Drew Estate Cigars

Drew Estate ships this year’s Pappy Van Winkle Tradition release

The Pappy Van Winkle Tradition — which honors Julian Van Winkle, founder of the legendary Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery — has shipped to retailers nationwide in coordination with the release of the distillery’s coveted Bourbon and Rye. The annual release from Drew Estate brings one of the most revered named in whiskey into the world of premium cigars. The Tradition features an Ecuadorian Habano Oscuro wrapper, Indonesian binder and fillers from Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

 
 

”The Pappy Van Winkle Tradition is an ultra-complex cigar that honors the history and craftsmanship of the Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. We chose to age these cigars an additional year for this release, as Willy Herrera wanted to amplify the smoothness,” said Drew Estate founder Jonathan Drew in a press release.

The cigar is available in five formats: Coronita (4 x 46), Robusto Grande (5 ½ x 54), Toro (6 x 50), Belicoso Fino (5 x 50) and Churchill (a 7 x 48 available exclusively at Drew Diplomat spirits retailers). 10-count boxes range in price from $145.97 to $245.97.

Drew Estate releases Liga Privada 10 - Year Aniversario

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Drew Estate announced the launch of Liga Privada 10 - Year Aniversario. As the name suggests, this product marks the 10-year anniversary of Drew Estate’s sought-after Liga Privada lines.

The cigar features a Connecticut-grown Criollo wrapper, a San Adrés binder, and fillers from Nicaragua and Honduras.

This cigar, which comes in a 6 x 52 Toro format, will be packaged in 10-count boxes. It has a fishtail cap and a covered foot. The MSRP for a box is set at $179.00. Robusto, Corona Doble, and Torpedo sizes are on the way.

Drew Estate announces Liga Privada H99 Connecticut Corojo

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Drew Estate announced the release of Liga Privada H99 Connecticut Corojo, which will be added to the celebrated Liga Privada lineup that includes No. 9 and T52. The new cigar will make its debut at the IPCPR trade show in Las Vegas this weekend.

H99 features a Corojo wrapper grown in the Connecticut River Valley, a San Andrés binder and fillers from Nicaragua and Honduras. The 6 x 52 cigar will be packaged in 24-count boxes that carry an MSRP of $343.92 per box. Drew Estate’s announcement of the product notes that the company plans to add additional vitolas.

Drew Estate announces new Tin extensions for KFC, Undercrown and Joya lines

Drew Estate announced the national release of Tin extensions to various products in its portfolio, including Undercrown and Kentucky Fire Cured. Three Joya de Nicaragua products — Joya Red, Joya Black, and Joya de Nicaragua Antaño — are also getting Tin extensions.

Fans of Drew Estate’s premium offerings might have tried the tin versions of the Liga No. 9 and T52. Each tin contains 10 4 x 32 cigars. The new tins retail for $13, with the exception of the Joya Antaño, which retails for $18.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

At the source of Florida Sun Grown tobacco

by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

This article was first published in the July/August 2015 issue of Cigar Snob

As the barn door opens, Jeff Borysiewicz is beaming. He’s got that look that you’ve seen on the faces of friends who are about to unveil their new sports cars. It reminds me of that look that comes over Old Man Parker in A Christmas Story when he steps outside to admire the leg lamp in his window.

But Jeff isn’t showing off a Corvette (or even a leg lamp). Once the door is open, he steps inside and pulls out in a John Deere tractor that looks like it’s been cared for as well as anything in a car collector’s garage. He brings it out of the barn, and into an open space, maneuvering it deftly — expertly, even. Expertly because back in high school, long before he was the proprietor of Corona Cigar Co., Jeff was the state of Florida’s tractor driving champion. Twice.

Jeff Borysiewicz smokes a cigar among the tobacco at his Florida Sun Grown tobacco farm in Central Florida.  (image: Zach Ramsey)

Jeff Borysiewicz smokes a cigar among the tobacco at his Florida Sun Grown tobacco farm in Central Florida. (image: Zach Ramsey)

“You know why I only won two?” he asks rhetorically, ready to deliver the nostalgic brag about his teenage tractor dominance. “I was too good. They didn’t let me compete anymore.”

