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Text by Reinhold C. Widmayer, Photos: Studio1791, Starky R. Arias
Published: Issue 1/2013 – March 2013

Litto Gomez and his wife Ines Lorenzo Gomez made the bold move into the cigar business in 1994 – without any experience. Today La Flor Dominicana is one of the most highly regarded brands.

A football match with friends and a good cigar is a priori a delight for many aficionados with a love of sport. Litto Gomez, on the other hand, finds himself in a quandary at matches between certain teams: “Spain versus Uruguay, that’s the ultimate dilemma,” he laughs. Born in Galicia in Spain to a Portuguese father, Litto grew up in Uruguay. “These are all great soccer nations. When they play against each other, I find myself split into two.” His love of Spain runs deep, and Spanish music and Spanish food give him goose-pimples. “My blood is Spanish, but I also feel huge affection for Uruguay, where I spent my childhood. That’s the happiest time for us all, isn’t it?”

Litto Gomez can still remember the very first cigar he smoked, in 1975. Together with his brother José, he had emigrated to Toronto two years previously and was earning his living working as a bus boy. “We had had a hard evening … not enough staff … a full house. I had to stand in as a waiter, which made me very nervous since I hardly spoke a word of English. But it all went well, and after the last satisfied guests had left the restaurant, we celebrated. The barkeeper gave me a Montecristo No. 2. I smoked it on my way home through the snow – a wonderful experience!”

At Gunpoint

After five long Canadian winters, the time was ripe for a change of climate. The brothers set off for Florida, where they first began trading in spirits and then opened up a pawnshop. Litto Gomez developed a passion for jewelry and gold, and he acquired the knowledge he needed to finally run a jeweler’s store in North Miami Beach. This chapter of his life, however, ended suddenly – at gunpoint. The two robbers were never caught and the US$400,000-worth of jewelry stolen was never found. “Such a stroke of fate can bring a sudden change to your life, but it can also open new doors and perspectives. That’s how it was with me. It was only through this that I found my vocation as a cigar maker. And today, I am thankful for every hour that I can spend in the Dominican Republic and devote to my passion, tobacco.”

International breakthrough

Litto Gomez and Ines Lorenzo-Gomez are proud of what they have achieved together in the 19 years since the robbery. Their La Flor Dominicana brand is one of the most highly regarded in the trade and is well on the way to succeeding on the international markets. Germany was the first country to which LFD exported. Distribution partner Philipp Schuster has been selling Litto’s cigars since 1996, with increasing enthusiasm, as he says. “La Flor Dominicana cigars stand for a strong full fla-vored smoke, as preferred by keen connoisseurs today. Litto has been producing best quality cigars for years; I see a great future for the brand.” Cigars like the LFD Ligero Cabinet Oscuro Nat-ural series are also becoming increasingly popular at Zurich’s Tabak-Lädeli. Proprietor René Wagner, famous for his at times uncompromisingly critical attitude, says outright: “A Dominican cigar that doesn’t taste of Domingo. It is simply good.”

Since Litto Gomez exhibited at the Dortmund Inter-tabac trade fair last year, he has been receiving more and more orders from more and more countries: Holland, France, Belgium, Poland … “Things are moving fast,” says the athletic, slender cigar-maker confidently. “I was recently in Belgium and was impressed by the knowledge and the openness, above all of younger cigar lovers. Many of them – and this I found very surprising – knew our cigars. We had long and exciting discussions about taste, which after all is a highly disputed issue.” In two years, Ines and Litto want their brand to be represented on all the major markets of the world.

The great Cigar Boom

Many cigar makers can look back on a family tobacco tradition over many generations, while Litto and Ines took a leap in the dark in 1994 without ever having had any experience in the cigar business. “We first had to learn everything from scratch,” recalls Litto. “It wasn’t always easy. We must have destroyed more than 50,000 cigars before we sold a single one.” He was supported with advice and assistance by Cigar Master Jochy Blanco, who Litto refers to as his brother and friend. Blanco even sent his own supervisors to train Litto’s staff on Saturdays. Litto Gomez also obtained a few insider tips at various social gatherings of cigar-makers. While the latter would try to outdo each other with their specialist knowledge and skills, he hung onto every word of the new information. His cigars, which in the first two years he still called Los Libertadores, were mild, pallid and somewhat boring – in other words, typically Dominican cigars for the time. However, that was soon to change radically …
At that time, an additional challenge arose in the form of the start of the cigar boom, when people with pockets full of cash would suddenly turn up and pay big money for absolutely any tobacco quality. In those days, Litto and Ines employed 14 rollers. Practically overnight, new factories opened up in the neighborhood with up to 70 cigar rollers. “It was tough,” recalls Ines. “Fortunately, our supplier didn’t leave us in the lurch; we were practically at the mercy of the free interplay of market forces.” Since 1997, La Flor Dominicana has been cultivating its own tobacco at a wonderful finca in La Canela, while production moved to Tamboril back in 1996.

