corojo seed before a crop came in that was of sufficient quality to produce a cigar line. Caribe uses Corojo not suited to be wrapper as filler in the seven sizes of its Camacho Habano line ($2.85 to $4.70, retail).
Michael Chiusano, president of DomRey Cigar Ltd., Sarasota, Fla., manufacturer of four sizes ($2.99 to $3.89, retail) in the Cusano Corojo brand, disagrees with Eiroa that only the strain of Corojo originating at El Corojo Vega should bear the name Corojo.
"To split hairs and say our Corojo is not the original, non-resistant strain, I will grant him that," says Chiusano. "The way I would officially reference what we are talking about is that our Corojo, grown in Ecuador, is genetically altered to make it disease resistant." Chiusano added that Cuban agriculturists attempted unsuccessfully for years to crossbreed Corojo plants with other tobacco to provide resistance to blue mold and black shank. "You can make an orange pest-resistant without turning it into something other than an orange," Chiusano says. "Cubans have crossed Corojo with a number of other seeds."
Although General Cigar Co. subsidiary Villain & Co. manufacturers the Punch Rare Corojo, the company doesn't claim to be using a Corojo leaf as wrapper. "A real Corojo would have been seed grown on the plantation in Cuba," says Sherwin Seltzer, vice president of special sales and trade development for General Cigar. "So, of course, it's not."
Seltzer, however, describes the Punch Rare Corojo wrapper as a "special" Ecuadorian-grown Sumatra leaf - leaving the impression that the Punch Rare Corojo wrapper has Corojo origins.
General's advertising literature goes a bit further as it talks about its subsidiary, Villain, years ago offering a limited-production Corojo cigar. The literature promotes the Punch Rare Corojo as being "...more robust and flavor-rich than the original."
Seltzer says the company was aiming to market the dark red color of the Sumatra wrapper - a primary characteristic it shares with Corojo. "It was the color we were after," he says. "Many, many years ago, Villain made this color wrapper and then it stopped selling. We developed some recently in an attempt to revive this particular color.
"We made 600,000 and we sold them all out. We have more of the tobacco, but we aren't going to bring it back until next year."
Tony Borhani, president of Tony Borhani Cigars Inc., manufacturer of Bahia Cigars, says the company last year replaced the Ecuadorian-grown Sumatra wrapper in the five cigars ($6 to $8, retail) that comprise its Trinidad brand with a Corojo hybrid.
"It is not all Corojo," says Borhani, who this summer moved the manufacturing of Trinidad and the company's other brands from Costa Rica to Nicaragua. "It is somewhat immune to most diseases, but it retained the spices and the flavor. We can use 90 percent of the crop, which is amazing considering the problems the Cubans had growing Corojo."
"It definitely is not a light cigar," Borhani says. "But it smokes very mild, which means it has no harshness.
"We grew the first 20 acres in Ecuador. Although the first year was decent; the second year was exceptional."
Cuba-native Mark Ginzo, chairman of Brown Lean Inc., Gunthersville, Ala., says the company grows original Corojo leaf obtained in Cuba on its own 550-acre plantation near Navarrete, in the Dominican Republic for the six cigars in its Yumuri Colorado brand ($3.75 to $7.50, retail), which came to the market in January. "We got the seed from Cuba about five years ago," Ginzo says. "The tobacco was ready to be used about a year ago. Curing alone takes two or two-and-a-half years.
"We are one of the companies that uses true Cuban seed. We will change our seed every two or three years so that there is no cross pollination. We use all of our Corojo in our own cigars."
Jeff Lipton, president of Bobalu Cigar Co. Inc., Austin, Texas, compares the shade-grown Corojo grown for his company in Nicaragua to the Connecticut shade wrapper. "But it's got a lot more spicy taste to it," Lipton says. "We like working with it, although some of the other wrappers might be easier. We found that it burns very well."
Corojo wrapper is found in the Bobalu Orange Label in five sizes ($4.50 to $7.95, retail) that make up part of ten different Bobalu blends, each distinguished by the color of its label.
The cigars are manufactured both in the Dominican Republic and by a small cadre of rollers Bobalu employs in Austin.
Lipton isn't convinced that smokers will be drawn to a brand because of the origins of its wrapper. "Most people don't know what Corojo is," Lipton says. "What they know is that they are smoking a cigar that gives them a strong flavor and a better idea how a Cuban cigar tastes."
Lipton says that Bobalu, which manufactured about 300,000 cigars a year, intends to make 50,000 cigars with Corojo wrappers this year.
As close as cigar makers outside Cuba may be to duplicating the Cuban cigar, "It's hard to replicate the blend," Lipton says, adding: "It's never been done yet."
SMOKESHOP - August/September, 2001