We’ve made a lot of road trips from Miami to Orlando to see Jeff. He’s always interesting, always humble, always ready to tell you something you didn’t already know. He speaks in semi-hushed tones, pausing often to make sure he’s doing a good job and you’re grasping everything he’s says. This time, something’s different. Jeff isn’t just engaged; he is excited.

Really, really excited.

These days, when Jeff’s in the tractor, he’s not collecting trophies. He’s growing tobacco. That’s right; Orlando’s top tobacconist now has a foot at each extreme of the cigar lifecycle: one in retail space and the other at his 20-acre farm in Clermont, Fla., where he’s running Florida’s first premium cigar tobacco harvests in nearly four decades.

“There are states that have cigar shops, but almost every state used to have cigar factories,” he said. “Believe it or not, there are quite a few states that used to grow cigar tobacco. Florida was one of those. Florida grew cigar tobacco from the 1800s to the last crop, which was in 1977. I always knew there was cigar tobacco grown in Florida, but I didn’t realize how big it was. [Florida] was actually the second largest producer after Connecticut. What I found even more amazing was that Florida was the first to grow shade. So when you hear about Connecticut shade, it was actually started in Florida. Then they implemented it up in Connecticut.”

He knew he wanted to reverse the trend that he, like the rest of us, has seen in places like Tampa, where rich cigar history has been relegated to just that — history. He notes that as you drive through Tampa, many of the buildings seem to serve as “tombstones” for the factories that once operated there. For instance, there’s the Ybor factory building, which has historical significance not only for Tampa and the cigar world, but for the Cuban revolution, as it has connections to Cuban national hero José Martí’s time in exile.

That building now belongs to the Church of Scientology. Unfortunately, cigars don’t appear to play much of a role in Dianetics.

“I thought it would be really cool if, in a small way, we could resurrect Florida cigar tobacco,” Jeff said. “So I started doing my homework.”

Planting seeds

Jeff, who had also been a member of the Future Farmers of America (a national organization for middle and high school students) as a kid, has long been passionate about agriculture. In fact, while you can’t yet buy cigars with his tobacco in them yet, Corona Cigar customers are already benefitting from Jeff’s green thumb. His might be the only shop in the country with a “Watermelon Wednesdays” special. If you spend $25 on cigars, you’ll also go home with a free watermelon grown right alongside the tobacco.

Fusing his longtime passions, he took to the business of learning all he could about tobacco, how to grow it and its history in Florida.

“Agriculture and farming were always passions of mine. When I was 15 years old, one of the jobs I had was working in a commercial citrus grove. But I couldn’t afford to become a farmer, because you can’t become a farmer unless you have land. Unless your dad had it and died and passed it on, you’ve got to buy it. Land’s not cheap.”

During his successful career in premium cigars, Jeff was drawn more to farms than factories. Finally in the position to own the land he needed to join the world of tobacco growers, he now has tobacco growing on 10 of his farm’s 20 acres (which he acquired in 2012).

Of course, being one of the country’s top cigar retailers also put him in the position to pick some of the brains of the leaders in cigar tobacco. “I have a good network of people who know what they’re doing,” Jeff said. “I talked to Eduardo Fernandez. He was supportive. He was like, ‘Here are the seeds. Try it out.’ And then once we started growing I went up to Connecticut and met a few farmers up there. So we have a pretty good network of agronomists and farmers that grow tobacco — whether it’s in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Connecticut or even Kentucky.”

Still, Jeff is trying to do what nobody else has in his generation. When you’re doing something this different, the playbook can’t be the same. And everyone who’s been there and done that in Florida is either dead or decades removed from the business. There have been challenges on practically every front, so Jeff and others involved in the project are updating and revising Florida’s premium cigar tobacco playbook as they confront even routine issues. For example, the pests and diseases in Florida aren’t quite the same ones that other tobacco growers contend with. Jeff’s farm has a barrier of tall sugarcane around it (among other measures) to keep grasshoppers out.

