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Quarter 2, 2008

The One and Only
Italy’s Toscano: bringing premium quality to a quality price.

by Jonathan Bell

If a cigar smoker is looking for the rare, the unique smoke, then one sure candidate would be a Toscano cigar. There is no real competition to it in the global array of cigars. Furthermore, whether machine-made or hand-rolled, the Toscano - although placed in the middle price range among cigars - is most certainly a premium product in terms of its leaf qualities and degree of hand processing. Value for price is another of it characteristics.

Most people have seen a Toscano smoked, either on trips to Italy where it is ubiquitous, on screen, or in books - how could one separate the images of Garibaldi or of Puccini from a Toscano? Perhaps the most memorable recent movie smokers of the cigar are Burt Lancaster in The Leapard and Clint Eastwood in his Westerns.

The Toscano remains an icon of Italian culture, yet unlike pizza or espresso, it has yet to find its place internationally. This is largely due to its history of ownership: created in 1818, the cigar was first held by the Italian tobacco monopoly that pertained to the Vatican State; after unification, Italy took state control of tobacco products including the Toscano cigars.

The cigars therefore remained an Italian treasure, with no real private enterprise initiative to promote them abroad. This changed when the monopoly was dismantled in the early years of this century and was replaced by ETI, a private company. But in turn, the quite serious efforts by ETI to establish foreign markets for Toscano cigars were cut short when it was acquired by BAT, whose commercial interests were primarily targeted at Italian cigarette brands.

The rebirth of Toscano as a product on its own was only achieved as recently as 2006 when the brand and its factories were acquired by the Maccaferri Group of Bologna. Quickly following this transfer, the brand has seen new life both in Italy and abroad. It has introduced new successful products. It is forging international distribution agreements.

Reasonably, there could be no better Italian city to host Toscano headquarters than Rome. Rome is Italy, but it also belongs to the world. The location of Tocano’s headquarters are emblematic of this - being at the heart of the city: a five minute walk from both the Italian Chamber of Deputies and - in another direction - from the Pantheon, a Roman building of such splendor that it belongs to everyone.

Like No Other
“Like no other cigar;” this description of a Toscano might seem hyperbole, but it isn’t. In a jaded world where “unique” and “quality” have become devalued, both still apply to this Italian cigar.

To begin with, the very structure and leaf of a Toscano stand alone. Long or short it is made without a binder, and the wrapper and filler are of mono-origin: the Toscano is pure Kentucky leaf. It has no blend, no other tobacco is added.

By tradition, the Kentucky is also grown in Italy with a particular Kentucky-Italian taste all its own. Although now, due to rising demand, additional high end Kentucky leaf is purchased from the USA, Toscano cigars as a family are still 80% home grown leaf.

Toscano cigars are a fermented, well-aged product; more “unique” attributes to this products stand-alone personality. Tradition, the core theme of what makes a Toscano so different, calls for the bales of Kentucky leaf to be first drenched for half an hour in de-mineralized water at a temperature of 20o C. After being left to drain for a day, the leaf begins its fermentation process. It is then stored for two weeks at a controlled temperature of 60o C.

This first fermentation process is arrested when the leaf passes through a dryer. The second fermentation phase follows, a period of four to five days. Afterwards, the Kentucky is allowed to “rest” for an entire month before being sorted or cut for manufacturing.

Seasoning continues even after the cigars are finished, the great majority being packaged individually in cellophane. Depending on the brand, this final aging inside the cellophane can take from four months up to an entire year.

The best selling entry among Toscanos, the Antico, requires a full 12 months of storage at the factory before its distribution to points of sale. Because the cigars continue to ferment inside the cellophane wrap, as they come to requisite maturity the cellophane can itself take on an aged, yellowish tint that in no way indicates a problem with the cigar it holds: quite to the contrary.

There are upwards to 20 extensions to the Toscano brand family, including the popular Toscanello entries. The Toscanellos are actually half-sized Toscanos with the girth and length to be somewhat reminiscent of a robusto. Toscanellos usually are packed five to a board box.

The Toscanello half of a regular aged Antica, has a strong following now in the Italian market. Similar-sized Toscanellos are offered in a range of four flavors. The flavored Toscanello are available as Aroma Caffe, Aroma Fondente, and as Aromas Grappa and Anice.

Yet another distinction is in the aroma processing of these flavored Toscanello entries: the flavoring is carefully brushed onto the entire tobacco leaf before it is manipulated thus integrating tastes. This process is thought to be wholly unique to the Toscanello production of flavored cigars.

Great success has attended the introductions of the Toscanella Speciale and of the flavored extensions. While the Toscano family as a whole held 80% of the Italian cigar market a few years back, it now controls 86% of cigar sales in the nation. True, this sales growth comes at a time when Italy and the USA are the only major cigar markets with any expansion. Nevertheless it attests to the abiding loyalty of consumers to the brand.

The Toscano remains a true child of Tuscany, where it was created and where it is still for the main part manufactured. The central Toscano factory is in a new, cigar-dedicated plant in Luca. Here, the leading Toscano brands are made, including some prized hand-rolled limited editions (for this, try finding a Toscano Il Moro, 23 cm long, sold individually in tobacco-leaf-shaped wooden boxes). There are some 30 rollers at the Luca factory in addition to the cigar making machinery used for the majority of production. Toscano flavored cigars, all in the smaller sized Toscanello family range, are made separately at another factory in Cava de Tirreni in the south, in Compania.

The current goal for Toscano management is to free the cigars from this golden cage of domestic popularity. Exports, still a relatively small percentage of sum production, are a major theme at Toscano headquarters, and will be an ever-growing focus in future.

The brand is already established in such key markets as Germany, France, Spain, Austria, Belgium, Greece, Australia, and Duty Free. It has been introduced in Lebanon, Israel, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Ireland, and Croatia, among other markets. According to the company, the export regions in focus for the near future of Toscano are Eastern Europe and the Near East.

The Toscano might be handled internationally as a niche cigar, but increasingly it is also emerging as the “alternative cigar.” A product so different gains a cult following. It is something different for the new cigar smoker to try. Being the only cigar of its kind - with a distinct personality and character - it too can attract the individualist consumer in any market.

Tobacco Products International - Quarter 2, 2008
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