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Tobacco Man

Henke Kelner, the maker of Davidoff cigars, is a true lover of the leaf and a demanding connoisseur of a good smoke.
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

The layers of thick gray smoke make it difficult to see the men sitting in the small room. Each man has five or six cigars burning in ashtrays, like players with cards face up on a table in a game of five-card stud. The conversation is friendly, yet there's a competitive edge to the words being spoken.

"What do you think of this cigar?" asks a man sitting behind a desk, handing another man a cigar. The second man takes the corona in his hands and grins as he looks at it and smells the wrapper. He bites off the end of the cigar and draws on it, unlit. He smiles again, then kindles it with a butane lighter and takes a few puffs.

"Is that strong enough for you?" asks the first man.

"This is powerful," says the other man with a huge smile, as he slouches in an armchair in some sort of relaxed tobacco nirvana. "It must be all ligero leaf, but I detect a good amount of Ecuadorian tobacco in this one, due to its salty character. You must be using binder from Ecuador, but maybe the filler is also from there?"

"You're right, Henke," says Manuel "Manolo" Quesada with a smile. Quesada owns MATASA, one of the major producers of premium cigars in the Dominican Republic. "You are always frigging right."

Henke (pronounced Hank-key), more formally known as Hendrik Kelner, is one of the Dominican Republic's most knowledgeable tobacco men. He is a small, unimposing fellow with a soft, cozy look and a big warm smile. At 50, Kelner is to Dominican cigars what chefs Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon are to French cuisine. They are all masters in their fields, transforming raw materials such as tobacco or food into something fabulous.

Born and raised in a Dominican tobacco family, Kelner is unmatched in the country for his knowledge and understanding of tobacco and cigar making. Since 1984, his company, Tabacos Dominicanos, S.A., has been producing some of the most sought-after handmade smokes to come out of this island cigar paradise: Davidoffs, Avos, Troyas and The Griffin's. He is the unofficial tobacco guru for almost all the cigar producers in and around the city of Santiago, constantly stopping by the other factories for coffee and a cigar to discuss the various aspects of cigar production.

"What can you say about Henke?" says Quesada. "He certainly knows his stuff."

Adds Avo Uvezian, the founder of the Avo brand: "He is really the master. There is no better man on this island for making cigars. No one knows more about tobacco and no one makes them any better."

Kelner overhears Uvezian's praise but seems to take it all with a large grain of sea salt. He rolls his eyes in slight embarrassment as he sits on his office couch smoking a Davidoff Gran Cru. He would never speak that way about himself, or just about anyone else he knew. Indeed, all he ever wants to discuss is tobacco. The man is totally obsessed with the leaf.

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