Not only is The Caribbean one of my favorite regions of the world, it is the home of the birthplace of premium cigar tobacco...Cuba, which actually deserves its own chapter in this series due to its rich history and its impact on the cigar tobacco industry. However, there are other Caribbean islands that warrant attention as well.
Tobacco grown in Cuba is recognized as the finest in the world, as the traditions and techniques of agriculture, curing, and fermentation that are followed and utilized throughout the world today were first developed in Cuba. The legendary area of Vuelta Abajo in the Pinar del Rio province of western Cuba, which lies between the mountains and the sea, is the primary region of tobacco cultivation. With the humid climate, average high temperature of about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and consistent and predictable rainfall, the conditions are ideal for tobacco cultivation. Most of the hand-rolled premium cigar factories are located in or near Havana, the capital city of Cuba. In fact, the Cuban torcedores are respected as the most skilled cigar rollers in the world.
Despite the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the cigar industry in Cuba has thrived. In addition, the trade embargo enforced by the United States under President John F. Kennedy in 1963 has not negatively affected Cuban cigar production. Cigars remain one of the country's leading exports. Due to the embargo, Cuban-grown cigars cannot be sold in the United States, or purchased by United States citizens anywhere else in the world. The embargo has actually spurned the development of counterfeit Cuban-branded cigars that has infiltrated the United States market, making the cigars even more desirable - a "forbidden fruit", if you will. Cuban tobacco leaves are known to be supple and strong and full-bodied with aromatic and spicy flavors. The unique flavors of the Cuban cigar are owed to the fact that all are puros, cigars that are completely constructed (wrapper, binder, and filler) from the tobacco of one country. Cuba happens to be one of the few countries that produce puros.
The most notable Habanos with global presence include:
Romeo y Julieta
Hoyo de Monterrey
Dominican Republic (The DR)
The DR is the island neighbor to Cuba, and has become one of the world's most exquisite tobacco growing regions in the world. The primary tobacco growing region is the Cibao River Valley, nestled between two mountain ranges in the northern half of the country near the capital city of Santiago. The DR has similar climate to Cuba with rich soil conditions. Most of the tobacco is derived from Cuban seed varietals. Historically, the DR was known for its mild and smooth cigar flavors; however, they are lighter in body than the classic Cuban cigar, but contain plenty of flavor and complexity of blends. Today, DR cigar producers are growing and blending an array of tobacco that creates cigars ranging from the mildest to the most full-bodied available in the market.
The communist revolution in Cuba and the subsequent United States trade embargo has certainly contributed to this rise in DR tobacco production, as many of the best Cuban fabricas moved to the DR almost a half century ago. The Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, influenced by the Cuban revolution, also caused an exodus of premier cigar growers to the DR.
There are two main types of tobacco grown in the DR:
Piloto cubano- This type of tobacco is derived from Cuban seed brought to the DR in 1959 when Carlos Torano fled from Cuba. These tobacco are heavier, full-bodied, and very resilient, and may be used as filler to add strength to cigars.
Olor dominicano- This type of tobacco is indigenous to the DR, and is lighter and thinner than piloto cubano. These tobacco are known for their excellent burning and blending qualities, as well as their complex aromas.
Interestingly, wrapper leaves were relatively problematic to grow in the DR; cigar producers relied on tobacco leaves imported from Cameroon or the Connecticut River Valley in the United States to wrap the purely Dominican binders and fillers. It was Carlos Fuente (grandson of Arturo Fuente of the renowned Fuente family, who moved their family cigar manufacturing operations to the DR from Nicaragua after the Sandinista revolution) who became determined to grow Dominican wrapper leaves after being challenged by European retailers who believed that it was impossible. Others had tried and failed miserably, as the conditions were not conducive to the cultivation of wrapper leaves. The famed Oliva family of Oliva Tobacco owned fertile land in Caribe (within 2 hours of Santiago) that was believed to be excellent for wrapper leaf growth. The Oliva family had always been supportive of the Fuente family and sold the property to the Fuentes - herein the birth of Chateau de la Fuente, and subsequently the production of the first Dominican wrapper crop in 1992, used to produce the Opus X line (the first Dominican puro).
The following are examples of Dominican puros currently on the market:
The local cigar industry in Jamaica began with tobacco seeds brought by Cuban immigrants who fled during Cuba's struggle with Spain between 1868-1878. Another influx of Cuban tobacco growers occurred around World War II. The British developed an affinity to tobacco, especially Cuban tobacco, during the colonial period. When World War II broke out, British money could not be spent outside of the Commonwealth. Since Cuba was not a British colony, the cigar market dropped precipitously; however, with Jamaica being a British colony, many Cubans tobacco growers fled to Jamaica to take advantage and start cigar production there. Although there is no deep-rooted cigar tobacco culture in Jamaica, there are wild forms of tobacco that are indigenous to the island - a variety called cow tongue, or silver tongue, which grows in fertile volcanic soil and has been used to create mixtures smoked in pipes. The climate and rich soil are very similar to Cuba.
Hurricanes have been a rate-limiting factor to the growth and success of the Jamaican cigar industry. Royal Jamaica, founded in 1935, sustained significant damage from hurricane Gilbert in 1988, setting back the industry several years and shifting production of their cigars to the DR.
The island of Puerto Rico has a reputation for good quality tobacco since the time of Spanish sovereignty; however, the industry has fluctuated over the years and the tobacco is obscure in the premium cigar marketplace. Tobacco is grown primarily in the mountainous region within the interior. As a result of American sovereignty, some United States companies have purchased land and opened cigar and cigarette factories in Puerto Rico. Most of the cigar tobacco produced is of the filler type, and it relatively mild in taste with good burning qualities.
Next week, we will cover North America and discuss tobacco from the Connecticut River Valley and Mexico.