Kelner—Davidoff's Tobacco Guru
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“Piloto tobacco will make a straight line of flavor down your tongue right to the bitter area,” instructs Kelner as he begins tracing a line with his pen. “Olor tobacco will give you a sweet sensation. San Vicente—acid region in the back.”
You have to catch up to Kelner when he speaks. His mind is in five places at once—the tobacco fields, the curing barns, in a tobacco storage facility, a sorting room, a rolling table, seed varieties of tobacco—maybe even more. They’re all inextricably linked and Kelner controls them all for Davidoff of Geneva, Oettinger Imex’s massive, vertically integrated cigar operation in the Dominican Republic. The operation company is officially called TabaDom Holding Inc., and under its auspices, there is such a thing as tobacco predestination. In this context, Kelner is God. Or destiny perhaps. Plant a seed and he’ll tell you exactly what cigar its tobacco will be gracing in years to come.
Since Davidoff of Geneva first shunned Cuba (or was strong-armed out of Cuba, depending on which story you believe), Kelner has been responsible for the brand’s reincarnation as a Dominican cigar and, subsequently, its growth as a global brand. From the agriculture to the fermentation to the blending, Kelner shepherds every step of every Davidoff cigar and has been doing so since 1990.
“It was October 1988 when I met Dr. Ernst Schneider,” Kelner says, referring to the late owner of the Davidoff brand. “He was already considering moving his operation out of Cuba and he told me that he wanted something completely different than what had already been produced.”
Kelner is clear on the fact that he never tried, nor was instructed, to try to replicate the original taste of the Cuban Davidoffs with Dominican tobacco. This was never the goal. “Schneider wanted a light wrapper and mild filler,” he says. “A light cigar.”
At a breakfast meeting the following July, Schneider placed his first order with Kelner for 125,000 Dominican-made Davidoff cigars. The order was fulfilled by Kelner’s company Tabacos Dominicanos (a.k.a. TabaDom) and was intended for the U.S. market. “We didn’t start production until January of 1990. They shipped in March and were formally introduced at the premier party in New York City at the Davidoff shop that November. Zino Davidoff was there. The Baroness Philippine de Rothschild was there. I remember when they announced the price,” Kelner says with a chuckle. “The Aniversario No. 1, which measured 8 and 2/3 inches by 48, cost $18.00. Remember, that’s $18.00 for a cigar in 1990. It was a lot at the time, and some people didn’t think anyone would buy it, but that decision ended up being very good for the industry. It was before the boom, so cigar manufacturers were afraid to raise the price of a cigar even by five cents.”
Today, if one were to walk into the New York City Davidoff shop on Madison Avenue, that same cigar, after all applicable taxes, would cost $53.90.
The Dominican Davidoff line began with a few basic sizes, but the cigar world was different back then, and it wasn’t until 1992 that the company released its first robusto. “We called it the Special ‘R’,” recalls Kelner. “Rene Hollenstein [a former Davidoff executive] wanted a robusto with a darker wrapper and a stronger blend, so, the Special ‘R’ was created. It was the first stronger Davidoff. To this day it’s blended a little stronger than the rest of the line.”
A year later, the company introduced a torpedo, called the Special ‘T’, but there were no cigar molds to shape the smokes in the beginning, making construction more difficult. “For a year and a half, we made that cigar without a mold,” says Kelner. “One exceptional roller named Socrates Santana could make 300 Special ‘T’ cigars a day without any mold at all.”
There were, of course, logistical problems with the early runs. The cigars were made in the Dominican Republic, but packed in Switzerland before distribution. Kelner was working off dictated size parameters, but never physically saw the boxes, so slight variations in the length or thickness of a cigar meant that entire batches of cigars wouldn’t fit in the boxes and were immediately sent back to the factory.
“All the rejects became our Private Stock brand,” says Kelner. “That was the solution before we finally got the calculations correct.”
By 1991, Kelner was producing 3 million Davidoff cigars per year—impressive growth and confirmation that Schneider had not made a mistake by turning over his Davidoff brand to Kelner. But why the vote of confidence? Part of the reason could be that, professionally, tobacco is all Kelner has ever known. After graduating with a degree in industrial engineering from Mexico’s Monterrey Institute of Technology, he couldn’t find a job in his field, so he started working at a Dominican cigarette company called Tabacalera S.A.
