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Jamaica's Cigar Comeback

Crippled by a 1988 Hurricane, Jamaica's Cigar Industry is Bringing Back the Taste of Days Gone
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

Robert L. Gore pulls his truck alongside something that's not supposed to exist--a tobacco plant growing out of the rich soil of May Pen, Jamaica. In this secretive and skeptical industry, the common belief is that cigar tobacco no longer grows in this country. Yet there it is, an eight-foot-tall plant with broad, low-hanging leaves waiting to be harvested. The plant looms over several thousand of its cousins as it soaks up February's midday sun, 30 miles west of Kingston and just 100 miles south of Cuba.

The field belongs to Gore, a third-generation Jamaican tobacco grower and a partner in the making of Royal Jamaica cigars, the only cigar sold in the United States with Jamaican tobacco. A thickly built man with a gray beard and scant hair, Gore stops the truck in front of a field of tobacco that was stunted by the rains of Hurricane Mitch, a monstrous storm that skimmed Jamaica last October but ravaged Central America.

"We probably lost 30 to 40 acres of tobacco in Mitch," says the 53-year-old Gore, squinting in the sun. He points out the uneven tops of a row of tobacco. "We didn't have breezes with Mitch," he says, "but we had a piss-pot full of rain."

Gore knows hurricanes all too well. In September 1988, Hurricane Gilbert slammed into Jamaica at full strength, maiming the nation's cigar industry. The storm destroyed Gore's factory in Kingston, which had stood since his grandfather James Frederick Gore founded Royal Jamaica in 1935, and ruined 1,000 acres of tobacco in May Pen. It was the worst natural disaster to befall Jamaica since the 1907 earthquake that turned Kingston into rubble. Because of Gilbert, the Jamaican tobacco industry was set back several years, production of Royal Jamaica cigars was shifted to the Dominican Republic, and Jamaican tobacco was no longer used in the island's biggest brand, Macanudo.

Today, Jamaica is regaining some of its former cigar-making glory. Last year, 23 million premium, handmade cigars were shipped to the United States from Jamaica, the fourth-largest producer of premium cigars for the U.S. market, after the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua, and the only major exporter to show an increase over its 1997 production. Nearly 20 million of those cigars came from Cifuentes y Cia., a factory owned by General Cigar Co., and 2.8 million came from the post-Gilbert Jamaican incarnation of Royal Jamaica cigars, Jamaica Tobacco Manufacturing Co. (1995) Ltd., a 75/25 joint venture owned by Consolidated Cigar Corp. and Gore.

Tobacco is indigenous to Jamaica. A variety called cow tongue, or silver tongue, grows wild in the island's fertile, volcanic soil, and locals use it to make a potent mixture smoked in pipes. But cigar smoking and cigar making are not ingrained in Jamaica, as they are in Cuba, the island's closest neighbor.

"It's not part of our cultural heritage," says Jamaican Senator Frank Pringle, 69, who nonetheless proudly brings Jamaican cigars with him when meeting foreign leaders. "The Cubans were the original people who brought cigars to Jamaica."

The modern-day Jamaican tobacco industry owes a debt to the Second World War and a cigar-loving Great Britain. With the United Kingdom mired in war, hard currency was at a premium and had to be kept within the commonwealth--not spent on cigars made elsewhere. So Cubans moved to the British colony with their tobacco and expertise, and opened factory after factory. Soon Jamaican versions of Cuban brands--many made entirely with Cuban tobacco, others with Jamaican filler and Cuban wrappers--were hitting the U.K. market.

Jamaican cigars "replaced the top slot in the U.K. cigar market whilst Havanas were absent," says Simon Chase, marketing director for U.K. cigar importer Hunters & Frankau. "And Havanas were totally absent from 1940 up until 1953, and on quota up until 1973. It's quite a long story of an unnatural market."

Jamaica developed a reputation as a country with gifted cigarmakers, and by the 1960s, when Cuban cigars were banned in the United States, Jamaican cigars were considered a high-quality alternative. Besides Royal Jamaica and Macanudo, other brands, such as Crème de Jamaica, Flor de Jamaica, Temple Hall and Palamino, were very highly regarded.

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