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News: Christopher Columbus’ Cigar Legacy

12 Oct 2015

[Editor’s Note: For Columbus Day we’re republishing an article first published five years ago about Columbus’ historical impact on tobacco and cigars.]

Today is Columbus Day, which means government employees and a few lucky others get a day off. The holiday celebrates Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas, which happens to be an important date for cigar fans.

ColumbusThat’s because Columbus is widely credited with introducing the tobacco plant to Europe, which set in motion a series of events that culminated in the cigar industry we see today. It was during Columbus’ voyages to the new world that Europeans first encountered the tobacco plant.

According to history, it was two of Columbus’ crew members who were most responsible for bringing tobacco to Europe. Both, Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres, took a liking to tobacco after seeing native Americans smoking the leaf.

After arriving in Cuba in November 1492, which Columbus thought was the Asian coast, Columbus sent Torres and de Jerez inland to explore the country and to contact its ruler. The two men were received in an Indian village where they saw the native custom of drying leaves, inserting them in cane pipes, burning them, and inhaling the smoke.

Upon his return to Spain, Jerez continued smoking and introduced his habit to his home town of Ayamonte. The smoke reportedly frightened some of his neighbors, resulting in the Spanish Inquisition imprisoning him for his use of the “devil’s weed”—making Jerez the first victim of anti-tobacco laws. He spent seven years in prison for his “sin,” only to be released as smoking was becoming an accepted activity in Spain.

One legend has Torres being threatened with prison in Spain for smoking tobacco, but in all likelihood such stories are confusing him with his fellow sailor. The more accepted history says that Torres was killed while settling Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti). Internal conflict wiped out the settlement party when Torres, a Jew who became Catholic under threat from the same Spanish Inquisition that later imprisoned Jerez, took issue with attempts to convert the native people to Catholicism.

Whatever the exact truth, there’s no denying that Columbus and his crew were pivotal in the history of cigars. And that is reason enough to light up a fine cigar this Columbus Day.

Patrick S

photo credit: Wikipedia

Cigar News: FedEx Announcement to Stop Cigar Shipments Part of Stealth Attack on Tobacco

29 Sep 2015


Last week news broke that, starting in January, FedEx would no longer be shipping tobacco. The company cited the “complex regulatory environment” as part of the reason for its decision to cease shipments.

While consumers are unlikely to notice the change, since FedEx is used mostly by manufacturers and distributors to ship cigars to retailers, the change is part of a larger trend that is making it harder for legal businesses that sell tobacco products. (Currently, UPS and USPS are used for most consumer shipments of tobacco sales.)

But almost certainly the same “regulatory environment” that led FedEx to stop shipments will spread. FedEx faced a massive lawsuit from the state of New York for shipping untaxed cigarettes into the state even though the company has no way of knowing the contents of the millions of packages it transports every day. UPS is currently facing a similar lawsuit.

And the ability to ship products is only one way in which legal tobacco sales are under pressure. Tobacco retailers’ access to banking services, which are critical for running any business, are also under attack.

Starting in 2013, the Department of Justice began an initiative called Operation Choke Point with the goal of cutting off financial services to “high risk businesses” for fraud. But critics have said Choke Point has been used by the Justice Department to target many legal businesses deemed undesirable by the current administration.

Multiple cigar retailers have already been dropped by their credit card processors or banks, according to IPCPR. And a Department of Justice list, since taken down from its website, lists “tobacco sales” as one of the targeted businesses.

What makes these attacks so challenging is ultimately banks or shipping companies should be able to decide for themselves what types of businesses they want to do business with. But when activist attorneys general or Department of Justice officials are pressuring them, the result is regulation by fiat, without meaningful oversight or legislative authorization. While the cigar industry faces potentially devastating regulations from the FDA, those regulations are at least authorized by an act of Congress. That gives the industry the opportunity for input in the rulemaking process and the ability to challenge the regulations in court.

Policies like Operation Choke Point and pressure on shippers from lawsuits represent an entirely different challenge. Tobacco is a legal product in America, but there are many elected officials who don’t want it to be and they have initiated a stealth attack on cigars with the potential to be just as devastating as the formal regulations pending at the FDA.

