In 1963, President John F. Kennedy imposed a trade embargo on Cuba, making it illegal to import products from the island nation – including cigars. Now, for the first time since, there is a realistic chance that they will once again be sold in America as the U.S. and Cuba are working on normalizing relations. That chance has prompted many questions from cigar customers. Many would just like to try a Cuban cigar. The demand may be huge, partly because of the mystique that surrounds an authentic Cuban cigar, but will they live up to the hype? Much has changed in the cigar world since the ‘60s!
After the Communist take-over of Cuba under Fidel Castro, the dictatorship began to nationalize the cigar industry which was, in effect, the cigar capitol of the world. Many cigar factory owners, growers and cigar masters became exiles and fled for other Latin American countries. They took their expertise – and in some cases smuggled Cuban seeds – to places like the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
Many of the leading cigar brands in the world today are located in Nicaragua – including Padron, Oliva, Drew Estate, Rocky Patel and other well-known makers. Also in Nicaragua is Perdomo Cigars where a group from Smoke Rings visited in January this year for an in-depth, three day tour of the massive operation. The quality and consistency of the cigars made in Nicaragua in many cases exceeds that of Cubans.
Nicaragua has a unique geography that allowed a variety of tobacco flavors to exist. Its rich volcanic soil and nearly perfect tobacco-growing climate drew some leading cigar makers to the region – making it to some the “new Cuba.” The region near Esteli produces tobacco with an identifiably spicy flavor. The regions of the Condega and Jalapa Valleys likewise have distinct components. Even tobaccos grown a relatively short distance apart can have different tastes as the composition of the soil varies. Companies – like Perdomo – established production facilities in Esteli – a region that became a hub of cigar manufacturing.
It is at Tabacalera Perdomo where Aristides Garcia runs the pre-production process. In some ways, his story and the Perdomo story itself embodies the story of the industry against the backdrop of the history of Cuban-American relations. Like Nick Perdomo’s grandfather, Silvio, and father, Nick Sr. – Aristides was born in Cuba and became a leader in the Cuban cigar industry.
Silvio Perdomo opposed the Castro regime and the revolution that would see the freedom of the Cuban people crushed by communism. He was arrested and spent more than a decade in the inhumane prison system where he faced starvation and torture. His son, Nick Perdomo Sr. likewise opposed Castro and became a wanted man by the regime. He was shot and severely wounded and during the time he recovered, he was able to obtain a sponsorship through the Catholic Church to escape to the United States. It was in the U.S. that Nick Perdomo Jr. was born who would one day decide to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather into the cigar business. He eventually established his operation in Esteli where he now employs over 2000 people.
The manager of pre-production at Perdomo is Aristides Garcia who is 87-years old and going strong. Like Nick Sr., he was born in Cuba and grew up learning tobacco and cigars. He was forced to work for the communist government, earning a fraction of what he did before the take-over. He eventually escaped Cuba and made his way to Nicaragua to work for his friend’s son, Nick Jr. Their expertise and knowledge, driven with them from their homeland, were unleashed in a new part of the world – to the benefit of people who enjoy great cigars.
Cigar factory owners, growers and makers developed operations that would rival or exceed the Cuban product from which they sprang. These independent cigar makers and entrepreneurs – through initiative and determination – have come to fill the void for premium, hand-crafted cigars that resulted from the trade embargo. Once Cuban cigars begin to enter the market, they may have some catching up to do – especially in value on the dollar – as the “new Cuba” produces quality and consistency that will be tough to match.