For those that live in America, and with the onset of the Cuban embargo during the Kennedy administration, the ability to legally procure Cuban cigars in the United States has become, well, let’s say rather difficult.
Fortunately, there are other options, one of which is cigars made in the Dominican which have proven over recent years, to be equally comparable, if not sometimes superior, in quality, flavor and aroma, to any premium cigar hand rolled in Cuba.
Cigars made in the Dominican Republic are by and large some of the most superlative cigars you can find anywhere. Despite Cuba still having a stronghold over the big cigar business, most critics, including me, will argue that often, they’re just not all they are cracked up to be. Sure, there are many cigar brands in Cuba that I absolutely adore, but there are just as many, if not more, that I think are abhorrent.
That’s the same for any country really. The fact is even some domestically made cigars rank high on the charts and are revered by critics the world over. When it comes to basing cigar quality on a country-wide scale however, the cigars made in the Dominican could easily take a spot in the holy trinity of cigar exporters.
Just as they do in Cuba, many of the premium cigars made in parts of the Dominican are hand rolled and assembled by expert artisans who take pride in traditional old-world craftsmanship.
In my opinion, the best of the best come from the area that surrounded the fields in Villa Gonzales all the way to the town of Tamboril near Santiago.
Like in Cuba, many tourists try to purchase what they can before departing for home. Obviously, it goes without saying that the very best deals are the local ones, but be forewarned that just like in Cuba, counterfeit cigars are big business and if the deal from the guy on the beach sounds too good to be true – it probably is.
The History and Potential Downfall of the Dominican
It wasn’t long ago that the Dominican was a small player in the global cigar world. Today it’s one of the leaders, charting history one cigar at a time. Unfortunately, many experts anticipate this might be short-lived as the quality tobacco grown throughout the Dominican Republic is becoming sparse. Of course, the climate plays a huge factor that makes the Dominican a prime region for a booming cigar market.
Despite the eldest manufacturer being in business for more then a century, La Aurora spent most of its time making cigars strictly for domestic use. It wasn’t until the mid 1970s that the very first free-trade zones were established, allowing manufacturers to open up shop and produce cigars exclusively for exportation. Even then, business was slow and until the Dominican Republic overtook Jamaica and the Canary Islands, exportation to the United States was at a virtual standstill. Once this takeover was complete however, the Dominican Republic quickly capitalized on their newfound connections and became the leading producer of cigars that were exported into the United States.
It was as if they had stumbled onto a gold mine, with exports rising from a pathetic number just shy of six million in the late 70s to more than thirty-three million by the beginning of the 1980s. Today, the Dominican Republic produces an average of just over 160 million for export to the United States which is certainly a number they can be proud of.
With great reward however comes great risk. The problem for many of the producers is that they are having trouble keeping up with their rapid growth. When we look at the numbers provided by the Dominican Tobacco Institute we see point blank that supply and demand is not being accounted for. The number of tons of Olor and Piloto tobaccos being processed pale drastically in comparison to the number being used for manufacturing. At a steady rate, it’s evident that should they not plant more, they will eventually run out.
What this means is one of two things. Either they will close up shop or take a hiatus until more tobacco can be harvested, or they’ll begin using tobacco that isn’t of the same quality as the product we’re used to. Either way, it will be a very sad day in America.
The issue is that the majority of tobacco that is harvested is of too poor quality to actually be used in cigars. Somewhere between fermentation and sorting, the vast majority of the tobacco is not being properly cared for.
This results in huge waste numbers as production staff assigned to quality control cannot allow the product to be used. In the end it’s discarded.
As it stands, the tobacco grown in the Dominican is primarily done so by thousands of small farmers who don’t have the funding, training or equipment to keep up with the needs of a premium market. A vast number of the farmers have already ceased operations and many more have switched to crops where they’re not constantly told their product isn’t of high enough quality. The ones still in business, aren’t abiding by any regulatory requirements and so the entire process is basically a wash. While the Dominican still has a stronghold over its competition (for the moment), it cannot be expected to survive when competing with large industrialized plantations in Nicaragua, Honduras and Cuba.
However, the time is now and currently the Dominican is still able to produce some exceptional cigars with the little quality tobacco they have left on the island.
