Three Dominican tobacco experts converged in one seminar Saturday at the Big Smoke Las Vegas to discuss the largest leaf source for handmade cigars produced for the United States. And they found consensus in their striving for quality and consistency.
Cigar Aficionado associate editor Gregory Mottola led a panel of tobacco men that featured Seigfried Marushka, of Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd., Jhonys Díaz, of General Cigar Dominicana, and Jochi Blanco of Tabacalera La Flor de Palma.
The moderator noted that there has been a "sea change" in the state of Dominican tobacco since it first started to become an important producer subsequent to the embargo of Cuban goods in 1962. The tobacco now packs significantly more flavor. "Cigarmakers are making bold statements with Dominican Republic tobaccos," Mottola said. "The consumer wants more information and more complexity. They are some of the most interesting cigars in the world."
Mottola introduced Marushka as the man through whose hands every bit of Dominican Republic tobacco for Altadis U.S.A. Inc., passes, a considerable number indeed considering that the company makes such big brands as Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo and H. Upmann. The tobacco man added that while he sources from 400 different farmers in the Dominican Republic, the process is one that the company keeps a close eye on from planting through curing. He compared himself to a basketball guard. "I follow the ball," he said. "The job is over when the tobacco is handed over to Altadis."
Díaz, the operations manager for General Cigar Dominicana, where such leading brands as Macanudo, Partagas and La Gloria Cubana are made, stressed that quality is his first concern. "It is defined when you deliver what they expect day in day out every step of the way."
Quality has to be built in, he added. It starts with the proper soil, then the right seed, and ends with the correct management of the crop with the proper chemistry and curing. And the process is individual to every brand recipe, as well.
"If we're going to be using a specific leaf for a Macanudo," Díaz pointed out as an example, "we make a promise we are going to be providing that leaf, not a leaf from a different part of the plant."
Mottola described Blanco, the maker of Aging Room cigars, as a one-man show of cigar production, virtually integrated from ground to processing through manufacturing. Blanco derived the process of tobacco growing as starting even further back: "The sun is life," he said, adding that the solar quality and pH balance in the soil of the Dominican Republic are perfect for growing tobacco.
Nevertheless, the soil must be rested between plantings, which are performed for about 90 days around October through December each year. Díaz concurred with the necessity of letting the land lie fallow for most of the year.
All three talked about the importance of starting with the right seeds, whether they were planting them themselves or sourcing the growing to farmers. Tabaclera de Garcia, for instance, supplies seeds to the farms that it does not own itself. Marushka gave the figure of 4 million pounds for the amount of tobacco that the company processes each year.
What followed was a discussion of the different variety of seeds and their relative merits. Through cross-breeding farmers now have improved strains of tobacco that are resistant to disease and use less pesticides in the growing process, which results in bigger yields.
Piloto Cubano was singled out as a tobacco type that delivers strength and aroma—qualities now highly valued in the cigar-smoking market—as well as burning well.
But when it comes to strength versus taste the priority is always with the latter, Díaz said. And Marushka added, that one type of leaf will never deliver the complexity needed in a cigar" "Blending is important."