Tobacco in the Dominican Republic has an identity crisis and it doesn't need to be that way. Despite being one of the world's great growing regions for premium cigar tobacco, the country is planting a miniscule amount of leaf. Just last year only about 300 tons of olor and 600 tons of piloto, the nation's two key tobacco types for cigars, were processed, according to figures from the Dominican Tobacco Institute. Just three years before, in 1999, the industry processed 1,800 tons of olor and 5,800 tons of piloto.
Last spring, I visited a number of tobacco manufacturers in Santiago, the center of tobacco production in the Dominican Republic, and some of them reminded me of condemned men. It's pretty simple to understand why. A few years ago during the cigar boom in America, they were selling bales of Dominican tobacco like mile-long hot dogs in Dodger Stadium during a World Series game. Just about any tobacco in bales could be sold, regardless of the quality. Both new and established companies had incredible demand and needed all the tobacco they could get to fulfill orders. Some even used cigarette tobacco or partially fermented leaf from less serious tobacco packers.
Today, however, it's a different story. The boom is over. And the companies that remain in the Dominican Republic rolling cigars are aging their tobacco more, growing more themselves and buying less on the island from independent suppliers. The emphasis is now on quality, not quantity.
"We used to ship out one container every week full of tobacco," says Eduardo González of Santiago-based Compañia de Tabacos Quisqueya, one of the oldest tobacco processors, or packers as they are called in the business, in the Americas. "Today we are lucky to ship three or four a year. It's very difficult. We have to prove to our customers that Dominican tobacco is excellent quality and it provides the character that they need for the cigar blends."
What the reduced reliance on locally grown tobacco means is that today and in the future, Dominican cigars might become less and less Dominican. Many of the big-name cigarmakers on the island are already using less Dominican tobacco in their blends, not only due to the scarcity of quality tobacco but also because of a trend toward stronger cigars. Dominican tobacco has a reputation for being extremely aromatic but lacking in body and richness. So there has been a move towards using richer and more powerful tobacco from such Central American countries as Nicaragua, Honduras and Mexico. The few wrappers grown in the Dominican Republic have a reputation for being inferior. Another reason for the decline in Dominican tobacco plantings is that big manufacturers already have large stocks of tobacco from the island left over from the end of the boom.
"The tobacco in the Dominican on a whole is just not up to scratch as far as quality," said one major manufacturer, who wished to remain anonymous. "We just can't get the quality on the island that we want. The tobacco is not processed properly from fermentations to sorting."
It's a vicious circle. If cigar manufacturers, especially those based in the Dominican Republic, are not interested in local tobacco, then who is going to buy it? If there is no market for the leaf, then local growers and processors will not have the money to properly grow or treat the tobacco. Where does it end?
For the moment, it is most likely going to end in disaster. Dominican tobacco growing is primarily in the hands of thousands of small farmers, who are undercapitalized in just about every way. Many have already gone out of business or switched to other crops. Those who still grow are poorly cultivating, harvesting and curing their tobacco. They can't be compared for the most part to the high-quality tobacco coming from the large plantations in Honduras, Nicaragua and Cuba.
"The structure for growing tobacco in the Dominican Republic is mierda [shit]," says Hendrik Kelner, the head of Davidoff cigar operations on the island and one of the most knowledgeable tobacco men around. "But as bad as it is here, we have excellent tobacco. So we need to change the system."
The future for premium tobacco from the Dominican Republic has to be linked to making cigars with domestic tobacco. Improving the quality and image of the country as a cigar producer and tobacco grower depends on this. The quality of tobacco can be improved by providing the knowledge and resources for the hundreds of tiny growers scattered throughout the Cibao Valley, and the image of the country's cigars can be enhanced by emphasizing the excellence and character of the region's tobacco.
I always found it strange how most Dominican cigar producers consider their cigars a domestic product. Yes, Dominican cigars are manufactured on the island, but in my opinion they are not Dominican products unless a majority of Dominican tobacco is used. One hundred percent would be better. Cigarmakers may use some Dominican tobacco in their blends, but most manufacturers on the island use tobacco from all over the place. Perhaps one could argue that most of the island's cigar factories are located in duty-free zones, so they really are not part of the Dominican Republic, but that's not reality. Maybe they should be called Latin American cigars instead?
Cuban cigars are made in Cuba with 100 percent Cuban tobacco. And the top names in Nicaragua are the same, such as Padrón. The situation in the Dominican Republic would be like Bordeaux wine producers buying grapes in France, Spain and Italy and then calling it a wine of Bordeaux. This could theoretically happen, but the wine would have to be declassified to a simple European table wine, without a vintage on the label. It couldn't be labeled vintage Bordeaux. That's the law in the European Community and perhaps there should be a law like that in the Dominican Republic.
Think about it for a minute. Where would Cuba be if it had not stuck to a policy of making cigars with 100 percent domestic tobacco? It's written in the laws of the country (even before the revolution) that a Cuban cigar is not a Cuban cigar without 100 percent Cuban tobacco. It's why the Spanish call Cuban smokes puros, or pure. I believe this has been one of the main reasons why the Cubans have been able to maintain their positive image in the world market, despite some major problems with quality a few years ago.
I wouldn't suggest that all cigars made in the Dominican Republic should be made from 100 percent tobacco from the island. But I think that most of the premium cigars should be. In fact, the best cigar on the island already is. Look at the quality of the Fuente Fuente OpusX. Some people say that the cigar includes tobacco from other countries, but the Fuentes have always said it is made with 100 percent Dominican leaf, including the wrapper. The cigar proves that great quality can be achieved by blending the best Dominican tobacco—even wrappers. One could argue that only by using the best tobacco on the island can one achieve truly exceptional quality and unique character. How many cigars with Latin American blends have achieved the quality of OpusX?
The good news is that other leading producers are working very hard towards the great Dominican puro. For example, Litto Gomez, the dynamic owner of La Flor Dominicana, bought his own tobacco plantation near the town of La Canela a few years back. Already he is producing wrapper that is looking very similar to the great capa of Cuba's Vuelta Abajo. He hopes to have a Dominicana puro out in early 2004 in a blend similar to his high-quality Ligero line.
"It's the only way to go forward," Gomez says in front of his new tobacco curing barns. "The way to have the best quality is to control the process from the soil to the cigar. I am convinced that we can have the very best cigars, though only using our own tobacco."
Others are moving the same way, including Davidoff and General Cigar Co., which have small premium wrapper plantations in other regions of the island. But their ventures seem mostly cosmetic by comparison to the likes of Gomez and Fuente. La Aurora is making more of an effort, and the family company should have a Dominican puro late this year to celebrate its 100th anniversary. It's called La Aurora 100 Anos.
I spent a few hours walking through the tobacco fermentation rooms and sorting areas for Quisqueya. It was hard to judge how the fermentations were going. But the sorting was impressive. The workers were taking their time in selecting the leaves for strength and size—much better than what I saw five years ago in other packers' factories. There was a real sense of pride with González as he showed me the various processes and assured me that the company was doing everything possible for quality now. Unfortunately, his efforts and others' may all go to waste if something doesn't change very soon in the Dominican Republic.