The Thirty Mile Zone
If you do have a chance to visit the Dominican the prime tobacco is grown on the outskirts of Santiago and continues for about 30 miles northwest. The Yaque Valley is home to some of the best tobacco plantations in the world which grow for manufacturers such as Davidoff and Avo, among others.
The best of the best is next to the foot of the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range with rich deep soil perfect for harvesting tobacco. The two most common types of tobacco grown in the Dominican Republic is Olor and Piloto which make up the vast majority of all tobacco found in Dominican cigars.
While some tobacco is still grown farther west, it’s widely known that the best of the best is located within this thirty mile zone centered around a small town called Villa Gonzalez.
With almost 16,000 acres of tobacco plants, it accounts for approximately fifteen percent of the entire region. While there is definitely room to grow, which could potentially help the impending doom of a tobacco shortage, the problem is that there are a lot of other crops grown in the area too, which means having to buy the land or take it over from those farmers. Even if you convinced a farmer to begin growing tobacco, they don’t have the training or resources to ensure the quality needed and expected by the manufacturers who in the end will just refuse the product.
Within the town of Villa Gonzalez is a half dozen cigar factories that make the actual cigars we smoke. Villa Gonzalez can easily be defined as the epicenter of the Dominican cigar market and could possibly even be compared to that of Pinar del Rio in Cuba.
When it comes to growing the tobacco, a village called Jacagua southwest of Villa Gonzalez is the holy land of plantations. Due to its tropical climate it features some of the richest and most exquisite soil in the country. Since most farmers as we mentioned are independent, the top farmers grow in exceptionally small batches allowing them to focus on the tobacco like they would their own children. Aside from these locales, there are a handful of other tobacco-towns in the valley. Unfortunately, most of them don’t consistently produce the quality of the tobacco expected by the manufacturers.
Like many small countries, the Dominican Republic seems virtually incapable of consistently producing the quality the rest of the world has come to expect. Because of this, standards are quite stringent and only the very best of the best end up ever leaving the island and making their way into the shops in America.
What this does is solidifies the Dominicans stronghold as one of the top producers in the world, simply because they only sell the very best. For what it’s worth, they have the capabilities to easily throw Cuba under the bus and take over the entire industry permanently. They have the soil, the climate and the ability. If you smoke Davidoffs, Fuentes, or Romeo y Julieta 1875s, you’re smoking cigars that come from the Dominican and that should be evidence enough of just how superb the quality is capable of being. They just need to be able to provide their farmers with the resources to consistently do a good job.
La Flor Dominicana Oro Chisel
This is a powerhouse of a full bodied 6 1/2″ cigar. It starts strong with spicy peppers and leather mixed with pickled ginger and hickory. This is not a first timer’s cigar. I will warn you that if you’re not used to a full bodied cigar, this may make you sick. Tread lightly.
Davidoff Nicaragua Toro
This is a prime example of an exquisite cigar that couldn’t obtain the quality of tobacco it wanted on a local level. It’s included in my list because it’s manufactured in the Dominican and because Davidoff is my go-to cigar of choice. The tobacco itself was imported from Nicaragua. It’s a 5 1/2″, 52 gauge stick that’s extremely sophisticated and simplistic at the same time. It’s flush with roast coffee, rich leathers and strong notes of toffee with an exceptionally smooth finish.
Arturo Fuente Don Carlos No. 2
This is by and far, one of the most beautiful smokes you’ll ever experience. At 6″ and with a 55 ring gauge, this cigar is about as noteworthy as it gets. Since it’s such a hefty cigar, it starts slow but soon becomes a rich mixture of chocolates, spice and coffee with woody notes and a nutty finish.
Nat Sherman Timeless Collection Divino
Another rich, full bodied cigar, this 5″ stick is packed with maple syrup notes, leather and spice with a glorious sandalwood finish.
Aging Room Quattro F55 Concerto
A world renowned stick from a micro-brand in the Dominican, the Concerto is a 7″ churchill with an Indonesian flair. It’s a compliment to any collection with kiln dried cedar and dark roasted coffee notes.
Dominican cigars are beautiful testaments to perfection and incredible works of artistry. Unfortunately, we have little guarantee this will last. As JFK stockpiled Cuban cigars before signing the embargo, you too should consider buying as many Dominican cigars as you can, because you never know when the day might come that you can’t.