Bolivar visits the Dominican Republic's cigar capital.
There was a time when I used to go to the Dominican Republic (DR) fairly regularly with Edward Sahakian, the proprietor of Davidoff of London, but I got out of the habit. One of the reasons for starting work on a short pocket guide to cigars was to have an excuse to go back to Santiago de los Caballeros. Located in the Cibao valley, a verdant gash across the top of the country, Santiago is fiercely proud of its traditions, its status as the nation’s cigar capital and that the DR is the world’s largest producer of handmade cigars.
Things have come a long way since the 19th century, when leaf tobacco was exported to make cigars in Europe and domestic consumption was characterised by the Andullo, a covering of palm leaves around a length of tobacco that could be cut into lengths for sale. Only when the local economy began to improve with the sugar-cane boom of the 1880s did small cigar factories began to appear.
Unlike its Central American neighbours, the DR did not immediately benefit from the exodus of tobacco and cigar expertise from Cuba in the wake of the revolution, as it was far from politically stable. In May 1961, conspirators gunned down the country’s leader, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, and, later that year, an attempt by his son, Ramfis, to succeed him ended with the flight of the entire family.
It was only after an American invasion in 1965 ended an incipient civil war and backed the anti-Communist rule of Joaquín Balaguer—under whom the first duty-free zones were established—that the country began to attract large international companies and smaller cigar makers.
Today, the DR produces an estimated 210 million handmade cigars a year and enjoys a reputation for which Zino Davidoff, Ernest Schneider and Henke Kelner should take most of the credit. When Davidoff announced it was leaving Cuba, the cigar world went into shock. Zino Davidoff first went there in the 1920s, when the makers of Havana cigars sought his counsel and patronage. After the war, he invented the Château Series and was later accorded the ultimate honour of having a cigar brand named after him.
Concerns about quality and the future prompted Ernst Schneider —leader of Oettinger, Davidoff’s parent company—to look for an alternative, which he found in the jovial shape of Henke. In 1984, Henke had established a cigar factory on the outskirts of Santiago de los Caballeros, initially half a dozen rollers, among them Eladio Diaz, the man who would become his master blender.
Rather than starting his own brand, Henke put his immense expertise at the disposal of others, making cigars for the likes of Ashton, Paul Garmirian’s PG brand, Griffin’s, the Geneva nightclub, film star George Hamilton and Avo Uvezian. Henke aims for ‘total palate stimulation’, which is achieved by blending different tobaccos from different seed varieties, soils, countries and positions on the plant.
Since my last visit to Santiago, the portfolio of Davidoff cigars has exploded. For many years, the marque was characterised by cigars with the white band; light, aromatic and distinguished by the salty, dry taste of the island’s native Olor tobacco. The classic Davidoff blend contained two other varieties: Piloto Cubano and San Vicente, which created the light, pleasant flavour I took to be the Davidoff flavour.
As well as the new Yamasá growing region in the DR, Davidoff has recently purchased plantations in Nicaragua and Honduras, so, now, as well as the white-banded cigars (which have been joined by the Winston Churchill line that is Davidoff’s most popular), there is the Escurio (made with Brazilian tobacco) and the Davidoff Nicaragua.
This latter is a great cigar and even better in the box-pressed version that will arrive in the UK later this year. Nicaraguan tobacco and the Nicaraguan style of cigar making tend towards a fuller and stronger cigar that’s closer in style to what comes out of Cuba rather than the DR. However, as these bear the Davidoff name, they’re made with Nicaraguan tobacco at the Davidoff factory in the DR under Henke’s gimlet eye. Thus, the richness and earthiness of the Nicaraguan tobacco is endowed with the finesse characteristic of Davidoff and made into cigars with the same sense of precision.
It’s hard to imagine a more exactly made and dependable cigar, but then, as Henke says: ‘All that we do in our factories is for the satisfaction of the cigar smoker. That is the goal.’ A more noble goal it is hard to imagine.