Emmitt Smith on cigars, family, giving back, championships and life after football

Emmitt Smith’s résumé is impressive. NFL Hall of Fame, three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys (1993, 1994, 1996), NFL record for most all-time rushing yards (18,355), and even winner of “Dancing with the Stars” in 2006. That’s a list many would envy, but there is much more to Emmitt than the player we may have seen on the field, on an ESPN set, or sliding across the dance floor.

Now 49 years old, Emmitt cherishes his role as a father and role model. A passionate business- man, he keeps goals in mind and works tirelessly with his charitable foundation to make a difference in his community. And when he gets a chance, the legendary former running back grabs a smoke, plays some golf, and does some traveling. He’s also found a passion for cycling, even hosting the Emmitt Smith Gran Fondo, a bike ride fundraiser for Pat and Emmitt Smith Charities, his non-profit he leads with his wife Pat.

The Hall of Famer met with me at one of his businesses in Dallas, The Gents Place, an upscale barber shop where you can grab a haircut, shave, and maybe a glass of whiskey. Emmitt spoke about his life in football, business, charitable endeavors, and why he’s taken to cycling to keep in shape.

 
Photo: Jonathan Zizzo

Photo: Jonathan Zizzo

 

SC: Do you remember your first cigar?

ES: I think my very first cigar occurred on the golf course right around ‘98. When you’re playing golf with Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley and Charles Oakley, and a number of athletes, and they’re smoking cigars and so forth, you’re like, “OK, I can try this.” No one really talked me into it. It was just something that I thought, “I don’t smoke cigarettes. I want to try a cigar, I can get into the cigar thing.”

I like to smoke when I’m playing golf, just to take away the monotony of focusing all the time on the golf ball. Relax a little bit, puff, puff, let a little smoke out in the wind and just enjoy a walk down the fairway. Of course, if I’m going to be honest, I don’t spend a lot of time in the fairway. I spend a lot of time in the rough. [laughs] So having that cigar kind of makes golf a little easier.

I’m usually in the rough too. When you’re out on the course, what’s the cigar you find yourself smoking most often?

My favorite is JFR; I like the big rings. I like some of the Cohibas with the gold wrapper. La Gloria Cubanas were the first ones that I really started to gravitate to.

I understand your daughter is about to graduate from college. Will there be a cigar celebration?

Yes, my daughter Jasmin’s graduating this weekend from Duke University. So we’re flying there tomorrow, and when I leave here I’m probably going to go by my cigar spot and pick up some JFRs to take with me this weekend to celebrate the whole entire weekend.

And with those three Super Bowl wins, surely there had to be a celebratory cigar back in the ‘90s?

No, back in my heyday when I was actually training for sports I didn’t do any of those things outside dipping. I was in meetings, which got to be boring because I knew everything that was going on. And I thought if I had a dip in my mouth I wouldn’t fall asleep. So a dip kept me awake. [laughs]

You’re a businessman these days. What kind of thing are you involved in in life after football?

My major focus is development – real estate services. We’re in the real estate business space all the way from front to the end. When I say front to end, my company ESmith Legacy Holdings is the parent company of the many companies that we own. We build mixed-use complexes like what we’re in right now that have apartments above retail or retail shop- ping centers that have an anchor tenant, such as a grocery shopping center or mixed-use deals that are around medical facilities like we did at Johns Hopkins University.

So that’s my major focus in terms of development. But the other company that we started this year is a new joint venture partnership where we are doing brokerage services, tenant rep business, office, industrial, retail, medical office space, and data centers. We represent clients and tenants who are looking for a new space or looking to liquidate space. Corporate services – those are the things we do under ESmith Advisors.

EJ Smith Construction gives us great construction options to help us manage the cost of the contracts, where we supply materials to ourselves and also materials to others. It’s an infrastructure company in the construction commercial space and commercial civil space. So we do both commercial development as well as the civil infrastructure, roads and bridges, parking garages, and a lot of big infrastructure work. From a construction standpoint we’re in the Texas space, and growing our footprint to do construction management on a national basis.

And then we have ESmith Horizons, our investment arm in terms of investing in America’s infrastructure – roads and bridges, dams, schools, anything that the government may need financial assistance with. So through our partnership there, we have number of dollars that we are able to allocate to these types of things.

