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December,
2007

Tabacos de la Cordillera:
Defining
Modern Cigars


The best way to truly differentiate oneself in the marketplace is to offer unique products. That goal has driven many cigar makers to develop proprietary tobacco varieties. John Vogel’s Tabacos de la Cordillera has taken that concept several steps further: replanting genetically pure pre-Embargo Cuban tobacco strains for a classic Cuban taste that not even Cubans can deliver.

By Dale Scott

It is unlikely that any company, line of products, or management team in the cigar industry is more unique or out-of-the-ordinary than Tabacos de la Cordillera (Mountain Range Cigars). It is equally controversial, with product claims that inflame the Cuban cigar camp, yet draw open-minded, fact-seeking smokers.

With all the Internet sites claiming to have “pre-Embargo” cigars and tobacco - probably more than Cuba produced in its 300-year cigar history - Cordillera has understandably experienced its disbelievers and detractors. But, as company owner John Vogel says, “We’re looking for intelligent smokers who don’t blindly follow the forum gurus, but go to our educational site and realize the legitimacy in our products. And, those customers do our promoting for us. We don’t say our cigars are the ‘best.’ They’re the alternative to all other cigars of today. “Cordillera is the only company today that makes all of its cigars with 100 percent tobacco we grow from genetically pure “ancestral” (pre-Embargo) Cuban seeds.” Is Vogel to be believed? Consider his education, credentials, and years of eminence in tobacco research, and decide if his claims and cigars are a marketing gimmick or the real thing.

Cordillera was founded in the late 1990s by a cigar-loving Italian-American financier who desired his own brand. He located the 65-acre farm and factory in volcanic mountains overlooking a breathtakingly beautiful, serene valley near Puriscal, Costa Rica. But, the owner’s first management team and master blender proved unsatisfactory. The tobacco and cigars were, in a word, lame. Worse, the Central American management mismanaged the company to the point where the owner decided to sell out. Wanting an estimate of its worth, he sought out a tobacco-industry consultant and found Vogel.

Vogel’s education and entire career have been dedicated to dark tobacco and fine cigars. Born of a German father and Spanish mother, he earned a B.S. in agriculture (1967) in his native Nicaragua, where tobacco is a highly studied crop. He joined Consolidated Cigar Company as a tobacco researcher. Quality was paramount, back when Consolidated vied for market leadership for non-Cuban premium cigars, following the vacuum in product that resulted from the Embargo.

Vogel’s responsibilities during 15 years at Consolidated included management posts in buying, growing, and processing of tobacco, as well as in all phases of manufacturing and quality control. Assignments in start-up farming and manufacturing took him to several countries. Vogel earned world recognition from Consolidated, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Commerce, and the Connecticut Agricultural (Windsor) County Station. Foreign heads of state likewise praised his work and the beneficial effects on their tobacco industries. Although little known in the cigar marketplace, few, if any, can match his experience and expertise in tobacco.

This is especially true of his specialty, the development and improvement of tobacco, optimizing it by scientifically tailoring growing conditions - mainly nutrients and minerals - to specific varieties. Genetic research and engineering were his principal tools, and he honed this skill in the laboratory and fields for four decades.

In 1982, Vogel departed Consolidated for a successful tobacco consulting career. During those 20 years, he established long-term relationships with peer researchers who had lost their jobs when post-Revolution Cuba suspended tobacco research. Prior to then, the facilities periodically released their new tobacco varieties to leading Cuban growers, in legendary regions like Vuelta Abajo, Pinar del Rio, Santa Clara, and Remedios. Over time, they gave Vogel a bank of no less than 47 rare “ancestral” Cuban seeds, a coup that is the envy of every tobacco grower. Dating as far back as 1940 and thought extinct, some are considered the archetypes for several celebrated blends. Vogel carefully preserved the seeds, awaiting the right moment.

The time came in 2001, when Cordillera’s owner contacted Vogel to evaluate the company. “Analyzing the soils and microclimate, I realized this was what I had sought for decades,” recalled Vogel. “I proposed that I direct the company, and Tabacos de la Cordillera was reborn.”

Vogel discarded the entire stock of inferior tobacco and cigars from the previous management. Starting anew and alone, he spent nearly three years planting, harvesting, cross-breeding, sampling, analyzing, and modifying the plants’ characteristics over five to six generations, until obtaining the desired quality of tobacco. In 2002, Vogel’s first commercially viable new hybrids were ready - all derived from the world’s only remaining pre-Embargo “Ancestral” Cuban seeds.

In 2003, Vogel debuted his cigars in Costa Rica. Though Costa Ricans aren’t big cigar smokers, cigar-smoking tourists stream through there. The biggest Costa Rican retailer is Café Britt, a coffee company with $25 million annual sales through 23 stores, including an extensive airport pavilion and several five-star hotels. Cordillera cigars began sharing shelf space with other Costa Rican brands and Cuban cigars in 2004, and by 2005 Vogel’s cigars were the only Costa Rican brand left standing. By early 2007, Britt reported that Cordillera cigars were outselling the vaunted Cubans by a margin of three-to-two.

