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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

Robert L. Gore pulls his truck alongside something that's not supposed to exist--a tobacco plant growing out of the rich soil of May Pen, Jamaica. In this secretive and skeptical industry, the common belief is that cigar tobacco no longer grows in this country. Yet there it is, an eight-foot-tall plant with broad, low-hanging leaves waiting to be harvested. The plant looms over several thousand of its cousins as it soaks up February's midday sun, 30 miles west of Kingston and just 100 miles south of Cuba.

The field belongs to Gore, a third-generation Jamaican tobacco grower and a partner in the making of Royal Jamaica cigars, the only cigar sold in the United States with Jamaican tobacco. A thickly built man with a gray beard and scant hair, Gore stops the truck in front of a field of tobacco that was stunted by the rains of Hurricane Mitch, a monstrous storm that skimmed Jamaica last October but ravaged Central America.

"We probably lost 30 to 40 acres of tobacco in Mitch," says the 53-year-old Gore, squinting in the sun. He points out the uneven tops of a row of tobacco. "We didn't have breezes with Mitch," he says, "but we had a piss-pot full of rain."

Gore knows hurricanes all too well. In September 1988, Hurricane Gilbert slammed into Jamaica at full strength, maiming the nation's cigar industry. The storm destroyed Gore's factory in Kingston, which had stood since his grandfather James Frederick Gore founded Royal Jamaica in 1935, and ruined 1,000 acres of tobacco in May Pen. It was the worst natural disaster to befall Jamaica since the 1907 earthquake that turned Kingston into rubble. Because of Gilbert, the Jamaican tobacco industry was set back several years, production of Royal Jamaica cigars was shifted to the Dominican Republic, and Jamaican tobacco was no longer used in the island's biggest brand, Macanudo.

Today, Jamaica is regaining some of its former cigar-making glory. Last year, 23 million premium, handmade cigars were shipped to the United States from Jamaica, the fourth-largest producer of premium cigars for the U.S. market, after the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua, and the only major exporter to show an increase over its 1997 production. Nearly 20 million of those cigars came from Cifuentes y Cia., a factory owned by General Cigar Co., and 2.8 million came from the post-Gilbert Jamaican incarnation of Royal Jamaica cigars, Jamaica Tobacco Manufacturing Co. (1995) Ltd., a 75/25 joint venture owned by Consolidated Cigar Corp. and Gore.

Tobacco is indigenous to Jamaica. A variety called cow tongue, or silver tongue, grows wild in the island's fertile, volcanic soil, and locals use it to make a potent mixture smoked in pipes. But cigar smoking and cigar making are not ingrained in Jamaica, as they are in Cuba, the island's closest neighbor.

"It's not part of our cultural heritage," says Jamaican Senator Frank Pringle, 69, who nonetheless proudly brings Jamaican cigars with him when meeting foreign leaders. "The Cubans were the original people who brought cigars to Jamaica."

The modern-day Jamaican tobacco industry owes a debt to the Second World War and a cigar-loving Great Britain. With the United Kingdom mired in war, hard currency was at a premium and had to be kept within the commonwealth--not spent on cigars made elsewhere. So Cubans moved to the British colony with their tobacco and expertise, and opened factory after factory. Soon Jamaican versions of Cuban brands--many made entirely with Cuban tobacco, others with Jamaican filler and Cuban wrappers--were hitting the U.K. market.

Jamaican cigars "replaced the top slot in the U.K. cigar market whilst Havanas were absent," says Simon Chase, marketing director for U.K. cigar importer Hunters & Frankau. "And Havanas were totally absent from 1940 up until 1953, and on quota up until 1973. It's quite a long story of an unnatural market."

Jamaica developed a reputation as a country with gifted cigarmakers, and by the 1960s, when Cuban cigars were banned in the United States, Jamaican cigars were considered a high-quality alternative. Besides Royal Jamaica and Macanudo, other brands, such as Crème de Jamaica, Flor de Jamaica, Temple Hall and Palamino, were very highly regarded.

