I grew up watching my grandfather chew tobacco and smoke Dominican cigars. I have fond memories seeing him sitting under a tree, wearing a grey hat, and listening to the radio as he smoked. He was a man of simple pleasures, and the art of Dominican tobacco made him very happy. And thus, I grew up associating tobacco and the craft of cigars as something reserved for folks with a distinct interest in delicate details.
On our regular drives through Santiago, we would pass by the popular tobacco farmlands and plantations of Tamboril, Gurabo, Navarrete, and Villa Gonzalez, all famous for their high-quality tobacco lands and plantations. These areas in Santiago are home to some of the principal towns that grow some of the world’s best tobacco, coining the region as our “Cigar Capital.”
Today, over 5,000 tourists visit the area every year where local tobacco factories produce some of the world’s finest cigars. Below is this local Santiagera’s guide on Dominican cigars from the important history and rich tradition to where/how to buy the best Dominican cigars on the island.
Understanding the History of Dominican Cigars & Tobacco
Tobacco is sacred to the indigenous peoples of the Americas
Native to the Americas and considered a sacred plant by our indigenous Taíno/Arawak ancestors, tobacco has been around the Dominican Republic for thousands of years. The very first tobacco leaf is thought to have first originated in the Andes regions of Peru and Ecuador and made its way to the Dominican Republic thousand of years ago through the Taíno/Arawak people.
Mayan tribes have used it for spiritual rituals, while others would include it in warrior rites right before going into battle. This includes having the tobacco smoke blown onto their faces and bodies for a multitude of benefits. It was also used for its medicinal benefits as well as stimulating and calming effects.
Post-Colonial Dominican Tobacco
With the European invasion of the Americas starting in 1492, the initial record of tobacco smoking came from Christopher Columbus’ first voyage. Soon after, the Spanish began exportations to Europe (the ~1530s) after learning about its multiple benefits and versatile uses besides smoking such as chewing, eating, drinking, and even placing it on the body for medicinal purposes.
When enslaved Africans first arrived on the island after 1510, they worked mining metals and in plantations for sugar, coffee and tobacco. Making enslaved Africans a pivotal part of the history of Dominican cigars.
During the second Dominican Independence, around 1844, tobacco growers saw an increase in demand. Especially in Puerto Plata, which had experience in international trade and contraband and had close relations with the Santiago region. Whereas in the east and south side of the island workers were more involved with cattle, sugar cane, and wood.
Modern History of Dominican Cigars
After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Cuban cigar companies were nationalized and the United State’s embargo banned the importation of Cuban cigars. Thus freeing up the market for Dominican cigars and attracting cigar companies to move to the Dominican Republic, which was just an island over with the fertile soil and Taino tobacco heritage. Major cigar brands began establishing themselves in the Dominican Republic and with that, creating big brands, blends, and flavors for cigar production on a wider scale.
Did you know? Dominican Republic’s highly fertile soil, varied weather, and ecological biodiversity make it one of the best countries in the world for tobacco growth.
The cigar industry began working on mixes with foreign tobacco wrappers and binders as well as applying rigorous quality control. With the various cigars formats, these big brands were also able to implement fine cigar marketing on a global level.
Dominican Cigars: The Craft & Process
For context, in the 1970s, the Dominican Republic barely exported cigars but by 2009, the Dominican Republic was exporting close to 350 million cigars and became the biggest cigar producer in the world. Dominican cigars have been trailblazing the path on international markets since.
Today, Santiago produces 50% of the Dominican tobacco; La Vega, Bonao, Puerto Plata, Monte Plata, Dajabón, Santiago Rodriguez, Cotuí, Azua, and San Juan de la Maguana are also areas with tobacco plantations. The lush soil of the Dominican Republic has been a key element for the country’s growth and harvest, turning Dominican tobacco into a mosaic of flavors.
Did you know? Despite being overshadowed by Cuban cigar’s fame, many top tobacco and cigar experts agree that Dominican cigars out rival Cuban cigars?
What makes a good Dominican cigar?
High-end cigars have several features that can offer insight to its level of quality. Looking over the specifics: proper combustibility, texture, flavor, elasticity, aroma, color, and a balance of nicotine and oils together can determine a good cigar.
