Joya de Nicaragua: The Quintessential Nicaraguan Cigar Factory

Joya de Nicaragua: The Quintessential Nicaraguan Cigar Factory
Photo/Tomas Stargardter

Puro Sabor took a big chance with their White Party. It was held under the stars right in Estelí. The requirements were simple: wear white. The weather was beautiful, as it tends to be this time of year in this part of Nicaragua. But what if it rained? What was "plan B?"

Like all cigar dinners at the festival, the music was obsessively loud, giving you only three options: Shout your way through a conversation, sit in silence or get up and dance. I don't dance. And if I did, I probably would have split my guayabera like some sort of second-rate Incredible Hulk.

Yes, Puro Sabor provided me with the nice shirt, and yes, they asked me during registration what my size was, and yes, I told them XL. But everyone said the same thing, as they looked at my ill-fitting shirt and chuckled: "There's XL and there's a Nicaraguan XL." Nobody ever told me that. It fit more like an Extra Medium.

So here's a useful tip if you're going to the Nicaraguan Fest next year—whatever shirt size you think you wear, register for the next size up. Could have been worse, I guess. Could have been a tight pair of white pants. Next year, let's make it a black party. I have plenty of black clothes.

The next day I took a tour of the iconic Joya de Nicaragua factory. I say iconic because that factory really is the emblem of the Nicaraguan cigar industry, and has literally been through war. The brick building was accidentally bombed by former President Anastasio Somoza DeBayle's air strikes during the Sandinista Revolution. I say accidental because Samoza owned part of the factory when he bombed it. Mario Perez, the factory's head of product development, took me around.

"I remember meeting you about 10 years ago," he said. "You were a lot skinnier then." Funny he should remember that. And I wasn't even wearing that undersized guayabera. I lit up an unbanded Joya de Nicaragua Antaño 1970 Machito that we took straight out of the escaparate, which is the intermediary aging room where rolled cigars are bundled in pinwheels of 50 and put on shelves to rest a bit. This way, humidity between all tobaccos within the cigar can stabilize and the tobaccos can meld.

Do you remember who distributed Joya back in the 1960s? Here's a brief retrospective. It was a company called Oppenheimer & Co. Oppenheimer continued distribution even through the country's political turmoil before Max Rohr Importers took on U.S distribution in the late 1980s. You may know this brand as Hollco-Rohr. Not only did they have the distribution rights, but they also owned the U.S. trademarks for the Romeo y Julieta and Saint Luis Rey brands. Then, Hollco-Rohr sold everything to Tabacalera Cigars International for a reported $53 million. Tabacalera Cigars was the U.S. arm of the Spanish company Tabacalera S.A., which eventually merged with SEITA to form Altadis. By 1994, Dr. Alejandro Martinez Cuenca bought the brands and the factory. You might remember S.A.G. (now Quesada Cigars) distributed Joya for a while, and now the cigars come to the U.S. via Drew Estate, which is owned by Swisher International.

Remember the U.S. embargo against Nicaragua? That was under the Reagan administration, so for about four or five years, any Joya de Nicaraguas purchased in the U.S. were simply packaged as Joyas and made in Honduras by the Toraño family.

But enough history. Mario took me down into one of the fermentation rooms that smelled quite strong of ammonia. Normally, the ammonia smell is associated with raw, under-fermented tobacco. In the case of Nicaraguan Criollo '98, however, Mario maintains that it will always smell like ammonia anytime it comes into contact with water. And, as you probably know, water is an integral part of the fermentation process. Get the Criollo '98 leaves wet after a month of fermentation, and it smells like ammonia. Six months, and it still smells like ammonia. Nine get the idea.

Even rolled as a cigar, if it's too humidified, you'll still get ammonia from the bouquet off the foot. This can cause a false alarm. If you pick up a bundle of Joya Antaños and you detect traces of ammonia emanating from the feet, it isn't because the tobacco is under-fermented. It's just how Nicaraguan Criollo '98 naturally reacts to moisture. This ammonia will not recur on the palate. Or it shouldn't. If your cigar actually tastes like ammonia, then there's obviously a problem. These Machitos I grabbed—no ammonia. Only the combination of earth, coffee bean, saffron, cumin, and the heady, malty taste of Nicaraguan soil.

Puffing away, I also found out that 50 percent of Joya's business comes from Europe, the other 50, here. These European relationships were forged during the U.S. embargo I mentioned before, so something good came out of something that was so grim at the time. It's a positive way to look at it. Thinking about Nicaragua's history, I remembered that I went to the same college as Oliver North. I wonder if he smokes Joya de Nicaragua cigars.