The Dominican Republic’s two largest crops are sugarcane, of which it is the Caribbean’s second-largest producer – after Cuba, of course – and tobacco.
The Dominican cigar industry is a prime example of the shadows of Cuba that I keep seeing. Seeds, skills and even the names of Cuban cigars have taken root in a new homeland. Now rivalling the originals in popularity, makers such as Pepe Garcia – who owned the H. Upmann and Montecristo brands – fled the Castro regime to found Tabacalera de Garcia in 1971 in La Romana. It is now the largest handmade cigar factory in the world and a tour reveals just how much skill and work goes into producing one.
Vice-president Jose A. Seijas tells me that his company has spent many years in litigation with the Cuban government of Cuba to establish their rights to the brand names but an uneasy truce has ruled since the 1990s. “It will be interesting to see what happens when Cuban exports open up after the American embargo is lifted, as it no doubt will in due course,” he says. “Meantime, we are starting to go our own way. In the 1960s, we were blending something that tasted like a Cuban cigar – and we score 50/50 in blind tastes. Cigar smokers could not really tell us apart. But now we are presenting the option of a different taste, a true Dominican flavor.”
Such self-confidence is well deserved in a country that has so much to offer and a remark of his also sums up for me what the Dominican Republic is all about. “Cigar smokers are a special breed,” he says. “They taste the tobacco; they do not smoke, they do not inhale. Good food, good wine, good cigars – we are all about relaxing and enjoying life.”
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