I like to smoke when I’m playing golf ... I spend a lot of time in the rough. So having that cigar kind of makes golf a little easier.
Photo: Jonathan Zizzo

Photo: Jonathan Zizzo

I don’t think many people know how much you are involved in the business and real estate world. Has construction and building always been a passion of yours?

Construction is something that I became fascinated with through a coach when I was younger. When I was 11 years old, my coach Charlie Eggert in Pensacola, Florida, taught me how to read blueprints. I didn’t know he was in the construction space, I thought he was just my football coach. The reality is he owned his own construction company and taught me how to read blueprints and floor plans.

I was inspired because here you have a young African-American kid that’s coming out of meager beginnings who started in a humble spot. I grew up with powdered milk, government cheese, on government services, and food stamps. And here this white man had taken to me as an athlete, started to pour into my life in a way that opened my mind to what the possibilities of life could be like even without football.

I was inspired by his house, which was bigger than where we grew up and thought, “Wow this is fascinating. This is something new.” From that point on, I always wanted to make my own way. I always wanted to have a job, to be a provider, and take care of not only myself, but do something that would give me the ability to take care of my family.

On that same note, how do you see your work making a difference?

I love what I do because it affects lives. It changes lives when you start understanding the real estate game from the perspective from which I sit. I come from these urban neighborhoods that lack services. And now I sit here after a 15-year career and living in an affluent neighborhood, and understanding the services that I have the pleasure of enjoying every day and remembering where I came from. I understand the services that are missing; people in the urban or inner city or impoverished areas have to travel to a grocery store that’s over five miles from their house. And so I understand it completely now because I understand how the real estate game is actually played.

What are some challenges athletes face moving from pro sports to life after retirement and what advice would you give others facing this?

The challenge is twofold. Number one, the biggest challenge is letting go of what you have done since you were a child. I played football since I was 8 years old and missed only one year. So that was a challenge of letting go after having a 15-year career in the NFL. Yes, I did go to college, but I played football while I was in college and football got me to college. And then football led me to the NFL and that probably led me to other things that I’m doing now. I think the challenge is letting that go because when you’ve done something so long, it’s hard to believe there’s something else you could do.

Number two is finding something else that gets you as passionate about life after the game as it did while you were playing the game. You have to have the same courage that allowed you to play football and persevere throughout all those years of hard work, dedication, and sacrifice that you made for your sport. You have to find something to substitute for that and that keeps you competitive, keeps you getting up every morning, and enjoying life, yet excelling in life.

Charlie Eggert instilled in me the entrepreneurial spirit that I have right now. That opened my mind when I was playing the game to be able to ask questions of people here in Dallas-Fort Worth that I’ve met through football. People like Barry Andrews, who owns Andrews Distributing. People like Mark Cuban, who made his living in the tech space. My owner Jerry Jones, who started out in oil and gas and put all his money in to acquire the Cowboys at a deficit. But yet he turned it around and now they’re a $4 billion company. And there were others like Magic Johnson, who took his platform and went from basketball into real estate and private equity. I’m a firm believer that your talent will make room for you. The question is, “Are you really willing to walk through the door of uncertainty with confidence?” Can you learn and be taught and be trained to be good at anything that you want to do?

Since we’re discussing advice, what’s the best advice someone’s ever given you?

The beautiful thing about my life is that I’ve been around great coaches who have given me tremendous advice. I’ve been around great parents who have given me tremendous advice, and people from business who have given me great advice. And I was never one of those people who was afraid to ask questions.

My mom shared with me, “Never forget where you come from, always extend a helping hand.”

Once after scoring a touchdown against Mem- phis State, I did a dance in the end zone. After the game, which we won, my father said, “Son, what was that you did?” I said, “Dad they were ragging on me so much before the game talk- ing about how I wasn’t going to do this and not going to do that, so when I scored I wanted to show them yes I am and you can’t stop this.”

He said, “Son, the great ones don’t do things like that,” which left a question in my mind. If the great ones don’t do things like this, do I want to be great or do I want to be something else? In my mind, I wasn’t thinking about being great. I was thinking about leaving my mark, making an impression. God blessed me with a pretty good talent to do what I was able to do, so my father impacted me.

