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From Seed to Shelf

Five years ago, the cigar you're smoking was nothing more than tiny little seeds
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Greg Raymer, Sept/Oct 2004

(continued from page 2)

Inside the bale, the tobacco will age, slowly maturing to further round out the flavors that have been mellowed by fermentation. "We have tobacco in our warehouses that is six years old," says Padrón.

Great cigarmakers such as Padrón, Fuente, Altadis, General Cigar, Matasa, Davidoff and others have warehouses stacked full of tobacco bales. The stocks are essential. A Dominican Montecristo is expected to taste the same today as it did one, two and three years ago. Cigarmakers are blenders, much like the makers of nonvintage Champagne, and most cigars are expected to maintain a consistency of flavor.

Because cigar tobacco is an agricultural product, it's subject to the whims of nature. As a result of differing weather conditions, two plants of the same seed type planted on the same spot of land and treated identically might taste noticeably different year to year. More rain might make the tobacco thinner, while more wind might stress the plant and make it stronger. To combat the changes, a cigarmaker needs large stocks of leaf to blend out the differences.

Premium cigars are hand-rolled in factories.
Once the blend has been selected, it takes no time at all to turn it from leaf to cigar. A buncher rolls one leaf of binder (sometimes two with smaller leaves, particularly in Cuba) around a group of filler leaves, then places the bunch in a mold, where it sits for several hours, being turned several times to avoid having a seam along the side. Once it is firm, its shape secure, the bunch is given to a roller. (In some cigar factories, one person does both rolling and bunching.) The roller wraps one wrapper leaf around the cigar, taking perhaps a minute or so to do the work.

A cigar roller can make 500 cigars in a day if allowed to work at his fastest pace, but typically a cigar factory manager will limit his workers to far fewer. One hundred fifty is more typical.

The years have taken the tobacco from seed to finished leaf, ready to be rolled, but there's more to the journey before a cigar becomes a brand. Bigger companies such as Altadis U.S.A. Inc. and General Cigar make dozens of brands, so new creations are a vital part of the business. Often, blends are created by a company's cigar factory managers, then the marketing team figures out a way to sell the best of the bunch.

"Either José [Seijas] in the Dominican Republic or the guys in Honduras have played with different tobaccos that George [Gershel] has, and come up with different blends," says Jim Colucci, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Altadis U.S.A. "Then we say, do we do a line extension, or a new brand?"

After rolling, cigars are banded and boxed for store shelves.
Sometimes the process is different and more involved, such as the 2004 launch of Royal Jamaica Gold, a new version of the venerable Royal Jamaica brand, which has been on the market since 1935. Planning for the new line, says Colucci, began in 2000 when Altadis took over distribution of the Lane Ltd. brand, which despite its name hasn't always been made in Jamaica.

"I said Royal Jamaica [Gold] needs to be a brand-new vehicle, because it took two round trips—from Jamaica to the Dominican Republic, back and back—and I said the consumer needs to know it's something new and unique. José was given the job to find a blend. I said, I need a good blend, stronger than medium, beautiful-looking, nice taste—but José, I have to have Jamaican tobacco in the blend.'"

Seijas worked for more than two years, experimenting with various combinations of leaf, always using some of the rare Jamaican tobacco that has been a Royal Jamaica hallmark for nearly 70 years. While he was experimenting, Colucci and his marketing team worked on packaging with Peter Vrijdag of the Netherlands, a talented lithographer known for his detail, if not his speed. One year ago, Colucci called in the ad agency Leibler-Bronfman Lubalin to work on promotions, and the cigar went on sale this summer.

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