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Cigar Insider: Chris Edge of Dona Flor USA

17 Jul 2012

Last month it was announced that Dona Flor, a top brand in Brazil for years, would be reintroduced to the American market with a handful of new blends, including Seleção and Puro Mata Fina. StogieGuys.com recently spoke with the man who is making this reintroduction possible: Chris Edge, owner of Dona Flor USA.

Stogie Guys: We were fans of Dona Flor back in 2005 when the brand was first available the U.S. What were the legal issues that ended U.S. distribution?

Chris Edge: Dona Flor became available in the U.S. back in 2000. There were a few smaller distributors who were attempting to get them established. In 2005 they really began to get some attention as most Americans don’t even know that Brazil has tobacco, let alone of its quality. In 2007 there were some problems, probably caused by poor communication and an unclear contract which resulted in a trademark infringement case being brought to the courts. The litigation stopped the importing of the cigars until about 2009, when a distributor (who is married to a Brazilian) began to bring them back into the US. The case was settled out of court in December 2011. The actual details of the settlement are unknown and both parties agreed not to discuss it. The public records are available in the Miami Dade County public records if you really want to dig into it. Other than that, there is little I can tell you, or really even want to get in to. It was very unfortunate that things happened the way they did as these are some of the most consistent, quality-grown, and quality-controlled cigars in the industry and had a very good following when they stopped importing them due to the litigation. My focus has been, for the past two years, to feel out the market on the past, how it affected the consumers, what was the overall perception of the brand and the cigar, and how to reintroduce it.

SG: The press release that announced the reintroduction of Dona Flor to the U.S. market labeled you a “cigar enthusiast and successful business man from Denver.” Can you tell us a little more about your business background, or any previous experience in the cigar industry?

CE: In a nutshell, between my wife and me, we have raised eight children. Yes, I said eight. If that right there doesn’t qualify you for a medal in patience, market trends, and changes from year to year, I don’t know what does. I spent 35 years in advertising and marketing in corporate America. I retired from the last company after 20 years for health reasons, pretty much sick and tired of being sick and tired about the entire corporate experience. During that time I spent 18 years involved in union-company relations. Overall, the entire business is a people business, I loved working the streets, being face to face with the store owners, still do to this day. During that time I was also my own real estate remodeler and would buy, fix up, and sell my own houses, each time getting a little bigger. We always seemed to live in a construction zone but I think that was just a stress reliever for me over the years. After I retired in 2005, I continued into the real estate arena with my wife and did very well until that industry collapsed. From there I spent some time in the mortgage industry only to discover more corporate disillusion and started a distribution company in 2008 which eventually led me into the cigars. I have been an enthusiast for over 20 years and truly enjoyed the product for what it really is: an opportunity to capture a moment in time and to enjoy that moment for all of its virtues. That particular moment of forgetting about the worries of life and to enjoy just being, the place you are at, who you are with, the weather at that moment, the conversation everything. Whether I would be sitting on my back deck having a fine scotch, or wine with friends, or looking for a little white ball I just hit into the bushes, it’s all about the moment. I stumbled into an IPCPR Trade Show in Vegas while attending another show and it just all came together. The energy, the people, the entire industry. There really is a reason they call us enthusiasts. From there things just happened and so here I am.

SG: Why take on the distribution of Dona Flor, and why now?

CE: That’s a very good question because if it were anything but this line I probably would not be doing what I am now. Regardless of the passion I have for enjoying my time and my life with a good cigar, there is still a business side to it. I wanted something different, something that no one else had, something that gave consumers a different angle to try. Dona Flor was the perfect fit. Menendez Amerio has been growing and rolling cigars for 35 years now. Arturo and Felix are both Cuban descendants who spent time in the family business of growing tobacco until Casto took over. That is another story that you should hear sometime. Anyway, bottom line is that there were no 100% Brazilian cigars on the market despite the fact that Brazilian tobacco has been used in some of the finest cigars for decades. So this gave me the niche that I was looking for, a top quality product, currently unavailable. A huge target market that is constantly changing taste and looking for something new and different. A perfect fit.