“The biggest problem we have in America is the cost of labor. That’s not just a problem with tobacco. That’s with everything in agriculture. America is great when it comes to mechanized agriculture. That’s why we’re the leader when it comes to growing corn and grains. But when it comes to fruits and vegetables, that’s why we have such a hard time. What it costs for a farm laborer in Nicaragua (to work one day) there — it’s one hour’s pay for us,” said Jeff, adding that harvesting tobacco adds layers of complication, since there’s more opportunity for error and loss in the curing barns.

Despite that complication, a visit to the Clermont farm at the end of a workday gives you a look into a small but vibrant operation. Workers seem happy with the job and appreciate what Jeff — who is here frequently and has made it a point to get his hands dirty — is trying to accomplish. They even ask for more of the cigars that Jeff is handing out; you don’t tend to see that kind of interest in cigars among the staff at many foreign farms and factories.

Fruition

After having given Criollo tobacco a shot with his inaugural crop, Jeff currently growing nothing but Corojo 99, which he says is more expensive to grow since it offers a smaller per-acre yield than Criollo.

“We’re sticking with what customers see more value in. If we were trying to do yield, we would grow Habano 2000. But that’s not what this is about,” he said, putting a flame to a single cured leaf he’s pulled from the barn to demonstrate what he describes as the cigar’s suede aroma. I hold the leaf in one hand (the other holds some fresh corn I’m snacking on after pulling it right off the stalk next to the tobacco plants) as we walk up and down the field. It burns slowly, steadily, and evenly until there is nothing left of it.

Jeff Borysiewicz examines tobacco in the curing barn on his Florida Sun Grown tobacco farm.  (image: Zach Ramsey)

Jeff Borysiewicz examines tobacco in the curing barn on his Florida Sun Grown tobacco farm. (image: Zach Ramsey)

Jeff’s tobacco, grown under a new company he formed for this project called Florida Sun Grown (FSG), offers smokers the promise of something new, which doesn’t come along every day in tobacco. Jeff is confident not only that the revival of premium Floridian cigar tobacco will — at least in a small way — bring new excitement to cigars, but also that he (and any Florida growers who follow his lead) will be able to do business without running into some of the marketing issues that Connecticut growers have.

“Connecticut never protected the name Connecticut,” he said, referring to the use of that state’s name to describe certain kinds of tobacco regardless of the tobacco’s provenance. “That’s the biggest issue they have [is that] they allowed the industry to call tobacco Connecticut shade when it isn’t Connecticut shade. It’s Ecuador. And I understand why people do it. If you can buy tobacco that looks like Connecticut shade, might even be a little cleaner, tastes similar, why not buy it for half the price? But as a retailer, I see customers don’t know whether it’s Ecuador or Connecticut.”

The Florida Department of Agriculture, according to Jeff, is “actually good” about helping people in the agriculture industry certify to consumers that their products are of Floridian origin. Jeff and other farmers have orange farmers to thank for that. In the ‘70s, Jeff says, they worked with the state to stamp out products claiming to be made from Florida oranges when, in truth, they were made from concentrate (especially Brazilian) and merely packaged in Florida.

“We get what’s called a certificate of origin from the Department of Agriculture that certifies this tobacco is from Florida. That’s the lesson that the guys in Florida learned on orange juice that the [tobacco growers] in Connecticut never learned,” Jeff said, noting that that’s of particular value given Florida’s reputation. “Florida’s historically known as the cigar state. We’ve got the cigar city of Tampa. We’ve got the little factories in Miami. And Florida, fortunately, has a perceived premium value to consumers when it comes to agricultural products.”

Jeff’s hope is that, some day, we’ll see a cigar whose most noteworthy leaf — the wrapper — was grown on his farm.

