50 Years A Factory
You’d think the largest cigar factory in the Dominican Republic—perhaps the largest in the world—would have at least a bit of ornamentation on its façade: A series of arches to underscore importance. Columns to project power. Or maybe even decorative ironwork to show prosperity. But Tabacalera de Garcia, located just outside the Casa de Campo resort complex of La Romana, Dominican Republic, doesn’t boast any particular architectural style. The exterior is as nondescript and free of affect as any building you’d find in an industrial park in the United States. If not for the sign outside the security gate, you’d have no idea that you were standing in front of one of the most important cigar operations in the world.
“Earthquakes,” says Javier Elmudesi as he walks past some workers digging up a pipe outside, near a cement sidewalk. He’s the industrial affairs director for this massive operation and oversees most of what goes on here, from tobacco inventory to water issues. “Little earthquakes. We just started getting them about a few months ago and they can damage the pipes. Once we lose water pressure in a part of the factory, we know a pipe has burst.”
Elmudesi glances at the ditch-diggers toiling in the hot morning sun, and moves on, circling back around the side of the building to an unremarkable entrance. Is it the front of the building? The lack of design makes it difficult to tell front from back, but no matter. Elmudesi isn’t trying to get Tabacalera de Garcia into the pages of Architectural Digest. He’s more concerned with keeping such storied brands as Montecristo and Romeo y Julieta just as relevant today as they ever were.
Inside, Elmudesi paces through a corridor past a photo of himself hanging on the wall. As far as bosses go, he definitely looks the part. He’s a big guy by almost any standard, with slicked-back hair and an expression that goes from jovial to serious in an instant. Today, it’s all business as he walks through another doorway, parting a curtain of clear vinyl strips that barely touch the floor. They’re the type of clear strips you might see in a walk-in freezer, only these have yellowed from years of tobacco exposure. Fifty years to be precise. Tabacalera de Garcia celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and in those five decades it has grown into the largest premium cigar factory in the Dominican Republic, and one of the largest anywhere in the world.
The air, abuzz with action, carries with it the scent of aged tobacco. If you’ve never smelled it, the aroma registers sweet, somewhere between honey and raisins, but each whiff is also haunted with raw undertones of vegetation and earth. And the smell here is inescapable. This factory rolls some 33 to 35 million cigars each year by hand, with rolling tables that extend back as far as the eye can see. The facility also makes cigars by machine, an operation that runs 24 hours a day, with more than one billion mass-market cigars produced here annually, most of them Backwoods. Many of the handmade cigars, about 20 million, are Montecristos and Romeo y Julietas. Other brands made here include H. Upmann, Por Larrañaga, Don Diego, VegaFina and Henry Clay. This one factory is singularly responsible for nearly 30 percent of all the handmade Dominican cigars shipped to the United States.
Making so many cigars requires an enormous, well-managed workforce. There are 5,000 people who keep Tabacalera de Garcia running, with 900 making handmade cigars alone (400 bunchers and 500 rollers who apply the wrapper). It also requires immense inventories of premium tobacco, with some $150 million worth in storage. Much of it is grown here in the Dominican Republic, but a lot comes from all over the world: Ecuador, Mexico, Cameroon, Indonesia, Nicaragua and the United States—a veritable United Nations of tobacco leaf. The factory is the heart of cigar production for Tabacalera USA, the American arm of tobacco giant Imperial Brands PLC, of Great Britain.
“Tabacalera de Garcia combines the best of both worlds,” says Javier Estades, president and chief executive officer of Tabacalera USA. “On one hand, it has managed to maintain all the tradition of crafting a truly premium cigar by hand. But it has also incorporated modern processes to assure we produce outstanding cigars with the highest quality. We keep a significant inventory of tobacco giving us flexibility to age our cigars.” Estades is a slim, blonde-haired Spaniard, put in charge of the U.S. operations of this company back in 2011. Under his guidance, the company has made notable changes to packaging and blends, releasing several high-scoring smokes. If there’s one thing he wants to make clear, it’s that staff members work together.