SG: Approximately how many U.S. retailers do you expect to be carrying Dona Flor products after this summer’s trade show? Are you marketing to online retailers or B&M tobacconists only? Are you also aiming for distribution in Canada?

CE: I would like to see our product in over 300 stores by the end of the year. I have spent almost two years preparing for this release. I have been talking to consumers, distributors, and retailers, listening to their needs and how best to service them. The litigation problem really caused more issues than you might think, mostly because the retailers and consumers were not informed of the situation and the product just simply vanished. Out of sight and out of mind. The distributors were frustrated because they had access to a great product and put themselves on the line only to be let down. There is a huge trust level between distributors and their retailers and that has to be respected. Our focus is to support the B&M retailers—these are the back bones of this business. The internet business is a great business just not for this particular brand or product. We are doing everything we can to keep them out of the online sites and make them available only to quality distributors and quality tobacco tobacconists. Right now my focus is strictly on the U.S. market and getting it reestablished. From there, who knows? Our current efforts are getting calls from around the world. Switzerland, Canada, Australia, New Zeland, Israel. We must be doing something right but for right now it’s one step at a time. U.S., here we come.

SG: It looks like all of the new Dona Flor blends are Brazilian puros made from MataFina, Mata Norte, and Brazilian-grown Cuban-seed tobaccos. Are there any plans to incorporate non-Brazilian tobaccos in future blends? If not, do you feel this somewhat constrains the ability to grow the brand?

CE: With the exception of the Connecticut wrapper, yes, they are 100% Brazilian. There are no plans to begin mixing non-Brazilian tobacco at this time, mostly due to the import/export duties and laws. Menendez Amerio also has a line called Alonso Menendez which we will begin showing in 2013. I don’t believe that it limits us at all. If anything, I think it helps to define us. I don’t want to be constantly trying to introduce a new label. I don’t think the market needs more labels (and I know that the retailers don’t want to have to try and carry it). My goal is grow the brand as an original, as a top quality cigar that you can always count on. We are smoking cigars, not labels. Right now, I have my plate plenty full to keep me busy for a while. This is America, things can change with the wind so you never know. But right now, it’s all Brazilian, baby.

SG: We remember really enjoying a Dona Flor blend called Alonso Menendez back around 2006 or 2007. Are there any plans to reintroduce this blend?

CE: Yes there is. The Alonso is a fantastic line and a little more full-flavored. It is extremely popular in Brazil and Europe and we plan on introducing it aggressively next year. But for the re-launch in the US, Dona Flor has a much stronger name recognition to build on, so we decided to solidify one brand before bring in another one.

SG: Where would you like to see Dona Flor in five or ten years?

CE: I would like to see Dona Flor be established for what it is. Truly the first and finest quality Brazilian cigar available. Period. The story of Dona Flor, the cigar, where it came from, how it got its name, how it is tied to the book and Brazilian culture is really an amazing story. The movie Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1977) became the highest grossing Brazilian movie in their history and has held that title for 35 years. That says a lot about the book, the movie, the cigar, and the Brazilian people.

SG: Other than Dona Flor creations, what are some of your favorite cigars?

CE: There are so many great cigars that it is hard to just name a few. What I am finding in my selection process is that I tend to look for consistency in a cigar. I expect it to be as good as the last time I smoked it and that really narrows down the field. There are certain brands that you can always count on being exactly the same no matter where you purchase it. Montecristo and H. Upmann, to name just a couple. I also enjoy sampling different sizes and shapes and seeing how it affects the experience and flavors. Bottom line is that I like a cigar that draws well, has character, smokes clean, burns clean, burns even, does not get too hot, gives me that long beautiful ash…every single time. Not to be prejudiced, but Dona Flor gives me that.

Thanks to Chris Edge for taking the time to talk with StogieGuys.com. You can learn more about Dona Flor USA here.

