Old Dominion is one of the hottest acts in country music and they're celebrating every win with cigars

This piece was published in the September/October 2018 issue of Cigar Snob Magazine.
On Nov. 14, Old Dominion won Vocal Group of the Year at the CMA Awards.

Old Dominion is catching fire with musicianship, a passion for songwriting, and the good sense to not take themselves as seriously as they take their craft.

The band’s star is rising and they’re lighting up to celebrate every victory along the way.

In a corner of the upstairs lounge at Detroit’s La Casa Cigars, the five members of the ascendant country band Old Dominion contemplated what it’s meant to blow up as a band at the height of the social media age after hav- ing enjoyed some success as songwriters and musicians just outside the spotlight. They’re right around 40 and are music industry veterans, but it’s only in the last few years that they’ve become famous as recording artists.

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“There’s no mystery,” said drummer Whit Sellers. The consensus in the room is that Whit is the one who’s most weirded out by fame. “You have to give a window into your personal life to get people interested in the music as opposed to being able to have the music stand there on its own artistic merit — which is a totally idealistic idea to have in this day and age.”

“As an artist, you’re like ‘No, man. Care about the song!’,” said Matt Ramsey, the band’s frontman. “But then you’re like, ‘Well, I guess we have to take the selfie in order to get people interested.’”

“It’s concrete,” said Geoff Sprung, the group’s bassist. “You take the selfie, you put it on Instagram and it explodes.”

“It’s like... I don’t know what David Bowie does all day,” added guitarist Brad Tursi, “And that’s what’s cool about it. It’s like, ‘Who is that guy?’”

He hasn’t done much talking to this point in our interview, but the subject has Whit fired up. He chimes in again to mock a curious Bowie fan. “I wonder what David Bowie does all day? He must do really cool shit. It has to be so cool.”

[Our music] was something we were proud of, but the idea of being a band came from the outside in.
— Geoff Sprung
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That’s when guitarist and keyboardist Trevor Rosen put us all back in touch with ground control. “You know, he’s not doing anything right now,” Trevor said. We all burst into laughter.

“He’s been doing the same thing for a while,” said Matt. “He’s settled into a routine!”

The lives of these five guys (who took the Virginia state nickname for their band since four of the five members have ties to the state) are many things — but routine isn’t one of them. The group came together, as so many country acts do, in Nashville, but it was almost accidental that they came to think of themselves as a band at all.

 Old Dominion bassist Geoff Sprung [photo:  Brad Ziegler ]

Old Dominion bassist Geoff Sprung [photo: Brad Ziegler]

Matt, Geoff and Whit are all from Virginia. Matt and Whit grew up in Botetourt County, about two and a half hours west of Richmond, playing on drumlines at their rival high schools. Whit met Geoff and Brad (a native Connecticuter) when he went off to Virginia Commonwealth University, while Matt was introduced to Trevor (a Detroiter) in 2003 in Nashville, where all five would end up to pursue work as songwriters or musicians. Eventually, the group formed for purposes of working out and performing the songs that its members were writing.

“It was something we were proud of,” said Geoff, “but the idea of being a band came from the outside in. People kept saying, ‘You guys are a band.’”

“We were just having a good time. The moment where we were like, ‘we have something here’ was pretty recent,” said Matt.

Old Dominion members’ writing credits include songs recorded by Luke Bryan, Cole Swindell, Randy Houser, Tyler Farr, Kenny Chesney, the Randy Rogers Band, Michael Ray, Josh Turner, Ryan Hurd, Brandon Lay, Dierks Bentley and Blake Shelton. They’ve also written songs for the ABC drama Nashville. Trevor and Matt pointed to one song in particular, Wake Up Loving You (which they wrote with Josh Osborne), that brought them attention in country circles and was then recorded by Craig Morgan.

“That was the flag in the ground that we built everything around there for a while, until Craig recorded it and we were like, ‘Guess we gotta let that one go,’” said Matt.

“We were writing songs together for years,” said Trevor, “but then I remember when we went into the studio, [Matt’s] publisher — out of being cheap — was like, ‘Why don’t you just bring your band in here and we’ll just record the demos with your band?’ We were like, “This guy’s a hit producer. Is he producing us as a band?’ That was our first taste of being artists. It opened that window in my mind of, ‘This could actually be a possibility.’ Because we were already starting to have hits as songwriters. We had just started to scratch that surface. It was like, ‘Well, we write hit songs for other people. We sound good. Maybe we can take a run at this too.’”

Old Dominion officially formed and got its name in 2007, though they didn’t release their first EP until 2014. The first single on that EP, Shut Me Up, did fairly well. What really got things going was the exposure that another single called Break Up With Him got on “The Highway,” a country station on Sirius XM Radio around the start of 2015. The track gives you a good sense of their sound. It’s a little pop, a little rock, clever songwriting and just enough of that earnest country flavor to recall the ‘90s take on the genre, which is what these guys would have been hearing in their teens and twenties.

“We wrote [Break Up With Him] goofing off just trying to make each other laugh, but we really cracked into this thing where it really hadn’t been said in that way before, but everybody can relate to that,” said Trevor.

The song’s lyrics are written from the perspective of a guy who’s calling a woman to convince her she should leave her man.

