The Philippines has a long history of tobacco cultivation and cigar making beginning in the 16th century when tobacco seeds were brought to the country via the Acapulco-Manila galleon trade route. Private enterprises were not allowed to engage in the cigar business until 1881 when the tobacco monopoly was abolished. One of the companies put up following the abolition was the Compañia General de Tabacos de Filipinas S.A. also known by its nickname, “La Tabacalera”. In 1887 the company established “La Flor de Isabela” (The Flower of Isabel), the largest cigar factory in the world at that time.
After a century, Compañia General de Tabacos de Filipinas S.A. sold its entire tobacco and cigar business, including the name, to a Filipino group. The group modernised the facilities and brought in a Cuban master cigar maker as a consultant. He improved every aspect of the operation and taught workers the Cuban rolling style which ensures a consistent draw. Eventually, the company reverted back to its old name, Tabacalera, and is known as Tabacalera Incorporada today.
My friend Jose Perfecto, who works at Tabacalera Incorporada, introduced me to cigars two years ago. He told me that their cigars are still rolled by hand and pressed using wooden moulds that are a century old. This piqued my interest and made me want to visit the factory to see how the cigars are made from start to finish. I asked Jose to give me a tour of their factory in Dasmariñas, Cavite which they have been using for the last 6 years. The factory is about an hour and a half drive from Metro Manila.
The tour starts with a visit to the storage and fermentation room. This is where the bales of tobacco leaves are kept in a humidity and temperature controlled environment. There are tobacco leaves from all over the world including leaves from Isabela, Philippines. The room allows little sunlight and the smell of fermenting leaves is strong. Over time the aroma and the taste of tobacco leaves mellow and develop. Jose tells me that it can go as high as 300 degrees Celsius inside the bales when the conditions are right.
After a certain maturation period is reached the tobacco leaves are brought to the classification section. The classification section is where the main veins are removed and the tobacco leaves are classified into three categories based on their overall appearance and quality: filler, binder and wrapper. The filler is the core of the cigar, the binder holds the filler together and the wrapper is the outer layer. The only difference between the binder and the wrapper is that the latter’s appearance is much better than the former.
The next stage is hand-rolling. Each worker has their own table to hand-roll each cigar. They use a mixture of cassava and water that works as a glue to wrap the cigars. It is applied to the binder leaf then the filler leaves are added and rolled into an unwrapped cigar. These unwrapped cigars will be pressed in a wooden mould for 12 hours or overnight to achieve the right shape and density. After pressing the cigars are wrapped with a wrapper leaf and go to the finishing section where they are trimmed and passed to quality control.
At the quality control section the cigars are inspected for consistency. If they pass the standards set by Tabacalera they are sent to the packaging section where they will be individually labeled, wrapped and boxed. Some of the cigars come in wooden boxes and barrels and are packed accordingly. Tabacalera cigars are exported to many countries notably Canada, Spain, Argentina, USA, Japan and Singapore.
Tabacalera has a number of cigar brands. There is the Don Juan Urquijo, the 1881, the Tabacalera, the Alhambra, and their latest is the Perique 1881. The Perique 1881 is their newest line and is made with a blend of tobacco leaves that includes the perique leaf. The perique leaf comes from St. James Parish in Louisiana and is known for its deep and robust richness. The perique leaves were offered to Tabacalera by Mark Ryan, owner of L.A. Poche Perique Tobacco and Tabacalera’s U.S. distributor. Perique leaves are difficult to roll into a cigar but the rollers at Tabacalera have managed to master the leaf which allowed them to produce the Perique 1881 line.
The tour lasted about 45 minutes and wouldn’t be complete with smoking a cigar. We retreated to the the lounge where I enjoyed a cigar together with Jose and Luca, an Italian cigar aficionado and writer at CigarsLover. Jose let us sample one of their Perique 1881 cigars which was wrapped in Maduro tobacco leaves from the Dominican Republic. It’s not available on the market as of this writing but it will soon be. I had a great time touring the factory learning about the intricacies of tobacco and cigar making and is highly recommended for aficionados.