No Nicaraguan cigar factory has been around longer. No Nicaraguan cigar factory is so closely aligned with the country and its people. And no Nicaraguan cigar factory has done more to pave the way for Nicaragua to hold its current position as the most important cigarmaking nation on the planet. “We are a living history lesson,” laughs Alejandro Martínez Cuenca, owner of the factory since 1994, and a former minister in the Nicaraguan government. We’re sitting in his tropical garden in Managua, ceiling fans gently beating overhead. The smoke from rich, powerful JdN Antaño Gran Reserva cigars lifts into the humid afternoon air.
Heavy times in the factory
“I didn’t know all the intricacies that went into making cigars when I bought the factory. Of course, I loved to smoke them,” he says. “I was aware of Joya de Nicaragua because I’d been asked during my work as minister for foreign trade to help find new international markets for the cigars. And when the company was offered back to the employees as part of the reparations after the revolution, they had no real sales experience or knowledge of how to market their cigars. So, they came to me and asked me to get involved.” It took more than a year to convince Martínez Cuenca this was a good idea. When he took stock, he discovered that the company was in ruins – still making wonderful cigars, for sure, but with nowhere to sell them and a mountain of debt. The workers hadn’t been paid in months and relied on credit and handouts from friends and local shop owners to feed themselves and their families. Yet every day, they got up and went to work for Joya de Nicaragua.
That’s the real marvel of this place – its people and what they’ve been through. And the fact that the half dozen or so members of the senior team – these days, dotted through- out the factory to oversee every stage of the cigar-making process – remain fiercely loyal to the place they call home. Many of them have worked here for their entire lives. It’s not too strong an argument to say that Nicaraguan cigars would be very different without Joya de Nicaragua – and not so well known around the world. The company was the first, by necessity, to seriously explore international markets other than the US when its biggest customer was cut off by Reagan’s embargo in 1985.
“We’ve been in Europe and beyond for a very long time now – our cigars are recognized in countries around the world, from Russia to Italy, Japan to Finland,” says Juan Martínez. He is Martínez Cuenca’s youngest son and, since 2013, has taken the helm at JdN as executive president. “And those long-term relationships have meant that we were ahead of the game when others started to realize that it was important to be out in the rest of the world.”“But this anniversary is not about us as owners; it’s about them,” he gestures expansively to the rolling gallery behind us, which is beginning to thin out as workers stack their wooden chairs and head home. “The history they have together is unparalleled. And they continue to look forward. That’s what Nicaraguans do. We look forward and we work together to make things better for our friends and families tomorrow.”
The history of Joya de Nicaragua
Joya de Nicaragua was founded as the Nicaragua Cigar Company back in 1968 – the first premium cigar factory in the country. A purpose-built facility was later erected in Estelí by the Nicaraguan president, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who by then was the effective owner of the business. He had “acquired” the Nicaraguan Cigar Company from its founders, the unfortunate Cuban pioneers Simon Camacho and Juan Francisco Bermejo. To begin with, Joya de Nicaragua was merely the name of one of the cigars. Later, it would become a name the cigar world would learn. “Civil war, revolution, the American embargo, bloodshed, poverty, hard- ship, loyalty, family – these are all part what makes Joya de Nicaragua what is today,” continues Alejandro Martínez Cuenca as afternoon wears into early evening, and the deep, dark tobacco of the aged filler in the Antaño Reserva slowly smokes down.
“I agreed to get involved to help them (the factory workers) and hopefully create some sort of viable business. And I fell in love with cigars all over again.” The famous old factory is a truly special place, despite its dark history. It was used as a base by both Sandinistas and Somoza loyalists during different periods and was bombed from the air, as well as reputedly being the site of summary executions. Its walls retain no horrors, though. There is a sense of joy here; of optimism; of good, old-fashioned hard work. These people look out for each other.
When asked what Joya de Nicaragua means to her, Francisca Gonzáles – known affectionately throughout the factory as Panchita – shrugs her shoulders and says quietly: “My life.” We sit in the small garden behind the factory and reminisce about the half century that she has spent here – first as a 12-year-old looking for employment to help feed her family, and latterly as Joya’s head of quality control. She still gets up at 4:30am each morning to see to her grandchildren before leaving for the factory.She remembers the bad old days – coming across bodies in the street on the walk into work; a shootout starting in the bank one lunchtime; President Somoza himself turning up at the factory, handing out lapel pin badges and instructing workers to visit the ballots to vote for him. But she tells me she never once considered looking for other work. “We’ve been through so many tough times, but how could I leave here? These people are my family.” And of Martínez Cuenca’s intervention? “He’s my guardian angel,” she says with a smile that lights up our corner of the garden. “Without him, we’d have nothing right now. The factory just wouldn’t exist.”
But dwelling on the past is not an option here. The company strives for innovation.
“We have the youngest senior management team in Nicaraguan tobacco,” says Martínez. We are constantly looking to the future and using new ways to communicate.
“We’ve recognized that one single approach won’t fit all. What works for one country, for instance, may not work in another. So instead of telling our distributors what to do and how to do it, we rely on them to tell us. Then it’s our job to give them the tools they need.”
Making superlative cigars for others is an important part of the business, though not one you hear much about. Steve Saka (formerly of Drew Estate) has his blends crafted here; Tobacco Lords from Robert Graham and La Sagrada Familia lines are also made under this roof. “We have a few things up our sleeve that I can’t really tell you about yet,” says Martínez with a trademark twinkle in his eye when I ask him what the future holds. “But you can rely on us to be leading the way. This is our passion; it’s what drives us every day: making the best cigars we can, and being inventive. That’s the Joya way.”
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Spring Edition 2018. Read more