Avo Uvezian — renowned composer, cigar brand founder — will be remembered for human connection

Avo Uvezian, the namesake of the popular AVO brand of cigars, died Friday at his home in Orlando. He was 91, having celebrated a birthday just three days earlier.

While cigar lovers knew him for his eponymous smokes, Avo’s career and broader journey took turns unlike those of most of his cigar peers. He was born March 22, 1926 in Beirut. Already an accomplished musician in his own right, he migrated to the United States in 1947 to study music at Juilliard, eventually being drafted into the military during the Korean War (though he didn’t serve in Korea).

There are different versions of the story of how Avo came to decide to throw himself into the cigar business. Whatever his inspiration, it moved him to go to the Dominican Republic to see about making his own. It was there that he met Hendrik, “Henke” Kelner (now of Davidoff fame), who began making Avo’s cigars. They were sold in the States well before Davidoff, which later acquired the AVO brand, though Avo never really seemed to take a break from serving as his brand’s most visible and enthusiastic ambassador.

“The first time I met him, I think I was 5 or 6 years old,” said Scott Kolesaire, AVO’s brand manager. “My parents have been in the retail side of the industry for a long time. I was at the RTDA (trade show) back then, so my first meeting with him had to be in the early ‘90s.

Scott’s first significant conversation with Avo came much later, in 2010, when he attended a dinner at Davidoff’s retail store on Madison Avenue in New York City to commemorate the launch of the AVO LE 10. It wasn’t long after that that Scott landed a job at Davidoff and began working closely with Avo himself.

“Believe it or not, he called every single day, even up until about a week ago. He would call every single day. It was just really cool to see — even at 90 years old — his passion for his brand and the industry and the cigars in general,” Scott said. “Every person who stopped him he would greet, he would talk to. If they wanted him to sign something, he would. If they wanted to take a picture, that was no trouble at all. The consistency of that… That person at that time is the most important thing. That’s why so many people have a connection with him or have a great story about him. It’s more than the cigar. He was really cool and a class act through an through. Really just someone special. You don’t find those people too often.”

Cigar lovers will remember Avo for his passion for cigar culture, his passion for life, his charisma, and his sense of style. No one will ever wear that hat quite like Avo did.

This is home: Jason Taylor's unlikely path to NFL greatness

This story was originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of Cigar Snob.

by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

Jason Taylor’s Hall-of-Fame-worthy career got its start with a chance landscaping encounter. Since then, his work ethic and goal-driven approach have guided him through victory, defeat, and life after football in his adoptive city.

 
 

Every cigar lounge has one at the door. You can’t touch, see, or smell it. But it’s there, covering the threshold so you can’t get inside without passing right through it. It strips away status and squeezes out pretense. Maybe you were someone before you walked in. But that’s who you were.

So when six-time Pro Bowler, two-time AFC Defensive Player of the Year, 100 Sack Club member, and Pro Football Hall of Fame shoo-in Jason Taylor walked into Smoke on the Water in Weston, Fla., it’s no surprise that the regulars gave more attention to his unusually spiffy attire than his celebrity.

“What the hell are you dressed for?” asked a dude at the bar after swallowing his beer and spotting Jason as he towered over the rest of the smokers in his cream-colored pants and seersucker jacket. It’s more common to see him here in shorts and a t-shirt.

“They’re all different,” said Jason, explaining what it is he likes about hanging out at this bar. “They’re all jerks in their own way.”

He’s not complaining, though. This is part of why he comes here. It’s one of the places he can be one of the guys—where friendship and camaraderie look much as they do in the high school locker rooms Jason almost never experienced.

You’re not playing basketball

Jason says that he was a “very shy, unconfident” kid. Not the type who’d ever rock seersucker jackets. “I’d worry about what people would say,” he explained.

He had the same kinds of pro sports dreams plenty of kids that age have. And, unlike the vast majority of kids, he had the natural athleticism to put those dreams within the realm of possibility. It might come as a surprise, then, that playing high school sports hadn’t even occurred to him until Woodland Hills High School football coach George Novak spotted him doing some landscaping and asked whether he played sports.

“No,” Jason said. “I’m home schooled. I don’t play anything.”

“You should play football,” Novak said.

He might not have known it then, but he was well on his way to picking up some seersucker confidence. Jason had never played football outside of pick-up games in the street. Still, Novak recognized the raw potential in his build and invited him to summer practices. Jason agreed, surprising his mom and others who knew he didn’t quite know the game as well as most tenth-grade football players.

“I was athletic enough, so it fit, but I had never played, so I didn’t really understand the intricacies of football. I was a huge Steeler fan, but never really appreciated it in that kind of way,” said Jason, smiling in a way that suggests he finds the start of his football career as funny, weird, and cool as the rest of us do. “I was the new kid. I was about 165 or 170 pounds and played wide receiver, tight end, and free safety. It was funny because things would happen throughout the course of a game and there were hand signals that I didn’t know, so I would just mill around and watch my teammates. They started walking that way and I was walking with them. It was like herding cattle. I had no idea.”

Though he felt lost on the field at times, Jason was far more familiar with his first love, basketball. The opportunity to play both sports was part of what had been so attractive about Novak’s invitation, and he enjoyed being a two-sport athlete without having to give up home schooling.

He was made a similar offer at the end of his high school career, choosing to head to the University of Akron, in part, for the opportunity to continue playing both football and basketball. This time, however, he was met with something of a bait-and-switch move.

“My passion was still basketball,” Jason said. “So when they said, ‘You can play both and we’ll offer you a scholarship,’ you know... Sold!”

“I could still play my passion, which was basketball... Or so I was told. When I got to Akron, the head coach was like, ‘Yeah right. We got yo ass. You’re not playing basketball.’ So they got me on that one, but I did play one year of college basketball. That was the year he was fired. After he got fired, I joined the basketball team.”

I was athletic enough, so it fit, but I had never played, so I didn’t really understand the intricacies of football.
— Jason Taylor

Jason’s college career might not have panned out the way he envisioned it at the beginning, but he put up solid numbers as a four-year starter at Akron. In a 1996 game against Virginia Tech, he put up 12 tackles, two sacks, two recovered fumbles, three stops for a loss, and a tackle on a punt returner that resulted in a safety (a performance that earned him Defensive Player of the Week honors).

Just as his high school coach and college scouts had taken note of how much his sheer athleticism and work ethic could help their teams, NFL teams caught on to how much they stood to gain by picking up the two-time First Team All-Mid-American Conference selection in the 1997 draft. In the third round, he got a call from Jimmy Johnson that sent him packing for his new home: Miami.

A new home

“I like pretty much every coach I’ve played for. I really do. There was one administrative guy and one coach who probably weren’t my fave five, but everybody brought something different. I came in under Jimmy Johnson, who was...” Jason pauses to think of a diplomatic description. “I can’t call him a dictator, but he was very set-structured and hard-nosed. It was a different league then, too. There weren’t as many rules limiting how much you could practice, how much contact you could have, so we went hard. We went hard a lot. It was one speed with Jimmy. Very tough, but it taught me a lot. To come in as a rookie and have a chance to play with all those guys... It’s the people. I always go back to that. It really turned me into the player that I was.”

Jason names players like Dan Marino, Trace Arm- strong, Tim Bowens, and O.J. McDuffie as having been important to his development into an elite NFL player. His relationship with Zach Thomas, however, might be the one that made the deepest impact on Jason, both professionally and personally.

“Zach and I always had a unique relationship because we were teammates, friends, family,” said Jason, smoking a cigar at the poker table in Smoke on the Water’s members-only lounge as he recalled his longtime teammate and brother-in-law. “I learned a lot from Zach. The way he handled himself, the way he prepared himself, the way he fought what sometimes people thought were big odds because of his size and speed.”

Jason, like any fierce competitor in any sport, sought recognition on the field. He kept flash cards that listed annual goals like “make the Pro Bowl” and “Defensive Player of the Year.”

“At the top of that list was always to win a Super Bowl,” he said. “Unfortunately, I failed at that 15 times. But you set a goal and you go after it. It can even be goals that you set on a daily basis. Today, I want to wash my laundry. Today I want to pay the bills. Incrementally, you have stuff going up with bigger and bigger goals.”