Hey girl, what’s up?
I know it’s late, but I knew you’d pick it up
Naw, I ain’t drunk
Okay, maybe I do have a little buzz but
That song came on and I just thought what harm could come from one little call?
I know you say you’re taken, but I say girl you’re taking too long
To tell him that it’s over Then bring it on over
Stringing him along any longer girl, it’s just wasting precious time

— Break Up With Him

“It really hits on something that I think hadn’t been said in that way. It’s kind of like being a standup comedian when you can find something that everybody can relate to and think ‘I don’t think anybody’s doing a bit on this.’”

“That one had an identity that framed us up,” said Geoff. “I think probably still now, when people think ‘What does Old Dominion sound like?’, Break Up With Him is what we sound like.”

 Lead singer Matt Ramsey [photo:  Brad Ziegler ]

Lead singer Matt Ramsey [photo: Brad Ziegler]

That sound has caught on in a serious way. Over the last few years, Old Dominion has been showered with praise for their work, garner- ing a slew of award nominations and wins at the Academy of Country Music Awards and the American Country Countdown Awards. Most recently, the band took home the ACM Award for Vocal Group of the Year, breaking a streak by Little Big Town and edging out Lady Antebellum.

When the group won the ACM Award for New Vocal Duo or Group of the Year in 2016, they were asked backstage whether they had lost their underdog status. How do you stay motivated and how do the challenges shift?

“We want the whole thing to grow. We’re on this tour with Kenny Chesney right now,” Matt said, referring to Kenny Chesney’s Trip Around the Sun Tour, “and we spend every night watching a stadium full of people. I think that’s what we want. With that award it felt like we just sort of broke through. Now we have some attention and we want to create a longstanding career like someone like Kenny has. He has a two-hour set of hit songs and there are hit songs he doesn’t play. We would love to get to the point where we have the confidence of a two-hour iconic set.”

Thomas Rhett is also a part of that Trip Around the Sun Tour. The Old Dominion guys noted that he’s a smoker as well. They got him a box of Joya de Nicaragua Cuatro Cincos.

“He’s such a part of the fabric of [his fans’] lives. We’ve had some people come to us and tell us we’re a part of their lives,” said Trevor. “He doesn’t have 10 or 20 people like that. He has hundreds of thousands. Every town he goes to.”

These are lofty goals, to be sure. Kenny Chesney has sold more than 30 million albums and consistently has his singles occupying top-40 spots on the Billboard charts. He’s not only country-big. Kenny Chesney is just plain big. The day after my interview with the Old Dominion guys, I was at the Trip Around the Sun’s Detroit stop at Ford Field. It was mind-blowing to see a football stadium packed with people — who notably ran the gamut of age — singing along with every single word Chesney sang, including the words to Save it for a Rainy Day, which Matt and Brad wrote with their late friend (and smoking partner) Andrew Dorff. Matt and Brad have been joining Kenny on stage to perform it on this tour.

‘Cause the sun’s too bright,
The sky’s too blue
Beer’s too cold to be thinking about you
Gonna take this heartbreak and tuck it away
Save it for a rainy day
Yeah, the music’s too good,
My friends are all out
And they’re all too high to be bringing ‘em down
If they ask about you
I’ve got nothing to say I’ll save it for a rainy day

— Save it for a Rainy Day

“I’m pretty proud of that song,” said Brad. “Kenny is such a top-tier artist and he’s so great at picking songs that to pick one that we wrote is pretty awesome. And to be able to watch it connect to so many people... It’s such a simple idea, when you’ve had a heartbreak and then you have that moment where you’re like, ‘Forget this. I’m gonna have fun today.’”

Like Brad, the rest of the guys in this band are proud of their craft, their writing and their musicianship. While they’ve been around each other a long time, each brings a set of influences to the table that colors the work they put out.

“In the ‘90s, country was a thing. It had a very specific feel to it,” Matt said. “‘90s country was always on in my parents’ kitchen. It wasn’t what I was listening to by choice. I’m from a very small town and that’s what everyone was listening to. I was listening to things like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, but I knew everything about country because it was constantly on. As I grew older, I started to realize, ‘Actually I kind of like some of this stuff.’ As far as my writing goes, all of that bleeds in.”

Anybody who was listening to ‘90s country on the radio was probably at least also passing through some ‘90s hip-hop stations to get there. In Trevor’s case, growing up in Detroit meant rap and rock played a big role.

“I was a huge Eminem fan. I also grew up listening to NWA,” Trevor said. “For me, it’s the coolest music. You listen to that stuff and you’re like ‘We’re not that cool.’”

“It’s the rhythm in the song too,” said Whit. “One of the advantages of country is that it co-opts any genre with no guilt whatsoever.

One positive addition has been the grooviness of hip-hop beats. It’s opened up all different types of songs you can have. You don’t have to have that same Nashville or country feel. You can get really creative.”

Those hip-hop influences might be most vivid in the lyrics and rhythms of Dirt on a Road:

My mama taught me how to treat a lady with respect
But what the heck did you expect with the perfume on your neck
Is smellin’ all so good, peaches and cream
You’re so fly you make a trout want to jump right out the stream
So, walk those little boots you’re wearing
Over here to where I’m standing Let’s get to causing a scene...