Patrick S

photo credit: Washington Times

News: U.S. May Abstain from Vote Condemning Cuban Embargo

23 Sep 2015

Cuban-American Relations

According to a recent report, the Obama administration may exclude the U.S. from an annual United Nations vote that condemns America’s 54-year-old embargo on Cuba. The vote is expected to take place next month.

The move comes amid thawing diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana, as well as Pope Francis’ visit to the communist island nation (Francis “worked behind the scenes to broker the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations,” according to the Associated Press).

“U.S. officials tell the AP that the Obama administration is weighing abstaining from the annual U.N. General Assembly vote on a Cuban-backed resolution demanding that the embargo be lifted. The vote could come next month. No decision has yet been made, said four administration officials who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on sensitive internal deliberations and demanded anonymity. But merely considering an abstention is unprecedented. Following through on the idea would send shock waves through both the United Nations and Congress. It is unheard of for a U.N. member state not to oppose resolutions critical of its own laws. By not actively opposing the resolution, the administration would be effectively siding with the world body against Congress, which has refused to repeal the embargo despite calls from President Barack Obama to do so,” reports the Associated Press.

In early July the U.S. and Cuba moved to formally restore diplomatic relations, including the re-establishment of embassies in Washington and Havana. By then President Obama had already issued an executive order making legal travel to Cuba a little easier—and had already removed Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism—which represented the biggest changes in a generation with respect to U.S.-Cuban relations. Obama has also called on Congress to end the trade embargo.

Under new rules, legal visitors to Cuba are allowed to bring up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars back to the U.S.; an outright end to the embargo, however, would unquestionably herald drastic, long-lasting changes for the cigar industry, as well as present new challenges and opportunities.

You can read more analysis of everything that’s new with Cuba here and here. And, as always, we’ll keep you posted with new developments as they arise.

Patrick A

photo credit: Flickr Live Feed from the 83rd Annual IPCPR Trade Show

18 Jul 2015

July 18-20 we’re live at the 2015 International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR) Trade Show in New Orleans. Expect many updates in the coming days and weeks, but while we’re here walking the floor and attending the event, the best way to keep up with all the news is following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. (We’ve included the Facebook feed below.)

Check back often for up-to-the-minute updates, photos, videos, and new information as we cover the IPCPR convention just like we have for nearly a decade. If you have questions you want asked, in addition to leaving a comment on this post, you might also try reaching us on Twitter and Facebook.


News: House Appropriations Bill Would Lessen FDA Devastation to Cigar Industry

9 Jul 2015

Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee took an important first step toward fixing one of the most outrageous aspects of the proposed rules to regulate cigars under the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).


The appropriations bill passed the Committee yesterday for next year’s funding of the FDA, included a funding rider to stop the FDA from retroactively regulating cigars and other tobacco products introduced since February 2007. Under the legislative fix, the new date existing products would be grandfathered in as exempt from the costly and difficult FDA pre-approval process would change from February 15, 2007 to the date (likely later this year) when the proposed regulations are finalized.

While cigars introduced after the FDA’s cigar regulations go into effect would still be subject to FDA approval before being marketed or sold—a process that likely would take months or years and could cost an estimated $400,000 per each new cigar blend and size—the change would be a significant improvement from the current situation. Absent any change, under current law, most or every cigar introduced since February 15, 2007 would be subject to the FDA pre-approval process, with the likely impact of permanently making illegal most cigars introduced in the past eight years.

The key language in the appropriations bill still has a long way to go before becoming law. Having successfully passed the House Committee, including surviving an amendment vote 23-26 to strip the FDA regulation date change out of the bill, the bill now goes to the House floor for passage.

If it passes the House, the next step would be a companion bill from the Senate Appropriations Committee. There, Kansas Senator Moran, a co-sponsor of the Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act, is chairman of the subcommittee with oversight over the FDA and could be key to ensuring the language eliminating the February 2007 date is included in the Senate bill.

If such language passes out of the full Senate Appropriations Committee, next step would be the full Senate, after which the bill would go to President Obama’s desk to be signed into law or vetoed.


