Interview: Jesús Fuego on his first year in a new factory and the future of J. Fuego cigars

by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

Close to a year ago, J. Fuego shifted from having their cigars made by Plasencia to producing them at their very own Nicaraguan factory. More recently, they announced a distribution partnership with Cypress Group Miami. In this interview, Jesús Fuego talks about how things are going, what has changed for the company since they opened their new facility, and what’s next for J. Fuego cigars.

 
image: J. Fuego Cigar Co.

image: J. Fuego Cigar Co.

 

Cigar Snob: Tell me a little about what drove the decision to open your own factory and how that has changed how you approach your business and the brand.

Jesús Fuego: Well, basically, opening the new factory was a natural progression. We believe we belong here and we just haven’t had a chance to do it before. We started the J. Fuego brand in the U.S. in late 2006 and we’ve been working on getting it out there and all that. What we’ve been doing between my dad and I is taking some tobacco and putting some stuff aside and slowly starting to build an inventory so we’re ready to start our own production. We [wanted to] have something to work with and try to make the change as seamless as possible, you know? We found this building in Nicaragua that we’d been negotiating for. We finally got it early last year and basically redid it. The whole concept of this is control of our own production. That doesn’t mean we were unhappy [at Plasencia] or anything, but it’s a lot better when you make your own product and you can defend it with more enthusiasm, you know?

CS: Is there a difference that a smoker might be able to discern between the older product and what is coming out of the new factory?

JF: Interesting question. You know, there’s always something personal when someone makes a cigar, even if someone else blended the cigar. You know, there’s always a subtle… call it the factory flavor or the factory smell or something like that.

image: J. Fuego Cigar Co.

image: J. Fuego Cigar Co.

Obviously, when you change production from one place to another, even if it’s just the physical building where you make the cigar, they end up tasting slightly better. At the same time, we took the critiques we had and tried to tweak it a bit in order to keep the things people liked and change the things they didn’t like about what we were selling before. [It's only now that] we’re beginning to actively and aggressively talk about the factory because we wanted to give ourselves time to get rid of all the inventory that was out there. We have improved our packaging; everything now has a warranty seal that clearly identifies that the product was made in the new factory so there’s no confusion. And like I said, basically there is a bunch of product that we got rid of that was made at the other place.

The first cigar we put out from the new factory is a new blend. It’s the 777 Maduro Silver. My originals are selling well and are very popular, but they are unbanded. Because the cigar looks so rough, there are some people who didn’t know which end to light. We thought we were doing a good thing by having them pre-cut, but then you have little mistakes — like they’re packed upside down or people light the wrong end and the wrapper unravels — so we went around and made all the originals with the regular cap. It’s minor details mostly. We started production of our original blend of J. Fuego Gran Reserva, which is one of our grandfathered [under FDA regulations] blends, that I had stopped making because I had run out of the aged tobacco, so we started on that and now we’re ready to go.

On the 777 Zero, we heard people say they liked the cigar, but most agreed they would like some details to change. We tried to make it a bit cleaner. That’s when it comes to quality in the product itself. But the main thing is peace of mind. There’s no denying that you have more peace of mind and there’s no denying you feel more enthusiastic when you’re presented those problems. If it’s good it’s your fault, if it’s bad it’s your fault.

Then there are the little details. For example, what we’re doing in our aging room is like the old school. I don’t know any other factory that does it the way we control the humidity by keeping shavings of Spanish cedar on the floor of the aging room. We control the humidity in the old style, which is to spray water on that cedar and let it evaporate. There are always little things you can do in the factory that you know you like and that make an improvement in the quality , but you can’t be that demanding when you have someone else rolling for you. Sometimes the difference between a professional and an amateur in golf is one yard on the drive. And, for that yard, you have train 20 years.

CS: What do the production numbers look like now and do you have goals for where you want that production to go in the next year or two?

image: J. Fuego Cigar Co.

image: J. Fuego Cigar Co.

No. We don’t have goals when it comes to numbers. I have goals when it comes to quality. Basically, J. Fuego is going to be keeping its warehouse in Miami, and it’s doing the same aging and the same storing, fulfilling orders, shipping to customers, so we’re going to keep the information close and be able to answer if there is any problem. We don’t have a goal when it comes to making cigars because, thank God, we have a comfortable position. We’re well funded and we want to have fun in the process. We just want to make sure that whatever the Cypress Group can sell we can provide.

CS: Let me frame it a different way. Is there something you would like to have accomplished after a couple of years of having your own factory? What do you see in the more immediate future for the factory and the brand?

[I foresee] a lot of focus on J. Fuego products and what I mean by a lot of focus is mainly [putting] our brands first. We want to make sure we don’t have to make anything in a rush. When you don’t have your factory, it’s inevitable that when cigars go slow, you might have some infestation or the cigars go bad. If the cigars are going to fast, you’re going to at some point have cigars that are fresh because you have to rush them out of the factory. That’s one of the goals we have. I think we’re already accomplishing that. The factory is right now rolling cigars we’re going to sell around November or December. That’s one thing. The other thing is — and this is nothing against the providers, because we have the best ones out there — but because every chef has his own recipe book, it doesn’t matter how well sorted the tobacco that you are sold is. You always have to do a little  bit of resorting in the factory. So in the same compound, right next to the rollers, we’re going to have our factory pre-industry. So that means that we’re sorting tobacco while we’re seeing the cigars where that tobacco is going to be used. That’s a goal for us that is practically already in place.

CS: You brought up a bit about the new distribution arrangement. What do you anticipate in the immediate future as far as whether different consumers will have access to the product than before. Are there specific areas into which you’re looking to expand first?

