The Canary Island Connection

Cigarmakers in The Canary Islands Try to Rekindle Past Glories While Battling Production Problems
| By James Suckling | From Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

The magazine advertisement shows a space shuttle view of the Canary Islands, a small group of atolls located off the northwest coast of Morocco. The perspective gives you the impression that the islands, a province of Spain, are in the middle of nowhere, cut off from the rest of the world.

The image of isolation may sound slightly melodramatic, but it's not far from the truth when it comes to cigars. Although cigarmakers in the Canary Islands produce eight to nine million premium cigars a year and have made some recent inroads into the U.S. market, they remain virtually unknown outside of Europe, and not without reason. With some exceptions, Canary Island cigars sold in the United States have been inconsistent in quality and slightly overpriced.

That hasn't always been the case. The Canary Islands have a long-standing cigarmaking tradition dating back to the eighteenth century, and many of the key cigar factories in Havana were established by former Canary Islanders. Canary Island cigars had a strong U.S. following through the 1960s and '70s, mainly due to the Menendez and Garcia families, who earlier had established the reputation of Cuba's H. Upmann factory. They had left Havana for the Canaries after the Cuban Revolution, setting up a factory on Gran Canaria island. Their key brand, Montecruz, was top quality, the leading premium cigar brand sold in the United States in the 1960s.

Today, times are different in the Canaries. A quick trip last autumn to the islands' major cigar manufacturers, primarily on the islands of Tenerife, Gran Canaria and La Palma, underlined the problems facing cigar producers there. Name almost any impediment to producing a good premium cigar, and the small band of island cigar companies are facing it--from a lack of tobacco and poor processing techniques to old equipment and disinterested workers.

This said, however, one of the best cigars I have ever had outside of Havana was a Churchill-sized cigar I picked up from a roller's bench in a Tenerife factory run by CITA (Centro Industrial de Tabaqueros Associados), the dominant force in the Canarian cigar and cigarette business. It was rich and satisfying, with a gorgeously caressing draw and all the aroma and flavor of a great cup of espresso. I didn't want to put it out even when it burned down to my fingertips. Unfortunately, another cigar of the same size and brand that I tried a few weeks later was unsmokable, underlining the ongoing problem with inconsistent quality.

The chief factor that differentiates Canary Island cigars from most others is the strong tradition of using Cuban tobacco in their blends. Cigar, cigarillo and cigarette producers on the islands have always used tobacco from two of Cuba's prominent growing areas, the Vuelta Abajo and Remedios. The former is the same area that produces great Havanas (or "Habanos," as the Cubans like to call their hand-rolled smokes), while the latter region traditionally produces a strong, dark tobacco for cigarettes.

Since the early 1990s, however, Canary Island cigar manufacturers have not been getting the quantities of Cuban tobacco they need due to Cuba's production problems. Moreover, the recent dramatic increase in cigar production in Cuba has exacerbated the shortage. "It gets more and more difficult obtaining tobacco from the Cubans," says one Canary Islands tobacco man. "Not only do they need the tobacco themselves, the crops have not been as successful as they say."

Nonetheless, the advantage of using Cuban tobacco in a cigar blend is worth the hassle. Cuban leaf adds strength and spice to a blend that other tobaccos cannot replicate. Canary Island cigar producers certainly are convinced that it works. "Cuban tobacco in Canary Island cigars is a longtime tradition," says Imeldo Rodriguez, the key tobacco buyer for CITA, the largest cigar manufacturer on the island, which makes close to six million premium smokes a year with such brands as Penamil, Condal and Goya. "We always use a bit in the filler, and for many years we used Cuban binder, although it's more difficult now and we use more Dominican tobacco. The Cuban tobacco gives you much better aromas and flavors to your cigars."

But not for smokers in the United States. Canary Islandcigars sold in the States cannot have Cuban tobacco in their blends because of the American embargo against Cuba. "Our cigars for the U.S. market are admittedly lighter than our normal ones produced here," says Fernando Wanguemert, the general manager of CITA's cigar division. "We changed over the Cuban tobacco for other tobaccos. We had to."

So, Canarian cigars that Americans have the opportunity to smoke have very little to do with the top-quality ones available on the islands. Many are bland, look-alike smokes with few distinguishing characteristics other than where they were rolled. The blends are typically dominated by tobacco from the Dominican Republic as well as some from Brazil and Nicaragua. Binders come mostly from the Dominican Republic and Indonesia, while wrappers originate mostly in Connecticut and Indonesia.

Some are better than others. The best Canarian cigars that this magazine has reviewed so far are all made and/or distributed by one company, Marcos Miguel Tobacco Corp. Some of their La Regenta, Cara Mia, Monte Canario, Casa Martin and Don Xavier brands have garnered ratings as high as 86s and 87s.

Some Canary Island cigar manufacturers claim that they also use homegrown tobacco in their blends, mostly from the tiny island of La Palma. However, top global tobacco brokers contacted for this story dispute that claim, saying that very little, if any, quality tobacco is still grown in the Canaries. One tobacco broker started laughing when he heard the Canarian manufacturers' claim.

