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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 2)

Back orders, which occur when cigarmakers can't fill the orders they have on certain cigars, were common during the cigar boom, but were largely unheard of between 1998 and 2001.

Jose Seijas runs Tabacalera de Garcia for Altadis. The factory, located in La Romana, half a day's drive from Santiago, is the largest cigar factory in the country, if not the world, but it still can't make enough to fill all of its back orders. In 2003, the company added more manufacturing capacity.

"Last year we built our capacity, so we don't have to work on Saturdays," Seijas says. Still, when certain large projects need to be done and time runs short, the company works about two Saturdays a month. Some 3,000 people work there. Seijas and the Altadis team have come up with a large variety of new blends in recent years.

"Quality is foremost," he says. "I want an increase we can manage very well."

La Aurora has put an increasing focus on its popular Preferido cigars, the bulbous perfectos that are copies of the company's original cigar from 1903. Eleven Preferido cigarmakers sit in a special area, separate from the factory, that is designed for tourists. It's a gorgeous setup with a lector's table and a small shop off the rolling gallery where visitors can buy cigars, accessories and even a La Aurora tie. The energetic Eugenio Polanco leads tours through the rolling area, describing to tourists the art of enjoying cigars. Polanco, who is fluent in five languages, also serves as the lector. "My father used to roll tobacco, sell tobacco, make his own cigars," he says. "My father was a complete cigar man."

Cigar smoking is a thirsty business. After visitors to La Aurora watch the cigars being made, they can walk across the perfectly landscaped courtyard to the cafeteria and buy a sandwich and a cold Presidente beer to pair with their Preferido. After the refreshment, they can walk into a modern, luxurious museum—the only museum in Santiago—and view a showcase of Dominican art and history.

It's quickly evident that La Aurora is much more than cigars. The company makes most of its money from beer and cigarettes (it claims more than 90 percent of the local market for each), but has not forgotten its original business, cigars.

The Preferidos are rich smokes. The filler and binder tobacco for each cigar spends half a year in old rum barrels—the company keeps the tobacco behind a padlocked wire fence upstairs from the main production room.

La Aurora's newest Preferido comes in a gold tube. It's made with an oily, dark wrapper leaf grown in the Navarette region of the Dominican Republic from Corojo seed. La Aurora has been gathering the wrapper since 1999/2000 (the company lost half the 2000/2001 crop to blue mold).

The current crop looked good on a winter visit. The freshly picked Corojo was in the tobacco barns, already beginning to take on a bit of its signature reddish color, and the company was preparing to harvest its second crop of olor wrapper. (Olor, a seed variety that grows large leaves, is typically used as binder leaf.)

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