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Nick Melillo: Renaissance Man

Nick Melillo
The founder of Foundation Cigar Co. has traveled the world, plumbed the notions of mystics, toured with Ziggy Marley, and become cigar buddies with Joe Rogan. Here’s the world according to Nick.

Check in on Joe Rogan’s podcast, as an estimated 11 million viewers and listeners do for each episode, and you’ll invariably see Rogan lighting up a premium, pulled from an elegant black lacquer box sitting to his right.

The cigar comes from Nick Melillo’s Foundation Cigar Co., and it’s no accident that Rogan enjoys the brand.
“My man Nick really knows cigars,” Rogan told comedian and world class eccentric Tom Green on a February episode, as he opened a box and handed one over.

Melillo’s trajectory into cigar industry esteem was preordained. The Connecticut native grew up with both his grandparents and his father enjoying the best cigars they could find.

“My family was not directly involved in the industry, they were all involved in cigars – smoking them,” he says. His first lesson in loving cigars came early.

Chastised loudly by an overzealous low-level principal for firing up a celebratory smoke along with a couple of classmates during his high school graduation, Melillo’s father came to his defense. “He started laying into the vice principal,” Melillo recalls, further bolstering the young grad’s confidence in cigars as a treasure worth arguing for.

His father had, after all, gifted the teen with a Diamond Crown humidor as a graduation present.

After graduating magna cum laude from Quinnipiac University with a degree in International Business, a stint at a cigar shop, and some world travels, Melillo came back home ready to negotiate his fate, which was, after all, cigars.

A call from Jonathan Drew to be part of the fledgling Drew Estate in Nicaragua took Melillo into a hands-on dive into all elements of cigar production. He devoured the knowledge, with the dream of having his own brand slowly building in his mind.

0149 nick melillo foundation cigar photojane
PHOTOGRAPHY BY: JANE SHAUCK

Summoning the courage to strike out on his own, Melillo left Drew Estate and came back to the U.S., where he plotted his own cigar kingdom.
“I took a little time and started the planning, [considering] brand names,” he says.

In July 2015, Foundation Cigar Co. was officially on the books, debuting at the 2015 International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association show. By September, he was shipping, first working out of a cabin before moving to a 50-acre tobacco farm in Connecticut’s River Valley.

Melillo has a natural love for the Connecticut tobacco he was raised around that resulted in 2016 in the Charter Oak, a nod to both his family heritage and the tree that dates back to the 1600s.

“The whole Charter Oak line is a tribute to my grandfathers, because most of these brands that were in Connecticut faded away by the end of the 90s,” he says. “The Charter Oak is a symbol of Connecticut. If you go to [the state capital of] Hartford, it’s the first real symbol of American independence. The oak tree was used to hide a charter from the English, one of the first signs of the rebellion.”

We talked with Nick, 45 years old, about his life as a traveler, student of life and the road that led him to start Foundation. The interview has been edited for brevity as Nick is a generously loquacious interview, so questions are entered here as a guide rather than how they were exactly phrased.

Cigar Snob: How did you make the connection with Rogan?

Nick Melillo: I’ve been a big Joe Rogan fan I believe since 2012, his podcast got me through when I was starting Foundation. I’d always have it on in the background. Then 2020 hit and a good friend of mine in [Los Angeles] knew how much I loved Joe and he said ‘make me a couple boxes and I’m going to get them to Joe.’

