Joya de Nicaragua Cigars have the distinction of being the very first cigar factory in Nicaragua. Established in 1968, the company has dedicated itself to the art of producing many of the world’s most celebrated handcrafted cigars for over 40 years. Among them are the critically-acclaimed Joya De Nicaragua Antaño 1970, Dark Corojo, and CyB (short for “Cuenca & Blanco”). The latter is the first cigar from JdN CEO, Dr. Alejandro Martinez Cuenca, and Sr. Vice President, José Blanco, who joined the company in August of 2011. To gain a better understanding of how Joya de Nicaragua has remained at the top of a highly competitive industry, I spoke to both men about the company’s past, present and future.
But first, the Joya de Nicaragua back story.
The original company was established in 1968 by Cuban émigrés, Juan Francisco Bermejo and Simon Camacho. Bermejo was a tobacco grower and broker who emigrated to Honduras 1961, and the first to grow Cuban seed Corojo in Honduran soil. By 1966 Bermejo was growing Cuban seed tobacco in Nicaragua for export to the U.S. Meanwhile, Camacho, who opened Miami’s first cigar factory, was making cigars using tobacco brokered through Bermejo.
By 1968, Bermejo and Camacho had partnered-up and founded Nicaraguan Cigars S.A. In 1970 the company trademarked the name Joya De Nicaragua, and released its first cigar, the Joya De Nicaragua Corona. Between 1968 and 1979, the factory was producing nine million cigars per year, almost all of which were sold in the U.S.
Despite years of political upheaval, a socialist regime, a U.S. embargo, and a war between the Sandinistas and the Contras, the Joya de Nicaragua brand managed to survive with their bottom line virtually unscathed. But it wasn’t until 1994, when Dr. Alejandro Martinez Cuenca bought the company that the brand truly became an international success.
Dr. Alejandro Martinez Cuenca on Joya de Nicaragua, then and now.
JdN’s owner and CEO, Dr. Alejandro Martinez Cuenca, is a native of Nicaragua who holds Fullbright scholarships from the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of South Carolina, and a Ph.D in Economics from Vanderbilt University.
“Initially, I started my professional career as a Professor of Economics for graduate students in a Regional Business school, doing consulting work for many Central American businesses and Institutions. In the 1980´s I was the Nicaraguan Minister of Trade, and later became Minister of Budgeting and Planning. In the 1990’s I decided to enter into various businesses and in 1994 bought Joya de Nicaragua where I have remained ever since.”
As to whether anyone was making cigars in Nicaragua prior to the Cuban Revolution, Dr, Cuenca added, “Cigars have existed in this country since before 1492. When Cristobal Colon [Christopher Columbus] arrived at our coasts he found the native Indians smoking simple tobacco rolled in the form of a cigar.”
Suffice it to say, making cigars has been a fundamental part of native Nicaraguan culture for centuries. “They would make their own cigar with a variety of tobacco called “Chilcagre,” a home-grown type of native tobacco,” said Cuenca. “But the first recognized cigar manufacturing operation in Nicaragua started in 1968 with Joya de Nicaragua.
During that same decade, the Somoza administration was already feeling pressure from the Sandinistas, who eventually deposed him in 1979. After taking power, the party was officially known as the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional or FSLN, and established a Council of State in May of 1980. At the time, U.S. president Jimmy Carter tried to work with the new Socialist regime, but with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, he thought it was in the country’s best interest to help remove the Sandinistas from power. In January of 1981, Reagan suspended all aid to Nicaragua and sanctioned support of the Contras under the assertion that the Soviets and the Cubans were arming FSLN guerillas in El Salvador.
“Due to the U.S. embargo of Nicaragua, in 1984, production of Joya was taken over by Nestor Plasencia in Honduras, but it was a different cigar,” said Dr. Cuenca. Nevertheless, the strategy worked. This way, the cigars could still be exported to the US market as a product “manufactured in Central America.”
Prior to Dr. Cuenca’s purchase in 1994, Joya de Nicaragua wasn’t organized like most corporations. There was no president; instead, the company was run by several figureheads. Moreover, due to the company being so loosely structured, there were many hurdles to jump. Fortunately, the cigar boom in the U.S. was reaching its peak, and the brand continued to amass strong sales. That being said, were it not for Dr. Cuenca’s expertise in business and economics, the company may not have survived the aftermath of the boom.
“During those early years many indescribable events happened,” said Dr. Cuenca. “But they are parts of the past. In my view, the only purpose they serve is the gaining of experience that we now enjoy in the present. We are not only the jewel of Nicaragua, we have become the spirit of Nicaragua.”
It wasn’t until 2002 with the release of the Antaño 1970 that JdN had its first major breakthrough under the direction of Dr. Cuenca. Over 10 years later, the series remains one of the top cash cows in the JdN portfolio, and is considered by many cigars smokers to be a classic. In terms of the development of the Antaño 1970 blend and why it became an instant hit Dr. Cuenca explains:
“I wanted to create a cigar that was different from anything else that had ever been smoked during the previous boom years. I wanted to make a cigar that would indubitably show the differences between smoking a medium-body cigar, versus a full body strength, while at the same time offering the full-flavored enjoyment of smoking an authentic puro made from tobaccos of the same origin – all of which are very rich in flavours and tones. The reason it continues to be successful is because consumers took to it immediately and the blend hasn’t changed. More importantly, it represented a turning point in the evolution of the cigar industry; especially for Nicaraguan cigars. That is our Antaños!”
Many years before the success of the Antaño 1970 puro, Joya de Nicaragua made cigars with tobaccos from different countries, but the essence of Joya’s recognition has been the authenticity that comes from working exclusively with Nicaraguan tobaccos. On the other hand, that exclusivity turned the corner in 2011 when José Blanco joined the company.
