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A Star in Honduras

The Makers of Astral and Don Tomas Cigars are Expanding Operations in Danlí
Mark Vaughan
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

Raymond F. Guys, director of cigar and cigar leaf operations for United States Tobacco International, leads a tour of the company's Central American Cigars (CACSA) production facilities in Danlí, Honduras. In a large, open warehouse holding 200,000 pounds of aging wrapper, filler and binder leaf, four Honduran workers are "turning" a bulk of fermenting tobacco. The process involves disassembling a 4- by 5- by 20-foot pile of leaves, which have been bunched into "hands" of several leaves each, and reassembling the pile so that the tobacco in the center is rotated to the outside, thus allowing for even fermentation throughout the bulk. The work proceeds at a snail's pace, with each worker taking pains not to damage the leaves. A quiet, almost reverential atmosphere prevails in the dimly lit room on this warm, wet July morning.

Guys, a 22-year veteran of tobacco growing, processing and cigar making in Honduras, pauses to watch the workers. Reaching out, he picks up a hand of the golden-hued tobacco. In a motion common to all tobacco masters, he fans the leaves open between his fingers and, like a cellar master testing a fine Cognac, sniffs deeply. He holds the tobacco hand out for a visitor to smell. The rich chocolate and Caribbean spice aromas are almost intoxicating in their intensity.

"This is 100 percent Cuban-seed long filler tobacco, and the quality is excellent," says the soft-spoken Guys, who at 65 is slender, energetic and obviously dedicated to his work. "There is no doubt that Honduras is one of the best places for growing and processing tobacco and making cigars."

It is a sentiment one hears often in Danlí. A dusty backwater nestled beneath the mountains separating Honduras from Nicaragua to the south, the town gained infamy during the Contra War as a staging site for the anti-Sandinista rebels. Today, thanks to the efforts of producers such as Guys, Julio Eiroa, Nestor Plasencia, Rolando Reyes, Indalecio Rodriguez and others, Danlí has been transformed into a cigar making mecca. With a combined output of well over 50 million cigars a year and growing, such producers may soon make Danlí the world's premier cigar making center. That's something that wouldn't surprise Guys.

"This zone--here and in northern Nicaragua--is excellent for growing Havana-seed tobacco," notes Guys. "We've always known you can make a hell of a cigar in Danlí."

For Guys and the rest of UST International's cigar operations team, the current "hell of a cigar" is the Astral, a high-end smoke that was released with much fanfare at Morton's Steakhouse in New York City last June. Designed to be a cut above the company's Don Tomas, Don Tomas International and Don Tomas Special Edition lines, Astral is made with Honduran grown Cuban-seed filler and binder and Honduran shade-grown Connecticut-seed wrapper. The five cigars in the line range from the 5" by 52 Besos to the 7 1/2" by 52 Maestro, with suggested retail prices running from $5.75 to $6.50. A box of Astrals comes in distinctive Art Deco-styled mahogany. According to Iber Rodriguez, manager of UST International's Honduran cigar operations and a key player in developing the Astral line, it took three years to get the new cigar from the drawing board to retail shelves.

"There are a lot of considerations, from tobacco availability to packaging and marketing strategies to having the necessary skilled labor," says Guys. "You don't just make a new cigar overnight."

Though neither Guys nor Rodriguez will talk specifically about the blend and age of tobaccos used in making the Astral line, as with Honduran-made smokes in general they are largely characterized by the full-flavored locally grown Cuban-seed filler and binder. According to Guys, the cigar was designed to deliver most of its flavor in the second third of the smoke. "We wanted people to enjoy the cigar as it progresses and to be able to smoke it all the way to the end," he says. "That way you get the full flavor of the Cuban-seed tobacco."

Since their release last June, Astrals have been selling briskly, so much so that back orders have run as high as 200,000 units or more. "Market acceptance of Astral has been outstanding," says Rodriguez. "We are literally selling them faster than we can make them. It makes all that development time seem definitely worthwhile."

So worthwhile that Guys, Rodriguez and the rest of UST International's cigar operations management team are already exploring the possibility of developing another line of premium cigars. "We are talking about a number of things," says Guys. "But for now our primary focus is on expanding production, both in the tobacco fields and in the factory."

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