Adore, despise, or remain indifferent over them, it’s hard to imagine a world without Dominican cigars.
Some of the highest-rated and best-selling premium cigar blends in history have rolled out of this Caribbean landmass, with names like Ashton, Arturo Fuente, Cohiba, Davidoff, Macanudo, and many more calling this island home.
But with the ever-expanding market interest in stronger cigars fueling an insatiable burning desire for all things Nicaraguan, the Dominican Republic has struggled to keep up in recent years.
So what makes this particular country so desirable, both from a tobacco-growing angle and a cigar manufacturing standpoint? Surely there has to be more than just a bunch of really good soil and some history here, right?
Take a trip with us, as we delve into Dominican cigar culture, the premium legacy cigar brands behind this boom, and the odd history behind it all.
Communism, Castro, and the Great Cigar Migration
As Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, a strange and scary scenario transpired. Tobacco growing and cigar manufacturing had long been the top Cuban money maker, and transitioning everything over to a state-controlled operation was a tricky business.
Not wanting to lose the best in the biz, Castro decided to offer/pressure Cuba’s top tobacco farmers, master blenders, and cigar-rolling torcedores to keep the country’s economic pistons pumping. But by that point, a massive amount of people had fled the country or were preparing to leave for fear of what might follow.
Being that the Dominican Republic was just a short boat ride away, many of these refugees found themselves restarting their lives in the next nation over from their homeland. The time was ripe for a tobacco revolution, and with an unfathomable amount of smuggled Cuban tobacco seeds suddenly on hand, the legacy of the Dominican cigar industry was about to change forever.
It was around this time that a man by the name of Carlos Toraño, Sr. began to cultivate what would become known as “Piloto Cubano.” This strain of tobacco seed paid tribute to the classic Cuban long-filler, but with a more robust Dominican kick. Needless to say, this type of tobacco proved to be a hit, and in many ways helped revolutionize tobacco-growing throughout the country.
The United States handed Dominican tobacco growers and cigar manufacturers another boost, when it imposed its embargo on Cuban goods, including all tobacco-related products. With connections and infrastructure already set in place, and zero sign of political upheaval on the horizon, big-name and start-up cigar brands alike invested heavily in the Dominican Republic.
Gettin’ It Done in the Dominican
Over the following decades, the fertile soil surrounding the northern city of Santiago and neighboring Esperance would play host to some of the greatest premium cigar blends the world has ever seen. It is here that the Yaque River flows lazily toward the sea, forming the broad expanses of the Cibao Valley. With mountains on both sides, and ample amounts of fresh water and fertile soil in between, this region remains the crown jewel of Dominican tobacco cultivation.
Similar both in climate and growing environment to that of the Vuelta Abajo region of Cuba, emigrant tobacco growers and master blenders alike rejoiced in the Dominican Republic’s ability to accommodate. From cigar wrapper and long-filler to the binder and scraps for making caps, this region can grow any cigar type imaginable.
Tobacco Nerd Note: The first recorded use of tobacco as a cash crop in the Dominican Republic was in the mid-1700s. Immigrants from the Canary Islands had settled in the farmlands of the Cibao Valley and quickly set to growing tobacco. As the local Dominican aristocrats began to develop an affinity for one hand-rolled cigar type or another, small farms slowly turned into large-scale plantations, with tobacco exports to European countries being the ultimate goal.
Peace and Prosperity in the Dominican
The lack of communistic control and little threat of military violence gave further cause for Cuban refugees to settle into their new lives in the Dominican Republic. Unlike Cuba and Nicaragua, which have seen all manner of civil unrest, the Dominican Republic has remained fairly tranquil since the end of its short-lived civil war in 1965.
By the time free trade zones opened across the country in the 1970s, many displaced tobacco growers were in the full swing of things, and their timing couldn’t have been any better. As one legacy cigar company after another set up shop in the Dominican, the need for locally sourced tobacco became even more paramount. The act of rolling stogies strictly for export purposes had officially been kicked into high gear, and business was good.
As the Dominican Republic slowly but surely edged the Canary Islands and Jamaica out of the spotlight as the leading cigar producer for the United States, production numbers spiked significantly. By 1977, annual Dominican cigar exports were 5.8 million, and come 1981 these figures had swelled to 33.7 million. With the great American cigar boom looming on the horizon, Dominican tobacco rolling factories were set to kick things into overdrive.
Flip forward a couple of decades to 2003, and the Dominican Republic was shipping 160 million stogies to the United States. Today, these figures have slacked back quite a bit, due primarily to the cigar market’s acute interest in all things Nicaraguan.
However, that’s not to say that the tobacco coming out of the Dominican Republic is inferior in any way. While the premium cigar blend and cigar wrapper offerings utilized at the factories on this island typically contain tobaccos from around the globe, there is a lot of it that still is 100% native to the Dominican Republic. Some of the best tobacco on the planet comes from the lush Cibao Valley at the foot of the mountain range, where river and soil meet.
Shipping an estimated 129.5 million cigars in 2021, the Dominican Republic served as the second-largest exporter of handmade cigar types, with a total of 456 million stogies reaching U.S. soil that year. That’s more than a 25% spike over the total number of cigars from the year prior, making 2021 one of the best years on record for the premium cigar industry.
Tobacco Nerd Note: A single tobacco plant can produce anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 seeds in a season. The abundance of seeds produced by the tobacco plant gives a solid explanation for why it was so easy for people to smuggle various strains out of Cuba, and propagate them in various areas around the globe.
Cigar Manufacturers of the Dominican Republic
Although quite a few brands can be attributed to the cigar manufacturing facility of a particular brand below, the premium cigar blends the following legacy companies produce are all unique unto themselves. The use of cigar wrapper tobacco from the Dominican may not be nearly as popular as it once was, but the country does still produce a ton of filler and binder leaves.
Oh, and let’s not forget the Dominican Republic's oldest cigar maker, La Aurora S.A., which by this point has been in business for well over a century. This once exclusive local staple may have expanded its reach significantly during the 1970s when free trade zones opened across the country, but it never managed to garner a following in the United States.
So herein lies the big question: Are Dominican cigars any good?
Without a doubt. Top-notch. Capital. Prime pickings. The cream of the crop. A cigar smoker’s tobacco-soaked dream come true.
However, along with all of this praise, so too comes a caveat. While the legacy cigar brands listed above all produce outstanding products, very rarely are they of the 100% native “puro” variety. Sure, there’s the Opus X, but that’s in a league all of its own, and a damn tough one to obtain. We’re talking average weekend tobacco warrior smoking session single-source stogies here, which unfortunately for the Dominican Republic, is not its forte.
There’s also the issue of geography. Sure the Dominican is lush and has a long history of producing resplendent cigar types and cigar wrapper options, but it lacks the level of intensely rich volcanic soil and heavy year-round cloud coverage that graces areas like Ecuador’s tobacco-growing regions.
That being said, it’s hard to imagine cigar culture without the Dominican Republic, and there are a million reasons why some of the biggest names in the biz have been and will continue to be, a dedicated Dominican Republic cigar staple to the very end.