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Heart of Darkness

Rugged, dark Connecticut broadleaf is getting increasing respect as a wrapper for handmade, premium cigars
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Stanley Tucci, September/October 2013

(continued from page 3)

The first Topper cigars were made by hand in McSherrystown, Pennsylvania, with a heart of then-legal Cuban tobacco and a wrapper of broadleaf. In the 1960s, with labor costs soaring and the company’s cigarmakers aging and unable to keep up with demand, the company had to transform itself. “My dad had about 25 rollers left, and their average age was about 70, 71. They couldn’t keep up with demand. That’s when we made the move to machine made.”

Unlike the vast majority of machine-made cigars, Toppers were all tobacco—no homogenized tobacco, no fillers—and always wrapped with broadleaf. “It’s been our livelihood,” says Topper, a redhead who looks younger than his 45 years. This year he made his biggest change ever, moving the 117-year-old Topper brand back from machine-made to handmade. “We’re blending it back,” he says. “We smoked some older cigars; we’re trying to blend it back towards when my grandfather and great grandfather were blending cigars.”

The new Toppers are being made by hand in Santiago, Dominican Republic, by Durfort Holdings S.A., run by Phil Zanghi. They are mixed- filler cigars, but all tobacco, with a bit of broadleaf in the filler blend and the same, dark, rugged broadleaf wrappers as before. “The broadleaf is where most of the flavor comes from,” says Topper. By making the cigars offshore and cutting his margins, he’s still able to come in at only about a quarter more expense per cigar than with his machine-made versions—a cigar selling for less than $3 before taxes. “I’m proud to put my name on the type of cigar my father and grandfather were selling,” says Topper.

When asked why he never made the same move that some other cigar companies did to cut costs—switching from all tobacco to the far less expensive homogenized tobacco—Topper answers easily. “I couldn’t do it to the Topper name. Not with the pictures of my father and grandfather staring at me from my desk.”

Topper’s devotion to the taste of his youth and the growing appeal of Connecticut broadleaf to new cigar smokers is a needed vote of confidence in the nearly 200-year-old tobacco. The lands that grow the best tobacco in the valley are being lost. Farming isn’t the easiest of occupations, and as farmers age, their children often don’t wish to put on the overalls and sit in tractors like their parents. Family farms are often sold for other purposes. The 2010 crop, at 1,950 acres the largest in decades, is tiny when compared with the 10,000 acres of broadleaf harvested in 1950, and 18,000 reaped in 1925.

“I remember cultivating here when I was 12, 13 years old,” says Dunn. The barn behind him, all of 120 years old, has been there since he was in short pants. But there was more tobacco grown in his youth. “There used to be tobacco across the street too.”

“You can’t replace land,” says Dunn with a chuckle.

Another bit of good news for broadleaf is that it grows best at home. While Connecticut shade has been grown in other parts of the world with great success—including Nicaragua, Honduras and especially Ecuador, which today grows far more Connecticut shade than Connecticut itself—Connecticut broadleaf just doesn’t taste the same when it’s grown elsewhere. Although some is grown in Pennsylvania to good effect, the microclimate of the Connecticut River Valley makes the leaf extremely distinctive.

Foster takes another puff on his Liga Privada No. 9, a Nicaraguan cigar cloaked in dark, oily wrappers grown on one of his farms. “If it wasn’t for the flavor of broadleaf,” he says simply, “we would have been out of business long ago.”

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