My high school coaches impacted me – both Jimmy Nichols and Dwight Thomas. Dwight Thomas told me, “It’s only a dream until you write it down; then it’s a goal.” One day after I fumbled the ball three times in practice, Jimmy shared with me, “Son, you cannot play football for me laying the football down on the ground. Not a coach in America would trust you if you fumble the ball the way you did today.” So ball security became very important to me because in a roundabout way he said, “You will never amount to anything fumbling the football. The ball is the most important thing on the field.”

And then you run into a guy like Jimmy Johnson who had this philosophy: “Some guys are up here, some guys in the middle, some guys in the bottom.” He also shared with me that when he gets on his best players, he’s sending a message not necessarily to that player. Even though that top performer may think it’s about him, it’s not. It’s about everybody because if they see the top guy getting in trouble with the boss man, that means they need to fall in line and need to measure up. So psychology-wise, I got the message.

My high school coach Dwight Thomas said, “Never become satisfied with anything because the day you do, the growing stops.” I don’t ever want to stop growing and that philosophy plays out right now in Warren Buffett. Here’s an 87-year-old man who has all the money in the world, but yet gets up every day, exercising his brain. And doing it for what? He doesn’t need another dollar – and gives most of it away. He’s doing it because he’s motivated, stimulated every day. He’s passionate every day about life and helping people. Those are the leaders that I turned to.

Some of these people in your life really made a difference for you and it seems you and your wife Pat are trying to do the same for others. Can you tell me about your non-profit, Pat and Emmitt Smith Charities, and some of the work the organization does?

We started the charity nine years ago and our motto is “building bridges to open doors.” I think it’s a tribute to not only our parents – my mom and dad and my wife’s mom and dad – but I think it’s a tribute to the Charlie Eggerts of the world. People who poured into us at times when they didn’t have to. But they did, to give us this sense of awareness of not only our ability to do great things in the world and make an impact in the world, but helping us under- stand we have what it takes to be successful. Through our charity, we feel like we have a sense of obligation to do that for others. I call it “inspiring others to their level of greatness.”

I want to open the doors of opportunity for others. Today in society, it’s a big push for minority participation on a global basis: men, women, LGBT. All those things are paramount. Equal opportunity is paramount in society in order to alleviate that deficit. I believe we have to have cohesive buy-in to the vision of the United States and that vision has to come from the leader of our country. If that vision does not include the diversity within this homeland, then there are a lot of people being left behind.

Giving back is important to me and it was important for my mom. Every time I achieve a level of success, I always hear in the back of my mind her saying, “Never forget where you’ve come from. Always extend a helping 

hand to people in need.” And I don’t have to talk about how poor America’s school sys- tem really is, and how much lack of support our teachers get. How crowded some of the school classrooms really are. Not to mention other challenges we face as a society – psy- chological challenges and broken homes. All of that coupled with lack of hope.

When you sit in a position where you’ve come from these places, you have a tendency to empathize with people who have great potential but a lack of opportunities. For me to sit in this place and not to try to bring services to my community, that would be a tragedy. And it’s challenging. I must admit, it’s even challenging for a guy like myself. Because in this world, I’ve come to find that if it’s not top of your mind, it’s not even on your radar. People are comfortable with being successful on their own. And as an athlete, society wants us to be humble. They want us to be engaging.

But at the same time, I say to society, “Have you forgotten where you came from?” I’m a firm believer that nobody becomes successful by themselves. To whom much is given, much is required. That’s the message. And if you’ve been given and have had the opportunity to become successful, sometimes it’s better to be connected in the community than to just send your dollars to the community. You might get better rewards in terms of spiritual rewards or open heart rewards when you bring a piece of yourself back to the community.

There’s nothing sweeter than winning [a Super Bowl] and having an opportunity to share it with the people you love the most.

Many Emmitt Smith and football fans may not know how much you’re into cycling and that your charity now runs a major bicycle ride fundraiser. Can you talk about the Emmitt Smith Gran Fondo and how you got into cycling?

I got into cycling through some brokers I worked with. They were top producers within our company, competitive people. They liked to ride and introduced me to cycling. I bought a bike and I started riding. If I go out and ride my bike for an hour and a half, I can burn 1,000 calories, which is significant for a retired athlete. I also found that my body felt great. My body wasn’t as sore the next day as it would be if I was lifting weights or running because I don’t feel like I can run anymore.

Wait a second, NFL rushing king Emmitt Smith can’t run anymore?