“That’s how I approached my career. It’s having something to shoot for. As an athlete, that’s what you do. You’re trying to win the game. That’s what you do. You’re keeping score. I’ve always kept score with myself.”

If Jason was keeping score, so was Miami. He became not only one of the most feared pass rushers in NFL history (he’s sixth on the all-time sack leader list), but also one of the most beloved Miami Dolphins in the history of the franchise. So it was a pretty big deal when he was traded to the Washington Redskins (whose name might have changed by the time this magazine is shipped). He was injured that season and ended up unable to contribute at his normal level. The following season, he ended up back in Miami and playing for new Head Coach Tony Sparano.

“That was great, coming back home,” he said as Dolphins fans in the room who were listening in on our interview recalled the relief they felt on his homecoming. “I mean, it’s been said long before I was born, there’s no place like home. I love it here. In the good years, early on in my career, and through the bad years, when it wasn’t always fun, it was always great to be here and be embraced by this fan base.”

If his being traded away by Dolphins executives caused a stir, it was an even bigger deal when he signed with the eternal archrival New York Jets, it was a treachery that ranked him somewhere between Judas and Benedict Arnold in the eyes of Miami’s most passionate, jersey-burning fans.

“People hated me for it, called me a traitor. Paul Castronovo (half of The Paul and Young Ron Show’s morning radio duo that’s become a household name in South Florida) burned jerseys and all that crap. But, in the end, it was a business thing,” Jason said. “Strangely enough, we had a good year in 2010. One game from the Super Bowl. It was the closest I ever got to a Super Bowl. My family and I embraced the change, embraced the move. I know Dolphins fans don’t like to hear that, but we enjoyed it. It was a little strange coming to Miami and being in the visitors’ locker room in Miami.”

Throughout the week of that game (and even before), Jason had had to deal with fans’ and the media’s focus on the traitor-comes-back-as-enemy storyline. Not the kind of thing an athlete who prefers to keep this head in the game wants to deal with while he’s preparing.

“The storyline wasn’t fun during the week, but when we kick the ball off, it’s great being booed. And we won. Sorry,” he said, laughing as he shrugged at Dolphins fans in the room. “But they beat us in New York, so they got some get-back.”

Life after football

While Jason set and achieved more (and more lofty) individual goals than most players can hope to, he always talks about those achievements in the context of the people around him who helped him succeed. His aversion to talking about his own success without putting it all in terms of how others contributed makes sense. Considering his reputation as one of the “good guys” of the professional sports world, you anticipate this kind of gracious humility. Too often, good deeds and positive stories are overlooked in favor of scandals and bad behavior. Jason Taylor was one of the few who got explicit recognition for being a model citizen—namely in the form of his 2007 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which came three years after the creation of the Jason Taylor Foundation.

“I was a lucky recipient of a lot of positive attention. There’s a lot of guys in this league who do a lot of great things in their communities on a daily basis. Sure, the media’s going to pick and choose who they highlight. But any time there’s a positive story of somebody who’s impacted the community in a positive way, impacted their teammates in a positive way, done the right thing... Any time a story like that is talked about or written or televised, it’s great for everybody,” he said. “I don’t do it for the recognition. I do it because we enjoy it. We love it. When you see a kid prosper and grow... It’s like a peacock. You see those feathers open up and their chest pumps out a little bit and they get confidence. It’s amazing.”

The Jason Taylor Foundation’s mission is “to support and create programs that facilitate the personal growth and empowerment of South Florida’s children in need.” Aside from creating its own youth programs, the organization helps fund similar charitable endeavors (usually in South Florida). For instance, the foundation opened the Jason Taylor Reading Room in Miramar, Fla., which—among other things—helps kids improve their vocabulary and reading skills. The foundation has also been a supporter of Take Stock in Children, a Florida nonprofit that primarily offers services and scholarships to students.

“You find a problem with kids who fall behind in middle school and don’t have a chance to ever catch up. They get into high school and they’re so far behind, they come from an area where they don’t see a lot of other opportunities. Next thing you know, they drop out. The dropout rate in South Florida is just ridiculous,” said Jason. “So that was kind of our focus; to open the foundation, support others, but then find our niche. We found our niche with the educational piece, with the reading room, with the college scholarships, and now this big poetry program that we have.”

 
 

Of course, Jason is able to pursue these charitable goals he’s set for himself and the Jason Taylor Foundation in large part because his fame puts real weight behind anything he associates with it. In other words, he not only went back to Miami twice as an athlete—he’s stuck around to put his success to work for his adoptive city.

“It’s all a trickle-down effect. Football gave me a platform and an opportunity here in this city, and the city supported me as an athlete for so many years,” said Jason. “So the football relationship opened up the doors for the foundation, and the foundation was able to stand on its own two feet very quickly. I’m known for playing football, but I’m not running the foundation on a daily basis. If it weren’t for the people who work with me and work for me, it wouldn’t work out.”

As valuable as the Jason Taylor brand is to his charity and business ventures, he’s a lot more hands-on than putting his seal of approval on things. The agenda for the week of our interview included speaking engagements, visits to kids at hospitals, a book launch to raise money for a children’s poetry initiative, and a fundraiser at Smoke on the Water. And that’s just the charity-related stuff. Jason Taylor has joined (and learned from) Dan Marino and Alonzo Mourning as one of South Florida’s most notable ex-athlete philanthropists.

“For him to put his name on it, it had to represent what he stood for, so he paid very close attention to everything, down to the logo. Every program is run through him, every event concept, every dollar that we donate, it all passes through him first,” said Jason Taylor Foundation Executive Director Seth Levit, who left a media relations position with the Miami Dolphins—where he got to know Jason—to run the foundation day to day.

“We do an annual celebrity golf classic. It’s the biggest fundraiser we do all year,” he said. “It’s a bear. We bring in a ton of volunteers and we have celebrities who fly in—everybody from Dan Marino and Mario Lemieux to The Jonas Brothers and members of N’Sync. One year, Jason showed up at the office unannounced. Didn’t know that we were stuffing gift bags with swag for the golfers. A couple of our volunteers got wide-eyed and were kind of blown away. Next thing you know, he’s down there sweating and stuffing bags and helping organize them. He jumps in and becomes one of the volunteers, so to speak. If something needs to be done, he’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and jump in and do it.”

He takes his role at Smoke on the Water just as seriously. Though he’s an investor who could just as easily let others take care of day-to-day tasks, the regulars—with whom he’s on a first-name ba- sis—know better than to be surprised on nights when he decides to start cleaning windows and sweeping floors.

“He’s way more hands on than just doing the books. He loves to do physical stuff, electrical work, cleaning glass, working on merchandising in the humidor,” said Smoke on the Water owner Dan Husley, adding that Jason’s “OCD” helps make him the ideal person to organize a large humidor. “He’s a physical guy, so sitting behind a register doesn’t work for him. He’s also not afraid of anybody looking at him and saying, ‘What are you doing that for?’”

At the top of that list (of goals) was always to win a Super Bowl. Unfortunately, I failed at that 15 times.
— Jason Taylor

It was through Dan’s previous Weston cigar shop, Alligator Alley Cigars, that he developed a relationship with the football star during his career. Jason didn’t start smoking cigars until after he was drafted by the Dolphins. Eventually, he fell in love with the pastime and started looking for a place to light up— an especially important thing for smokers in South Florida, where it’s uncomfortably hot outside for so much of the year. As Dan tells it, Jason didn’t show up much while he was with the Dolphins, but would head to Dan’s store during his stints with the Redskins and Jets to minimize exposure to Miami’s more die-hard Dolphins fans.

“I found Dan’s old spot on Alligator Alley and thought it was great,” Jason said. “Little living room, some leather chairs. A lot of cigars, not many guys, not many chairs. It just felt like home. He had this idea of doing this bigger, better place with a bar and all that. He was shutting that shop down anyway, so I had to come over here. I figured I might as well invest. The cigar shop became a hobby that, in turn, supports the foundation and a lot of charities around the city. Dan does a great job of always being welcoming to charities and hosting events. We’re hosting an event here in about an hour for the foundation tonight, so, you know, one scratches the other’s back.”

