Tuesday in the Dominican Republic. The ProCigar Festival doesn’t officially begin here in Santiago until Wednesday, so I planned to spend this day meeting people who aren’t part of the organization. The idea was to spend the morning with Mike Chiusano of Cusano Cigars, but he had to cancel at the 11th hour, so that left my morning free.
I sat down to breakfast here at the Gran Almirante Hotel, the biggest hotel in the city. I quickly bumped into Wayne Suarez from Tabacalera A. Fuente (read all about him on page 130 of the February issue of Cigar Aficionado), who was here on a last-minute trip, but was on his way out. We talked for a bit, and after he left I sat down to eat. Soon I was chatting with Jonathan Drew and Steve Saka of Drew Estate—they make cigars in Nicaragua, but they’re here to check out things in Santiago, buy some tobacco and smoke a bunch of cigars. We were joined by Phil Zanghi, formerly of Indian Tabac, who makes cigars here by machine, and spoke for a while about the machine-made cigar business, which is growing like gangbusters. Steve handed me a Liga Privada Dirty Rat, a thin, dark smoke with a pigtail. I thanked him and headed on my way.
I met up with Barry Abrams from Cigar Aficionado (we’re sending a big team here this year, and Gordon Mott and Greg Mottola land on Wednesday) and we headed off to Tamboril to meet with Litto Gomez, the maker of La Flor Dominicana cigars. Soon we were in his office puffing on Air Benders, pretty hearty smokes made with his tobacco on the inside and a dark, strong leaf of Habano seed grown in Ecuador. My second cigar of the day is something new Litto is working on, and I was lucky enough to smoke one of the first ones ever made along with him (you’ll read more about that in Cigar Insider.) After a quick tour of the factory, we got into Litto’s pickup truck, cigars in our jaws, and were off to see his tobacco farm. Litto said this year’s harvest was superb, so I wanted to see for myself.
La Canela is an agricultural town, much smaller than Santiago, located west of Santiago de los Caballeros. It looks like a stone’s throw on the map, but it’s a ride across some very bumpy roads, over a bridge or two. After going through the hustle and bustle of Santiago, you emerge in the countryside, with verdant green patches of rice fields, gorgeous mist-cloaked mountains, people on horseback and, finally, tobacco.
A few farms with scraggly, stunted leaves flanked modest farms alongside the road in spots, with creaky casa de tobaccos standing in their midst. “That will never grow,” said Litto. Some small farmers, waiting on the rains for the proper time to plant, had left their seedlings in the ground too long, and planted too late, ruining their crop.
Litto’s property (part of which he shares with a cigarmaker named Jochi Blanco) was thriving by comparision. Portions of the fields had already been harvested; others had plants a few feet high, and others still were partially primed, picked of their leaves from the bottom up. We started in a portion of sun grown tobacco. I shot some video. Take a look.
The tobacco looked superb, healthy, green, swaying in the considerable breeze that’s prevalent in La Canela (the wind is part of what gives the tobacco its characteristic strength). I got an idea of how dry it had been this season—the ground was furrowed with thick cracks—but that made Litto happy. It allows him to fully control the amount of water the crop gets, allows him to stress the plants a bit by forcing the root system to reach deeper into the soil, looking for water. It gives him flexibility. When you have a sizeable operation like the one he has in La Canela, it’s a lot easier to turn the faucets on than to soak up the rain.
We looked around the property while smoking Coronado by La Flors. Litto has done quite a bit here over the years, adding more barn space, planting additional types of tobacco, acquiring more property. He’s in love with this tobacco. “It’s a beautiful thing, to blend tobaccos from different countries,” he told me. “It’s a major commitment of money, and it’s a major commitment of time, but at the end, that’s our trademark. I can give you my book of blends, but you can do nothing with it. Unless you grow tobacco in La Canela you cannot duplicate it.”
The last field we looked at was Litto’s most special tobacco, tobacco he grows under shade. This is the most expensive type of tobacco operation, with cheesecloth above and around the crop, suspended by poles, to shield it from sun and wind. The shade gives you a thinner, less veiny leaf, and is intended to grow wrapper. I shot more video there.
The field trip was superb. We were then back in the car, heading to Santiago, where Barry and I walked into the crowded lobby of the Gran Almirante and walked into a group of cigarmakers, retailers, and consumers here for the festival: Dan Carr and Benji Menendez from General Cigar Co.; Henke Kelner of Davidoff; José Blanco of La Aurora; visiting Nicaraguan cigar men Jose “Pepin” Garcia and his son Jaime Garcia; Tatuaje's Pete Johnson and (later) Avo Uvezian. It was like a miniature version of the Big Smoke.
It was a late night. Wednesday is when the cigar festival here officially begins, with factory and field tours, new cigar launches and all types of dinners. There’s a lot more on the way.
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