As slogans go, it rivals Irn-Bru’s claim to be made from girders. “Made from volcanoes” is the way that the Plasencia family describes its Romeo 505 Nicaragua range of cigars, which launched last year. Made for the US market, the Romeo 505 Nicaragua (505 being the international dialling code of Nicaragua) is a sub-brand of the non-Cuban Romeo y Julieta. But unlike Shakespeare’s tender tragedy of doomed young lovers, this cigar is pitched at an altogether more macho level, asking of its purchasers the question “Are you man enough?”.
The US has risen to the challenge, with Nicaraguan cigars now enjoying enormous popularity there. The so-called “Nic kick” appeals to cigar lovers who like to be left in no doubt that they are smoking a strong cigar; the gastronomic equivalent would be calling for the hottest curry on the menu. This sense of distinct regional character has helped Nicaraguan cigars soar in popularity, to the extent that when I was researching my recent book, Cigars: A Guide (Preface Publishing, £25), I learnt that after the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua is Central America’s second-largest producer of premium cigars, pushing Cuba into third place.
This is clearly a source of pride to Nicaragua’s ambassador in the UK, Guisell Morales-Echaverry: “Nicaraguan cigars have been chosen a record seven out of 13 times as the best in the world by Cigar Aficionado magazine. Today, more than 50 top brands are being produced in the country.” She adds that “a significant number of people in Nicaragua depend on the industry for their living”.
Central America’s cigar culture has tended to be a by-product of its… how does one put it… lively history of revolutions, civil wars, strongman dictators and superpower proxy showdowns. It was the upheaval of the revolution in Cuba in 1959, followed by the embargo on trade between Cuba and the US, that stimulated cigar making across the region.
Cigar making in Nicaragua centres on the city of Estelí, to the north of which are the Condega and Jalapa valleys. Here, the steamy climate, together with the rich volcanic soil, convinced those who left Cuba after the revolution that Nicaragua offered conditions similar to home and they set up shop. At the same time, the Somoza family, which had run the country more as a large family estate than a nation since the 1930s, enjoyed the backing of the United States (the brand Joya de Nicaragua supplied the official cigars of Nixon’s White House), and Anastasio Somoza, the last family member to rule the country, owned tobacco farms. Nicaragua’s cigar industry was almost destroyed by the civil war that led to the fall of the Somoza regime in 1979, and for a while in the 1980s the United States imposed an embargo on Nicaraguan products. Since then, Nicaragua has made up for lost time and built itself a reputation as a purveyor of powerful cigars.
It is not all to do with volcanic soil, as Henke Kelner, the legendary cigar maker and expert blender, explained to me. According to him, sometimes Nicaraguan growers strip a tobacco plant back to just 12 leaves (as opposed to the customary 16-18) to concentrate the nutrients in a smaller number of thicker, more powerful leaves. He adds that on occasion the strength of the Nicaraguan cigars is compounded by a bite that comes from incompletely fermented tobacco: once this might have been regarded as a fault, the result of rushing the production process, but the ensuing tang has since emerged as a cherished flavour characteristic.
Kelner created the light, distinctively Dominican, Davidoff White Label blend (from £10) when the brand moved from Cuba to the Dominican Republic in the early 1990s. But four years ago, Davidoff launched its first Nicaraguan Puro (from £16), a cigar with filler, wrapper and binder all from one country. (With the exception of Cuba, many cigars made in Central America use tobacco from more than one country to ensure a broader palette of flavours and effects.)
The brand has since become so enamoured of Nicaragua that it has invested in tobacco farms there. “When I analysed the limited array of taste experiences we had offered at Davidoff with our classic White Label, it became clear that we had an opportunity to expand them,” explains Charles Awad, Oettinger Davidoff’s chief marketing officer and senior VP. “We tested many different blends in tasting panels in Germany and the US among aficionados of Cuban, Dominican and Nicaraguan cigars. A Nicaraguan Puro, blended with spicier Nicaraguan Estelí and Ometepe tobaccos, alongside sweeter Condega tobaccos, was the clear winner.”
