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Jamaica's Cigar Comeback

Crippled by a 1988 Hurricane, Jamaica's Cigar Industry is Bringing Back the Taste of Days Gone
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

(continued from page 1)

"Jamaica has this legacy, this history of making good cigars," says Edgar M. Cullman Jr., chief executive officer of General Cigar. "During the late '60s and early '70s," says Cullman Jr., 53, "Jamaica was the premier place for making cigars in the Caribbean--outside of Cuba, of course."

Gore remembers the savagery of the 1988 hurricane that ended all that. "We lost our box department and our box warehouse. We had over a million and a half cigars in stock, and we lost over a million cigars," says Gore. He couldn't get to his farm for four days, and though he expected the worst, he was shocked when he saw the devastation. "We lost 35 tobacco barns in one evening--with the crop in the barns," he says.

Gore thought of rebuilding, but with the entire island crawling out of the ruin, it was a struggle to find workers and building materials. He filed a $4.4 million insurance claim that didn't cover his barns or tobacco losses, which were uninsurable, and collected only $2.6 million. Remembering a buyout offer that Richard L. DiMeola, then a top executive with Consolidated Cigar Corp., had made earlier, Gore called to see if Consolidated would make Royal Jamaicas in the Dominican Republic for him while he rebuilt. Consolidated went one step further and bought the brand in 1988. The result was one of the most confusing sights in cigar stores during the cigar boom--Royal Jamaica cigars, made in the Dominican Republic.

Consolidated made other changes, substituting Indonesian wrapper for Cameroon, which had all but disappeared from the market in the late 1980s, and replacing Indonesian binders with Mexican. Consolidated used filler tobacco grown by Gore to make Royal Jamaicas, but had to considerably pare down the amount of Jamaican tobacco it used in the wake of the hurricane.

"We lost certain markets that didn't want a Royal Jamaica made in the Dominican Republic," says Gore. Europe passed on the new Royal Jamaicas, and--even worse--the brand was kept off the shelves in its namesake country due to Jamaica's 160 percent duty on imported cigars.

Prior to Gilbert, Gore says he was making 7 million to 8 million cigars a year, 6 million of them Royal Jamaicas. After the 1988 hurricane, production on the brand was sliced to about 4 million cigars. Gore kept himself busy with his May Pen farm, and also produced machine-made cigars, which he sold in Canada, in part of his old Kingston plant. The rest of the space was rented out as a warehouse.

Although U.S. sales of Royal Jamaica were well off the pre-Gilbert peak of 5 million cigars, they increased steadily, from 2.3 million cigars in 1990 to 2.8 million in 1996, according to estimates by Cigar Insider, a sister publication of Cigar Aficionado. At the height of the cigar boom, Consolidated Cigar found itself pinched for space in its Dominican Republic factory in La Romana. With demand soaring for Montecristos, H. Upmanns and Don Diegos, Consolidated and Gore hatched a plan to bring Royal Jamaica back to Jamaica.

Royal Jamaicas have a distinctive smooth, woody taste, owed in large part to the mild Jamaican tobacco that makes up much of their filler. (Gore tends to leave the strongest leaves, the smallest ones, unpicked, and never removes the flowers from the top of the plant. This, he feels, smooths out the tobacco's flavor.) Another flavor factor is a bubbling cauldron inside the factory. It's filled with bethune, a mixture that includes rum, wine, vinegar and native herbs that workers spray on Jamaican tobacco after it cures. Gore says the bethune stops mold from forming on the tobacco during Jamaica's wet season and enhances the flavor of the cigars. As legend has it, the potion was created by Henry Winkle, who worked for Gore's grandfather. "It's like a witches' brew," jokes James L. Colucci, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Consolidated Cigar, "a secret formula. Robert keeps it very close to his vest. It's his Coca-Cola."

Gore is a changed man since Hurricane Gilbert. The scars of the storm are tattooed across his farm: the roof of one of his huge tobacco curing barns is a Frankenstein's monster of misshapen bits and pieces of corrugated zinc nailed into a jigsaw puzzle of patches. This 300-foot-long barn survived Gilbert, unlike the smaller thatched huts that were claimed by the storm. Gore no longer relies on typical casas del tabacos, which are to Caribbean storms what trailer parks are to tornadoes. Most tobacco barns in the Caribbean are nothing more than thatch over wood--he has two 300-foot-long barns reinforced with chicken wire and another 13,000-square-foot permanent barn made of concrete and steel. It would take an edict from NATO to knock that one down.

Today, Gore staggers the plantings of his crop during the growing season, which lasts from August through April. "We plant in stages to lower the risk," says Gore, who keeps his linen shirt untucked to hide the .357 Magnum pistol that's always at his hip. The gun has had some odd uses on his farm--one day he shot 22 goats that were wandering through his fields, tearing down stalks of tobacco in droves. The workers ate well that night.

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