— Dirt on a Road

“You can’t be an adolescent male and not have that part of your brain tickled by hip-hop,” added Geoff. “There’s a magic to that genre at that age and we all grew up through that.”

As true musicians, these guys are also perpetually curious. Whit has been on a Latin kick lately, putting special focus on Cuban music and Caribbean rhythms.

“No Such Thing As A Broken Heart has a Caribbean rhythm it’s built on. None of us had any idea we were doing that, but it turns out it’s a soca. There’s so many different things to have fun doing,” he said.

After a pause to think about the possibilities, the country-Caribbean fusion inspiration hits. “You play soca and you sing about a truck... Boom!”

 Guitarist Brad Tursi [photo:  Brad Ziegler ]

Guitarist Brad Tursi [photo: Brad Ziegler]

Old Dominion might not have achieved Chesney-level success yet, but they’re on their way. In the meantime, there’s been a marked improvement in the tour cigar selection.

“I remember [my first cigar] was a Swisher Sweet. With the plastic shitty dipped tip. All my buddies were smoking cigarettes and I didn’t really like them, but for some reason I really liked those,” Matt said.

These days, Matt’s a Padrón guy. He smoked a 1964 Anniversary Series during our interview. He takes the lead on stocking the band’s traveling humidor with Brad, who has more eclectic tastes.

“Crowned Heads has a lot of nice stuff, like Las Calaveras,” said Brad. “They’re also Nashville based which is pretty cool. This Herrera Estelí I really like. And of course the Padróns. Their cigars are by far the most consistently good.”

During our sit-down at La Casa, other members of the band smoked cigars by Padrón, 7-20-4, and My Father, among other brands (some of us had more than one). I asked when it is they tend to make time to smoke together.

“I can’t think of a specific moment,” Geoff said. “It’s mostly post-show good feeling. When things feel good, let’s just sit and soak it up. And our life is not about sitting down. Our life is about moving.”

“[After winning] any award,” added Whit. “If an accomplishment is big enough, a cigar celebration is done by default. I probably smoke cigars less than anybody in the band, and that’s when I’m thinking, ‘I would like to have a cigar right now.’”

This is a change from Whit’s initial attitude toward cigars.

“[When I smoked my first cigar] I’d only had experience with a cigar wrapper. Just the wrapper; it wasn’t filled with any tobacco, though. Like, ‘This isn’t just a delivery system? I thought you always took the tobacco out.’”

Well it was down some street we couldn’t even pronounce
We were smoking a little from a half an ounce
Tequila was cheap but the flow we were feeling was real
Neither one of us looking for three little words
Unless those three words were Do Not Disturb
Checkout was s’posed to be noon but we slept in ‘til three

— Hotel Key

The more time you spend with Old Dominion, the more you realize these guys are having fun. It’s constant laughs, inside jokes, stories, and awe at the ride they’re on. Smoking cigars is part of the way they make sure they’re savoring every moment of it. They also look to their next steps with a clarity that probably comes from having achieved this fame in their late 30s. They’re country stars (it would even be fair to call them rock or pop stars considering their crossover appeal), but most of them were family men when they got here.

 Drummer Whit Sellers [photo:  Brad Ziegler ]

Drummer Whit Sellers [photo: Brad Ziegler]

The members all agreed that they preferred to keep their families out of the public eye and maintain all the normalcy they can. Country might be the ideal music genre for finding fame in that regard.

“It’s understood that [country artists] are supposed to be more like a regular person,” said Matt. “And they’re viewed in that way so it’s not as eccentric as a pop artist. Walking through the airport you still look like a normal person. The biggest country star is still just wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a ball cap. He might be playing stadiums in that outfit.”

And yet, to be fair, country has changed over the years. As I’ve noted in this piece, this crew has crossover appeal. That can bleed into their wardrobes.

“I forget that we dress differently,” Trevor said. “I assume we dress like normal people, but someone will point out to me that normal 40-something year old people who take their kids to school don’t wear these skinny jeans.”

“It kind of creeps on you,” Geoff added, “because our world is insular and there’s five of us, so clothing-wise, we’re all changing slowly but together. So you look around and what’s normal is I’m wearing something closer to these guys, 200-plus days a year. You go back to Nashville and drop your kids off at school, and you realize, ‘Oh, I’m not with my four guys...’”

“I look like a jackass,” said Matt, laughing.

The flip side of fame is that it’s brought these five guys into situations they might never have imagined otherwise. From invitations to stay several nights in Hawaii in exchange for a short acoustic performance to run-ins with the band’s sports idols, the gig has come with a lot of perks.

 Guitarist and keyboardist Trevor Rosen [photo:  Brad Ziegler ]

Guitarist and keyboardist Trevor Rosen [photo: Brad Ziegler]

“We played Pittsburgh,” Matt said, “and Bill Cowher came and was like, ‘Oh, you guys are so great!’” I was like, ‘You’re Bill Cowher, man!’”

During a stop in Denver, Trevor — who once had hockey aspirations — met some NHL players who introduced him to John Elway.

“So John Elway says, ‘Any time you need any- thing in Denver, let me know. Actually, let me give you my number.’”

The room went silent for a moment. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one hearing this story for the first time.

Whit was first to react. “You have John Elway’s number?!”

