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What Country Makes The Best Cigars?
Answering A Complex Cigarmaking Mystery
WHEN I WAS GIVEN THIS ASSIGNMENT my first reaction was, “Are you serious?” Like the question, who’s your favorite child?, it’s impossible to answer. You can Google in seconds which country makes the most cigars, exports the most cigars, and grows the most tobacco. Yet, I’m not sure anyone can give you a straight answer as to which makes the best cigars.
Here’s the deal: Most cigars sold today are made with tobaccos from more than one country. The longer I thought about it, there were more questions than answers. This called for more investigation. I grabbed my fedora and raincoat and headed out. As I hit the street, I felt like I was in some American postwar noir movie. And suddenly I was…
For a case like this I needed good sources. I contacted several cigar industry master blenders, each representing a different country and posed the question. Some demanded anonymity. Others laughed. Sure, it was a silly question. Or was it the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma? Yet after making their cases I eventually stumbled on the real answer.
What Happened to Cuban Cigars?
Years ago, Cuba would’ve been the obvious winner, hands-down, but after the revolution, Cuba started to sink like a snitch wearing cement shoes. That’s why the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua, have all but muscled Cuba out. Sorry Charlie. But to be fair, there are still some great Havanas out there.
“There are a lot of factors you have to take into consideration if you’re going to say who makes the best cigar in the world,” said my first source. Requesting anonymity, we met in a dim, smoke-filled afterhours joint lit mostly by candles in Chianti bottles. Cutting a Torpedo he said, “Historically, Cuba used to be the largest producer of cigars in the world, and now it’s in fourth place.”
“So what led to the slide?”
“More than anything, it’s a quality issue. It started about 18-20 years ago. During that period many people began to notice a decline and that’s how they went from being number one to where they are today.”
“What do you think was the reason?”
“They don’t age tobacco they way they did years ago.”
I took his word about the poorer aging, but whatever led to Cuba’s decline it had to be more than that. I lit my Robusto, ordered two more bourbons and pressed him further.
“As to rankings by country, Nicaragua is number one in overall numbers. The Dominican Republic is second, but there’s a caveat; it leads the league as number one in value. Honduras is third and Cuba fourth.”
Which Country-of-Origin Has The Highest Cigar Sales?
After hearing that, I wondered about the Dominican Republic leading in value.
For what it’s worth, a recent independent survey of almost 300 retail cigar stores listed the five bestselling cigar brands. Four were Dominican: two Arturo Fuente (a Fuente Fuente OpusX and a main line cigar), a Davidoff, and a La Flor Dominicana that actually tied with one of two Padróns (a 1964 Anniversary and a main line cigar). This is just one survey; a bookmark in time, a photograph, but it’s interesting at how in this case the Dominicans topped the chart. Come to think of it, if you add La Aurora, PDR, J.C. Newman, Altadis USA, not to mention STG’s Dominican factories, that adds up to a lotta loot.
“So what else plays into this best cigar country question?” I asked.
Start With Tobacco Farming
“You have to start with the farming,” he said. “The curing, fermentation, and tobacco aging. Without good tobacco you can’t make a good cigar. Then comes the blending, manufacturing, cigar aging, and all the rest. It takes time. Yet the time it takes to make a cigar doesn’t matter, it’s the quality. What matters even more is consistency. Why do you think some cigar companies have been around for 100 years, 50 years, 20 years?”
Later that day, I ducked into a phone booth to call my next source.
“Operator, get me Nick Perdomo and reverse the charges.” I posed the big question to Nick, and it was no surprise he chose Nicaragua. I hung up and booked the midnight flight to Managua. A fifty pressed into the hand of an airport cabbie was enough to get me a ride up to Nick’s place in Estelí.
When I arrived Nick was just finishing dinner, his favorite, bone-in ribeye. Afterwards, we talked about why he believed Nicaragua makes the best cigars over some 20th Anniversary Sun Grown Epicures and Nicaraguan rum.
Nicaragua’s Secret Lies in its Climate & Natural Resources
“Tobacco needs a number of important components to grow it right,” said Nick. “First you need an abundance of good clean water and Nicaragua has plenty. The second thing is extremely fertile ground. Nicaragua’s got plenty of volcanic grounds. In fact, the ground is so fertile, you drop a pumpkin seed by accident, next thing you know you’ve got pumpkins.
“During the growing season we get twelve to fifteen hours of sunshine a day. The result is a tobacco that’s very thick, very oily, and incredibly rich in taste. But due to the texture of the tobaccos, aging and fermentation take longer here than in other countries.”
CA: What role do the Estelí, Condega, and Jalapa regions play in all this?