Smoke on the Water is tailor-made for event hosting, but it’s an incredible hangout on any day of the week. There are plenty of bars with humidors. And there are plenty of cigar shops with alcohol. This is one of those places, though, that does both things exceptionally well. Walk in through the front door and turn to your left, and you’ve got a well-stocked bar with a fantastic view. Look to your right, and you’ve got one of South Florida’s best stocked humidors, with cigars on every inch of its walls, from the floor to the high ceilings.

While Smoke on the Water was an upgrade in Jason’s smoking home away from home, it still has the familiar, unpretentious feel that he remembered liking about Dan’s old spot. “(The people here) come from different walks of life, different nationalities, different backgrounds, and they all come together to enjoy a similar hobby in smoking. We’re not a big technical club where guys sit and talk about cigars in a technical way, you know? It’s a lot of TV watching, talking sports, talking business, talking politics—even though it drives me nuts when they do. It’s a lot more than just ‘cigar geeks,’” he said.

While life after football has afforded Jason the opportunity to spend more of his time giving back to his community and hanging out as a regular Joe (or something like that) at the cigar bar he’s invested in, it’s also presented new challenges that he didn’t have to deal with as a pro athlete.

“When I played football, I was always away for most of the day, but I came home at night. I slept in my own bed for six nights out of the week. We’d travel for one night the night before the game and then you’re back home,” he said. “So probably the biggest transition from football was traveling. I did ESPN for a while. I’m getting ready to take another gig out of New York. So that’s probably been the biggest thing—being away from my kids more than I used to be.”

Be it smoking on the water, fishing with his kids, or giving back to the community that embraced him on his road to NFL stardom, Jason Taylor is always finding ways to deepen his connection to Miami and the surrounding areas, where he’s put down roots stronger than lots of natives’.

“This is home. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, but this is home,” he said.

While he’s no longer suiting up to knock the fear of God into opposing quarterbacks, he’s still taking the same goal-driven approach to his new life that he did to being an NFL superstar. So what are those goals?

“That’s one thing I don’t do. I don’t share my goals. When I was a player, I always thought the same way. No one’s ever going to set a goal loftier than what I set for myself,” he said. “I was disappointed after very successful games, because it’s always the play you didn’t make or the thing you didn’t do right. As long as you stay hungry, like every day is your first day, I think you can always succeed and achieve and continue to grow.”

Willy Herrera - Drew Estate

This profile was first published in the July/August 2014 issue of Cigar Snob

by Nicolás A. Jiménez

As soon as he stepped out of his car on Little Havana’s Calle Ocho, it was brewing time. The cigar shops and factories that dot the neighborhood were Willy Herrera’s stomping grounds when he was making cigars at El Titán de Bronze. Since his transition to Drew Estate about three years ago, his responsibilities at the company’s Estelí, Nicaragua factory and event appearances all over the U.S. have kept him away from home. What he’s missed most about Miami, he says, is the Cuban coffee.

There’s a lot to love about Estelí, though. Before his current gig, Willy had never been to Nicaragua. He’s been glad to find that—as he puts it—he fits in.

“When I’m over there, the biggest thing I enjoy is the peacefulness,” he said, sipping a Cuban coffee at Little Havana’s El Pub restaurant, where the espresso pours are especially generous. “It doesn’t matter if I’m here at my house or at a six-star hotel anywhere in the States, I never sleep as well as I do over there. It’s just the lifestyle. The people are so warm, so humble. I fit right in. They’re so eager to help, to learn, to do better, to move up ahead.”

That drive to improve and get ahead is easy for Willy to relate to. After getting his first taste of full-time cigar work while filling in for a sick in-law at El Titán de Bronze (which was founded by his wife’s parents and grandparents), Willy left his job in banking to pursue a life in cigars.

It doesn’t matter if I’m here at my house or at a six-star hotel anywhere in the States, I never sleep as well as I do [in Estelí]. It’s just the lifestyle. The people are so warm, so humble. I fit right in.
— Willy Herrera

“My father-in-law had gotten sick,” he said. “I’d been in banking seven and a half years, but I would come in on weekends, after work, whatever. When he gets sick, I come in for a week and... Dude, I just fucking fell in love with everything about it. The lifestyle, the people you work with, the actual tobacco, everything about it. A week after that, I started full-time with the factory. That was it. I quit my job.”

As soon as he stepped out of his car on Little Havana’s Calle Ocho, it was brewing time. The cigar shops and factories that dot the neighborhood were Willy Herrera’s stomping grounds when he was making cigars at El Titán de Bronze. Since his transition to Drew Estate about three years ago, his responsibilities at the company’s Estelí, Nicaragua factory and event appearances all over the U.S. have kept him away from home. What he’s missed most about Miami, he says, is the Cuban coffee.There’s a lot to love about Estelí, though. Before his current gig, Willy had never been to Nicaragua. He’s been glad to find that—as he puts it—he fits in.

“When I’m over there, the biggest thing I enjoy is the peacefulness,” he said, sipping a Cuban coffee at Little Havana’s El Pub restaurant, where the espresso pours are especially generous. “It doesn’t matter if I’m here at my house or at a six-star hotel anywhere in the States, I never sleep as well as I do over there. It’s just the lifestyle. The people are so warm, so humble. I fit right in. They’re so eager to help, to learn, to do better, to move up ahead.”

That drive to improve and get ahead is easy for Willy to relate to. After getting his first taste of full-time cigar work while filling in for a sick in-law at El Titán de Bronze (which was founded by his wife’s parents and grandparents), Willy left his job in banking to pursue a life in cigars.

“My father-in-law had gotten sick,” he said. “I’d been in banking seven and a half years, but I would come in on weekends, after work, whatever. When he gets sick, I come in for a week and... Dude, I just fucking fell in love with everything about it. The lifestyle, the people you work with, the actual tobacco, everything about it. A week after that, I started full-time with the factory. That was it. I quit my job.”

Jaime García - My Father Cigar

This profile was first published in the July/August 2014 issue of Cigar Snob.

by Nicolás A. Jiménez

It hasn’t been that long since Don Pepín’s Little Havana factory, El Rey De Los Habanos, was catching the cigar world by surprise and making the García name one of the hottest in the industry. By now, Pepín and his son Jaime (along with daughter Janny, who plays a key role on the business side in Miami) are well-known to cigar smokers everywhere, and their sprawling Estelí factory is a concrete sign that they’ve made it. At 44 years old, and with a palate he describes as being practically identical to Pepín’s, Jaime’s poised to keep the My Father brand true to the style that’s won it so much success for a long time to come.

“When I was a kid (in Cuba), you worked in the fields as part of your school curriculum. Later on, I studied agronomy and then worked at the Cuban tobacco company,” said Jaime, in Spanish, of his start in tobacco. By the time he and Pepín left Cuba for Miami (where they’d join Janny, who had already left their native country), he had experience heading quality control at a Cuban factory.

My Father has grown quickly, in large part, because of the company’s ability to achieve well-balanced flavor in full-strength cigars. Pepín’s track record has wowed consumers and the cigar industry, leaving big shoes and bigger expectations for himself and his heir apparent—who also happens to be Pepín’s biggest fan.

“My dad as a cigar maker is, in my opinion, the best there is. If I told you otherwise, I would be lying,” he said. “The only difference between the two of us is that he’s 64 and I’m 44. We’re very much alike in terms of what we look for in tobacco. We have similar palates. We talk a lot about new projects and new blends. We do everything as a team. We’re peas in a pod.”

My dad as a cigar maker is, in my opinion, the best there is. If I told you otherwise, I would be lying.
— Jaime García

One thing that sets Jaime apart not only from his father, but from the vast majority of other cigar brand leaders, is his agronomy expertise. His formal training in Cuba, coupled with the opportunity and resources at his disposal in Nicaragua and the foundation built by Pepín, will make him an even greater force in the future.

“Nicaragua and Cuba are very similar as far as the conditions of the climate and the soil. In Cuba, you can pick up certain experiences. But today, here in Nicaragua, there’s more opportunity than you’d have in Cuba because the possibilities are real. We have fertilizer, we have chemical analysis, we have all this science on our side in the sense that we have access to all the things that would help us make a better product. The tobacco varieties we grow are all well-known in Cuba. In these conditions and with these resources, of course the end product is superior,” said Jaime.