We don’t think of that as a geographic territory thing. Our reasoning is that, for many years, we’re not the company that makes a lot of noise out there and puts a lot of pictures next to a private plane or a good looking guy in a magazine. I’m a Cuban hillbilly and I’m too old to change. I’ve heard the criticism a lot that J. Fuego has a really good story, you know, has a lot of skins on the wall, but I haven’t done a good job when it comes to communicating that.

I like the factory and maybe I have neglected the part of telling people the cool things we’re doing.

So the joint venture with Cypress Group … I’m [not tech savvy]. I don’t even know how to explain this, but you have [James Thomas], a person who comes to this with a really good background on [technology] and organizational skills. You have Joey Bravo, who studied agricultural engineering and knows cigar shops from the bottom up and has traveled all the stores. He has a good palate and understands the cigars. You have The Guayabera Lady, who is in the cigar industry but with a very clean perspective — not only the feminine side, but also the side that understands fashion and what women like to hear. So they’re bringing all the ingredients that we were lacking.

We have a cool story and we believe that while Cypress Group can provide customer service and make the story known by the consumer. We’re betting here, we’re aiming to expand our consumer base just by letting people know what we’re doing more effectively.

General Cigar launches Partagas Heritage

General Cigar announced a new blend called Partagas Heritage, which the company says “honors the heritage of Partagas in blend, box and band.”

Partagas Heritage featured a Honduran wrapper that General says it developed for this launch. The remainder of the blend comprises a Connecticut Broadleaf binder and fillers from from Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

“We set out to create a retrospective blend that celebrated the very best of Partagas to date, and took great pride in putting together the ingredients, just like coming up with a very special recipe. This was a group effort, with our blenders in the Dominican Republic and Central America working with the marketing team to achieve the final taste,” said Jhonys Diaz, who led blend development, in a General Cigar press release.

The cigars are packaged in 20-count boxes and are available in four vitolas: Rothschild (4 ½ x 50; $8.49 per cigar), Churchill (7 x 49; $9.99 per cigar), Gigante (6 x 60; $9.59 per cigar) and Robusto (5 ½ x 52; $9.59 per cigar).

Alec Bradley announces its new TAA-exclusive release

If you shop at a TAA member store, you’ll soon have access to a TAA-exclusive smoke called Alec Bradley Black Market will eagerly anticipate Black Market Illicit. This “illicit” extension is a new iteration of the already popular Black Market line.

Black Market Illicit is a 6 x 50 Toro featuring Nicaraguan wrapper. Two binders (one Honduran, the other Nicaraguan) and Nicaraguan fillers.

“This is the first exclusive series cigar Alec Bradley has developed for TAA retailers since we introduced the Prensado Figurado in 2013,” said Alec Bradley owner Alan Rubin in a press release. “We like to describe this iteration of our number one-selling cigar as Black Market ‘on steroids.’ True to its name, Black Market Illicit embodies the characteristics that have earned its namesake consistent ratings of 90 among cigar enthusiasts around the world. This iteration was specially designed to cater to TAA’s exclusive network of retailers.”

Black Market Illicit starts shipping to TAA retailers in July, packaged in 22-count boxes and with an MSRP of $8.75 per cigar.

Rocky Patel Royale gets a 6 x 60

Rocky Patel Premium Cigars issued a press release announcing the expansion of its Rocky Patel Royale brand. The company is adding a vitola called 60 (a 6 x 60) to the lineup.

According to the release, “The new size was added due to consumer demand for a standard gordo size. Rocky Patel Royale Sixty will be packaged in 20-count boxes and has a suggested retail price of $12 per cigar.”

The brand made its debut at the 2013 IPCPR trade show, and the cigar landed a spot on Cigar Snob’s Top 25 Cigars 2013. The 60 joins several other vitolas of Rocky Patel Royale: Corona, Robusto, Toro, Torpedo, Colossal, and Toro Tubo. The 60 will be a round parejo like the Colossal and Toro Tubo, while all the other vitolas are box-pressed.

 
 

Davidoff announces AVO Improvisation LE17

AVO Cigars announced the the fifth installment in its AVO Limited Edition Improvisations Series: AVO Improvisation LE17.

The cigar packaging — in keeping with the brand’s musical themes — features a full black leather exterior with orange leather interior lid and dual silver clasps. It’s meant to be evocative of a vintage guitar case.

As for the cigar itself, the AVO Improvisation LE17 draws inspiration from three other AVO products. According to a press release, “The new blend utilizes the same variety of Dominican binder and filler tobaccos that were featured in the AVO LE05, blended with the same Estelí, Nicaragua filler tobacco used in the AVO Syncro Nicaragua Fogata and presented in the 6 x 60 boxed pressed format of the AVO Syncro Nicaragua Special Toro.”

“When developing the fifth AVO Improvisation blend, I wanted to use the foundation of my fifth AVO Limited Edition ever released, the celebrated AVO LE05, to see if we could craft something extra special,” said Avo Uvezian in that same release. “When we blended in filler tobacco from Estelí, my palate immediately began to dance with the many flavor notes. The combination worked so well together that a 60-ring gauge format was the proper way to fully showcase this wonderful arrangement, finished in a flawless box pressed shape.”

The cigar is wrapped in Ecuadorian Habano and is priced at $18 per cigar, or $288 for a box of 16.

Rocky Patel releases Vintage 1999 Minis

 
image: Rockt Patel Premium Cigars

image: Rockt Patel Premium Cigars

 

Rocky Patel Premium Cigars announced that, starting in April 2017, its popular Vintage 1999 series will be made available in a small new vitolas called Minis.

