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Postcards from Cigar Safari in Nicaragua (2014)

23 Apr 2014

Since returning from my latest visit to Nicaragua, I’ve shared a number of photos with you, including this article focused on Drew Estate’s expansion and quality control, and this article about “DE2.” Today I provide some of my favorite photos from the trip that weren’t included in either of those two pieces.

Drew Estate Grounds

The grounds of Drew Estate’s Estelí facility are handsomely decorated and well-appointed. Included with the vegetation and sweeping views is a Liga Privada swimming pool, a shaded canopy for dining, and a clubhouse equipped with a poker table and comfortable furniture.

DE Factory Mural

Since the last time I visited, Jesse Flores and his team in Subculture Studios have updated the massive mural that adorns the back wall of the factory. The work is characterized by hot air balloons that highlight various Drew Estate brands.

Tobacco Field

Walking the tobacco fields is a surreal experience. The whole notion of “seed to smoke” cannot be fully appreciated without visiting the sunny fields where the seeds are planted, grown, and cultivated.

Curing Barn

This was my first visit to a curing barn, the place where cultivated tobacco is hung to dry. Tobacco growers don’t ship their leaves green, and these barns are integral to that process.

Joya de Nicaragua

I hadn’t been to the Joya de Nicaragua factory since 2012. Much had changed since my last visit. For starters, the facility had undergone a renovation—both inside and out. In addition, José Blanco, instead of recently joining the company, had already left to launch a new cigar brand out of the Dominican Republic.

Nica Sueno

Drew Estate is enormous. Joya de Nicaragua is big (and steeped in tradition). Nica Sueño, the factory of Skip Martin’s RoMa Craft Tobac, is much, much smaller than either. It was interesting to visit this tiny yet formidable operation after touring larger factories.

More of my photos from this trip can be viewed here.

-Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

News: Behind the Scenes at Drew Estate’s New ‘DE2’ Pre-Industry Building

16 Apr 2014

On Monday I kicked off our coverage of our recent pilgrimage to Estelí with a focus on Drew Estate’s plans for expansion and dedication to quality control. Today I’ll delve into the Nicaraguan company’s new pre-industry facility, which they’ve dubbed “DE2.”


Officially unveiled in January, DE2 is a 60,000+ square foot, $4 million building that was erected directly across the street from La Gran Fabrica Drew Estate. Whereas the company was previously renting smaller facilities around Estelí to process, ferment, age, and sort the tobacco it purchases, those operations have now been expanded and centralized in DE2. Nicholas Melillo led most of our tour of the facility.

Tobaccos at DE2

Currently Drew Estate has enough tobacco within the building to support two years of cigar making; Jonathan Drew aims to increase the supply to about four years. This will enable the company to withstand pricing pressures from its tobacco suppliers—a critical strategy especially with A.S.P. tobacco, which is in high demand.

Experimental Field

Speaking of tobacco suppliers, Drew Estate doesn’t grow any of its own tobacco, save for this small “experimental” field adjacent to DE2. But Jonathan Drew assured us that, within a few years, “you can count on Drew Estate being one of the largest tobacco growers in Nicaragua.” Such vertical integration represents a major shift in strategy for the company.

DE2 Basement

The basement of DE2 houses 300,000 pounds of tobacco (roughly $5-6 million) in pilones undergoing fermentation. It is equipped with state-of-the-art temperature gauges and fire prevention technology. One of the tobaccos aging here is a new Florida Sun Grown leaf that we’ll have more details on in the coming days.


The land next to DE2 (which can be seen across the experimental field through the employee cafeteria) is also owned by Drew Estate. It is the likely site of DE3—another facility that will almost certainly be needed if the company is to meet its goals for expansion.

-Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

News: Drew Estate Dedicated to Expansion, Maintaining Quality Control

14 Apr 2014

Last week Patrick S and I were on location in Estelí, Nicaragua, to attend Drew Estate’s Cigar Safari. In the coming days we’ll have lots of content to share with you—including dozens of photos, a new premium tobacco being grown in Florida, and a behind-the-scenes look at “DE2.” But today I’ll start with the high-level highlights about our host.

It’s worth pointing out that Drew Estate is now producing around 100,000 cigars per day. To put this in perspective, even though there’s no such thing as the “typical” cigar factory, the median for cigar factories could be considered to be around 35,000 cigars per day.

Quality Control

Jonathan Drew admitted to the challenges associated with such high production. Drew Estate needs to hire more supervisors and more employees for the quality control room. Currently, the company is purposefully rejecting a higher percentage of cigars at each level of the process—a decision that’s less than optimal for profit maximization. But it’s clear Drew Estate will not compromise on quality control.

Eventually, as the organization acclimates to its accelerated levels of production, the percentage of rejects is expected to drop to an acceptable level. This acclimation includes promoting more standouts to supervisor rolls, hiring more staff, and even knocking down walls in the factory to improve flow and reduce accidental cigar damage.


Jonathan Drew seems to be grappling with the reality that his role is to make business decisions for the company. He is more of a corporate executive than a cigar blender or tobacco man. Nicholas Melillo, on the other hand, is redoubling his efforts in many areas he shared with Steve Saka (before Saka’s departure). These include tobacco purchases, overseeing the aging and fermentation processes, and working on blending.

Willy Herrera Lancero

Willy Herrera will be expanding his Herrera Estelí line with a Lancero. We saw the prototype on Drew Estate’s main rolling floor. He also has a whole new line in the works called Herrera Norteño, which will make use of Mexican tobacco. Willy continues to be an imposing, soft-spoken presence.

Aging Room

Part of Drew Estate’s expansion includes ensuring enough room to age cigars post-production before they are shipped. Interestingly, the room currently used for this purpose is colder than you might expect. That’s because Drew Estate has found that cold aging is similar to the “low and slow” rule of barbeque. Aging takes longer at a colder temperature, but the end result is superior. However, with Liga 9 in particular, they’ve found less aging produces a better result, so that blend is spending less time in this room.

Here are a few other nuggets of information about Drew Estate that are worth mentioning:

— Despite rumors that the company purposefully depresses production of Liga 9 to drive up price, Jonathan Drew once again assured us that he is making as much of the blend as possible. The key constraint is the availability of certain tobaccos. Again, the theme here is that quality will not be compromised.

— Drew Estate considers its main competitors to be Arturo Fuente, Davidoff, General Cigar, and Altadis—not small boutique brands.

— The cigar bubble burst of the late ’90s was, in a way, a blessing for Drew Estate. Falling demand meant the up-and-coming company had access to better tobacco than they might have otherwise been able to purchase.

Later on this week, I’ll report specifically on Drew Estate’s new pre-industry facility, which they’ve dubbed “DE2,” and what the enormous building means for the company. For now, I welcome your comments and questions.

-Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Review: A.J. Fernandez Pinolero Maduro Toro

31 Mar 2014

The other day I was browsing through our archive of cigar reviews, and I came across my colleague’s take on the Pinolero Toro from October 2012. It occurred to me I still hadn’t tried any of the Pinolero smokes—an oversight I needed to rectify given my respect for A.J. Fernandez as one of the industry’s best young cigar makers.

Pinolero ToroFernandez, of course, has one of the best cigar résumés you’ll ever see. Born in Cuba, he worked with the late Alejandro Robaina, Cuba’s foremost producer of top wrapper leaves and the namesake of the Vegas Robaina brand. Fernandez quickly gained fame making cigars for other cigar companies including Rocky Patel, Padilla, Graycliff, and Gurkha, as well as making exclusive cigars for catalog giant Cigars International (for whom he makes Diesel, Man O’ War, La Herencia, and other smokes.) Then, at the 2010 industry trade show, he introduced his first solo national brand, San Lotano, which became a hit.