Photo: Jonathan Zizzo

Photo: Jonathan Zizzo

No, I’ve run the life out of these legs after 18,355 yards and being hit an ungodly amount of times. If I had to get away from something or go save someone, I probably would do it and not think much of it. But afterward I’d be suffering. I found when I got on my bike and rode 20 or 30 miles, I would get up the next day feeling fine and had burned almost 1,000 to 2000 calories and that’s a great feeling.

The key now is about being heart healthy and being physically healthy to enjoy the rest of my life. The Emmitt Smith Gran Fondo is a 100-mile ride but within that we have a 100K, a 45-mile ride, a 22-mile ride, and we have what we call a “family ride,” which is a couple miles around the venue. Within that 100-mile ride, we have professional cyclists who are competing for a purpose. It’s a fun day. It’s exciting, and a cool event. It’s an event that is constantly growing and I can envision this turning into something that could be a major weekend here in Dallas.

Since we’re talking a bit about athletics and sports, let’s move on to football. Can you describe the feeling of walking out of that tunnel for your first Super Bowl in 1993?

I was at the Super Bowl in 1987 with my best friend during my senior year in high school. I was named Gatorade National Football Player of the Year, and it afforded me two tickets to Pasadena, California. We watched the Denver Broncos and the New York Giants, and the Giants kicked the hell out of them.

My best friend and I were sitting in the stands in the Rose Bowl. As an athlete you’re in an atmosphere that provokes this excitement, this energy like, “Man I want to be on that football field and play.” Fast forward six years later to 1993, the Cowboys are playing the Buffalo Bills in Pasadena. That moment just walking out of the tunnel in my first Super Bowl and all my aspirations and dreams are right before me – not knowing what’s going to happen on the other side of this game.

The excitement, the energy, nervous energy, being able to walk into that stadium and look up into the stands and see not only my best friend Johnny up there with his dad, his mom, my family, and people that I knew back in Florida. Being able to perform in front of them was unbelievable. So again, my dreams of becoming a professional athlete, a professional football player, playing for the team I always wanted to play for, the Dallas Cowboys, playing in the Super Bowl in the stadium that I wanted to play in, and seeing my people around – there’s nothing sweeter than winning it and having an opportunity to share it with the people you love the most.

There are Cowboys fans all over the country, so I have to ask about the team. It’s been 22 years since America’s Team won a Super Bowl and they have only two playoff wins in that span. What’s your opinion of where the Cowboys are headed?

I think the Cowboys are going through a transitional phase, and may be trying to figure out how to accelerate this transitional phase so we don’t lose. With the retirement of Jason Witten and the release of Dez Bryant, it makes things a little uncertain. But the game of football is full of uncertainties to everybody.

No matter how you look at it, you could be a team that has a positive impact saying, “Yes we have a chance to go back and repeat,” like Philadelphia. Or you could be a team like the Giants where everybody wrote them off last year, but they drafted a running back like Saquon Barkley, and now have all these wide receivers. All of a sudden your season can turn around.

I think the Cowboys are probably in that position to where things can be uncertain, but there is tremendous opportunity. And they have had a way of finding great talent in uncertain places in recent years. So it’s going to be interesting to see how our team shapes up and how they accelerate going forward.

What might people reading this interview be surprised to learn about you?

That I’m an introvert in the sense that I don’t do well around big crowds. I don’t think I do, anyway. I’ve learned how to be engaging. But it’s like too much stuff is going on around me and everybody’s pulling you in a thousand different directions. It becomes uncomfortable because it’s something that you can never control, and I have no clue how much is going to come my way.

So I think when I get home it’s my only place of sanity because I get to zone out and be normal. I get to be dad, I get to be husband, I get to be brother, I get to be uncle, I get to be friend – to people that I’m really close to.

Because when you think about it, it can be 300 million people that I could shake hands with, but number 300,000,001 that doesn’t get the handshake is the person that is mad. And that person’s then on Twitter talking about how bad I am, how impolite I am. Then all of a sudden this groundswell starts happening. Fame is a double-edged sword.

Every time I achieve a level of success, I always hear in the back of my mind [my mom] saying, “Never forget where you’ve come from. Always extend a helping hand to people in need.”
Emmitt Smith has found cycling to be an ideal way to keep in shape in retirement, and even created the Emmitt Smith Gran Fondo to raise money for his foundation’s youth mentorship and back-to-school programs.

