Mexico may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think about premium cigars, but the country's contributions to the cigar industry cannot go unnoticed. Having entered into this industry in the early 1990s, Mexican cigars and tobacco is quite significant for me and holds a soft spot in my heart. During the 1970s and early 1980s, one of the most popular and recognized brands was Te-Amo, favored for its rich, full flavor and full body which set it apart from Macanudo and other mild blends of the time. Today's cigar enthusiast would most likely classify these same cigars as medium-bodied sticks since the market shifted as consumers now enjoy heartier blends. But 20 years ago, Te-Amo was one of the most flavorful blends on the market, defined by a unique and dry spiciness that many cigar lovers just couldn't get enough of. Today, the face of Mexico's cigar industry changed. While Te-Amo may not carry the same following it once did, wrapper tobacco grown in this same region of Mexico has resurged and found its way into many premium blends that are among the most popular and highest rated in the industry. I'm including such marks as Nica Libre, Padron, San Lotano, Padilla and a host of others.
Since entering the cigar industry over a decade ago, I've dreamed of doing a project in Mexico. I've blended extensively with San Andres wrapper while working in the Dominican, Nicaragua and Honduras, but these bales were limited allocations from small growers in Mexico's Veracruz region. Anyone who knows Mexican tobacco understands that it's the Turrent family, the largest premium leaf growers in Mexico, who grow the finest fillers, binders and wrappers. Because of such a considerable demand for their tobacco, it's been many years since they've opened up their doors to new clients as their harvests from year to year are reserved for use in their own factory (makers of Te-Amo and A. Turrent) or for allocation to their oldest clients. With continued developments in agriculture and tobacco farming over the last several years, the yields at the Turrent farms have increased substantially, allowing them to take on new customers. When my phone rang last April, you can imagine the ear to ear smile on my face when I heard Alejandro Turrent's voice on the other end of the line inviting me to see his operation.
Just like traveling to other great tobacco destinations, my trip led me to some more remote areas of Mexico and involved a complex network of flights and road travel. By the time I arrived in Veracruz City I was running on very little sleep, but was delighted to see Alejandro Turrent waiting to greet me. As usual, we jumped into a car for another long drive to see tobacco fields, this time heading to the San Andres Valley. Veracruz City was unlike any other Latin city I've visited. Nestled in the gulf side of southern Mexico, it was bustling with friendly people, great restaurants and other modern day life. While not a large tourist destination, it's one of the wealthier cities in Mexico and a hub for the country's most important trade due to its port orientation. I wasted no time before picking Alejandro's brain on tobacco, cigars, and anything else I could squeeze out of him.
While the Turrent name may not be one you've heard about, the family is the oldest standing in the cigar industry. Alejandro represents the 5th Generation of his family. His great-great grandfather immigrated to Mexico from Spain in 1880 (earlier than Plasencia in 1890 and earlier than Toraño in 1916) and grew some of the first tobacco seeds on Mexican soil.
Pulling into San Andres was familiar to me as it was quite similar to many of the small tobacco towns I'm accustomed to. There are a small handful of large factories in town while bodegas and chinchilleros lined the streets. As I walked into the Turrent factory I was met by Alberto Turrent, Alejandro's father. The first thing I noticed was the many old photographs lining the walls in the office and conference room. As I went in for a closer look, Alberto started to discuss his family's history. The photo was of a second generation Turrent who grew in Mexico, Alberto II. In the picture, he was standing in a field wearing a large hat and it was an exact representation of how you would picture old Mexico in your mind. Alberto continued to speak about Mexico and the tobacco industry. "My family has been growing tobacco here for over 130 years," he explained. When they first started planting, most of the tobacco was exported to Europe by way of rivers to get the bails to the coast and onto ships. By the early 1900s, the operation became more efficient when a train became available to help with logistics, but this region of Mexico was always isolated, creating several unique hardships. As Alberto said, "It wasn't long ago when we didn't have phones or fax machines. Even into the 1970s we depended largely on telegraph to communicate with our customers as it was the fastest and most efficient form of communication, but today with the internet and fax machines, we can focus less on logistics and more on what we do best which is growing tobacco and making premium cigars." Wow. The Turrents had their fair share of difficulties over the years.
