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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

(continued from page 1)

Litto Gomez spends each week here, commuting via plane from Miami. He's typically in his Dominican office late Monday through Friday, splitting time between his factory in Tamboril and his farm in La Canela.

Gomez, who co-owns the farm with cigarmaker Jochi Blanco of Tabacalera La Palma, has improved his farm with each crop. The Chisel, which has an Ecuadoran wrapper, gets its guts from the farm.

Gomez is becoming increasingly less dependent on outside tobacco. Three years ago, he estimates, 40 percent of the tobacco he used came from outside vendors. Today he's reduced that ratio to 20 percent.

"This is beautiful stuff, brother," Gomez says with a smile, wearing his trademark Montecristi Panama hat. He has a passing resemblance to actor Andy Garcia and looks younger than his 50 years, especially when walking in his tobacco field. His shade crop is a few weeks old. The small plants are a vibrant green, vivid against the dark brown earth. At this stage they are nothing more than a few tufts of beautiful leaves not far from the ground, but soon they will be standing as high as eight feet, bristling with nearly two dozen spade-shaped leaves.

Business has been good for Gomez. "We have a strong market of smokers," he says. "It's steady. It's not going down, it's not like after the boom. Now you have a definite market of consumers." Gomez can't fill the orders for his Chisels, which are fat, powerful cigars that pack a punch, fueled in part by his homegrown ligero. They're worlds apart from the original cigars he made, which were mild smokes with Connecticut-shade wrappers.

"I was a nice guy who made these nice cigars for a while," he says, a Cheshire cat smile creeping across his face. "No more Mr. Nice Guy. From now on, what comes out of that factory is going to make you sweat."

Dominican cigars were once pigeonholed as mild, but that stereotype is wholly off base today. Carlos Fuente Jr. perhaps the world's premier blender of strong cigars, has no shortage of offerings that can make anyone's nose tingle, from the Ashton VSGs he makes for Robert Levin to his steroid-fueled Fuente Fuente OpusX X3, also known as the Power Ranger. Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd. the massive factory that makes all the Dominican brands for Altadis U.S.A. Inc. has been pumping out stronger versions of the company's best-selling brands, from Romeo y Julieta to H. Upmann to Montecristo. Montes, once available only as rather mild smokes with Connecticut-shade wrappers, now come in a host of stronger varieties: Montecristo Platinum and Montecristo White are pumped up with Nicaraguan tobacco in the filler blend. Macanudos, Davidoffs and Fonsecas are also available in stronger varieties.

For years the leading cigarmakers of the Dominican Republic have had large inventories of tobacco. They still do, but they're ordering new leaf at record levels to maintain their stocks and keep up with demand. While Dominican tobacco is a major part of nearly every cigar blend made in the country, the cigarmakers here are master blenders, and rely on foreign leaves to make their cigars.

"I'm selling more tobacco this year than during the cigar boom," says John Oliva Jr. an executive from Oliva Tobacco Co. of Tampa, Florida, one of the world's leading tobacco growers and brokers. Oliva's speciality is Sumatra-seed wrapper that grows on several hilly farms in Ecuador and is found on La Glorias and La Flor Dominicana Double Ligeros, among many others. Oliva is back-ordered on the Sumatra leaf.

"I don't know how to explain it," says Oliva, "but we're moving product."

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