Emmitt Smith has found cycling to be an ideal way to keep in shape in retirement, and even created the Emmitt Smith Gran Fondo to raise money for his foundation’s youth mentorship and back-to-school programs.

What’s your advice on being a good dad?

I think a good dad shoots straight with his kids. Although the balance is understanding you once were a kid yourself. I tell my kids, “I know the tricks, so you can try to fool me all you want. You can say what you want to say, but I know the tricks because you ain’t doing anything new that your daddy didn’t do.”

I think being a good dad gives you the balance of understanding that they are children and as kids they will make mistakes. But a great dad says, ‘I’m going to give you as much information as you can handle because I don’t know when God will call me home. I don’t want you to live the rest of your life not knowing some information – and here’s the information I want to give you. I’m going to give you as much and as often as I possibly can, so you can never, ever say ‘my dad never said this.’

You still do a lot of traveling. What are some of your favorite places to visit?

I travel so much, but there’s no place like home. I’m like Dorothy trying to click my heels to get back home. But my wife’s favorite place is Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and I’ve become a big fan as well. California also, San Diego is a beautiful place. I’ve become very fond of L.A. as well. New York is a tremendous city to visit and has so much to offer. My wife and I really enjoy Rome and Florence in Italy also.

I just want to be happy no matter where I go. I’m open to go places I’ve never been before just to try it out as long as I have the right person with me, which is my wife. Then it’s all good.


The Emmitt Smith Gran Fondo will be held Sept. 22 in Dallas. For more information and to register visit www.EmmittSmithGranFondo.com. The event raises funds to provide programming for the charity’s TEAM 22 mentoring and leadership development program and the annual Back to School Program.

Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Crandall, Texas. His work appears in numerous websites and publications. Follow him on Twitter @PokerTraditions. He is also the host of the True Gambling Stories pod- cast, available on iTunes, Google Play, TuneIn Radio, Spotify, Stitcher, PokerNews.com, HoldemRadio.com and TrueGamblingStories.com.

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.

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.”

 

An interview with Houston city councilman, Dwight Boykins

 

While we were in Houston doing research for our March/April 2014 issue, we happened to meet Dwight Boykins, who is not only a member of Houston’s City Council, but also of Our Legend’s Cigar Bar. He’s also a regular at Houston’s Cigar Emporium, which is were we sat down with him for an discussion on cigars, smoking rights and what to do during a visit to the Bayou City.

Tell me about your role as a member of the city council.

I’m on the Houston City Council, which is a 16-member council board — five at large, as we refer to them, which represents the whole city, and then 9 districts. I represent one of the districts. We’re in our first year. It’s two three year terms, so it can add up to six years.

What led you to want to be involved with the city council?

Public service. Love helping people. (Before this) I worked in Washington. Still do. I have a government affairs firm in D.C. that I represent clients in education, healthcare and transportation.

How long have you been smoking?

Smoking what? (laughter) This is all I smoke (motioning with a cigar)! For about maybe six years now. A friend of mine named Kevin Brewster introduced me to them and then I met a young lady named Jenny, who now works at Stogies, and she explained to me the difference between the different styles of cigars and sort of helped me find a (profile) that works for me. Then I met this guy named Van (Thai) and he just gave me every cigar I could think of until I found one … I’m still looking for my favorite, but this shop (Cigar Emporium) has a variety.

Have you found any that you find yourself going back to over and over?

Yeah, Nording by Rocky (Patel), man, I love that Nording.

Give me a rundown of what a visitor to Houston should know about where cigar smoking is and isn’t allowed?

The city of Houston has a city ordinance from maybe 10 or 12 years ago — I’m not certain on the year — but it prohibited cigar smoking in restaurants. It painted everybody with the same brush. If you smoked cigarettes, cigars in restaurants, you were disturbing nonsmokers. So the current ordinance only allows one cigar shop in Houston, which is called Downing Street, to be grandfathered in with that city ordinance. To allow them to sell alcohol, sell food, and sell cigars and tobacco products.

What I would like to see is for cigar shops that have an interest in selling food and alcohol to have an opportunity. More so alcohol, because it can help generate more tax revenue for the city. But secondly, I don’t know of anybody that goes into a tobacco shop to sit down and have dinner. They come to a cigar shop to sit down, may have a cocktail, socialize and that’s the purpose. So I don’t think that everybody should be painting with the same brush in this retail type of business.

