Leafy goodness: Designing your own cigar

The courtyard at the Plasencia factory
The courtyard at the Plasencia factory

It’s been 5 months since our amazing journey to Nicaragua with Colin Ganley and Andrea Woolverton of Cigar Tourism for the express purpose of experiencing the cigar culture of that country. To our delight, Colin and Andrea did a masterful job of introducing us to all things Nicaraguan – history, culture, politics, food, climate, coffee, rum and yes, cigars. One of the most remarkable aspects of the trip was visiting the highly regarded Plasencia factory in the mountain city of Esteli where we were invited into their blending room to concoct our own private cigar blends. Of all the many varied elements involved in the handmade craft of creating fine cigars, blending is the where the magic happens, or doesn’t. (Yes, it’s that critical.) The Plasencia blending room is known for its blending expertise and as an added bonus, we’ve discovered that Colin, our guide and the former Chief Editor at Cigar Journal magazine, is also a blending wizard in his own right. Three of us who sought his assistance that day are delightedly realizing this as we now smoke our aged private blend cigars for the first time.

reservaorganicaA little background on Plasencia: Even if you are a regular cigar smoker, you might be struggling to recall what cigars Plasencia makes. I have to admit to my own ignorance as well and while we got a brief overview at the onset of the tour, it did not do their history justice nor satisfy my hunger for more facts. Remarkably, all the Cuban family operations we toured were very humble about their accomplishments despite being award winning craftsmen. Colin said this was cultural and to think of these factories as their homes and not businesses. This explains the unfailing hospitality we received and the utter lack of even modest marketing. Being avid attendees of cigar shop events where logoed bling (cigars, t-shirts, cutters, lighters, humidors, etc.) is generously handed out as raffle prizes along with bonuses for box purchases, we were puzzled and disappointed by this completely different environment. But we did come to understand it and greatly appreciated how welcomed we were.

So I did some Googling and read three excellent articles about Plasencia, one of which Colin wrote. (You’ll find links to them at the bottom of the page.) Here’s what I learned: The Plasencia family has cigar factories and farms in Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras where they produce 30+ million cigars each year for over 30 different customers including Rocky Patel and Alec Bradley. But the only cigar you’ll find bearing their name is the Plasencia Reserva Organica which is the result of their groundbreaking work to develop sustainable organic tobacco growing methods. The Plasencia family left Cuba in 1965 after their farm where they grew 130 acres of tobacco and raised 600 head of cattle was confiscated by the Castro government, apparently right down to the coffee mugs in the kitchen cabinets, and they arrived in Honduras with little more than the clothing on their backs and about $100. With hard work and time, the family established tobacco farms in Honduras and Nicaragua where they persevered despite losing 90% of a season’s crop to blue mold leaving them in horrendous debt and then having their Jalapa Valley farm in Nicaragua seized and given away during the brutal Sandinista revolution in the early 1980s. They retreated across the border to their Honduran farm and would not return to farming in Nicaragua until 1991. I could not help but be amazed by their tenacity, skills, and work ethic, qualities demonstrated by all the Cuban cigar emigres we met during our visit. They all arrived from Cuba with little or nothing except their knowledge and passion and then they had to endlessly experiment as to how to adapt various Cuban tobacco strains to different soils and micro climates in Nicaragua, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere. The proof is in the award winning, high quality cigars they produce year after year.

Over the years, the father and son team of Nestor Plasencia Sr. and Jr. have built a company renowned in the cigar industry for its decades of experience and expertise. If you’d like to develop your own boutique cigar brand, the minimum order is 10,000 cigars which makes what each of us did in their blending room for only a 25 stick order per person truly remarkable and special. We even got to name our cigar blend which is printed on the cigar bands. Imagine herfing with your buddies and lighting up your very own “liga privada”, Spanish for private blend. Yeah, it’s way cool.

Our crew in action in the blending room
Our crew in action in the blending room

After touring the entire factory and eating Cuban-style sandwiches in their outdoor lunchroom, we entered the blending room. We were instructed to document what we were looking for in a cigar using a suggested template and with that in hand, we then consulted with a “blender” to match up our parameters to actual tobacco leaves from tobacco growing regions all over the world, stored in numbered bins on the wall. Once fully spec’d out, our worksheet was handed to the “roller” who gathered up the necessary leaves and then masterfully assembled one of each of our cigars at the rolling bench in the corner. Cigar in hand, our marching orders were to smoke our fresh stogie that evening as a test and if satisfied, we had the option to order as many as 25 cigars at $5 per stick to take home at the end of the week which we all ended up taking advantage of.

Let me take a moment to explain the “fresh” cigar phenomenon. The cigars we smoke every day have been aged at the factory for a number of months after rolling to allow the leaves to blend and ferment during which a remarkably foul, ammonia smelling, outgassing occurs. But when that stick is initially rolled, you can smoke it that day and get an accurate preview of what you can expect to emerge on the other end of the stinky aging process. Wait a day or two and it’s too late to smoke it. As I lit up my fresh cigar that night with a glass of Flor de Cana 18 year Nicaraguan rum in the other hand, I didn’t know what to expect. Well, I was thoroughly impressed and delighted as it delivered exactly what I asked for in my blend and that was the group consensus as well.