The cigars are manufactured at Honduran American Tobacco S.A. in Danlí, Honduras. The Minis measure 4 ¼ x 32 and feature the same aged Connecticut shade wrapper that smokers recognize from other Vintage 1999 formats.

Rocky Patel, President and CEO of RPPC, describes the Minis as “the perfect mild smoke in under ten minutes.”

In a press release issued by Rocky Patel Premium Cigars, Executive Vice President Nish Patel described the Minis as maintaining “that creamy, buttery, ‘nuttery’ taste, just like the other 1999 shapes.”

The Vintage 1999 Minis are packaged in 10-count tins that retail for $17.

La Palina Classic expanded with new blends

La Palina announced an expansion of its Classic line. The brand will be adding new wrappers, blends, and sizes.

“I am very proud to be expanding La Palina Classic with new wrappers and blends,” said La Palina’s owner, Bill Paley. “We have been working on these for over a year and now have the best cigars you can find at prices everyone can enjoy.”

La Palina Classic is now available in three blends: Connecticut, Rosado, and Maduro. These blends had been made available in limited quantities in 2016, but are not being made widely available; The Connecticut and Rosade are already shipping, while the Maduro will be available to retailers at the end of March.

“The Classic line has always been close to the hearts of La Palina supporters,” said Sam Phillips, president of La Palina Cigars. “It is a great cigar for a reasonable price. Whether it is our Classics or our limited editions, we strive to deliver the highest quality cigar with the most refined taste. We feel that we have achieved this with our new generation of Classic cigars.”

Here’s the blend information we got from La Palina.

Connecticut:
Wrapper: Ecuador
Binder: Dominican Republic
Fillers: Dominican Republic, Nicaragua

Maduro:
Wrapper: Honduras
Binder: Dominican Republic
Fillers: Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras

Rosado:
Wrapper: Honduras
Binder: Honduras
Fillers: Honduras, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua

Jonathan Drew returns to an executive role at Drew Estate

Jonathan Drew at his Miami home

Jonathan Drew at his Miami home

Drew Estate announced that Jonathan Drew will return to an executive role with the company as president and founder, with oversight for the entire portfolio of brands. Jonathan will also continue to serve as CEO of his spirits venture, John Drew Brands, which is initially focused on bourbon, rye, and rum.

“Jonathan Drew is a dynamic entrepreneur, respected tobacco man, and a tenacious brand evangelist. He is the original Disruptor, and I am excited to help build a team around JD that is raw, provocative, and unafraid to challenge the mainstream and take risks,” said Drew Estate’s CEO Glenn Wolfson in a statement included in the press release.

I'm a student of graffiti ... and philosophically I look at tobacco the same way,” said Jonathan in that same release. ”There is an evolution to the painted walls in the streets, just like there was on the subways back in the day. Change is natural and accepted. You just have to bomb harder and stay true to your technique and style - and always keep loyal to your crew. There's a lot to learn from areas outside of our main canvas at DE. We will return to high-level curation, mixed media platforms, and true collaboration. We have lost our way a bit, but DE will bubble back 1,000 times stronger. Believe me.”

Learn more about the history and trajectory of Drew Estate — including the hip hop and graffiti elements that inspired the brand’s identity — in this piece we published in the November/December 2016 issue of Cigar Snob.

Toraño launches two new blends

torano_yellow_open_left.png

General Cigar issued a press release announcing the launch of two new Toraño blends.

One of those blends is called E-021. It features an Ecuadorian Sumatra, Connecticut Broadleaf binder, and fillers from Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. The cigar is available in two sizes: 4½ x 50 and 5 x 52 (priced at $5.49 and $5.99, respectively).

A second blend, W-009, features Nicaraguan wrapper, Honduran binder, and fillers from Honduras. This second blend is also available in two sizes: 5½ x 54 and 6 x 50 ($6.49 and $6.49, respectively).

“Our blending team in Nicaragua re-envisioned a couple of dynamic blends from my family’s original recipes. Both new lines round out the sizes available in the Vault line while continuing the tradition of exceptional blends in stand-out packaging and affordable prices. I look forward to sharing the new Vault lines with Toraño fans at cigar shops and special events across the country,” said Jack Toraño, who was recently hired as a full-time brand ambassador for Toraño, in a press release.

Punch Gran Puro Nicaragua launches

General Cigar announced the launch of Punch Gran Puro Nicaragua, an extension of the brand’s Gran Puro line which comprises four formats ranging in price from $5.29 to $6.99: 4.875 x 48, 5.5 x 54, 6 x 54, and 7 ½ x 54.

 
 

“For the extension of the Gran Puro line, our artisans built a blend that balances Nicaraguan tobaccos with a Maduro wrapper to deliver a layered, dimensional flavor not traditionally found in Nicaraguan-based cigars. We are confident that Punch Gran Puro Nicaragua will be a fast favorite among tenured smokers,” said Ed McKenna, director of marketing strategy for General Cigar, in a press release.

Produced at General Cigar’s HATSA factory in Danlí, Honduras, the blend features a Connecticut broadleaf wrapper along with Nicaraguan binder and filler tobaccos.

Villiger ships 1888 nationally

Villiger Cigars began shipping Villiger 1888 to U.S. shops on Monday, Dec. 12, 2016. A special launch event is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 16 at Miura Cigars’ annual Holiday party (which will feature Villiger products and Zafra rum) in Miami.

Villiger 1888 was part of a 2010 limited-edition production, which celebrated Villiger’s 100 year anniversary in Germany. The regular production cigar, made in the Dominican Republic, features an Ecuadorian wrapper, Mexican binder, and Dominican and Nicaraguan fillers.  

A Villiger press release describes the smoking experience this way: “One can expect Dried fruit, roasted coffee and caramel notes, fortified with a peppery and floral finish.”