“Eduardo Fernandez, who I hold in really high regard, says, ‘Always shoot for growing wrapper, because when you grow wrapper, you’re always going to get filler. But if you’re not shooting to grow wrapper, you’ll never get wrapper.’ So we teach our farm staff that we want only good tobacco going up on the sticks [in the curing barn] to dry,” he said. For now, wrapper-quality tobacco remains less likely because the Corojo 99 that FSG is growing tends to be too thick and heavy, especially since none of it is grown under shade.

Absent wrapper tobacco, Jeff would be pretty excited to see his product in just about any part of a cigar. He describes the profile of his Florida Sun Grown Corojo as having the flavor and aroma of suede, “like a pair of desert boots.”

Just when we’ll see (and smoke) this tobacco in our cigars is unclear.

All in time

For now, there’s no word of any product release around a blend that includes Jeff’s Florida Sun Grown tobacco. But that doesn’t mean it’s not on its way. FSG has a twentieth-anniversary project in the works with Davidoff that should incorporate the Florida tobacco, and Drew Estate — thanks in part to Jeff’s good friend Jonathan Drew — has bought multiple crops from Jeff.

“We’re hungry for that circle to be completed,” Jeff said. The eagerness in his voice is unmistakable. This guy wants people to taste what he’s been growing. “We want to get cigars back so we can sell them and others can sell them. Once the tobacco’s gone, it’s out of our hands.”

That eagerness isn’t only rooted in the raw excitement of a newcomer to the tobacco growing scene. It also comes from a desire to see a return on the investments Jeff has made. Drew Estate — the only company currently buying tobacco from Jeff for anything other than a Corona store exclusive — is taking a more deliberate approach to decisions about the tobacco. Jonathan Drew says that the first batch of tobacco the company bought has been fermenting in Nicaragua (in pilones with Broadleaf) for about a year and a half now and test blends have begun.

The second crop, weighing in at about three tons, was enough to create a dedicated pilón for fermentation. While the company didn’t have enough wrapper tobacco in that crop to reach its wrapper goal, they remain optimistic, as it can take a long time to achieve not only quality, but consistently wrapper-grade tobacco.

“You could take a lot less risk by buying tobacco that’s already out on the market,” said Jonathan in an interview at his Miami office. “It’s a very risky proposition what Jeff and Drew Estate are doing. When you think about Drew Estate, our strength is American tobacco. I’m interested in cultivating American tobaccos. Who buys the most American tobaccos of premium cigars? When it comes to American tobaccos for premium cigars, there is no bigger purchaser right now — not Altadis, not General, not Davidoff, not Fuente. I think this will be the third year in a row that we’re the largest purchaser of American tobaccos for premium cigars. And the largest purchaser of tobacco from the Connecticut River Valley. We buy the most.”

This is Jeff’s dream and Jeff’s vision. I’m a character in his play.
— Jonathan Drew

Clearly, Drew Estate has an interest in purchasing American tobaccos; Jeff’s farm might provide yet another way for them to expand their portfolio of cigars featuring American leaf beyond tobaccos from Connecticut and Kentucky. And that’s just what Jeff has been trying to do. Further, Jeff has his own passions that his latest project fit into perfectly.

For one thing, he’s a Florida guy through and through, and he’s deeply passionate about playing a role in reviving the premium cigar identity of the state in which he was raised. For another, the co-founder and former chairman of Cigar Rights of America wants to demonstrate in yet another way that keeping government regulators away from premium cigars is an issue that can benefit all kinds of American workers.

But mostly, when you tour the Florida Sun Grown farm with Jeff, you realize that he’s excited — giddy, even — about the idea of making something and having that become a part of his livelihood. From curing the crops to repairing farm machinery, Jeff clearly loves every aspect of his passion project.

“This is Jeff’s dream and Jeff’s vision. I’m a character in his play,” said Jonathan. He makes sure to add, though, that he thinks it’s too early to tell whether and how Jeff’s tobacco will figure into the industry. “It’s like we’re in the second inning … It takes six, seven, or eight years before you can say that you have something that’s consistent every year.”