In the 1930s, the government took most of their land, leaving them with just a few hundred acres on which to grow their tobacco and the onset of World War II made delivering tobacco to Europe (their primary market at the time) close to impossible. However, with the Cuba/ US Embargo came new opportunities as tobacco suppliers were needed to satiate demand for cigars in the US market. It was at this time, the 1960s, that the US fell in love with Mexican long leaf and coincidentally the same time Alberto IV entered the family business. "I started out driving the company truck," Alberto said with a smile.
As we drove to some of the farms, I helped myself to a plethora of samples I found in the car waiting for me. Mexican tobacco is unique and blends very well with premium tobaccos from all corners of the world, but the single biggest thing working against cigar manufacturing in Mexico is the seemingly impossible task of importing materials into the country from places like Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican, which makes blending a formidable challenge. I found myself smoking several blends and thinking to myself, "Man, just one leaf of Esteli-grown ligero in the filler would really round this blend out perfectly," making most of the cigars I tried almost a tease as they were nearly perfect, but still fell short of my approval. That said, there were also several stellar blends that offered excellent flavor, body and balance with a finish you can only experience when using Mexican long leaf fillers.
As we arrived at the farm, Alejandro expanded more on the subject of Mexico and being in a position of working exclusively with Mexican grown materials. "For many years we exclusively grew the native Criollo seed, which gives us our San Andres Negra and the lighter Moron. However, to achieve more complexity, we needed more variety so today we grow several varieties in addition to the traditional San Andres wrapper including Connecticut seed, Habano and Sumatra, all grown on our farms in Mexico." I found this to be of particular interest. So much of what cigar aficionados know of Mexico revolves soley around the San Andres native seeds, making this new information something that took me time to fully absorb.
As I stepped out of the car, I saw that old familiar site that never gets old, an endless sea of green and lush tobacco. I immediately noticed how much shorter the plants were compared to other countries. While the plants were shorter, the leaves were enormous with excellent vein structure and a nice thick texture that when rubbed between your fingers, leads your imagination to the rich and luscious flavors they will exude some day after they're cured and fermented. While I saw only a portion of the more than 1,000 acres the Turrents grow, I did get a nice snap shot of all aspects of the operation including their tented seed beds and barns. Alberto spoke extensively about how unique San Andres is because of its volcanic soil that makes the area very nutrient rich. As we walked on a small bridge over a creek, I looked into the creek bed and noticed it was lined with black volcanic rocks. These creeks, which now irrigate the fields, were formed when the once active volcanoes in the region spewed lava - carving out the seemingly perfect embankments. Of all the places I have visited where there is a reputation for fantastic tobacco, volcanic, nitrogen rich soil always seems to be a common factor.
After another short walk, we arrived at the curing barns where I noticed yet another interesting practice I still, to this day, have only observed in Mexico. The barns had a familiar shape with steel frames and metal siding, but this siding only covered the lower half of the barn walls. The top half was stuffed with a cane-like material which I later discovered were corn stalks packed tightly together. Alberto explained that this practice provides protection against the elements such as wind and rain but does not over insulate the barns, allowing full air flow. In curing, regulating temperature and humidity is paramount so I was quite taken by this unique and simple, yet highly effective concept.
After a delicious lunch, we arrived back at the office for some coffee and cigars. By this point I had developed a real love for the Cuban-seed tobacco they were growing, even more so than San Andres maduro I had long considered a favorite. The Cuban-seed Mexican variety really brought together the aspects I love about all Cuban-seed tobaccos (sweetness with a thick and robust smoke) with the unique finish I had come to love in San Andres wrapper. After blending more with Habano seed, I felt I had several good options for some blends with which to make new projects so we finished the afternoon talking about the industry and mutual friends. The Turrents are an extremely generous family with a mild temperament and a passion for tobacco that's evident in literally everything they do. I hope to return to Mexico sometime very soon to discover more about what that great country has to offer. With so little information, press and marketing covering Mexico, and its contributions to the cigar industry, I think we may one day see a resurgence in the popularity of Mexican cigars as Mexican tobacco continues to take center stage in many of today's most popular blends.