“My father didn’t want me to be in tobacco,” recalls Kelner. “ My other family members were already in the tobacco business and he didn’t want me to suffer the grief that comes with competition between family members.”
Kelner’s father Klaas Pieter was a Dutchman and leaf broker working in the Dominican Republic for a tobacco firm based in Amsterdam. It was in the Dominican Republic where Klass Pieter would meet Kelner’s mother Eulalia; Kelner was born in 1945.
“My father wanted me to go to university, but he died when I was 17 before I finished high school. The president of Tabacalera was a friend of my father’s and after I finished college, he offered me a job. I started with the title ‘engineer’ but very quickly I became the general production manager.”
Tabacalera was primarily a cigarette producer, making brands such as Montecarlo, Casino and Cremas for the Dominican market. Despite the fact that Tabacalera was founded as a private company in 1901, the Dominican Government took control of 72 percent of the business under the Rafael Trujillo dictatorship. By the time Kelner started working at Tabacalera in 1969, it was a free-market operation again.
Kelner eventually became the general manager of the operation and, in 1979, convinced Tabacalera to expand into the handmade cigar business.
“It was easy to convince the board,” says Kelner. “There weren’t a lot of different tobacco types back then. We used Connecticut and Cameroon wrapper, as well as Dominican Olor, Piloto and San Vicente tobacco. Exports were mainly to the U.S and Europe. To the U.S we made two brands: Cacique and Vega Real. For Europe we made a small brand called The Griffin’s.”
Cacique was made for tobacco luminary Pedro Martín of Tropical Tobacco. Griffin’s was made for a Swiss nightclub owner named Bernard Grobet, who eventually introduced Kelner to Dr. Schneider. Kelner says Tabacalera also made a few contract brands for Consolidated Cigar Corp. (which later became part of Altadis).
Tabacalera was a modest cigar operation. With 30 to 35 rollers, the company was making around 2 million handmade, premium cigars per year. This continued until 1984, when Kelner struck out on his own and opened Tabacos Dominicanos, better known as TabaDom. He brought The Griffin’s brand with him and expanded it to six sizes.
“Then Avo came in 1987,” Kelner said, referring to musician and internationally recognized cigar enthusiast Avo Uvezian, who had decided to make a cigar. “He was playing piano in Puerto Rico and during the ’80s, there was a lot of tourism there from the U.S. It was very important. The first year I made them, Avo ordered 17,000 cigars. He’d come to the office and carry the cigars out under his arms.” The Davidoff store on Madison Avenue started carrying the Avo brand in 1988, shortly after it opened.
Kelner made other cigars under contract, including Ashton (which was soon moved to Fuente by brand owner Robert Levin), but Davidoff became a bigger and bigger brand, eventually accounting for nearly all of his production. As demand grew for Davidoff cigars, Oettinger Imex eventually bought TabaDom Holdings from Kelner.
TabaDom stands as the administrative company that gives support to all its branches, although the arrangement of its subsidiaries can be a bit confusing. Procesadora de Tabaco Palmerajo (PTP) is TabaDom’s agricultural arm responsible for growing, harvesting and processing tobacco. OK Cigar produces Davidoff’s smaller brands, like Avo, The Griffin’s, Zino and Private Stock, while Occidental Cigars is responsible for manufacturing the Cusano line as well as bundle brands and private labels. CiDav (Cigars Davidoff) is the marquee operation dedicated exclusively to Davidoff White Label and all Davidoff-branded cigars. Kelner has a hand in operating all aspects of these operations, but they are owned by Oettinger Imex, parent company to Davidoff of Geneva.
“A few years after I made the contract with Davidoff, the company needed extra financial capacity,” explains Kelner. “Oettinger Imex became our partner with a 30 percent share. This was before the boom. After the boom, Davidoff became our biggest customer, accounting for more than 90 percent of our production and cigar sales from TabaDom totally depended on them, so it made no sense to keep a partnership any longer. In 2001, Oettinger became the total owner.”