A few years later Fernandez added the highly anticipated Pinolero (Spanish for “local”) line to his portfolio. It includes either a Nicaraguan sun-grown wrapper or a Maduro wrapper around a Nicaraguan binder. The filler tobaccos are part Nicaraguan Habano-seed and part proprietary. “Filled with rich, luxurious long-fillers and wrapped in coveted Fernandez Family leaves, this medium- to full-bodied smoke not only captures the highly complex flavors of exotic regional Nicaraguan tobacco, but also affords a highly aromatic mellowness which has become the brand standard of A.J.’s highly coveted products,” reads the A.J. Fernandez website.

Pinolero comes in six vitolas that range in price from $7 to $10: Corona, Robusto, Toro, Figurado, Churchill, and Gran Toro. I smoked two Maduro Toros (6 x 52) for this review. The Maduro Toro is a dark, extremely toothy cigar with a few large veins and some protruding seams, particularly at the cap. It sports an interesting, colorful band with pre-light notes of chocolate and spice. Despite its firmness and weight, the cold draw has only the slightest resistance.

Once lit, a savory profile emerges that instantly reminds me of mesquite. Tangy, spicy, and a little sweet, the Pinolero Maduro Toro’s balanced flavor includes notes of syrup, brown sugar, and herbs. The smoke is dense and moist, and it confronts the palate head-on, though not in an overly intense way. Cocoa, espresso, and spice become more prominent towards the end.

True to A.J. Fernandez form, the physical properties are superb. Both of my samples displayed solid ashes, straight burn lines, smooth draws, and plenty of smoke production.

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay the Pinolero Maduro Toro is it doesn’t taste like anything else on the market. That makes it interesting and memorable. I’m disappointed I didn’t lock on to this gem sooner. It’s a great smoke, a good value, and worthy of a commendable rating of four stogies out of five.

[To read more cigar reviews, please click here.]

-Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Review: Punch Rare Corojo Rare Salomones

24 Mar 2014

There are two ways to get your hands on this new limited edition smoke. You can either buy one for the suggested retail price of $7.99, or you can enter to win one of 13 boxes General Cigar is giving away between now and May 31.

Rare SalomonesEither way, if you want to try the new Rare Salomones vitola (7.25 x 57), you’ll need to act pretty quickly. While the Rare Corojo line is released every March—and has been since 2001, the year it was reintroduced after a wrapper shortage caused a hiatus—Rare Salomones is a 2014-only size. Once the figurado is gone, it’s gone.

While supplies last, Rare Salomones is joining the portfolio of seven other Rare Corojo vitolas, all of which are made in Honduras: Champion (4.5 x 60), Double Corona (6.75 x 48), El Doble (6 x 60), Magnum (5.25 x 54), Pita (6.1 x 50), Rothschild (4.5 x 50), and Elite (5.25 x 55).

Unlike its predecessors, which have the familiar double bands of bright red and gold, the Rare Salomones has cream-colored bands that impart a subtler, more exclusive look. Beneath are Nicaraguan, Honduran, and Dominican tobaccos, bound with a Connecticut Broadleaf binder, and wrapped in a reddish Sumatra leaf from Ecuador.

Truthfully, the Rare Salomones is one of the more beautiful cigars on the entire General Cigar roster. The difficult-to-roll shape is executed very well, and the wrapper has an oily sheen with minimal veins. Notes of earth and black cherry are apparent off the foot. The sharply pointed cap clips easily to reveal a smooth draw.

Even before the figurado gets to its widest point, the smoke production is solid and the flavor is well-developed. The profile includes dried fruit, hay, cocoa, and a little cedar spice. The texture is leathery, and it isn’t uncommon for the aftertaste to linger on the palate for a noticeably long time between puffs.

