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.”