“The experience in Cuba is also different because, here, you work for your own company,” he continued, pointing out a contrast between the state-controlled Cuban cigar monopoly and the more free market in Central America. “That’s important because you’re doing your own planning for planting, developing your own fertilization methods, you understand the chemical analysis of the soil, and that’s something we all do as a team. Knowledge of agronomy enriches that whole process.”

While Jaime stressed that he and the My Father team are focused narrowly on their own cigars and not on what the rest of the market is doing, there are a few other cigar and tobacco men he exchanges with regularly about the business.

“I have friends in cigars and tobacco, like Gustavo Cura from Oliva Tobacco Company in Tampa. We talk tobacco often—almost every week, three or four nights a week. I talk to Pete Johnson (of Tatuaje) about once a month when he’s visiting. I also talk to Sathya and Robbie Levin (of Ashton). I have a good relationship with Ernesto Pérez-Carrillo. He and I talk shop when we see each other,” he said.

Of course, Jaime says he appreciates trade shows and events as a way to connect with tobacconists and My Father fans, but Jaime is all about tobacco.

“I’m going to tell you the truth,” Jaime said, getting noticeably excited just talking about how into this he is. “I love my job. I live and breathe tobacco. I love everything about the tobacco industry. It’s part of my life. Given that, asking me to choose which part of it I love most is like asking me whether I would prefer to have you cut off my foot or my arm,” he said.

If there’s any one part of being in the cigar industry that makes Jaime uncomfortable—even if only momentarily—it’s being in situations where his broken English gets in the way of exchanges with consumers. As a cigar maker, though, his priority is to make sure My Father blends are where they need to be. Despite the speed with which the company has grown, that means making sure the smoking experience comes first, not the number of cigars they produce.

“We want to make sure that we stay relevant as a result of our quality,” said Jaime. “At no time have we talked about making production volume a priority. I don’t think about making 20 million cigars or anything like that. I want to make whatever I’m capable of making at 100 percent quality. I want for every cigar we make to be one that the smoker is happy with.”

So what’s on the way for My Father fans? Earlier this year, La Antiguedad was released to the rave reviews we’ve come to expect when Pepín and his crew bring a product to market. At this year’s IPCPR trade show, the company will be debuting the My Father Connecticut, which Jaime describes as a very aromatic mild-to-medium smoke made with tobacco that’s been aged at least three years.

“We’re in the midst of developing more blends for the future. We’re also harvesting and curing tobacco in enormous quantities this year—so much so that we’re building new equipment in order to be able to ferment all the tobacco we’ll have accumulated,” said Jaime.

My Father is a well-established, traditional brand run by a family with deep roots in tobacco, a strong sense of tradition, and a perfectionist approach to creating their product. With a growing stockpile of tobacco and plans to release a mild-to-medium smoke—something that’s usually well outside the wheelhouse of the My Father brand—you can be sure that the company will continue to find ways to keep things fresh for the legions of loyal followers it’s amassed. Jaime, with the love of tobacco he’s inherited from Pepín and the technical skills to get every step of the process just right, is the ideal leader for the next chapter in the My Father story.

Cigar industry leaders on Cigar Snob's 10th anniversary

We asked some cigar industry leaders (and our publisher) to reflect on the last 10 years of Cigar Snob. Here’s what they had to say.

Erik Calviño

Publisher, Cigar Snob Magazine

About eight years ago, I was working on the magazine from a New York City hotel room. At that time, I was an IT consultant in the data warehousing field by day and producing the magazine at night. It was around midnight when my old friend José Oliva, fresh off the CRA Freedom Tour, called. We had spoken at the Freedom Tour’s grand finale in Orlando, where I’d expressed hesitation about taking the magazine national. Up to this point, the magazine was called Florida Cigar Snob and was only distributed in our home state. I felt we had a good format and had figured out readers’ likes and dislikes, but I wasn’t sure about the investment it would take to go national.

We talked late into the night about how to grow the magazine and what he’d want to see as an advertiser. It was useful insight, but the pep talk was priceless. He used the analogy of a ship cruising in the harbor where the waves are insignificant and how the true test of the ship was how it handled the “blue water.” Can it stay the course in rough seas? That issue, the November/December 2008 issue, was the end of Florida Cigar Snob. In January, we published the first national Cigar Snob. We’ve been sailing blue seas, rough water and all, ever since. Thank you, José.

This started as and still is a partnership between my father, Oscar M. Calviño and me. We’ve always been fortunate to have surrounded ourselves with talented, dedicated individuals who make tremendous sacrifices for the magazine. Ivan Ocampo has not only made sacrifices, but has elevated his skill as a producer and fixer. Those skills are on full display in every issue’s photo shoots. Thank you, Ivan.

When we’re against deadlines and during crazy travel schedules, my wife Barbara has held down the fort at home with amazing grace, and managed to get our boys to every Tae Kwon Do class, football, baseball, and cross country practice without missing a beat, or a day of work! Without her support, none of this would be possible. Thank you for that. I love you.

Though we publish a magazine, this business looks and feels a lot like a family-owned cigar company. It’s a dream come true to walk into the office every morning and be greeted by my “little” sister Jamilet. The operations of the company are handled by my father. Without his tireless efforts, we wouldn’t have the money to pay for printing, much less our monthly coffee supply. Thank you, viejo.

It’s been a hell of a ride. Thanks to our team for your hard work and dedication. Thanks to our advertisers and partners for the continued support. And thanks to you, the reader. You are the reason we do this.

José Oliva

CEO, Oliva Cigar Company

The pages of this magnificently matured publication are filled with the stories of an industry made up of dreamers and craftsmen. Men and women who represent a world mostly alien today. True frontiersmen who place a seed in the earth, cultivate the fruits of that earth, craft a product by hand and bring it to market. Without automation or manipulation — just what human hands can create and relationships can market. I can think of no other industry like our own.

Such is the story of Cigar Snob, a publication started by a father and son, armed only with their passion for this rare craft and a desire to tell its stories. For a decade now, they have taken us along with them on their journeys. We have been fortunate to be both spectators and participants. Along the way new cigar families have started their own stories and with them have come true innovations. The older families have cemented their legacies, steeped in tradition and true to the tenets of our craft. Together, they form the brilliant mosaic of the premium cigar industry.

Flipping through a decade’s worth of Cigar Snob publications, we can relive these journeys as they unfolded through the eyes of Erik Calviño. Cigar Snob has a lot in common with cigars themselves. It is the product of someone who set out to tell a story and became one of the stories and part of the whole family.

Congratulations on your first decade. To many more!

Dylan Austin

VP Marketing, Davidoff of Geneva USA

Wow. Has it been 10 years already? Erik and the Cigar Snob family were some of the first people I met when I came into the business 10 years ago. I left our first meeting thinking, “These guys will do something special.” And they have.

It’s been exciting watching the evolution of the magazine and its team — every careful step advancing the unique, quality experience they provide to readers and advertisers. Most people don’t understand what it takes to put together such a top-notch publication. I’ve seen firsthand the work Erik and team put in, the passion they have for great content, and the dedication to repeat this with each issue. It’s nothing short of amazing and the success of Cigar Snob since inception is proof.

As Cigar Snob grew, we grew along with them. We became part of their success; they became part of ours. We became part of their family; they became part of ours. Not something you find much these days. This is the spirit of true partnership. For that, I am and always will be thankful.

Erik, Oscar, Ivan, Jami, Nick, Andy and the rest of the gang at Cigar Snob, thank you for a wonderful 10 years of partnership and friendship. I love you all like family, it’s been a blast and I’m looking forward to celebrating your 20th anniversary and all the memories created in between.

Michael Herklots

VP Retail & Brand Development, Nat Sherman

Ten years have come and gone awfully quick. While much remains the same, so much is different. The premium cigar industry was “under fire” 10 years ago, subject to regulation and taxation in ways we had never seen. Ten years later that statement remains entirely true, though the severity has far surpassed that of a decade past. Many faces of our industry remain familiar, yet the perception of those faces and their brands has changed. Those of us who welcomed and embraced new “boutique” brands have proudly watched them transition into leaders. And as new consumers come to love our hobby, they only know the current snapshot of who’s who and what’s what, paving the way for another wave of “boutique” brands to win favor with fans, while allowing the “industry veterans” to welcome the new generation to a place at the table with companies that once inspired them.

