May 7, 2010
I slid the cellophane off of a Davidoff Millennium Blend Lonsdale and neatly clipped the cap with my teeth. I chew on it a minute wishing for a cup of coffee before spitting it to the curb. I look up and can’t believe I’m sitting in the Lobby of the Gran Almirante Hotel and Casino, again. This time I’m waiting for a cab to take me to Tabadom Holdings Inc, home of Davidoff cigars. The hustle of locals yelling over ringing slots and sirens are now just a ringing memory left behind from the night before. The mental chaos of the casino reminds me of how much harmony can be found in a somewhat still morning. The strike of my match flares and chars the foot of my cigar. I enjoy the first full puff of the day and shake out my match. Still cockeyed and bloated from watered down casino beer, I chop my way into the humid Dominican morning. A mini van door whips closed behind me and before I knew it the cab driver and security guard at the Entrance to Tabadom Holdings, Inc were staring me in the face. I snap my fingers to jostle the scrambled eggs of my brain, “Buenos Dias, Señor Kelner…por favor.” I barely mutter. The guard flips his wrist, shooing a pest from his face. I’m dropped off at the entrance of a large green and white building that looked like god himself reached down from the sky with his mighty quill and signed ‘Davidoff’ in green lettering above the entrance door. I waked slowly up the steps as I adjusted my posture expecting to find mad-scientists wearing goggles in tuxedos and lab coats toasting champagne while they smoked cigars, marveling over the invention of their cigar cloning machines.
I burst through the doors ready for my glass of champagne but find the clicking of a computer mouse and the hum of a ceiling fan over the reception desk instead. There were no bubbling beakers or hot plates, no mad-scientists toasting champagne. I wanted to wake up from this misfortunate reality. “Excuse me?” I asked the receptionist, “But where are the cigar cloning machines? I’m a journalist, you see… and have come to reveal the truth about Davidoff and the secrets of cigar replication.” She looked at me like a villain making my first appearance in a comic book. Still, I smiled at her.
“What do you mean?” she asked, “Isn’t it obvious?” I stood back a minute and wondered if she was mocking me or if my vision was still blurred from the night before. “Look around.” she said, raising her arms and motioning them about the room. “You’re standing in it.” She replied.
“Of course,” I said, laughing in good gesture, “How foolish of me, I should have known better.”
As I walked up the stairs to meet my guide and host Hendrik Kelner Jr., I knew within the next two days I would have the information I came for. Day one had begun.
Hendrick Jr. and I get outside and hop into Henke’s (Hendrik’s father, Hendrik Sr., the master’s) Jeep and head off to Jicomé, a town down the road and a ways off the tourist’s path. Tabadom Holding’s Inc is the only business in Jicomé. This sleepy town actively walks about ten paces slower than the rest of the island. Jicomé rests in the Cibao Valley between the Septentrional Mountain Chain to the north and the Central Mountains to the south.
We pull into an opening of barbed wired fence onto what is apparently a road, shielded by tall rows of grass and corn to block the wind from the tobacco on the other side. Thankfully Hendrik opted to take the Jeep. Only three windows rolled down and Henke’s cigar butts from 1998 still remain in the ashtray. Four-wheel drive was the only thing of real importance. Ideally the best locations for tobacco fields are closest to the mountains in the valley for two major reasons: 1. The nutrients from the mineral rich mountain wash down onto the farmlands, and 2. The mountains act as a natural barrier to protect the tobacco from the elements.
Our first stop of the day was seed production. Tobacco plants full of beautiful flowers and seed capsules matured under cheesecloth canopies. While trying to wrap my brain around a single seed, we were off to germination. Here, tobacco seeds are mixed with ash since they are relative to the size of coffee grounds, which help spread them out evenly over the germination bed. Then the seedbeds are covered in rice husks to retain moisture, and then covered with vented plastic sheets to help the germination process. Here the seedlings will grow for about 17 days. The healthiest and strongest plants are separated and planted in trays with individual spaces for each plant, and then moved to the greenhouses where they will grow for about another 25 days. The plants are trimmed down with machines similar to a lawnmowers three times over the course of 25 days in the greenhouses. This practice promotes a strong stalk and a healthy root system. The leaves that are chopped are the bottom set of leaves, the sand leaves, which are never used for cigar tobacco anyway. After 25 days, the plants are given to the farmers where they are nurtured until it’s time for harvest, approximately 55 days in the fields.
