Crippled by a 1988 Hurricane, Jamaica's Cigar Industry is Bringing Back the Taste of Days Gone
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"We had the master, Mr. Ramón Cifuentes," the senior Cullman says about the cigarmaker behind Cuba's Partagas brand, whom he enlisted to gear up General's Jamaican factory. "He went down and lived in Kingston, to show the people there--the workers--how to make a good cigar. How to blend. And then how to make the boxes. He had a great eye for how to present his image of a cigar. We got to be very friendly, and he showed us how to make the round head that I like so much." General's cigars are distinctive for their rounded crowns, and Cullman has been known to walk through his Kingston plant, pick up a roller's cigar, and, with a smile, ask the roller to make the cigar's head look like his own cranium. Some call it "the Cullman cap."
In the mid-1970s, Cifuentes sold General the U.S. rights to the Partagas name, and General Cigar began making the brand in Kingston. As the business grew, the company began to run out of space, and in 1979 it began rolling Partagas in a newer plant in Santiago, Dominican Republic. Today all Partagas cigars are made in the Dominican Republic, alongside brands such as Canaria D'oro, Cohiba and the new Macanudo Robust. About 25 percent of regular Macanudos are made there as well, but the Macanudo brand still has Jamaica on its label and is known to smokers as a Jamaican cigar.
"Macanudo and Jamaica are synonymous," says Senator Pringle. "It's like talking about our coffee or our rum."
Early in Peter Brown's career he faced a difficult task: phasing out Jamaican tobacco. After Gilbert devastated the supplies of Jamaican filler, General stopped using it. "When I came here in '94," says Brown, "we were just depleting the inventory that we had here. There hasn't been any in the product since."
The Cullmans and others from General tout the virtues of Jamaican tobacco, but they say there just isn't enough. "It has a beautiful flavor, these little, beautiful leaves," says Alfons Mayer, the longtime senior vice president of tobacco for General, now a consultant. "But for the quantity I make, I wouldn't be able to even use two percent Jamaican filler."
The elder Cullman won't disclose how much Jamaican tobacco General once used in Macanudo. "We can't tell you that," he says. "It's a formula, a secret formula. Does Coke tell you how they make their product? Macanudo's as good as Coke."
General has been changing its Kingston plant. In a sign of the company's respect for the high quality of production in Jamaica--and its high labor costs--General has been moving the manufacture of cheaper cigars from Jamaica to the Dominican Republic so it can produce larger, more expensive ones in Kingston. General used to make machine-bunched, hand-rolled Macanudo Portofinos and Caviars at Cifuentes. Those machines were moved to the Dominican Republic in June 1998. Now the company is focusing on larger Macanudos and Macanudo Vintage Cabinet Selection cigars in Jamaica.
One vast rolling room in the Cifuentes plant sits idle, its empty benches shrouded in darkness. General had expanded the plant during the heat of the cigar boom, but had to pare the workforce in 1998. Although the U.S. cigar market has approximately quadrupled since 1992, overproduction hurt cigar sales starting in late 1997--there were simply too many cigars on the market. In June 1998 and again in September, General made dramatic cuts in its Kingston workforce. The company now employs about 500 workers at the factory, working five days a week, but Cullman Jr. said he might cut that back to four days. Cifuentes intends to make 40 to 50 percent fewer cigars in Jamaica this year.
In addition to the cutbacks, General has had to deal with the three unions in the Kingston plant, which Cullman Jr. cites as one of the biggest challenges of working at the plant. "I can say very proudly, we've not had a strike that has crippled the company or crippled the workers," he says. "We've had a couple of days or even a couple of weeks of issues, but we've never closed the factory, or closed out the workers." (General faced another odd challenge in 1995 when a shipment from its Jamaican plant, apparently shipped by an employee who was smuggling drugs, mistakenly arrived at retailer JR Tobacco full of marijuana rather than cigars. The isolated problem was eliminated.)
Jamaica Tobacco has also had to cut back its workforce, which isn't unionized. Today it employs 42 bunchers and 42 rollers, down from 85 of each. The company is rolling cigars only four days a week now, down from five and a half at the height of the boom, and many of the benches in the back of the rolling room are empty. The company will make 3 million cigars this year, up from 2.8 million in 1998 but far from its annual capacity of 10 million cigars.
Despite the cutbacks, the owners of these plants recognize their importance in the marketplace. "Our costs are higher in Jamaica, higher than in the Dominican Republic," says Cullman Jr. "But we want to hold on to Jamaica as best we can, for not only fundamental reasons, but also intangibles." He says there are even plans to revive the Crème de Jamaica brand.
On the mountain road between May Pen and Montego Bay, Consolidated's Gore and Colucci are discussing the future of the Jamaican cigar industry. Gore is driving, and the trip would be relaxing if not for his habit of speeding into the opposite lane, while swerving around slower vehicles.
"We are going to produce three new brands out of Jamaica," says Colucci, clutching the dashboard as Gore spins the wheel. The tastes will be different, but every cigar made by Gore will contain some Jamaican tobacco. The company has no plans to ship the tobacco to another company or to use it in any of the other Consolidated plants. The company considers it special, the same way General feels that its Jamaican factory brings something special to the cigar business.
For some reason, the driver of a 42-foot-long tanker truck has also decided to take Gore's shortcut through the mountains. The tanker gets jammed between a stone wall and another truck, and the two are locked rearview mirror to rearview mirror, pinned together in a bottleneck. Some might say that the U.S. cigar industry is in a similar situation, temporarily halted because too many products from inferior producers have been put into the market.
Colucci tells Gore to shoot out the tires, but thankfully it doesn't come to that. The trucks squeeze through, and Gore and Colucci are on their way again. They relight their Royal Jamaicas and drive toward the beach.
David Savona is senior editor of Marvin Shanken's Cigar Insider, a sister publication of Cigar Aficionado.
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