How easy or hard would it be to move Houston in the direction that you’re talking about?

Well, what we would have to do is pull the city ordinance, take a look at it, and if we can get an amendment to it…

We’re not trying to go into the restaurant business. Again, this is my opinion. The city and tobacco shops have to agree to this. What I would like to see is that we just say, “A cigar shop sells cigars or tobacco products only,” and add a new charter amendment or an amendment to the current ordinance allowing these shops to sell alcohol if they choose to. Because when you come and have a cigar, you want to sit down, relax, enjoy yourself. And if you want to have cocktail, you should be able to get that.

People don’t walk off the street and make a reservation to come here and sit down and have dinner. They come to smoke a cigar. And I think, you know, some good rum you wanna add to it or some good scotch. I think you should be able to have that.

Suppose you brought something like that up with the council now. What do you think that vote would be like?

You know, that’s a great question because the mayor we have is not anti-cigars. She’s fond of them. Once the case is made, I don’t think we’d have a problem. This is a pro-business city. People understand that the council that saw that coming back in the day, 14, 15 years ago… Probably one, if any of them, smoked cigars.

I credit Downing Street for strategically finding a niche with someone on the council to find an angle for them. But, today, I think we have about 4 or 5 cigar smokers on the council that would definitely see the other side of it.

How helpful have cigars been with other members of the council and in your work in Washington?

Oh, absolutely! As a matter of fact, Van allows me to come in here sometimes and have meetings with my colleagues on the council. It’s a perfect outlet when you come come down and sit here in privacy and have those discussions.

I would love to sit down with President Obama and smoke a cigar. I think that’d be cool. I smoked a cigar around former president 41 Bush in Kennebunkport, Maine, playing golf with him. He wasn’t smoking, but that was kind of cool, too.

Any other favorite cigar smoking experiences?

Oh, I have many. At Our Legends, for example… It’s a private place that’s established to allow people to come together to talk about business opportunities and build friendships. Everybody is sort of in this one little club. We watch football, we talk business, we cry together at funerals. We do it all. It’s like a family environment. That’s great.

Then I belong to one in Austin and one in Washington, too. At the one in Austin, the governor comes in and the attorney general. You find a lot of people in politics because I think they have one place — one, maybe two — where you can buy cigars. So everybody’s in that membership.

As a city councilman, you probably wouldn’t make a bad tour guide. Suppose you have someone coming into Houston for three days. What are some of the places you take them to eat and smoke?

(To smoke) Cigar EmporiumOur Legends, and Stogies. (To eat) The Palm,Reggae HutJust Oxtails.

What about other things to do in Houston that people might not be aware of? Any hidden gems?

The first thing you wanna do it book up a reservation at a place called La Maison in Midtown. It’s an urban bed and breakfast run by my wife. It’s in the downtown area right behind Spec’s. It’s a beautiful place. Four-star quality urban bed and breakfast. We were ranked number two in the country — I think two years in a row — by the Washington Post and the Huffington Post. So you wanna stay there first.

Then tour the universities. We have the University of Houston, Texas Southern University, Rice University, Houston Baptist. You wanna tour the different colleges around here.

And if you’re here on business?

You wanna go to the Greater Houston Partnership and talk about business opportunities in Houston if you’re a corporation thinking of relocating here. Houston is a very diverse city; we have all kinds of things going on here. With low tax rates. We’re noticing not that New York is doing a lot of advertising. They’re talking about their taxes, trying to lure our corporations out of here. It ain’t gonna happen.

It’s kind of silly for New York to be talking low taxes.

Absolutely! In Texas! Man!

(To Cigar Snob’s Ivan Ocampo, who was taking pictures) Don’t forget the boots! You gotta get the boots in there.

What are some things people might not expect to learn about Houston if they’re visiting?

It’s a great place to live. People are friendly. It’s very affordable. The selling price that you would sell your home for in Florida or California, you can buy two or three here in Houston with more acreage. The public school system is great. The universities are superb, and the food is great here. We have a lot of great eateries. But La Maison in Midtown is where you need to stay.