The sky was blindingly blue and the tobacco was alive and full of vigor. You could literally watch the plants move as they reached for the nourishing sun. Haitian workers were busy picking primings and stacking them neatly in carts in order to transport them to the curing barns just 20 yards away. Dominicans don’t want to work in the hot sun so Haitians happily adopt the serene farmland workplace, despite the intense heat. A boy and a small baby girl sat in the shade while the others worked, laughing, trying to bum cigars from Hendrik. One of them successful in their conquest, he neatly tucked the cigar in his breast pocket.
Each seed variety provides its own unique characteristic, and depending on the season can vary from crop to crop. The Kelners harvest by each priming, but not like most other manufactures. Usually a tobacco plant is broken up into three primings, volado, seco, and ligero. Each classification, such as ligero, can have up to a few sets of leaves. If a manufacturer harvests all the ligero leaves at the same time there will be a big difference in flavor and nicotine levels in the bottom set of leaves from the top. If they are all harvested together it is nearly impossible to make a consistent cigar because of the differences in the leaves. The top priming of ligero closest to the sun, will have more nicotine and flavor than the bottom. So when all of the ligero is harvested together, there will be a large difference in flavor and strength profiles in each set of leaves of the same priming. Davidoff picks each set of leaves individually. Two leaves make one priming, and the same set of leaves are harvested from each plant in the field – that way the nicotine level will be the same in every set of leaves. By doing it this way they can keep tobacco separated and consistent.
After harvest the tobacco is cured and arranged by quality, it is then sorted by filler and binder. Then it goes into fermentation process for 4-6 months. After fermentation it is aged in bales, moistened, texture sorted, stripped, and then back into a second fermentation. It is aged again in large boxes similar to cabinets. Then dehumidifiers go to work lowering the tobacco’s humidity. Next is fermentation for bugs, and after that the blending process will begin. After all of this, it is time for the last step where the tobacco is sent to the factories to be put into cigar production. Wrapper tobacco basically goes through the same process. After Fermentation the wrapper goes to aging and then gets stripped by machines in two halves, sorted by size, packed in 50 half leaves, stored again and then off to cigar making.
The Septentrional Mountain Chian sits directly north of the tobacco fields in Jicomé. The sea of green tobacco leaves moved methodically in the breeze like sea grass moving through the tide. Five minutes in the tobacco fields is equivalent to a few one-hour treatments in the spa. The open air and natural beauty in the rural town and farmland seem to move in harmony as another workday comes to a close. The day ends to the heat of dusk and heavy renegade traffic. Now the Gran Almirante casino lights blink like a luring gem in the weary light. Night had quickly fallen upon us. I hit the hotel cigar shop and bought a Master Kelner robusto. The taste is unmistakably tabadom – but it’s unmistakably unique. I grab a few beers from the bar and avoid the frustration of a relentless casino floor. Upstairs I kick back in a lounge chair under the moonlight and stars. The smoke from my cigar hovers and dances slowly in the air. It’s so quiet and peaceful I could hear the tobacco burn with every puff and the distant holler of a stray dog in the distance. Day two was drawing nearer. With a cigar nub burning the whiskers on my face and the last bit of beer foaming down my throat, I call it a night.
Not long after crawling out of bed and dieing for a strong cup of black coffee, Henke pulls into the circular drive of the hotel. The casino-less night left me sharper than a revolutionary’s machete. Now I had the man behind the Davidoff cigar brands at my disposal – at least for the twenty-minute ride to the factory. This was the man who would divulge the secrets of Davidoff’s cigar cloning operation. I had all the questions and he had nowhere to run.
“I’m an honest man.” I explain to Henke, “I know what’s been going on here, and I can’t leave without knowing your secrets. Our readers are depending on it and expect nothing less” Henke’s mouth slipped into a slight smile.
“You’ll see,” he says, “just wait.”
We arrived at Tabodom and walked right into Henke’s office. After sitting down and shooting back a double shot of espresso, a chart titled ‘The Kelner Scale of Strength,’ and four cigars were brought to each of us. The cigars were plain and numbered 1-4. “This is what you have been seeking.” Henke told me. I looked for electric chords and mechanical devices but all I saw was books, a humidor, and Henke sitting behind his desk. Apparently, I was led to believe that this was the cloning device. It’s this method that makes Davidoff as consistent as it is.
“It’s all mathematics, yet so simple and logical.” Henke explained to me.
