In 2018, Nicaragua, the Central American cigarmaking powerhouse, erupted into civil unrest with protests over President Daniel Ortega’s plans to overhaul the nation’s social security and pension systems. The violence between protestors and government-backed counter protestors became so heated that Nicaragua became unsafe for tourists, and the Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco (CNT), which hosts Puro Sabor, cancelled the Nicaraguan cigar festival for 2019.
While unrest threatened to tear apart the country, many of the Nicaraguan cigar companies rushed forward with production, although roadblocks throughout the country made getting the cigars to port more difficult. Despite the transportation issues, Nicaraguan cigar manufacturers were largely able to get their products to the U.S., where distributors and retailers alike stockpiled vast inventories of the cigars to ensure supply in case the political situation worsened to a level that would prevent cigarmaking and export altogether. Fortunately, the country and its cigar industry never reached that level of political unrest, and conditions have largely returned to normal.
According to figures compiled by the Cigar Association of America, Nicaragua exported 172.7 million premium cigars to the U.S. in 2018, up by 16 percent from the previous year and representing vast growth from 1998, when the country imported just 24 million cigars into the U.S. According to CNT, about half of the cigars enjoyed in the U.S. are now made in Nicaragua. However, while import figures for 2019 are incomplete, they do indicate a slowing of overall premium cigar imports into the U.S., with total numbers down by 6.5 percent for the first 10 months of 2019.
Nicaragua’s numbers for premium cigar import into the U.S. during 2019 compare favorably to those of 2018; however, there were signs that the slowdown affecting the overall industry had also affected Nicaragua as well as news of some companies laying off employees. So, when CNT announced that it would resume hosting Puro Sabor in 2020, many throughout the industry wondered what the Nicaraguan cigarmaking landscape would look like. Thankfully, the evidence seems to show that it’s hard to keep a good country like Nicaragua down, as both the nation and its cigar industry are proving to be remarkably resilient.
An Industry that Gives Back
CNT hosted the eighth annual Puro Sabor festival from Jan. 21-25, 2020. Approximately 120 people from 21 countries attended this year’s Puro Sabor festival, which included a day in Granada, one of North America’s oldest cities, as well as tours of various factories and farms in Esteli, the country’s cigarmaking capital. CNT is composed of 27 members, which include cigar companies, tobacco growers and businesses that support the cigar and tobacco industries in a variety of ways. The 27 members of CNT are A.J. Fernandez, Agrotabacos, ASP de Nicaragua, Drew Estate Tobacco Co., Joya de Nicaragua, My Father Cigars, NACSA, Oliva Cigars, Padron Cigars, PENSA, Plasencia Group, Procenicsa, Scandinavian Tobacco Group, Tavicusa, Cigar Box Factory Esteli, Cigar Rings, Empaques 3A, Mombacho Cigars, Nica Sueno, Tabacalera Tambor, Tabacalera Valle de Jalapa, 1502 Cigars, El Galan Cigars, Tabacalera RC, Distribuidora Karibe S.A., Esteli Cigars and Perdomo Cigars.
CNT holds Puro Sabor to highlight the premium cigar and tobacco industries’ importance to the world and to Nicaraguan government officials and citizens, as well as to showcase Nicaragua’s vibrant culture, history and traditions to an international audience. Based almost exclusively in and around Esteli, the Nicaraguan cigar industry consists of more than 150 companies that make cigars, grow tobacco or support the industries in some way as packaging providers or farming supply providers. According to Juan Martinez, CNT’s vice president and the president of Joya de Nicaragua, the country’s original cigar producer, Esteli is “the Silicon Valley of tobacco.”
Overall, premium cigar exports accounted for some $265 million to the Nicaraguan economy in 2018, and the industry is the country’s fifth-largest export market. Indeed, Esteli is a city of approximately 180,000 people, and the cigar and tobacco industries directly employ 40,000 individuals—that’s nearly 25 percent of the area’s population. It’s impossible to overestimate the industries’ contributions to the local economy and well-being of the area’s citizens, especially when one considers the number of people each job supports.