Patrick A

photo credit: Dona Flor USA

Cigar Insider: Matt Urbano of Urbano Cigars

21 Dec 2011

I had the pleasure of meeting Matt Urbano of Urbano Cigars last month while visiting Tampa. He introduced me to his line of cigars and handed me a three-pack sampler with an Urbano Corojo, Urbano Sumatra, and Urbano Connecticut. Urbano Cigars is a boutique line offering three different wrappers. Their cigars are not mass-produced, or rushed into the market for catalog or discount wholesalers. Urbanos are solidly constructed with aged long-filler and binder tobaccos that have been triple-fermented. Urbano Cigars are rolled in the same manner as many Cubans to ensure a cool draw with an even burn, then finished with a double-cap.

I tried the Sumatra right away and was pleased with its bold taste, smooth even burn, and quality construction. Matt was on his way to the Ybor City Cigar Heritage Festival where Urbano Cigars had a tent beside the Arturo Fuente family and across the street from Cigar Rights of America (CRA). We talked cigar blends and production.

Stogie Guys: Urbano Cigars are relatively new to the market. Tell us how you got started.

Matt Urbano: My passion for cigars began 20-plus years ago while working in the restaurant industry. As an executive chef passionate about food, rich flavors, and complex textures, I worked in many restaurants and private clubs throughout the northeast. After I relocated to Tampa I quickly became steeped in the local area’s rich cigar history and became friendly with a master cigar blender that travels regularly between Tampa and the Dominican Republic. Trusting my new friend and his own palate I took my passion for flavor and teamed up with this cigar master to create the ultimate line of cigars. Urbano Cigars has a full line offering three different wrappers that will meet any cigar smoker’s needs from the casual smoker to the aficionado. I invite you to share the smooth draw and rich, complex flavors in each carefully blended and hand-rolled Urbano Cigar.

SG: Tell us a bit about the three different wrappers that you offer and a little bit about your philosophy on blends.

MU: The Urbano Corojo is a true Dominican puro with first-generation Cuban-seed tobaccos aged for three years and triple-fermented. It has a medium to full body with a reddish hue blended from carefully aged Dominican tobacco. You’ll find a hearty, complex flavor with a hint of spice at the open, followed by hints of roasted nuts and smooth cedar undertones. Wait till you spark one up: a Cuban-like flavor with nothing less than a mesmerizing and delectable aroma. Sizes and MSRPs: Robusto $7.00, Toro $7.10, Torpedo $7.20, Churchill $7.40, 6 x 60 $7.50.

The Urbano Sumatra is aged for two years and triple-fermented. It is medium-bodied with an eye-catching, chocolaty, satin wrapper. Enjoy this cigar from start to finish with the continuous flavors and solid white ash, sweet, earthy flavor turning to a creamy chocolaty smoke with a light leathery finish. The wrapper is Sumatra, the binder Indonesian, and the filler is Dominican. Sizes and MSRPs: Robusto $5.00, Torpedo $5.20, Churchill $5.40, 6 x 60 $5.50.

The Urbano Connecticut is aged for two years and triple-fermented with a beautiful, silky smooth wrapper light brown in color. Well-balanced with a cool, slow, even burn. It has tasty floral notes along with a bit of cinnamon and dash of nutmeg. An excellent choice for your morning smoke to accompany your favorite coffee. Wrapper is Connecticut Ecuadorian, and both the binder and filler are Dominican. Sizes and MSRPs: Robusto $5.00,Torpedo $5.20, Churchill $5.40, 6 x 60 $5.50.

SG: For a new cigar business, or for a cigar business in general, what kind of challenges do you currently face and what can you do about them?

MU: I strongly feel in today’s world the biggest challenges to a cigar retailer are the aggressive anti-smoking bans. Every cigar smoker, from the guy that smokes one cigar a year to the person that smokes regularly, should be a member of CRA. As a manufacturer the challenges of getting my line out to new retail shops is much harder than it sounds. You want to get to know your local retailer and get plugged into their event list. I offer brick and mortar cigar shops great deals throughout our product line along with marketing materials and support. We do not have order minimums and are open to working with the retailer to meet their needs.

