In a small room in a cigar factory in Danlí, Honduras, dozens of petit corona cigars in open cedar trays filled the tables. Most of the trays were marked with tiny international flags, including Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. I was having a hard enough time remembering which flag went with which country. But then I discovered that I also was expected to smoke each cigar and give my comments to the cigarmakers present.
"Welcome to the United Nations of cigars," says Tim Ozgener, 37, president of C.A.O. International Cigars Inc. We were in the factory of the Toraño family, where a number of C.A.O. cigars are produced. A former stand-up comic, Ozgener is always joking around, but he's serious about making cigars and believes that variety is truly the spice of life when it comes to premium smokes. The tasting we were doing was to illustrate the differences in tobaccos from different countries and how each one can be used in creating complex blends for cigars—in other words, smokes with unique character compared to other ones on the market.
"When you are doing stand-up comedy and you have to get new material, you just got to throw it out there and it either works or it doesn't work," says Ozgener, following the tasting. "In this case, we don't really just throw it out on the market. I will just say, 'Why don't we try this, this and this?' Like I said to Charlie [Toraño], 'Why don't we try a maduro, with the Connecticut broadleaf and a Brazilian binder?' I mean, why not? If it works, it works. If it doesn't, it doesn't."
It's this if-it-sticks-to-the-wall-it's-good attitude that is admirable about Ozgener and C.A.O. cigars. The cigar world needs more freewheeling entrepreneurs with the willingness to try new things, even if it's considered controversial or strange. I still remember when C.A.O. came out with its "Cuban Shmooban" advertising campaign. It raised a lot of eyebrows in the cigar trade. Even a few members of the Cuban cigar trade complained to me. But it was different. And it gave a younger, edgy image to C.A.O. It's that fashion-forward, pop-culture style that has made C.A.O. a success in the marketplace, particularly with younger smokers. And using different tobaccos from different places to create new blends and cigars only adds to the brand's luster.
Mainstream cigarmakers usually use tobacco in their blends from Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, Dominican Republic and Brazil. I have had experience in smoking these tobaccos in pure, unblended form, so I was interested in trying tobaccos from other countries. I often thought that using tobacco from some of the less popular tobacco countries was more of a question of cutting corners than anything else. In other words, a cigar manufacturer would rather buy tobacco from Panama or Peru at a lower price than pay a premium for the good stuff from Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic. Every extra cent saved on a cigar means more money in a company's pockets or its shareholders' purses.
But now I have second thoughts. In most cases, at least with reputable companies, this approach toward purchasing tobacco shouldn't be the case. Good tobacco can come from just about all the countries selling leaf to cigarmarkers. The tobaccos are just very different in character. It is sort of like comparing grapes from different countries and what type or style of wines they make—something I do on a regular basis as a senior editor with Cigar Aficionado's sister publication Wine Spectator. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon from France's Bordeaux region makes wines distinctly different from those from Cabernet Sauvignon from California's Napa Valley. Reds from the latter are generally richer and fruitier than the former primarily due to the warmer climate and different soils where the vineyards are planted. Tobacco is the same. The provenance of the tobacco is fundamental to its character. For lack of a better phrase, its "somewhere-ness" dictates everything from aroma to strength, assuming the tobacco is properly harvested, processed and rolled.
Here's what I found in the tasting of tobaccos in Danlí. The most refined tobacco was from the Dominican Republic. It was fresh, clean and spicy with a light decadent flavor. The tobacco from Honduras was earthy and strong by comparison, and it had a slight bite on the finish. The Nicaraguan tobacco (we tried leaf from three areas: Estelí, Condega and Jalapa) was smooth and more balanced. In contrast, the Mexican seemed almost salty, with lots of meat, coffee and spice flavor. It was unique and had lots of character. The Colombian had a green-pepper, grilled-meat, earthy character and was bitter, while the Peruvian was delicate, elegant and almost fruity. Costa Rica's tobacco was round-textured with an almost buttery character, while the Brazilian was rich, smoky and spicy. The Panamanian was the worst of the tobacco. It was astringent and earthy. I couldn't see how this could be used for cigar making, but it may be that it was just a bad sample.
Interestingly, as far as C.A.O. goes, its highest rated cigars in this magazine still have been those with only Nicaraguan tobacco in their blends, even though Ozgener is very keen on his other cigars. He is particularly fond of his cigars with Brazilian tobacco, such as the Brazilia, or some Italian leaf, such as the Italia Ciao. I think C.A.O. is just now coming into its own with the help of the Toraño family and its factories in Honduras and Nicaragua in creating new and interesting blends.
C.A.O. likes to say that it has its own factory within the factory of the Toraños. It may not look that way, but C.A.O.'s best cigars are now coming from these factories. I think it is fundamental to be in charge of your own destiny in making the best possible cigars. It's already been proven. The brand owners of most of the best cigars in the market have their own factories, and there is no better way to assure quality.
The Toraños and C.A.O. began their relationship in the mid-1990s. Tim's father, Cano, was just getting into the premium cigar business, and he asked Charlie's father, Carlos, to help him find a manufacturer. The elder Toraño put him in touch with Nestor Placensia in Nicaragua. In 1995, C.A.O. began selling a Honduran smoke made by Plasencia called simply C.A.O. The Ozgeners also have worked with a handful of other cigarmakers, from Douglas Pueringer in Costa Rica to Nick Perdomo in Nicaragua (the latter still makes some cigars for C.A.O.). But it's obvious that the relationship with the Toraños is the future for C.A.O. "It was about finding the right chemistry, to be honest with you," Tim Ozgener says. "We went through a lot of peaks and valleys...but we are happy where we are now."
It's not surprising that Ozgener is happy. The Toraños have an impressive operation in both Nicaragua and Honduras. The two factories are as well organized as any cigar factory I have seen in Latin America. Moreover, the Olivas, the Nicaraguan family in charge of both operations, are extremely serious and focused on quality. The patriarch of the family, Fidel Olivas, says he wants one day to be Nicaragua's top tobacco man. He has a few hurdles to get over considering he has such neighbors as Orlando Padrón of Padrón Cigars and Nestor Plasencia, among others. But strong ambitions often equate with eventual success.
The Ozgeners and Toraños have a strong relationship. "Both families have a definite passion for cigars," says Charlie Toraño, who was traveling with Tim in Central America at the time. "And then there is the blending. For example, our premier cigar, Exodus, has tobacco from four different countries. It's our personality also to blend. And so I think there is a synergy with C.A.O."
C.A.O.'s best cigars are still yet to be made, and perhaps they will end up with a range of tobaccos from all over the world. "We are establishing a brand and the brand is based on quality, but it is also based on innovation," says Ozgener. "That is very exciting. Through our products, through our packaging, through our advertising, through everything that we do, we are trying to create different colors of the palate, almost like a painter, just utilizing a wide variety of colors to paint the landscape. And I think that is great. I mean, if we were to produce the same type of cigar and just stick with it every year, that would be boring."