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Cigar Industry

Nicaragua Rising

Rich soil and a host of talented cigarmakers have made Nicaragua the world leader in producing handmade cigars
| By Gregory Mottola | From Joe Rogan, September/October 2021
Nicaragua Rising
A field of lush, green tobacco growing in Estelí, Nicaragua. One day it will be rolled into Rocky Patel cigars, one of the many brands that have made Nicaragua the cigar industry’s powerhouse.

Thirty years ago, Nicaragua was in the early phases of a national program dedicated to removing all the undetonated landmines that riddled the country’s northern region, especially near the Honduran border. They were left over from the violent days of the war against the Contras.

Meanwhile, Nicaragua struggled to produce even a million cigars a year, and was outpaced by other cigar-producing nations such as Jamaica and Mexico. Times have certainly changed. It turns out that Nicaragua, the poorest country in Central America, was able to produce some of the richest tobacco in the world. Smokers in the United States took notice and now Nicaragua has become the market leader in the arena of premium cigars. 

For the fifth consecutive year, Nicaragua has exported more handmade, premium cigars to the United States than any other nation, far surpassing Honduras and even longtime frontrunner the Dominican Republic. In 2020, Nicaragua had its most productive year to date, sending more than 186 million smokes to America, up 10 percent from 2019, despite the pandemic. And it shows no sign of slowing. As of May 2021, Nicaragua had already exported nearly 90 million cigars to the U.S., a 54.5 percent increase over last year. The rise has been remarkable, especially considering Nicaragua’s ashen low-point during the 1980s when the cigar industry was badly hurt by the aftermath of the Sandinista revolution and suffering from a U.S. embargo similar to that of Cuba’s. The embargo only lasted five years, but the economic and infrastructural damage reverberated far past the Reagan era. 

Nicaragua Rising
Harvest time in Estelí on a Rocky Patel Farm. (Photo/Richard Leonardi)

Today, the city of Estelí is the bustling center of Nicaragua’s cigar economy, a hub that has doubled its number of cigar factories over the past 10 years from 40 to 80 operations. This is the home of such storied brands as Padrón, Oliva, Plasencia, Rocky Patel, My Father and many more, as well as the country’s oldest cigar brand.

“Ten to 15 years ago, Estelí looked like a typical rural small town like you see in many Latin American countries,” recalls Dr. Alejandro Martínez Cuenca, owner of Joya de Nicaragua, the oldest handmade cigar factory in the country. He’s owned it since 1994 and has seen the region flourish. “Estelí is more cosmopolitan now, with rising activity in commerce, and new infrastructures all around. People transiting the streets in bicycles and motorcycles, as well in private vehicles, as never before.”  

Yes, there’s actually traffic in Estelí now. About 20 years ago, you wouldn’t have seen many paved roads, let alone a legitimate rush hour, and it’s all thanks to the world’s growing appetite for Nicaraguan tobacco and the long-term investment by the premium cigar business. Nicaragua’s chamber of commerce estimates that this industry employs around 110,000 Nicaraguan citizens. And despite the rising production numbers, the labor force continues to maintain a consistently high level of quality. Over the 17 years that Cigar Aficionado magazine has been naming a Cigar of the Year, more than half of them came from Nicaragua. 

Nicaragua Rising
The next step after harvesting is a monthlong curing process, as seen in this Estelí barn owned by A.J. Fernandez. (Photo/Richard Leonardi)

“Estelí has grown tremendously,” says Janny Garcia of My Father Cigars. She’s the daughter of company founder José “Pepín” Garcia and takes an active role in running the company along with her brother Jaime. “It went from being a little town to a city. The city has grown not only in population but, most importantly, in infrastructure.”

My Father Cigars is a two-time Cigar of the Year winner, and has been a key player in the growth and reputation of Nicaragua. As large as the company has become, their cigars are still made with the same boutique-style characteristics today as they were when the company started in Miami in the early 2000s. The first expansion into Nicaragua came in 2006 with the opening of a factory called TACUBA. It was started by Garcia’s father, a Cuban expatriate who brought his craft to the U.S. after leaving Castro’s Cuba in 2001. Fame in the cigar world came his way when he began to roll a new brand called Tatuaje for Pete Johnson in 2003. The edgy smoke was part rock-n-roll, part vintage Cuba and appealed to cigar fans looking for stronger blends rolled in the Cuban style. Garcia was the master, Johnson was the muse and a fanbase quickly formed. Tatuaje’s fast popularity not only helped to open the door for other small, cult Nicaraguan brands, it resulted in a halo effect that brought attention to the Garcias’ other lines. 

By 2009, the company expanded further, opening a larger factory in Estelí called My Father Cigars, and with it a namesake brand. Next came tobacco growing in Nicaragua.

