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Dominican Dominance

Not so long ago, the Dominican Republic was a small player in the world cigar market. Now it leads the way.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004

Guests at the mountaintop resort of Rancho Camp David in the Dominican Republic are an adventurous sort, for it's a long, skyward drive up a narrow and at times haggard road to get to the hotel. Their reward is an unparalleled view of Santiago, the cigar-making capital of the Dominican Republic. At night, the city is a sea of lights, a brilliant tapestry of winking white that provides the idyllic backdrop for an evening spent with a locally made cigar. In the morning, thick, white mist hangs low in the valley like clouds captured from the sky, making the view even more breathtaking.

Santiago is impressive. In a decade, the city has grown from a population of 365,000 to more than a half million. Cigars are part of the reason. The Dominican Republic is making as many premium cigars as Cuba—more by some estimates—and more than half of the handmade cigars sold in America every year. If you smoke Fuentes, Davidoffs, Romeo y Julieta 1875s or Macanudos, you're smoking cigars that come from here and contain a hefty amount of locally grown tobacco.

It's hard to imagine a cigar world without the Dominican Republic, but the country hasn't been a market leader for long. Although its oldest cigarmaker, La Aurora S.A. has been in business for a century, most of the cigars it made in the past were for local consumption. In the 1970s the first free trade zones opened in the country, welcoming companies that would make cigars strictly for export. It took nearly a decade for the Dominican Republic to overtake the Canary Islands and Jamaica to become the leading cigar producer for the United States. The increases in cigar production here have been extraordinary. Dominican cigar exports were a paltry 5.8 million in 1977, grew to 33.7 million in 1981 and stand today at 160 million. In 2003, shipments of handmade Dominican cigars grew by more than 5 percent over 2002 levels, greater than the overall market.

"The growth of the Dominican cigar is so incredible over the past 20 years—it's been in business such a short time," says Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, the maker of La Gloria Cubana cigars. He's smoking one of his freshly rolled La Glorias, perhaps his only vice. Carrillo, a slim 53-year-old, is an avowed fitness nut—one of the bedrooms in his Santiago apartment has been transformed into a miniature gym.

When Carrillo outgrew his original space in Miami, he opened a factory in the Dominican Republic to try to satisfy the raging demand for his cigars. He began making cigars here in 1996 in a factory in the Pisano free trade zone, outside Santiago, and quickly outgrew that space, so he opened a factory next door. After selling his company to Swedish Match AB in 1999, Carrillo moved to his current space, a large factory in Santiago.

He's outgrown that as well. He walks up some steps to an area on the side of his rolling gallery, where rows of tables have been set up for junior cigarmakers. The space used to be a cafeteria.

"We have 190 people, we're going to get to 220," he says. He walks over to a table and picks up a long perfecto, with a tapered tip and foot. It's wrapped in Ecuadoran leaf grown from Sumatra seed, as are all natural La Glorias. "This is the first shaped cigar La Gloria Cubana has made in 20 years," he says. It's his only perfecto.

He moves from his factory to a room in a huge tobacco warehouse, where the workers greet him with smiles and hearty hugs, and begins looking at his impressive stocks of tobacco that come from Ecuador, Connecticut, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. His Ecuadoran wrapper is three years old, his broadleaf and Dominican tobacco is five. You can hear the pride in Carrillo's voice as he looks it over. "Let me tell you something," he says. "I think the Dominican has come into its own, as far as being compared with Cuba or any other country."

The sale of the company to Swedish Match has untied Carrillo's hands, allowing him to focus on cigar making rather than bookkeeping and the like. During the cigar boom, Carrillo couldn't answer his phone calls, let alone design a new cigar shape.

Getting creative with cigars has been a hallmark of Litto Gomez, who co-owns the La Flor Dominicana brand with his wife, Ines Lorenzo-Gomez. His newest cigar shape is unique and eye-grabbing, a love-it-or-hate-it creation called the Double Ligero Chisel, a strong figurado with a head shaped like the hand tool for which it is named.

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