The line comprises five vitolas ranging in price from $5.95 to $8.20: Corona (6x43), Robusto (4 7/8x50), Toro (6x50), Torpedo (6x52), and Toro Gordo (6x60).

Drew Estate — where they came from and what's next in the "Rebirth of Cigars"

by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

Sunday, January 29, 1995. Chances are you were stocking up on beer, prepping chip dip, and maybe rifling through your closet for your Stan Humphries Jersey (which you’d learn later that night wasn’t all that “lucky” after all). Everyone’s focus was on Miami, one of the epicenters of the American cigar industry, but cigars had nothing to do with it. Joe Robbie Stadium would play host to Super Bowl XXIX, in which the San Francisco 49ers wrote the unhappy ending to the San Diego Chargers’ Cinderella season.

In New York City, one guy who couldn’t have cared less about the game (he’s not a sports fan) was heading into the first chapter of his own unlikely success story. That was Jonathan Drew’s first official day in the cigar industry, and it surpassed all of his wildest expectations.

“It wasn’t Monday yet. I thought, ‘This is preposterous. Holy shit. I just made $500,” said Jonathan, recalling that day from his Miami apartment in the Wynwood Arts District. He didn’t know it then, but his retail cart in the World Trade Center was the start of a journey that would change the way many thought about how cigars are made and marketed. Some serendipitous meetings, a fresh perspective, and a tragic accident all converged to create the Drew Estate you know today.

New York Beginnings

Jonathan attended and graduated from law school, even interning at the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. While he was a law student, he — along with some friends, including Drew Estate cofounder Marvin Samel — made some money with a beach share house on Long Island. They took it upon themselves to offer their tenants some amenities, which meant cooking breakfasts and — more importantly — providing stogies. That last one quickly became a service Jonathan was known for well beyond the walls of his share house.

“I was a cigar smoker and everyone knew I had the good cigars. People knew I was the cigar guy. So everybody in the Hamptons was coming from all sorts of different share houses to stop by and get cigars from me. So sometimes I would charge them what I paid, sometimes I would give out free shit, sometimes I would give out Macanudo Miniatures, or Macanudo Caviars, and I would have all this other shit. That’s when I started to think I would open my own cigar shop, because I needed cash. So I opened up my first cigar shop as a retailer at the World Trade Center in Manhattan on the ground floor.”

 
Young Marvin Samel and Jonathan Drew plotting during the early days of Drew Estate

Young Marvin Samel and Jonathan Drew plotting during the early days of Drew Estate

 

The roughly $500 he made on his first day selling cigars from a cart — keeping fans near the 5’ x 4’ humidor to keep it cool and getting some help with the setup from his mom and dad — put him on his way toward paying the cart’s monthly rent, which he says was about $3,000. It was also the beginning of the formation of the business’s identity, which is informed by not only the struggle of its leaders to keep it afloat and innovate, but also by the gritty hip hop culture in each of the places it’s called home. That identity developed as the business branched off into different aspects of the cigar trade — namely humidors, as well as cigar sales and distribution for other established brands.

“That was way back in the day. I had the red and black lumberjack jacket with the hat to match,” Jonathan said, alluding to the lyrics of Juicy. “It was good times. I was on J Street in Manhattan, and right next to me was Jay Z and Roc-A-Fella Records. They were nobody. In that time period, you had Biggie blowing up in New York, you had Puff Daddy, hip hop was in a transitional period.

And that’s really important to the earliest days of Drew Estate. Because one of the things that always distinguished us from everybody else is that we weren’t a cigar company. We knew we weren’t a cigar company from minute one.”

Rather than a cigar company, Drew Estate sees itself as dealing in lifestyle and experiences. It’s an approach that separated them from their competition in the earliest days and continues to do so today. In the earliest days, when Jonathan was running things from Dumbo, Brooklyn, just beyond the end of the Manhattan Bridge that’s a hallmark of Drew Estate branding, that lifestyle brand approach began to reflect the company’s New York City roots. In fact, a year after the cart business launched, the company’s first brand, La Vieja Habana, was rolled in New York City by a small company called La Rosa Cigars. And then it wasn’t.

“The guy who made those cigars, Antonio Al- manzar, got decapitated,” said Jonathan. “They slid in the rain under an 18-wheeler in his car and his head got taken off.” The freak accident created a need to find a new manufacturer for La Vieja Habana. That’s when Jonathan hooked up with Nick Perdomo.

“Nick was supposed to make them in Miami, but his dad had moved to Estelí,” said Jonathan. “So I was going out to Nicaragua every time he did, eight or nine times a year in ‘96 and ‘97.”

At the time, Jonathan was also considering having La Vieja Habana made by other companies. For instance, he said he came close to going with Ernesto Pérez Carrillo, who was making his cigars in the Dominican Republic. Instead, frequent trips to Estelí brought Drew Estate closer and closer to the next chapter in its story, and Jonathan Drew closer to his next home.

Estelí

“It was very creepy. You would go to Nicaragua and everything was riddled with bullet holes,” Jonathan said. “People were not proud to be making cigars in Nicaragua. It wasn’t like it is now where ‘Nicaragua’ is written all over everything.”

It’s hard enough living under the conditions that seem to come standard in any Central American economic or political system. At the time Jonathan started getting to know the country, Nica- ragua was also reeling from the Contras and the Sandinista National Liberation Front. Goods and services were in scarce supply, and getting a business off the ground — especially as a gringo with more of a cultural gap to bridge than many of the Cuban families whose companies had put down roots (think Padrón, Perdomo, etc.) — wasn’t easy.

