The third generation Dominican tobacco grower.
By Jon Shakill
Originally founded in 1956 by Ramon Rodriguez, Tabacalera El Artista has grown into a significant tobacco-growing operation in the Dominican Republic. Located in Tamboril just a few hundred meters from factories like La Aurora and La Flor Dominicana, El Artista has made a name for itself among producers and manufacturers.
With the succession of the company to current patriarch Osvaldo Rodriguez, the factory has started to make a name for itself among consumers as well, with the introduction of the Exactus cigar line. Now the third generation of the family-owned company, with Ram Rodriguez heavily involved, is aggressively moving forward with innovative approaches to a traditional business.
From employing agronomists who experiment with new hybrids and strains of tobacco, to constantly testing new blends, El Artista is evolving. They have even started to emphasize social responsibility and labor health and safety. As Ram explains in the following interview, Tabacalera El Artista is extending its roots deeper into the influential Dominican tobacco-producing economy.
Jon Shakill: I read that Tabacalera El Artista was started in 1956 and is a family-owned business. How has the company been able to succeed for so long?
Ram Rodriguez: The company was founded by my grandfather, Ramon Rodriguez, who used to be a roller before he started the company. He started with a very small warehouse, manufacturing locally for people in the town. After that, he started growing more and more and started selling to the whole country in the Dominican Republic. Then my father took control of the company and we started selling internationally—first in the United States; then after the cigar boom, we started focusing on Europe. Now we are focusing on the United States again.
The key points of the success of the company have been the consistency in our work philosophy since the time the company was founded, and the quality of the products. The consistency of the tobacco fermentation and the cigar making are very important. These methods have been passed down from my grandfather to my father and now to me.
JS: Who is the current president?
RR: It is family-owned, and my father, Osvaldo Rodriguez, is the current president. He is my primary manager and controls the decision making and all the operations. I work very closely with him. Since my introduction to the company, my father has focused more on the tobacco-growing projects, expanding our domestic and foreign operations. Both of us together have been able to completely manage the production from farming to distribution.
JS: What is your role with the company? What do you do day-to-day?
RR: I have two main roles with the company, which are handling the customer relations and also overseeing the quality control of our production operations. I am responsible for responding to the customers and making sure they receive the products on time with the quality and specifications they require. I also manage the supply chain, quality control and logistics. I am responsible for day-to-day oversight of the production line to make sure things are running smoothly and efficiently.
JS: How much of your business is dedicated to producing tobacco and manufacturing cigars for other companies?
RR: We currently manage around 60 different products, both for private labels and for our own brands. This includes for the local market as well as the U.S., European and Asian markets. We handle high-volume products for wholesalers and retailers as well as boutique brands with limited production for small and medium enterprises. That’s only in the cigar business, but in tobacco overall, we also manage about 20 other products.
For cigars, about 65 percent of our operation is dedicated to manufacturing for private labels, and the remaining 35 percent is manufacturing our own brands. We produce more than 4 million cigars per year just for private labels, and every day the numbers are increasing.
JS: Can you tell us more about your quality-control process?
RR: In every single step of the products moving through our facilities, people are responsible for checking the quality. After the cigars are made by our rollers, we have supervisors who check every single cigar before moving them to our quality-control department. In that department, they do trials on the draw of the cigars, and the cigars go through a smoking panel in a very formal quality- control process. After that, in the aging room, we take some samples to make sure that the cigars are doing fine. In the packaging department, they are also responsible for making sure the cigars are perfect.
JS: The Exactus line is the primary brand for Tabacalera El Artista; what makes Exactus cigars special?
RR: The development of this brand has been my father’s dream for many years. For this project, we took as much time as needed to make sure all the details were taken care of, in order to distinguish this cigar. We use only our best tobacco, which is personally supervised by my father and me from the planting of the seeds to the fermentation. We use a unique fermentation process that was handed down by my grandfather. The line comes in three different styles: the Clasico, a mild to medium-bodied cigar with a Connecticut wrapper and grown in Ecuador; the Maduro, which is full-bodied with the wrapper grown in the Dominican Republic; and the Habano, a medium- bodied cigar with a Habano wrapper grown in Ecuador. These have been available for about two years now.