The criticism doesn't stop some local cigar producers fromstaunchly defending their tobacco heritage. "The best cigar blend in the world is La Palma and Cuban tobacco," claims Enrique Vargas, who makes cigars on La Palma under his family name and says he uses healthy amounts of La Palma leaf. "It is a marriage made in heaven. The La Palma tobacco is more expensive, but it is better quality than the Dominican Republic or any other tobacco."

Judging from the homegrown tobacco in the factories and fields, what is purported to be La Palma tobacco is certainly not the quintessential leaf. Most of the Canary Island tobacco I saw being used in cigar production had not been cured or fermented properly, showing green and gray rot spots and other imperfections. This rotten character has come through in many of the magazine's tastings of Canarian cigars. The tobacco leaves in the few acres of fields I visited were as thick as shoe leather and extremely small; not what you look for in premium tobacco for hand-rolling large-size cigars.

One farmer I visited on La Palma had an ingenious but not very legitimate method for curing his tobacco--the leaves were hung on wooden poles about two feet above the earth and covered with plastic sheeting. It might be a good way to grow hothouse tomatoes, but not to dry tobacco.

"We don't use Canary tobacco," says Juan Baretto, the general manager and owner of La Regenta, which makes its namesake smoke and other cigars on the island of Gran Canaria. "The quality just isn't good enough in general, though it certainly grows well. The real problem is the curing. It isn't done properly. So it's basically raw tobacco."

Every cigar manufacturer spoken to here acknowledges the difficulty of getting quality tobacco from any source. The Canaries are simply not a priority for growers of quality tobacco in Latin America and the Caribbean, especially with the demand from manufacturers in their own regions. "It's a shame," says Baretto, "because we can make such amazing blends with tobaccos from all over the world. In addition, we have very talented rollers. Why do you think people came to the Canary Islands after they left Cuba? We had great rollers. We had the best rollers in the world. They didn't go to the Dominican Republic."

Canarian cigar manufacturers often reminisce about the good old days, when they had all the tobacco, workers and sales that they needed. In the 1970s, Canary Island cigars had a strong following in the United States, mostly with such brands as Don Diego, Flamenco, Montecruz, Casa Buena and Don Alvaro (short filler). Montecruz sold nearly seven million cigars a year, mostly in the U.S. market, which annually consumed close to 20 million cigars from the islands at the time. That was in a total premium cigar market of 50 million to 55 million. The popularity of Canary Island cigars continued until the early 1980s, when prices substantially increased because of changes in duties as well as labor cost increases after Spain entered the Common Market, in 1985. The price increases literally priced Canary Island cigars out of the market.

"It was an impossible situation," says Jose Seijas, now the manager of Consolidated Cigar Corp.'s massive factory in La Romana, Dominican Republic, who at the time helped run the company's operations in the Canary Islands until they were shut down in the early 1980s. "Labor costs simply became too much. We had to move our operations to the Dominican Republic." Consolidated bought out the Menendez and Garcia factory, Insular Tabacalera SA (INTASA) in the early 1970s and averaged about 15 million cigars a year, but then moved the operations to La Romana.

Some Canarian cigar manufacturers say that the islands are still recovering from Consolidated's exodus, since the company had employed almost 800 people. Today, most Canary Island cigar rollers still work from home. They had no place to go after they lost their jobs with Consolidated. These independent rollers, or chincalleros, make cigars for various manufacturers, many of whom supply them with the tobacco and specifications for cigars. By using a freelance workforce, companies don't have to pay the high local wages (about four times the rate for rollers in the Dominican Republic) and high social security fees.

However, the main manufacturers, such as CITA,Vargas and Baretto, have been moving more and more rollers into factories. "You have to do this to assure quality," Barreto says. "Otherwise, you really can't control what the rollers are doing."

Another way some producers have controlled quality is to use machines. CITA uses a number of machines to produce some premium cigars and partially produce some other premiums, particularly Penamil. "We are sure the quality of the bunch is very good this way," says Rodriguez. "I am sure that most people could not tell the difference between a handmade and machine-made bunch for a cigar."

Nonetheless, the machine-bunched Penamil has yet to be a successful brand outside of Europe. U.S. sales of all Canary Island cigars reached almost 5.2 million last year, but this was after the regional government invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising and marketing (including in this magazine), promotional dollars, a continuing investment that the government will slowly phase out over the next few years. "We may be swimming against the tide," admits one government representative when asked about the future of Canary Island cigars without advertising. "If the dollars are gone, we might be smoking the cigars ourselves."

The most powerful cigar manufacturer in the Canary Islands, CITA, was not included in the U.S. promotions, but even it is finding the American market a tough place to get established. The cigarmaker has slowly built a beachhead in Miami, opening an office as well as a cigar bar and shop. "Of course, it is not easy," says Enrique Hernandis Moreno, the chairman and chief executive officer of CITA, which also now runs a joint-venture cigar factory in the Dominican Republic with Swisher and MATASA. "But we believe in the future of the U.S. market, and we believe in the future of Canary Island cigars. It all takes time."