SG: What sets Urbano Cigars apart from the rest of the marketplace?

MU: Our cigars are not mass-produced. We focus on quality, one cigar at a time. We do not rush the process and all of our tobacco goes through a triple fermentation.

SG: Are you offering any kind of special on your website? If I’ve never tried an Urbano Cigar, what is the best way to get started?

MU: We offer many specials on the website for people to start small and get an introduction to our lines by sample packs. We also offer excusive monthly deals though email to people that sign up to our list. I always say just don’t visit the site, sign up for our list. Our members get specials all the time. Our current special is a mixed box sampler along with a travel humidor and cutter.

SG: You had a booth at the Ybor Cigar Festival. What other trade shows or events do you plan to visit? Where can our readers meet you (other than online)?

MU: The main event that is geared towards retailers it is the yearly IPCPR. We had a booth last year in Vegas and will be in Orlando in 2012. I love to get involved with local events and am always looking to do more local events. I also support many of the local cigar store events throughout Tampa Bay. Cigar stores are my home away from home. Be sure to check out UrbanoCigars.com. Sign up to follow us and be the first to see what’s new and where we are heading!

Special thanks for Matt Urbano of Urbano Cigars for taking the time to talk with Stogie Guys. You can visit him online here.

Mark M

photo credit: Urbano Cigars

Cigar Insider: Behind the Scenes at the Local Cigar Club

12 Oct 2011

Cigar clubs are a great way to get together with friends, try some new cigars and spirits, check out a local cigar shop that you’ve never found time to visit, and sit and bond with your fellow cigar enthusiasts. Women have book clubs, men have cigar clubs. I recently sat down with Paul Medenwaldt, president of The Havana Nights Cigar Club from the Twin Cities, who gave me the lowdown on running a cigar club.

The club meets on the first Tuesday of every month at a shop called Little Havana Tobacco in Anoka, Minnesota. Started by a group of guys who wanted to get together with like-minded people and try new cigars, it also became a vehicle for a local cigar shop to bring more people through its doors—people who otherwise might have never stopped by.

When I asked Paul about the club’s membership and their experience as cigar smokers, he had this to say: “Most of the cigar club members are not guys that hang out on a frequent basis at cigar shops. This is their one day a month to get together with friends they may only see once a month. Most of the cigar members are beginners, but have been developing their palate over the years with the introduction to new cigars that the club smokes.

“We try to get new cigars that come to market that the members normally would not know about or try. A lot of them know what they like and only smoke those cigars, but if they enjoy a cigar the evening of the club, they will then search it out at their local shop or online.

“There are only a handful of guys who are hardcore cigar smokers that frequent local cigar shops multiple nights a week and know what cigars are available in the market. The same can be said for the spirits we sample. We do our best to present the members with unique whiskeys they would not have in their own collection, like Ardbeg or Highland Park.”

When it comes to picking cigars, like a book club would pick a book, the club tries to focus on new cigars that have come to market. “After the yearly IPCPR event,” says Paul, “I will search out cigars that manufacturers are introducing to the market. This October we are featuring the new CAO OSA Sol. It’s the first release from CAO since being acquired by General Cigar.”

But with so many new cigars to choose from, how do they decide on only one per month? “The difficult part is trying to select from so many new blends. I almost wished we met on a more frequent basis so we could have the opportunity to try all the new cigars. Our club for years voted on the following month’s cigars and spirits. The last few years the club members have put that decision in the hands of the president.”

It’s easier for one person to pick the cigar than for 30 people to decide. And some of the members don’t really care what gets smoked, they just want to socialize and try new things. There are monthly dues which go towards the purchase of cigars and spirits, so when you arrive on club night, your cigars and drinks are already there. The club also holds raffles for cigars and cigar accessories.

When I asked Paul for advice on starting a cigar club, he offered the following words of wisdom: “It’s finding like-minded people who can make a commitment once a month and are willing to try cigars they may not of tried otherwise.”

He continued: “Decide on what the purpose of the club will be. Is it an evening where people get together and just smoke a cigar and have a spirit? Will the focus be to review the cigar you are smoking and to publish those results for the rest of the world to see?

