Tabacalera: 130 years of cigars and Philippine history

MANILA, Philippines - Cigars symbolize success, wealth and power. For Filipinos, cigars also connect the present with their nation’s past.

No one did that better than former Philippine president Fidel Ramos, who earned the nickname “Tabako” by chomping around with an unlit cigar during his 1992-98 presidency. Filipinos were reminded that cigars were very much part of the nation’s history.

It is a point that Tabacalera Incorporada, the Philippines’ oldest cigar company, makes an effort to make in every cigar that rolls out of its 2,700-square meter factory in Dasmariñas, Cavite province.

“We are trying to educate the customer about the history and heritage behind the product,” says Yuan Ongpin, executive vice president of Tabacalera, which marked its 130th anniversary this month. “Tabacalera is a Philippine institution.”

Tobacco was introduced by the Spanish conquistadores when the galleon San Clemente, plying the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade, brought in 50 kilos of Cuban tobacco seeds in 1592. As early as the 17th century, Philippine-made cigars – better known as Manila cigars – were being celebrated in Europe’s smoking salons.

Cigars as large as eggplants became a Filipino family affair. Even young children puffed. That prompted the Spaniards to sneer that the Indios learned how to smoke before they learned how to think.

Because of cigars’ popularity, the authorities imposed a tobacco monopoly in 1780. Only the colonial government may plant tobacco, manufacture and sell cigars. The idea was to make the colony independent from subsidies that had to be shipped in from New Spain (present-day Mexico), then a Spanish possession.

In a twist of fate, tobacco contributed to the downfall of Spanish colonial rule. The monopoly caused poverty and corruption and, eventually, resentment. Filipinos were angered because they had to buy their smokes, whereas before they could plant tobacco in their backyards and roll their own cigars. Violators were punished with lashings, imprisonment and, in some cases, death.

By the 1870s, liberal Spaniards were lobbying for the monopoly’s abolition, citing hardships caused upon the natives. “The concern was not entirely altruistic,” wrote professor Ed de Jesus in his book The Tobacco Monopoly in the Philippines. “It was partly based on the fear that if the government did not do away with the monopoly, the people might do away with the government.”

When the monopoly was abolished on June 5, 1881, revolutionary fever was already setting. Smoking helped fuel the struggle for nationhood, according to historian Ambeth Ocampo. Historical documents revealed expenses of the First Philippine Republic under General Emilio Aguinaldo included cigarillos that were distributed to soldiers of the nascent Philippine Army.

Compañia General de Tabacos de Filipinas – better known by its nickname Tabacalera – was founded on Nov. 11, 1881, by the Marquis of Comillas Antonio Lopez y Lopez before the tobacco monopoly’s abolition took effect the following year.

Effectively establishing a near monopoly, Compañia General acquired the various cigar firms in the Philippines and standardized quality.

Ironically, the demand for Philippine cigars was causing its own demise. “Tabacalera contributed greatly to save the reputation of Philippine dark tobacco and Manila cigars each time quality was being sacrificed for quick profit,” says De La Salle professor Arcadio Malbarosa, who has been studying the company for past 10 years for his doctoral paper.

“Quality deteriorated during the early post-monopoly years and in the immediate aftermath of the implementation of the Free Trade Law,” says Malbarosa, referring to legislation passed during the American colonial period. After World War II, the cigar industry took a dive when Filipinos switched to cigarettes.

Compañia General’s flagship brand was La Flor de la Isabela, named after its cigar factory. After a century, Compañia General sold its cigar business and the factory passed on to Filipino hands. The cigar brand was renamed Tabacalera in honor of the founding company.

To this day, how Tabacalera Incorporada manufactures cigars remains unchanged – totalmente hecho a mano or totally hand-made. Some of its wood presses are over a hundred years old.

Tabacalera is eyeing more export-driven sales to reach newer heights. Just like in the old days, Spain is its top export market. “Clearly, and I’m not saying it without any boast, we are the Philippines’ best cigar hands down. We have the quality. We have the tradition, and we have the international brand recognition,” says Ongpin.

To mark its 130th anniversary, Tabacalera has unveiled a premium blend, Tabacalera Gran Reserva.

Despite the tightening restrictions on smoking, interest in cigars continues to come in. Sales growth has been at 25 percent. “There has been an increase this year from bars and other night spots asking us for our presence,” says Tabacalera general manager Alan Harrow, noting a return to the glory days. “It’s not as fast as we’d like it to be, but we’re slowly seeing changes.”

For those who doubt the Philippine cigar’s quality, Filipinos may point to the words of famed British writer Rudyard Kipling, who attested its excellence with a stanza in his 1886 poem “The Betrothed”. “Open the old cigar box – let me consider a while,” he wrote. “Here is a mild Manila – there is a wifely smile.”


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