Tobacco By The Ton

Making premium cigars isn't an easy business. Making them in quantity is even harder, and it requires staggering amounts of aged tobacco leaves.

It's a basic premise, but one that goes on behind the scenes at cigar companies, so it's easy to forget. Cigars smokers only see the final product, a neat array of boxed cigars, each cylinder the product of a handful of leaves rolled around one another into glorious, aromatic tubes that deliver savory smoke. But think for a moment about what it takes to make such a product, again and again, year after year.

On Thursday I spent several hours with the father-son team of tobacco men behind Jose Mendez & Co. Srl, who provide much of the raw material for Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd., one of the world's largest cigar factories. The factory, owned by Altadis U.S.A. Inc., makes millions upon millions of cigars by hand, among them Romeo y Julieta and H. Upmann. Altadis is Mendez's largest customer.

Mendez was formed in 1972 in the Dominican Republic by the Maruschke family, the descendants on their mother's side of Spaniard José Mendez. Mendez fought in Cuba during its war for independence, married a Cuban and stayed. As a grocer, he found his customers often didn't have the money to pay, so they bartered for goods with tobacco. He went into the tobacco business himself before setting up what was called the largest cigarette factory in Cuba. The machines making the cigarettes were still new when the Castro government nationalized Cuba's tobacco industry, seizing the assets and setting the family on the search for a new home.

Their new home is the Dominican Republic. Mendez contracts with farmers around the Dominican Republic to grow tobacco for them. They direct the process, giving the farmers the seeds and the financing, sending agronomists to check the fields and see what is needed to coax the most out of each parcel of land.

"We are producing 1,300 hectares of tobacco," says Siegfried P. Maruschke Méndez, the director of tobacco for Jose Mendez & Co. That translates to about 2,500 acres.

Maruschke has been working around Dominican tobacco since the 1990s. His father, who is also named Siegfried, has been working here even longer. The two men showed off their impressive, very large and impossibly clean facility in Moca, a tobacco town in the Cibao Valley of the Dominican Republic with soil the color of wet coffee grounds.

Today, Dominican tobacco leaf is used in a staggering number of cigars, and it's arguably the most important tobacco used in the cigar world. The Maruschkes apologized for the small number of bales in stock as they are between crops right now, but there were still considerable numbers of bales, each containing roughly 125 pounds of filler or binder tobacco. Each bale contains enough leaf to make about 3,000 cigars. I shot a little video of the facility. Remember that each bale is good for thousands of smokes. Take a look.

The tobacco in these bales has been harvested, cured in a barn, fermented in the Mendez facility and now is ready to be aged. The process to get here has taken months; now it can be aged for three or more years before it gets made into cigars.

Imagine all that work, care and patience that has gone into the cigar already, and there are still years to go before they can be rolled into Romeo y Julietas, Montecristos or H. Upmanns. That's a long time to wait. But that's the only way to make a fine cigar.