“No place in Central America is as loving of people as Nicaragua. Nowhere at all in Central or South America is as safe as Nicaragua. Nowhere,” said Jonathan. “Including Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, nothing. But that’s not what it was back then. It was rougher. Women couldn’t get makeup. Forget cell phones. The roads were bad. Medical equipment and needs were really bad. Couldn’t get cars either. Getting a telephone line took a year. I couldn’t get a bank account open for almost two years.”

At first, Jonathan made the transition to Nicaragua by living in the Perdomo factory. That was about the time that he crossed paths with Jeff Borysiewicz, his longtime friend and owner of the Orlando-based Corona Cigar Company.

“I remember when my supplier of Lars Tetens cigars didn’t sell them anymore. I was all pissed off because the rumor was some young lawyer dude from New York named Jonathan Drew was the one doing the distribution. I immediately didn’t like him even though I’d never met him,” Jeff said.

Jonathan Drew strikes one of his signature poses at his Miami apartment.

Jonathan Drew strikes one of his signature poses at his Miami apartment.

“I was down in Nicaragua with Nick Perdomo, who was making our Cielo cigars. American Airlines had lost my luggage, and while I was over at Nick’s office this guy came by,” Jeff said. “Kinda looked like a hippie dude. It was Jonathan Drew. I was feeling kinda dirty because it was all dirt roads and working on the farm gets you even dirtier, right? I didn’t have any clothes and John said, ‘You look about my size. I’ll send my driver with some clothes for you.’ Sure enough, about an hour later, some dude came by with a backpack and a fresh change of clothes. The clothes weren’t my style. John was always wearing that funky stuff that he wears, but that’s all right. I had a clean shirt and a clean pair of shorts.”

Jonathan’s kind gesture had already begun to change Jeff’s impression of him. But what he saw later that night was probably what really cemented their friendship. Jeff is roughly Jonathan’s age, and Jonathan was proud of the way he’d begun to build Corona — getting minimal sleep on the couch, working long nights from his home, going years without writing himself a paycheck. When he dropped by the Perdomo factory to see Jonathan again, Jeff realized they had a lot more in common than he imagined.

“It was about 11:30 at night. I’ll never forget it. He had a bucket of white paint and a roller in his hands — like what you would paint the walls in your house with — and he was painting the wooden boxes for his new brand, Natural. It totally changed my perception. This wasn’t some rich, hotshot young lawyer. This was a hard workin’ dude who’s doing the same thing as me.”

The transition from having a retail cart in New York City to sleeping in a factory in Estelí happened in a relatively short time. By 2002, Drew Estate had grown to the point of having more than 200 employees. But the struggles hadn’t ended; the company made headlines in Nicaragua when it was forced to lay just about all of them off.

“I’m a true tobacco guy. I lived in the factory for 14 years. I didn’t go to Nicaragua once a month, once a quarter, and stay at the hotel near the factory. I lived in it. Me here and the tobacco there,” said Jonathan, motioning toward a spot a few feet away. “I was constantly doing the dumbest shit you could ever imagine, number one because I didn’t know what I was doing, but also because whatever I did do that was working, there was no one else to do it but me.”

You were smoking graffiti, you were smoking hip hop, you were smoking the life and struggle that is now considered a lifestyle.
— Jonathan Drew

Just as Drew Estate owes its Estelí identity to the moment the decision was made to have cigars manufactured by Perdomo, it owes its survival to a woman named Candida, who owns an Estelí restaurant called La Confianza. The restaurant’s name translates to “trust,” and she put two years of it into Drew Estate, feeding the team for that long before they were able to pay the tab.

“These are not rich people,” Jonathan said. “So, many years later, when we opened factory 2 across the street (from our main facility), I called Candida to the stage and told the story.”

Candida was doing more than feeding a cigar company. She was fueling ideas that, as Jonathan likes to put it, were disruptive in their industry. And that started with an infused cigar brand called ACID.

Disruption

“So you had three market segments: premium, short filler, and flavored. What is ACID? ACID is its own segment. That’s one of the things Drew Estate is known for: creating market segments that didn’t exist. With the ACID brand, we created a market segment in the infused premium cigar,” said Jonathan, noting that tobacco was altered or blended with flavoring ingredients by ancient people long before there was such a thing as the long filler cigar. “That was modern era. We journeyed back in time to where the taste profiles were based with taste and aroma that wasn’t straight tobacco. ACID was nothing new, but it was new for the market at our time. ACID was raw. You were smoking graffiti, you were smoking hip hop, you were smoking the life and struggle that now is considered to be a lifestyle.”

ACID went on to become (and still is) a monster brand in its own right; it is among the world’s best-selling long filler cigar brands and comes in more than two dozen variations. Further innovation in infused cigars came in the form of the company’s partnership with the Kahlua brand, which spawned the industry’s first coffee-infused cigar. Drew Estate became known for the infused market segments it had created.

“You take an Acid Kuba Kuba, and it looks a thousand times nicer than a lot of the other high-end stuff out there. Appearance, construction, consistency,” said Drew Estate Master Blender Willy Herrera.

 
Jonathan shows off tobacco in a curing barn.

Jonathan shows off tobacco in a curing barn.

 

That success brought with it a new set of challenges. As the company looked to expand into more traditional cigar products, it needed a way to challenge the perception that it couldn’t possibly compete with companies with more legacy and expertise in that space. As Jonathan points out, many consumers assume that the addition of Liga Privada cigars to its portfolios was enough to pull that off. But the truth is that another, far more innovative project opened the door for things like T52.

“When our transition time came, we weren’t known as Drew Estate; we were the ACID guys,” Jonathan said. “Think of what happens with a child actor. They’re already locked into people’s minds as a set value. How did Drew Barrymore transition into becoming a real actress? It’s very difficult. Everybody’s interpretation is set in stone, so you have to disrupt people’s impression and make them decide whether what you stand for fits in their value set. There was something that opened the door for Liga Privada, and that was Cigar Safari.”