With the Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act seemingly stalled for the immediate future, this is a significant and serious attempt to address the devastating impact of the proposed FDA regulations. Still, it faces  major challenges, not the least of which is the fact that the proposed FDA regulations could become finalized any day now—before any appropriations bills are passed.

According to an agenda issued last year, the deadline for the FDA regulations was June 2015, and in Senate testimony in March FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg reiterated that now-passed goal. In addition to time constraints, two other issues complicate the process significantly.

First, while cigar industry representatives work to protect cigars from the damaging impact of the regulations, the elephant in the room is e-cigarettes. A large part of the agitation for these regulations by anti-tobacco activists is because the deeming rule would effectively ban e-cigarettes and vaping devices—which they view, almost certainly incorrectly, as having negative public health implications.

While, in theory, new cigars could be approved by the FDA as “substantially equivalent” to grandfathered cigars, the e-cigarette industry was almost nonexistent in February 2007, meaning approval of e-cigarettes and other vaping products would be even more difficult than the already arduous process that new cigars would face. This hardens the anti-tobacco opposition to a change in the cutoff for grandfathered tobacco products, but it also means the growing e-cigarette industry could be a key ally for cigars in pushing for a change.

The second complication has nothing to do with specific issues of tobacco regulation but is the often dysfunctional federal budget process. While the system is set up for 12 appropriations bills, frequently budget showdowns due to fiscal deadlines lead to continuing budget resolutions and omnibus spending bills that combine various appropriation bills into one large spending bill. To ease passage, appropriations riders, like the one on FDA regulation approved yesterday by the House Appropriations Committee, can get stripped out of the final bill, especially if leadership doesn’t make their inclusion a priority.

Ultimately, while this rider can alleviate some of the damage FDA regulation of cigars will cause, it doesn’t fix the larger issue: The vibrant handmade cigar industry will come to a screeching halt if new cigars are forced to go through an FDA approval process that takes months (or years) and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. To fix this bigger problem, cigar smokers must work towards passage of the Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act to remove the FDA’s authorization to regulate handmade cigars.

Patrick S

photo credit: Best Price Cigars

Exclusive News: Drew Estate Prepares to Release Undercrown Shade, Plus New Cigars from La Palina and A.J. Fernendez

6 Jul 2015


Drew Estate is poised to release Undercrown Shade, a new line based on the Undercrown blend featuring a No. 1 grade shade-grown Connecticut wrapper.

Here is Drew Estate’s description of the new line, which uncovered in the recently distributed 322-page Tobacco Retailer’s Almanac, sent to members of the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR):

More than just a wrapper swap, this ‘Crown was a three-year process working from the ground up using the finest blend of well-aged, long leaf tobaccos from our vast holdings in Estelí, Nicaragua. Finished with a No. 1 golden shade wrapper, the most sought-after leaf in the world, Undercrown Shade is a naturally sweet, earthy smoke with satisfying body for any time of day.

The line will be available in boxes of 25 in the same six regular production vitolas as the original Undercrown line:

Belicoso 6 x 52
Corona Doble 7 x 54
Corona 5.38 x 46
Gordito 6 x 60
Gran Toro 6 x 52
Robusto 5 x 54

References to “the most sought-after leaf in the world” and “shade” imply the blend uses a Connecticut-grown wrapper leaf, as opposed to an Ecuadorian-grown Connecticut wrapper, which Drew Estate uses on Herrera Estelí. Ecuadorian wrapper isn’t usually grown under shade netting because of the natural cloud cover that produces a similar leaf without it.

Jonathan Drew hinted on Facebook that a Connecticut shade-grown wrapper project was in the works last August when he wrote: “Historically, Drew Estate has always used the Shade Leaf from Ecuador, but this Connecticut leaf is mad juicy and getting me crazy. I mean like… well… what’s a couple thousand pounds of this juicy leaf going to taste like with a tweaked Undercrown Blend…. Oh wait, maybe a tweaked Rustica… Oh shucks, ima get all kind of flack for this post.”

