Meeting the Spielberg of Cigars

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

By Nick Hammond

September 24 2019

If 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.

"I once described Henke Kelner as the Steven Spielberg of the cigar world. You will not talk to a more learned cigar man anywhere."
"I once described Henke Kelner as the Steven Spielberg of the cigar world. You will not talk to a more learned cigar man anywhere."

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.

Henke 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 aplomb.
Multitalented chap, is Henke.