It's late morning and Siegfried Maruschke walks with his father down a smooth and immaculately clean concrete floor in a warehouse in the Dominican Republic. There's no need for the halogen lights, as the strong, tropical sun shines through the windows in dusty beams. They're bright enough to illuminate all the neatly bundled bales of tobacco wrapped in burlap. Large bales. Monolithic bales piled like blocks of sandstone, each one stenciled with a six-letter word: Piloto.
Piloto is short for Piloto Cubano, which is one of the Dominican Republic's most famous tobacco varieties, grown in abundance throughout the country and used to make a host of cigars. It's a tobacco originally imported from Cuba more than 50 years ago. What began as a pure Cuban seed, after being planted and replanted in the Dominican Republic so many times, has taken on its own, truly Dominican identity. It has become something native, and today is considered a Dominican tobacco.
Piloto is only one of many types of tobacco found within the concrete walls of this institution known as Jose Mendez & Co. S.R.L., a major tobacco brokerage outfit located in Moca, in the Dominican Republic, and it holds massive inventories of many different varieties of tobacco. This diversity of inventory allows the cigarmakers who buy this leaf to craft smokes with complexity and style, and makes for a rich, flavorful and distinctive end product. These tobacco varietals are the lifeblood of premium cigar factories, and the story unfolding here at Jose Mendez is taking place in warehouses around the premium cigar world.
Marushcke's family history in tobacco dates back to the late 1800s, but Jose Mendez & Co. started in 1972 and has been a behind-the-scenes entity ever since. Run by Siegfried Maruschke and his son Siegfried P. Maruschke, Mendez & Co. provides most of the raw material to Altadis U.S.A. Inc., which produces tens of millions of premium cigars in La Romana at Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd.—the largest premium cigar factory in the Dominican Republic, and, perhaps, the entire handmade cigar industry.
Each blocky burlap bale in the warehouse holds enough binder and filler tobacco to make 3,000 cigars. That could be 3,000 Romeo y Julietas, Montecristos or H. Upmanns, and with those brands in such high demand, the Maruschkes need to contract many farmers and maintain libraries and libraries of aged tobacco, all from different seeds, all with different characteristics and all grown in different regions of the country.
"A significant percentage of our production goes to the Altadis factories," Maruschke says. "We are among the main growers of Piloto Cubano and Olor tobacco in the Dominican Republic. But we also grow Criollo, Corojo and Havana 2000."
A little further down the warehouse corridor, shaggy, hulking piles of fermenting tobacco radiate warmth. Father and son stop at one pile and pick up a handful of leaves. Both inspect the dried tobacco, then, ritualistically, bring them up closer to their faces and smell. At this stage of fermentation, the whole pile smells like raisins and dried figs without the slightest trace of ammonia. They dig deeper into the warm pile, grab more tobacco and smell. These heaps of leaves are truly alive.
There are dozens of tobacco types and species in the cigar world, both wild and farmed. Most of them don't merit mention, especially in the context of the premium cigar industry. No matter the country in which it's grown, premium tobacco is cultivated and prized for five basic characteristics: disease resistance, high yield, leaf size, flavor and combustion. Seeds have been crossbred over time to produce tobacco plants that will consistently deliver these traits. New strains are developed, old strains are retired. A flavorful leaf is of little use to farmers if most of the crop falls prey to disease, tobacco is considered poor if it can't burn well and a crop of bland or lackluster tobacco is of little value.
An entire book can probably be devoted to Piloto Cubano alone, but Hendrik "Henke" Kelner, one of the sages of Dominican tobacco and longtime operations manager for Davidoff of Geneva, sums up Piloto's past and present quite succinctly.
"Piloto Cubano came to the Dominican Republic in 1962, originating from a Cuban zone called Piloto," he says. "It was brought by an immigrant named Satornini. The Dominican Institute of Tobacco grew it first in Quinigua, Villa Gonzalez. It's not difficult to grow, but it has specific requirements. For example, it has to be planted in October because it needs more hours of sunlight for its development. It also avoids the dry seasons of January and February."
As Maruschke's operation is proprietary to Altadis, Kelner's cigar production (TabaDom) and agricultural operation (Procesadora de Tabaco Palmerajo) is dedicated to Davidoff of Geneva.
"In almost every Davidoff line, we use Piloto Cubano, however in different proportions and from different positions on the plant," Kelner says.