La Palina Introduces Red Label

Also listed in the Tobacco Retailers Almanac is a previously unannounced La Palina Red Label. The line will comes in four sizes: Gordo (6 x 60), Toro (6 x 50), Robusto (5 x 52), and Petit Lancero (6 x 40). All are listed as shipping in boxes of 20. Although no other details are printed, a recent posting announcing the selections for Cigar Dave’s cigar of the month club reveal more details about the Dominican-made blend, which features a Ecuadorian Habano wrapper, Ecuadorian binder, and Nicaraguan and Dominican filler.

AJ Fernandez Enclave


Although no other details are revealed, we do have artwork (above) to share for the upcoming Enclave cigar by A.J. Fernendez. The ad appears in the Tobacco Retailer’s Almanac. A February article in the publication BayouLife mentioned the project, though the blend was still being tweaked at the time. More details, presumably, will be unveiled between now and the start of the IPCPR Trade Show.

Patrick S

photo credits: Stogie Guys/Drew Estate/A.J. Fernandez

News: Two Former Drew Estate Tobacco Gurus Ready for New Phase

4 Jun 2015

Despite the fact the FDA could rule before the end of the year that cigars introduced now cannot be sold or marketed without the FDA’s approval, cigar companies continue to churn out new cigars.

foundation-cigar-coAnd with the annual IPCPR Trade Show less than two months out, more and more new cigars are being announced. (As we have seven out of the past eight years, will be covering the IPCPR from the show floor, which this year is in humid New Orleans in late July.)

Melillo Announces Foundation Cigar Co.

In addition to the many new cigars, two former key figures at Drew Estate are expected to announce their next phase in the cigar industry. Nicholas Melillo, who left Drew Estate roughly 13 months ago, was the first to announce his future plans.

On Tuesday Melillo, who had been executive vice president of international operations at Drew Estate before his departure, announced the formation of Foundation Cigar Company. The company, which will be headquartered in Connecticut, is preparing to introduce its first blend at the IPCPR Trade Show.

While exact details of the blend are not yet known, in a press release Melillo, who goes by “Nick R. Agua” online, said he will be making his first cigar at the TABSA (Tobaccos Valle de Jalapa) factory in Nicaragua, using Aganorsa tobacco, which is also extensively used in Drew Estate blends. The first cigars are scheduled to arrive in cigar shops in September, and reportedly will retail for around $10.

Melillo described his new partnership in a distributed statement: “I have known and been purchasing tobacco from Eduardo Fernandez and his team since 2003. It’s great to work with guys who really know their tobacco. They have welcomed me in with open arms and have given me access to their special cuartos anejamiento, or ‘aging rooms.’ I have personally selected some very special vintage tobaccos which possess some amazing flavors and complex characteristics. The variety of Nicaraguan tobaccos they have in the warehouse is incredible and some of the blends I have worked up are, well, let’s just say we are all very excited about them. The tough part in working up a few nice blends is deciding which cigar you like the best.”

Steve Saka Non-Compete Ending Soon; Announcement to Follow?

Melillo’s new cigar is certainly highly anticipated, but maybe not as much as an expected announcement from former Drew Estate president and CEO Steve Saka. During the time when Saka and Melillo were at Drew Estate, the two played a critical role in growing the company from an operation known mostly for its unorthodox infused cigars to a Nicaraguan juggernaut that made some of the most sought-after non-infused cigars, including Liga Privada.

Saka left Drew Estate in July 2013 and reportedly has a two-year non-compete agreement that will expire only a week prior to the IPCPR Trade Show. In a series of recent Facebook posts, Saka has been sharing photos from Nicaragua where he has been spending time sampling tobacco in Nicaragua, which many have interpreted as preparation for his next cigar venture.

If, as many expect, an announcement about his future plans in the cigar industry comes soon, Saka would be one of many who has “retired” from one company only to reemerge in the industry after a contractually obligated hiatus. The cycle of cigar makers gaining expertise, experience, and capital at one company only to strike out on their own later is one of the aspects of the industry that drives innovation and competition to the great benefit of consumers.

Patrick S

photo credits: Foundation Cigar Company