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Smoking in Nicaragua

This Central American nation just keeps making better and better cigars
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

It seemed a little surreal. I was sitting in the Padrón Cigar factory in Estelí, Nicaragua, smoking one of the best new cigars I had ever had, watching Daniel Ortega deliver a presidential acceptance speech that was pretty hard to understand. I don't think it would have made any difference if he spoke English. I hoped that my glass of 18-year-old Flor de Caña rum and the 80th Anniversary Padrón perfecto would improve my comprehension. They certainly took the edge off.

Cigar lovers, however, don't have to worry about the change in the presidency in Nicaragua. I very much doubt there is any problem for you, or me, in not getting our hands on our favorite smokes from Nicaragua. I don't think that the cigar industry is much of a priority for the new government. The total cigar business probably accounts for between $30 million and $50 million in revenue, a drop in the bucket compared to sugar, meat or other major Nicaraguan exports. Exports of cigars to the United States reached nearly 50.5 million units in 2005 and are expected to increase another 6 or 7 percent over that in 2006 when the final numbers are in.

I suggest that you smoke some excellent Nicaraguan smokes right away. From what I have smoked recently, I think four factories stand out as the best from Nicaragua: Padrón, Tabacalera Oliva Tabolisa, Tabacos Puros de Nicaragua and Tabacalera Cubana. I admit that I have not visited every cigar factory in Nicaragua or smoked every cigar in the country. But right now for me, these are the factories that are making the most exciting smokes.

Padrón needs no introduction. I mentioned the 80th Anniversary Padrón. This amazing cigar is coming out later this year, and you should do whatever you can to get your hands on one. The cigars are being made now, but the packaging is not finished. The cigars are expected to come in boxes of eight or 10. The double-tapered-ended smoke, made to celebrate company patriarch Orlando Padrón's 80th birthday in 2006, debuted at the Big Smoke Las Vegas last November.

The perfecto measures 54 ring gauge by 6 3/4 inches. To be honest, I am not a big fan of large figurados, but this cigar is so flavorful and so balanced. It goes on and on. Here is my unofficial tasting note: This is the bombshell. A perfecto that is almost perfect. It delivers very rich Cuban coffee and tobacco notes with hints of dark chocolate and earth. Full and round with loads of power on the finish. This starts off like the bomb and then goes and goes. Perfectly made.

I was also very impressed with a cigar from Padrón's neighbor, the Oliva family. I smoked a Master Blends No. 1 Robusto while sitting in the rolling room of their factory, and the aged cigar was the business. The family is deciding whether they should release aged Master Blends on the market that they have slowly been aging in their bodega in their factory in Estelí.

The Master Blends No. 1 Robusto was from 2003. The cigar reminded me of Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2s from 1995 that I smoked this summer in Italy. The Master blaster was rich and powerful with loads of tobacco, coffee and cedar character. It was powerful and rich from the start to the finish, but fresh and clean in the aftertaste. "It's what we look for in a great cigar...that clean finish," said Gilberto Oliva while we smoked. I couldn't agree more. There is nothing worse than a cigar that dries your palate as you smoke or, worse, leaves a tangy, unclean aftertaste. That occurs when poorly processed or badly aged tobacco is used in the blend.

Jose Oliva said that his company was considering rereleasing the aged Master Blends No. 1 on the market. It consisted of three sizes: Torpedo (52 ring gauge by 6 inches), Churchill (50 by 7 inches) and Robusto (50 by 5 inches). Jose was concerned about selling the cigars again because he thought that age designations meant very little to the consumer nowadays. "If we sell them as 2003, then inevitably somebody else will sell the same thing, even if it isn't true," he said. "Then we get trumped."

Maybe he is exaggerating a bit. I do feel for him, but think of the poor consumer. I see many cigars in the States with vintage and age designations that mean very little. Maybe the wrapper is from 1999 or the binder has five years of age or there's a sprinkling of Cuban tobacco inside. Or someone's 90-year-old Cuban grandmother sneezed on the tobacco before rolling. A lot of ridiculous, even fraudulent, stuff appears to be going on with cigars and age designations.

A lot of cigar manufacturers don't have aged tobacco. They use what's available on the open market. Some even rush the production. If you don't have good aged tobacco in your warehouse and factories, you obviously can't make aged cigars. I can say that the Olivas have a warehouse full of the stuffÑand a large part of it came from their own plantations.

Tabacalera Cubana is a relatively new factory that is struggling to acquire properly processed and aged tobacco for its cigars, but it seems to be doing pretty well. I have been very impressed with the cigars that its owners, the Garcia family, have been making for Pete Johnson of Tatuaje, although most of these cigars have been made at the Garcias' tiny factory in Miami. However, the Garcia factory in Estelí is modern, well organized and making good smokes.

The Garcias have a long history of tobacco growing and rolling. Both Pepin and his son, Jaime, worked in Cuba for many years, mostly in the area of Las Vilas. "Nicaraguan tobacco is very close to the quality of the best tobacco in Cuba," said Jaime.

If Tabacalera Cubana is one of the new boys on the block, Tabacos Puros de Nicaragua is the old man. The company has been making cigars in Estelí since the 1970s and has seen everything from earthquakes and floods to wars and famine. But it still produces cigars, and very good ones at the moment. I had a lancero-sized (38 by 7) Joya de Nicaragua Antaño 1970 and, as elegant and refined as it appeared, it delivered loads of character, rich and satisfying, like a great cup of Nicaraguan coffee. It reminded me of the original Cuban Trinidads that Fidel Castro used to give as diplomatic gifts. (Antaños in a different size were served at some of the inauguration events in Managua.)

Equating the quality and flavor of the Antaño lancero to the Trinidads seemed to please Leonel Raudez, production manager for Tabacos Puros de Nicaragua S.A. "Everyone here is Sandinista," he said as we walked through what is the oldest cigar factory in the country. The Sandinistas burned it down in 1979 during a fierce battle with Gen. Anastasio Somoza's National Guard, which had taken over the building. "We have good connections in the government. So we are not worried [about government interference]."

Most other cigar manufacturers I spoke to on my trip were more cautious about the new government, but they had been given assurances that nothing would change. Gilbert and Jose Oliva of Tabacalera Oliva Tabolisa both said, in so many words, that they were almost in a state of denial that anything would change. "But we shouldn't be surprised if it does," said Jose. Most cigar manufacturers, like Jose, believe that the major change will be in the workforce, which will be more unionized. Salaries may increase. And, therefore, cigars could get more expensive. But it was too soon to tell what would happen exactly. Ortega will be in office for five years.

Last time the Sandinistas were in power, many people in the cigar and tobacco industry lost their plantations as well as their businesses due to nationalization, a U.S. trade embargo and the ravages of war. Ironically, many growers and cigarmakers were forced to move to Honduras and the Dominican Republic to set up shop, which helped establish both countries as powers in the cigar business. No one expects the same to happen this time around.

"How do you say it in English?" said Nestor Plasencia Jr., whose family is the biggest grower and processor of cigar tobacco in Central America, particularly in Nicaragua and Honduras. "We will give them the benefit of the doubt."

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