By Stephen A. Ross
Nicaragua’s first cigar company, Joya de Nicaragua, has seen a lot in its 47-year history. Since Simon Camacho and Juan Francisco Bermejo established the company in 1968, Joya de Nicaragua has experienced almost as tumultuous a history as Nicaragua has seen in the last half-century.
Joya de Nicaragua cigars were served at official White House dinners during the Nixon administration and became a celebrated brand in the United States throughout the 1970s. In the 1980s, the U.S. embargoed Nicaraguan products during the country’s bloody, decade-long civil war, and in battles for control of Esteli, the Joya de Nicaragua factory suffered considerable damage.
Despite the war and the embargo, Dr. Alejandro Martinez-Cuenca, a trade minister in the Sandinista government, helped keep the cigar factory running and the brand alive by opening European markets. Following Nicaragua’s 1990 election and peaceful transfer of power, the U.S. ended its trade embargo and Martinez-Cuenca, who purchased the company in 1994, began a quest to reacquire American distribution rights, which he achieved three years later. Joya de Nicaragua cigars were once again available in the U.S. Beginning at roughly the same time as the reintroduction of the Joya de Nicaragua brand, Nicaraguan cigars started experiencing a tremendous surge in popularity throughout the U.S. There were nearly 120 million Nicaraguan cigars exported to the U.S. in 2014, according to data collected by the Cigar Association of America. That’s nearly four times the export numbers of 2003.
It’s impossible to ignore the Nicaraguan manufacturers’ impact on the global cigar scene in recent years. Manufacturers known primarily for cigars produced in other countries have established or are in the process of establishing Nicaraguan extensions of their most popular brands and are investing money to open or increase facilities in the country. New cigar factories seemingly pop up every day in Esteli, the hub of the Central American country’s cigar industry, thanks to the rising demand for Nicaraguan tobacco.
The old man of the Nicaraguan cigar industry, Joya de Nicaragua has been among the leaders in the country’s tobacco renaissance. With that resurgence, the company has found its own fountain of youth. The pioneers of Nicaraguan tobacco have made some changes in the past few years to streamline their operations and remain competitive in the 38 countries where Joya de Nicaragua cigars are sold. Its factory, which employs 300, was renovated and, perhaps the biggest change, the company’s management was restructured.
While remaining the CEO of the company, Martinez-Cuenca turned over Joya de Nicaragua’s daily management to his son, Juan Ignacio Martinez. Martinez earned a master’s degree in management and economics and worked for the company for six years before being named Joya de Nicaragua’s president in August 2013.
At the same time, the company announced the addition of Ivan Gutierrez and Carlos Zuniga as deputy marketing director and creative director, respectively. The mission for the trio of 30-somethings has been to revitalize the Joya de Nicaragua brand while paying attention to its rich history and the legacy of cigar knowledge that the company has accumulated over the past 47 years.
Juan Martinez, Dr. Alejandro Martinez-Cuenca and Alex Martinez
“A lot of people who started with Joya de Nicaragua in 1968 are still working with the company,” says Martinez, sitting in the factory’s conference room and surrounded by mementos of the company’s past, including a 1972 vintage box of original Joya de Nicaragua cigars that was once owned by actor Dean Jones. “A few years back we realized being a legacy brand with 47 years of experience using Nicaraguan tobacco was part of our competitive advantage in the market. The new blood is gathering the ideas, the experience and the knowledge of the people who have been and continue to be here and making them work better with modern technology. What you see today has been the result of the organic evolution of a group of people who have dedicated their lives to this industry and who have responded to changes in the market.”
While he doesn’t wish to share details, Martinez says the company has changed the way it procures, stores, ages and ferments tobacco, including planting its own tobacco for the first time.
“Hopefully we’ll have our first crop by the end of the year,” he says. “We hope that we will be able to expand that area for our company. Prices go up much quicker for manufacturers than for the consumer. It is especially harder since Nicaraguan tobacco has become much more popular and the prices for it continue to go up.”The company has also devised a production management system to ensure production peaks and valleys are limited, helping the company more consistently reach its goal of making 20,000 handmade cigars each day.
“The more efficient you are, the better your cigars are,” Martinez explains. “You have to have the controls—both financial and operational—to guarantee that you protect your investment and that your cigars are made with quality and consistency. This is a premium handrolled product. The quality of the product is dependent on the ability of our employees to make the same cigar day in and day out, and to make it properly. Efficiency ultimately affects the price at which the product is sold. You need to be a good company internally to ensure that the consumer smokes a quality cigar at an affordable price.”