“We diverted from what had become our puro tradition when we decided to blend a cigar with five different tobacco origins, which is how the CyB selection was created,” said Cuenca.
Speaking of Joya de Nicaragua’s CyB selection, it was one of the most talked-about cigars of the 2012 IPCPR Trade Show and strong sales followed immediately upon its release. As more Nicaraguan cigars continue to accrue rave reviews from the premium cigar media and consumers, it’s not a big leap to suggest that Nicaraguan cigars may have finally eclipsed Cuban cigars in quality, consistency and popularity. Dr. Cuenca agrees.
“It comes from the innate human desire for creativity and passion; the individual effort pushing evolution and linking it with our belief that nothing is static; and nothing is more dynamic and changing than manufacturing cigars. But it is also our self commitment to always look for the better! Those ingredients have been matched in our decision to work with Drew Estate. Since then we have had more exposure, and their creative thinking has had a big influence in the way we think about things.”
In a move to increase market share, especially in the United States, in January of 2008, Joya de Nicaragua announced that they had dropped their current distributor to work with Drew Estate.
“We felt it was imperative to introduce changes in our marketing and distribution strategies,” said Dr. Cuenca. “Joya De Nicaragua is an exemplary Nicaraguan puro that has earned a privileged place with experienced cigar smokers. The task before us now is to have it achieve a market presence which is consistent not only with its value, but more importantly, its soul.”
It was clear to Dr. Cuenca that Drew Estate understood his specific vision of the future for the brand.
“The fact that they had their own in-house sales force and marketing department were also important ingredients,” he added. “The most obvious factor is the success they’ve already achieved by increasing our market share within the highly competitive U.S. marketplace.”
In August of 2011, Joya de Nicaragua, S.A. appointed José Blanco, former director of La Aurora Cigars, as its Senior Vice President. With over 30 years of marketing, public relations, and tobacco-blending experience he is primarily responsible for JdN’s overall brand and blend development.
During his youth, the naturally outgoing Blanco began his career in the tobacco business by sorting tobacco on his father’s farm, and by the age of 16, he was smoking cigars on a regular basis.
In 1982 Blanco was hired by Empresa León Jimenes and spent the next 18 years in its core beer and cigarette divisions. By 1999 he was working in the company’s premium cigar division, La Aurora S.A. His expertise in tobacco was crucial to the development of the company’s Cien Años, Aurora 107, and 1495 Series cigars. Señor Blanco retired from La Aurora S.A. in June of 2011, but it was short-lived. His passion for working with tobacco was so strong that when his good friend, Dr. Cuenca offered him the opportunity for them to work together, he couldn’t resist.
“I have always been a fan of Nicaraguan tobacco, and while seeing a fast growing popularity in Nicaraguan cigars, the offer drew my attention,” said Blanco. “After having had the privilege of working for a family-owned company at La Aurora, it felt great to be working for another family-owned company at Joya de Nicaragua. Furthermore, I saw growth potential for the brand, and from a business point of view, it was very attractive.”
Blanco’s chief responsibilities are threefold: Developing new line extensions by using tobaccos of different origins; to be more involved in social media as a marketing-tool; widen the company’s distribution channels to find new markets and attract more customers.
When it was announced that Dr. Martinez Cuenca and José Blanco would be releasing a new brand which they both had a hand in blending, anticipation was high. It would also mark the beginning of a different profile for the company; a Joya de Nicaragua cigar made with tobaccos from countries other than Nicaragua.
“The idea behind the CyB brand was the start of a collaboration between two cigar-lovers with different Central American origins – one Dominican, one Nicaraguan, said Blanco. “Using that concept, we would blend it using tobaccos grown in our native countries, respectively, as well as other countries such as Peru and Ecuador.”
In his position as Senior Vice President, Blanco is both an administrator and a blender. When asked if he enjoys wearing one hat over another he says, “It’s 50/50. I love blending and creating with great passion, but I also love being with people, doing events, seminars and the like. Ultimately (and personally), it all goes back to the blends I have created.”
In terms of marketing strategy, Blanco believes there are a number of tactics that lead to success. Among the most important of these include the availability of the product as much as the availability of the face behind it.
“Working directly with our customers and consumers, hosting events, having a strong social media presence, and being open-minded to new ideas; today, all of these things contribute greatly to good marketing and image growth,” says Blanco. “Even though the brand is very important, a lot of consumers today want to see the person behind the brand, be it through in-store events or interacting with cigar smokers on Facebook and Twitter.”
In addition to his duties at Joya de Nicaragua, Señor Blanco is one of a number of cigar industry professionals who, with help from Cigar Rights of America, have been especially outspoken about the very real possibility of tobacco becoming regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. When asked whether CRA’s crusade would play a part in JdN’s marketing, Blanco, who is never one to mince words said, “From a marketing standpoint it’s a separate issue. I have always been and always will be outspoken and active with regard to federal regulation of tobacco. That includes smoking rights, taxation, and the involvement of FDA regulations. I do this as much for Joya as I do for the entire industry, as well as for our love for cigars, which is why I say it’s a separate issue. Smoking premium cigars is not about health, it’s about rights.”
Even with the impending threat of FDA regulation, as Señor Blanco looks into his crystal ball, he sees an even more profitable future for the Nicaraguan cigar industry as a whole.
“Without a doubt, in the last five years Nicaragua has been the fastest growing country in the industry,” said Blanco. “And I believe that this popularity will stay strong and that it will grow into further markets outside of the US. I am also sure that Joya will keep growing as well, which it has already proven.”