“I do not believe so much in functions or departments, but in teams,” Estades insists. “This is especially important given our industry. Developing a cigar requires the highest level of knowledge, passion and dedication available. We use the best experts in each area. To produce a successful cigar, it takes the ability to understand what the adult consumer demands, and then working with those experts who can make it happen.”
Montecristo and Romeo have become Tabacalera de Garcia’s flagship brands, and now come in myriad varieties, but this wasn’t always the case. When the facility opened in 1969 it was a modest tobacco sorting operation dealing primarily in the mild Connecticut shade wrapper that was so popular at the time. The factory was owned by Gulf and Western Industries Inc. through its subsidiary, Consolidated Cigar Corp. Being the corporate conglomerate it was, Gulf and Western owned a huge portfolio of business holdings, and that included a sugar growing and processing operation in the Dominican Republic, as well as the entire Casa de Campo resort complex in La Romana. This is the same Gulf and Western that owned the famed film studio Paramount Pictures. Despite its collection of blue-chip holdings (too numerous to list), the company also invested heavily in the Dominican Republic.
The factory made its first handmade brands in 1972, Primo del Rey being one of them, followed by H. Upmann and Por Larrañaga a few years later. Back in the early ’70s—a time when the Dominican Republic was not the cigar-producing powerhouse it is today—the factory was only making 500,000 cigars per year.
The timeline of Tabacalera de Garcia and its flagship brands is one of transitions, acquisitions and mergers. By the 1980s, Gulf and Western was looking to divest itself of sugar and tobacco. It pulled out of the Dominican Republic and sold Consolidated (and with it, Tabacalera de Garcia) to a group of senior managers within the company for about $120 million in 1983. The next year, billionaire Ron Perelman bought Consolidated from the management team for $118 million. After that point, the company was bought and sold repeatedly: In 1988 a management team bought Consolidated from Perelman for $138 million, then in 1993 Perelman bought it back for $188 million. Six years later, Perelman sold it to French tobacco giant SEITA for $733 million. SEITA later merged with Spain’s Tabacalera S.A., creating Altadis S.A., and Consolidated Cigar was renamed Altadis U.S.A.
Altadis, and by extension, Tabacalera de Garcia, was to change hands once again. In July 2007, British tobacco giant Imperial Brands PLC acquired Altadis S.A. for 16.2 billion euros ($22.4 billion). This put Imperial in a unique spot, as Altadis S.A. also owned 50 percent of Cuban cigar monopoly Habanos S.A. Buying Altadis meant buying half of Habanos, placing Imperial in both the Cuban and non-Cuban sectors.
Tabacalera de Garcia started making Montes in 1984, and Romeo y Julieta arrived after the creation of Altadis.
Every area in the factory has its own ecosystem and every employee plays a vital part. In the sorting room, women separate tobacco in virtual silence, arranging each specimen by color and by size. Each leaf has a classification, and all are neatly arranged in ceremonious piles.
Contrast this to the moisturizing or “conditioning” room, a damp, foggy chamber where tobacco is piled in shaggy heaps. This is where workers, most of them men, unpack tobacco that’s been aging in storage for years and revive it by running it all under hissing sprays of mist, one handful of tobacco at a time.
A flaw at any stage will show itself in the final product, and the first cigar has to perform like the 11 millionth. With a handmade product, that’s easier said than done, but consistency has been the key element at Tabacalera de Garcia for five decades.
“Some things may have become more efficient over the years,” Elmudesi allows. “We keep much better records now of daily activities, but the process hasn’t changed much. What has changed are the types of cigars people are smoking. So much of what we make now is full-bodied. And much thicker too.”
He picks up a thick log of a cigar off a rolling table. Plump and hefty, the cigar must be at least 60 ring gauge, maybe 70. He holds it up to make his point: “Ten years ago, we had maybe one size that was 60 ring gauge. Now, we have so many.”