While Piloto is still alive and well in the Dominican Republic, many lament the loss of certain Cuban strains within Cuba. Consider Cuba's beloved but doomed Corojo variety of tobacco. It was a hybrid developed in the 1940s that was universally lauded by connoisseurs for its color and flavor, but retired in the late '90s in favor of more disease-resistant varietals. To understand Corojo one must first trace the lineage of Cuban tobacco a bit. With all the Cuban-seed varieties currently grown throughout Central and South America, Cuba could be considered the botanical womb from which so much of today's premium tobacco was born. Cuba's DNA truly germinates throughout industry.
The tobacco type native to Cuba is commonly referred to as Tabaco Negro Cubano. As science advanced, botanists strove to create a seed that would resist disease, but at the same time maintain the flavor characteristics of the island's native Cuban tobacco. In 1907, the Habanensis hybrid was born. Thirty years later, the Experimental Research Station of San Juan y Martínez was established, and by 1941 a seed variety called Criollo came into existence. According to Habanos S.A. (the global marketing and distribution arm for Cuban cigars), the Criollo seed remains the genetic model on which all seeds developed and planted in Cuba today are based. All officially approved seeds, that is. But the 1940s saw yet another hybrid called Corojo, named after the famous El Corojo plantation owned by the Rodriguez family where it was first tested. The Corojo seed was engineered specifically to produce wrapper leaf and the Corojo tobacco that came out of the ground was dark, reddish, flavorful and beautiful. Every Cuban cigar, from Cohiba to Por Larrañaga, was eventually dressed in this illustrious cover leaf, and many consider the era of Corojo-wrapped cigars to be the best in recent Cuban history. There was a problem though. Corojo was very susceptible to disease, causing farmers to lose much of the crop. Furthermore, the leaves themselves were gorgeous but small (ideally, wrapper leaves need to be large) and the leaf took more time to process through fermentation.
Vaunted as it was for beauty and flavor, the original Corojo seed was eventually retired in the late 1990s and replaced by other hybrids, namely Havana '92, Havana 2000, Criollo '98 and Corojo '99, which are the primary varieties grown in Cuba today.
Manuel "Manolo" Quesada, of Quesada Cigars in the Dominican Republic, notes the differences between the origins of Criollo and Corojo tobaccos. "Criollo was originally developed for binders and fillers. Corojo was developed for wrappers," he says. "Over the years it was found that Criollo '98 could yield wrappers under shade and even under the sun, so Criollo '98 has become a wrapper-producing variety used widely in the industry today."
In Cuba, tobacco grower Hirochi Robaina watched the hybrids evolve from one seed to another. "Many years ago, my grandfather grew the original Criollo," says Robaina, grandson of the famous Alejandro Robaina. Hirochi apprenticed with his grandfather before becoming a grower himself.
"But by the end of the 1970s, blue mold [a fungus that attacks tobacco] arrived in Cuba and destroyed production. At the beginning of the '80s, he changed over and grew a type of Havana 2000," says Robaina.
Havana 2000 was a cross between Corojo and a Cuban cigarette tobacco called Bell 61-10. The version used in the 1980s was called Havana 2.1.1. Later, the hybrid was crossed with a Corojo seed again in order to have not only resistance to disease but more qualities of the original Corojo.
"That tobacco variety saved Cuba. Saved the industry," says Robaina. "But the problem with new varieties is maintaining the quality and character of the leaf. Sometimes there's a great tobacco that grows well, but doesn't taste very good."
When Hirochi became more involved and active in growing tobacco with his grandfather at the Robaina farm in San Luís, he started with Havana 2000, then moved through various hybrids.
Seeds, being so small and hardy, tend to stick around for awhile. Robaina has old seeds, but chooses not to plant them. "We still have some of the old Criollo seeds, but we don't use them," he says. "They're old and not resistant to disease."
Robaina's grandfather passed away in 2010, and Hirochi continued to grow Corojo '99, which he'd been growing since 2005. Recently, he planted a new hybrid developed at Cuba's Tobacco Research Institute—Corojo 2012. Robaina says it's a combination of Corojo '99, Criollo '98 and Havana 2000.
This year, only Cuban farmers appear to be planting Corojo 2012. But seeds will travel. A single tobacco plant can give a farmer about 4,000 to 5,000 seeds. A mere gram of tobacco seed equates to about 10,000 of the tiny brown pellets.
It seems that Cuba can't develop a seed that won't make its way to other tobacco-producing countries. Growers are hesitant to say exactly how some seeds make the journey outside of Cuba, especially since the government forbids it.