Below you’ll find two reviews of a particular stick that was blended for my brother Eric, a member of our expedition who lives in LA. Since Eric did not have a humidor at home, he sent them with me to Seattle for proper aging knowing they’d be meticulously nurtured. We were advised that it may take as long as 180 days but once the outgassing on his stick tapered off at 140 days, I asked Eric to authorize some quality control testing. I would have smoked one myself today but I was busy testing mine own blend, the “Duncanizer 5000”, and one of Nathan’s, “Los Hermanos”, another of Colin’s super tasty blends. So I enlisted two other Brothers of the Leaf from the trip with diverse taste buds. Without further ado, here’s your QC report, Eric.

  • Brother of the Leaf: Eric Espensen, aka “Dr. E”
  • His blend: “El Doctor”
  • Blender: Colin Ganley, Cigar Tourism & former Chief Editor of Cigar Journal of Vienna, Austria and Miami, Florida
  • Factory: Plasencia Cigars, Esteli, Nicaragua
  • Aging: 150 days at 65% humidity / 70 degrees
  • Size / Vitola: Robusto (5 x 50)
Cigar component Type of leaf Source % of blend Purpose
Wrapper Seco Cameroon, Africa Combustion
Binder  — Indonesia  —
Filler Ligero Jalapa, Nicaragua 20% Strength & flavor
Filler Viso Condega, Nicaragua 25% Flavor & aroma
Filler Viso Ometepe, Nicaragua 25% Flavor & aroma
Filler Seco Dominican Republic 30% Combustion

  • Tester #1: Brother of the Leaf Marco EtheridgeBrother Marco Etheridge
  • Cut: Punch
  • Construction & performance notes:
    • Excellent draw,
    • Compact white ash,
    • Big smoke,
    • Ash held until halfway without babying it
  • Flavor notes:
    • 1st third: 
      • Snappy red pepper hit, especially with retrohale;
      • Arturo Fuente Don Carlos Cameroon richness;
      • Rich Jalapa sweetness, cocoa;
    • 2nd third: 
      • Cedary notes,
      • Retrohale smoothing out, less pepper, more wrapper flavor;
      • Vanilla and cinnamon replacing red pepper;
    • Last third: 
      • Medium strength,
      • Medium to full body
  • Verdict?: Buy a box!

  • Tester #2: Brother of the Leaf Ray PetersBrother Ray Peters
  • Cut: Guillotine
  • Construction & Performance notes:
    • Excellent draw, smoke output & ash
  • Flavor notes:
    • Initial impression is that of a Punch Rare Corojo or Macanudo Hampton Court;
    • Straightforward, really good tobacco taste without spice or pepper;
    • Light woody, leather flavor;
    • Toasted bread taste on retrohale;
    • Woodiness replaced by leather in 2nd half
  • Verdict?: I expect this to be a great morning stick with coffee. I can’t wait to try it again when Brother Eric comes to visit!

Notice the pretty significant variance in their tasting notes? It just goes to show that it’s all in the taste buds. I’ve read that humans have two types of taste buds, basic and advanced, and it’s based upon the density of the taste bud sensors. Within our group, Ray is known for having basic taste buds and Marco for having advanced taste buds. Both of them retrohale which is exhaling some of the smoke through the nostrils to engage the far more complex tasting sensors located there. Bottom line: These guys greatly enjoy cigars to the full extent of their capabilities.

Here’s a brief overview of the tobacco plant and its impact on a cigar blend:

  • Ligero: top of the plant stalk – These leaves receive the most sunlight and therefore are thicker and strongest in nicotine and flavor.
  • Viso: middle of the plant stalk – These leaves are used for flavor and aroma.
  • Seco and Volado: bottom of the plant stalk – These leaves burn best and are used for combustion especially when ligero is used which doesn’t burn well.

And while we are at it, here’s what I’ve learned about the tobacco growing regions of Nicaragua:

  • Jalapa: The red clay soil of the Jalapa valley produces leaf that is known for its sweetness and aroma.
  • Ometepe: The rich volcanic soil of Ometepe Island produces leaf that is sweet, earthy & strong.
  • Condega: The rocky soil of Condega produces leaf with mid-range strength & sweetness.
  • Esteli: The rich, heavy soil of the Esteli valley combined with hot, humid weather produces leaf that is strong and bold.

I’ve added a map of Nicaragua showing the 4 growing regions to the slideshow below.

— Scott Bruce Duncan */:-)

Further reading:

Click any photo to launch the slideshow

One thought on “Leafy goodness: Designing your own cigar

  1. Mark Hansen

    Very good description of our visit to Placencia. I’m glad that you guys are happy with your blends. Mine is still waiting in my humidor waiting for my return. I look forward to sharing these sticks with you and to see if meet with all of our approval. I’m anxious to see how the taste profile has changed replacing the Sumatra Maduro wrapper with the Pennsylvania Broadleaf Maduro. I really enjoy reading your blog. Thanks


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