“Every farm is very important for us,” says Garcia. “They are all different and they all have a very specific purpose.”

She’s not shy about asserting Nicaraguan exceptionalism when it comes to tobacco, and as a Cuban expatriate herself, Garcia has fully switched allegiance to Central America. “Nicaragua has the best tobacco in the world and consumers know that,” she affirms. “The quality of Nicaraguan tobacco cannot be found in any other country.”

My Father Cigars also produces cigars for Ashton Distributors, a Philadelphia-based company that turned to the Garcias when it wanted to add a Nicaraguan line to its portfolio of Dominican brands. Ashton’s La Aroma de Cuba has evolved into a series of six lines while San Cristobal now has five. In 2011, the La Aroma de Cuba Mi Amor Belicoso ranked No. 2 on Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25.

Nicaragua Rising
The secret to great cigars is patient tobacco aging. Here in an Oliva Cigar warehouse, bales of fermented leaves sleep for years before they are ready. (Photo/Peter Garritano)

For Eduardo Fernández, owner of Aganorsa Leaf, a massive growing and cigar-producing operation, the reason for Nicaragua’s appeal isn’t all that mysterious. Nor is its popularity surprising.

“Nicaragua has the most similar flavor profile to Vuelta Abajo in Cuba and possesses the strength that the U.S. market demands,” he says, matter-of-factly. Born in Cuba, Fernández entered the world of tobacco in the late ’90s after leaving the pizza delivery business in Spain. At the time, he instinctively recognized the potential of Nicaragua and saw tobacco’s value as a global product. Besides, it was cheaper than buying land in Costa Rica. In 1998, he purchased farms that were once owned by deposed dictator Anastasio Somoza. Now, Aganorsa Leaf is one of the largest growers of tobacco in Nicaragua. Its agricultural operation is vast, spanning over the three major growing regions of Nicaragua’s northern territory: Estelí, Condega and Jalapa, which is very close to the Honduran border. The company grows various types of Cuban seed. “The Cuban seeds we grow are important to achieving optimal taste,” he says. “We plant Corojo ’99 and Corojo 2012 in Jalapa and Criollo ’98 and Corojo ’99 in Estelí and Condega.”

The Aganorsa Leaf factory (formerly known as TABSA) was an obscure operation when it opened in 2002, but is now home to Aganorsa Leaf’s namesake brands along with an impressive portfolio of smaller brands like Illusione, Foundation, Viaje and Warped, all of which make regular appearances on the Top 25 list. Of the one million to two million pounds of tobacco Aganorsa Leaf produces each year, every last bit is used or sold to other companies. 

In the free-market economy that Nicaragua has become, Aganorsa does not have a monopoly. Investment and competition are alive and well, and there’s no greater competitor to Aganorsa than the Plasencia family. They’re Nicaragua’s other major tobacco land owner and a huge contributor to the development and success of the industry. This year, the Plasencias grew 1,800 acres of tobacco. Like Aganorsa, the Plasencias sell allocations to outside companies, but set aside stock for their own brands as well. Nestor Andrés Plasencia thinks that there’s enough quality tobacco to go around thanks to the foresight of his family.

“The real growth already occurred in the 2000s when there was a lot of available area,” Plasencia says of his operation. “And we were able to make investments in more technical irrigation systems such as drip irrigation, also in greenhouses to produce better seedlings, more technical curing houses, crop rotation programs were implemented and something very important was the introduction of new tobacco varieties as well.”

He’s been growing tobacco for most of his life alongside his father (also named Nestor) and in that time has amassed extensive libraries of aged tobacco. With his long list of leaf customers and a roster of third-party brands rolled at his factory in Nicaragua, there are few humidors in the United States that do not have his product in some shape or another. 

Nicaragua Rising
More cigars are rolled by hand in Nicaragua than any other country. Here is a busy rolling room at Oliva. (Photo/Peter Garritano)

“The most important type of tobacco that we grow is the Habano variety since it is the one we use the most in our blends and also is what our clients request the most,” Plasencia says.

The word “Habano” is quite generic, and can refer to any Cuban-seed tobacco, or Cuban-seed hybrid. That includes the various varietals of Criollo, Corojo and Havana 2000, all of which have taken beautifully to Nicaraguan soil. As a tobacco farmer, Plasencia’s contribution to the growth of Nicaragua is without question. On the industrial side, the ability of his factory wasn’t as apparent until the Casa Magna Colorado Robusto was named the Cigar of the Year in 2008. It was made for the Quesadas, who turned to the Plasencias when they wanted a full-bodied Nicaraguan cigar in their portfolio. That was 13 years ago. More recently, the E.P. Carrillo Encore Majestic was named Cigar of the Year in 2018. True, it’s made in the Dominican Republic, and is ostensibly a Dominican cigar, but all the tobacco is Nicaraguan, most of which came from Plasencia’s fields. 

