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Quarter 2, 2009

The Rebirth
Jamaican Cigars

by Evan Dashevsky

Barrington House Premium Jamaican Cigars is looking to revitalize Jamaica’s once-mighty cigar tradition.

When people think of smokable goods from the Caribbean paradise of Jamaica, premium hand-rolled cigars are rarely the first thing to come to mind. This wasn’t always the case. After the Cuban revolution, and following a President Kennedy-era embargo that lasts to this day, Jamaica was, for a time, the source for premium cigars to the massive US market just to the north. But following a succession of hurricanes and rising labor costs, much of the Caribbean cigar industry moved on to the Dominican Republic and other nations in the tropical neighborhood. In 2001 only 686,000 sticks made their way into the US, with a trickle finding their way to Cuban-enamored countries in Europe. The nation’s most famous title, Royal Jamaica, ceased production in 2000 and brands that utilized the term “Jamaican” in their title were produced elsewhere. But there is one Jamaican manufacturer that has endured and is still in the mix. Barrington House Premium Jamaican Cigars remains the great hope for Jamaican cigar culture.

Barrington House Premium Jamaican Cigars arose from the ashes of Cuban ex-pat Jimmy Chang’s Combined Tobacco Jamaica Company (the Chinese-descended Chang was also the blender for the Cuban Montecristo cigar before the revolution, as well as doing private label sticks for Raphael Gonzalez and Lew Rothman). In the early ’90s, Barrington Adams, a Jamaican native and cigar expert who had prospered in New York City real estate took a trip back to the Caribbean in search of some quality Jamaican cigars to bring back for fellow aficionados with whom he would meet at business functions. He found the remnants of the once-strong Combined Tobacco Company in shambles. “Combined Tobacco, which was only one of the five Jamaican cigar-makers on the island that was still kind of around, was in a dilapidated state. I called the factory looking for cigars and they said ‘well we have some cigars, but we don’t really make them anymore because business is so challenging. A lot of people are leaving the island because labor costs are too expensive. It’s hard to source tobacco.’ But I decided to go down and see the factory. My team met with the factory manager who told us what happened and how the workers haven’t been paid for six months, and Mr. Chang was disabled by a stroke. I knew investors in the US where I could source funds. I thought this will be a nice way to give something back to Jamaica. It’s both about the pride of making a good product and about giving back. Even today I reinvest 100% of the income that’s generated from the local Jamaican sales back into the factory—I don’t take a dime for myself. It’s my way of giving back.”

With the help of Managing Director, James Lawlor, a marketing professional and joint venturer with Adams in NY real estate investment, and experienced factory general manager and master blender George Campbell, who apprenticed under Jimmy Chang, Adams helped turn the business around, now under the name Barrington House Premium Cigars. The company currently employs 72 people at its Kingston facility and produces two mn sticks per year. While the US is their main market, they’ve been expanding into Canada, Germany, and to various Asian and duty-free markets.

Barrington House is currently the only major producers of Jamaican manufactured premium cigars. However, many companies still brand their cigars “Jamaican,” even though the connection might be little more than some Jamaican leaf in the filler, and sometimes the Jamaican link may be even more tenuous than that. “The first thing I ask when I meet different distributors or retailers is ‘do you have any Jamaican tobacco in your cigars?’ You can’t really call a cigar a Jamaican cigar without Jamaican tobacco, or, really, without it being manufactured in Jamaica. You wouldn’t say you had a Cuban cigar that wasn’t manufactured in Cuba. The Jamaican government is trying to protect its industries and go after people who say something is Jamaican product if it’s not made in Jamaica. Meanwhile, even though we’re the only genuine thing, we have competition from people who use illusion and the name ‘Jamaica.’”

Adams heads down to Jamaica many times throughout the year, but runs much of the company from his base in New York. “I am very involved in everything that happens with the company. Nothing goes to market without my approval. I buy all the combination filler leaf from my office in the US. My factory manager initially creates different blends we discuss. I fly down or he sends them up and I taste it. We smoke it. If the product is good, we’ll send it out to some of our wholesalers, and a select tasting panel. If they give us some positive feedback then it comes out on market. I try to make it consistent by not changing traditional blends. Consistency and quality is a big issue with me.”

While Barrington House is the lone premium cigar manufacturer in Jamaica, tobacco leaf, mostly from Clarendon, Jamaica , is not a big export for the country. Adams doesn’t get too involved with the growing the leaf which is mostly culled from tenant farmers, some of whom he has subsidized for many years, around the island. “Tobacco has been grown in Jamaica since the Arawak Indians started growing it hundreds of years ago. I don’t want to re-invent the wheel. If something’s not broken, I’m not going to fix it,” explains Adams. “I’m mainly focused on production and quality control. Let them bring us the leaf. We’ll look at the leaf, sort it, smoke cigars out of it. If the leaf is good and meets our qualifications, then we’ll buy it, age it, and process it for future production.”

While most of Jamaica’s leaf production is used for filler, Barrington House has been able to put together two lines of all-Jamaican puros: the Santa Cruz and the new ultra premium and more robust Corona Grande. For the non-puros, Barrington mostly utilizes Mexican binder with a Connecticut or Cuban-seed wrapper. The filler is all Jamaican aged long leaf or blended with Dominican tobaccos—that was the original blend of the Jimmy Chang’s Jamaican Macanudo, the original mark owned by Hunters and Frankau (note: Barrington House cigars is not associated with Macanudo, a trademark that is now solely owned by General Cigar corp.)

Jamaican tobaccos are often noted for their mild qualities, which is good for many North American palates, as well as Asian markets who never knew about Jamaican cigars “Many of them have never even met a Jamaican person before,” jokes Adams. But Barrington has a presence in several European countries, notably Germany, where connoisseurs have more seasoned palates and, since long-trained on Cuban tobacco, are looking for a stronger tastes. Barrington House also offers two Jamaican cigars featuring Cuban wrapper and a Cuban and Jamaican filler blend: The Pride of Jamaica Crystals and Montalvo Tubulars lines.

Additionally, the company also offers a line of hand-rolled, naturally flavored cigars: the Harvill, which comes in three flavors: Rum, Passion Rum (mixed with passion fruit), and Vanilla. “They’ve been doing very well. It’s been on the market since 1999 with the different flavors. Very receptive—especially Passion because people have not tasted passion fruit before. It’s very tantalizing.” In total Barrington is producing and marketing worldwide ten brands now which can all be seen at barringtonhouseinternational.com.

While the notion of the Jamaican cigar is new to many consumers, the island actually has a strong cigar-producing culture that, due to the influences of nature and government, has been hit hard. “Many of the people who were in the factory before I came are still there. The same rollers. At one point there were 600 rollers working in the Jamaican factories. The work force is there,” comments Adams. “Some people say we have to re-teach Jamaica to make cigars, but really we haven’t stopped. I want the legacy of cigar excellence to continue. I want to employ people. And give something back.”

Tobacco Products International - Quarter 2, 2009
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