Then Geoff. “How long have you been sitting on John Elway’s number?!”

A moment later, Whit had already figured out how the band would leverage this. “I have a feeling John Elway can get us a tee time.”

While they’re journeying toward whatever tee times and packed stadiums are in their future, I left my meeting with Old Dominion convinced that the best thing the band has going for it is the band itself. It’s a group of friends who became a band, not the other way around. And that’s the kind of thing you need if you’re going to put out the kind of tongue-in-cheek, playful, authentic country that will have staying power with country fans and newcomers.

“You hit on something with hearing personality in our music. We’re friends and we don’t take ourselves seriously. We don’t think we’re that cool, so we’re not going to make music that’s putting up that front. So we’re just making music that we enjoy,” Matt said. “Our identity as a band is who we are as people and that’s translated into our recording and our writing.”

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.

Manny Iriarte: branching out

This story was originally published in the July/August 2011 issue of Cigar Snob Magazine.

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December 7th, 2000, 02:15 AM: He couldn’t sleep. His dream was becoming a reality; he had escaped the oppressive clutches of Fidel Castro’s Cuba and he was finally in the United States of America. After years of failed attempts, prolonged detours in South America, and numerous risky plane changes, he had made it. He pinched himself till there was no way that this was a dream. He finally fell asleep while his cellmate snored the night away at the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster, California.

Here’s a quick lesson on US immigration policy towards Cuban nationals. From the US
State Department Fact Sheet: “The Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), Public Law 89-732, was enacted on November 2, 1966. The law applies to any native or citizen of Cuba who has been inspected and admitted or paroled into the United States after January 1, 1959 and has been physically present for at least one year; and is admissible to the United States for Permanent Residence.”

There’s a lot going on in that seemingly simple statement. Distilled down it means that after going through a short inspection and admission process, a Cuban national will be admitted into the US, and that after just one year of living in the country, he or she may become a permanent resident alien. In the complicated and risky world of immigration, this is the equivalent of a golden ticket. What isn’t in the above statement but is also part of the deal with Cubans is that they do not need to use a family-based or employment- based immigrant visa like just about every other group. And finally, a Cuban national is not required to enter through a port of entry. In the end, if a Cuban national makes it to American soil, regardless of how he gets here, he or she can legally stay in this country legally and permanently after one year of residence.

Upon arriving in LAX (Los Angeles International Airport), Manny alerted customs and immigration that he was a Cuban national. As part of the standard procedure, he was taken to Mira Loma where he would have to wait for admission into the country. A few days later, he was released into the streets of Lancaster a free man. Free from the tyranny, from the oppression, and from the failed political ideals. The moment was bittersweet on various levels. On the one hand, he was free to pursue a new life while on the other he was far away from family and friends. He had been released and had gained legal entrance into the United States but he was alone, cold, and penniless in a foreign land.

Imagine this recent arrival Cuban with only the clothes on his back, speaking almost no English, hailing a cab in Lancaster, CA. “I will never forget that cab driver,” says Manny. “I don’t know how he understood me or why he even bothered to fight through this conversation but he eventually took me to a Western Union where I was able to have some funds wired from Miami to pay for the cab, some food, and a flight to Miami. I don’t know what would have happened if not for that cab driver.”

“Manny’s a special human being. He has incredible talent and creativity but beside that he has a feeling of the culture, the history, and the passion of cigars which is something to be admired and respected. Another thing about Manny that I admire is his work ethic; he’s very serious and hard-working but he’s also very responsible. In a short time Manny and I have become close friends to the point that I
consider him like family.”
— Carlos "Carlito" Fuente, Arturo Fuente Cigars

He eventually made it to Miami where he began a new life. In Cuba he was a swimmer for the Cuban National Team but in Miami, he was just another recent arrival. He worked as a personal trainer taking Spanish speaking clients. When you don’t have much, the most insignificant things bring you joy. “I was living in this studio apartment in Southwest Miami and every day I would receive these flyers in the mail for electronic stores. I loved them!” His eyes light up when he talks about these lean times. “I would ip to the camera section and imagine what it would be like to shoot with something from this century.” Back in Cuba a tourist had gifted him an old 35mm camera that sparked his growing passion for photography.

Soon he learned to speak English, received a teacher certification for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and took a job as a physical education teacher in the public school system. “I loved it. Helping kids get in shape and get better at sports was a lot of fun, but at night I kept taking pictures of cigars.” He loved smoking cigars and loved taking pictures... it wasn’t much of a stretch to put both passions together. “Cigars are so photogenic. People always ask me how I get the smoke to look so real in my pictures.” His answer is always the same. “I get the smoke to look real because it is real! You have to smoke the cigars you’re taking pictures of; it’s one of my favorite parts of my job.” It was during one of these practice sessions using natural light that Manny took the shots that he eventually showed me during our very first meeting.

It turns out that the gym where Iriarte worked out daily was the same gym that a dear friend of mine frequented. (Some day, I too will have to join a gym...) The friend in question, Angel Elizalde of A.S.P. Enterprises (www.aspenterprisesinc.com), saw Manny’s work and immediately suggested he contact me.