With Plasencia’s agricultural DNA running through so many brands, there came a distinct turning point in the company history when, in 2016, he finally produced a serious brand of his own—the Plasencia Alma Fuerte. It consists of mostly Criollo ’98 tobacco, a varietal he grows all over Nicaragua, and made the Top 25 list that year, but it also kicked off the Alma series, a five-part compendium of cigar lines that explores the various regions of Nicaragua and their complexities.

Plasencia opened another factory in Ocotál, which is in the northern part of the country, as his factory in Estelí has reached maximum capacity. A few years ago, cigarmaker A.J. Fernandez had to do the same thing. Growing at a meteoric rate, Fernandez has been in the business less than 20 years, but when his factory in Estelí maxed out in 2016, he had to open another facility. This growth spurt has only intensified and it’s put Fernandez in a constant state of cigar production and land acquisition. Fernandez is grateful for his relatively fast success, but has become wearied a bit from the frantic pace.

Nicaragua Rising
The finished product at the Oliva factory in Nicaragua. (Photo/Peter Garritano)

“The growth year after year has been a bit too much,” Fernandez concedes. “And I don’t think it can be properly sustained because there is no more land to plant and there is no more labor force. So, if it remains as is, this would be of great help to us because we could keep the work to more than 3,000 families.”

This year, he finished the season with about three million pounds of tobacco, enough to make roughly 30 million cigars. It’s all allocated to a production that’s broken down to three major facets of his cigar business: his own cigars; the contract brands he makes for cigar giant Altadis U.S.A.; and the contract brands he makes for the other giant, General Cigar. Both General and Altadis are in control of equally massive catalog and Internet operations, namely Cigars International and JR Cigars, giving A.J.’s Nicaraguan cigars wide and perpetual exposure, particularly in the last year, where the pandemic lockdowns resulted in double-digit growth for Internet retailers, as more people were staying home and buying online. 

Brands like New World represent Fernandez’s personal exploration of Nicaragua. The core line paints Nicaragua in broad strokes as it has tobacco from all over the country. The Puro Especial is more specific, containing tobacco only from Estelí. His most auspicious moment, however, came in 2019 when the Aging Room Quattro Nicaragua Maestro was named the Cigar of the Year. It’s a smoke he made with Rafael Nodal, of Boutique Blends, that is composed entirely of Nicaraguan tobacco. 

There are few producers in the premium cigar world who command brand portfolios as extensive as Rocky Patel’s. Scrolling through them on his website can seem overwhelming, as the huge variety was meant to suit the widest range of cigar tastes, experience levels and price points he could possibly cover. Many of those brands are made in Honduras, but more and more are being made in Nicaragua. Patel has been making cigars in Estelí since he opened the Tavicusa factory (Tabacalera Villa Cuba S.A.) 12 years ago. Shortly after, he planted fields of his own tobacco in Nicaragua for the ultimate goal of vertical integration.

“Nicaragua has become the No. 1 exporter of cigars because the cigar consumers’ palate has shifted towards smoking richer, fuller bodied cigars,” Patel says, adding that the native soils are particularly well-suited to producing strong tobacco. Patel’s Nicaraguan brands are supported by his 8,000-square-foot factory and the 350 acres of tobacco he grows in Estelí and Condega.

“It made sense to have our factory, curing barns, fermentation and sorting facility in close proximity to the farms,” explains Patel, who warns that the recent influx of new cigarmakers has led to a shortage of rollers. “Most of the new manufacturers have set up shop in Nicaragua and hence many more cigars are being made there than ever before. This, however, is all changing now. With Covid, and the perception of an open border, we are noticing many skilled rollers migrating to the United States in search of a bigger dream. It’s getting harder and harder to keep and find new skilled cigar rollers.”

Nicaragua Rising
Tobacco hangs at an Oliva Cigar warehouse. (Photo/Peter Garritano)

Every company has had its challenges, but no cigar operation is as battle-scarred as Joya de Nicaragua, and the factory has the bullet holes to prove it. Makers of the quintessential Nicaraguan smoke, Joya is the country’s oldest producer of premium cigars and the factory has endured air strikes, shootings and the general terrorism that came with the turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s. The brick building sits off the Pan American highway like an old T-55 military tank, and some of the damage is still apparent in the walls and floors of the factory, serving as a not-so-subtle reminder of the country’s tumultuous history. Lately, though, people at Joya de Nicaragua have been too busy to dwell on the past. Concerns over airstrikes and government takeovers have thankfully been replaced with concerns over meeting the high demand for their product. So, what makes these cigars quintessentially Nicaraguan? Owner Martínez Cuenca is quick with an answer: 

“What has made our cigars stand out has been our disciplined and consistent use of Nicaraguan grown tobaccos, a trait that distinguishes our blends.”