JS: So you use a combination of tobaccos grown on different farms, in combination with tobacco grown on the Tabacalera El Artista farm?
RR: Yes, with the idea of providing a distinctive blend, we use tobacco from our farm in the Dominican Republic as well as from other regions such as Nicaragua, Ecuador and Pennsylvania. This tobacco comes together to create harmonized blends that can satisfy the palate of anyone who tries the cigars.
JS: How large is the farm at Tabacalera El Artista?
RR: Here in the Dominican, we have around 900 acres on our tobacco-growing plantation. We have some special fields where we try out hybrid seeds, and we have been developing some new projects along with the Dominican Tobacco Institute. We are always trying new methods to try to develop a new specimen. We also grow about 350 acres of tobacco in Ecuador, just for the wrappers. Additionally, we have about 200 employees working at the factory in the Dominican.
JS: How do you differentiate the quality of the tobacco between the different leaves that are grown from one year to the next?
RR: It’s very, very complicated, and I could spend the whole day just talking about that alone. This is even more complicated than actually making the cigars. The main part is taking very good control of the soil. Every year, after the tobacco season is over, we need to plant different types of seeds in the soil to recover the nitrogen that was lost because of the tobacco growing.
It’s very difficult to get a very precise consistency of the tobacco leaves every single year. It doesn’t only depend on how you treat and cure the leaves; it also depends on the temperature, how rainy the season is and many other factors. You also have to take very good care during the curing process—you have to lose all the moisture from the tobacco but without losing all the essential oils. You also have to take very good care during the fermentation and the classification.
JS: Are there any special techniques used by Tabacalera El Artista in the growing of tobacco or making of cigars, or is it all traditional?
RR: We use many different techniques; some of them are very traditional, and some are new ways that we’ve been developing with our team. We have agronomists in the fields all the time working on new techniques. In the curing area, we have people with a lot of experience, and we are always open to trying new things. When someone has a new idea, I’m usually very excited about it, and we start spending some time on it.
One special technique I can mention is that we’ve been curing binder tobacco in wine or rum barrels, with a natural blend of fruits and wines. This gives the cigars some very distinctive notes, and this product has been very popular.
JS: Are there any plans to expand into new lines in addition to Exactus?
RR: We just introduced a new blend of the Exactus line at the recent IPCPR industry trade show. It is a Dominican puro that has been resting in our aging room for a few months. We made this cigar using seeds that have never been used before, giving it a unique aroma and flavor.
JS: How did the blends for Exactus come into existence? Were you looking for something specific when you started, or did they just happen to turn out the way they did?
RR: We always have a bank of samples at the warehouse, and my master blender always likes to create new types of products with all of the tobacco that we receive here. What we did was start by trying some of these blends that we had in our reserve. Then we started adding some different characteristics that we were looking for. It took us about one year to decide what was going to be the final blends for the products.
JS: How long does it usually take to produce an El Artista cigar, from the fields all the way to the box?
RR: It all depends on the products, but it usually takes at least two and a half years to smoke a cigar from seeds that were planted today. We also have tobacco resting in the warehouse that has been sitting there for more than five years, which we will use for future projects.
JS: Are there any special tips or tricks you can give cigar smokers, based on your experience?
RR: The best advice is not to be afraid of trying new things. Even if you think you may not like a cigar at first, just give it a try. It helps a lot in defining your taste profile and appreciating cigars better.
Also, take the time to develop the palate as much as possible, and learn how to know the flavors that every single leaf of the cigar gives. Once you do that, you can be considered an authentic cigar expert.
JS: What are the plans for the future of the company?
RR: Our company never stops evolving, both in business strategy and also physically. In physical terms, we have acquired some new facilities and equipment, with the intention of doubling our tobacco processing, with integration with new plantations in Ecuador and here in the Dominican. On a strategic level, we have focused on a plan of social responsibility and labor health and safety.
Jon Shakill: Ram, thank you for your time.
Ram Rodriguez: My pleasure, thank you.
Tabacalera El Artista has over 900 acres of farmland in the Dominican Republic.
For more information about
Tabacalera El Artista and Exactus cigars, visit http://elartista.com.do
photos Courtesy of Tabacalera El Artista