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By: Lindsay Heller
When a fellow enthusiast finds out you work in the cigar industry, the question of Cuba is always a hot topic. There's this allure of the "forbidden fruit," and the romanticism of the days of yore when 'Havanas' were sold in tobacconists and newsstands alike throughout the US. The embargo has harmed the Caribbean island in innumerable ways, and the overall quality of their cigar are no exception.
Due to limited revenue streams since 1960, much is factored into the Cuban government's decision as to the amount of land to be reserved for tobacco ahead of the growing season. Unfortunately, Cuba's fragile infrastructure means that with each issue they endure, the harder it is to recover: droughts, tropical storms/hurricanes, and low soil productivity continue to wreak havoc on the island, meaning even quality seeds can grow poorly. What does this mean for you, the cigar lover? There's less traditional sorting of leaves for the best yields per plant, crops contain less strength and body, and quality control is unpredictable per factory. You're left with construction issues, inconsistent flavor profiles, and cigars that often age poorly. While some noteworthy Cuban options still exist, be thankful for the numerous viable alternatives hailing from Nicaragua.
Close in latitude to Cuba's coveted Pinar del Rio province lies Estelí, Nicaragua, home to numerous Cuban families who were once integral parts of the pre-Castro tobacco-growing elite. Shortly after the 1959 Revolution, the Olivas, Plasencias, and Toraños landed in Estelí in hopes of continuing the pursuit of their passion without persecution. Following in their footsteps were the Padróns (1971), the Garcías (2001), and eventually AJ Fernandez (2003), but everyone came to the same conclusion: Estelí had the closest soil composition and micro-climate to their naitive Cuba, and it's where they needed to be.
The early 2000s saw a sudden interest in Nicaraguan tobacco on part of the American cigar smoker. Like Cuba, Nicaragua is the only country heralded by expert farmers as having the ability to produce leaves worthy of a puro. Nutrient-rich volcanic soil and old-school Cuban know-how set Nicaragua apart from the pack. (Many even went as far as to import members of their former workforce in an act of both intelligence and humility.) Premium tobacco is so vital to the Central American country that quality-control is unparalleled: leaves are dried, fermented, and aged without haste, and thus the seemingly insatiable appetite for these cigars has increased exports to the US by 40% since 2008. The soil is so rich that the same seeds can be planted in all growing regions—Estelí, Condega, Jalapa, and Ometepe—and like good wine grapes, the resulting crops are ripe with the flavor profiles of each locale. In the hands of a Master Blender, these lush plants are rolled into cigars that year-after-year dominate Cigar Aficionado's Top 25 List; eight of the Top 10 spots in 2019 were Nicaraguan cigars, with the other two spots going to Cuba and the Dominican Republic, respectively.
The term "Cubanesque" is being used with greater frequency when describing Nicaraguan cigars, but what does that mean based on your preferred flavor profile? If you enjoy mellow—think the Cuban Fonseca, Quai d'Orsay, or Saint Luis Rey—then Padrón Dámaso, Ave Maria Immaculata, Perdomo Reserve Champagne 10th Anniversary, or Oliva Connecticut Reserve are excellent alternatives; fans of medium-bodied blends like Cuba's H. Upmann, Romeo y julieta, or Punch will find kindred spirits in My Father Flor de las Antillas, Plasencia Alma del Campo, San Cristobal Elegancia, or Drew Estate Undercrown Shade; should Cuba's fuller-bodied brands like Cohiba, Partagás, or Vegas Robaina be your benchmark, you will undoubtedly enjoy Padrón 1926 Serie, Oliva Serie 'V', My Father La Opulencia, or Joya de Nicaragua Antaño 1970.
Although Nicaragua has endured its fair share of political strife more than once in the past 40 years, the children and grandchildren of Cuban emigres were still able to learn their family's trade with resounding success. Future generations will be able to carry on century's old traditions, because as a Cuban would say, hasta que se seque el malecón: meaning that adversity will be met with strength and optimism.
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