These friends of Cigar Aficionado were there at the beginning in 1992, and they are still working with cigars today.
From the Print Edition:
Cigar Aficionado's 20th Anniversary, September/October 2012
When Cigar Aficionado was launched in 1992, the premium hand-rolled cigar business was in the midst of a slow decline that had lasted for more than 20 years. Since then, the industry has been through a boom, the end of a fad, a slow stabilization and then the start of a long period of sustained growth that has created a vibrant culture built around the enjoyment of a great cigar.
The contributors to this section represent the veterans who’ve been with us through the entire saga. Some are manufacturers. Some are growers. Some are retailers. There are many, many others who have come and gone. And, there are a few, mostly outside the United States, who aren’t represented here. But we chose these people with great care and thought, as well as a real appreciation for their support over the years.
As president of Cuba’s National Assembly for the last 19 years, Ricardo Alarcón has seen the shift in attitudes in smoking cigars inside his own country. But cigars are his constant companions. It’s been that way for 60 years. “The first cigar I smoked was a Bauza,” he says. The 75-year-old government official says he laments the widespread restrictions on smoking and recalls that there were days when diplomatic receptions included cigar smoking, but not anymore. One of his favorite stories occurred in Canada, when a Cuban friend of his commented that he couldn’t believe the number of streetwalkers lurking outside buildings. He had to tell him that they were not prostitutes, but smokers who had been banished to the sidewalks to smoke. To this day, he is a lover of a great cigar, as he smoked throughout a recent interview. He says he loves to have friends who smoke over to his house to share cigars and a good Scotch. Alarcón also is virtually the last high-ranking Cuban government official who attends every Festival de Habanos, the big annual cigar event in Havana. “I always find those events very interesting to talk with people about cigars.” —Gordon D. Mott
David Berkebile has worked around cigars for 48 years, but he wasn’t always an expert. “It was mostly a pipe business when I started. When I opened up I had very few cigars, didn’t know much about them,” says the owner of Washington, D.C.’s, Georgetown Tobacco. At the time that he opened, pipes made up half of his business, but now that’s dipped to 10 percent. Cigar sales have dominated. Berkebile has seen a dramatic change in the role of the cigar shop owner in the past 20 years. “The real growth is in cigar lounges. People that get in the cigar industry today better be a restaurateur.” Instead of simply purchasing a cigar and leaving, people tend to buy and linger, as there are fewer places to smoke. And as antismoking legislation has grown in recent years, Berkebile has seen the cigar industry gather together on the political front, quite unlike in the past. “In the old days, we couldn’t find a handful of people to go to Washington,” he says. —David Savona
“If you take my best 12 months, from July 1995 through June 1996, I literally doubled my business every month,” says Curt Diebel, the owner of Diebel’s Sportsman’s Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri, adding that he resorted to hiding his inventory so he could save cigars for regulars. The irony is he had previously closed two stores in the four-store family operation he joined in 1975, diversifying into gifts and dropping the word “tobacconist” to entice customers who wouldn’t normally venture into a cigar store. “All of a sudden, ’92, ’94 comes around, and I say I’m the dumbest guy in the world—I don’t have ‘cigars’ in my name,” says Diebel with a laugh. No matter—customers came in droves. Sales are far more relaxed now, and while they aren’t booming, they are steady. “The base that grew out of the boom never really eroded,” he says. —D.S.
José Abel Expósito Díaz
José Abel Expósito Díaz has seen a steady stream of celebrities visit the cozy, low-ceilinged, wood-paneled VIP lounge since he started in 1993 at the Partagás Factory store, a shop that he’s managed since 1995. He remembers Jack Nicholson coming in to smoke four days in a row during one trip to Havana. Gerard Depardieu spent a New Year’s Eve day in the lounge and kept buying cigars to win the prize for the biggest purchase of the day. He remembers his biggest single sale on January 16th, 1998—$132,000 worth of cigars. But he says his most memorable moment in the cigar business came in 1999 when he was given the Habanos Man of the Year award for Commerce. Cuban President Fidel Castro was present for the gala dinner at the Festival de Habanos. “It was very emotional for me,” says Abel, as he is known. “I’m not famous though. Cigars are what are famous.” —G.D.M
Carlos Fuente Sr. and Carlos Fuente Jr.
Carlos Fuente Sr. and Carlos Fuente Jr. are the father-son team behind Arturo Fuente and Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars. They are arguably the most famous cigarmakers in the world, the principals behind a cigar company that is celebrating its 100th year in 2012, and one that makes more than 30 million cigars a year, all of them by hand. The first 80 years were extremely lean, with a temporary closing and several fires. The company thrived over the past 20 years, thanks to the work of the two men. “I’ve been working since I was eight years old,” says the 77-year-old Fuente Sr., who willed himself to do every job imaginable in a factory and once went three weeks straight without leaving his office. His determined son strived to do things that most thought impossible, such as growing great wrapper tobacco in the Dominican Republic. Fuente Jr. believes the 1990s boom only improved the cigar world. “The boom was the best thing that ever happened to the industry,” says Fuente Jr. “There were only five or six people making cigars before the boom.” —D.S.
