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Nicaragua’s Tobacco Trail
(continued)

Nick Perdomo Jr. (at right, with factory manager Tony Perdomo) founded Tabacalera Perdomo in Miami in 1991 and guided its rise into a major Nicaraguan manufacturer.
Nick Perdomo Jr., president of Tabacalera Perdomo S.A., is one of the more established of the “new wave” of cigar makers to have settled in Estelí. What began as a sideline of two rollers in Miami in 1991 as a means of making extra money for his new family became a full-time career for the former air traffic controller. Perdomo quickly outgrew a factory in Miami’s Little Havana and in 1996 moved the operation to cramped quarters in Estelí, installing his father Nick Sr., a former roller at the Partagas factory in Cuba, as its manager. By 2000, the family-owned business had relocated again to a sprawling new 80,000 sq. foot facility built on the outskirts of town.

Perdomo has had no regrets about reconnecting with his family’s roots - Nick’s grandfather Silvio was a roller at Cuba’s H. Upmann factory. “It’s a lot of work,” Perdomo admits, “But I think what sets us apart is we have a lot of attention to detail about the things we do. You’ve got to have a passion for it.”

The company’s cigars, which include La Tradicion Perdomo Reserve, Perdomo Estate Seleccion, Cuban Parejo, and its most exclusive cigar to date, Perdomo Edición de Silvio, have become well known for their characteristic reddish-brown rosado wrappers, square pressed shape, and full body.

Eduardo Fernandez (at right), owner of Tabacalera Tropical, examines tobacco leaves with Arsenio, one of the Cuban experts he’s tapped.
Eduardo Fernandez, a former New York financier and self-made entrepreneur who created one of Europe’s most successful fast foot chains, started in the cigar business on the agricultural side, having acted upon an opportunity to acquire tobacco farming lands in Condega and Jalapa that had belonged to the post Sandinista-era farming cooperatives. Having land but lacking expert staff, the highly-charged and rapid-speaking Fernandez brought in retired wrapper leaf growers and fermentation experts from Cuba in an effort to “do something special” with the fertile tobacco lands. As president and owner of Aganorsa, he oversees production of 10,000 bales of cigar tobacco annually.

Last year, Fernandez added a missing piece to his puzzle in the form of an expert tobacco blender, Cuban-born Pedro Martin, when he bought the cigar company Martin founded in 1978, now called Tabacalera Tropical. Martin, a lifelong tobacco veteran and expert in wrapper leaf, had previously operated his own factory in the Dominican Republic, but was amazed by the tobaccos being produced in Jalapa. The company’s goal is to make the best cigars possible, leveraging its enormous tobacco resources and employing traditional, old-fashion Cuban methods of processing tobacco and rolling cigars. This includes assembling cigar tobaccos in an accordion-like fashion to create a better draw, and finishing cigars with “triple-caps,” perfect round cigar heads that require additional steps. Both methods, says Fernandez, are standard in Cuba but not in Central America.

Last summer, Fernandez launched the first new brands developed with Martin, including Buena Cosecha, Lempira, Nicarao, and Condega, a strong, all-Corojo leaf blend.

Henry “Kiki” Berger (at left), founder and master roller of Cuban Crafters and its Nicaraguan factory, Tabacalera Estelí, farms and ferments all of his own tobaccos to ensure complete control of his cigars.
Ironically, Henry “Kiki” Berger, owner and master roller of Tabacalera Esteli, never really intended to be running his own cigar company, much less living in Estelí. Originally one of several investors in a cigar business that quickly went awry during the height of the cigar boom, Berger had only intended to straighten things out at the factory. That was eight years ago, and since then Berger has become one of the most unlikely champions of building a completely integrated cigar operation, buying his own farm two years ago, building a thatch-roofed Cuban style curing barn - the only one of its kind in Nicaragua - and constructing a brand new factory and curing facility on the grounds.