“What will end up happening is, I’m hoping, that we’ll be able to have [our tobacco in] some national brands,” said Jeff.

Some things can’t be rushed, and yet Florida tobacco’s day in the sun can’t come soon enough.

Jonathan Drew has a drink (or three) for you

 

Jonathan Drew — founder of his eponymous Drew Estate cigar company, which was sold to Swisher International in 2014 — announced that he’s going into the booze business with a venture called John Drew Brands.

"My life's journey has been hard, and sometimes painful," said Jonathan in a press release. "Permanently moving to war-torn Nicaragua in 1998 without speaking a word of Spanish was emblematic of the risks I embraced to have access to the raw materials we required for our cigars. While I'm proud of the successful brands & culture we've birthed at DE, my greatest pride and joy was living inside the factory for 14 years, only steps away from the daily production, packaging, and leaf processing. On a daily basis, I was working on the factory floor before breakfast. The dedication and hard work from the DE team in the USA allowed me to remain laser focused on brand ideation from an organic perspective on the factory floor, not from a whack corporate office."

The announcement included a statement from Michael Cellucci, president of Drew Estate, asserting that there are no plans for Jonathan to “disengage” from the cigar company.

John Drew Brands is getting its start with three products: Dove Tale Rum, John Drew Collection Rye Whiskey, and Brixton Mash Destroyer.

In addition, the company's online branding suggests that it'll be moving into other drinks, like coffee, hard tea, white whiskies, and vodka.

 

 

TAA member stores will soon get a new Herrera Estelí vitola

At the TAA Convention and Trade Show (March 6), TAA member tobacconists will see the launch of a new Herrera Estelí vitola made available exclusively to them. The cigar will ship this April.

“The new Herrera Estelí TAA Exclusive is a 6x52 vitola,” according to a press release issued by Drew Estate. “packaged in 12-ct boxes, and will retail for $144.00 per box or $12.00 per cigar. The blend features a Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper, Brazilian Mata Fina binder, and Nicaraguan fillers and is blended by Drew Estate Master Blender Willy Herrera.”

Image: Drew Estate

Image: Drew Estate

Herrera Estelí was the first blend Willy Herrera created after being named Drew Estate’s master blender. It remains a favorite among many smokers. The Herrera Estelí Lonsdale made our list of the Top 25 Cigars of 2015.

Drew Estate also announced a sweepstakes you can enter for a shot at winning a box of these cigars before they hit TAA members’ shelves. Visit drewestate.com/herrerataa to enter.

 

Cigar Vixen’s going to Nicaragua … and you can join her.

 

Delicia Silva, better known as the Cigar Vixen, will be hosting a weeklong trip to Nicaragua for cigar lovers Nov. 9 to 15. The trip will start with a drink and cigar in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua before travelers move on to Estelí for factory visits at Drew EstateJoya de NicaraguaPadrón and more.

The itinerary also includes a visit to Granada, the oldest city in Central America, where patrons will tour the Mombacho Cigar factory and experience vibrant nightlife.

The trip concludes with two days of beachfront relaxation at a private beach house at the Rancho Santana on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. Travelers will enjoy an infinity pool, rum and beer, explore the local beaches, and — of course — smoke to their hearts’ content before finally heading home.

A limited number of tickets (which do not include airfare) are available at CigarVixen.com for $2,349. The price includes meals, cigars and drinks. Special group rates are available. Head to Delicia’s website for more information.

 

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve on the way from Drew Estate

 

Drew Estate announced an exclusive manufacturing agreement with Pappy & Company. Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve will be produced at Drew Estate’s Estelí factory. Blended with tobaccos selected by Jonathan Drew, the medium-plus-strength cigar will feature an Ecuadorian Habano wrapper and Nicaraguan fillers. It is the perfect choice for pairing with any of the Van Winkle bourbon and rye products.

“The finished cigar is the perfect pairing for our family’s whiskeys, and we hope you enjoy them as much as we do,” said Carrie Van Winkle, great granddaughter of the legendary Pappy Van Winkle, in a press release.