It seems that Cuba has been the Mecca for cigar makers since the beginning of time. The “holy” isle was once the model for perfection, but the lack of consistency and proper growing techniques have sent some of the top growers, master blenders, and premium rollers to Nicaragua where the jet-black earth and ideal climate rival Cuba’s Vuelta Abajo region , which many consider the world’s best tobacco region.
Generations of growers and manufacturers have feasted on Cuba’s bounty for far too long now. It’s time for Nicaragua’s benefactors to stand atop one of the nation’s nine active volcanoes and declare its prominence in the industry.
Today’s generation of growers and cigar makers focuses on four distinct growing regions (Estelí, Jalapa, Condega, Ometempe) of Nicaragua for flavorful, aromatic tobacco that is found in some of today’s best-selling cigars. Each region yields tobacco with distinct flavors and aromas that are easily recognizable by experienced growers, blenders and smokers.
The unique geography of Nicaragua, located in Central America, nestled between Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south, is often credited with the top-quality tobacco that sprouts from the nation’s loins. The climate is very similar to that of Cuba but the natural resources of Nicaragua set the nation apart from its rival. Each region of Nicaragua has unique soil and minerals which impart their own distinctive flavor to a cigar’s blend.
Estelí is located at the highest point of the valley and yields exceptionally strong tobacco with identifiable spice. The soil is dense, deep black and ideal for growing extra strength Ligero filler, thick binders and sun grown wrappers. The plants in Estelí receive plenty of sun exposure, which causes the leaves to be much thicker and stronger in flavor. Its great strength makes the leaf the ideal filler for strong, bold and flavorful cigars. Occasionally it is used as a wrapper but it is more commonly found as the filler that powers the nation’s blends.
The Condega valley is north of Estelí and yields flavorful, yet less potent tobacco than its neighbor. It is best known for its cloud cover and coarse, rocky soil that is high in mineral content. Tobacco leaves plucked from this region are often thinner in texture with some sweetness and a decent amount of strength. Condega’s leaves are most often used as binders.
Jalapa is home to the most noted and remote tobacco farms in Nicaragua. The Jalapa valley is farther north of Condega where the sandy soil is very thin and slightly red in color – very similar to the soil in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio valley. The leaf tends to be soft with a reddish tinge, and it is aromatic and sweet in flavor. This leaf is often used as a wrapper for its rich, smooth, elegant and silky characteristics. However, many cigar makers use the Jalapa leaf as filler as well.
Ometempe is the country’s fourth growing region. It is a 107-square mile island set apart from the mainland ensconced in Lake Nicaragua. Ometempe is a name derived from the Aztecs meaning, “two peaks”. The island houses two volcanoes in the dormant Madera and the active Concepcion. The island is only accessible via a one-hour ferry ride from the mainland and is a jungle paradise home to lush plantations of sweet, earthy tobacco among howler monkeys, jaguars and exotic birds. The volcanic soil is prized for growing tobacco; however, the Plasencia family is the only family growing on the island. The high cost of labor, the employees’ refusal to work past noon and the inconvenient access to and from the island are to blame. The region’s drainage is very good, nearby fresh water adds an abundant of humidity and the soil is so rich it requires very little fertilization. The mild to medium body of the tobacco allows the leaves to cure very quickly and is usually used as fillers.
Growing and cigar making is not foreign to Nicaragua. It has celebrated years of success growing what is just recently being recognized as top-quality, premium tobacco. In fact Nicaragua, Jalapa and Ometempe in particular, have gained a fervent following among growers, manufacturers and smokers alike. The nation’s resources and expanding facilities have allowed for integrated cigar operations: planting, growing, harvesting, curing, fermenting, aging, and rolling. And, in recent years Nicaragua has been producing some pristine wrapper leaves to produce true Nicaraguan puros, once synonymous with Cuba. The consistency and quality in construction of Nicaraguan cigars has outpaced Cuba ten-fold in recent years, and the tobacco is so distinct it has created an identifiable personality of its own. Cigar Aficionado reported Nicaragua as the second largest producer of premium cigars and ended 2013 as the number one producer by volume for the US market.
Nicaragua is home to the storied Joya de Nicaragua brand, Tobaccos Puros de Nicaragua, S.A. This is the birthplace of cigar making in Nicaragua, in all of Central America for that matter. It was established prior to the Cuban Revolution and served as a training ground for countless workers who went on to operate other factories. Joya de Nicaragua was the first brand to gain widespread notoriety in the United States and was once considered the best known cigar brand in all the Americas.
Today many famed growers and manufacturers call Nicaragua home, like the Padron family, the Oliva family, Nestor Plasencia and Drew Estate among others. Jose Orlando Padron established his first factory in Nicaragua in 1970 after accepting samples from a Nicaraguan tobacco merchant in 1967. His original factory burned in 1978 during the Sandinsta Revolution but he has since returned, building a new factory in Estelí in 1990 among stronger political stability. The Padrons also own their own farms in Jalapa.
Nestor Plasencia’s father, Sixto, first arrived in Nicaragua in the 1960s from San Luis, Cuba. Now, half of Plasencia’s tobacco hails from Nicaragua. He has facilities in each of the country’s four growing areas, 700 acres in all, and five factories, two in Nicaragua and three in Honduras. His Estelí factory, Segovia Cigars is where his best brands are rolled and best talents are showcased.
The Oliva family first arrived in Nicaragua as growers but have since added cigar rolling operations by creating Tabacalera Oliva, S.A. in Estelí. And Drew Estate whose operations are run by the founder, Jonathan Drew Samm is the largest importer of foreign tobacco into Nicaragua.
For years Nicaragua was overlooked by passionate tobacco growers and cigar makers for one reason or another, mostly political. Now that it is withstanding a much more stable political system, more and more manufacturers are reaping the benefits of the rich lands and ideal climatic conditions to produce some of the most consistent, flavorful cigars that the market has ever seen. Decades of hard work have paved the way for a new generation of cigar makers that one day may very well topple Cuba as the Mecca of the cigar world.