Indeed, the most expensive cigar Joya de Nicaragua has ever produced was its limited-edition Cuarto Cinco, released in 2013, which had an MSRP between $13 and $14 before local and state taxes. Most Joya de Nicaragua cigars sell in the $8 to $10 range, irrespective of state and local taxes, with its latest release, Joya Red, falling in the $5 to $7 range.
While the company has become known for producing affordable cigars, it is also synonymous with Nicaragua’s reputation for producing strong cigars. In 2001, Joya de Nicaragua released Antano 1970. One of the first full-bodied cigars to enter the market, Antano 1970 was the result of Martinez-Cuenca’s quest to replicate the character of the cigars Joya de Nicaragua produced throughout the 1970s. For many, the cigar was an instant hit, and it remains one of Joya de Nicaragua’s best sellers 14 years after its launch.
“It’s one of those legacy brands that continues to grow every year,” Martinez says. “We’ve not changed anything about that cigar, and it has a very captive audience. To have 14 years of longevity without doing any changes to the cigar is very remarkable. In such a competitive and dynamic market where so many cigars come out every year, to have the old brand still gaining the attention of the consumer is something that we feel very honored and proud about.”
But perhaps Joya de Nicaragua has been something of a victim of Antano 1970’s success. The cigar and the release of the stronger Antano Dark Corojo and the almost as strong CyB have given a large segment of consumers a false impression that Joya de Nicaragua makes only spicy and powerful Nicaraguan puros—cigars made from only Nicaraguan tobacco.
“It has happened to us quite often that we will go to a store and offer somebody a cigar and they will automatically say that it will be too strong for them,” Martinez shares. “Newer smokers might be intimidated by the reputation that Joya de Nicaragua has for producing only strong cigars. We want Joya de Nicaragua to have a wider acceptance with U.S. consumers, so when they think of Joya, they think of it as being more than just a full-bodied cigar.”
The company’s original line, now known as Classico, is a mild cigar with an Ecuadorean-grown Connecticut wrapper. Its Cabinetta Serie features two wrappers—Ecuadorean Connecticut and a Nicaragua Habano Criollo—to give smokers a mild to medium taste. Its Rosalones line offers a middle-of-the-road medium strength. Yet many people associate Joya de Nicaragua only with strength.
To change the market’s perception, Joya de Nicaragua released Joya Red in 2014. A Nicaraguan puro, Joya Red was specifically designed to entice smokers to try a Joya de Nicaragua cigar. It offers smokers medium strength with nutty and peppery flavor notes. Packaged in 20-count boxes, Joya Red is available in four sizes: Short Churchill (4 3/4 x 48), Robusto (5 1/4 x 50), Canonazo (5 1/2 x 54) and Toro (6 x 52).
“Joya Red offers the richness of the Nicaraguan flavor with 100 percent Nicaraguan tobacco from the middle to lower primings,” Martinez explains. “There is no ligero in the blend. You get a medium-bodied cigar with a great flavor; it’s a very pleasurable smoke. So far it’s been very successful. At our latest sales meetings, our sales reps have been sharing that they can’t get enough of the cigars because the consumers are asking the retailers to bring more of them into their stores.”
With bright and colorful packaging, the cigars stand out inside retailers’ humidors, which are still dominated by the earth-tone boxes that have been traditionally used in the cigar industry. Joya de Nicaragua also unveiled a new slogan—“Classy as always but more fun”—to accompany Joya Red’s release and to serve notice to the rest of the industry where Nicaragua’s oldest cigar company is headed in the next few years.
“Our core will always be Nicaraguan tobacco,” Martinez says. “That’s what we were born with, grew up with, and that’s what we’re good at, but we will also explore making cigars with tobaccos from other origins. We would like to experiment with Nicaraguan tobacco in a different way, too.
“Joya de Nicaragua should continue to be recognized as the authentic and original Nicaraguan cigar company, but it should also be considered as something of a new company. Retailers and consumers can continue to relate to Joya de Nicaragua as a company that’s trustworthy and produces consistent cigars, but they can also have as much excitement about our future as they have confidence in our past. In an industry where people always want to associate their cigars with Nicaragua, what better brand is there to convey the complexity of Nicaraguan tobacco than the oldest company to have done it?”
For a complete listing of Joya de Nicaragua cigars, visit joyacigars.com.