"In my pocket," offers Litto Gomez jokingly. "Wrapped in aluminum foil." Gomez is the owner of La Flor Dominicana cigars, and also grows tobacco in La Canela in the Dominican Republic, much of which he puts in his cigars. He fields the question with a chuckle, but is not willing to get into the specifics of seed migration.
"We brought the first Criollo seeds for our farm in 2002 and we started growing Criollo '98," he explains. "We had great results—high yield, nice texture, a beautiful reddish color. It was very attractive and we were very happy with it."
Seeds only need to come from Cuba once in order for the varietal to be considered "Cuban Seed." After the first-generation of migrated seeds are planted, the tobacco begins to take on the characteristics of the soil and the region, despite the fact that its genetic makeup is unchanged. Seeds are then collected from the flower of the first crop, and used in subsequent plantings or crossbred for hybrids. It takes seven to 10 seasons for the new characteristics to be locked into the plant.
Cuba's seeds have spread across the world, and one of the places they have migrated to is Ecuador. When Oliva Tobacco Co. began to experiment with Cuban-seed tobaccos in Ecuador, its first plantings were small—only 25 acres. The Olivas only grow wrapper, as the country's natural cloud cover make conditions ideal for cultivating cover leaf.
"The first Cuban varietal we tried was Havana 2000 back in 2001," recalls John Oliva Jr. "It had a bad reputation for not burning well in the '90s and people thought it was because the seed was no good. That wasn't true. Too many cigar makers were rushing it to market during the boom, putting the wrapper on cigars right out of the barn. It needs more fermentation time. We had great results."
By 2009 Oliva started growing Corojo '99 in Ecuador with very positive results as well. Those are the two Cuban-seed tobaccos he ultimately committed to, as other varietals such as Pelo de Oro and Sancti Spíritus did not yield good results in the fine, powdery soil of Ecuador.
"In Cuba, my grandfather used to grow the Pelo de Oro seed," says Oliva Jr. of his family history. "When the embargo hit and my grandfather started the transition over to Honduras, he grew primarily Connecticut varietals known as Christian seed and Lambson seed, as well as several Cuban strains. These were grown for both natural and candela wrapper.
Simultaneously, we also got involved in North Florida for the production of candela wrappers. The seeds utilized there were seed 63, also known as Moonlight seed. And seed 76, also known as Gold Dust because the farmers bitched about how expensive it was. When we began wrapper production in Ecuador it was with the Connecticut Christian seed and later Sumatra seed. We got out of Florida by 1973."
Though most of Oliva's acreage is dedicated to Cuban-seed tobaccos, the company still has a very prolific Sumatra-seed operation in Ecuador as well. They've been growing this wrapper before ever delving into the world of Corojo or Havana 2000 and have mastered its cultivation. Sumatra found an audience with cigar brands like the non-Cuban Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey, as well as the Ashton Virgin Sun Grown and La Gloria Cubana cigars. In the fields, the Sumatra leaves are so distinct that even a layman would be able to differentiate them from other tobacco species. The leaves are large and thick, heavily textured and sport a type of spotty leopard pattern. They are also elastic to the touch.
Genetics of a leaf play a huge role in physical structure and disease resistance, but when it comes to flavor and character, tobacco becomes a vessel of its environment. A leaf is made up of outer dermal layers, vein structures and cellular tissue. The tissue then absorbs all the characteristics of the soil during growth. A seed planted in Cuba will taste different than the same seed planted in another country. Even the most freshman of growers know this. Eduardo Fernández, owner of both Aganorsa and Tabacalera Fernandez, feels that the combination of Nicaraguan soil and genetically preserved Cuban seeds enables him to produce a cigar in Cuba's image. Aganorsa is a Nicaraguan agricultural conglomerate and one of the country's largest growers of tobacco. Fernández says he has great respect for Cuba's work and does not feel the need to create new strains of tobacco after Cuba has already engineered what he believes, are perfect specimens.
"We feel Cuba has been a giant in producing new Habano strains resistant to blue mold, black shank and other afflictions that can attack the plant in its developmental stage," Fernández says. "When we adopt a Cuban seed we look first above all, that it has excellent results with the soil found in Nicaragua's three growing regions: Estelí, Jalapa and Condega."
Fernández says that Aganorsa grows 1,250 acres of tobacco across these three regions. Most are dedicated to Corojo '99 and Criollo '98, with a few acres set aside for the Havana '92 seed.