“Starting with core members who are dedicated to cigars, the word will get out and others may be interested in joining. Have the club meetings on a weekday. It may sound weird, but more people are available on weekday evenings (they are then less likely to get stinking drunk because they have to get up the next morning). But the focus should be on the cigar.”

The Havana Nights club often works with local cigar shops that are open to hosting a meeting. Some shops may be willing to stay open later if it means new cigar smokers will be visiting their shops. Shops will always have new cigars they are willing to promote to new people the evening of the cigar club.

“My experience is that I am selective when it comes to new members. You want to make sure they are there for the cigar and fellowship and not just for an evening of drinking. Start with core members who are knowledgeable and then find people who may be novices to cigar smoking but are willing to learn about new cigars. The challenge will be getting to those novices because they probably don’t hang out on a regular basis at a cigar shop and may only walk in and walk out of a cigar shop with their purchase or are online only purchasers.

“It’s about getting the word out there that a cigar club is available in a local area and using a simple website and social media to provide people with information about the club. Work with a local cigar shop, hang flyers in the shop promoting the club, and explain how it will differ from their regular visits to the cigar shop. You have to give the people a reason to show up. And write a simple constitution for the club so new members can read what they expect to get out of the club.”

Once a club is up and running it pretty much takes care of itself. Paul will arrive early to make sure all the cigars and spirits are ready for when the members arrive and greet each member as they walk in.

I had the pleasure of spending an evening with the Havana Nights Cigar Club and found it to be a very relaxed atmosphere dedicated to discussing cigars, sports, food, and whatever it is men talk about when they get together. You can imagine that I had a pretty good time. If anyone would like advice on starting or running a cigar club, Paul Medenwaldt welcomes your emails.

Mark M

photo credit: Flickr

Cigar Insider: Lisa Figueredo of Cigar City Magazine

12 Sep 2011

Cigar City Magazine, the vision of Lisa M. Figueredo, is Tampa’s premiere magazine for information about the history of the Tampa Bay area. Lisa feels passionately about her blended culture, history, and family and started the magazine as a celebration of her heritage.

Stogie Guys: How did Cigar City Magazine get started?

Lisa Figueredo: I owed an ad agency and was up late one night working and was thinking of when my Abuelo Lee and Abuela Nena would have fresh hot Cuban bread and butter waiting for me when I woke up with some hot café con leche. Then my Abuela Nena and I would catch the bus and ride over to Ybor City for the day or sometimes my Abuelo Lee would take me to the local cigar factories to pick up the steams and waste from the tobacco leaves that he would use to spread on people’s lawns. I was thinking about how much I missed them and how I wished I could get those days back. That’s when I came up with the idea to write about my stories and the history of Tampa.

I come from a long line of people who made a difference in Tampa. My family on my father’s side boasted the first Mayor of West Tampa who was instrumental in helping Jose Martí spark the Cuban Revolution and win independence from Spain. His name was Fernando Figueredo. On my mother’s side, her Great Grandfather Enrique Henriquez was the last Mayor of West Tampa. My Great Grandmother was also Carmen Ramirez who was a famous actress from Spain and was instrumental in raising money for the local theaters in Ybor City.

SG: What is the best part about being the publisher of Cigar City Magazine?

LF: The best part is giving back to the city I grew up in and love so much, and giving a voice to its past. People don’t realize the rich history we have here in Tampa and how lucky we are to be a part of it. If one article touches one person’s heart when they realize that, that’s the best part.

SG: What makes Cigar City Magazine different from other cigar publications?