Towards the midway point, a black coffee flavor emerges. This can be misconstrued as a bitter component by those who smoke too quickly; but I find slowing the pace of my puffs (as I so often recommend) results in a much better experience.

With outstanding construction—this wouldn’t be a bad choice for a long ash competition, considering the fortitude of the ash and the remarkably straight burn—the Punch Rare Corojo Rare Salomones is a good value at $8. I fired up four for this review. If I get my hands on more, I’ll be saving them for the warmer months to accompany me to the golf course. Overall, this limited, medium-bodied smoke is worth seeking out and worthy of a solid rating of three and a half stogies out of five.

[To read more cigar reviews, please click here.]

-Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Review: Emilio Cigars Series H Maduro Robusto

17 Mar 2014

These days, Emilio Cigars is a brand that seems to be flourishing—thanks in no small part, I believe, to the warm welcome the outfit has received from the online cigar community.

Emilio Series H RobustoIn addition to the growing blends in the Emilio portfolio, brand owner Gary Griffith also controls distribution for several other companies under is House of Emilio umbrella. It’s hard to imagine Emilio Cigars is just a few years old.

The cigar that started it all was the Series H Maduro. It was the first cigar Gary Griffith created after he sold his construction business, started working at a cigar shop, and then bought and expanded the tobacconist franchise to over 20 locations. According to Griffith, he blended the Series H Maduro on his first trip to Central America. Shortly thereafter, he started to visit various cigar factories and speak with different cigar makers, A.J. Fernandez chief among them.

Griffith, who takes a chemistry-oriented approach to blending, chose to pair a Maduro Ligero wrapper from Jamastran with Nicaraguan and Costa Rican tobaccos for the Series H Maduro. It is made for him in Danlí, Honduras. Three sizes are available: Robusto, Toro, and Torpedo.

The Robusto measures 5.5 inches long with a ring gauge of 50 (kudos for making a robusto that’s slightly longer than the traditional 5-inch format without upping the ring gauge). It has pre-light notes of nut, red pepper, and chocolate. While the feel is noticeably firmer than most cigars, the cold draw is smooth. The wrapper is dark, oily, and clean with pronounced shine.

After setting an even light, the Series H Maduro starts with a medium-bodied profile of black coffee, creamy nut, cocoa, and leather. Smoking quicker will impart more of a dry, woody spice on the center of the tongue. This peppery finish couples really well with what I’d characterize as a typical Maduro sweetness. The smoke production is above average, and as it fills the room it leaves a sweet, creamy aroma. The final third of the Robusto tends to straddle the line between medium- and full-bodied.

I smoked several samples for this review—all of which I had been aging for about 18 months—and each displayed very good combustion qualities. Expect no problems with the burn line, ash, or draw. This is a set-it-and-forget-it smoke.

In addition to the Series H Maduro, Griffith also makes a Series H Sumatra. I honestly don’t think there’s much of a comparison. The Maduro is the far better, more balanced, more interesting choice, and the Robusto is worthy of a very fine rating of four stogies out of five.

[To read more cigar reviews, please click here.]

-Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Quick Smoke: La Flor Dominicana Ligero L-400

15 Mar 2014

Each Saturday and Sunday we’ll post a Quick Smoke: not quite a full review, just our brief verdict on a single cigar of “buy,” “hold,” or “sell.”

LFD L-400

I can’t remember that last time I lit up a La Flor Dominicana smoke, which is truly amazing given how consistently solid the brand is. This realization hit me as I was scanning the selection of a walk-in humidor at a cigar shop. So I picked out a Ligero L-400 (5.75 x 54). This Ecuadorian Sumatra-wrapped smoke, which features Dominican binder and filler tobaccos, has a balanced profile of sweetness, cream, and subtle spice with a straight burn and a solid ash. But the draw is much tighter than I would like, at least on the single sample I tried. I don’t expect to have to work so hard to pull smoke through a $7.50 cigar, even if the flavors are nice.

Verdict = Hold.

-Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys