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Litto's Twist of Fate

How Litto Gomez's La Flor Dominicana was spawned from disaster—and other things you probably didn't know about one of the industry's hottest brands.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007

(continued from page 1)

"A lot of people thought that I was crazy to start in an industry that was typically in the hands of people that had done this for generations," says Gomez, staring from beneath the brim of his trademark Montecristi Panama hat. "If you were an outsider, you had to prove yourself. Twelve years later, we're honored to be considered a part of the cigar industry."

He's sitting in a chair near the tobacco farm that has invigorated his blends with full-flavored tobacco, a powerful Coronado by La Flor—his second cigar of the morning—in his right hand. Birds chirp as winds sweep away the warm February air on a stunningly sunny day. He looks younger than his age and has more than a passing resemblance to the actor Andy Garcia. His body is rail-thin. He's relaxed, at ease after showing off the farm and its bumper crop of tobacco.

His company's investment in the tobacco farm, a 120-acre property that La Flor Dominicana shares with cigarmaker Jochi Blanco, attests to Gomez's deep Dominican roots. His acclaim from cigar tasters has grown year by year, and most recently his Coronado by La Flor Double Corona was ranked second-best cigar of the year in the February issue of Cigar Aficionado.

While his first cigars garnered few awards, they satisfied the young palate of Gomez. "When I started, I was a mild cigar smoker. And when I started, there was a tradition in the Dominican Republic to make cigars with Connecticut-shade wrappers and Dominican binders and fillers. I enjoyed very much those mild blends."

Like an unschooled chef working with a limited list of ingredients, Gomez was short on both experience and intriguing raw materials. "In the mid-'90s, there weren't many choices," says Gomez. Nicaragua was still reeling from its war years, the tobacco not what it is today. Cameroon was struggling in the wake of the French pullout and the Meerapfels had only begun the long process of trying to keep the wrapper alive. No one but the Fuente family thought strong, Cuban-seed wrappers could be grown successfully in the Dominican Republic. Los Libertadores and early La Flor Dominicanas were pale, mild and fairly bland.

Revelation came with trips to other tobacco-producing countries—Cuba and Nicaragua in particular—and long discussions with masters of tobacco about growing and processing. Gomez soaked up information wherever he went, always questioning how he could do things better.

"What might have been against me when I started worked to my advantage—the fact that I don't have ties to the past allows me to think out of the box. With all respect to tradition, we like to do things that were not done before."

Gomez broke free of the mild cigar mold with a unique shape he created in 1997 called the El Jocko Perfecto No. 1, an odd-looking cigar named after an incident at his farm. After watching a visiting cigar retailer named Jacko Headblade attempt to ride a neighbor's donkey, Gomez immortalized the raucous event by naming both the donkey and the cigar El Jocko. The cigar has a shape that's one part bowling pin and one part squash, with a narrow, rounded head, a fat belly that hangs below the cigar's equator and a thickish foot. It also has a full complement of bold tobaccos, including a Connecticut-broadleaf wrapper and some Nicaraguan filler.

A second innovation came with the 2003 release of The Chisel, a cigar with a wedge-shaped head. Gomez got the idea while driving to his factory one morning: chewing his cigar had turned a pyramid into something flatter, and it felt good in his mouth. He walked into the factory and instructed his rollers to duplicate the shape. It took 10 months to get right.

The shapes might catch a smoker's eye, but it's the taste that keeps him coming back. The El Jocko is distinctive, The Chisel as bold as a cigar can be, loaded with red pepper spice and a solid core of leather. Their blends are possible because Gomez's farm provides a special inventory. Owning the field rather than simply buying tobacco freed him to make more complex cigars. Like an artist with a pallet limited to black and white who suddenly discovers tubes of scorching crimson and brilliant yellow, Gomez blossomed creatively.

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