Kelner says that TabaDom produces 23 million cigars per year, and a little less than 8.5 million sticks are Davidoff-branded cigars. The company has considerable vertical integration. About 94 percent of the filler tobacco used by the company is grown and supplied by TabaDom in the Dominican Republic. About half of the binder leaves are grown domestically by TabaDom companies, the other half imported. Most of the wrapper, however is almost exclusively contracted. Only 7 percent is produced through TabaDom, the rest is acquired from other vendors.
The bulk of the flagship Davidoff White Label consists of Ecuadoran Connecticut-seed wrapper procured from the Perez family, blended with Dominican binder and Dominican filler tobacco. This blend is the signature flavor for Davidoff cigars, found on the Davidoff 2000, a 5 inch by 43 ring corona, that remains the best-selling Davidoff cigar. While the United States is Davidoff’s largest market, the White Label cigars are sold internationally, competing directly with Cuban cigars all over the world.
More experimental blends, however have allowed Davidoff to take an edgier approach to the market. Hybrid wrappers and market demand for stronger blends have almost forced Kelner’s creativity. Limited editions like the Toro Especial Selección 702 and Avo Heritage cigars both use proprietary wrappers that take considerable time and know-how to create.
“I started making hybrid tobaccos since 1985,” Kelner says. “But you can’t really have hybrid seeds. Think of it like a mule. You can crossbreed a donkey and a horse to make a mule, but the male mule does not produce mule seeds. They have to be crossbred again.”
The “702” hybrid wrapper was the result of three Cuban seeds harvested in Ecuador. It has made appearances on the limited-edition Toro Especial as well as on other Avo cigars. Released in 2001, the Davidoff Millennium Blend uses a hybrid wrapper called “151,” also developed in Ecuador. This is a regular-production brand as is the new Davidoff Puro d’Oro, which incorporates the H-133 hybrid wrapper.
“When I work on a hybrid, the first thing I look for is resistance to disease,” says Kelner. “But it has to have a high yield because the farmers need to make money. For a hybrid wrapper you need at least a 45 percent crop yield. And the vein structure has to be in such a way that the veins disappear during rolling. It also has to cure evenly. When the color is uniform during the curing process, you know you have a good wrapper.”
Unlike the previous wrappers spawned in Ecuador, H-133 comes from the Yamasá region in the Dominican Republic. The wrapper’s dark, oily appearance and robust flavor were a result of two Cuban seeds and the specific soil properties of the area. “The soil in Yamasá is very complicated,” Kelner explains. “the ph is too low and the coarse soil drains water too quickly. You have to add double the calcium.”
Regardless, Kelner finally finessed the matrimony between seed and soil until there was enough H-133 wrapper for an entire brand. Davidoff Puro d’Oro was born. It’s an all-Dominican cigar with strong, flavorful tobacco and adorned with a striking gilded band. Kelner grew a similarly dark wrapper from the same the soil for the Zino Z-Class brand. This cover leaf is classified as H-192.
He hasn’t done all this alone. Two key people help Kelner run both the growing and manufacturing aspects of Davidoff: “Eladio Diaz is crucial in the creation of the blends and quality control for cigar production. He’s been working with me for 34 years. Manuel Peralta, our geneticist and agronomist is responsible for the development of tobacco varieties and fermentation. He’s been by my side for 41 years.”
In 41 years, Kelner has indeed watched the market change. According to Kelner, he’s observed greater demand for stronger cigars and shorter, fatter ring gauges. He also applauds the U.S. market for its desire to try new sizes and new blends. Strongly committed to (and invested in) the Dominican Republic, Kelner is the president and founder of ProCigar, an organization of Dominican cigarmakers dedicated to maintaining high quality standards for the country’s tobacco industry. His respect across the industry is without question.
“It was an honor to work with Mr. Kelner,” said Mike Chiusano, former owner of the Cusano brand, which is made by TabDom. “With Henke I learned the science and art of blending and creating world-class cigars. His attention to detail, enthusiasm for testing and discovering new tobacco varieties and appreciation for fine cigars is a gift. It was a privilege to have him as a mentor for over 13 years.”
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