I worked with my art director here in Nicaragua and we did some hand- painted boxes for him. Then we had this weird run-in with one of Joe’s friends and he just happened to be going to visit him at his new place in Austin and he volunteered to take the boxes to him. Two months later, this was 2020, September, October, and I was sitting there with the podcast

behind me as I’m working and I saw behind the water bottle the corner of one of our Foundation ashtrays because I sent an ashtray along with the boxes. I said, ‘Holy shit, there’s the ashtray,’ so I go back to every episode to find when the ashtray appeared. Sept. 11, 2020 was the first time the ashtray was out there and it’s been there ever since. Then in November he brought the box out for the first time, put it on the table and gave us a shout out, and he’s been amazing. He’s just become a huge Foundation fan. He ended up sending me a private message on Instagram thanking me for the boxes, and he said ‘I wanna buy a humidor, what do you recommend?’ I said, ‘Joe, I gotcha.’ I made him a beautiful Elie Bleu humidor with his logo, hand inlaid. Probably not a year later, I said, ‘He needs his own cigar,’ so I made him a Joe Rogan Experience cigar blend especially for him, and he just really loved them. I noticed what he liked to drink, you know he likes spicy food, so I made him a nice broadleaf blend, mostly Nicaraguan fillers.

0092 nick melillo foundation cigar photojane
PHOTOGRAPHY BY: JANE SHAUCK

CS: You don’t think of Connecticut and smoking freedom. How did that work for you growing up?

Nick: Although my family wasn’t directly involved in the industry, they were all Connecticut broadleaf cigar smokers. My grandfathers, great grandfathers, uncles, everybody smoked Connecticut cigars. So I became the cigar guy, my senior year of high school. That’s what I was known as because I was so into it. My parents were cool with cigars because they saw how much it was part of my relationship with my grandfather. One of my first times smoking a cigar was with my grandfather. I was doing well in school. I wasn’t into drinking or drugs. They were actually supportive of it, and that summer it turned into a job. I ended up getting a job at the Calabash Shoppee in Hamden, Connecticut. It was a crazy time for the industry. I used to go into the shop every Friday to get smokes for the weekend and the lines would be out the humidor and this particular day I got up to the cash register and said, ‘Listen, I need a job. I just graduated and would love to work for you guys. I know every cigar in the humidor, I know all the prices, the blends.’ I didn’t hear from them for most of the summer and a week before I started university, they called me up and put me in charge of the humidor. I had the tough job of trying all the new cigars and choosing what I wanted to bring into the humidor.

CS: In fact you had your own cigar rating system to help you decide if the store should bring in the brand. Would it be harder to figure out what to put in there today?

Nick: I would probably put more in, yes. That time, 1996, was a crazy time because there were so many people in our industry for the wrong reasons and there was a lot of crap. There were a lot of quality issues, and the industry has come a long way in the quality of products that are being put out. It’s like night and day. I think the practices over the past 20 plus years, with quality control practices have continued to improve, and it would be a lot more difficult to make those decisions these days.

CS: How did you connect with Drew Estate?

Nick: This was 1996, I started meeting sales reps from a company called Drew Estate, I never heard of them. They came out with a product named La Vieja Habana, made by Nick Perdomo, and I brought it into the humidor and then not three months later met [Drew Estate co-founder] Jonathan Drew for the first time, that was 1997. And we kind of hit it off and became friends, exchanged numbers and emails and kept in touch between 1997 and 2002. But I really wanted to get out of Connecticut after I graduated. My plan was to save enough money and once I graduated, I hit the road. I backpacked around the world for almost a year in 2002. I did two excursions, actually. I spent a month in Italy, I had a job working for a renaissance Italian art history tour, so it was great, I got to save money. I also backpacked that year around Europe with Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. I followed them on tour and because they would see me at many different concerts after the second or third concert they let me backstage and I watched the concerts from the stage. They gave me all access at the concerts. I started following reggae at the end of high school and it really kicked in during college. Then I bought a round-the-world ticket, Paris to India, India to Bangkok, Bangkok all throughout Thailand, down the Mekong River into Laos and into Vietnam and from Vietnam to China and from Beijing to Japan. I smoked cigars the whole way around, a lot of Montecristo #4s, petite coronas. Jon was on my email list as I was circumnavigating the globe. We had talked when I first started my travels and he said, ‘Hey let’s touch base in 10 months and see where you’re at.’ I got all the way around the world to Japan, and I got an email from Jon and he offered me to be his right-hand man in Nicaragua. And my dream was to travel through Central America next to learn to bunch and roll cigars. This offer from Jon was perfect timing. I came back to the states for a month and flew to Nicaragua in March 2003.

