Cigars are a pretty simple tobacco delivery system. They come in dozens of shapes and sizes, from demure Rothschilds to Castro-size Presidentes, but all of them comprise three parts: the filler (the tobacco at the center), the binder (which encircles the filler) and the wrapper, a single thin leaf around the outside of the stick. But balancing the flavors among these parts by blending different tobaccos is what makes a good cigar more than just a cigar. By itself the Kaua‘i-grown Habana2000 is faintly floral and sweet. “Like apple pie,” says Drent, “but without the crust.” To “pepper it up,” he says, Nicaraguan ligero might be added to the filler or Connecticut Shade used for the wrapper. The precise ratio of ingredients in a given blend is a trade secret, says Drent, but what we’re smoking now, from his “Island Prince” line, is about 80 percent Kaua‘i-grown filler, Ecuadorean-grown Connecticut Shade wrapper and “a little something else.” It’s a tasty cigar with nutty, caramel notes, medium body and an even burn. It has a gentle start, slow build and smooth finish without becoming harsh or drying.
For someone coming out of the coffee world, where purity is often the ideal, the practice of blending is a bitter pill to swallow. Still, when Drent was researching tobacco cultivation back in 2004, he found a 1917 report from the Hawaii Agricultural Experiment Station summarizing the results of a three-year experiment in growing cigar-quality tobacco on the Big Island. “The tobacco grown … in the Hamakua district on the island of Hawaii,” it concluded, “has been pronounced by experts in the trade as equal in quality to that produced in any other tropical tobaccogrowing country.” It went on to suggest that a globally competitive tobacco industry be created in Hawai‘i.
That never happened, but the report got Drent’s ambitious and restless mind going. Sometime around 2006 a dream took shape: A cigar made entirely from Hawai‘i-grown tobacco, cured, fermented, rolled, banded and boxed in the Islands. He would call it the “Grand Ali‘i,” and it would be his holy grail, the cigar to put Hawai‘i on the smoking map.
He’s been at it for the past three years and devoted two crops to creating the Grand Ali‘i, but the effort has been an “extreme disappointment. A flop. The cigar just doesn’t have it.” He intends to keep trying, though, despite the many hurdles. For one thing, he’ll have to experiment with different tobacco varieties in different microclimates. He’s already leased sixteen acres near Lïhue and is looking for a plot on the dry leeward side, “a really sundrenched, blistering, brutal environment that will produce a hot, spicy tobacco.” Bringing the cigar-making process to Hawai‘i is a whole separate can of worms: The expertise and the comparatively cheap labor pool needed to process tobacco doesn’t exist here, at least not yet. The State of Hawai‘i’s burdensome 50 percent tobacco tax is no help, either, when Drent must compete with cheaper imports from Latin America.
But should the day come that a 100 percent Hawai‘i-grown cigar is superior to the blends that the Kaua‘i Cigar Co. is making now, Drent will be ready. He’s got the bands printed and the boxes assembled; all he needs are the cigars to fill them.
“They make great cigars in Cuba, and all their tobacco’s grown in one region. They did it somehow. There’s gotta be a way. God knows if I can figure it out … but I’m going to figure it out.”
To arrange a tour of the Kaua‘i Cigar Co., visit www.kauaicigar.com.