Five years later Manny Iriarte is unquestionably the cigar industry’s “go-to” photographer. His work in the cigar industry has opened eyes in other sectors as well. The marketing team at Beck’s Beer Latin American division fell in love with his work and commissioned Manny to shoot for their Latin market in-store poster campaign. If you look up Arturo Sandoval’s award-winning “A Time For Love” album, you’ll find that all the photography, including the cover, are Manny’s shots.

Back in the cigar business, however, Iriarte’s photography clients needed more than just photos. Logos, artwork for ads, poster designs, shelf-talkers, and even trade show displays are dressed with Manny’s work. My Father Cigars hired Manny to shoot all of their product shots and design all of their ads, posters, and catalogs. Padrón Cigars used several of Manny’s shots when they recently launched a new website. Oliva Cigars used Iriarte’s photography in ads and marketing collateral all over the world.

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Early 2008: Manny is setting up the studio for a product shoot for J. Fuego Cigars (www.tabacossa.com) while Jesus (pronounced Heh-Seuss), the J in J. Fuego, is thinking aloud about a problem he’s having. “I have this new blend that I love, I already have the initial batch of cigars rolled and ready, I have the name for the brand, but I don’t have a band design that I like. Do you know someone who can help?” Similar to the tourist who gifted Manny that 35mm back in Cuba and sparked his passion for photography, Jesus didn’t know he was playing with a blowtorch in a barn full of hay. “I’ll do it. I’ll create the label for the new cigar!” Manny designed the cigar label for the 777 by J. Fuego brand. Much like the events that led to this one, this chance request paved the way for the next step in his career.

Over the last 12 months, Iriarte Photography and Design has been hard at work balancing the photography requests with the growing number of design requests. The biggest area of growth for Manny’s business over this time has been cigar label and box art design. “I think that in order to stay energized and motivated in life, you need to take yourself out of your comfort zone,” explains Manny.

“At first it wasn’t easy to come up with designs that worked for cigar labels, but I worked closely with Albert Montserrat and his team at Cigar Rings in Santiago, Dominican Republic and we’ve been able to come up with some incredible new designs.” It has reached the point where Manny’s designs are pushing Cigar Rings out of their comfort zone. “We’ve ordered new machines and new materials that can execute some of the amazing designs that Iriarte Photography and Designs has sent us and we are excited about what we’re able to produce together,” added Albert during a recent phone interview.

It won’t be long before Manny runs into a new medium of inspiration... or perhaps he already has. “I’m working on the most exciting project I have ever worked on. I am thrilled and honored that my company was chosen to create this design to commemorate a major milestone in the modern cigar industry, I can’t wait till it’s public!”

There he goes again...

Gilberto F. Oliva Sr., the Oliva Cigar patriarch who weathered political storms to persist in the cigar world, dies at 86

Gilberto Oliva, Sr., patriarch of the Oliva Cigar family, died today in Miami. He was 86.

Here's some of an Oliva Cigar press release:

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"He began his tobacco odyssey in Cuba. He was born to a second generation tobacco grower. By his late teens Gilberto had expanded from the small family farm to tobacco trading. Like so many others, Gilberto saw his young business seized by the Cuban dictatorship. Gilberto fled to Nicaragua and was among the first pioneers of tobacco cultivation in Nicaragua.

As had happened in his homeland, political unrest forced Gilberto to abandon the country. The years that followed found Gilberto growing tobacco all over the world. From Mexico to Panama to the Philippines, he never relented on his dream to establish a successful tobacco growing operation.

By the early '90s Gilberto was running a cigar factory in Moroceli, Honduras. As the U.S. began to enjoy a premium cigar renaissance, Gilberto's children established, with his guidance, a small cigar factory in Nicaragua. As the company grew, Gilberto returned to Nicaragua to re-establish his tobacco growing operations. Together the cigar company and the tobacco growing company grew. Gilberto's operation became among the largest in Nicaragua and the cigar factory used his tobacco to make critically acclaimed cigars. In 2013 the Oliva Serie V Melanio was recognized by Cigar Snob Magazine as the #1 Cigar of the Year."

Gilberto is survived by his wife, five children and 14 grandchildren. He was in their company at the time of his passing at South Miami Hospital.

Domenico Vacca: American dream, Italian fit

The terrace at the far back end of his New York City store is part of an expansive lounge area he uses to entertain guests at private events. The open-air portion has room for its own crowd to gather and sits almost right against the windows of the Argentinian consulate just off 5th Avenue between W 55th and 56th Streets. We puff away on cigars while we enjoy snacks, wine and coffee in perfect weather, eventually joined by friends and his statuesque Italian fiancée. When he’s not here, he’s usually at one of his other shops — either in Los Angeles, Miami Beach, or back home in Italy.

By just about any objective measure — to the extent that these things can be measured objectively — Domenico Vacca is living the dream. Specifically, he’s living the American dream. The one in which an immigrant comes to America and spins his home country’s core values and identity into a business that couldn’t have happened back home. The one where opportunity makes all the difference and pairing a clear vision with hard work pays off in the form of big-time success and recognition.

“The famous American dream is getting soft,” said Domenico Vacca, pausing to gather his thoughts as he took a puff of his cigar and contemplated the way his adoptive country has changed since he started stitching his dreams together in the fashion industry. “And the point is that we should find a way to go back there.”

