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The Canary Island Connection

Cigarmakers in The Canary Islands Try to Rekindle Past Glories While Battling Production Problems
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

The magazine advertisement shows a space shuttle view of the Canary Islands, a small group of atolls located off the northwest coast of Morocco. The perspective gives you the impression that the islands, a province of Spain, are in the middle of nowhere, cut off from the rest of the world.

The image of isolation may sound slightly melodramatic, but it's not far from the truth when it comes to cigars. Although cigarmakers in the Canary Islands produce eight to nine million premium cigars a year and have made some recent inroads into the U.S. market, they remain virtually unknown outside of Europe, and not without reason. With some exceptions, Canary Island cigars sold in the United States have been inconsistent in quality and slightly overpriced.

That hasn't always been the case. The Canary Islands have a long-standing cigarmaking tradition dating back to the eighteenth century, and many of the key cigar factories in Havana were established by former Canary Islanders. Canary Island cigars had a strong U.S. following through the 1960s and '70s, mainly due to the Menendez and Garcia families, who earlier had established the reputation of Cuba's H. Upmann factory. They had left Havana for the Canaries after the Cuban Revolution, setting up a factory on Gran Canaria island. Their key brand, Montecruz, was top quality, the leading premium cigar brand sold in the United States in the 1960s.

Today, times are different in the Canaries. A quick trip last autumn to the islands' major cigar manufacturers, primarily on the islands of Tenerife, Gran Canaria and La Palma, underlined the problems facing cigar producers there. Name almost any impediment to producing a good premium cigar, and the small band of island cigar companies are facing it--from a lack of tobacco and poor processing techniques to old equipment and disinterested workers.

This said, however, one of the best cigars I have ever had outside of Havana was a Churchill-sized cigar I picked up from a roller's bench in a Tenerife factory run by CITA (Centro Industrial de Tabaqueros Associados), the dominant force in the Canarian cigar and cigarette business. It was rich and satisfying, with a gorgeously caressing draw and all the aroma and flavor of a great cup of espresso. I didn't want to put it out even when it burned down to my fingertips. Unfortunately, another cigar of the same size and brand that I tried a few weeks later was unsmokable, underlining the ongoing problem with inconsistent quality.

The chief factor that differentiates Canary Island cigars from most others is the strong tradition of using Cuban tobacco in their blends. Cigar, cigarillo and cigarette producers on the islands have always used tobacco from two of Cuba's prominent growing areas, the Vuelta Abajo and Remedios. The former is the same area that produces great Havanas (or "Habanos," as the Cubans like to call their hand-rolled smokes), while the latter region traditionally produces a strong, dark tobacco for cigarettes.

Since the early 1990s, however, Canary Island cigar manufacturers have not been getting the quantities of Cuban tobacco they need due to Cuba's production problems. Moreover, the recent dramatic increase in cigar production in Cuba has exacerbated the shortage. "It gets more and more difficult obtaining tobacco from the Cubans," says one Canary Islands tobacco man. "Not only do they need the tobacco themselves, the crops have not been as successful as they say."

Nonetheless, the advantage of using Cuban tobacco in a cigar blend is worth the hassle. Cuban leaf adds strength and spice to a blend that other tobaccos cannot replicate. Canary Island cigar producers certainly are convinced that it works. "Cuban tobacco in Canary Island cigars is a longtime tradition," says Imeldo Rodriguez, the key tobacco buyer for CITA, the largest cigar manufacturer on the island, which makes close to six million premium smokes a year with such brands as Penamil, Condal and Goya. "We always use a bit in the filler, and for many years we used Cuban binder, although it's more difficult now and we use more Dominican tobacco. The Cuban tobacco gives you much better aromas and flavors to your cigars."

But not for smokers in the United States. Canary Islandcigars sold in the States cannot have Cuban tobacco in their blends because of the American embargo against Cuba. "Our cigars for the U.S. market are admittedly lighter than our normal ones produced here," says Fernando Wanguemert, the general manager of CITA's cigar division. "We changed over the Cuban tobacco for other tobaccos. We had to."

So, Canarian cigars that Americans have the opportunity to smoke have very little to do with the top-quality ones available on the islands. Many are bland, look-alike smokes with few distinguishing characteristics other than where they were rolled. The blends are typically dominated by tobacco from the Dominican Republic as well as some from Brazil and Nicaragua. Binders come mostly from the Dominican Republic and Indonesia, while wrappers originate mostly in Connecticut and Indonesia.


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