Next came the U.S. rollout. Arango Cigar Co. was appointed the exclusive U.S. distributor and the 2007 RTDA Trade Show marked the introduction of Vogel’s Fundación Ancestral Series - his answer to Cuba’s best - which consists of Pinar del Rio 1941, Vuelta Abajo 1940, and Artemisa 1944, all offered in Churchill, corona, robusto, and torpedo formats. The name of each line refers to the years and growing regions the Cuban research facilities first released these seeds to major Cuban tobacco producers, becoming benchmark blends for years. Unlike Vogel’s first (and still current) commercial tobaccos, these seeds are not cross-bred hybrids: they are the genetically pure original Cuban seeds, right off the island. Pinar del Rio 1941, for example, contains tobacco solely from different leaf cuttings of Pinar del Rio plants. But, Vogel explains, “I grew 500 Pinar del Rio plants, selecting those with specific desirable characteristics: pest- and disease-resistance, finer vein structure, larger and better shaped leaves, more even burn, desirable flavor and aroma. Although they’re all the same variety, they have differences, just like children born into a family all have different physical characteristics. So, although all these Fundación Ancestral cigars contain only tobacco from that strain, each blend contains three to four different sub-varieties, which keeps them from being one-dimensional in flavor.

“Fundación Ancestral Series has more flavor and body than modern Havanas, but with none of their bite and harshness, because we ferment all our tobacco, not just the binder and filler, as the Cubans do. Today’s smokers mistake the effects of nicotine with what is actually unfermented, ammonia-producing alkaloid impurities…Cubatabaco does not ferment any of its wrappers.” This fact was corroborated by Emilio Reyes, the Dominican Republic’s leading tobacco grower, who spent five years in Cuba, as a fermentation consultant. RTDA 2007 attendees repeatedly acknowledged the smoothness of their Fundación Ancestral samples, contrasted to Havanas.

Tabacos de la Cordillera and Arango Cigar also offer their highly-rated Cumbres de Puriscal Golds, in nine popular shapes. These are the same as those Vogel launched in 2003 in Costa Rica. The flavor profile is milder than the straight-ahead Fundación Ancestral lineup, with more delicate, sweet flavors and aromas.

Value-priced Colinas contain remnants from the Cumbres line, machine bunched and hand rolled in six shapes. Their longer, medium-fill leaves will hold an ash an honest inch before dropping, and the flavor and aroma are essentially like Cumbres.

Tabacos de la Cordillera is not only recreating tobaccos from Cuba’s Golden Age, but also incorporating other Cuban touches. All cigars (except torpedo) now have crowned heads, for easy guillotining. More significantly, Vogel has adopted the classic cigar-making technique long abandoned by the majority of the industry. “We now bunch entubado-style, just like in the old days,” says Vogel. “This method is not widely used because it is labor-intensive and expensive, but it produces better cigars.” Tubular channels made by rolling each leaf into a ‘soda straw’ tube smoke more freely than just folding the leaves together, Vogel explains. The tubed leaves also remain in place better during pressing: the shifting of folded leaves during pressing can restrict the flow, creating a hard draw. Because the tubes don’t shift as much during pressing, the ligero tubes - which are located in the center of the cigar - stay positioned much better, reducing uneven burns considerably.

Vogel’s greatest innovation is his brilliant and revolutionary “Bull’s-Eye Ligero, (patent pending). This bunching method may well become the future standard for top-quality cigars. It has no equal in cigar construction for ensuring dead-centered ligero during pressing. “We create a cigar within a cigar,” Vogel explains, “bunching the ligero separately, then wrapping it with its own binder. This unitized ‘Bull’s-Eye Ligero’ is then centered in the rest of the entubado-bunched filler, which is then bound and wrapped normally. During pressing, the rigidity of the bound ligero resists being distorted much better than other methods. The result is a cigar that burns more evenly than anything on the market today, including entubado bunching.”

Vogel, with an eye to the almost-footmen past, sees epochal changes for the future. “Certainly, the looming SCHIP tax is a serious threat,” he says, “but America’s disrupted economy may signal the onset of another Great Depression. We’re looking to other, more promising markets in the oil-rich Middle East, the European Union, and Asia, all of whom are moving to their own currencies and consortiums.”

Heavy taxation, a weak U.S. dollar, and a floundering economy aren’t the only threats - another little-known enemy could become increasingly troublesome, Vogel warns. “The greatest threat comes from within our own ranks,” he reveals. “For decades, I have watched the residue levels of pesticides climb far past permissible levels in tobacco-producing countries. The European Cigar Manufacturers Association, along with a leading tobacco agricultural research facility there, are publishing disturbing news about growing awareness of the problem in not only the industry, but also by governments, including the Federal Drug Administration.” Vogel predicts the U.S. will ultimately forbid the sale of products that don’t use natural growing techniques. “It is well-proven: developing pest and disease resistant plants genetically is far superior than increasingly dosing the land with pesticides,” Vogel explains; “This is the only way we grow, using virtually no chemicals. Cordillera is ready for the future.”

Tabacos de la Cordillera, S.A., 3106 SW 8th St., Miami, FL 33135, Tel: (305) 541-6623, Fax: (305) 541-6632, Email: sales@tabacordillera.com, Web: www.tabacordillera.com.


SMOKESHOP - December, 2007