Being Drew Estate
Jonathan Drew, Marvin Samel and Drew Estate make cigars their own way
From the Print Edition:
Jim Belushi, November/December 2010
(continued from page 3)
While Drew and Samel are the majority partners, eight people own a chunk of Drew Estate, including Saka, vice president of sales Michael Cellucci and Nicholas Melillo, Drew Estate's director of tobacco and production. Drew says he has "never taken money out of the company."
Drew Estate certainly puts money into tobacco. In a cigar world where making puros (cigars made entirely with tobacco from one country) is a bragging point, Drew Estate goes the other way. "We make a blended product—we blend with two, three, four different countries. We like fillers," says Drew. Ligas, for example, are made from a four-nation blend of tobacco. Walking into a sizeable warehouse full of cigar tobacco, Drew says, "this is nothing—this is six to eight weeks of production." He then begins pointing out the leaves in stock. "We've got Connecticut, Indonesia, Brazil...." Melillo says the company has 900,000 pounds of tobacco in inventory. Saka says Drew Estate has "40 different [cigar] blends—we use 32 in current production."
The expansive main rolling area in Drew Estate is colorful and lively, with workers making handmade smokes. Energetic music pumps through the entire factory. Drew takes pride in the workers, and in the work they do. He's particularly proud of the way the cigars draw. "The most important success of Drew Estate is our draw," he says. It's noteworthy since Drew eschews the use of draw-testing machines, which are standard for much of the industry. "Draw machines are garbage—quote me," says Drew, walking through his galleria. "Every cigarmaker can make a perfect cigar if they're trained right." The cigars are tested by weight.
Finished cigars are wrapped in newspaper, and receive four bar codes that show the buncher, roller, supervisor and other details. (Melillo created the system.) Inside Drew Estate's quality-control room, supervisors stand in front of an ashtray containing several lit cigars, checking the blends. Behind them are a series of oversized line graphs in various colors, showing the level of rejected cigars on a daily basis.
Drew Estate is now a major presence in the cigar market, with a broad product portfolio, making everything from tiny tinned smokes to hefty, heavy-bodied double coronas. The size of the portfolio and the range of cigar quality allows the company to buy tobacco in large chunks, rather than piecemeal. "Now everything we do is a crop purchase," says Drew. Buying in bulk allows the company to sort on its own, pick out the finer things for higher-end production and use lesser-quality leaves on cheaper products. "Everything about a cigar factory is moving it up, not down," says Drew. The goal is to buy binder leaves, sort them, and find gems that can be wrappers. Experience has taught them to be hands-on in their tobacco buying. "We don't ship any tobacco from any country until we check the bales, and Nick watches them load the truck," says Drew.
Drew Estate has its eyes on other businesses outside of cigars. This summer it put its Acid brand on a line of tobacco used to fill hookahs, which is known as shisha (or sheesha). At press time it started shipping Acid Shisha by Starbuzz, a brand made by the priciest producer of shisha tobacco on the market. Once smoked strictly in the Middle East, hookahs are hot among the younger aficionado crowd. "It used to be 100 percent ethnic," says Drew, "now the market has changed—it's 10 percent ethnic."
Drew Estate was built on big dreams, and the cigar guys behind it have plans to be even larger. At full capacity, the factory could produce almost twice what it's doing now, some 130,000 cigars a day. And the company is considering expanding across the street, with another 30,000 feet of space for tobacco processing.
"I had a brand that was a blockbuster, but it wasn't built for the purist. It was built for a nontraditional smoker," says Drew. "While it is true that the company has grown into a ‘real' business, the romance and intrigue of tobacco continues to be the dominating factor that pushes Drew Estate forward. The Liga Privada brand was the first substantial step toward fully utilizing our experience in tobacco and capabilities at the Gran Fabrica. I think that it is safe to say that this is the direction we will be heading in as we continue into 2011 and beyond."
The guys who make cigars their own way have no plans to change.
Comments 9 comment(s)
Robert Martin — Flushing, New York, Queens, — September 30, 2011 6:41pm ET
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Raymond Alva — Riverside, CA, USA, — January 4, 2012 4:36am ET
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JONATHAN DREW — NEW YORK, NY, UNITED STATES, — May 9, 2012 8:23pm ET
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