For Julio Eiroa, the cigar boom meant changes in sales and market niche and eventually the character of the cigars he made. His company, Caribe Imported Cigars, formed in Miami in 1989, began as a big-volume-low-profit business, especially in south Florida. Eiroa had a cheap cigar known as Don Felo, which he sold in Miami cafeterias for 33 cents apiece. Before the 1990s, Eiroa was happy making two to three million cigars a year, then came the cigar boom. Production soared to 18 million cigars by 1997, the company’s best year ever, with $17 million in revenues, compared with $120,000 in 1989. Eiroa worked for more than a decade alongside his son Christian, who wanted to make strong cigars while Julio wanted them smooth. “I don’t like full-bodied cigars. They’re too strong for me. I always go for the cigar that you can smoke five or 10 cigars a day,” he says. Nevertheless, they each developed their own profiles of their best-known brand, Camacho. While the Eiroas sold their brands and cigar factory to the Davidoff group in 2008, Julio still grows tobacco in Honduras in his beloved Jamastran Valley, which borders Nicaragua. —D.S.
Mike Giannini felt like a fish out of water when he took a job as a cigar clerk 30 years ago in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. He was only 21, and his love of cigars seemed alien to his friends. “I was the only young guy smoking cigars. My friends said, ‘Who are you—George Burns?’ ” The early start has led Giannini up the ladder of the cigar industry rung by rung, moving him from shop clerk to store owner, then salesman and national sales manager of La Gloria Cubana cigars. Early this year Giannini moved into his current role as head of new product development for General Cigar Co., trying to stretch the bounds of cigar tradition with such innovation as the La Gloria Cubana Artesanos de Obelisco, a cigar modeled after a Santiago, Dominican Republic, monument. Even if 20 years ago friends questioned his foray into the cigar business, today he entertains the crowds at the Big Smoke, teaching the delicate art of making cigars to cigar aficionados. —D.S.
In 1994, Antonio Hevea was sent to Paris to open the Casa del Habano on the Boulevard St. Germain. In the shop on opening day, he was approached by Cigar Aficionado’s editor and publisher, Marvin R. Shanken. He remembers chatting with him, and then being asked, “Are you coming to the Dinner of the Century tomorrow night.” Hevea responded, “Only if you buy me a ticket.” With that, he was invited, and he spent the next 24 hours finding a tuxedo before attending one of the greatest cigar dinners of all time. For the 76-year-old Hevea, the dinner was a high point in a lifetime in cigars. He had began by working in the Por Larrañaga factory in 1958 as a coffee boy before becoming an accountant at various cigar factories and at Cubatabaco, the country’s tobacco monopoly. He opened the first cigar shop attached to a cigar factory (at Partagás in downtown Havana) in 1991. And, in 1999 he opened the Casa del Habano in the Hotel Conde de Villanueva in Old Havana, where he still holds court from time to time. —G.D.M.
Hendrik “Henke” Kelner looks back on the business in two primary phases—before Cigar Aficionado and afterward. When he was the president of Tabadom in 1992, the company was exporting 7 million premium cigars a year, most of which were under the Davidoff brand name. ProCigar (the Dominican Republic’s consortium of premium cigar manufacturers) had just been formed, but Kelner recalls: “Cigar exports to the U.S. were stagnant. For many years it was considered to be a business with no future. It was not an attractive business, had little innovation and the consumers were poorly informed. Cigar Aficionado created a culture around the pleasure and art of smoking. This lead to what was called the cigar boom in the United States. It later spread to the rest of the world.” Kelner, now master blender for Davidoff of Geneva, has developed new kinds of tobacco and blends as a result of the boom that include such varieties as Dominican Corojo, and cross-seed Ecuadoran hybrids. —Gregory Mottola
While Chuck Levi, owner of Chicago’s Iwan Ries & Co., the second-oldest cigar shop in America, has, of course, not been there for the entire 155-year history of the store founded in 1857, he nominates the epoch begun 20 years ago as its period of greatest change. Levi saw cigar sales pick up steam and his pipe-heavy business transform. “We expanded the cigar department,” he says. “We added a lot of space to cigars.” He also admits to being confounded by the steady stream of new products, which have spawned a new kind of customer who clamors for innovation and is far less brand-loyal. “Every third customer asks, ‘What’s new since I was here last.’ It keeps us on our toes.” As the changes continue, Levi has added a large smoking lounge to the store, which he says is “the only place you can smoke cigars after five o’clock in downtown Chicago.” —D.S.