Berger, whose father was a small-time roller in Cuba, now employs 400 people in all. He has long been the hidden face behind other people’s successful brands including Savinelli Nicaragua Reserve, Cupido, and 5 Vegas. “Now it’s time for me to make my own cigars, to use the best material I have to make the best cigars,” says Berger, who is rolling Nicaraguan puros from tobaccos he planted, grew, harvested, cured, fermented, and aged, all on his own farm. “This is where people have to invest, in their quality control and their assurance of having the same tobacco all the time, so when you buy a cigar it’s always the same tobacco from the same farm.”

Berger’s new brands include Vegas of Tabacalera Esteli; Cuban Crafters, which are rolled with long curly head caps and Cuban tails; and his top-of-the-line J.L. Salazar y Hermanos Reserva Especial, a classic, full-bodied, Cuban-style box-pressed cigar with quadruple fermented tobaccos. “I’ve been aging it,” says Berger of his stash of tobacco. “I’ve been taking my time with it. I haven’t rushed it.”

The Padrón factory isn’t the only impressive new factory expansion to come on-line in Estelí this year; a surprising large facility belonging to the Oliva family’s Tabacalera Oliva S.A. (Tabolisa), within walking distance of several other manufacturers on the edge of town, also opened over the summer. The Olivas, who first came to Nicaragua as growers, adding cigar rolling operations about eight years ago, are the source of over 14 different brands, including Flor de Oliva and the much discussed “O” line. Cigar rolling is under the direction of Carlos Oliva. His father, Gilberto Sr. - who was literally born across the street from Cuba’s Hoyo de Monterrey factory - first worked in Cuba’s tobacco industry before embarking on an international career growing tobacco throughout the Americas. Today he oversees all growing, curing, and fermenting operations in the family business.

The new, larger factory will accommodate increased production, says Carlos’s brother Gilberto Oliva, Jr., who is active in both the leaf and cigar rolling operations, but drastic increases are not in the works. “We’ve always been careful about expanding too quickly,” says Oliva, noting that the “O” cigar was actually Gilberto’s personal smoke, and he was encouraged by others to make it into a brand. “The wrapper takes a lot more aging - it’s a true Havana wrapper,” he explains. Oliva originally planned on making only 1,000 boxes per month, but demand has been steep.

Drew Nica, the Nicaraguan factory of the counter-culture cigar maker Drew Estate, gained notoriety with its aromatically infused cigars. Each starts with prime tobaccos.
If there’s one cigar manufacturer in Nicaragua that’s broken the mold, it would be Drew Estate. Overseen by company co-founder and Long Island native Jonathan Drew Sann, Drew Estate began as a cigar shop in New York City that had its own cigar made locally. Years later, the shop was gone, and the company was making its own cigars in a former motel in Estelí. Most of Sann’s brands have been anything but traditional. The herbal and botanically-infused Acid line put Drew Estate on the map; the spice-infused Ambrosia continued that theme. But Sann, a non-stop bundle of New York-style energy, stresses that other Drew Estate brands, such as Natural, which combines up to 12 different tobacco origins in a single cigar, take aggressive tobacco blending to a whole new level. The company is the largest importer of foreign tobaccos into Nicaragua, he notes.

Even non-aromatic, non-flavored lines, like Industrial Press and La Vieja Habana, prove that Sann’s blends can also stand on their own in more traditional styles. While the philosophy and culture at Drew Estate has always emphasized youthful exuberance and non-conformist attitudes, the company has also forged projects with gourmet coffee grower Martin Mayorga for Mayorga Coffee Infused Cigars; and General Cigar Co. for the new Kahlua Cigar line.

Wars, revolutions, and embargos have created a challenging political terrain in Nicaragua for cigar making over the years, but the country’s rich lands, ideal weather, and wealth of talent ultimately are too great a temptation for passionate tobacco growers and cigar makers to pass by. Combined with current political stability, improving infrastructure, and a magnetic draw for talent, Nicaragua is again enjoying a golden age in cigars.


SMOKE - Fall, 2003
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