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A Conversation with Alan Rubin

The founder of the Alec Bradley Cigar Co. talks about the reversal of fortune that put his smokes near the top.

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Q: Do you ever see the day when you will have your own manufacturing operation?
A: I do. In doing a partnership, so that we don't get so caught up with manufacturing that we don't stop taking care of our customers in the market. If we partner with somebody in the factory it would be because we're on the same page. We want them to continue what they do best, but grow together.
Q: Let's talk about Family Blend.
A: This was a blend we did for our fathers here in the office. Their signatures appear on every box. When Tempus launched, we couldn't keep up with production, so when we would do events we handed out Family Blends with no bands. We didn't have enough Tempus. And people liked the damn thing. People went nuts. People asked what is the cigar with no band? Ralph and George [Sosa, the vice president of sales] and Christopher [Manso, one of the company's Midwest sales reps] sat me down and said we have to bring the cigar out to market.
Q: When was Family Blend launched?
A: April 2009, when it had one size.
Q: And today how does it match up?
A: It's probably in our top three.
Q: Take us through your product line.
A: Spirit of Cuba sells in the $2 range. It's a sandwich fill cigar [made with long and short filler]. This is what we call our transition cigar. We have Maxx, we have Maxx in Connecticut, we have Maxx The Vice, Tempus Family Blend, Prensado, Select Cabinet Reserve—those last three all were launched in the same year, all sell for $6 to $12.
Q: What are you missing?
A: Maybe a lower-price product, lower than our typical seven-, eight-, nine-dollar range, that we're proud to put our name on. When you're using quality tobaccos, you pay for that. When you're using aged tobacco, that's money that's been sitting for years. It's about being able to provide a product at a certain price point that we're happy to put our name on.
Q: What's the best cigar you've ever made?
A: Wow. That's a great question. (Long pause.) I think the one closest to my heart is Tempus. That helped us get to where we are today as a company. I smoke all of our cigars, but Tempus is probably the one closest to my heart.
Q: How many cigars does Alec Bradley sell each year?
A: Between two and three million.
Q: Is that your goal?
A: This is exactly where we want to be right now. The company has truly taken on the personality of the people in these walls. It's not one person here, it's a team. We have nine employees here. They always say hire where you are weak. My job is to lead the direction and then get out of the way of success. Let these people be the best they can be. Ralph is executive vice president. Ralph is very structured, George has a military background, Lori Bond [inside sales manager] can remember 1,000 customers' names without a computer. Our company has very much a family feel to it. You don't have to have the same last name or be the same ethnicity to be a family.
Q: Is Ralph No. 2 at the company?
A: He is—maybe one and a half. He runs the daily operation. He makes sure that the wheels are going forward. And it's really a perfect marriage—he's the Cuban brother I never had. I see all gray and he sees all black and white.
Q: Who is the typical Alec Bradley consumer? And how is that person different today, versus the typical consumer you sold to in 2000?
A: The Alec Bradley consumer 10 years ago was the consumer who was looking strictly for value. Today, the Alec Bradley consumer is the consumer that is a little more educated about cigars. The guy who understands he had a great experience and he wants to know why. He wants to know why he is enjoying the cigar as much as he does.
I was in New York going from one store to another, and I saw a cab driver, and he had a cigar. I took out a Tempus and he said "Alex Baldwin—I smoke those!" He got our company name wrong, and he got the actor's name wrong, but from five feet away he recognized our brand. It was at that moment I realized we had something. Building a brand is the hardest thing I've ever done—but it's also the most rewarding.
I never thought I'd get to this level. When I got into this business there were people that were untouchable. Out on top of the food chain. Now I feel every company is within reach. There's a book that I once read that said, if you're not No. 1 or No. 2 in your category you should really switch industries. And I say that we can be No. 1 or No. 2 in this industry if we keep doing what we're doing today, doing quality first.
Q: When you joined the cigar industry there were certain challenges—the cigar boom was ending, there was a glut of product on the market, sales were far from easy and you were a new, unproven company. Today, there are different challenges. Can you describe and contrast?
A: When we started, nobody knew who we were. I travelled four days a week, every other week, introducing myself, just going from one cigar store to the next. There's a lot of rejection involved. And having to do it again and again. If it wasn't for the support of my family, my wife, my kids, I couldn't have done it. There were certain months that I didn't travel. That was all based on my kids' sports schedule. That was how I created the balance. For 10 years I coached them in every sport.
Q: What's special about the cigar business?
A: The common bond of the cigar. No matter what you do, no matter what your walk of life is, it all goes out the door when you're smoking a cigar. I've been in a store where a guy who owned an oil company, a guy who pumped gas and myself smoked a cigar together. Where else do you get that?
Q: What do you want from this company?
A: I want to look back 20 years from now and know that the company has the same philosophy that we have today—giving the cigar smoker an unforgettable experience. So people will say, "They lasted because their quality was everything they said it was going to be." When you have an hour to smoke a cigar, that should be the best hour of your day. We want to be part of your best hour of the day. And there's a big responsibility there.
stantine972 May 2, 2011 9:19pm ET
I love those Alec Bradley's
Chris A May 2, 2011 11:00pm ET
surely miss the Trilogy triangle press
Matt Turner Prince George, British Columbia, Canada, May 15, 2011 7:55pm ET
Good interview. Makes me wish I could talk to Alan and let him know his company makes mostly great cigars, (particularly the family blend) but has terrible customer service. I run a well established cigar - review website and have attempted to contact Alec Bradley several times regarding their products. Sadly, I've never received a single response. Goes to show success and service don't always marry up.
Robert Martin Flushing, New York, Queens, September 30, 2011 5:46pm ET
you can never go wrong with a Alec Bradley cigar!!! November 10, 2011 10:17pm ET
So a slightly belated amendment is needed here. Be it through luck, or the magic of the Cigar Aficionado website, shortly after my last comment I was contacted by George Sosa from Alec Bradley. Not only did I receive an apology for the troubles I'd had contacting someone, but George provided outstanding service, answered all my questions, and ultimately helped me find the product I was looking for. Hats off to George and the rest of the team at Alec Bradley!
Christopher Hosford December 29, 2011 6:16pm ET
It's 12/19/11, and I'm vacationing in St. Augustine, Fla. I visited St. Jorge tobacco shop -- nice lady behind the counter along with her dog, Missy -- and naturally, my favorite cigar, Paul Garmirian, wasn't being carried so I bought 5 different ones -- some known, some unknown -- to do a taste test during my vacation. The sole AB was the company's "American" Classic Blend, which I don't see referenced in this story. Anyway, I rated it close to the PG ... a mild, natural smoke and at $5 a terrific smoke at a good price. It's a little loosely packed and thus burns a bit quickly, but evenly. I'll definitely buy more ABs in the future when I return home to the Bronx, NY.

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