Davidoff’s entry into the Nicaraguan market is significant. It is a major force in the cigar industry, with a large market beyond the US, and Kelner’s experience is unparalleled. With the launch of the Davidoff Box Pressed Nicaraguan Puro (from £23) last year, the combination of the straight-sided profile characteristic of a box-press with the extra body offered by Nicaraguan tobacco seems to have captured the imagination and the palate of many, focusing attention on the country.
The craze is making waves in the UK, where even die‑hard devotees of Havana cigars of my acquaintance have been enticed to taste Nicaraguans to see what all the fuss is about (some have not been convinced; others have been persuaded). It is not that Nicaraguan cigars have never been seen in the UK before – Padróns have been available at Davidoff of London for at least a decade – but there is renewed interest.
“Nicaraguan tobacco is wonderful and different to that of all the other regions of Central America,” says Eddie Sahakian, director of Davidoff of London. “What I love is that you get this bit of pepperiness when it is blended well. The classic Padrón is without doubt a full‑bodied, rich cigar that requires your full attention when smoking. The Davidoff Nicaraguan Puro ignited more international awareness. Compared with a heavyweight Padrón, it is more of a middle or welterweight, making it more approachable. Moreover, with the shortage in supply of certain popular Havanas, Nicaragua is attracting a lot of newcomers with an open palate and without a history of only smoking Cubans – and that has driven interest in a lot of brands.”
“The old generation would only buy Havanas and never consider anything else,” says Mitchell Orchant, MD of C.Gars, “but the new generation is mixing it up and Nicaragua has come on like crazy. We have seen a 40 per cent rise in our Nicaraguan cigar sales.” Indeed, the country now accounts for more than half of his non-Cuban cigar sales. “Nicaraguan producers have raised their game in terms of presentation, but what they really nailed was the blending – makers like Plasencia and AJ Fernandez have worked hard on this.”
As well as the blending, there is a flexibility and entrepreneurialism about Nicaraguan producers who are prepared to make cigars to a taste and for a market. For instance, Orchant offers small runs of specially blended limited edition Orchant Seleccion cigars (from £8) created for him by Oliva, another leading Nicaraguan maker. “They have bags of flavour, with an underlying sweetness throughout; they are more rounded and balanced than those power bombs that are popular in America, and there are three distinct flavours.” Some Nicaraguan cigars are criticised for a single flavour note that remains unchanged over the length of the cigar, while many Cuban smokers are attuned to the idea of a flavour developing as the cigar burns.
“For Mitchell, we make sure that Oliva is blended to UK taste,” says Scott Vines, managing director of Tor Imports, distributor of many Nicaraguan cigar brands, who agrees that Nicaragua is addressing tastes beyond the traditional forceful style. “We have a cigar from Joya de Nicaragua, the originator of the country’s premium cigar industry, which has made the Joya Red [£13], a cigar with none of the ligero [the strong, dark leaves from the top of the plant] that people think they need for spice and kick – instead, this is a cigar that is light and fruity.” Experimentation and novelty seem to account for much of the appeal. “Drew Estate, one of the biggest cigar producers, making almost 100,000 a day, has one called Jucy Lucy [£6],” says Vines. Drew Estate has also collaborated with Joya de Nicaragua on a brand called MUWAT (My Uzi Weighs a Ton; £20), a name that suggests a more traditionally Nicaraguan, punchy experience. “It is not for everyone,” says Vines, “but it is innovation.”
This spirit of innovation is also behind one of the newer brands, Regius, which is proving suited to the British palate, not least because it has been created by London-born Akhil Kapacee, who took up cigar smoking while an undergraduate at Cambridge. “I went into investment banking out of university, but soon decided that I wanted to drink and smoke for a living.” Or to put it another way, “I come from a mathematical background, but anything to do with taste is very subjective and so it is not possible to learn other than through experience.” What experience has taught him is that the British market seems to like a cigar that “starts really spicy and becomes smoother”. Since launching with Edward and Eddie Sahakian at Davidoff seven years ago, Regius has grown to such an extent that it is now being sold across the Atlantic… the home of the power bomb.