LF: Contrary to our name, we do not rate cigars or write about individual cigars. Instead, we focus our stories on the cigar factories and how they got here. We also do feature stories on famous cigar pioneers like Arturo Fuente, Angel Oliva, J.C. Newman, and more. I got the name because back in the heyday of the cigar factories, Tampa was once nicknamed “Cigar City.” By the late 1960s, after the embargo of Cuba, factories were closing and many were going to machines. The name got lost until 2005 when I resurrected it by calling the magazine Cigar City. Seems now-a-days everyone is using it: Spirit of Cigar City, Cigar City Brewery, Cigar City Tattoo Convention, Cigar City Darlings, etc. People ask me all the time if I get upset when I see people using my trademarked name and I say, “Hell no!” We are Cigar City and I’m just happy I was able to make it come back alive. Plus, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

SG: How much space do you dedicate to cigars, cigar industry trends, and Tampa’s local cigar bars and shops?

LF: It’s hard to talk about Tampa without talking about the cigar industry. Though most of our stories are about history we do try and throw in a few things for our loyal cigar connoisseur. In our last issue we did an interview with Pete Johnson, owner of Tatuaje Cigars, and we have written stories about the famous cigar families and factories. We never rate cigars nor will we ever because we are Cigar City and we love them all.

SG: One of my favorite issues is the Fidel Castro Mob issue. Are there any forthcoming stories or issues that you are really excited about?

LF: I love each and every issue, but if I had to pick three, I would say our Mob issue, our Cuba issue, and the Cigar Woman issue. You can read them online right here.

SG: Talk a bit about some of your recurring features like “Mama Knows,” “Café Con Leche,” and the “On the Town” photos. What can readers expect from these, and other regular features in the magazine?

LF: “Mama Knows” is probably one of our most widely anticipated columns. Mama does not have a subtleness about her when it comes to giving advice; she tells it like it is. We left her out of an issue one time and I almost had a revolt on our hands from the readers. Mama gets more emails than any other staff member. Our “Café con Leche” is a cool column and mainly we interview famous and even sometimes a few infamous people now and then. Our “On the Town” is a great way to thank my readers. It’s mainly photos of them at all of the events we do or go to.

SG: Who is involved in the magazine? Tell us a bit about the major contributors.

LF: Cigar City is made up of many writers who, for the most part, just want to write about the history of Tampa. Some of these writers are famous, like Scott Deitche, author of Cigar City Mafia, to the daughter submitting a story about her father that worked in a cigar factory, to the professor at a major university. Then of course we have the great historian, Emanuel Leto, who also works at the Tampa Bay History Center, who really has made this magazine possible. Paul Guzzo, who used to write for La Gaceta, gives us many great articles like “Sleeping with the Enemy,” which tells how the Hillsborough Sheriff Office traded guns to Fidel Castro for the release of Santo Trafficante, Jr.

SG: Tampa has always taken great pride in its history and Cigar City Magazine has always celebrated that history. With such a rich history of cigars, the Cuban, Spanish, and Italian cultures, baseball and bolita, how do you decide what goes into the magazine?

LF: It’s not easy. The best way I can explain it is like this: Remember when you got that first new bike and you wanted to show it off to the whole neighborhood and you just couldn’t wait? It’s like that with many of our stories. We usually always have so many in the pipeline it’s hard to choose. But I guess that’s what has kept us around for seven years…having good material for every issue.

We thank Lisa for her willingness to sit down and talk with StogieGuys.com. Please visit Cigar City Magazine on the web to find the latest issue and subscribe. Or, if you live in the Tampa area, be sure to pick up the latest copy.

Mark M

photo credit: LinkedIn

Cigar Insider: Ed McKenna of CAO Cigars

23 Jun 2011

CAO Cigars is entering a new era, and we wanted to find out what that new era would bring for the brand’s many fans.

In 2007, the family-owned company was purchased by the Scandanavian Tobacco Group (STG). Later, in early 2010, STG merged its premium tobacco division with General Cigar (maker of Macanudo, La Gloria Cubana, Punch, Hoyo de Monterrey, and many more well-known lines). Since then, a number of CAO stalwarts have left the company, including President Tim Ozgener, Chairman Gary Hyams, and Lifestyle Director Jon Huber, and CAO left Nashville to join General Cigar at its headquarters in Richmond, Virginia.

To get the scoop on what all this means for those who smoke and enjoy CAO Cigars, I talked to Ed McKenna, senior brand manager for CAO.

