Strange Alien: Cigar Tobacco from Countries That May Surprise You
By John Pullo
Cigars are a worldwide obsession – and I don’t mean that just from an “everybody everywhere loves to smoke cigars” point of view. While that may be true, there are plenty of countries around the globe (and some that you didn’t expect) that make and export cigars. What’s even more interesting is that tobacco is a pretty hardy plant – so while we’re used to the idea that most of the cigar tobacco we smoke hails from Central America and the Caribbean, the leaf has taken root in many more countries; we just don’t get a chance to try it too often.
Until now. There is a flavor chase under way, with a growing contingent of BOTLs demanding more and diverse tastes; that means more and more cigar makers are experimenting with (and cigar lovers are getting turned on to) the cigar tobacco coming from more than the stogie world’s “Big 4”: Cuba, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Honduras. Ecuador and Cameroon have been producing binders and wrappers that are mild-medium but complex; Maduro fans are digging into Mexican San Andres, as well as Brazilian tobaccos like Mata Fina and Arapiraca, with reckless abandon. Even Puerto Rico and the Bahamas have been players in the cigar game for years. All of these tobaccos have become relatively well-known to curious cigar lovers – but today, I think it’s about time we go even further off the beaten path and hip you to some cigar tobacco from unexpected places…and tell you why cigar makers are putting these exotic tastes in their blends.
Tasting is believing.
Just about everything that grows has a terroir: “the set of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype [meaning characteristics, or traits], unique environment contexts and farming practices, when the crop is grown in a specific habitat.” Another good word to use here in terroir’s place would be “character,” since it’s easier to spell and makes you sound less pretentious when you use it. It’s also why Dominican tobacco is uniquely smooth and mellow, while Nicaraguan is, on the whole, more peppery-spicy and earthy. Everything has nuances, too – so it’s really hard to say, generally, that one country’s cigar tobacco “tastes like…”
This is blending after all, so you can’t really say that if a cigar had some exotic tobacco from Peru, that you’d get this intense taste banging through…instead, you get a little bit of its character. Or think of it this way: if you lined a Nicaraguan cigar up next to a Nicaraguan cigar that also had a bit of Peruvian cigar tobacco in the mix, you’d probably get a sense – or a taste – of that Peruvian nuance poking through, making it taste just a little bit different. And that’s what we’re after today.
So what are these up-and-coming destinations in the cigar tobacco world you should think about giving a try? Let’s ride:
There’s more to Peru than Machu Picchu and coffee; they just don’t get talked about very much. The country’s main exports are precious metals, oil, fruit and gems – but their cigar tobacco is a rare gem indeed. Peruvian tobacco isn’t exactly in abundant supply, but there are enough cigar makers taking advantage of its strong and spicy edge to amp up the intensity of their blends.
Montecristo built its reputation on being a smooth, velvety smoke. So when the flavor hounds demanded a Monte that had some zing to it, the Maestros said “check this out…” The result was Montecristo Platinum, and that zing comes courtesy of spicy Peruvian long fillers being added to an already edgy mix of vintage Dominican and Nicaraguan tobaccos. One of my top 5 cigars.
CAO MX2 is known as a tale of two wrappers: the outside is an oily Connecticut Broadleaf Maduro, while the binder inside is a savory Brazilian Maduro leaf. That 2-fer alone makes MX2 a righteous smoke; but because those maduros are layered over a sweet n’ spicy base of tobaccos from Nicaragua, Honduras, the DR and Peru, this CAO is lights-out delicious.
Peruvian cigar tobacco seems to play nice with Nicaraguan leaf, blending well thanks to their shared peppery characteristics. Avo taps this combo to make their medium bodied Syncro Nicaragua, which matches Nicaraguan long fillers with Peruvian Olancho and a spread of Dominican leaves.
Syria – and the countries on the northern and far eastern ends of the Mediterranean Sea, like Greece and Turkey – aren’t readily known as a source for cigar tobacco. Instead, it’s an Oriental tobacco that’s usually used in pipe blends that is most common. The leaves are very small, but incredibly aromatic – and just a bit of it in the blend goes a long way to adding a dark, rich and exotic flavor.
Drew Estate uses Syrian leaf to great effect in the Natural Root. The base of the Natural recipe is your traditional South American cigar tobaccos, but they tweak it with a pinch of this Mediterranean tobacco and a dark Perique – also common in pipe tobaccos – that’s grown and cured in St. James Parish, Louisiana. The result is sweet, and wickedly aromatic.
Italy is typically represented by the Toscano-style cigars – think Avanti, Parodi, etc. The catch? They’re rolled mostly with imported, American-grown tobaccos from the deep South. BUT – for those cigars from Italy that include a twist of home-grown leaf, the body and flavor can get full – quickly.
Exhibit A: CAO Italia. The blend starts with already-hearty Nicaraguan long fillers, then peppers in a Habano tobacco that was grown in Italy. Add a dash of filler from Peru and finish it in a Honduran-grown wrapper, and CAO Italia gets fat, tangy and tasty – quickly.
Toscano cigars might be a little more typical of cigars made with Italian tobacco. As I mentioned, the blend is heavy on Kentucky-grown, fire-cured cigar tobacco, then finished in that classic shape with Italian and Peruvian tobaccos. Small in size, but big n’ full in flavor.
