Industry legend Gilberto Oliva Sr. Every industry has legends. Some unsung heroes, some famous names. A few names that will remain in everybody’s memories forever, most will fade away over time. Some that have left us, some still alive. These legends all played their part to make the cigar industry what it is today. And they deserve to be remembered, to be recognized for their achievements.
Today’s article is about a modest man. A man with roots in Cuba, but like many of his fellow countrymen he had to escape the flor de las Antillas after the communists under the leadership of Castro took control of the island. Under the label of liberation, as they drove off the previous dictator. In the end, Cuba is worse of with the Castro clan still having a tight grip on the lives of every Cuban citizen. We can only hope that the Cuban people can live free someday, but Gilberto Oliva won’t see that day. He sadly passed away at the age of 86 in 2017. I was lucky to have met the man in 2014 on a visit to the Tabolisa factory in Esteli.
The history of the Oliva family and tobacco goes back to the second part of the 1800s. It goes back to Cuba. Melanio Oliva grew tobacco in the Pinar del Rio province of Cuba. His achievements are recognized by the family with the Oliva Serie V Melanio cigar. In 1920, his son Facundo took over the family business and the business did prosper under his leadership. A few years ago, the Oliva family had plans to release a Facundo Oliva Cigar, yet the rum giant Bacardi owns the trademark to Facundo. They objected. That blend came to the market though, not as a tribute to Facundo Oliva but to his son Gilberto Oliva. And Gilberto Oliva Sr is the subject of this article.
When Gilberto took over the business, he didn’t waste time. He greatly expanded both the plantations and corporate roles of commercial brokerage on the Cubano Tobacco market, gaining a position of absolute international value. But then Fidel Castro and his gang of revolutionaries took over. Gilberto had to leave Cuba with his family for safety reasons. In 1964, Gilberto and his family arrived in Spain. But he did not stay there for long as he was looking for an opportunity to reboot his business. So he went to the Caribbean to look for farmable land with the same peculiarities as Cuba.
Oliva went to Honduras, Panama, Mexico, and even the Philippines but found what he was looking for in Nicaragua. With the seeds he smuggled when he fled Cuba, he was able to start over. A lot of his ranking staff back in Cuba also fled the communist dictatorship of Castro, and all came to work for Gilberto Oliva again. They spent over 20 years selecting, preparing, sowing, optimizing with the right rhythms of rotation, and resting Nicaraguan soil, with the absolute meticulousness of those who – Cuban exile – dreamed of creating a revival in new lands of precious family knowledge.
At the height of the 1990s cigar boom, the first of Gilberto Oliva Sr. sons joined the industry. Gilberto Junior is now a well-respected tobacco grower himself. The father & son team came up with the idea to release a cigar brand, Gilberto Oliva Cigar. That cigar was made at the factory of the Plasencia family in Honduras. But even though it seems logical to use tobacco from their own stock, Gilberto & Gilberto didn’t. The Gilberto Oliva Cigar was a blend of Ecuadorian Connecticut as a wrapper. The binder and half the filler came from the Dominican Republic. The rest of the filler was Nicaraguan. And that was a strategic choice, a choice that makes Gilberto Oliva an industry legend.
Gilberto Oliva made a courageous and equally risky call to not use tobacco from the Oliva farms. He felt that the Oliva tobacco was of such high quality, that it deserved proper fermentation and aging. That was against everything during that time of the cigar boom, where tobacco was in short supply. But in the end, it paid out. Due to the large stock of super premium tobacco, all properly aged and fermented, Oliva was able to become one of the top brands from Nicaragua. Most brands that started in the cigar boom vanished, yet Oliva rose to the top of the industry.
Moving To Production
Nowadays Oliva has two factories in Esteli, Nicaragua. Tabolisa I and Tabolisa II. Only in 2003, Oliva Cigars acquired the factory. That’s when the ace up their sleeve, a huge warehouse full of top-grade tobacco, came into play. The Oliva family suddenly had the production family use all this tobacco. Within two years, production was up to six million cigars a year. And in 2009, that was more than doubled to 13 million. Yet even with those production numbers, most cigars made at Tabolisa use that high-quality, long aging tobacco.
The Oliva Serie V, launched in 2006, secured the place of Oliva in the highest ranks of cigar manufacturers. The line has been consistent, almost every year a vitola of this blend ends up in the Cigar Aficionado Top 25. The Oliva Serie V Melanio Figured even topped that list. Gilberto Oliva has a cigar in his remembrance too. He passed away in 2017 at the age of 86, but we can still enjoy Oliva Cigars due to the vision of this industry legend.