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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

(continued from page 3)

Sales are up 30 percent, says Mario Perez, the marketing manager of the company. The reason? A new version of the brand, the oldest in Central America, called Joya de Nicaragua Antaño 1970.

The word antaño loosely translates as circa, and for Joya de Nicaragua the era around 1970 was a beautiful time. The company that originally made the cigar—Nicaragua Cigars S.A.—was created in 1964, and in 1970 the owners trademarked the Joya de Nicaragua brand. The cigars were a hit, and became a must-smoke in the United States. The puros were strong and flavorful, and rivaled Cubans. In 1976, the company sold 9 million in the United States alone. In 1979, however, a major problem arose with one of the founding partners.

His name was Somoza. When he wasn't growing tobacco or helping run a cigar company, Somoza was the dictator of Nicaragua. Revolution led to Somoza's overthrow in 1979, and for good measure rebels burned the Joya de Nicaragua factory to the ground. It was rebuilt out of brick a year later, but in 1985 the United States placed an embargo on Nicaraguan goods that wouldn't end for five years. The nation's cigar industry didn't begin to truly recover until 1995.

The Joyas of the cigar boom were mild, uninspiring cigars made with Connecticut-seed wrappers grown in Nicaragua. The new Antaños, which were released last year, are anything but. They are made with a Cuban-seed hybrid wrapper grown by Nestor Plasencia Sr.; and one can almost see the oil drip from the cigars, the strongest of which are robust and as spicy as a habanero. Perez credits the entire 30 percent increase to the new brand: "We want this cigar to become what this brand was in the '70s, when it was the most popular brand from Nicaragua."

 

The New and the Small

The cigar boom of the mid-90s found the cigarmakers of the Dominican Republic battling over tobacco and rollers when a horde of newcomers flooded the country in the mid-1990s at the height of the cigar boom. Some newcomers came to Nicaragua at the time, but not on the same grand scale as in the Dominican Republic. One cigarmaker estimates that there were 40 companies making cigars in Nicaragua in the mid-1990s, and that today there are 20.

A handful of relative newcomers have weathered the storm at the end of the cigar boom. One is Tabacalera Tambor, one of the smallest cigar factories in the country, which relocated from Costa Rica to Estelí in 2001. The factory makes Bahia cigars. Oliva Cigar Co. (no relation to Tampa's Oliva Tobacco), known for its Oliva "O" cigar, which comes in a circular box, was at work building a new factory in Estelí in June. A third company, Tabacalera Tropical (known as Tropical Tobacco until this year), was acquired in 2002 by Eduardo Fernandez, who has planted massive crops of shade in Jalapa. Tabacalera Tropical and its cigar factories, called Tabaco del Valle de Jalapa S.A., are turning Fernandez's leaves into premium cigars.

Philip Wynne, owner of Felipe Gregorio Inc., bucked trends by building a cigar factory in the tobacco town of Condega in 1994. Wynne's company was once known as Cigars of Honduras, but when Consolidated Cigar Corp. (now part of Altadis U.S.A. Inc.) acquired the Flor de Copan factory in Honduras where Wynne once made his cigars, he shifted all of his production to Nicaragua, including the Felipe Gregorio and Petrus brands. In addition to producing his own cigars, Wynne also makes private-label brands for Thompson and Finck Tobacco.

Kiki Berger, a rotund man with an easy smile and friendly demeanor, has been making cigars in Nicaragua for eight years. The 47-year-old has a small factory on the outskirts of Estelí attached to a practically empty building the size of an airplane hangar where he intends to build a new factory, when time allows. Berger looked rather silly when he planted a tobacco field alongside a road several years ago, but today that leaf is powering many of his blends, including the well-received Savinelli Nicaraguan Selection cigar, a dark, box-pressed beauty.


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