A decade ago, the tobacconist was the conduit between consumer and manufacturer, helping guide manufacturer decisions and consumer palates. If you wanted to learn, you needed to have a conversation with someone with proven expertise. Today, too often in solitude, words are entered into rectangular boxes on a screen and, after reading blogs, “liking” images, a retweet and a direct message, new experts are born...accepting what they’ve just seen as fact. Facts, a decade ago, were checked. Most of them.

Ten years ago, I was the youngest guy... Ten years ago I met Tiffany. Ten years ago, I had the privilege of working for a great family business, Davidoff of Geneva. Today, I’m married to Tiffany, the mother of our two beautiful little girls. Today I have the privilege of working with a great family business, Nat Sherman. A decade ago, today, and hopefully for many decades to come, I’ll remain blessed doing something I love, with people I love, in an industry I love. Congratulations Cigar Snob on 10 years!

Jeff Borysiewicz

President & Founder, Corona Cigar Co.

Congrats to the Cigar Snob family on 10 great years of informative, entertaining and eye-catching content. Besides being a huge fan of the magazine, it’s great to witness a small, family business grow from a local publication to a well-respected national magazine. You guys have stayed true to your vision and passion. Looking back on the early days, I can’t forget Gary Arzt, who introduced me to Cigar Snob magazine. Gary was a great guy and I still miss him.

Keep up the great work and continued success!

Abe Dababneh

Founder, Smoke Inns of South Florida

Decade. The word may only have six letters, but it is a pretty big word. I recall the feeling of immensity when I first learned its meaning as a child. A decade seemed like an insurmountable distance away. Unfortunately, as life ages us, time becomes fleeting. Don’t get me wrong; 10 years is a long time, it just seems to zip by us now as adults. When I heard this was Cigar Snob’s 10th Anniversary Issue, I was taken aback. Has it really been 10 years? This year, my company celebrated the 10th Anniversary of The Great Smoke, our annual mega cigar event. From its very first year and the throughout the following nine years, Cigar Snob has been its official publication. That is how far back I go with the Calviño family.

I remember seeing the first issue. I was with one of my mentors, Sal Fontana, in the Camacho offices in Miami. Erik Calviño was in an office with Christian Eiroa, likely trying to get new advertising, when Sal showed me the issue and told me about a nice young man (of course everyone was a young man to Sal) who was starting a cigar publication. “Crazy nuts,” I said to myself. I had seen other magazines flail and flounder attempting to find success. I thought this would be a fleeting venture. Then I had an opportunity to sit with Erik. I saw the passion and vision of where he wanted to take the magazine. His dedication to the cause was blindingly apparent. I’m proud to say I decided to begin advertising with what was then a small regional publication and have been an advertiser ever since.

To see Cigar Snob’s growth over the past 10 years, not only in circulation, but also in content, appearance and quality, has only confirmed that my decision to be part of it was spot on. Cigar Snob has become a national presence in the cigar community. I look forward to what the next decade brings us.

Congratulations to the Calviño Family and the whole Cigar Snob team.

Rafael Nodal

Owner, Boutique Blends Cigars

Congratulations to Cigar Snob on their 10th anniversary. I am looking forward to celebrating the 20th together. Ten years ago, I was 41, able to party all night, wake up and put in a full day of work the next day. Now I am 51 and have to go to bed at 11 p.m. or I can’t function the following day. I just hope that when we celebrate the 20th anniversary, the party is at 5 p.m. so I can go to bed by 8.

Alan Rubin

Owner, Alec Bradley Cigar Company

Erik and his Cigar Snob family have been instrumental in providing cigar manufacturers a platform to tell our stories. Actually, Cigar Snob was one of the first cigar publications to focus on the more personal elements of the individuals behind the brand — talking about our preferences on fashion, clothing, libations, vacations, cars, and more. Erik, being a family man, always brought a warm-hearted family atmosphere to our meetings. I’d like to personally congratulate Erik and the Cigar Snob family on a successful 10 years! The Alec Bradley Family wishes you many more years of continued success!

Erik Espinosa

Owner, Espinosa Premium Cigars

I and my team at Espinosa Cigars would like to congratulate Cigar Snob Magazine on their 10-year anniversary. Your magazine is a perfect blend of topical and educational information, keeping us up to date on industry trends and culture, as well as news and feature stories. Our congratulations.

Manny Iriarte

President, Iriarte Photography & Design

I practically started my career when I got to know Cigar Snob. I’ve always felt like part of the magazine. It’s a relationship of friendship, passion, work ... I would even say they’re like family. I’m very grateful and proud that we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of the founding of one of the world’s best cigar magazines.

Craig Cass

Owner, Tinder Box Charlotte/President, IPCPR

Cigars get tons of negative press. Cigar Snob has done an amazing editorial job of finding real-life stories where cigars were a central character. None stands out more than the article on Darrell and Debbie Boyette. When Debbie had a critical heart issue, there were few surgeons in the world capable of performing the procedure. Darrell is my GM (Tinder Box Charlotte) and one of our best customers is Devinder Bhatia, M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon. He knew a specialist in Houston, and with the cigar connection, Debbie was soon on an air ambulance to Houston. Cigars saved a life and Cigar Snob was there to tell the story.

Paul Palmer-Fernández

President, Casa Fernandez Cigars

I have known and worked with Erik Calviño and Cigar Snob for 10 years and found him to be forthright, a wealth of knowledge, uncompromised, and with a true passion for the cigar industry. It shows! We began advertising when Cigar Snob’s circulation was 5,000. After 10 years, it’s 60,000. Keep doing what you do and keep making the world aware of cigars, “The Last Affordable Luxury.” Thank You!

An interview with the owners of Córdoba & Morales Cigars

You’d be hard pressed to find nicer people in the cigar industry than Emille and Azarías Mustafa, the husband-and-wife team behind Córdoba & Morales Cigars. Earlier this week, they were visiting Miami from their home in Orlando, so I met with them at Mesa’s Cigars to talk about their company, their latest release, and their outlook on the FDA’s expansion of its own regulatory authority.

Nicolás Antonio Jiménez: Tell me about the history of your brand. I think that even a lot of people who have come across your cigars might not have ever heard much about how you got started.
Azarías Mustafá:
I got started in Orlando, actually, doing a two-cigar pack. It had a Connecticut and a maduro.

NAJ: What were they called?
AM:
Front 9 and 19th Hole. People started to like the cigars. I started giving them to friends when I would go to shops. They’d say it was good and that I should come out with a box of 20 or so. That’s how the brand got started. I’m not following anyone, but my grandmother did used to have a farm in Pinar del Río where all she did was grow tobacco. Her name was Celestina Córdoba Morales, so I named the company after her. This will be our fifth year.
After Front 9 and 19th Hole, I did an Habano and called it Family Reserve.

NAJ: Where have the biggest jumps in the company’s growth been?
AM:
I did a cigar three years ago called Clave Cubana, which had a red band and a red box. It was on the more expensive side, but it did really well. That was when I figured out, you know, if you have something good and people like it, you have a niche to sell a few boxes. Good cigars can make you good money. People ask me to make more; I could, but it wouldn’t be with the same wrapper, so I choose not to compromise or lie about it. It’s a thousand boxes a year and that’s it. Then Clave Cubana Etiqueta Blanca (Spanish for White Label) did well, too.
Last year, we really killed it with our Platino line, but it was kind of a messy brand. I started making them in the U.S., in Tampa. A childhood friend had come from Cuba and he’s a great roller, so we started making some cigars in Tampa. We made too many different cigars with just one label, so there was an Habano and a Sumatra — several different variations — all with the same “Platino” band. I realized I was confusing people, but they’re still selling. That branding could use some help, but I still get orders all the time. People call and say, “I want that Platino … I don’t even know which one it is!”

