Cigar Makers

Confessions of a Tobacco Broker: Damien Bishcoff of Grand Island Group S.A.

Headquartered in Santiago, The Dominican Republic, Grand Island Group S.A. is headed by tobacco broker, Damien Bischoff. In little more than five years, Mr. Bischoff has become one of the most sought-after tobacco growers in the industry. Cigar Advisor Editor, Gary Korb, spoke with Damien at length to learn more about the role of the tobacco broker in the making of premium handmade cigars.

Cigar Advisor: What was the first cigar you ever smoked, and what do you remember most about it?

Damien Bischoff: Since, as a student, I was living in Paris, my very first cigar was a Cuban, a Partagas D4 which began at that time becoming the very classic Cuban Robusto sold in France instead of the Robusto from Romeo y Julieta and Cohiba. I think it was in my second year of philosophy study at La Sorbonne, after a class, I bought it on Boulevard Saint Germain. I was very impressed by the store. It cost me quite a lot, and I smoked it in the small studio I lived in next to the Luxembourg Gardens. At that time, it was a strong, bold, Cuban-style Robusto. Though it was impressive in strength and power, I wasn’t able to feel more than the strength and the good aroma, rather than appreciate all that complexity for the first stick of my life.

Cigar Advisor: Tell us a little about your background, (family, education, professional) and what led you to becoming a tobacco broker? Did you have a mentor?

D.B.: My father worked as an engineer at “Big Blue” (IBM), in France but was called to do his duty as a paratrooper officer in the French Algerian-war conflict. He came back badly injured and died some years later leaving two twin sons, my brother and I, at the age of only six months. My mother stayed working at the town council while raising and educating us by herself. Fortunately, being war orphans, the French government subsidized my primary college and university education. I got a Masters in Philosophy at La Sorbonne, then decided being a teacher was not for me. So, I sold all my books and cameras to make some cash and went to live in Damascus, Syria for two years, where I decided on becoming an archaeologist, and was accepted by the Syrian Antiquities team. A few excavations later in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, and having met some excellent scholars there, I got a Masters in Archaeology, and then went on to get my Ph.D. in Anthropology at EHESS in Paris.

After spending seven years in Istanbul, Turkey, working as the Assistant Chief of Architecture for the Turkish Republic, France made drastic budget cuts for scholars, and I didn’t feel like waiting 10 years in an administration corridor for a new job in my country. In the meantime, my twin brother was in The Dominican Republic studying for his Ph.D. in Taino Indian culture and Taino art, so I would visit him for two months each year.

During one of those visits, I met some very nice people who worked in tobacco, Don Siegfried Maruschke and Dona Mercedes Mendez of the Mendez family, and later, Alfredito Jorge Gomez, with whom I learned a lot about filler tobacco. One day opportunity knocked. I was hired as the Commercial Agent of Cameroon wrapper for the Meerapfel family. Then, in 2008 I decided to open my own company, Grand Island Group SA, so I could move on from being commercial agent and become a broker.

In a word, I went from a heritage-based passion to another passion: tobacco. Would you agree that tobacco, along with wine, is a more true, earth-based passion in these uncertain economic times?

Cigar Advisor: Spoken like a true philosopher. What does a tobacco broker do?

D.B.: A broker trades tobacco. In fact, I got the opportunity not only to act as a trader, in other words, not only selling wholesale from the DR what I was getting from different suppliers, but to procure a full crop from Ecuador via a grower that is independent of the big processors and growing companies. So, I slowly began making my own classifications of tobacco grades, colors and sizes, I established a logical system of processing (fermentation and sorting) not only based on the amount of tobacco I had available, but also by paying attention to the needs of the customers with whom I worked.

Cigar Advisor: Where do you grow most of your tobacco? Is it primarily wrapper leaf, filler, or both?

D.B.: Nowadays, I broker the crops I get from my independent grower, then I add my own crop, which was about 110 hectares in 2012. Most of my tobacco comes from Ecuador, and is primarily wrapper.

Cigar Advisor: Without giving away any trade secrets, do you have any special methods for growing and harvesting?

D.B.: Apart from optimizing the processes of growing and harvesting, I’m not necessarily trying to produce the ultimate tobacco from the field, or from the curing process, or even from the fermentation and sorting process. I try to get the tobacco that best fits the customer’s needs. Or to put it another way, I want to provide tobacco to the customer who will get the best use from it. Moreover, you can make the best cigar in the world, in your opinion, and no one will buy it if you don’t look at what your customers are looking for.

On another point, my tobacco is coming from the very farms we operate and control ourselves, not from different suppliers who grow with a mechanical-like formula: Do this on this day; do that on another day; this time we’ll use a generic fertilizer, etc. Tobacco doesn’t work like that. Our tobacco has excellent combustion, a nice white ash, a PICO, a taste recognizable enough to assure the customer they will get a tasty tobacco, not “Brand X” Habano seed leaves.

Plus, I don’t believe in an agricultural model working on a maximum basis in order to minimize the overhead cost, at least for tobacco, or more precisely for wrapper. Producing big volumes for the purpose of having more weight is of no use. If you want to grow more binder tobacco, fine, but don’t produce more wrapper leaf because the volume of “undesired” tobacco will impact the good batch, and not in a proportional way, but in an exponential one.

