Okay, cigar smokers. Word association time. Ready? Venezuela. Uh... um ... uh ... Llamas? That's right, llamas. That's what I came up with. You know, the woolly camel-like things they have down there? I'd venture to guess that many of you had responses equally erudite. My second thought of Venezuela revolved around their consistently fine showing in the Ms. Universe contest. But that was as far as I got.
Now, I've smoked a lot of cigars, from a lot of places, and I had no idea there were people out there making Venezuelan cigars, and good ones. Michael DeLisa, owner of Orinoco Cigars and importer of the finest cigars the Venezuelans have to offer, is out to dispel the general ignorance which surrounds his products.
(By the way, the llama, a ruminant known for masticating and regurgitating its food after swallowing, is found extensively in the South American Andes between Peru and Bolivia. Not Venezuela. It is related to the camel, though.)
In these days of bountiful demand, cigar brands appear on tobacco retailer's shelves seemingly spontaneously. The history and tradition of these brands is shrouded in mystery, as there often isn't any history or tradition to speak of. For the consumer, sending premium dollars after products no more established than the newest Congolese head of state is folly normally reserved for our government. But how is one to discern the proud from the pretender? Venezuelan cigars have been available in the US since 1996. Does this recent appearance place these cigars firmly in the pretender camp?
"I don't feel like we are competing with any of these new brands," explains the ebullient DeLisa. "Some of my brands are one hundred years old!" DeLisa is referring specifically to the Crispin Patino brand, one of the three lines brought into the U.S. by his Orinoco Cigars. The factory was founded at the turn of the century by Flora Aranguren, mother of Crispin Patino. Patino joined his mother in the business in 1928 at the age of 14, and has been making Venezuelan cigars ever since. At 83 years of age, Patino may have given over the management of daily details to his son, but his hand is still in every step of the production process.
Under DeLisa's direction, Orinoco has put special emphasis on the Patino line, in deference to the great tradition of the family operation. Two new sizes for the factory, a robusto and a double corona, have been graced with a premium seven year old Honduran wrapper and the finest aged Venezuelan filler. These cigars represent the culmination of nearly a century of tradition in cigar rolling for the Patino family, and are now being brought into the U.S. as the flagship pieces of Orinoco's line. You would truly be hard pressed to consider this a "new" line.
Orinoco's other brands, emerging from two independent factories, carry a proud tradition as well. Don Quijote has roots in one of the world's oldest cigar making regions, the Canary Islands. The factory was founded in Venezuela thirty years ago by Vladimir Perez, whose cigar credentials stretch back to his childhood in the Canaries, where he worked as a roller. When the cigar industry in the islands began to falter under excessive government control, Perez, like many generations of Islenos before him, left for the New World to continue working with tobacco. After discovering a healthy enclave of cigar makers in Venezuela, Perez returned to the Canaries and purchased the then-dormant trappings of cigar making from his former place of employment and brought them to his new home, establishing the Don Quijote brand.
In similar fashion, though for a different type of governmental oppression, the Don Yanes brand was established. After a long existence as one of Cuba's prominent tobacco families, and after working as the head roller in one of the island's distinguished factories, Don Yanes left Cuba following the ascension of Castro. Conditions in Venezuela proved favorable for the introduction of a new brand, and the Don Yanes line has seen great success since that time. Unlike the other two brands, the Don Yanes line develops cigars with leaf from their own farm.
The tobacco tradition of Venezuela reaches significantly farther back than any of these factories, though they may be the finest examples of that tradition moving forward. The town of Cumana, center for the Venezuelan cigar industry and home to the Orinoco brands, has a history like few others. Initially colonized by the Spanish in 1523, Cumana s the oldest European outpost in South America. A languid fishing village prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the locals used tobacco in their daily activities, as many today still smoke the short filler perfecto while hunting the day's catch. Being a land of widely varied terrain, the Spaniards hoped the verdant plains, rocky highlands, and river valleys of Venezuela would produce vast riches for the Crown.