 
Azarías and Emille Mustafa (image: Córdoba & Morales Cigars)

Azarías and Emille Mustafa (image: Córdoba & Morales Cigars)

 

NAJ: Before this, you were a golf pro and Emille was a massage therapist. In both cases it was kind of a big transition into the cigar business. Where has the steepest learning curve been?
AM:
On the cigar side, you might think you know a little bit about tobacco — nobody really knows everything — but sometimes you make something you think people will love and it doesn’t sell. Other times you make something that you’re not crazy about and it sells well. So that kind of thing is hard.
There’s also big competition out there and marketing is no joke. I’ve never been able to afford advertising. I was actually hoping that this would be the year we could invest in advertising, but I’m kind of scared now with this thing from the FDA. I put everything I have into this. I don’t have another job. Emille doesn’t have another job. People say, “Get ready for golf again!”
Honestly, though, this was going to be the year, even if the advertising happened after the show. I spent a little more money on my booth at the IPCPR trade show this year. I had Dave Payne helping me with PR. We had so many things planned. Let’s see what happens. I’m not totally negative yet.

NAJ: You’ve got to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Where are the cigars made?
AM: Mostly, they’re made at the American Caribbean Cigars. The only things that are not made there are my little experiments in Tampa with my friend, who was a master roller in Cuba. It’s really hard to work there though, because he can only do so much. For example, with Platino, people really liked it and he couldn’t make enough. I want to start to make everything at American Caribbean.

NAJ: We’ll revisit the FDA, but first let’s talk about your new cigar, Finca Santa Fe. What’s in the blend and what was it that led you to bring this kind of cigar into your portfolio?
AM:
I think the number one thing is that I had a lot of great cigars from all over the world, but I never had any cigar that could compare to the Cuban aroma. Some people might criticize me for it, but I love Cuban cigars. And when I say Cubans, I’m not talking about what they’re making right now. We actually went to visit Cuba in February. It was the first time I had been back in 20 years. And I went to La Corona Factory and they didn’t have a leaf in there older than seven months. How can you make good cigars if most of the tobacco you have is practically green, you know? But I went to my uncle’s farm and he made me a cigar where all the tobacco was from one little piece of land. It tasted amazing. The philosophy behind this brand is that we want to have something really unique, really well made, with a firm draw, and that lasts for a long time.

I went to my uncle’s farm (in Cuba) and he made me a cigar where all the tobacco was from one little piece of land. It tasted amazing.
— Azarías Mustafa

We did an event in Orlando at a store called Cigarz on the Avenue to launch it and sold 35 boxes in one little store. The owner was really impressed because so many of his customers came back saying how much they’d loved the cigar.

 
(Image: Córdoba & Morales)

(Image: Córdoba & Morales)

 

NAJ: Where did the name Finca Santa Fe come from?
AM:
That was the name of the farm where my grandmother was born in San Luís, Pinar del Rió.

NAJ: How long did she grow tobacco on that farm?
AM: From the ‘20s to the early ‘60s. Then she kind of got older and one of her sons stayed there working the farm. She moved closer to the city and died there in 1989.
She was like the man of the house. It’s funny, but in that area there were not a lot of ladies running little farms. She had 16 kids — eight boys and eight girls — and she always had a cigar in her hand.
I know people in Cuba exaggerate their stories a lot, but there is one about her being pregnant and having to have a baby while she was on her way home. She stopped to see the midwife before she got home, had the baby, and said, “Is the baby OK? I have to get back to work.” Crazy.

NAJ: How many of these cigars do you plan to make?
AM: We’ll only be making 9,000 to 10,000 a year. I probably will only put it in our best 30 or 40 stores. And I don’t think I will be able to expand this line too much from there because, the way things are going, those stores will move these cigars quickly. I just gave it to one new store two days ago and he already placed a new order.

NAJ: Shifting gears, since you brought up the FDA thing earlier … We talked about preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. What preparing for the worst look like for you?
AM: We talk about saving every penny in case the (cost of FDA approval for new brands) is not so crazy. If it’s a really crazy number… It doesn’t even have to be that crazy. If it’s $20,000, I don’t think I can do it. But if it’s $5,000, I can try to work with it. But it’s all up in the air. Nobody knows. Everybody’s speculating. I don’t know what to say, man.

NAJ: What are some of the things that you hear from smokers and tobacconists?
Emille Mustafa: I’m surprised at how few consumers are even aware of what’s going on. It’s evident from the number of people who have signed the petition. It’s at 5,600 from what I saw today. And what we need is 100,000. I asked a customer at a store that I work at recently, “Did you hear about the FDA?” And the response was, “No. What’s going on?”
You know, so I’ve been educating them, having them sign (the petition) on my iPad.

I’m surprised at how few consumers are even aware of what’s going on (with FDA regulation).
— Emille Mustafa

AM: You know what scares me? I think everybody thinks this is going to go away. Everyone I talk to says, “There’s no way they can do that.” They’re doing it!

NAJ: In the best-case scenario — where we somehow end up out of the woods with the FDA — what are your plans for growth? What’s your vision for Córdoba & Morales?
AM: Since we started, each year we have doubled the previous year’s sales. So this year I was thinking if I could only do a little more than last year, I would be really happy. And like I said, we were looking into advertisement. In my mind, it’s time for it already.

NAJ: Anything else you'd want readers to take away from this Q&A?
EM:
Again, that they need to sign the petition!


Note: The petition referenced and linked to above has until June 10, 2016 to reach 100,000 signatures. Sign it here.

Jorge Padrón on Padrón Dámaso

 

We recently called Padrón Dámaso the most game-changing release of the 2015 IPCPR trade show. The cigar comes from a manufacturer for whom the Ecuadorian Connecticut wrapper is a major shift from the full-bodied, strong cigars on which Padrón built a reputation.

We spoke with Jorge Padrón about the thinking behind this new brand and what it's felt like for the Padrón family to launch a product well outside its usual wheelhouse. 

We also asked a couple of things on behalf of readers who submitted their questions via social media and cigarsnobmag.com. Stick around through the end of the video for those and look out for opportunities to submit your questions for future interviews.

 

Jaime García on El Centurion H-2K-CT

We called My Father's El Centurion H-2K-CT the best new release of the 2015 IPCPR trade show in New Orleans. We spoke with Jaime García to learn more about the cigar and its unusual wrapper: a Connecticut-grown Habano.

Note: The El Centurion H-2K-CT was named Cigar Snob's 2015 Cigar of the Year. Find out why and see the rest of our 2015 rankings here. 

What would you ask Jorge Padrón? You could win a Padrón Dámaso.

Later this week, we'll be sitting down for a chat with Jorge Padrón of Padrón Cigars. We thought it would be fun to bring you in on the conversation. So ... if you could ask Jorge anything, what would it be?
Leave your best question for Jorge in the comments below. We'll ask him our favorites and post a video of his answers. If your question makes the video, we'll send you one of the company's new Padrón Dámaso cigars.
(Act fast. We'll be collecting our favorite questions at 10 p.m. EST on Tuesday, Aug. 25.)

Ernesto Pérez-Carrillo - EPC Cigar Co.

 

Everything changed thanks to some drums, an audition flop, and a close encounter with an armed burglar.

Ernesto Pérez-Carrillo started playing the drums when he joined his high school band. Before long, the Cuba native who moved to Miami with his family when he was seven had fallen in love with music. It’s a love that clearly never died, as the massive safe at EPC headquarters (their building used to be a jeweler) contains—among other things—his prized collection of vinyl records.

“I started playing mostly jazz. That was what I loved playing and I’d listen to all the great jazz drummers and musicians of the era,” he said, smoking a La Historia in the sprawling lounge at the EPC office in Little Havana. “I really got kind of obsessed with it in the sense that I wanted to make that my life career.”

When Ernesto was 19, his father opened a small cigar factory in Miami. Ernesto also married his wife, who happened to be his father’s first employee. He’d split his time between work at the factory, school, and any night gigs he could get drumming. Miami’s never been a hub for aspiring jazz musicians, though.
Around 1975, Ernesto moved to New York City, hoping to make it big.

“That was the mecca of jazz. I went up there, got a day job with the Nat Sherman Townhouse and, at night, I would go out and play the clubs. One night I was playing and Stan Getz walked in,” said Ernesto. Getz is the tenor sax great best known for popularizing bossa nova—especially with his hit The Girl from Ipanema. “After he saw me play he asked if I would be interested in auditioning for his band. That was a big break for me.”

The audition at Getz’s upstate house didn’t go well. Ernesto “froze,” and Getz suggested he pick up a few more years of experience. It got Ernesto thinking this might be a sign he should follow his other passion: cigars. His time working at the factory had left him hungry for more.

