The country of Nicaragua is known for producing some of the finest tobacco in the world, with famed growing regions such as Esteli, Jalapa Valley, Ometepe, and Condega. The Nicaragua Cigar Company, which bears the distinction of being the oldest-running cigar factory in the country, has played a large factor in Nicaragua’s dominance of the industry. That said, the very same factory that served to put the country on the map often flies under the radar of most U.S. cigar aficionados. This is owed in large part to the fact that over the years, Nicaragua has experienced its fair share of challenges.
In 1968, J.F. Bermejo and Simón Camacho founded the Joya de Nicaragua cigar brand, producing their product out of a factory in downtown Esteli. The factory was named the Nicaragua Cigar Company. The Joya brand went on to achieve early success in the 1970s, going to far as to be named the official cigar of the White House in 1971. This attracted attention of ruling political dictator Anastasio Somoza, who used his position of power to strongarm control of the cigar company.
In the late 70s, civil unrest broke out across Nicaragua, and Somaza sought to squash the rebellion. Eventually, his actions led to an embargo from the United States. During Somaza’s violent efforts to eliminate the rebellion, he ordered the town of Esteli bombed. During the strikes, the Joya de Nicaragua factory was hit, and following the bombing, soldiers arrived looking for rebels. Suspected dissidents were ripped from their workstations and lined up against the back wall of the factory. Gunfire ensued, marking the moment in Nicaraguan history when the ghosts of Joya came into being. This was not the end to the chaos. Within a matter of years, in 1978, the factory would be burned to the ground.
In 1979, Somaza—who was later assassinated—fled Nicaragua, and the Sandinista government was formed. The surviving Joya de Nicaragua employees rebuilt their damaged factory, but with no clear leader, the company continued to struggle. Another blow to the company came in 1985, when the United States once again placed an embargo on the country. This resulted in the loss of the company’s entire U.S. customer base.
In order to offset this catastrophic financial loss, the company shifted focus and began prioritizing cigar distribution to Europe. To this day, Joya de Nicaragua holds a strong foothold in the European market, and even now while most global cigar brands target 80 to 90 percent of their production to the U.S., only about 50 percent of Joya de Nicaragua products come to the United States.
Somehow, despite the civil chaos and the U.S. embargos, Joya de Nicaragua survived. In 1990, when the embargo was finally lifted, U.S. demand exploded. The demand was so high, in fact, that the company struggled to keep up. This ultimately led to an investment in the company by Alejandro Martínez Cuenca’s company, Tabacos Puros de Nicaragua. Cuenca also later bought back the Joya trademark from foreign ownership, who had been producing the cigars in Honduras.
Today, despite a long and turbulent history, Joya de Nicaragua enjoys tremendous success. Buoyed by strong demand from consumers in 51 countries, there have been numerous cigar launches to widespread critical acclaim, including such cigars as the Antano, Joya Red, and Joya Black).
The company is now led by Cuenca’s son, Juan Martinez, whose stated aim is to appeal to the next generation of cigar smokers. “We wanted to overcome two perceptions in the U.S. marketplace,” Martinez said. “One, that Joya de Nicaragua only makes one type of cigar, a full-bodied cigar. And two, that Joya is considered an old-school brand. We wanted to make it exciting again for the contemporary smoker.”
While the company is certainly looking ahead to the future, the past is never forgotten. Bullet holes in the walls of the factory and marks on the floor from fallen bombs are still there to this day. Guards who patrol the area have reported hearing unexplainable noises and voices, offering evidence that although the past is gone, it is not forgotten. The unique combination of scarred history and forward thinking will ensure that the Joys de Nicaragua legacy carries on for years to come.