 

First Cigar: An interview with jazz great Arturo Sandoval

 
Interview by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez,   Photo by Manny Iriarte

Interview by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez, Photo by Manny Iriarte

Can you remember your first cigar?

I’m 63, and I was 14 years old when I smoked my first cigar, which means I’ve been smoking cigars for 49 years nonstop. In my opinion, of course, Fuente is the best, of course. I like Opus X, but mainly what I smoke every day is Don Carlos … the Don Carlos Robusto.

Code Block - Banner will be here!

Nonstop? How often do you smoke?

Me? I smoke every day! [laughter] I smoke every day, man. I get up in the morning and I get my Cuban coffee and light the first one. Sometimes I smoke two or three in a day. Sometimes a little more. Sometimes a little less. No less than two and no more than four.

Has smoking cigars ever affected your ability to play?

You know, everybody makes comments about it and has been asking me about it for many, many years. They want to know how come I smoke cigars because I use a lot of air in my work.

I’m telling you, I cannot smoke cigarettes. Cigarettes really bother me. Even second-hand smoke. If I’m around someone smoking cigarettes, I feel it bother my breathing. But with cigars, I have never had any problems.

You’re very close to Carlito Fuente. Tell me about that relationship.

Carlito is not a friend to me. He is not even family. I don’t know how to describe it. He is the real brother my parents unfortunately couldn’t give me. He’s a real brother. That friendship is so big, besides any business, beside the music, besides cigars — there’s a mutual sympathy, and we connected so well from the first mo- ment we met.

He’s a guy with a big heart. Very humble. A gentleman. I call him a renaissance man. He puts so much enthusiasm into everything he does. He’s a guy who is always looking for charities, looking for benefits, for things to help people in need. That means a lot. He’s a guy I admire and respect.

We met in the Dominican Republic, when they were launching a cigar magazine called El Cigarro. That was many years ago. We met then in a little cigar store. Since that day, we connected so well. And I became real close to his family. His dad is like a brother to me. His mother, his sister, his brother in law, his kids, his wife. Everybody. We became like close family.

You’ve also worked with the Fuentes’ charity, the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation. Are you giving back in any other ways?

I also have my own institute: The Arturo Sandoval Institute. It’s dedicated to helping kids with parents of low incomes to buy instruments and help them to learn music. We’re working hard and I’m very happy about it because it’s so good for your soul when you feel you are giving back, because God gave so many things to me. God has been so good to me. It’s a spiritual necessity to feel you are giving back.
For so many years, I’ve been giving scholarships to kids who really need it. It’s very good for your soul.

You live in California — not the most cigar-friendly state. Do you have any thoughts on the taxation and regulation of cigars there?

Of course! It’s an invasion of our rights, because it’s not fair when they create taxes that are very aggressive. It’s an abuse of the law, you know? They’re talking about legalization of marijuana. How come the people who are thinking about the legalization of marijuana are so strongly against cigars? That doesn’t make sense. What do you mean? That marijuana’s better than cigars?

Give me a break. They put the taxes so high. It’s amazing. It’s outrageous. People who really love cigars are going to keep buying, but it’s going to affect their pockets immensely. I wish I had the answers. We could protest. We could raise our voices and let the federal government know we’re not happy about it.

What are you working on now? You’ve been spending a lot of time in the studio over the last several days.

I’m working on my next project, but I prefer not to talk about it yet, because it’s too premature. I would like to mention the last two records (“Dear Diz – Every Day I Think of You” & “Tango – Como Yo Te Siento”), which are still kind of new. The last two records won a few Grammys and another is also nominated now for the Grammys in February.

What level of excitement do you still feel when you’re nominated for or win Grammys? There aren’t too many people who have been through that as many times as you have.

The recognition of the Academy… it’s very, very important because that means a lot of things. That means they really paid attention to the product; they really lis- tened to it carefully. And if they really decide to nominate it and even to award it, it’s something that’s always really rewarding for the artist because you feel that what you did was well received.

It gives you a lot of desire and energy for your next project.

Are there things in music that have you particularly excited? Any new artists who have caught your eye?

I love all kinds of music. For me there is only one kind of music: the good kind. I try to stay aware of what is going on in the music industry. There’s always someone new, but I consider myself an old-timer. I still listen to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. I listen to a satellite radio station called Siriusly Sinatra. I listen to that a lot.

And also I listen to the jazz station, of course.