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Tobacco Farming Part 3: Growing, Aging, and Blending
Last month I told you about how we combine tried-and-true “old school” methods with the latest in farming technology to get the biggest, healthiest and richest-tasting yields from our tobacco crops. In this third chapter I’ll take you through the growing, aging and blending process that makes Perdomo cigars a cut above in quality, flavor, and smoker satisfaction.
Growing tobacco: Doing it right
It may sound cliché, but you know the expression, “you reap what you sow?” When it comes to growing tobacco timing is everything. You can’t grow tobacco year-round. There’s a season for it. You have to watch that season, like the rainy season, the climate, etc. Every decision is critical. Take a cigar’s particular flavor characteristics; for example, like how the pre-light tastes. The way we cure tobacco, we do things right from beginning to end, and that makes it special regardless of the retail price point.
There’s nothing more satisfying to me than seeing tobacco grow. Not many people know this, but it’s a weed. That’s one of the reasons the growing period is short. After the seedlings are planted it’s ready to pick within 105 to 112 days. If you get out to the fields at about 5:30 to 6 in the morning, you can almost see tobacco grow as the plants respond to the rising sun; it’s incredible.
As I explained in Part 2, a lot of care goes into growing tobacco; you have to take a totally different approach than you would with a different type of agricultural plant. The grounds have to be fertile; you to have to have great sun exposure and perfect climatic conditions; perfect water, perfect ground – the whole nine yards. If you over water a plant, it dies; if you under water a plant it dies. If it doesn’t have the right amount of sun exposure it’ll get blue mold. Yet, as tough as it is to grow, I love it. Since we started growing our own crops, I think I’ve come to love the aspect of tobacco farming about as much as I love making cigars because it’s something totally different. I really feel so much like a farmer these days. And when I’m not on tour or home in Miami, I’m out in the fields all day long.
Ask any experienced tobacco farmer about the growing process and he’ll tell you that tobacco plants require a tremendous amount of care daily. One of the most important details that we do is pick suckers off of the plants. “Suckers” are small leaves that sprout along the entire length of the plant in-between the larger tobacco leaves. The reason they’re called suckers is because they rob the nutrients from the larger leaves and literally suck the life out of the plant.
The traditional method of removing suckers from the plant is done by hand. The problem with suckers is that when you remove the first one, another sucker will develop right behind it, thus requiring another removal by hand. Because suckers continue to regenerate, this traditional form of removal may have to be done five to six times. The downside to this, in addition to being time consuming is, every time you send teams in to remove sucker leaves you can cause damage to the bigger leaves, and in some cases spread an infection from one plant to another.
Modern technology allows us to treat each plant one time and helps us avoid damaging the larger leaves. We have this new liquid; it’s actually a fatty acid that we put on the tobacco plant. You apply a little of this fatty acid with a little straw-like tube on the sucker which petrifies and kills it. One additional advantage to using the liquid is, in the old days, if you had blue mold and you were picking suckers, as noted above, you’d just pass the blue mold virus on to the next plant. There are some older farmers who don’t think it’s worth it, and so, doing it by hand is still good enough for them. Suffice it to say, you can be the greatest cigar maker in the world and have the best techniques, but if you don’t use the right seed, soil, fertilizer, or water, the tobacco just won’t make the grade.
How soil, water and climate affect a cigar’s flavor
Sometimes you get lucky and find grounds that don’t need fertilizer. You take a sample and it’s absolutely perfect; it’s bionic, therefore, it needs nothing. Then you take a sample about 10 feet away and it will need boron, magnesium, and nitrogen, for example. You really have to have “the right stuff,” and Nicaragua provides it all. The water we use from the river beds is excellent.
As I mentioned earlier, when you’re out in the field it’s so serene you feel like you’re the only person on earth. You look around and see this big, beautiful valley with a horizon that looks like an endless mountain chain. From a farmer’s point of view, the valley is even more beautiful because it blocks the wind. A closer look at the ground reveals these oblong stones with thousands of holes in them. They’re volcanic rock and they’re all different shapes because they were still partially molten when the volcano spit them out. They’re very heavy and incredibly dense. Over the eons, the smaller rocks decomposed into the ground, which is why much of Nicaragua’s soil is so rich and fertile. As for the big rocks, whenever we plow a new farm we remove truckloads of them.
To ensure consistency, our agronomists have a meeting every morning. They discuss exactly what plan of attack they’ll use for each farm that day. Sunny mornings are best, because we want the earth to heat up as quickly as possible. If we have an overcast morning where the humidity is over 70%, there’s a chance the plants could pick up blue mold. We immediately begin spray with a product to make sure that blue mold doesn’t affect the plants. Because the spores are carried by the wind, on those cloudy, humid days, blue mold can appear within a few hours.
This is why we purposely grow during the dry season. We water only the root base of the plant because we don’t want any of the leaves to be touched. This form of irrigation is called “inundation.” The only time we wet a leaf is when its going through curing and fermentation. It’s amazing; tobacco is the only plant in the world that when you add water it becomes elastic after its dead, and you need that elasticity to make cigars. If you take any other weed or plant, once it’s dead, that’s it.
Once the tobacco has been picked, it must be cured and aged. The minimum age of the tobacco in our cigars is three to six years old. During that entire period you’re watching it constantly. The unique thing about Perdomo is we’re growing tobacco exclusively for our cigars, unlike your typical farmer who is growing it only for sale. Many growers will use every leaf of tobacco they can harvest, including the sand leaves which have been touching the ground picking up remnants of the fertilizers. These “sand leaves” cause bitterness in a cigar, even if they have gone through all of the fermentation and aging process. You can keep that cigar for 10 years and it’s never going to lose that acrid taste. At Perdomo, we discard all of the sand leaves, ensuring each cigar is perfectly blended to give you rich, complex, balanced flavors.
Short of giving away any family secrets, I can tell you this much about how we use the tobacco we grow in our cigars. Jalapa leaf is a very good blending tobacco. Because it’s thinner is helps in combustion, plus, it has a very sweet flavor and aroma. It can be used as wrapper or binder and works well with Condega, too, which has some power but a more earthy flavor. Then, you get your strength tobacco from Estelí. When you blend all that together you get a cigar that has its own sweetness, strength, and aroma. When we grow filler tobacco we want thick, robust leaves with a lot of texture. We want our leaves to be hardy, thick, and oily, with a lot of resin, what we call grasa, or “grease.” It’s that beautiful oil and resin that constitutes the flavor and aroma in a good cigar.
Why We Like Tobacco
Why do we, as human beings, enjoy tobacco? Like most of the food we eat, tobacco has starch, sugars, carbohydrates, and proteins. So, it’s not surprising that we have this natural fondness for it. We like things that have great flavor and aroma. If you take a leaf from a rose and smoke it, it’s going to be rancid. But a tobacco leaf has flavor. It goes with our DNA, and it works.
When I look at all of the hard work we put in at Perdomo to make our cigars truly distinctive, I get a lot of pleasure out of it; not just because it’s my factory, but it’s my culture, and it’s in my blood.