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Kelner—Davidoff's Tobacco Guru

Gregory Mottola
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, May/June 2013

Total palate stimulation. This has been Hendrik “Henke” Kelner’s philosophy since he began making cigars more than 30 years ago. Kelner sits, smoking at a table behind glass doors in a small office that’s built into his smoking lounge, Tabaqueria, in downtown Santiago, Dominican Republic. He pulls out a piece of paper and starts drawing something. A schematic? Floor plans? No. It’s a tongue. Not exactly something out of Gray’s Anatomy, but once he starts mapping out the flavor zones and papillae, it begins to come together.

“Piloto tobacco will make a straight line of flavor down your tongue right to the bitter area,” instructs Kelner as he begins tracing a line with his pen. “Olor tobacco will give you a sweet sensation. San Vicente—acid region in the back.”

You have to catch up to Kelner when he speaks. His mind is in five places at once—the tobacco fields, the curing barns, in a tobacco storage facility, a sorting room, a rolling table, seed varieties of tobacco—maybe even more.  They’re all inextricably linked and Kelner controls them all for Davidoff of Geneva, Oettinger Imex’s massive, vertically integrated cigar operation in the Dominican Republic. The operation company is officially called TabaDom Holding Inc., and under its auspices, there is such a thing as tobacco predestination. In this context, Kelner is God. Or destiny perhaps. Plant a seed and he’ll tell you exactly what cigar its tobacco will be gracing in years to come.

Since Davidoff of Geneva first shunned Cuba (or was strong-armed out of Cuba, depending on which story you believe), Kelner has been responsible for the brand’s reincarnation as a Dominican cigar and, subsequently, its growth as a global brand. From the agriculture to the fermentation to the blending, Kelner shepherds every step of every Davidoff cigar and has been doing so since 1990.

“It was October 1988 when I met Dr. Ernst Schneider,” Kelner says, referring to the late owner of the Davidoff brand. “He was already considering moving his operation out of Cuba and he told me that he wanted something completely different than what had already been produced.”

Kelner is clear on the fact that he never tried, nor was instructed, to try to replicate the original taste of the Cuban Davidoffs with Dominican tobacco. This was never the goal. “Schneider wanted a light wrapper and mild filler,” he says. “A light cigar.”

At a breakfast meeting the following July, Schneider placed his first order with Kelner for 125,000 Dominican-made Davidoff cigars. The order was fulfilled by Kelner’s company Tabacos Dominicanos (a.k.a. TabaDom) and was intended for the U.S. market. “We didn’t start production until January of 1990. They shipped in March and were formally introduced at the premier party in New York City at the Davidoff shop that November. Zino Davidoff was there. The Baroness Philippine de Rothschild was there. I remember when they announced the price,” Kelner says with a chuckle. “The Aniversario No. 1, which measured 8 and 2/3 inches by 48, cost $18.00. Remember, that’s $18.00 for a cigar in 1990. It was a lot at the time, and some people didn’t think anyone would buy it, but that decision ended up being very good for the industry. It was before the boom, so cigar manufacturers were afraid to raise the price of a cigar even by five cents.”

Today, if one were to walk into the New York City Davidoff shop on Madison Avenue, that same cigar, after all applicable taxes, would cost $53.90.

The Dominican Davidoff line began with a few basic sizes, but the cigar world was different back then, and it wasn’t until 1992 that the company released its first robusto. “We called it the Special ‘R’,” recalls Kelner. “Rene Hollenstein [a former Davidoff executive] wanted a robusto with a darker wrapper and a stronger blend, so, the Special ‘R’ was created. It was the first stronger Davidoff. To this day it’s blended a little stronger than the rest of the line.”

A year later, the company introduced a torpedo, called the Special ‘T’, but there were no cigar molds to shape the smokes in the beginning, making construction more difficult. “For a year and a half, we made that cigar without a mold,” says Kelner. “One exceptional roller named Socrates Santana could make 300 Special ‘T’ cigars a day without any mold at all.”


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Comments   1 comment(s)

Derek Wotton — Deltona , Florida ,  —  July 8, 2013 10:58pm ET

Greatness


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