Considering the state of Estelí when Drew Estate got its start, it shouldn’t be surprising that there wasn’t much cigar tourism to speak of there at the time. Cigar Safari helped not only to make Estelí a leisure and learning destination for cigar smokers, but also to open their eyes — for the first time — to the idea that Drew Estate could be a credible player in traditional cigars. Cigar Safari hasn’t changed a whole lot since it began. Guests still visit the Drew Estate facilities, experiment with creating their own blends, and get to know Nicaragua through a variety of cultural experiences.

“I had never been to Central America before,” said Billy Walsh, an Orlando police sergeant and part-time employee at Corona Cigar. “It was amazing all the way around. The only thing was that it was short; it was only like three days. So it felt like when we flew in, we were flying right back out. I thought, ‘The next time I come here, I have to spend more time because the country is beautiful.’”

This coming March, Billy will embark on his tenth and eleventh Cigar Safaris.

“In the beginning, I was more of a Padrón and Fuente guy,” Billy added. “But after going on the Safari and experiencing their blends ... Yeah, that definitely hooked me. I’ve smoked most of what they make, and it’s exceptional to me. I think each Safari reinforces that over time.”

Early on, Cigar Safari guests tended to be people with wider influence in the cigar world: retailers, media, that sort of thing. It had at least a somewhat similar impact on them, and Drew Estate had a much easier time of breaking into traditionalists’ humidors with products like the ones in the Único Serie. The company has expanded on that experiential marketing model with more accessible (because you don’t need a passport) Barn Smoker events, which bring smokers closer to the farms that produce some of the more unique American tobaccos used in Drew Estate products. For instance, one recent Barn Smoker was held at Jeff Borysiewicz’s Florida Sun Grown farm just outside Orlando.

“That was where people could see and experience the commitment of everybody (at Drew Estate),” Jeff said of Cigar Safari. “These guys are the real deal. They’re legitimate cigar makers.”

The next episode

All these years later, a trip to La Gran Fábrica Drew Estate can make it easy to lose sight of where the company came from. The facility that produces Drew Estate products and hosts Safaris feels — especially as compared to other cigar factories — like it’s part museum, part theme park, part factory. Jonathan Drew has been at the center of that from the beginning, but he hasn’t been alone. Aside from having benefitted from the generosity, example or mentorship of people like Candida, Nick Perdomo, Kiki Berger and José Orlando Padrón (to name just a few), the company has managed to create a culture that generates real buy-in from its employees.

“People feel like they’re part of something,” Jeff said.

 
Willy Herrera outside of Drew Estate HQ in Miami

Willy Herrera outside of Drew Estate HQ in Miami

 

It’s why those smokers most familiar with the company know Jessi Flores, who is now the director of Subculture Studios (the arm of the company that produces so much of its custom art and swag), but started out as Jonathan’s driver and translator shortly after his arrival in Estelí. It’s why Manuel Rubio, who many remember seeing at the Drew Estate factory working a low-level job when he was 18 years old, is now the factory’s manager.

And it’s why another guy who started at the bot- tom in Estelí, Pedro Gómez, went from manag- ing Cigar Safaris to running around the United States as one of Drew Estate’s most beloved ambassadors.

“Everybody is equal in the company,” said Willy, who created blends like Herrera Estelí and Norteño. “We bring up from within. All our management in Nicaragua are people who started at the ground level, whether it was stripping veins off of wrapper, or drivers, or as assistant to one of the key people. Those are all in our management now. I like the fact that everyone is happier (at Drew Estate). You go to some other factories where people don’t even look up from their tables. Here, you walk into our factory, people are looking and smiling and saying hello.”

The team Drew Estate has built now pumps out some of the most respected cigars in the world across a variety of segments, including infused products, traditional cigars, and more recent additions to the portfolio, like Kentucky Fire Cured.

“I would say (the variety) makes things different for me in that, because of all these different branches, I have a much broader audience. So I’m not just dealing with the traditional guy,” Willy said. “I deal with the infused guy, I deal with the traditional stuff, the Herrera stuff, everybody. I have a much bigger audience than the guy who just has a brand with two or three lines. I’ll talk to a lot of these hardcore infused guys, and by the end of the day they’re smoking a Herrera Estelí, or an Undercrown Shade. It’s always good because the bigger the audience, the more chance you’ll have to introduce something new to them.”

The newest addition to their team is CEO Glenn Wolfson, who is a newcomer to the premium cigar industry and is transitioning from a long career consulting for companies like Walt Disney Company, Purina, Kraft, and United Airlines.

I deal with the infused guy, I deal with the traditional stuff, the Herrera stuff, everybody. I have a much bigger audience than the guy who just has a brand or two with three lines.
— Willy Herrera

“I’ve never come across a culture like this in my life,” Glenn said. “The thing that makes it really wonderful, wacky, and wild is that it’s incredibly familial. The way people pull for each other, the family values, the fact that they really care for each other. We are the brand in many ways. The way we dress, the ink on our arms. It’s a creative, innovative organization. We’re rebels with a cause. It will forever be Rebirth of Cigars. We’ll always be progressive, innovative and disruptive. It’s been in our blood since Marvin and Jonathan founded the company.”

