Boisdale Life Magazine (Issue 18) - Page 71

Nick Hammond, author of new book Around the World in 80 Cigars,
recalls an encounter with the man who put New World tobacco on the map
f you’ve ever met one of your
heroes, you’ll realise it’s a bit like
being a schoolkid in front of the
headmaster all over again. That
excruciating mix of excitement,
trepidation, anxiety to please, and in my
case, an overwhelming urge to giggle,
which can be off-putting to headmasters
and heroes alike. It’s a hero, not a
headmaster, that I’m walking up
a muddy field to meet at dawn in a cigar
plantation in the Dominican Republic.
I once described Henke Kelner as the
Steven Spielberg of the cigar world.
Masterminding the entire cigarmaking
operation of the mighty Davidoff empire
since the late 1980s, he has
choreographed hit after hit after hit, and
changed both the perception and the
flavour of Dominican Republic cigars.
You will not talk to a more learned cigar
man anywhere.
He began his Tabadom facility, near
the city of Santiago de Los Caballeros,
when Cuba strode like a colossus across
the cigarmaking world. The Dominican
Republic made a lot of cigars back then,
sure; but it was way down the pecking
order, and cigars from the country were
generally regarded as smooth, but super
mild. However, when Zino Davidoff, the
legendary founder of the Swiss label,
grew exasperated with Cuba in the
1980s, he looked for alternatives. He
found Henke Kelner.
His unparalleled skill with tobacco
has seen scores of lines, blends, trials
and techniques become mainstream.
Think of some of the best New World
cigars you’ve tasted and there’s every
chance that somewhere along the line,
Henke’s had his hand in it.
Which is why, when I reach to shake
Henke’s hand in that field of tobacco, as
the first light of dawn sifts through his
Panama hat, I’m a little lost for words.
His eyes scan me, birdlike curiosity
playing across his features. “We meet
before, no?” he asks in his accented and
perfectly charming English.
“Yes!” I gush. “We met at the Davidoff
store in London at the launch of the
Churchill line. We talked about seeds
and flavour profiles.”
He looks on, unblinking. “We went
through the palate profile for the various
sizes...,” I try again. He raises his gaze to
the horizon. “We talked about
moonshine in Kentucky.”
His head swivels back to me, his
craggy face breaking into a toothy grin.
“Moo’shine. Yes, Kentucky moo’shine!”
And he laughs a deep belly laugh,
claps a burly hand around my shoulder,
and leads me off to begin a morning’s
tobacco instruction, which is as
masterful and enthralling as any
favourite professorial thesis.
His mind leaps from subject to
subject, loosely based around cigar
tobacco and its infinite variations,
although by no means constrained by
it. I’m just happy to be in his presence
and soak up a little of the lifetime of
knowledge he is dispensing.
Henke swears he talks to tobacco, and
what’s more, that it talks to him. He says
the plant changes every single day until
it is harvested. It’s a pernickety, delicate
crop: take your eye off the ball for a
moment, he says, and you can lose it.
At a hut, a small group of staff is
concocting something. Henke leads me
to them. Some are busy boiling pots of
water on stoves; others are grating large,
hard-pressed lumps of cacao into fine,
sweet-smelling powder.
“I grow this – and coffee – up there
on my farm,” growls Henke, pointing to
the distant hillsides, where coffee and
cacao grow high up the slopes. ‘‘My
wife’s farm,” he corrects himself, with
a grin and a wink. “They never used to
grow tobacco here, but I thought it could
be done. I was right,” he says proudly,
passing me a little porcelain espresso
cup containing a mixture of the hot
water and cacao with a pinch of
cinnamon. My God in heaven, I swear
I’ll never forget the taste, I remember
thinking, as I gazed out at the leaves of
Nicotiana tobacum swaying and
brushing against one another.
enke leans over to a large
wooden humidor and picks out
two Davidoff No.2 cigars, passing
me one and clipping and lighting his in
one fluid motion. I drain my cup and
another follows, and as I puff on the
light, sweet cigar we talk of blends and
varietals; of cigars he likes and those he
doesn’t; of Cuba and comparisons to it;
of the future and of the past.
We don our hats and wander back
out into the sun, where workers are
checking on the plants, removing
withered leaves and hoeing drainage
furrows up against each other. And all
the time, there is a constant stream of
cigar talk – nearly all of it from Henke.
Did I mention he can talk a bit?
He always has a word, a backslap and
a handshake for a passing worker. His
critical eye seems to take in every
damned leaf in that vast sea of green.
And a smile is never
far from his lips.
I bet he was a rascal as
a young ’un.
And all this was
before I’d seen him
dance the merengue,
which, I can report,
he also does with
Multitalented chap,
is Henke.

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