“Destiny is incredible,” said Ernesto, still in awe of the sharp, fortuitous turn his life took. “I remember my mother calling me saying, ‘I think you should come back because your father is not well.’ A few days later, I remember I finished a gig and went back to the apartment where I was staying with a family in midtown New York. As I opened the door and w alked in, there was a guy there with a gun.”

Destiny is incredible.
— Ernesto Pérez-Carrillo

The gun was never fired. The burglar slipped out a window. But Ernesto took the confrontation as another indication that maybe life in New York wasn’t for him. He headed back to Miami to be with his ailing father (who had ALS) and get to work on the family cigar business. Right around that time a Jamaican company offered to buy the company.

“When it hits you that you’re no longer going to be involved with cigars or tobacco, it’s kind of a wakeup call.”

Ernesto asked his dad not to sell, promising that he would commit to the company fully. Soon, he was running the factory and managing staff; by the time his father died in 1980, Ernesto was ready to lead the show. He applied lessons he’d learned from his father and other elder cigar men, but also took new steps to grow the business. Among them, attending the RTDA trade shows. After about 12 years, Cigar Aficionado came on the scene. The magazine’s first issue—released at a trade show—included a rating for La Gloria Cubana.

“All of a sudden, the La Gloria Cubana became the boutique brand of the industry.”

In three short years, Ernesto was in a position to move production to a new Dominican factory. Four years after that, the Dominican facility had quadrupled in size to 56,000 square feet. Coming to boutique prominence at the height of the cigar boom meant challenges in obtaining raw material. As luck would have it, he had good relationships with some of the biggest tobacco growing families in the game—including one that’s featured on p. 62 of this magazine.

“During that time most of the blends [on the market] were Dominican. Our blends used Dominican and Nicaraguan tobacco. In 1990, I asked the Pérez family—of ASP—to grow some Nicaraguan tobacco for me. When I started using that tobacco was when we got rated. We used also Sumatra wrapper, which wasn’t that popular at that time,” said Ernes to. “That made us unique.”

Relationships with the Pérezes, the Oliva Tobacco family, and small “chinchalero” manufacturers helped Ernesto carry his father’s company through the cigar boom of the mid 90s, especially as the La Gloria Cubana Serie R gained in popularity and became the it big-ring-gauge cigar. La Gloria had become a force nobody could ignore. General Cigar bought the brand in 1999.

Eventually, Ernesto launched EPC Cigar Company with his son Ernie Jr. and daughter Lissette. They won more loyal fans with E.P. Carrillo smokes like EPC Cardinal (which was on Cigar Snob’s list of the top 25 cigars of 2013) and Inch. These days, they’re focusing on a new brand called La Historia, for which Ernie Jr. and Lissette created the initial blends and packaging concepts. From there, father, son and daughter worked together to get all the pieces just right until, finally, they arrived at this nostalgically packaged cigar, which packs a punch without the harsh, bitter bite that’s all too common in strong cigars.

No matter what comes out of his Dominican factory, it might be a while before the guy behind Serie R and Inch shakes his reputation as the big-ring-gauge king. “I think [big ring gauges are] here to stay,” Ernesto said. “And the proof, for instance, is that our bi ggest seller in E urope and the U .S. is the Inch.”

I think big ring gauges are here to stay.
— Ernesto Pérez-Carrillo

However Ernesto won’t let smokers on either side of the pond think of EPC— which will produce 2.6 million cigars this year—as a one-trick pony. He’s looking to increase his factory’s footprint, which is part of why he so values Four Kicks, Headley Grange and JD Howard—brands he creates for John Huber’s Crowned Heads.

When it comes to blending, he’s far more interested in experimenting with new seed strains and flavor profiles than in pushing the physical limits of his vitolas. He’s already got his eye on a couple of tobaccos he’s never worked with and hopes to start working them into a new blend within the next year. Knowing him, he’ll probably have another hit on his hands.

 

Hamlet Paredes on his transition from rolling Cuban cigars to creating his own line with Rocky Patel

Rocky Patel partnered up with renowned Cuban cigar roller Hamlet Jaime Paredes to create a new cigar. Hamlet has been working with Rocky at BURN, the Rocky Patel lounge in Naples, Florida, and has been a roller at two Cuban factories and been sent to conduct rolling demonstrations at a number of stores by Habanos, S.A., the Cuban cigar monopoly.

We spoke to Hamlet during the 2015 IPCPR trade show in New Orleans about the new product, Tabaquero by Hamlet Paredes.

Steve Saka on his new company and its first cigar: Sobremesa

It's been about two years since Steve Saka's departure from Drew Estate. Under the terms of the split, he's now free to re-enter the cigar industry, and he's done just that by starting his own company — Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust — and launching a cigar called Sobremesa.

We spoke to Steve about the new cigar at the recent IPCPR trade show in New Orleans.

Tony Gomez- La Flor Dominicana

 

Since Litto Gómez and Inés Lorenzo-Gómez founded La Flor Dominicana in the middle of the 1990s cigar boom, the company has laid claim to both a steady place in your neighborhood humidor and a reputation for unconventional, envelope-pushing products. They took a humble, slow-and-steady approach to building their brand. It’s paid off, and it now seems likely that the LFD name will not only stay in your humidor, but also in the Gómez family for decades to come.

At 26, Tony Gómez might be the youngest blender to earn a spot on Cigar Snob’s Top 25 list. Hell, he might be the youngest blender to have a cigar end up on anybody’s list. While his father struggled for years to prove La Flor Dominicana deserved respect, Tony’s challenge has been to show he’s more than a comfortable heir.

“Inés and my dad started the company when I was around 7 or 8 years old. So it was something that I was exposed to very early,” he said, puffing a Chapter One at Little Havana Cigar Factory on Miami’s iconic Calle Ocho. “My goal was to go to film school and study screenwriting. But toward the end of college, I started thinking about the opportunity that I had in front of me. My dad never pressured me or anything. He always let me make my own decisions and be who I wanted to be, but he made it very clear that, if I wanted it, I had a job.”

Having decided to give the cigar business a shot, Tony partied until 5 a.m. after his 2009 graduation from Florida State, showered, and hopped a flight to New Orleans for his first IPCPR trade show. From there, he dove into LFD full time, spending his first four years as a sales rep covering Florida and Colorado.
“(My dad and I) saw it as important for me to learn every facet of the business. That was a good place to start getting my feet wet. I think that benefitted me a lot. Now, when I’m at the factory and thinking about a new product or a new blend, I’m thinking about what retailers want, what consumers want, and I think I have a good idea of what that is,” Tony said.

In January 2013, Tony put his sales rep days behind him and started calling the Dominican Republic home most of the year. He began working at the LFD factory, where he soaks in knowledge from Litto and the rest of the company’s expert staff. In a startlingly short time, he’d put together Chapter One, a cigar that simultaneously represents his family’s philosophies and his own take on the Gómez approach.

“At this point I know who La Flor smokers are. They want a big, thick, beefy cigar. They want a lot of power, they want a lot of flavor, dark, luscious wrappers. And that’s what I like,” he said. “My dad calls me an extremist sometimes. He says I’m not afraid to go further with ligero than he would. A lot of times, I bring him a blend and he says, ‘Tony, this is way too strong. You can’t do that!’ And I understand. I like very powerful cigars. Sometimes I have to tone it down a bit.”

Despite his apparent need for Tony to “tone it down” from time to time, Litto seems to have recognized his factory’s potential as a playground and laboratory in which Tony can experiment and learn through hands-on experience. He also seems to have (wisely) taken a hands-off approach in the sense that Tony, with less than two years at the factory, has plenty of freedom to try new things. His response when Tony told him he had an idea for a new cigar almost immediately after starting his time at the factory: “Do it. If you need to ask me something, ask me, but go ahead and do it because I want you to learn.”

It paid off in a hurry.

The blend for LFD Chapter One, which came in 3rd on Cigar Snob’s Top 25 list, began with its Brazilian wrapper (which Tony loves for its “dark, sweet flavor”) and an idea for a new shape. After about 15 blending attempts, Tony felt he had a winner, but Litto wasn’t around when Tony and others at La Flor’s factory real-ized he’d arrived at the right blend for the 58 ring-gauge box-pressed chisel that makes Chapter One so easy to spot from across a room. When Tony did finally give one to Litto, he got just the response he’d hoped for.