0158 nick melillo foundation cigar photojane
PHOTOGRAPHY BY: JANE SHAUCK

CS: Working at Drew Estate, living in Nicaragua, that was a big deal for you.

Nick: I was 24 years old and I stayed for almost 12 years. We were a fraction of its current size, we were working out the back of Nick Perdomo’s house. Every year, the growth was kinda wild. I just nestled in. I obviously didn’t have any production experience at the time and I think Jon was just taking a chance. I thought I would be mirroring him around but he left after the first week and said ‘figure it out.’ I had to prove myself, it was a big time. Now was the time to show in real life that I can do this. We built a great team and I just started learning. Here I was among all these legends I had read about in books and I was learning from them, so l learned right away how to bunch and roll and then how to blend, organize a production process. There were not a lot of set systems in place when I got there so I started working with the team to organize everything and evolved into the role of tobacco purchasing, blending, quality control. I lived on a tobacco farm, my house is now AJ Fernandez’s San Lotano farm. I thought, ‘If I’m going to live down here, I’m going to live on a farm.’ I moved into town three years later.

CS: Why did you leave?

Nick: I toiled with that decision for a couple years. It was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. One of the main things was at the time, talk of FDA regulations was really intense, this idea of having a date where brands could not enter the market after a certain date. It was daunting, the thought of never being able to start my own brand was difficult to process. It was something I knew I would always regret if I didn’t start my own company. But at that time I was 36, so I felt if I don’t do it now,

I’m probably never going to do it. I knew that because of the experience I had, if I failed I could get a job on the tobacco side of things. I knew I had a cushion if I failed. So in 2015 I left. The night before I drove to Managua, the capital, there was a lot of earthquake activity and I got stuck in a traffic jam north of Managua. They thought one of the volcanos was going to go off. That was my drive out. There had never been since I had been living in Nicaragua that strong of earthquake activity before.

CS: You spent all that time in Nicaragua, around Esteli. What changed in that dozen years?

Nick: It’s really come a long way, Esteli, as far as infrastructure, gross business overall. The whole city has really been lifted up by the cigar industry. Coming here in 2003, the roads were banged up, factories were not at the standard they are now. Population wise, business wise, this town is booming because of the handmade cigar industry. The facilities now have the proper health insurance, day care centers, and so many different benefits for the workers that were not seen when I got here. And the secondary industries, clothing stores, supply stores, fertilizer, paper, all generated from the industry there, things that I don’t see in other towns. In Nicaragua, the biggest threat to the industry will always be the government. We [recently] dodged the FDA bullet but it is always a threat.

CS: Are there any places you’ve seen that could grow tobacco that would be good?

Nick: A lot of places grow tobacco but not cigar tobacco. One place that comes to mind is Jamaica, which is similar to the industry in Connecticut. It kind of faded away at the end of the 90s, and some of them moved to the Dominican, but it’s a place I’d like to see come on the map again. One issue is infrastructure you need for the curing process. You can grow the tobacco, but without the barns to cure it…I would also love to see the potential of Ethiopia. It’s the birthplace of coffee, and I am not too familiar with the land and the specifics. I haven’t tested it out yet but I think it would be an interesting place.

CS: Why don’t more people take a look at these?

Nick: To get into the curing barn process it’s a minimum of $80,000 to $100,000 investment to do it properly. And also there’s the know-how. But you also have, unfortunately, influence from the World Health Organization. They are incentivizing a lot of these different third world countries to actually not grow tobacco, not to get too negative. They’re even worse than the FDA and the anti-smoking people in the states. They actually incentivize farmers in third world countries to grow crops other than tobacco. It’s happening in Jamaica.

CS: Today, we’re seeing more brands releasing high-end, expen- sive cigars. Is that sustainable?