The rollers here have daily quotas and you can tell by their concentration that they take this task seriously—and why not? The incentives are strong. Each roller gets a base pay, but if they exceed the quota, they get more money.
The weight of Tabacalera de Garcia’s reputation and its brands doesn’t lie on Elmudesi’s shoulders alone. He has an elite group of right-hand men with specialized knowledge of tobacco and the cigarmaking process known as the Grupo de Maestros, all of whom have spent decades in the factory: Victor Avila, who has been at Tabacalera de Garcia for 45 years, Nestor Rodriguez (40 years), Carlos Travieso (45 years) and Pedro Ventura (22 years), who is also the manager of premium handmade operations. They are all instrumental in formulating new brands. Both Elmudesi (25 years) and Ventura report to an even larger overseer: factory manager Dr. Regine Wolfgramm. And yet, even she reports to Tabacalera de Garcia’s manufacturing division. In corporate hierarchies, everyone has a boss.
Another cast member is Yasemin Ozoncul, head of product development for cigar region. She’s been with Imperial for more than a decade but moved to Tabacalera de Garcia in 2017.
And a frequent sight here is Rafael Nodal, the head of product capability for Tabacalera USA. Nodal, the dark-haired, bespectacled cigarmaker who created (and co-owns) the Aging Room cigar brand, has been tasked with creating new blends for the company, many that are rolled here.
“It is an important milestone in my career to work with the Grupo de Maestros,” Nodal says. “Tabacalera de Garcia has carried out an important place in the history of premium cigars and creates blends with its unique and vast tobacco inventory.”
With the confluence of teamwork, the factory continues to produce its core lines, which for many years were fairly mild and came in a few varieties. The Romeo y Julieta 1875, for example, is a staple for the factory and is the quintessential Dominican cigar in both body and character: Indonesian wrapper around an all-Dominican blend. Most likely, there will always be a market for this brand, which is mild to medium bodied. But as the company grew, and new leaders stepped in, those brands have evolved and expanded, with new blends for smokers who want stronger cigars.
Consider the full-bodied Romeo by Romeo y Julieta, a bold answer to the market’s growing demand for more complexity and power. This magazine named its Piramide the No. 3 Cigar of 2012.
Montecristo is treated much the same way, with more traditional, milder lines such as the Classic and White Series, joined by stronger, more modern blends like the Monte by Montecristo: Ecuador Habano wrapper, Dominican filler and two binders, Dominican and Nicaraguan. The Monte by Montecristo Jacopo No. 2 was named Cigar Aficionado’s No. 9 cigar of 2014.
Occasionally, the factory’s Grupo de Maestros will release limited-edition cigars called Private Batch, the most recent, a Dominican puro that’s been aged for 10 years. Last summer the Grupo turned their attention to H. Upmann, a brand that tends to suffer from middle-child syndrome, and created the H. Upmann Grupo de Maestros Connecticut (89 points, Churchill).
So how does a cigar company celebrate 50 years? With, of course, a commemorative cigar, in this case the Montecristo Cincuenta. It comes in two formats: a 10-count box of Toros, or a 100-count humidor of box-pressed, No. 2 pirámides. The humidor is by Elie Bleu, and the whole package retails for $10,000, the humidor, naturally, accounting for most of the cost.
In the labyrinth of the factory, Elmudesi finds himself in the rolling gallery again. He walks over to a table and takes a finished cigar off the top to inspect it. Perhaps it’s a mighty Montecristo or regal Romeo, or one of the other brands made here.
“You know, we have 300 workers here who’ve been with us for 20 years or more,” he says with some satisfaction.
The roller, a young woman, continues to work as though he’s not there. Elmudesi puts the cigar back down and then gently puts an appreciative hand on her shoulder before walking away to the next station. Without looking up, she cracks a smile, but then suppresses it and places another finished cigar on top of her rolling table. The day is almost over and there’s a quota to fill.