The secret of the Tobaccos an Blends

The purchase of the farm in La Canela to the north-west of Santiago de los Caballeros was the basis for the cultivation of the tobaccos so typical of La Flor Dominicana. In his search for full-flavored stronger blends, Litto Gomez traveled the cigar countries of Central America and came to the conclusion that his specific ideas could not be achieved with the tobaccos that were available on the open market in the Dominican Republic at the time. “The soils in the Dominican Republic are top-class. However, it became clear that we would have to cultivate and process the tobacco differently in order to achieve the results that I had in mind,” says Litto, drawing on his cigar and blowing the smoke thoughtfully into the air. “The only way, therefore, was to produce our own tobacco. That was the best decision that we ever made.”

Piloto Cubano was then and is still today Litto Gomez’s favorite. “It has plenty of acids and oils, giving it a very full flavor.” At the same time, he also cultivates criollo and, for three years now, pelo d’oro, which translates as golden hair. Together with the bought-in tobacco (mainly from Nicaragua and Ecuador), he thus has a large range to choose from for the different blends. Most of the tobaccos, 70%, processed by La Flor Dominicana come from the company’s own farm. It is ultimately these that give the cigars their unmistakable taste profile and hence the brand identity. And what is in fact the true secret of his tobacco? Litto laughs, shakes his head and discloses out of politeness, “What matters is making a sacrifice of the yield. If you set out six plants per square meter, the result is different than if you only plant three. And if, of the 16 leaves of the plant, you remove six prematurely, the remaining leaves get more nutrients. As a tobacco farmer, you’re faced with the decision: do I want a lot of tobacco or do I want the best tobacco?” To begin with, Litto’s agronomist didn’t have a high opinion of this philosophy. Throughout his entire professional life, his aim had been to optimize the yield, until Litto made it clear to him that “we don’t produce tobacco to sell. It’s only grown for our own cigars, and so we need the best that the soil will provide.” Another decisive factor for the producer is that every intervention the plant needs must take place at exactly the right time. “This means a huge amount of work, but it’s worth it in the end,” he reveals.

The unique Innovations

The La Flor Dominicana brand family consists of a number of differently blended series. The first creation was what was known as the Premium Line, a cigar with a Connecticut Shade wrapper and Dominican tobaccos. This was followed by the LFD 2000 series with a Cameroon wrapper and Dominican tobaccos, the Ligero and Double Ligero series with an Ecuador wrapper and finally the Air Bender with a wrapper from Nicaragua.

However, the true innovations were two formats, or rather two cigar shapes, for whose development Litto can claim responsibility. At least in Europe, it’s not so well known that both the El Jocko and the Chisel were Litto Gomez’s inventions. The Jocko is a conical cigar with a thin rounded head that gets thicker towards the belly and finally ends in a slightly less thick foot. It was launched on the market in 1997 and made a major contribution to the reputation of the La Flor Dominicana brand in the USA. While the Jacko was deliberately designed in this way, the Chisel – the first cigar shape ever to be patented – was more of an accident. It has a wedge shaped head, just like a chisel. To quote Litto: “I was riding through the finca and chewing peacefully on my cigar. When I dismounted, I looked at the cigar and thought, wow, that looks interest-ing. It also felt pleasant in the mouth.” Ten months later, the first Chisel production was ready, but the patent document, in contrast, took four years. Today, the company makes almost 300,000 Chisels a year. Recently, they have been available in attractive aluminum tubes, at least in the new Oro cigar line, and the shape alone is enough to catch the eye.

Uncompromising Quality

Ines and Litto refuse to make any compromises concerning the integrity of the La Flor Dominicana brand. This applies to both the production and the distribution of their brand. It has always been important for them to work together with the best brick and mortar retailers. And they would never market cigars that were in any way not up to the expected quality. A number of retailers and consumers may still remember a shortage of the LFD Maduros at the beginning of 2010. The reason was simply that the wrappers were too light for Litto’s taste. For four months, he refused to supply any of these popular cigars. “We are a small company,” says Litto Gomez modestly, “and my aim is not to grow quickly. Ines and I have made this company for our children. We want to build up a brand name, and not our bank account.”

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Original Interview

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