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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 3)

The sight of a Dominican cigarmaker with muddy boots is becoming more common, and many have been spending less time in their factories and more time in tobacco fields working on growing wrapper for their Dominican puros. After the rave success of the Fuente family's Fuente Fuente OpusX, which contains only Dominican tobacco, several other companies have followed suit. General, which has grown green candela leaf in the country for decades, now has a dark Dominican wrapper on its Ramon Allones cigar. Hendrik Kelner of Davidoff, once a vocal doubter of the notion of growing Dominican wrapper, released a Davidoff puro recently and is growing more wrapper. (Kelner had such a good growing season in 2003/04 that he ran out of space in his curing barns.) Gomez plans to release a Dominican puro this year, his 10th anniversary as a cigarmaker.

"If there was supposed to be a challenge to grow wrapper in the D.R. then it has to be a bigger challenge to grow in La Canela," Gomez says. The agricultural town is windy and sunny, forces that can make tobacco thick and veiny. Gomez fights the elements with a higher percentage of shade and other methods. But he thinks he and other growers have been given a break, in a way. "For us, it's even easier, because someone took the chance before us, and was very successful."

That someone is Fuente Jr. who turned a tobacco farm into a showcase with his Fuente Fuente OpusX project. The all-Dominican cigars put the Dominican puro on the map and set a new standard in the cigar world in terms of supply and demand.

Fuente Jr, has been in charge of his family's factories for more than five years now, and he has introduced a number of innovations-substantive as well as organizational. One of his greatest achievements, he contends, is the use of young people in his factory. Many of his best workers have rolled cigars for only a few years. "I don't know how we did it, but I think that we have changed the world of cigars with what we have done," he says during a tour of his main cigar factory in Santiago.

Tabacalera A. Fuente, in effect, is several small factories within one large factory. Large, separate rooms with selected rollers are used for crafting particular cigars, including Fuente Fuente OpusX, Ashton VSG, Arturo Fuente Hemingway and Don Carlos. The factory is extremely well organized and clean, with workers seemingly full of energy as they construct their cigars.

"I didn't want them to have worked with anybody else. They learned everything from us. They didn't have any bad habits," Fuente says. He began this policy in 1997, recruiting young, well-educated adults from middle-class families in Santiago. "Twenty years ago the Dominican Republic had a tobacco culture, but not a cigar culture. I think that we have helped build the cigar culture here that we have today."

The culture, in Fuente's own words, has been quality driven. Fuente doesn't judge his cigar rollers based on output. Many of his best rollers make 100 cigars or fewer a day. In addition, most use a cigar-bunching system called en tubado, whereby four or five leaves of filler are rolled into tiny tubes. It is an old system that originated in Cuba decades ago but is rarely used today as it is not time effective. "I think it is the best system, so I want my best rollers to use it," he says confidently.

Not all is good in the Dominican Republic. Scores of its cigar companies failed in the wake of the cigar boom, leaving behind inventories of cigars and tobacco. Bulk discounters bought the cigars from desperate owners (or the banks that repossessed their inventory of those who couldn't pay) and sold them on the cheap. Manuel Quesada, owner of Manufactura de Tabacos S.A. or Matasa, recalls turning down wholesalers who had asked him to supply tobacco at prices so low he would have to sacrifice quality and consistency. [Click here to read the interview with Quesada.]

Today, most of the lowest quality cigars are gone, but several cigar Dominican companies are supplying the discounters with handmade cigars for 25 to 30 cents apiece. Cigars can be made at those prices by skimping on production details and using unwanted tobacco, but they can't be made well, even with labor costs are at an all-time low due to the Dominican Republic's recent currency crisis. (As this story was being written, it took about 45 Dominican pesos to buy one U.S. dollar—a year earlier, it took only 20. Cigar companies have raised salaries, but workers are having difficulty buying items such as gasoline and even some foods. A national strike in protest of the president's handling of the crisis essentially shut down the country for two days in January, and more strikes were expected before elections in May.)

Once there were more than 100 cigar factories here, but today little more than a dozen are still in business. Tabacalera de Garcia, General Cigar Dominicana and Fuente are the giants, each making tens of millions of cigars annually. There are several midsize companies, such as Cigars Davidoff and OK Cigars, where Davidoffs and Avos, respectively, are made, as well as El Credito, Matasa and Tabacalera La Flor, where La Flor Dominicanas are produced. Philip Wynne has some of his Felipe Gregorio cigars made here, Cuevas y Toraño makes La Perla Habanas and other smokes, and the U.S. Cigar Sales factory makes several contract brands as well as Don Tomás Dominican.

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