“In most other countries a lot of farms grow their tobacco within a fifteen mile radius, so the tobaccos and climate don’t really change much. It’s one of the reasons they blend with tobaccos from other countries. A hundred miles north of here is Jalapa. Sixty miles south of that, the Condega valley. Estelí, that’s where the powerhouse is, speaking of which, Ometepe is way south of here, so you’re growing tobaccos that are anywhere from 60 to 200 miles or more from each other and each totally different in topical grounds, cloud cover, and altitude. You can come up with a lot of different blends by making cigars solely out of Nicaraguan tobacco. Besides all the fertile organic matter, Nicaragua also has a lot of virgin grounds, which is what separates Nicaragua from everybody else. That’s the secret.
“When I first came into the industry it was Mexico, the Canary Islands, and the Bahamas. Today Nicaragua has bypassed the other countries because it produces great tobacco. The consumer gets it, too. People start with chicken breast and eventually eat a bone-in ribeye. And that’s what Nicaragua is—the bone-in ribeye.”
All of that was true, but to be fair, other countries have also been blending more cigars with tobaccos that are domestically sourced from other regions.
Honduras Trails Merely by a Margin
I wish I had been able to get more info about Honduras. It’s the country that grows some of my favorite tobacco. The unsurpassed star of the country is the Authentic Honduran Corojo tobacco rolled into cigars by Aladino, Eiroa, and C.L.E., among others, like the recent Punch Golden Era for example. There’s also Honduran Trojes wrapper that Alec Bradley made famous along with Olancho St. Augustine leaf used for CAO OSA Sol and Cohiba Blue. Like Nicaragua, there’s something about the soil and climate that make Honduras exceptional.
Another of my anonymous Honduran sources answered the question this way: “More number one cigars have come out of Nicaragua and the DR, mostly out of two main factories. All things being equal, if those factories moved to other cigar producing countries, they would still get their number ones. Padron and Fuente are two of the most prestigious brands, but they make their cigars in different countries. Davidoff has factories in the D.R. and Honduras, so—”
What I think he’s really saying is, it’s not necessarily where the factory is located, it’s what goes into the factory from the farm.
The Dominican Republic: More Than Mild
Everything was now becoming clearer, but there was one more source I needed to get a hold of, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo. Next stop, Miami, Florida. I met Ernesto at a small alleyway jazz club a few blocks off of Calle Ocho in Little Havana. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, too.
Surrounded by haze from his Pledge Prequel, Ernesto slowly leaned back in his chair. He offered a thoughtful gaze, blew a puff of smoke and said, “My father made cigars, so for me to say that just because a cigar sells more than any other doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the best made anywhere. Nowadays, a lot of great cigars are being made all over. I just don’t think it’s necessarily Nicaragua, Honduras, or the Dominican. Each country has adapted in a very personal and unique way. Today, cigars are a world product. They’re different and everybody’s got their way of making them.”
“Do you think many cigar smokers still see the Dominican Republic as a maker of milder cigars?”
“No, that’s an old perception. Dominican tobacco has taken a turn from making milder cigars to cigars that have a lot more medium to full strength flavors. To put it another way, I think there’s a lot more complexity and strength overall. The Dominican Republic will continue to come out with blends that prove this in the future, so I’m very excited about that.”
Great Cigars Are Made Everywhere
“You make cigars in the Dominican Republic, but you blend tobaccos from The Dominican, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Connecticut a lot,” I said. “Is it fair to call a cigar ‘Dominican’ when it’s really a multi-nation cigar?”
Nodding to the consumer, Ernesto said, “Well you can pinpoint it when you smoke the blends. The best cigars we’re making will be blends of Dominican and Nicaraguan, or Ecuador, or USA, or others in some combination, so it’s not just one country. But I think that’s going to be the big thing in the future for us.”
“Then it may not be a matter of any specific tobacco of origin,” I said. “It’s a matter of—”
“Blending,” Ernesto interjected.
“And the consistency over the years, ” I finished.
Which Country Makes The Best Cigars: An Answer?
Two days later I was back at the office and still hungover. I poured a bourbon and brooded over my old Royal typewriter for a logical conclusion.
Since The Dominican, Honduras, and Nicaragua all produce some phenomenal tobacco, it has to come down to quality and consistency. You can’t turn a quality blend into a perennial bestseller without being consistent, but you can’t keep a perennial bestseller alive without the consumer.
“I think the cigar smokers know the answer, said one of my sources. “As consumers, they can tell you which country makes the most consistent cigars. Think about it. Whether it’s a $5 cigar or a $25 cigar, the country that makes the best cigars is the one that makes you want to buy their cigars again and again.”
Look at your collection. Of the majority, what country are they from? There’s your answer.
As Ernesto said, “At the end of the day, it all depends on what you like.”
Authors Note: The places regarding my travel and meeting locations were created solely for the story’s narrative. The figures given, plus all of the interviewees and their words are genuine. I want to sincerely thank them, not only for their assistance, but for being good sports, too.
Additionally, this article was updated from it’s original publication date on October 10, 2023.