According to connoisseurs, a cigar must be hand-made, with good quality tobacco. The wrapper (outer leaf) should be smooth and free of veins, tightly rolled, keeping in mind a personal interest in good taste and smell. The darker and thicker the tobacco leaves, the stronger flavor it will have.
Also, manufacturing standards, storage, aging process and fermentation play a big role. It’s recommended to ferment the tobacco from 1 to 3 years, this gives way to better quality.
Dominican cigars have a clear display of all these details.
Terms to know when shopping for Dominican cigars
Cigars are made with a careful layering of tobacco leaves. This contributes to flavor and structure of the smoke. Any cigar is made up of three basic layers.
- Filler (Inner part): A bunch of leaves rolled together, the filler makes the biggest mass of the cigar, we see long leaf filler in premium cigars. The perfect blending and bunching of these tobacco leaves gives way for an even burn rate that enhances flavor richness.
- Binder (Middle part): Wrapped around the filler tobacco is the binder. It gives the cigar it’s proper shape and size, the leaves chosen for this function are strong enough to hold the cigar together delicately. It is important to use leaves that complement the flavor of the filler and wrapper, so it harmonizes with the other components while also keeping the cigar’s shape until the last puff.
- Wrapper (Outer layer): This is the outer leaf that wraps the cigar. It’s very important that the quality of the wrapper is premium; it contributes significantly to the flavor and smoking experience. The wrappers should have a consistent flavor while offering a steady burn.
Procigar Festival in the Dominican Republic: The Event For Cigar Enthusiasts Around the World
We sat down with Mr. Hendrik “Henke” Kelner, president of Procigar and a renown expert on Dominican cigars who has worked in the Dominican tobacco industry for over 50 years. As the owner of Tabacos Dominicanos, he was the first cigar entrepreneur to land a contract manufacturing world famous brands like Oettinger Davidoff, Avo, Griffins, etc. Mr. Kelner is the personification of expert passion for the craft of high quality cigars.
The importance of the Procigar Festival
If you want to go above and beyond in your immersion of Dominican cigars, consider attending the annual Procigar Festival! This international event brings together cigar connoisseurs, manufacturers, sellers, buyers, media, and much more. The festival takes place for a full week of activity: cigar seminars, sunsets at the beach, welcome cocktails with live music, field tours, tours, workshops, and dinner events. Here you get the complete package to connect and learn all about the Dominican Cigar.
Can you tell us a little about Procigar?
Hendrik Kelner: “Procigar is tradition and heritage. Founded in 1992, it’s become the biggest cigar producer association. We’re the biggest promoters of Dominican cigars, we host special events, cigar factory tours, we organize raffles and more. “
What is the importance of Dominican cigars?
Hendrik Kelner: “From 1996 on, Dominican Republic became #1 cigar manufacturer in both hand rolled and machine made, making around 9,000 million cigars for export and bringing in US$1,000 million in revenue; much more than any other country. Tobacco is the agricultural produce that injects the most money into Dominican economy. It has become the DR’s second most valuable asset after gold, which makes around US$4,000 million. It generates employment: 125 thousand direct and steady jobs and it is working to continue growing with new technologies. Tobacco is tradition and heritage.”
How has the Procigar Festival grown and impacted the industry?
Hendrik Kelner: “We currently receive attendees from 22 countries. Last year, we received 320 foreign visitors, in addition to local Dominican businessmen, executives and politicians. During Procigar, we’ve set up dinners for 800 guests; there’s been times where we just can’t fit more people in! Our promotional events focus on demonstrating what being a Dominican is about: Welcoming with open arms all foreigners. So far the Festival has been active for 13 years and we hope to continue working on it. We organize auctions and all collections are divided amongst two very special foundations: Hospicio San Vicente Paul for the elderly and Voluntariado Jesús con los Niños for children in need. We’ve rounded up to $3 million pesos donations for each one!”
Tobacco Plantations/ Cigar Factory Tours & Tastings
Most factories offer tours with complete explanations about the process of manufacturing and achieving a high quality cigar. Some even include tastings. But if you want the a distinct package we recommend contacting the below tour guides or the Procigar team since they organize a full set of events and activities, tastings, trips and tours around the best factories in the Dominican Republic.