Or more specifically, Sumatra…actually, you may be very well versed in cigar tobacco from Sumatra, grown all across the Indonesian island chain – it’s also called Java, or sometimes Besuki, depending on where in Indonesia it’s grown. Primarily used for wrappers (though some, like Cohiba, use an Indonesian Jember leaf as a binder), Sumatra cures to a gorgeous deep Colorado color – even though it’s somewhat reserved in terms of flavor. Sumatra can do full-bodied cigars just as easily; witness Aging Room Small Batch Quattro F55, a box-pressed gem that consists of select Habano filler and binder from the DR – finished in a vintage Sumatra wrapper that smokes sooo smooth. And there are a ton more cigars that use it…here are three worth noting:
The legend. Romeo y Julieta 1875 starts with cedar-aged long fillers grown in the Dominican Republic, which is what gives Romeo that mellow taste it’s known for. But the cherry on top is a smooth Indonesian Besuki-Connecticut hybrid wrapper called TBN, which is short for tabaco bawah naungan – meaning “shade grown.”
See? There is a reason that ACID Kuba Kuba tastes so good: it’s a dark and oily Indonesian-grown Sumatra wrapper that caps a multi-nation blend, then infused with ACID’s secret sauce of herbs and botanicals.
Another Indonesian-wrapped treat is Flor de Oliva. The wrapper on this otherwise Nicaraguan smoke is more rustic looking, but no less smooth and inviting; a lightly sweetened cap seals the deal on this Oliva, giving you a chance to try a Sumatra wrapper at a bundle price.
Home to a massive banana industry, Costa Rica grows some cigar tobacco whose flavor is absolutely bananas – if you like the taste of cigars made with leaf from Mexico and Brazil. Like its neighbor to the north (Nicaragua), Costa Rica’s farmlands sport a mineral-rich volcanic soil and a just-right climate for growing tobacco that smacks the palate. It’s a savory addition to any blend, including these…
There is a whole host of Alec Bradley premiums that feature Costa Rican tobacco, primarily in the binder position. In addition to the 1600 (crafted with 2 different Nicaraguan long fillers and Honduran Jamastrán under a First Crop Brazilian Habano topcoat), there’s the Alec Bradley 1633 shown here, sporting a mellow Connecticut wrapper and made with a Costa Rican binder and Honduran/Nicaraguan long fillers. I’m guessing the Panama-grown tobacco in the mix (which we’ll talk about in a minute, below) serves to round off the edges, making this a straight medium-bodied smoke.
The Judge by J. Fuego grabs a Costa Rica-grown Corojo for the binder leaf, making this a full-bodied smoke, for sure. The wrapper is well-aged Brazilian Mata Fina; the fillers are a 3-way combo of Corojo from Honduras and Nicaragua, plus Mexican San Andres.
Greetings from the 8th Wonder of the World, the Panama Canal. The tobacco is pretty good, too; just south of Costa Rica, Panama’s farms impart the leaf with something that’s more middle-of-the-road in intensity – it’s aromatic, too. Cigars made exclusively from Panamanian tobacco have been described as having a scent of “berries, exotic spices and dark chocolate.”
The Gran Habano Azteca is a double San Andres Maduro (wrapper and binder). But George Rico adds Panamanian long fillers to a Nicaraguan core because, he says, “Azteca exemplifies ‘full flavor,’ in contrast to ‘full body.’” A complex, masterfully blended smoke.
The lower part of Central America seems to be Alec Bradley’s sweet spot; we already talked Costa Rica, and they’re hitting the Panama cigar tobacco list twice (you’ll see them again in Colombia). Alec Bradley Black Market cigars get a taste of medium-full magic by adding Panama long fillers to Honduran Jamastran, and wrapping it in Nicaraguan Jalapa.
Tobacco has been part of the Colombian economy for the better part of 200 years. A couple different kinds grow here, including ICA-Masinga (aka Ica Mazinga), a thin leaf that burns really well. Other Colombian tobaccos can be a little punchy, but all are pretty substantial in body.
That Ica Mazinga is the basis for CAO Colombia, which has no shortage of interesting cigar tobaccos in the mix – including Brazilian Mata Fina and a Honduran hybrid outer layer. An easy burn, and blended this way, actually makes for one of CAO’s milder cigars.
The Alec Bradley hit parade keeps on rolling: Sanctum leveraged its way to the Top 25 list with a 4-nation blend that includes Colombian tobacco in the filler. But when they made the MAXX (above), Alec Bradley threw the kitchen sink at it: leaf from Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, Mexico and Costa Rica all make an appearance, with a dark (but natural) Habano wrapper from Nicaragua adding some complexity. Somehow, still only medium bodied.
A limited release in 2016 from Macanudo, Mao has been described as having a primarily nutty and cedary flavor. In the mix: Colombian, Dominican and Nicaraguan long fillers, a Mexican-grown binder and a Connecticut wrapper that’s grown from heritage Cuban-seed. I asked fellow Advisor Gary Korb to sum it up for me and he said, “Oh, yeah, it’s really good.” So there you go.
Cigar Tobacco from Other Unexpected Countries
There is a black tobacco grown in the Philippines that’s used for cigars…its taste leans very much towards the mild side, but promises to enhance the overall aroma of your smoke.
There is a variety of Argentinian tobaccos, mostly used for cigarettes; their cigar tobaccos tend to have a smoother taste. The problem with Argentina’s leaf is that it’s expensive – so it doesn’t get used very often.
Worth mentioning because China is actually the largest tobacco producer in the world – but because of the way it’s cured and the sharp, edgy taste, it’s not used for premium cigars.
There’s a ton more places to grow tobacco – like I said at the top, it’s a pretty hardy plant. But if we’re just talking about high quality cigar tobacco, the good stuff has taken root in a diverse, but much shorter list of countries…and all of them worth exploring.