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Nicaragua: The New Start for Nicaragua

This Central America country makes a strong comeback in the cigar business
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Gen. Tommy Franks, Nov/Dec 03

The clouds burst with fury over Ocotál, Nicaragua, as four visitors run for the shelter of a brick warehouse on a side road off the Pan-American highway. Inside is one of the largest collections of cigar tobacco in Central America. The building is a relic, built in 1978 by Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the Nicaraguan dictator, tobacco grower and cigarmaker. Somoza is long gone, and the Plasencia family, one of the largest tobacco growers in Nicaragua, now owns the warehouse. Nestor Plasencia Jr., a short, goateed 33-year-old, leads the group of visitors through the sprawling facility, past an army of women who sort through soft piles of cured leaves. The leathery, earthy aroma of cigar tobacco hangs in the air.

Plasencia Jr., who learned the art of tobacco growing at a university as well as at the side of his father, leads the group into a huge room. Asleep in its darkness, hundreds of tons of fermenting sun-grown tobacco are segmented into piles and covered by sheets of burlap. The leaves will be sold to clients in Nicaragua, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere and some will go to the Plasencia-owned factories in Nicaragua and Honduras. The workers in Ocotál will process some 10,000 bales of tobacco this year, as much as is grown on 550 acres of land. Unable to hide his pride in the bounty before him, Plasencia Jr. flicks on the light switch, and a half-dozen bats flutter away, seeking to return to the gloom.

After its own 10-year sleep to 1995, a period when it was only a bit player in the American cigar market, the Nicaraguan cigar industry has reawakened. The turmoil of Somoza's rise and fall brought war into his fields, armies into the cigar factories and ruin to the Nicaraguan cigar industry. Now, withstanding war, embargo and recovery, Nicaragua has posted a strong revival. In 1995, only 2 percent of the premium cigars sold in America were Nicaraguan. This year, production of Nicaraguan cigars will make up approximately 11 percent of the handmade, premium market as it maintains the fastest such growth of any country. Millions more cigars made outside the country will incorporate flavorful Nicaraguan tobacco in their blends. Having rediscovered a taste that harks back to the country's glory days of the 1970s, Nicaragua is once again making some of the world's finest cigars.


The Hottest Cigar Brand in America

Jose Orlando Padrón and his son Jorge. It's opening day for the new Padrón factory in Estelí, and the rollers and bunchers are getting back into their routine after a two-week break. In the empty packing room, president Jorge Padrón is smoking a Padrón 3000, fresh from the rolling tables. The 35-year-old has a stern look belying his easygoing personality. He's a picky smoker, especially now, worried that some of his staff might be a touch rusty after the 14-day hiatus.

Padrón is one of the smaller brands produced in Nicaragua, but it's arguably the best. Retailers recently declared the company's Anniversary Series line the hottest brand for the second straight year in a poll conducted by Cigar Insider, the newsletter from Cigar Aficionado magazine.

The move to this new spot in Estelí will make Padrón a more efficient cigar producer. Previously, it had to move the bales of leaf from this storage facility to its old factory, a five-minute drive away.

The addition, comprising a large rolling gallery and offices, is 12,000 square feet, 50 percent larger than the old factory. Half of the 80 or so cigarmakers are bunchers (all of them male) who sit in the back of the room. The rollers (all of them female) sit in the front.

Making cigars is but a small part of the Padrón operation, for most of the 17 buildings the company owns in Estelí—75,000 square feet in all—are used for curing and storing tobacco, and a particularly mammoth room is where tobacco is sorted and graded. The rooms are filled with Nicaraguan leaves from the three major tobacco-growing regions of the country. Padrón uses only Nicaraguan tobacco, and it has a six-year inventory, enough to make more than 25 million cigars.

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