How many iterations do blends go through?
[JD Howard] started with an idea in October of last year and you have certain things that you want to do. You have an idea of what it should taste like, what it should look like. Again, that’s getting somebody that knows your language. Ernie [Ernesto Perez-Carrillo] is very much like that. We start with Headley Grange, literally the inspiration was a drum beat. I wanted something to taste that heavy, ominous, thick. I couldn’t translate it any other way than to say, “I want to taste a cigar that sounds like the drums on ‘When the Levee Breaks’”. Ernie understood that right away. He used to be a drummer but he goes, “OK I got it. I understand.” That was the jumping off point.
For JD Howard, the start was I wanted to use a darker wrapper to differentiate it from Four Kicks and Headley Grange so it looks different on the shelf. Broadleaf has been off the table for two years. I wanted to do a Broadleaf project with Ernie for a while but the yields just aren’t there. When I was there in October with Mike, [Ernie] had some Brazil Arapiraca wrapper and I tasted it and validated it. [I] said, “Oh this is really good. Maybe we can do something with this.” So the idea initially became the darker wrapper, the Brazil Arapiraca, around the Mule Kick blend. Because Mule Kick took off like we never anticipated.
[Mule Kick] was really an exercise in not wasting tobacco. That started off with, we had some wrapper that was too dark for the original Four Kicks. Rather than try to stick the dark wrapper and not color match the boxes, we set it aside and said, “we’ll just do something with it.” I didn’t know what. That’s what became Mule Kick. The darker wrapper and then the different Ligero in the binder and then the filler is what the genesis of the Mule Kick was. We had already purchased the tobacco and didn’t want to waste it. So this is what we did and it sold out in a day. To this day, six months later, we still get calls. “How can I get mule kick?” They sold out in a day; 500 boxes. It took on a life of its own.
Going back to the JD Howard thing. I took the Brazil Arapiraca wrapper and put it on the binder filler of the Mule Kick just to see, since that was so popular of a blend, just to see what it would taste like. I seeded it out to a few people and they all loved it. “Oh what is this? It’s fantastic.” I called Ernie back and he was like, “Well that’s great but don’t get too excited because we don’t have enough Ligero to replicate that into a full brand.” That was the jumping off point. Then you go through…I don’t know how many variations on the theme we went through. Dozens, probably, and then we finally got to a point where when I went there in early February. We had narrowed it down to three and Ernie had them ready for me. As soon as I smoked what became the final version I was like, “that’s it”. That was the “Aha!” moment. It just kind of hits you and hits your palate. As it turns out, that blend was nothing even close to [Mule Kick]. Completely different components. [Mule Kick] is Habano Ecuador wrapper and a Nicaraguan binder filler. We went with Brazil Arapiraca wrapper, Sumatra Ecuador binder and Nicaraguan filler. Completely different filler leaves and everything. You start off with an idea and it goes and you end up somewhere else. That’s the fun part, seeing where it ends up.
Do you have flavor in mind before starting a new blend?
I think you certainly get inspired by certain cigars. But to say, “I want it to taste like this,” is very difficult. I never want to just copy something. I want to be able to innovate and create something that’s unique.
With Four Kicks, the idea was to create something that was easily smoke-able and enjoyable for somebody that is first starting to smoke cigars. If you’ve smoked cigars for a long time you can appreciate the complexity and the balance. Everything is always about balance with Four Kicks, with all our cigars really. You don’t want one note to sound louder than the others it should be just a harmonious kind of symphonic thing where you put all these instruments together and it comes out it has one nice even sound.
That’s how I look at blending basically. You don’t want anything to be, “oh it just tastes like black pepper”. You gotta have some sweet component to it. You gotta have some subtlety, some complexity. That’s how I look at blending at least. And Four Kicks turned out to be very much that cigar. You can smoke it if it’s the first cigar you’ve ever smoked and you can enjoy it. It’s not overpowering. It’s not a challenge to smoke. And, if you’ve been smoking for a while you can still appreciate the complexity and the nuances and the balance of the cigar. With Headley, the idea there was to turn up the volume a little bit and really make something that had more structure; a little bit more for the full body cigar smoker. And with JD Howard it was a completely different experiment altogether. That ended up being, strength wise, probably right between the two. In between the Four Kicks and Headley. But it has a different layer of sweetness that neither one of those two have.
When does production start once a blend is finalized?
It depends on the cigar. When I say it depends on the cigar it depends on the tobacco and how much time the tobacco needs. That goes all the way back to before we even start rolling it. How much aging does it need in the pilon stage to even get it to the point where you can roll it, then set it, then age it. For Headley…I think we started shipping Headley in September, but it has been in production since May/June.
From field to me smoking it, how long does it take to make a cigar?