Stogie Guys: What is your background in cigars? How long have you been smoking, and do you remember the first cigar you really enjoyed?

Ed McKenna: I joined General Cigar several years ago, after being on the marketing team for Bacardi’s tequila portfolio. The premium cigar business shares many similarities to the world of spirits, but as I quickly learned, this industry is its own universe and to this point, I haven’t been able to compare it to any other. Since I’ve been with General Cigar, my focus has been on Punch, Hoyo de Monterrey, and Excalibur cigars. Together with Rick Chandler (director of Villazon brands at GC), with the product development team at HATSA (our factory in Honduras), and with input from our consumer ambassadors, I’ve launched Upper Cut by Punch, Reposado en Cedros, and Rare Corojo 10th Anniversary. I’m now managing the CAO business full time.

I have always liked cigars. My Dad was a casual cigar smoker, and I got bitten by the bug as they say, way back in college when my friends and would go over to our local tobacconist (then, it was Tobacco Village in Delaware), and pick up a few smokes to enjoy during the weekend. Those were great times. The first cigars I remember smoking were Partagas (my father’s favorite), Macanudo, and Onyx (random, I know).

I smoked cigars regularly in college, but there’s one standout occasion with Partagas. That was with my dad. We celebrated my college graduation over a robusto, and I remember thinking that I’d remember that cigar for the rest of my life. Along with a Punch Rare Corojo at my wedding last year, that Partagas cigar will go down in history as one of my favorite smokes. (more…)

Cigar Insider: A.J. Fernandez of A.J. Fernandez Cigars

1 Mar 2011

A.J. Fernandez may be the best cigar maker you haven’t heard of. But not for long.

Born in Cuba where he worked with the legendary Alejandro Robaina, Fernandez has 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.) At the 2010 industry trade show, Fernandez introduced his first solo national brand, San Lotano. (For more on San Lotano, read our reviews of the Connecticut and Habano.)

Via email (with translation help from company co-President Kris Katchaturian) I asked A.J. Fernandez about Cuba, Robaina, Niacaraguan tobacco, and his new San Lotano blend.

Stogie Guys: Growing up in Cuba, did you notice cigars playing a role in the country’s culture? How did you first become involved with the cigar industry?

A.J. Fernandez: I noticed it a lot. It is an integral part of our culture. I come from a generational family of tobacco growers. I was born and raised in San Luis, Cuba (this is in the Pinar del Rio region). This part of Cuba is known worldwide because most every local is involved directly or indirectly with tobacco. Mostly, I remember when I was a child helping my grandfather stripping the leaves. I have always loved the natural aroma of tobacco. I guess, you could say, it is in my blood.

SG: You’ve been described as the protégé of the “Godfather of Cuban tobacco,” Alejandro Robaina. Tell us about what made him so special. What was the most important thing he taught you about cigars?

A.J.: That is a fine compliment. Too much, even. He was a great man and mentor. But I won’t say that I am the protégé of Alejandro Robaina. Our families had a longstanding relationship with each other. We had great respect for him… I idolized him. We would often get together and I would listen to everything he had to say. I suppose one concept that I always keep close to me is to continually tinker with different (leaf) blends. You never know what you might fall upon.

SG: What made you decide to leave Cuba? Why did you settle in Nicaragua?

A.J.: My father wanted to keep my family close together. He came to Nicaragua in 1997 to run the fermentation process for his nephew, Nestor Plasencia. I joined in Nicaragua shortly thereafter. I used that golden opportunity to become independent, utilizing the knowledge which I brought from Cuba to begin my own factory.

SG: You use a lot of Nicaraguan tobacco in the blends you create. What is it about Nicaraguan tobacco that you think makes it so special?

A.J.: In my opinion, the Nicaraguan tobacco is totally unique. Hey, it’s beautiful. Why? It combines the perfect balance of aroma and strength. I am very proud of the quality of leaf here. It is a gift from above to work with such high quality product.

SG: Tell us about the new San Lotano blend, you first independent, nationally distributed cigar line.

