Tobacco was first cultivated (and given its name) by the Tainos, who pressed the leafy plant into a rock-hard substance to be smoked in pipes. Many Cibao peasants still make this form of tobacco – called andullo – which you can find if you ask around in Tamboril, Navarrete or Villa González; it’s sometimes even for sale in local colmados. Export began in 1679, when Cibao farmers started growing it for the French colony on the western side of the island. For two centuries, Dominican tobacco was widely praised as top quality, but when large-scale export to Germany for cigarette filler began in the mid-nineteenth century, that quality soon began to erode.
Tobacco was traditionally farmed by local peasants, who grew small plots of it alongside their vegetable gardens and sold the dried leaves to local middlemen for cash, who then transported it to Puerto Plata and sold it at a profit to large German export firms. When the US took over customs receipts in 1907, the Germans imposed tariffs that eradicated the old market, and many of the former middlemen opened cigar factories for export to the US. Cigar quality wasn’t first-rate, though, until the Cuban revolution sent many prominent Havana tobacco men to the Cibao, where they developed an industry that today sells more cigars than Cuba’s, and just as good ones. During the 1990s, many small-scale businessmen tried to take advantage of the high profile of Dominican cigars by opening up factories of their own, but they had a hard time matching the quality of more established firms; most have now gone out of business.
If you’re in the region to purchase cigars, don’t be surprised to find that many of the best-known DR brands are not readily available locally. This is because companies dedicated to export are usually not involved or interested in regional distribution. The bad news is that this puts the visitor in the difficult position of identifying good quality without the benefit of recognizable brand names. The good news is that regional product is often as good or even better than the famous brand names, and usually much cheaper because of its anonymity. If you’re not a connoisseur, though, and are looking to buy cigars without first smoking a tester, there are two nationally available brands that shouldn’t let you down: Carbonell and León Jimenes. The latter also markets a secondary quality brand widely available called Aurora. All three are respectable, consistent in quality, reasonably priced, and should be available for purchase nearly everywhere.