 Domenico Vacca smoking a Padrón 7000 paired with Italian wine (photo: Martin Crook)

Domenico Vacca smoking a Padrón 7000 paired with Italian wine (photo: Martin Crook)

A cathedral of quality

Domenico was born and raised in Andali, a tiny town in the south of Italy. His maternal grandmother had a fashion company and her side of the family included plenty of seamstresses and tailors.

“I grew up on tailor tables,” he said.

His family encouraged Domenico not to pursue fashion, though. There’d be no money in it, they said. It was too much work, they said. So in pursuit of other avenues to success, Domenico came to the U.S. 25 years ago and earned an LLM (master’s in law) from NYU. He spent time in the corporate world, but eventually, all roads led back to the business that ran through his blood.

“My grandmother had always told me and my brothers, ‘Don’t do anything related to fashion.’ Back then, fashion hadn’t gone global. She couldn’t have foreseen what’s happened with fashion.”

Domenico established his brand when he opened his first New York City boutique in 2002. He now has stores of various sizes around the world (Miami Beach, Beverly Hills, Milan), but to call the New York location where we met a “store” is to dramatically understate what Domenico has built in his little slice of Manhattan. The two-story lifestyle “cathedral,” as Domenico puts it, includes not only the retail and fitting areas you might expect, but a coffee shop, a barber shop (with a bottle of Scotch at the ready near the barber chairs), a hair salon and the large lounge space where we did our interview. Throughout, the place is packed with a world-class art collection integrated so seamlessly into the space that you could be forgiven for overlooking the fact that that alone is worth the visit.

Every detail is designed to suck you into Domenico’s vision for his brand, which isn’t about him or his name, but rather an appreciation for the luxury of top-quality handmade goods. That love of craftsmanship is patently Italian.

“What I’ve learned is that anything you do is about communication. You can make the best product in the world. If you don’t communicate it in a way that people can understand right away, then it’s not going to be easy to make a point. When you explain that everything that comes from Italy is done by hand, sometimes, you know, even in interviews, journalists say ‘Oh, it’s made by hand, so you bring it by hand underneath a machine’ and I say, “No no, it’s completely done by hand.”

“If I do a shirt handmade, meaning 90 percent of the seams are sewn by hand, it means you’re not dealing with a machine. When the machine’s needle goes in and out, you have 25 knots per inch. These 25 knots have nothing to do with one another. They are independent knots. That means that when you wash the shirt and then iron it, you have to press like crazy on a machine shirt — because you have to have 25 knots that are completely independent — to go back and make a straight line. Very difficult to do that. You force the fabric, so after a while you have to throw the shirt out.

What I’ve learned is that anything you do is about communication.
— Domenico Vacca

“On the other hand, when you do it by hand, you have stitches. A seam starts with a stitch, you have a knot at the beginning and one at the end. You’ve done the seam. In a handmade shirt you pass the iron on top and everything goes back into place.

“Another thing: when you wear your handmade shirt or jacket, it will mold to your body after I put it on you and you wear it three or four hours. That is the sartorial look. Because the garment works with your body because all the stress points are working to go around your body because they have stitches and not knots.”

For the sake of analogy, Domenico suggests thinking of clothes in terms of complications, the way you would watches. Of course you could buy yourself a watch that just tells time. But you pay a premium for watch complications, which are functions other than simply telling time. Those complications literally complicate the manufacturing process and the engineering that goes into fitting watch components into a casing and getting them to function properly. Those complications include, for example, chronograph movement, date and month movement, and of course, the tourbillon, which you’ll generally find in the most expensive watches.

“If I start talking about one of my suits or jackets, it would take an hour to tell you about all the complications we do that other people don’t do,” Domenico said. “And they are very important for the final garment.”

Clothing is about culture

Those ideas about the value of handmade complications and the appreciation of consistent precision and quality are notions that we cigar smokers under- stand intuitively. It’s no wonder, then, that Domenico smokes cigars daily too. When he’s not smoking Cubans, his go-to is the Padrón 7000 (which he says is just the right size for gathering his thoughts on long New York City walks).

I’ve never been a fashionista, but there’s another aspect of high fashion — at least the way Domenico does it — that feels familiar to me as a cigar lover. Talk to any cigar maker and they’ll tell you that in some way, shape or form, there is an aspect of culture that they’re communicating to you with their cigars. If you’re smoking a Padrón, for example, you’re being told at least a piece of the story of the Padrón family, from Dámaso to José Orlando on down. To the extent that anyone is listening, your appreciation for handmade cigars also says something about what you value and how you live.

In that same way, fashion is a matter of cultural identity and lifestyle to Domenico.

“Clothing is about culture,” Domenico said. “It’s thinking about the kind of man or woman who wears my clothes. What do they do? What should be the lifestyle? As many of the luxury brands, we are becoming a lifestyle brand. So how do we cover — with clothes — all 24 hours of the 365 days of a year so we understand what is the lifestyle of our clients and we can dress them accordingly to their social life?”

The American fashion market wasn’t like that when Domenico created his brand 15 years ago, he said. It was clothes-in-clothes-out. Even brand people associated with Italian fashion, he insists, were adjusting the cut of each garment to appeal to the American market (which generally seems to mean that they made the clothes less form-fitting, especially on men). This was also due to the fact that so many of those brands’ revenue models depended on selling clothes to retailers like department stores, which weren’t willing to take risks with a more Italian fit.

