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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 3)

"Consistency is what we sell," says Brown, who was born in Kingston. "Making cigars is an art, to an extent, rather than a science. And therefore the delivery of that on a consistent level is a remarkable achievement. As a Jamaican, I'm proud of our craftsmanship. People put their life into it, making that cigar."

Jamaica made General Cigar what it is today. "It's one of the greatest things we ever did," says the elder Cullman. When General Cigar bought the Temple Hall factory, the company had sales of just under $100 million a year, and its entire product line consisted of cigars made in the United States--White Owl, William Penn and Robert Burns, among others. Last year General had sales of $271 million, and it recently sold its machine-made cigar business to focus exclusively on handmade, imported cigars.

Temple Hall, General's first premium offshore cigar factory, was tiny when General cut the deal. It was selling about 2 million Temple Hall cigars and Crème de Jamaica cigars annually in the United States. The factory also made about 1 million Macanudos a year strictly for the U.K. market.

The name Macanudo comes from Argentine slang equivalent to super or terrific. The Duke of Windsor picked it up after a polo trip to Argentina, according to Cullman Jr., and the Fernando Palicio family, who made Punch cigars in Cuba, slapped the name on one of their Punch sizes, then named a brand Macanudo when they came to Jamaica during the Second World War. Aficionados will notice that the box art on classic Macanudo sizes, such as the Hyde Park, is nearly identical to that on a box of Punch cigars. Punch bands have FP in the middle, which stands for Fernando Palicio; General switched the FP to PP, just to "make it a little different," says Cullman Jr.

General put all of its efforts behind Macanudo, especially when it came to the wrapper. The company grows its own Connecticut-shade tobacco, which is shipped to the Dominican Republic, fermented and aged, then shipped back to Connecticut for a second aging called the "winter sweat." The Cullmans believe this extra step is a key reason behind the smooth taste known to Macanudo smokers.

"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."

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