These days, Jonathan is branching out even further. After the sale of Drew Estate to Swisher, he’s launched his latest project, John Drew Brands (expected to launch officially in February 2017), which will introduce a selection of craft spirits to his résumé and present new challenges in terms of how people perceive his expertise and credibility. He knows he’s not known as a “whiskey guy,” and because of that, he might have an uphill battle making a success of products like his new Brixton Mash Destroyer, which is a four-year Kentucky bourbon mashed with a five-year Florida rum — another instance of Jonathan’s insistence on changing the status quo. With the grit and hustle that he drew from after moving to Estelí in the late ‘90s, along with the help of the institution he’s built in Drew Estate, he might just pull off his next disruption.

“John Drew Brands is based right at Drew Estate. They were really great to me, they built out my offices for me and my team,” said Jonathan. “If you want to know what the early days of Drew Estate was like, all you need to do is look at John Drew Brands. We’re going through those early growing pains that Drew Estate went through when I came into the cigar industry.”

Fidel Castro is dead. Now what?

Throughout the weekend of Friday, Nov. 25, crowds gathered outside, Versailles — the iconic Cuban restaurant in Miami — to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro. (photo: Nicolás Antonio Jiménez)

Throughout the weekend of Friday, Nov. 25, crowds gathered outside, Versailles — the iconic Cuban restaurant in Miami — to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro. (photo: Nicolás Antonio Jiménez)

by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

Fidel Castro is dead.

That was the big news late Friday night. The longtime dictator, whose younger brother succeeded him 10 years ago — about the time Cigar Snob was hitting the scene — was no more. And just as soon as the news was out there, we began to see a wide range of reactions in the media, on the street, and, in some cases, in our homes.

Heads of state like Canada’s Justin Trudeau and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama drew criticism for their official statements in the wake of Castro’s death.

Kiko Alonso (himself the son of a Cuban father and Colombian mother) became, at least for the weekend, Cuban Miami’s new favorite athlete, as he ended the Dolphins’ win over the 49ers by tackling Colin Kaepernick — who had recently drawn the ire of Cuban exiles by engaging in the kind of Castro apologist talk about the despot’s history that Cubans have been hearing for decades. The significance of the play wasn't lost on Kiko; he later shared a photo of the hit, including the caption "Vamos Coño" (which translates loosely to "Let's go, damnit") and the hashtag #cubalibre (free Cuba).

 

Vamos Coño !!!! 🇨🇺🇨🇺 #finsup #miamidolphins #cubalibre

A photo posted by Kiko Alonso (@elbravo_47) on

 

The streets outside iconic Cuban restaurants in Miami, especially La Carreta and Versailles, were packed with jubilant crowds.

And in Cuban exile homes all over the country, champagne was uncorked as families toasted to the final assurance that this one monster in particular would never terrorize them, their families, or their countrymen again.

Carlos Eire, who won the National Book Award for his childhood memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana, ran through some of the reasons we should all be glad Fidel Castro is dead — and some of the things we should never forget about how he lived — in a Washington Post op-ed.

In sum, Fidel Castro was the spitting image of Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel “1984.” So, adiós, Big Brother, king of all Cuban nightmares. And may your successor, Little Brother, soon slide off the bloody throne bequeathed to him.
— Carlos Eire

This isn’t so much a celebration of a death as it is the manifestation of the catharsis that comes with knowing a man who did so much evil is finally out of the picture for good. It’s a loud sigh of relief (leave it to Cubans to sigh loudly and to the beat of congas accompanied by clanging pots and pans) at the kind of guarantee of safety that only biology and time can provide.

A few days have gone by. As the dust settles and everyone begins to litigate the significance of this event, many of us are left asking ourselves and everyone around us the same question we’ve asked every other time it’s felt like Cuba was on the verge of turning the page to a new chapter of its history.

Now what?

For those of us with lived or inherited experience with Castro’s evil, treating this as some kind of moment of victory or justice would be to lose sight of what's important. Fidel Castro lived a long, long time. He died on his own terms, in privacy, and for every last second that nature and science and the unlimited resources that come with being the owner of nearly 12 million slaves would grant him. His brother and his tyrannical government survive him while millions of those who actively opposed him did not.

Whatever catharsis there might be on the island of Cuba is felt in secret except by those who are willing to risk their lives or their livelihoods to express themselves. One person in Cuba described the mood on the street to a member of our staff as “tranquilo, pero extraño.” Calm, but weird.

If what matters is the lives of Cubans, nothing has changed. Cuba's constitution still makes it the most repressive regime in the hemisphere, and the system is such that new generations of government are deeply incentivized to keep it all in place.

Fidel Castro — to the extent that this is possible for any mortal — had the last laugh. That's nothing to celebrate. The silver lining is that all that energy people used to leave their homes at the drop of a hat at 2 in the morning to bang on pots and pans, and toast with cigars and rum (including some, ironically enough, purchased from Castro's monopoly, helping fund his life support) and all the time we've spent debating the potential impact of Castro's death... all that can also be used to make sure that his last laugh doesn't echo for very long.

For our part — and on this I think I can say that I speak for everyone else at Cigar Snob — we’ll continue to use our platform to speak some truth about Cuba in a media space that can sometimes seem eager to romanticize the island and ignore its dark side, perhaps because it’s hard to enjoy Cohibas and Havana Club when you’re reminded the brands' owners wear olive green fatigues and jail their competition.

Fidel is dead. But this fight isn’t. Some things are bigger than cigars.

Drew Estate and Pappy & Company Announce two cigars in time for the holidays

Drew Estate announced the release of new products that have come out of a collaboration with the makers of Pappy Van Winkle: Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Barrel Fermented Churchill

And Pappy Drew Limitada. The cigars are available at Pappy & Company, the Van Winkle family’s online store (pappyco.com).

The Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Barrel Fermented cigar features a barrel-fermented wrapper over a Mexican San Andrés base wrapper, as well as aged Nicaraguan Filler tobaccos.

