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Nicaragua's Power Leaf

The cigar world turns once again to the potent tobacco of Nicaragua
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Raquel Welch, Jul/Aug 01

(continued from page 1)

Padrón's company, Padrón Cigars Inc., makes one of the hottest cigars on the market, the all-Nicaraguan Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series. That brand is a major reason why Nicaraguan tobacco and Nicaraguan cigars have soared back to prominence in the United States. Tobacco fields that were once studded with mines during the Contra war are again lush with plants. The tobacco industry has recovered from the destruction wrought in the field-to-field fighting during the 1980s and the U.S. embargo on Nicaraguan goods from 1985 to 1990. The country is rebuilding roads and bridges washed away in the relentless rains of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Nicaraguan tobacco farmers have largely escaped the malaise affecting their cousins in the Dominican Republic, where overplanting led to a government effort to slash plantings to minuscule levels. While fewer plants are in the ground in Nicaragua today than at the height of the cigar boom, there is a comfortable amount of planting going on.

More and more frequently, cigars with Nicaraguan tobacco are becoming mainstays in American cigar stores. Tabacalera Perdomo S.A., a Padrón neighbor in the cigar-making town of Estel", makes several of its own Nicaraguan-powered brands, such as Perdomo2, as well as several contract brands, most notably the extremely popular C.A.O. L'Anniversaire eXtreme, which is all-Nicaraguan except for the wrapper.

"There're only two countries in the world where you can make cigars entirely from their tobacco, and it's not Mexico. It's Cuba and Nicaragua. Both of those countries have the most fertile dirt in the world for tobacco," says Nick Perdomo Jr., the outspoken owner of Tabacalera Perdomo. "It's almost like God said, 'I'm going to pick these two countries and I'm going to use them for tobacco.'"

Perdomo uses Nicaraguan tobacco in all of his cigars, and uses Nicaraguan wrapper on his Perdomo2, but he's not a tobacco farmer. Perdomo relies on outside vendors to supply him with leaf, including one of the biggest growers in the area, ASP Enterprises Inc., owned by the Perez family out of Miami.

"We grow an original Cuban seed from the 1960s that my dad adapted to the climatic conditions in Nicaragua," says David Perez, president of ASP. "We're been growing in Nicaragua since 1971." In Nicaragua, ASP grows solely in the Estel" area, concentrating on filler.

"The soils there are quite good for filler-type tobacco," says Perez. "It's a much stronger filler, with a much stronger character and taste compared to other places."

The strength of Nicaraguan tobacco also makes it popular with non-Nicaraguan cigarmakers. It's the tobacco of choice for spicing up a blend, particularly when cigarmakers are trying to appeal to connoisseurs who like hearty smokes. Litto Gomez, who makes cigars in the Dominican Republic, relies on Nicaragua for his strongest cigars, the La Flor Dominicana El Jocko Perfecto and the new Tubos. Onyx Reserve, the high-scoring, high-octane new cigar from Altadis U.S.A., has a bit of Nicaraguan tobacco in the filler blend and a Nicaraguan binder.

Tobacco from Nicaragua was widely considered to be the best in the world before civil and guerilla war ravaged the country in the late 1970s and '80s, even better than tobacco grown in Cuba's legendary Vuelta Abajo, depending on whom you ask. Rumors were rampant that Cuba herself once used Nicaraguan wrappers on her cigars. Today's Nicaraguan tobacco is very, very good -- perhaps not as good as in the past, but good enough so that the same rumors persist today.

The view on the 2001 crop is mixed. Some farmers are calling it a great year, with high yields and top-quality leaves. Jorge Padrón has a more skeptical view. He says it can't compare with the 2000 crop, a phenomenal year when his company hauled in 480,000 pounds of tobacco, about a five-year supply at its current production levels of 4 million cigars. Still, the 2001 crop isn't bad. Sure, the season has been drier than normal, but blue mold, tobacco's version of the black plague, has been kept to a minimum. With so much tobacco from 2000 jamming his warehouses, Padrón isn't losing sleep over the average-sized crop.

Padrón sleeps his best on his trips to Nicaragua, better than he does back home in Miami. It helps that the kids -- Jorge Luis, 2, and Daniela Sophia, 1 -- are back home and that Estel", where Padrón rolls its Nicaraguan cigars, is at the bottom of most lists of best places in the world to throw a party. The nights are largely silent, until the roosters scream at the sun around 5:30 a.m. If that doesn't wake you up, there's always the air-raid siren at 6.

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