“I lit it first and I passed it to him,” said Tony, recalling Litto’s first taste of Chapter One. “He started smoking it and said it was really good. Then he pulled a cigar out of his pocket and said, ‘You need something to smoke?’ When I realized he wasn’t going to give it back, I knew we had something.”

Few people in cigars are as well liked as Litto Gómez—perhaps a product of his having come into the industry as an outsider himself, making him more aware of the need to not only gain his peers’ respect, but also rub them the right way. Today, Tony’s benefitting from Litto’s relationships, too.

“There are some extremely close friendships between competitors,” Tony said. “I think it’s a beautiful thing. And I get to hang out with my dad when he’s with his friends—the Carrillos, the Padróns, the Fuentes. My dad’s my role model. So that’s one of the things he taught me. No matter what, you worry about La Flor. Don’t worry about what others are doing, don’t get into rivalries. Don’t get involved in any of that because that will be your downfall. It’s a small industry and there’s no reason for it.”

Thanks to the work that Litto put into going from outsider to industry heavyweight, Tony is stepping into a position where he’s able to use the fact that he’s not be-holden to tradition to his advantage. There are no Cuban or Dominican roots to stay true to. No great-great-grandfather to honor with conservative ideas. The short Gómez legacy is one of risk and creativity. In fact, that creative aspect of cigar making is part of the reason Tony sees himself sticking around for a long time.

“I’ve always been interested in artistic endeavors. I love playing music. I play bass, guitar, drums… I was in bands in college. I was a writer. So I always wanted to pursue a creative endeavor. I guess it wasn’t until I started getting closer to the business that I really realized how much of an art making cigars is. When I realized that, that’s when I thought, ‘This is it,’” he said. “There was no looking back for me.”

Despite the fact that Chapter One was a home run, he still feels he has things to prove. With a top-notch factory, farms tailor-made for his palate, and the best mentor he could hope to work for, he has all the tools he needs to show the cigar industry and La Flor smokers that he’s worthy of the responsibility he’s being given. Some day, Tony will have some big boots to fill. But it’ll stop at the boots.

“The hat is my dad’s,” said Tony, laughing off the idea that he’d inherit his dad’s signature accessory. “I don’t look as good in it as he does, anyway. I don’t dress flamboyantly. I don’t go very bright or loud or anything. I think being 6-foot-7 is already unique enough. I get enough attention as it is just being a giant. Maybe the height and the beard will be my thing.”

 

Jose Oliva - Oliva Cigar Co.

 

Not too many guys in the cigar industry look the way José Oliva does.

“I’ve had the same haircut since I was 12,” he joked during our photo shoot, putting on the blazer that he insisted on wearing. He doesn’t smirk, he doesn’t slouch. His shirt is well pressed and its sleeves will remain unrolled, thank you very much. He looks like he belongs in a political advertisement or behind a podium.

In fact, that’s where he spends a good amount of his time. In the November 2014 election, the Oliva Cigar CEO won reelection to his seat in the Florida House of Representatives, putting him on track to take over as Speaker in 2018. Before he headed to the Florida capitol in 2011, though, he and his family had made their name known in the premium cigars business.

“I come from a tobacco family. It was always an avenue my brothers and I thought about,” said José. “In the early ‘90s with [the cigar industry’s resurgence, we decided to have our own cigar brand. My father [Gilberto Sr.] was running a cigar factory in Honduras, so we were able to have the cigars made at the factory.”

By the time the ‘90s cigar boom had begun to die down—taking plenty of brands with it—Gilberto Oliva Sr. was growing tobacco in Nicaragua. That helped sustain the small Oliva factory during a time of uncertainty and market saturation, especially since the Olivas had decided to sell their high-quality cigars at a low price point. That might have been impossible without access to their own raw material. The company says it grows all of its own filler, as well as its most important wrappers, like the ones on the Serie V and Melanio.

The late ‘90s might have been difficult, but Oliva doesn’t have that kind of thing to worry about now. With production at about 15 million cigars a year, the company’s portfolio—which includes cigars in the Studio Tobac family of less traditional brands, like Nub and Cain—is successful and diverse enough to give the Olivas peace of mind.

Traditional Oliva brands at the heart of the company have won accolades, especially the flagship Oliva Serie V—which has earned spots on numerous Top 25 lists since 2005, sparking demand that led to a doubling of Oliva production—and the Oliva Serie V Melanio, which this magazine called the best cigar of 2012.

That success gives Oliva Cigar the confidence to innovate. José might have the politician look down pat, but don’t let that fool you. He’s not your typical elected official. He seems most engaged talking about what the future holds; He’s as much about pushing the envelope and finding the next big thing as he is about the consistency and quality of traditional Oliva cigars. Case in point: the Nub brand was expanded this year to include three new coffee-flavored blends.

“We’ll be 20 years old this coming year. There’s still that want to participate in those innovations and that’s what Nub was for us in 2008. It was the idea that we could do something innovative without it being gimmicky. That brand created a whole new segment of short format cigars,” said José, adding that—over the years—he’s been impressed by the outside-the-box thinking from the likes of Jonathan Drew, Rocky Patel and Ernesto Padilla (to name a few).

The concern over not coming off as gimmicky was there when the company developed Nub Café as well. “The idea of a coffee-flavored cigar was something that we felt could be done in a serious way,” he said. “It could be done using the right fillers, and could be presented in a way that people could feel like they could enjoy a flavored cigar… particularly coffees, which go well with tobacco to begin with. So far Nub Café has done well, and I think part of it is for the same reason Nub in general has done well, because it was a serious attempt at something innovative.” By “serious,” José means that the cigars are made with top quality filler tobaccos and craftsmanship.

No matter how serious the cigars are, Nub Café comes at what seems like a risky time in the fight over government encroachment. Even for the most ardent opponents of further regulation by the feds, the argument can center on defining (and later exempting from regulation) “premium cigars.” Often (perhaps too often), that means leaving flavored products out of the exemption discussions.

“Our cigars aren’t packaged and sold in any way that appeals to a population other than those who are currently smoking premium cigars,” José said, seeming to allude to misconceptions that all flavored cigars are used for rolling blunts or are marketed to and consumed by underage smokers. “But we get the residual of all that. Government regulation is always a concern, but we’ve made it a point as a company to go in the direction we feel we should be moving. We’re optimistic things will settle and there will be room for all sorts of different offerings.”

If there’s a cigar company leader with the background to lead it through, around, and beyond the hurdles government puts in its way, José is that guy. Each side of his professional life—cigars and government—informs and strengthens the other.

“It’s actually been better for my political career that I have had the experience of starting a small company—literally from an apartment—and trying to grow it, and dealing with regulation and taxation and everything else that government imposes on a company,” he said, taking a puff of a Melanio.

That real, immediate impact is especially difficult to cope with for people in the premium cigar business. By any measure, this sector is in a whole different ballpark than the dominant names in cigarettes and machine-made cigars.

“We’re a small industry. When we deal with the behemoth that is the federal government, it’s difficult to be heard. We’re not big tobacco,” he said. Cigars have provided a silver lining, though. They’ve afforded José a way to build relationships he might not have otherwise. Legislators in Tallahassee sometimes congregate for herfs at the house he rents with a few colleagues. That camaraderie and celebration, he says, is what he loves most about his career in cigars.

“We get to create something people enjoy at moments in their life when they’re doing something enjoyable. Dentists and doctors are dealing with people at difficult times in their lives. Whether it’s just a moment of relaxation, a moment with friends or a celebratory cigar, we get to partake in that.”

 

Cigar Snob Challenge - Golfing with the Patel brothers

 

You’ve smoked plenty of Rocky Patel cigars, you’ve read of their exploits in countless articles and you’ve probably even seen the CNBC “How I Made My Millions” episode about Rocky Patel. Rocky and his brother Nish Patelexude confidence, they’re charismatic and polished, with an ability to win over a roomful of cigar smokers with ease.

What happens when you put them in an environment where their charisma, charm, and knowledge of tobacco doesn’t ensure victory?

We told you the story in the May/June 2013 issue of Cigar Snob. Here’s a video with some of the highlights.

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