“The Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Barrel Fermented Churchill is a 7 x 48 packaged in 10-count boxes with an MSRP of $17.00 per cigar, while the Pappy Drew Limitada is a 4 ⅞ x 60 packaged in 3-count soft packs that are only available as gifts from the Van Winkle Family when you purchase a box of the Pappy Van Winkle Barrel Fermented Robusto, Toro, and Churchill together.

Miami Cigar ships NMC Corojo

Miami Cigar & Co. announced that the Nestor Miranda Collection Corojo, which is debuted at the 2016 IPCPR trade show in Las Vegas, has begun to ship to retailers all over the United States.  

 
 

The Nestor Miranda Corojo, packaged in 20-count boxes, is a medium- to full-bodied Nicaraguan puro made in four formats: Robusto (50 x 4 ½), Corona Gorda (46 x 6), Toro (54 x 5 ½), and Gordo (60 x 6). MSRPs range from $7.50 to $9.50.

“Nestor (Miranda) has been adamant about introducing his beloved Corojo wrapper to the Collection. We would have loved to introduce it sooner but we decided to wait until the blend was perfect. The reaction from the retailers at this year’s IPCPR solidified our thoughts on the blend,” said Jason Wood, Vice President of Miami Cigar, in a press release.

La Aurora launches three products it announced at the IPCPR trade show

La Aurora has officially launched three products that it announced at July’s IPCPR trade show in Las Vegas: La Aurora 1903 Edition Double Barrel Aged, Preferidos Parejo, and La Aurora 107 Cosecha 2006.

La Aurora has long barrel-aged some of the tobaccos used in its super premium lines. What makes the tobaccos in La Aurora 1903 Edition Double Barrel Aged different is that they’re barrel-aged for at least a full year, whereas other products use tobaccos that spend six months in barrels, according to a press release issued by La Aurora. The new cigar’s blend comprises Ecuadorian Habano wrapper, Brazilian binder, and fillers from the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Nicaragua. MSRP is $218.17 for am 8-count box.

 
Image: La Aurora

Image: La Aurora

 

There are also three new untubed parejo formats for all the blends in the La Aurora 1903 Edition line: Corona (5 ½ x 42), Robusto (5 x 50), and Toro (5 ½ 54). Boxes of 18 are priced at $157.68, $177.39, and $193.16, respectively. Not using a tube and making these blends in less costly parejo vitolas will make these this line more accessible than ever.

 
Image: La Aurora

Image: La Aurora

 

Finally, the Dominican company is releasing the La Aurora 107 Cosecha 2006. This cigar’s blend features Ecuadorian Habano wrapper, Brazilian binder, and fillers from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Brazil. All of those tobaccos, as the name suggests, were harvested in 2006. It’ll be available in Churchill (7 x 50), Corona Gorda (6 x 47), and Robusto (5 x 50), with pricing ranging from $107.31 to $111.69 per box.

 
Image: La Aurora

Image: La Aurora

 

Oliva Cigar Co. acquired by Belgian company J. Cortès

J. Cortès, a Belgian cigar manufacturer, announced in a press release that it had acquired Oliva Cigar, in an effort to diversify its product portfolio and further establish its position in the worldwide market.

The Vandermarliere family — which runs J. Cortès — has been in the cigar business since 1926. The Olivas have been in tobacco since 1866. Together the two clans bring generations of expertise in machine-made and hand-made cigars.

“Where J. Cortès is mainly active in Europe, Oliva plays an important role in the American market. What they do have in common? Strong family ties and the way these businesses are being run: with passion, craftsmanship and humility,” reads the release.

The deal is effective immediately.

Read the full press release here.

To learn more about the acquisition and the two companies, take a look at this video from J. Cortès.

 
 

My Father Le Bijou 1922 - Limited Edition - 2016

image: My Father Cigars

image: My Father Cigars

My Father has announced its Le Bijou 1922 - Limited Edition - 2016. The 2015 blend won much critical acclaim; this 2016 edition’s blend comprises an Ecuadorian Habano wrapper. The oscuro leaf gives the cigar an “intense dark and rich color,” to use the language in My Father’s press release.

The full-bodied blend also features binder and filler tobaccos from Nicaragua, including a Pelo de Oro tobacco.

Shipping June 27, the 6 1/2 x 52 smoke will only be available in the U.S. market. It’s packaged in 14-count boxes, with each cigar in its own coffin. MSRP is set at $23.

Drew Estate launched its new mobile app

Drew Estate announced the launch of Drew Diplomat, the cigar manufacturer’s mobile app (which is available for iOS and Android users).

“Drew Estate has worked diligently to develop an industry-leading app that allows users to easily keep up with daily breaking news from Drew Estate, earn points for chances to win one-of-a-kind pieces of art from Subculture Studios,” according to a press release issued by Drew Estate.

Here’s a video the company produced introducing the new app.

 
 

This new app is a replacement for the existing Drew Estate app, which will no longer be updated.

To learn more about the Drew Diplomat app, visit http://drewdiplomat.com.

Maya Selva to debut a new box pressed smoke in July

Maya Selva Cigars announced the adition of a box-pressed format to its Flor de Selva Maduro line. The 6x56 Flor de Selva Pressé “will stay true to the collection's maduro blend,” according to a press release. The Grand Pressé blend comprises Honduran Habano wrapper, Brazilian Mata Fina binder and Honduran fillers.

 
Image: Maya Selva Cigars

Image: Maya Selva Cigars

 

The product will debut at the IPCPR trade show in Las Vegas in July and be available — at least at first — only in the U.S. market. MSRP will be $11.75 per cigar; the product will be packaged in cedar ten-count boxes.