Villa Gonzalez Cigar Tours – Santiago local, Ryan Bowen of Atlas Travelers organizes tours in collaboration with communities in the tobacco farms and factories. He hosts all inclusive packages and informational tour experiences in English or Spanish.
Price: Starting at $50 and up including transportation.
Cigar Country Tours: Taking you to all the main factories like La Flor Dominicana, Montecristo, Romeo & Julieta, La Aurora, and more! Located in La Romana (DR) they can arrange pick up and drop-off to and from your hotel.
Price: US$20 per person for each tour (without transportation).
Cigars and Rum Tour: From Punta Cana this tour takes you to the VegaFina cigar factory and the Ron Barcelo distillery, lunch and beverages are included. Minimum age is 18 years.
Price: US$248 per person.
Don Lucas Cigar Tour: A small factory yet award winner, with a fully equipped boutique store located in Punta Cana. They offer a Free tour and have other spaces to check out while you’re there, a small tour promoting cacao and coffee products, a rum tasting and bar, and gift shop with local handmade products.
Hidden Treasures of Santiago While you’re in the area, take a city tour of Santiago by a local who can show you the nooks and crannies of this special city.
Price: US $39 per person.
What to Look for When Buying Dominican Cigars
Here, in the Valley of the Yaque River (Santiago) the earth is a mosaic. There are different stimulations, complexities and a richer flavor.– Hendrik Kelner
As with everything, the best cigar is the one you like the most. But independently from that, the cigar world can be complex. To pick a good cigar, you have to keep an eye out for the cigar band (length), diameter (thickness), appearance and looks, and picking out the strength. The strength of a cigar can be classified as mild, medium or bold, depending on the amount of nicotine it holds.
The senses play a big part on choosing a cigar: the sight helps us notice if it looks elegant, well finished in it’s details and a color that makes it look attractive enough to be chosen. By touching we can sense it’s consistency in the elaboration process, if we smell it we can notice the freshness and aroma of the tobacco that assures us we have a good product, and after lighting it and tasting, our taste buds can confirm everything the other senses have demonstrated.
Where to Buy the Best Dominican Cigars in the Dominican Republic?
- La Aurora – Tamboril Industrial Park
- Las 3 Reinas Cigar Shop
- Cabinet Tabaco Boutique
- Zemis Tobacco & Cigar
- Tabadom – Villa González
- OK Cigars – Villa González
- Tabacalera La Flor Dominicana – Tamboril
- Tabacalera William Ventura – Tamboril
- Espigon Cigar Shop
- Puerto Plata Cigar Club
- Vivonte Cigar Factory & Lounge
- Arturo Fuente Cigar Club
- La Leyenda del Cigarro Cigar Shop & Factory
- Don Lucas Cigars
- Vivaldi Cigars
Dominican Republic Cigars’ Impact on the Local Economy Today
Did you know? The tobacco plant can be used to produce vaccines, antibodies, and other uses like anti-aging or anti-inflammatory medicine.
Nowadays, around 93 companies dedicate themselves to tobacco growth and commercialization in the Dominican Republic.
In 2018 duty-free zones gave jobs to 29,831 people. Out of these, 58.6% were for women; it’s very interesting to note how much women are involved in this industry, in all parts of it: from the crops to creating a final product and even on managing positions. On more a general note, the tobacco industry generates 135,000 jobs, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
And of course, the tourism industry has also benefited from cigar production, with several tours from different factories available, and not to mention the world-famous yearly Procigar Festival.
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Contributing writer: Adriana Badía Paulino is a journalist and photographer based between Sosua and Cabarete, Dominican Republic. She studied Social Communications (PUCMM) in her hometown of Santiago. Her life-work experience has taken her around the island where she’s been active in various media projects including magazines, photography, translation, tour guide, social media, video, and movie productions. Nowadays, she’s a full-time mom and continues to write about her love of travel, nature, and culture. Follow some of her adventures in @adrianabadiaphoto
About Dominican Abroad LLC: educating, inspiring culturally immersive travel, empowering cultural heritage preservation, supporting community values, amplifying local voices around the world, and encouraging diversity in travel (from cities to mountains). Founder, editor & writer: Gerry Isabelle. Follow me @DominicanAbroad