Comfortably seated in a cosy room, I am overlooking the Esteli River running through the sunbathed valley circled by green mountains, in what used to be the dodgy area of Estelí, Nicaragua. Contemplating my surroundings, I enjoy looking at the graffiti art hanging on the walls: the Manhattan bridge, the shadow of a motorbiker, rats dressed up in suits… A sweet aftertaste fills my mouth. Licking my lips, I prolong that delicious taste that makes me think I am enjoying a dessert.
I am at the Drew Estate factory, the largest cigar factory of Nicaragua and the third largest in the world, experiencing an Acid cigar. With the cigar still at my lips, we are walking towards the production floor to witness the making. Passing by a colorfully painted wall, I can only stop to admire an unexpected scene, mixing graffitis and the typical Nicaraguan murals showing tobacco picking. Indeed, Drew Estate is not only about the making of cigars, it is also about “the rebirth of cigars”, dusting off its image and making them more approachable.
The production floor itself is surrounded by these paintings on the walls, featuring unconventionally named cigars like Acid, Dirty Rat,… But don’t be fooled by the low-key and anti-corporate appearance: cigar making is very serious here, and every cigar is 100% handmade. The building can house more than 2000 employees, and everyone of them is entirely focused on his or her task. A man is seated at a table, methodically picking five tobacco leaves. Every leaf comes from a different tobacco farm: this is the blending. Then, he is wrapping them in a broader leaf before rolling and putting it in a casing in a press. Next to him, a woman is picking a leaf of another type: the expensive wrapper. Carefully and skillfully, she is cutting it and wrapping the cigar tightly in three layers, gently rounding it off at the ends. Women are more gentle and precise and this paired making process, combined with a stringent training program, ensures the consistent quality of the cigars.
Other employees are walking through the floor: some are coming from the stock room where wooden labeled boxes contain bunches of 50 wrapper leaves from all over the world, some are standing by the tables as they are checking the cigars before they are sent to the quality department where they will be controlled one by one, some are bringing tobacco leaves to the cigar-making stations, others are carrying the cigars wrapped in newspaper to the climate-controlled room for storage.
Entering one of these rooms, I am surprised by the nice coffee aroma filling the air. In the next room, the mint and chocolate smell is strong, while the other one smells like clove. In these specific rooms, infused cigars are stored 60 or 90 days depending on the thickness of the wrapper. The method will remain a secret, involving essential oils which are gently infused into the cigars, providing a unique aroma. Still puzzled by this sensory travel from room to room, I am surprised by a more aggressive paint smell: we are in the box room where every box is hand-painted with anti conformal labels.
Jesse, the resident artist is proud of showing us his different creations, from labels on boxes to the murals all around the factory, and his team of young local talents. They are reproducing cigar-themed drawings on canvas. “These are gifts for some of the cigar safari guests”, he explains. With an impressive 20% yearly growth, a real passion for cigars and a love story with Nicaragua, Drew Estate has been guiding cigar aficionados through the whole making process of not only the “rebirth of cigars”, but also the rebirth of Estelí.
Tonight, reflecting on my visceral distaste of the tobacco industry, I am puzzled by the fantastic success story of Jonathan Drew, a self-made man from Brooklyn and his highly positive impact on Estelí. In 1996, Jonathan Drew was settling in the post-civil-war town of Estelí, still strongly marked by the contra-revolution of Nicaragua and quite undeveloped. Today, close to 2300 men and women are employed at Drew Estate, and it is growing fast, as well as the city where 35% of the population live from the tobacco industry.
Having conquered the USA, the next challenge of Drew Estate is to convince the European and Asian markets, which are largely dominated by Cuban cigars, of the quality of its Nicaraguan cigars. While I am taking my time enjoying the last drags of one of the best seller Acid cigars, I have no doubt!
Marcella & Claire
- If cigar safaris are organized as a specific multiday trip for cigar aficionados, you can visit the factory if you are in Esteli. Make sure to shoot an email ahead to book your tour.
- Esteli is an off-the-beaten path destination that is really nice to explore. It is also the easiest starting point to discover the Miraflor area, or to keep going North to the gorgeous Somoto canyon.