"Criollo '98 is shorter in length and its width is 65 percent of its length, making it perfect for filler and binder. The leaf adds a lot of aroma, strength and flavor to a cigar. But Corojo '99 is a longer leaf whose width is 55 percent of its length." This was not by accident. As Fernández points out, the specific size proportions as well as the thin veins throughout the Corojo leaves that he grows today, are the result of the original botanical engineering in Cuba from the 1940s.
"On balance, the blending together of Criollo and Corojo leaves grown in Nicaragua is an outstanding combination. They complement each other's characteristics. The seed varieties already have all the necessary genetic traits to be grown successfully in Nicaragua without sacrificing or diminishing the profile of a great Habano."
This exact combination can be found in blends such as his Casa Fernandez Miami Reserva line (the Toro size scored 92 points in the February 2012 Cigar Aficionado), which combines a Corojo wrapper with a blend that's a 50-50 combination of Corojo and Criollo tobacco.
Rocky Patel has also taken an interest in the Cuban-seed Criollo '98 varietal. In 2013, he signed a 10-year lease for 80 picturesque acres in Estelí, Nicaragua, most of which are dedicated to Criollo '98. According to Patel, the land was unfarmed for 15 years before he purchased it, making the coal-black soil of this farm fertile and nutrient rich. About 60 percent of this particular plot produces Criollo '98. The rest is for the cultivation of Havana 2000 with a small portion dedicated to less predictable types like Sancti Spíritus.
Up in the high altitude of Costa Rica's Cordillera Central, Philip Wynn of Felipe Gregorio cigars has taken a different approach to tobacco.
"I grow and develop Havana types of tobacco that are pre-Castro and genetically pure," he says. At 3,000 feet above sea level in the mountains, he grows rarified and long-retired seeds that few remember and even fewer have even heard of. Cuban seeds like Rezago 11 and Pelo de Angel or seeds from other countries like Cola de Gallo, Yavis and Besuki are the tobacco equivalent of growing heirloom tomato seeds.
"Most of the Habano varieties are similar in appearance, with some more round or wide than others," Wynn says. "The Cola de Gallo differs most in appearance. The leaves are very narrow and come to a sharp point. But the fact that we grow at high elevation and steep inclines allows us to grow without pesticides. At this altitude, the soil is devoid of chlorine, making the combustion rate of the tobacco perfect."
If Corojo, Criollo and Habano 2000 are the current darlings of the premium cigar world, Connecticut varieties still remain the lightly hued, stalwart workhorse of the industry. Connecticut wrappers cover tens of millions of mild to medium-bodied premium cigars. The neutral, approachable nature of both the U.S. and Ecuadoran varieties of Connecticut tobacco make it the varietal of choice for everything from General Cigar's Macanudos to Altadis's Romeo y Julietas to Davidoff's White Label cigars. In terms of volume, these are some of the largest brands in the premium industry.
In the loamy soil of the Connecticut River Valley, where it is very expensive to produce tobacco, O.J. Thrall Inc. grows 1,000 acres of Connecticut-shade wrapper primarily for General Cigar. Shade tobacco there is grown under a cheesecloth netting to filter the sunlight and emulate cloud cover.
The original seeds planted in Connecticut came from Indonesia more than 100 years ago, but today they have their own identity as Connecticut seed. General uses two seed varieties—one called 8212, which was developed for large leaf size, and a strain called 211, grown for flavor. The biggest competition to Connecticut shade comes from Ecuador, where the Connecticut seeds flourish under the natural canopy of clouds that continually cover Quevedo in the Los Rios province. ASP Enterprises has been growing a type of wrapper there known as Ecuador Connecticut since 1987. It's cheaper than producing in the United States, grows more abundantly and the leaves are genetically thicker and more elastic.
Seed development, proper farming and long-term tobacco storage require not only a broad range of knowledge and experience, but a huge financial investment. It also requires the confluence of farmers, botanical geneticists, and experimental cigar makers to maintain the quality and character of traditional seeds, but at the same time, bring the world of tobacco into unexplored territory through the natural engineering of hybrids. Quesada's Tributo brand is a perfect example of modern tobacco. The wrapper is the result of a four-tobacco hybrid spawn from HVA (Havana Vuelta Abajo), Havana 2000, Corojo and Sumatra seeds.
"They've been spliced, cross pollinated and grown in Ecuador in very small quantities," explains Quesada of this wrapper. "And it has all the characteristics of all four wrappers. For old people like me who aren't used to new things, it's a brand new world."