If you break it down from the field to the point where you’re actually using the tobacco that has been cured; it could be years. For instance, with Four Kicks, probably in September of this year, we’ll go back down to Nicaragua to hand select the Habano Ecuador wrapper for 2014. We bought enough wrapper in 2012 that got us through a certain period but then you gotta realize how old that wrapper is…how long that wrapper has been around and then you have to age it more. Even when you buy from the tobacco broker from the farms, they get it to about 60-70% of where it needs to be. They work the tobacco but then a good cigar maker like Ernie or Pepin, they’re going to take that and do their own thing with it and work it even further to the point where they think it’s ready to become a cigar. So, as far as aging tobacco it could be years. Making a cigar from the point where the tobacco is ready, maybe eight months, ten months, something like that.
Is it difficult to keep a blend consistent across vitolas?
Sometimes yes and no. I know what you’re getting it and yes, you do blend to that specific vitola. You can’t just say, “OK here’s the wrapper, binder, filler, and here are the sizes. Go.” It wouldn’t translate the same in each size. Like with Four Kicks, if you smoke the Sublime, it tastes different, to me it does, than the Corona Gorda. The Corona Gorda, 46 ring, is a little bit crisper, sharper. [It has] a little bit more structure to it. The Sublime is a little richer, softer, rounder because of the 54 ring gauge. But yeah, you blend specifically to the vitola.
Do you ever smoke the individual leaves of wrapper/binder/filler?
Absolutely, do that all the time. In fact, with JD Howard, Ernie took me to where he keeps all the pablons of the tobacco. He’ll grab a hand and literally make a cigar out of the Viso. He’ll light it and hold it under your nose and go, “OK inhale.” That’s when you get the strength of it. You can feel it in your sinuses and go, “Oh my god that’s a Viso?” And then he’ll go, “now smoke it.” I’ll smoke it and taste it. You taste each component by itself. We do it all the time.
With our limited knowledge, it would seem like there is a finite number of blends out there?
Ultimately yeah, there might be. What people don’t realize is it’s not just wrapper, binder, filler. There is so much that goes into each of those components. For instance, when we were selecting Ligero for Four Kicks, we went and there you get priming’s one through eight. Eight being the darkest, heaviest priming because it has been on the plant the longest it has gotten the most sun. We knew that we wanted to use fives and sixes so now you’ve got that. Then there are different farms. You can go and say you want Jalapa Ligero or you can get Esteli Ligero. Those are regions. But then within each region there are different farms. So now you’re looking at fives and sixes from Esteli, from Don Perez, from this, this, this farm and you’re looking at fives and sixes from Jalapa from this, this, this farm. You have to be so in tune to it to notice the nuances and there are nuances so it’s not just wrapper, binder, filler, country of origin. There are so many different things and changes and tweaks and turns. We could have gone to sevens and eights and then you’re looking at a whole different flavor and a whole different profile. There is a finite eventually, I think somewhere, but I don’t think everybody’s explored all of them yet. And then once you get the blend down, the challenge becomes how do you make it consistent year to year to year. There are different harvests, different yields, different crops, weather patterns. Things happen with soil. It’s a challenge.
I guess you don’t want to come up with a winner and then not be able to replicate it.
That’s the worst thing. Hence Mule Kick(laughter). That’s tough and that’s just a matter of not having enough of that particular tobacco. That’s what keeps it interesting man. There’s always some wrinkle that you have to adjust to. That’s just part of the business.
Is quality control difficult to manage from afar?
Yes and no. Fortunately, one of the determining factors in choosing Ernie was this aspect. A lot of people think you go to the guy who makes the best cigars and gets the best ratings and tell him to make a cigar. Put band on it and sell it. It’s not that easy. We looked at 12 different factors when selecting Ernie. You need somebody that is going to be there all the time. Ernie was that guy. That being said, you still need to get down there and be present.
If the demand is there for your cigars, why not just make more? Increase Production?
Personally, I think there is only so much really good tobacco to go around and cigars take time. It’s really difficult to mass produce something that is excellent. That’s why Pete Johnson makes 2 million cigars a year — they’re all great cigars. Or, you can make 30 million Macanudos… they’re smokable but they’re not great cigars. It just depends on what you want to do. In this business it would be very tough to make 10s of millions of cigars and have them be great cigars. To me, you look at anyone in this business that’s worth their salt — Padron or Leo Gomez or Pete Johnson — their production total cigars per year is usually somewhere between 2 and 5 million. It sounds like a lot, but it’s not when you think of….Rocky Patel is now doing 30+ million a year. Padrons are so consistent.. you know you’re getting a great cigar.
Geographically speaking, where are the bands put on the cigars?
All things have to be finalized with the band maker in Holland. All the materials converge in the Dominican Republic and are assembled and banded there. We think the best bands come from a company in Holland. From a company called [inaudible]. They do Opus X and bands that have weight and character and great embossing. These guys are really into the history of cigars. You go into their offices and they just have leather bound manuals of all these bands from the 1600’s, 1700’s. They’re a little tougher to work with, a little more expensive, but that’s the only branding you really have on the cigars — you better make it look good.