 Just some of the men's shirts available at Domenico Vacca's Manhattan store  (photo: Martin Crook)

Just some of the men's shirts available at Domenico Vacca's Manhattan store (photo: Martin Crook)

“I don’t give a damn about that. I want to educate Americans. I want them to dress the way we dress in Italy,” Domenico said. “We were the first to bring that. Taking a risk. I remember when we did our first collections for men and women, but especially men, in the factory they would say, ‘Are you sure this is going to work? This is a very Italian fit.’ This was the clothes that I was wearing. I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. If it doesn’t work I’ll wear it myself and give it to my friends.’ That was our winning element.”

Turning to analogy again, Domenico brings up food. “Restaurants like Cipriani didn’t always exist (in the United States). So you would go to Venice and have an amazing dish at Cipriani, but then you would come here and you would find more Italian American restaurants with pasta swimming in red sauce,” Domenico said. “We don’t have marinara sauce in Italy. We don’t have Fettuccine Alfredo in Italy. It’s an invention of the American market. Giuseppe Cipriani came and said, ‘OK, the same menu you’re going to get in Venice, Milan, Florence, or Naples, you’re going to get here.’ And Americans went crazy about it because they were ready for that. The same thing happened in clothes.”

Importing what he saw as authentically Italian and refusing to compromise it for the sake of broader appeal turned out to be a winning strategy for Domenico. But success has been about more than bringing Italian aesthetics and sensibilities to American shores; it’s been about reaching Americans — with varying degrees of subtlety — by penetrating America’s popular culture.

Domenico isn’t a household name. You might assume that because you didn’t know the name or because you’d never treated yourself to one of his custom suits, you don’t know his work. You are almost certainly mistaken.

In fact, when you consider how recently Domenico launched his brand — remember, he’s only been around since 2002 — it’s incredible what he’s pulled off.

Domenico dressed Ari Gold, Jeremy Piven’s character on Entourage, through all eight seasons of the HBO hit series (plus the 2015 movie). He’s done wardrobe for Lucious Lyon, Terrence Howard’s character on Empire. He dressed Denzel Washington in American Gangster. He dressed Forest Whitaker for his role as police captain Jack Wander in Street Kings. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg on his Hollywood wardrobe résumé.

And then there are the clothes that stars wear when they’re not playing roles. At the 2013 Academy Awards, three winners accepted their Oscars in Domenico’s clothes: Daniel Day Lewis won Best Actor (Lincoln), Alan Arkin won Best Supporting Actor (Little Miss Sunshine) and Melissa Etheridge won for Best Original Song (“I Need to Wake Up” from An Inconvenient Truth). Ivana Trump is another big customer of his, and she wore his designs when she was all over the press promoting a recent book. All of these tacit endorsements serve to build on the brand’s credibility with consumers who look to trendsetters for cues.

“We are able to send the message that Daniel Day Lewis picked Domenico Vacca, and this is a guy who does his own research on everything he does,” said Domenico. “It means we are doing something right. If they picked us for Entourage, which is like Sex and the City for guys, it means that we’re doing something right.” He added that while it’s common practice for brands to pay celebrities to wear their clothes, he does none of that.

In the case of the characters he dresses, Domenico says he’s involved enough and takes those challenges seriously enough that he has a hand in developing some of the characters you know and love.

“When I walked into Terrence Howard’s trailer [to work on his wardrobe for Empire], he said, ‘Finally, I’m going to have great clothes!’ You want your leading actor to be comfortable. And also dressing that guy, you also keep communicating your DNA, you know? Your lifestyle.”

If you’ve never seen Entourage, it helps to know that the Ari Gold character represents the height of caricature-ish Hollywood deal-making douchebaggery. He’s one of those characters so slimy you never want to be him (well... maybe sometimes you want to be him), but just good enough that you find the slime endearing. Ari, though constantly tiptoeing along a thin line between crisis-driven desperation and explosive nervous breakdowns, is always dressed like the sort of person who is in complete and utter control.

“Journalists sometimes ask me how menswear has changed in America in the last 10 years,” Domenico said. “And I say ‘Go watch Entourage.’ From the first episode to the movie, it changes. When we first started, the agent in Hollywood was wearing a black suit with a black shirt with a black tie with a black pair of shoes. Now they dress like Italians. Now, when I go to L.A., I walk out of ICM or CAA (L.A.- based talent agencies) and they are all dressed like they’re in Milan. I think we had a little part in that.”

Actors like Jeremy Piven and Forrest Whitaker, said Domenico, take things from his designs into the way they play their roles. Ari Gold’s swagger and the cor- ruption of Jack Wander are reinforced by the A.G. monograms on the inside of Ari’s suit or the gold lining inside Jack’s jacket.

“Nobody saw it,” said Domenico. “You can’t see it on the screen. But they knew. They say, ‘Now I know who this character is,’ and that’s amazing because now you’re really participating in the creation of the character.”

 Domenico looks over sketches and swatches.  (photo: Martin Crook)

Domenico looks over sketches and swatches. (photo: Martin Crook)

Changing times

When Domenico launched his brand about 15 years ago, the idea of bringing an authentically Italian fit to the U.S. was novel. Ballsy, even. But, like any good idea, this one was duplicated. So what do you do to stay relevant and stand out from the crowd when too many people have adopted your ideas for you to stand on those alone?