“Puro Sabor is about creating relationships and bringing people together,” says Nimish Desai of Rocky Patel Premium Cigars. “But CNT is about making the lives of our employees better—educating them; giving them direction and social and economic growth.”
Not only do the CNT members provide jobs in the Esteli area but the association is also intimately involved in charitable causes to improve living conditions in Nicaragua. One such charitable effort is Forest, which is a project for planting trees around the Esteli River basin. The Esteli River provides a lot of the water that tobacco growers in Esteli need to cultivate their crops, and, more importantly, the river supplies water to approximately 320,000 people in 231 communities. As the Nicaraguan cigar industry has expanded, the stress on the river has also increased. Reforestation in the Esteli River basin should alleviate many of the problems associated with the greater demand for water. Puro Sabor created a special-edition commemorative box that guests could purchase, with proceeds going to the Forest fund to aid the reforestation effort.
Additionally, Puro Sabor festival organizers collected plastic water bottles for recycling in partnership with a company that transforms plastic waste into synthetic wood to create desks for schoolchildren, and Puro Sabor was also raising money to support Flesnic, an organization providing health care for women with lupus. These officially sanctioned Puro Sabor/CNT charitable efforts are in addition to the countless health clinics, schools, meals and other benefits that Nicaraguan cigar companies provide their employees and families. To be sure, buying a premium cigar in the U.S. often assists the people who work so hard to make it.
Sparking Nicaragua’s rise to the preeminent position of cigarmaking countries have been brands that have climbed to the top of various “best of” cigar listings year after year. For 2019 alone, three Nicaraguan cigars earned No. 1 positions in the top 25 listings for Cigar Aficionado, Cigar Journal and Cigar Snob. Boutique Blends and A.J. Fernandez claimed the top spot in Cigar Aficionado’s top 25 for 2019 rankings, with Aging Room Quattro Nicaragua Maestro. A.J. Fernandez’s Bella Artes Maduro Robusto was No. 1 in Cigar Journal’s top 25 list for 2019. Cigar Snob tabbed the Padron 1964 Anniversary Maduro as its best cigar for 2019. Between these three publications’ top 25 lists and Tobacco Business magazine’s own listing of the 24 best cigars of 2019 (see page 50), 56 of a possible 99 cigars that made the lists were all produced by Nicaraguan cigarmakers—a truly impressive statistic that speaks to the country’s innate talent for growing excellent tobacco and rolling fantastic cigars—as well as to the loyal following that consumers and retailers around the world have for Nicaragua and the country’s cigars.
“Thank you, because it means a lot to all of us,” says Claudio Sgroi, president and master blender at Mombacho Cigars and the newly elected president of CNT. “For the last 15 years, the quality that we are making in Nicaragua is just nonstop. We are raising the bar year after year.”
Despite a few bumps along the way, raising the bar in terms of quality and quantity has been the overarching narrative of Nicaragua’s cigar story since 1968, when Joya de Nicaragua first began rolling cigars and made the official cigar given to guests at state dinners at the White House during the Nixon administration. Since the 1990s, when the country began recovering from a devastating civil war in the 1980s, its cigar industry has only been going up, fueled by dynamic companies such as Padron, Perdomo, Drew Estate, Oliva, My Father Cigars and many others. Growth inside the country’s cigar industry is evident as companies buy more arable land for tobacco cultivation; build new curing barns; and erect new tobacco production facilities, warehouses and factories. With a dark period passing behind Nicaragua, the trajectory of its cigar industry still shines bright, and plans for the ninth annual Puro Sabor Nicaraguan cigar festival are already in the works and are tentatively planned for the third week of January. To make plans to attend the 2021 festival, visit www.nicaraguancigarfestival.com.
This story first appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.
– Story by Stephen A. Ross, editor-in-chief of Tobacco Business Magazine.