In other words, there is a certain amount of care that goes into analyzing the soil, fertilizing and other soil-health procedures that have much to do with the yields of potential wrapper leaves. Then, during the picking of the primings, and depending on the type of seeds you’ve planted, there are other ways to increase the tobacco yield such as by controlling the amount of light exposure. Some wrappers need to be Oscuro dark to be of some value to certain buyers, while some others need to be light. There are also ways to split the crop during different stages of growing, depending on the texture you want, by controlling the sunlight exposure.

Cigar Advisor: Who else works with you on the plantation and what are their primary functions?

D.B.: I have an agronomist permanently there, another one from the DR that travels five times a year during the preparation of the soil, crop and fermentation. I also travel there myself. The agronomist down there is in charge of sanitary control (of the plants) program, the fertilizing program, growing process and curing process. Here in the Dominican I have someone in charge of coordinating the main Ecuadorian growing program with the commercial standards as to how we want to select (maturity, color, texture) and receive the tobacco down here in the DR.

Cigar Advisor: You hear the word “vintage” a lot in the cigar business. What factors determine a truly “vintage” harvest?

D.B.: A vintage harvest must be an exceptional harvest. The issue is that those vintage harvests are mainly disconnected from the vintage cigars.

Vintage cigars are unfortunately much more dependent on the inventory of the manufacturers. In other words, the commercial use of “vintage” is sometimes abused, in that, the manufacturer may actually be referring to an unsold batch of tobacco they want to get rid of, rather than aged leaf that would be considered excellent. This is quite far from the exceptional quality one would expect from vintage tobacco.

In the same way, the 10, 12, and 18-year-old “vintage” tobacco is mostly or only commercial leaf. For genuine vintage leaf, you need to look at who has a real inventory of tobacco that has been aging for various years. Since the world tobacco crop is always smaller, and the demand tends to either stagnate or grow, there is always a lot of tobacco, but only a small portion of it is “good” tobacco.

Looking at it as a cigar smoker, I would much prefer to smoke a punchier, tastier cigar with two to three-year-aged filler than 10-year-aged. A compromise would be four to five-year-aged filler. As for wrapper leaf, it’s even more of an illusion, since filler, binder and wrapper are like wines. For example, a Bordeaux’s optimal aging time is 20 years, a Bourgogne, 10 years, as far as drinking them at their peak. After that, unless the harvest was really exceptional, they will begin to decline.

Following the aging potential of cigars, a four to five-year-old tobacco will give you a ready to smoke cigar with a creamy, noble consistency, but the question is, what is the cigar’s maximum potential for aging? Maybe only a few more years. However, cigars made with two to three-year old tobaccos are the best cigars to age, because the aging potential is longer. They will be punchy and tasty right now, but they will acquire nobility with aging without losing too much strength.

Cigar Advisor: How intense is the competition among tobacco brokers?

D.B.: The tobacco brokers, like all in the cigar tobacco industry, are involved in the continual process of acquisition, mergers, and joint ventures. So, the competition is tough. The big companies don’t want anybody entering the market. In the past two years, only a very few (less than five) independent wrapper projects in Ecuador were bought by major companies in order to prevent others from entering the growing process and wrapper sales.

As far as I’m concerned, we are among the best at what we do. For over four years now, Grand Island Group has offered what we believe is the highest quality and service. Like the boutique cigar factory trend, consumers appreciate the authenticity and passion we put into this business. Additionally, the acceptance of the customers for our tobacco gets bigger every year. This not only inspires me, it tells me we’re doing things right.

Cigar Advisor: What is the hardest tobacco to grow, and why?

D.B.: Without a doubt, wrapper tobacco is the hardest, because that is the leaf for which the expectations are highest. For example: texture (elastic, but thin); color (deep, but even); size (big, but manageable), combustion and ash (tasty, but it should also light quickly and burn white); and aroma, which is among the highest contribution to the blend, or liga. As you can see, the criteria are strict, yet sometimes contradictory, meaning it’s difficult to get them all at the same time.

As far as the different type of wrappers are concerned, Cuban seeds are the most prolific in terms of yield and curing, while other seeds, like the more exotic tobaccos, are harder to grow and cure. That said, it’s a big mistake to think that because you grow good tobacco in Ecuador you’ll always get good wrapper. Suffice it to say, the hardest tobacco to grow is the one that has been specifically designated for use as wrapper.

Cigar Advisor: Is there a particular wrapper leaf that you personally favor more than others?

D.B.: I love Habano Vuelta Arriba seed grown in Ecuador. I also love the Ecuadorian-grown Arapiraca Brazilian seed, Cameroon African seed, and Sumatra seed wrappers.

Cigar Advisor: Sounds like you have a certain affinity for several wrappers. Can you name a few popular cigars that are currently wearing your wrapper?

D.B.: Since I do not want to single-out any particular manufacturers, I’d prefer to keep that confidential. My apologies.

Cigar Advisor: Do you see any trends developing in terms of growing tobacco, or a particular leaf that’s becoming more popular?

D.B.: Everybody wants dark wrapper, but some manufacturers will often use tricks to make it dark. Developing a true natural Oscuro has become a personal aim of mine. Another trend I’ve observed is a demand for thin binder leaf, which is used as a substitute for binders that are being grown less every year.