A.J.: San Lotano is crafted from carefully selected Cuban-seed leaves. The ligero is aged more than five years. This aging results in a naturally sweet aroma and fine balance. I also make it with lots of passion.

SG: What do you think about the quality of Cuban tobacco? What would you do if you had access to Cuban tobacco for blending today?

A.J.: People ask this question often. For me, Cuba has very rich and complex tobacco. If I were given the opportunity to mix it with my Nicaraguan product? Oh man, we would have some highly sought-after blends.

SG: Besides those you make, what are some of your favorite cigars to smoke for your own enjoyment?

A.J.: What a difficult question. Like asking what my favorite food is. There are so many excellent lines today, both new and old. I would hate to leave something out. Naturally, I am so busy making new blends I do not have a lot of time to smoke outside product. Was that diplomatic enough of me?

SG: Give us the one-sentence pitch: Why should a cigar smoker who has never smoked one of your cigars try one?

A.J.: It is not only in the exacting method in which we ferment our tobacco, which gives great balance to our blends, but also in the passionately intense supervision of the rolling process for that perfect construction.

Thanks to A.J. Fernandez for taking the time to talk to us. For more information on his cigars, visit AJFernandezCigars.com.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Insider: Author Mark Carlos McGinty

29 Dec 2010

Through seven years of writing his second novel, a historical tale woven through Cuba, Tampa, and revolution, Mark Carlos McGinty had a faithful companion.

“I’d take a cigar and go outside and…ponder where the story was going to go. Maybe bring a notepad with me and just jot down some ideas,” said McGinty, 35. “Yeah, it did get me through a lot of, I guess, moments of writers block, if you want to call it that.”

That’s only appropriate. His book is, after all, titled The Cigar Maker. It’s filled with the sights and sounds of turn-of-the-20th-century Tampa when it was truly Cigar City. Drawing from his own family’s past as well as historical events, McGinty artfully spins a story that is both exciting and educational.

Perhaps the biggest revelation for many is the book’s focus on the Cuban community in Tampa. “Everyone thinks of Miami when they think of Cuban-Americans,” McGinty said, adding that Tampa’s cigar industry in Ybor City attracted waves of immigrants for decades before the 1959 revolution. “In fact, sometimes I have to make it a point when I’m talking about the book to tell people that these events all happened before the Cuban Revolution, before Castro.”

His mother’s family was among those in Tampa, and McGinty spent quite a bit of time there with relatives when he was growing up. Her books about the area and Cuba inspired him. The main characters in The Cigar Maker, Salvador and Olympia Ortiz, are modeled on McGinty’s maternal grandparents. McGinty’s parents are now retired in Tampa, and he visited frequently researching the book.

The book has another family connection, too. McGinty’s wife did the striking cover illustration, a cigar-smoking rooster wearing a derby and striding across a tobacco plantation. The rooster made such an impression that it’s now available on mugs, T-shirts, and other items.

For those who want to experience the feel of early 1900s Ybor City, McGinty said quite a bit remains. “The streets are still paved with bricks,” he said. “And a lot of the old buildings are still there. They’ve just been restored and converted into modern-day buildings.”

He particularly recommends stopping by the buildings that housed five old social clubs: “They look like cathedrals.”

Tampa is the site of a new promotional push for The Cigar Maker, with efforts to get it featured in Ybor City shops. McGinty’s also targeting cigar smokers as a natural audience at B&M events like his recent appearance at Perfect Ash, just outside Minneapolis-St. Paul.

He’s most excited about an upcoming trip to Havana. He and his wife are part of a sanctioned delegation of artists and writers slated to visit in February.

“There’s all kinds of red tape, so we’re still working through the red tape,” McGinty said. “But the person who’s organizing the trip sounds pretty confident that it’s going to happen.”

While I think just about anyone will enjoy The Cigar Maker, cigar smokers in particular should find it fascinating. You can order it from McGinty’s website, Amazon, or just about any bookstore. Numerous e-reader versions are available at Smashwords.

George E

photo credit: Stogie Guys