I was disappointed. The romanticized image painted in my head was nothing like reality. There were no champagne toasts or monstrous cigar cloning machines. Yet my heart still pumped with excitement. The truth of it is that their cloning device is the man sitting right in front of me, the four unmarked cigars, and the ‘Kelner Scale of strength.’ I just didn’t want to believe it. In the graph you can see everything broken up into different groupings. You can see which priming it is, the strength of each priming, the seed strain harvested, and the farm it came from. Everything about the tobacco is listed on the graph. Cigars are basically no more than a recipe, or a formula. The graph enables Henke to pinpoint the seed used, the priming, and strength and farm in which the tobacco came from. The recipe is measured by the effect on the tongue. If a cigar uses a certain strength of one priming and seed variety one year – that doesn’t mean the same tobacco will be produced at the same farm the next. Depending on the season it may have a different characteristic altogether. The scale allows Henke to see what tobacco profiles come from where – so then he can utilize the tobacco needed according to profile – rather than farm and priming alone. Just because ligero of one crop from this seed from this farm ended up in a blend one year, doesn’t mean it will the next.
Each seed strain grown for Davidoff cigars, whether Piloto, San Vicente, or Olor, provides a certain element in a blend. Just like adding salt to a food dish will change the sensation in our mouth 100%. One year piloto will have a certain characteristic from one farm, and it could be completely opposite the next. The scale documents flavor and body strengths along with the farm, priming, and seed variety on the graph. So if a Grand Cru #3 calls for piloto of a certain strength and flavor profile, one year it may come from Jicomé, and another it may come from Jicomé, and another it may come from Navarrete, or La Canela, or any of the other growing regions depending on what was yielded from that particular farm in that particular crop. This method allows Henke to control the variances in tobacco patterns throughout different seasons, thus creating the same flavor and body profiles of each cigar year to year and crop to crop, no matter what curve mother nature throws.
The factory was full of workers busy with the daily routine of producing White Label Davidoffs, Zino, Griffin’s, and Avo cigars. Each stage of the process is as meticulous as the blending itself. All the time and care it takes to masterfully recreate blends can all be in vain if the hands of the roller have a shaky day. It all comes down to the tables. Cigars in bundles of 50 have to weigh a certain amount depending on size. Every roller is given a certain amount of tobacco to create a certain amount of cigars depending on size. Each cigar is inspected and pulled from the line if a single imperfection or blemish occurs on the final product. The cigars that make the grade move on to aging, and eventually into banding. On this trip Davidoff Royal Salomons, Davidoff #2s and the new Winston Churchill line were being banded and packaged, and shipped off to consumers directly from the factory.
Now I’m sure you’re not surprised why I expected lab coats and scientists, clanking glasses of champagne and bowties. I really wasn’t that far off. You can’t forget that tobacco is alive and transforms itself from one year to the next. The secret is to harness the differences each crop provides, and knowing how to manipulate them to create the same blend over and over again. Tobacco is basically a reflection of its origin. Much like wine grapes everything plays a factor in tobaccos flavor and strength profiles. The wind and soil composition, the direction of the wind or levels of rainfall or drought – everything will affect the final product. Each year nature throws variances in weather patterns all over the world. For example, let’s say that a cigar uses one particular seed strain, from one particular tobacco region and farm from the top portion of the ligero priming. That year the tobacco came from was a particularly wet and windy. In order to get the same final product – you can’t assume that the same tobacco from the same place will taste the same from crop to crop. Of course there will be certain similarities characteristic to certain growing regions – but the strength of flavor and body can be vastly different. Davidoff doesn’t have the best luck or most consistent weather patterns in the history of the world. Even if we’d like to believe it, they haven’t built a climate controlled bubble around their tobacco fields that allows them to drop a precise amount of rain or blow tempered wind from the south at precisely the right temperature. They have a system that is more respectably called a scientific method consisting of maps and charts and numbers.
For as long as I can remember my interest in cigars, Davidoff has always been part of it. In every cigar store or publication Zino Davdoff and Davidoff cigars have always been there. Coming to age in one of the most infamous periods of our time “The Boom,” made me learn that the quality of the Davidoff brand has never changed. Since I had the misfortune to be born after the Cuban Davidoff era, the Dominican Republic was the one region of the world I would, unknowingly at the time, become so intimately involved with. Davidoff is one of the most respected names in the cigar world. The quality and consistency is one that demands respect even if Dominican tobacco isn’t your cup of tea. Box after box, year after year, a Davidoff is always a Davidoff. When you smoke a white label – you know it. It maintains one of the creamiest flavor profiles known in the cigar kingdom.
I wake up in yet another chaotic state that only the Gran Almirante can bring. I’m heading back Los Angeles, far from the serene plains of the Jicomé tobacco fields, and Davidoff cigars. It is true that a cigar factory can clone cigars in a more traditional sense. Even thought there aren’t machines from the future a lingering smell of scientific genius is still in the air.