“The challenge now is the experience,” said Domenico. “It’s bringing people back into the stores and in order to do that, my idea was that I want people to come here not only to shop, but they come to hang out. And while they do that, they see something they like and they buy it. Or they become closer to the brand and they understand the lifestyle of the brand.”

Hence the salon, barber shop, coffee, art collection and lounge. All those elements of Domenico’s Midtown Manhattan “cathedral” for the lifestyle he wants people to associate with his brand serve a clear purpose.

Unfortunately, artificial barriers have gotten in the way of Domenico’s vision coming to full fruition. While the lounge area at the back of the building has been used for private events on occasion, the idea has always been for it to be more accessible. But neighbors and local government have put up a fight on that.

Domenico doesn’t remember the American landscape being quite so hostile to new things.

“You know, it’s painful for me to say it, but when I came here 25 years ago, the American Dream was on full speed,” he said. “You could do anything. I was always telling my friends in Italy that here, if you had an idea for a business, everybody will help you. It was always, ‘Great! Let’s do it. How can I help?’ In Italy, it’s not always that way. In Italy, you have to come from second and third generations. If you make wine, you have to come from a wine family. If you make fashion, it’s the same most of the time.

“In Italy, this would have been impossible for me to create from scratch. Now I can do anything I want in Italy. Now they give me awards. But that’s 15 years of fashion and success around the world later.

“Here, 15 years ago, everything was possible. Everyone was gathering around people with ideas. If you had a vision, you would find all the support that you wanted. Right now, not so much. It’s becoming complicated,” he continued.

Naturally, as a cigar guy, this all sounded very familiar to me. But Domenico sees this all as symptomatic of a broader cultural shift in the States.

“There are too many regulations, too many problems, too much hate. You can’t do anything here that is great without people saying, ‘Eh, I don’t know.’ Right now, the country is divided 50-50 or 55-45, if we look at the election. And everybody is against the other 50 percent. Unfortunately, maybe the president or whoever is running the country right now forgot that the best thing you need to do in order to recreate the American dream is to unite people. As long as we’re divided, there will always be 50 percent who will criticize anything you do. So that’s the status I think of America right now. I hope that, sooner or later, somebody will say, ‘Forget about if you are one party or another party. Let’s work together to rebuild this country because it needs to be rebuilt.’”

Domenico is an open book — the sort of person who has little trouble relating to people even while speaking his mind frankly. It makes sense that he laments the divisions he didn’t see when he first arrived in New York from Italy, and it stands to reason that he would build his business around the idea of bringing people into his vision.

Consider that his product portfolio is broader than just the custom suits that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. A ready-made Domenico Vacca suit generally has a far more attainable price tag — about $2,900. Pants, shirts and jeans cost around $500 — not cheap, by any measure, but that’s not the point. These are luxury items made well enough to last you a relative eternity. You’re getting the quality you pay for.

Beyond that, his product offering has expanded to include things like belts, sunglasses, and — most recently — tableware. It’s all geared toward finding ways for you to be a part of Domenico’s world and experience his culture of authentic Italian quality for yourself.

While Domenico takes satisfaction from relaying his Italian culture through clothes, he’s found he feels most at home around those who have lived it themselves. It’s no wonder that he ended up with fiancée Eleonora Pieroni, an Italian model and actress he met in Miami while he was there for Art Basel events and she had just gotten through filming an Italian TV show.

“Strangely enough, for the last 20 years I had never had a relationship with an Italian woman. But in that moment, I started realizing that it was easier for me to communicate with her, to develop a relationship with her because we were coming from the same place.”

 Domenico Vacca, smoking a cigar on the terrace at his Midtown Manhattan store, and his fiancée Eleonora Pieroni  (photo: Martin Crook)

Domenico Vacca, smoking a cigar on the terrace at his Midtown Manhattan store, and his fiancée Eleonora Pieroni (photo: Martin Crook)

Domenico said their first date happened that week. The two went to a charity event the night they met, with Domenico’s friend Mike Piazza and his wife.

“I never thought it was a date. He just invited me,” Eleonora said.

Domenico clarified, “It became a date after.”

Eleonora is now a part of Domenico’s spreading the gospel of Italian style, serving as the face of the brand for women’s clothing and even contributing to the design process.

She also shares his passion for spreading other aspects of Italian culture. For example, she was part of a group that took part in New York’s Columbus Day Parade dressed in classic 16th century Italian clothing. Not quite what’s made Domenico famous, but very Italian, to be sure.

“For me to see her walk down 5th Avenue with 100 people in costumes from the 16th century in the Columbus Day parade — it doesn’t get more Italian than that in terms of sharing our heritage — was amazing,” Domenico said.

As for his family back in Italy, his parents were able to see much of his success. His mother was around for more of it, even joining him for several store openings and events around the world. She died too soon to see his “cathedral,” though.

“We Italians are very proud of being Italians. Most people would say that, but Italians in particular. So to create something like this in New York, to have my name on the building and everything, for me, it’s very important. It’s a link to my roots, to my heritage, to my friends.”


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.

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!

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.”