"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.

"The Jamaican leaf is very ugly, but it's damn tasty, and it smokes good," says Israel Pinchas, the general manager of Jamaica Tobacco and Gore's second-in-command. He's tugging on the first of many cigars that he'll smoke that day, and talking about how he met his girlfriend, Nancy, when he came to Jamaica from Israel, in 1991, ended up staying, and married her. Gore kept him in the country after his wife overheard Pinchas's girlfriend lamenting to her hairdresser that her boyfriend was going to have to leave Jamaica because he didn't have a work permit. The two men met, and instantly clicked. Gore was impressed by Pinchas's knowledge of irrigation and his military training, and taught him about cigars and tobacco. Today Gore looks upon the 29-year-old as a son, and the eventual heir to the Royal Jamaica factory.

Pinchas was put in charge of staffing the new plant in May Pen, where he had to train locals who had never rolled cigars before. "When I told them they had to make 300, 400 cigars, they thought I was crazy. They made 50 cigars and they thought it was an excellent day. That was really tough in the beginning," says Pinchas.

Finally, two ladies reached the 300-cigar mark, which considerably increased their wages, as the rollers are paid by the piece. "The following week, I saw them come in with new clothes," says Pinchas. "I'm a Jew, but I said 'Jesus Christ!' Then everyone started picking up. Now I have to cut them off at 350."

In Pinchas's spartan office, he offers a guest a cigar that's nearly as long as his forearm, the Royal Jamaica 10 Downing Street. It's one of the most difficult cigars to create. There's no mold to hold it together, and a buncher must carefully press the leaves into a 10-and-a-half-inch-long cigar with a gentle taper.

That type of artful cigar making is what sold Edgar M. Cullman, Edgar Jr.'s father, on Jamaica in the late 1960s. He visited Jamaica's Temple Hall cigar factory in Kingston in 1969 and was immediately taken by the quality of its workforce.

"The people rolled cigars like I never saw people roll cigars," the 81-year-old Cullman recalls. He was already sold on the beauty of the island--Cullman had built a house on Tryall, the legendary golf course, four years before--and General bought Temple Hall in 1969. Today the factory--now known as Cifuentes y Cia. Ltd.--is the largest in Jamaica.

Kingston, the island's capital, where Cifuentes is headquartered, is not the Jamaica of the travel brochures. On the city outskirts people live clustered in primitive slums, in homes made of corrugated zinc, with rules of their own; places where police are afraid to tread. It's a long way from the white sand beaches, reggae bands and rum punch of tourism ads. In the city center, ancient buses belch thick black smoke and drivers weave colorful patterns across cratered roads.

But the Cifuentes plant is an oasis of calm. Peter Brown, the general manager of the plant, is a quiet, precise man with a spotless office. A worker walks in, smoking a corona-sized Macanudo, and Brown looks up. "Smoking the profits," he says with a smile. At 34, Brown may be one of the youngest men running a cigar plant and he's probably the only cigar factory manager in the world who doesn't smoke cigars.

Last year was a record year for Cifuentes: the Macanudos it shipped accounted for roughly 75 percent of the Macanudos sold in the United States, and every Macanudo Vintage cigar. The plant also makes Cifuentes cigars, a much smaller brand, and even fewer Temple Hall Estates and 8-9-8 Collections. Furthermore, the factory manufacturers a smattering of private-label cigars for high-end retailers Alfred Dunhill and Nat Sherman, as well as creating some bundle brands.

Brown, who was trained as a plant manager rather than a tobacco man, brings a corporate efficiency to the cigar business. He's worked at Jamaica subsidiaries of Johnson & Johnson and Windsor Laboratories, among other companies. His latest project at General is a bid to win ISO 9000 certification--an international award recognizing quality production--for his plant, something that no other handmade cigar factory has. ISO (Organization for Industry Standardization) certification is usually given to widget producers, not cigarmakers.

"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."

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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