Nick: We released two of our most expensive products in the past two years. One was called the [Highclere Castle] Senetjer which is a tribute we did for the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. So we made an exact replica of the box. I worked with Highclere Castle on that project too. The owner helped discover King Tut’s tomb with [British archaeologist] Howard Carter so it was real special to be tapped by him to do this 100- year anniversary box. We had a real Egyptologist work on the hieroglyphs to make sure everything was legit. The cost involved with that, the investment, was one of our highest price point sticks.

Then we had the Knight Commander under my Tabernacle line, but it’s priced the way it is because we donate all of our net proceeds on our side to charity. So that’s the reason for the high-end sticks. I think they have a place for something special, something different. You want to have a New Year’s Eve cigar. I don’t think it’s sustainable for an everyday cigar but they have a place in the market.

We only did 700 boxes and people were upset because I don’t have any more of [either] of them. The Senetjer and the Knight Commander both retail for around $40. It’s not a $500 stick but it’s on the pricier side.

CS: Tell me about the Olmec Maduro winning Cigar of the Year for 2022. And congrats, again.

Nick: Ah yes, to be recognized by Cigar Snob for Olmec as the No. 1 cigar was the honor of a lifetime. I think Cigar Snob emulated what the whole market felt at the time. Olmec has been one of those brands that connects with cigar lovers on all levels. Most of the market and final consumers had the cigar as their No. 1. The sales were showing the demand for the product. We were close to 12,000 boxes on backorder within the first three months of the cigar being on the market.

The Olmecs are the original mother culture of Central America. They invented the first calendars, built the first pyramids, and were the first to consume tobacco. The same area where tobacco is grown today in San Andres, Mexico and is used for handmade cigars is where Olmecs once flourished. The Mexican Negro seed is one of the oldest seed varieties in the world and pre-dates the Cuban seed. This brand is a homage to the original cigar smokers.

Nick and DE team breaking ground new factory
Photo courtesy of: Nick Melillo
Circa 2006, Nick Melillo (third from left) and the team from Drew Estate break ground on what would become La Gran Fábrica Drew Estate.

    CS: Your journey so far has been adventurous.

    Nick: Working in the cigar shop, graduating high school, was this really great time of transformation, especially that summer. You’ve been going to school, your life and all of a sudden it’s over. I started asking a lot of questions about life in general that summer and it opened me up to studying all different types of religions and that led to the religious mystics. Throughout the years, I became fascinated with it. I am not a Mason, but I am fascinated with Masonic teachings and the architecture. I started getting into all this and it hasn’t stopped.

      CS: How much deeper do you go on that kind of thing? Do you have theories?

      Nick: In Mesopotamia there are the tablets that are some of the oldest if not the oldest that even western civilization classes talk about dating back to 5,000 BC within tablets if you read them talks about a specific group…that means ‘those who have descended from the heavens’ and in these tablets they have a fairly detailed outline of our solar system. So there’s speculation amongst conspiracy theorists that this was an alien race. And the story goes that they bioengineered homo sapiens out of hominids and that’s what started the human race. I don’t necessarily believe all this but it’s an interesting tale.

      There’s a lot that we don’t know. And you think about just ancient Egypt itself talking about a high culture 2,000 years before the time of Jesus. Can you imagine like Julius Caesar is closer to us in time or the iPhone than the building of the great pyramids? And there is controversy whether those dates are accurate or not. There are those who speculate that the Sphinx…[is] much older that it’s actually dated. When they had geologists looking at the site, they had dates of 10,000 years BC while others had 2,000 years BC. As I’ve gotten older, although it’s great to speculate and have conversations, sometimes I keep it contained. I’ve seen people over the years who get too far off into the conspiracy world, and they tend to sometimes lose touch so it gets to be a negative thing. They get too into it, and start to you know, ‘We’re all controlled and don’t have any power’ you know like the Illuminati is controlling everything. It can be a cop out. Although it might be true (laughs).


      This article appeared in the Mar/Apr 2024 issue. Subscribe today to get the magazine in your mailbox.


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