He runs the factory with his son, Juan Ignacio Martínez, and part of their concern is making sure there is enough Nicaraguan tobacco in inventory during this time of high demand. They rely on strong relationships with growers around Nicaragua to ply them with enough leaf to support their flagship brands, including the full bodied Joya de Nicaragua Antaño 1970. While Dr. Cuenca keeps the factory connected to Nicaragua’s history by producing its classic brands, his son makes sure the factory doesn’t stay stuck in the past. He pushes Joya to develop newer blends, keeping the factory a balance of new and old. Preservation and progress. One such innovation was the release of the Numero Uno, a mild smoke that may have contradicted the company’s reputation for strength, but was named to the Top 25.  

Joya de Nicaragua is not the only cigar company that endured the country’s civil war. When José Orlando Padrón expanded from Florida to Nicaragua in the early 1970s, his factory and tobacco warehouses were bombed and set ablaze, caught in the crossfire of the Sandinista resistance regardless of his political neutrality. It came to the point where Padrón made the incredibly bold move of giving an ultimatum to local Sandinista commandant Gen. Elias Noguera. Padrón’s proposal was simple: If rebels didn’t stop arbitrarily bombing the factory, he’d leave the country and take the much-needed jobs with him. Noguera was convinced. Padrón would stay. 

If Nicaragua has a true trophy cigar, it’s one of the selections from Padrón. The combination of well-aged tobaccos and uncanny consistency has made Padrón the winner of our Cigar of the Year three times—more than any other producer—and when Padrón is not taking the top honor, one of its cigars usually appears in the top five. Brands like the 1964 Anniversary Series, Serie 1926 or even the 50th Anniversary are expensive, but smokers are willing to pay the high price, as the cigars consistently deliver a signature combination of sophistication and richness, albeit in varying degrees of intensity. 

The idea of a premium priced, exceptional cigar came to Jorge Padrón as a young man in the 1990s when he was working for his father. Up until then, Padrón had made its reputation by making good “everyman” cigars at reasonable prices. Wanting to take it to the next level, Jorge insisted on making a cigar with older tobaccos, more complexity and a fancier label. There are table wines and there are Grand Crus. The 1964 Anniversary was to be not just Padrón’s Grand Cru, but Nicaragua’s Grand Cru, and the results were spectacular. It was a critical and commercial success. The Serie 1926—a stronger, more intense blend—followed, and it was the first cigar to be named Cigar of the Year. 

Models of consistency are a recurring theme in Nicaragua, and one of the main reasons for its success. Oliva is a perfect example. Its flagship brand, Oliva Serie V, smokes like a cigar that could easily go for twice the price, so the value is without question, and its consistency is on par with Padrón’s. 

The Olivas have a long history of growing tobacco, and in 1995 Gilberto Oliva Sr. and his son began making cigars bearing the family name. Like many companies, Oliva initially struggled for humidor space. One small breakthrough was a brand called Serie O, a wallet-friendly smoke that delivered a level of flavor beyond what its price tag would suggest. Oliva ran with that concept and magnified it with the Serie V, a stronger, richer cigar that was in line with America’s appetite for bold smokes but at the lower end of the premium price spectrum. The Melanio took it to another level (and price point) and was named Cigar of the Year for 2014.

Fans of Oliva cigars held their breath when the company was sold to Belgium’s J. Cortés in 2016. New owner Frederik Vandermarliere has proven to be as committed to quality and consistency as the Olivas. “We grow a lot of tobacco ourselves but work also together with contract farmers with whom the Olivas had already worked for decades,” he says. “We continued this relationship and are happy that none of them stopped growing for us. This continuity is what we try to achieve, respecting the legacy of the Oliva family. An Oliva Serie V or Melanio you smoke today, should taste the same as the one you smoke in 10 years. I can assure you, that is one of the most difficult things to accomplish.”

The Nicaraguan cigarmakers mentioned here are hardly alone. Factories of all sizes such as J.C. Newman’s PENSA, STG Estelí, Drew Estate, Perdomo and many more keep the market flush with cigars. Whether Nicaragua can keep up this pace and maintain quality remains to be seen. For now, quality seems to be the common preoccupation among Nicaragua’s top producers. 

As to why Nicaragua has risen, Vandermarliere offers this: “Almost all Nicaraguan producers started from zero. They came to Nicaragua with no money, but a lot of tobacco knowledge and a dream. That start was the key to giving us the real dedication to make the best cigar in the world. Secondly, the very fertile volcanic ground in Nicaragua helps to make this ambition a reality. The tobaccos and flavors that come out of this rich soil are perfect ingredients to make fantastic cigars.”

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