It was two years before Guillermo León would start running his family’s La Aurora S.A. cigar factory, but León remembers 1992 very well. At the time, his father Fernando was heading up the operation while Guillermo was focused on logistics. Cigars were a secondary commodity for the León family. “The industry was flat,” says León. “We had a strong and steady local business here in the Dominican Republic, but things were quiet. Especially at the RTDA [now called the IPCPR] trade show. Then, with Cigar Aficionado, cigars were shown in the magazine along with very expensive luxury items, so there became great interest.” Then La Aurora was producing primarily two premium cigars for the U.S. market—León Jimenes and La Aurora. The boom followed shortly after and León says: “The demand was unbelievable, but there were a lot of problems too. It didn’t happen right away. The magazine came out, and shortly after, everything was crazy.” —G.M.
Robert Levin has seen his business transform over the past 20 years from a focus on retail to becoming a nationwide brand. The Ashton brand, which he launched in 1985, was growing but still small in 1992, while most of his revenues came from Holt’s, his retail shop in Philadelphia. Today, that has reversed, and wholesaling Ashton and the other brands his company owns is by far his biggest segment. “The magazine really changed the way people buy cigars,” he explains. “Before Cigar Aficionado, people would be brand loyal, come in once a week for cigars. Now, they come in with the ratings and they want to try a bunch of different brands.” All Ashtons are made by the Fuentes, and the Levin and Fuente families are close. Levin’s son, Sathya spent a month with the Fuentes as a youngster to learn the art of cigarmaking from the ground up. Now, at 31, Sathya is increasingly involved in Ashton. “Sathya’s really running [the business] now,” says Levin. “He’s coming up with all the new stuff, all the new brands, all the new sizes.” —D.S.
Twenty years ago, Benjamin Menendez’s hands were full overseeing the General Cigar Co. factories in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. General was owned by the Cullman family and Menendez’s focus was not on creating new cigars but on maintaining such well-established brands as Macanudo and Partagás. He worked with Alfons Mayer ensuring the requisite tobaccos were properly conditioned. “And then things changed,” Mendendez, now General Cigar’s senior vice president, recalls. “Cigar Aficionado came and changed the premium cigar category forever. Without question, the magazine started the boom and the market developed around it.” Premium cigars, he says, were demystified and this led to the creation of many new brands. “I’m proud to say that Partagás and Macanudo and have stood the test of time.”
Ana López Garcia
Ana López, the current director of marketing operations for Habanos, S.A., remembers 1992 very well; she was in charge of the 500th anniversary celebrations of the discovery of Cuba, which included the launch of the Linea 1492 and the Cohiba Siglo line. She also remembers hearing about Cigar Aficionado during a meeting with Marvin R. Shanken: “We were excited by a magazine dedicated to cigars.” Surveying her 37 years experience, López notes a marketing shift in the last 20 years: “The events, the tastings …the way celebrities got in involved, was fundamental in changing the way people see cigars, as part of a legend, as an art.” Some favorite memories involve Alejandro Robaina, the renowned tobacco grower. “I remember him in the fields, I remember introducing to him the brand with his name on it. And, I remember when he came to Havana to talk with us about the brand, and his thoughts about what we were doing. This image of a humble man to be involved with one of our products was a beautiful thing.” —G.D.M.
Enrique Mons claims he is personally responsible for more than $23 million in retail cigars sales, from his time as the first director of the Quinta Avenida and 16th Street La Casa del Habano, which he opened in Havana in 1989, to his own Casa del Habano at Club Habana, which he started in 1999. That averages out to more than $1 million a year in cigar sales during that period. “Cigars have brought me everything, from the people I’ve met, the countries I’ve visited, the hotels I’ve stayed in. What is a Habanos cigar to me? I couldn’t have done those things any other way.” He says he’s spent 40 years in the cigar business because of the love he has for it. He came from a tobacco family, worked as tobacco selection man in a factory in Pinar del Río and then moved to Havana in 1959, where he trained as a roller for two years before working at the Heroes del Moncada and José Piedra factories. In 1971, he became a quality control director for Cubatabaco, where he spent 18 years. Then, in 1989, he launched the first Casa del Habano. —G.D.M.
Eric and Bobby Newman
Eric Newman was president of Tampa-based J. C. Newman in 1992, a company started by his grandfather in 1895. His younger brother, Bobby, was vice president. Eric recalls striving to grow in a declining market: “Smoke shops, cigar manufacturers and tobacco growers were all struggling, experiencing falling sales and shrinking margins, especially for premium cigars. The cigar business wasn’t a lot of fun back then.” Bobby recalls the instant buzz in the business once Cigar Aficionado released its first issue. “Cigars became the hottest commodity around. It seemed that just about every movie star and famous athlete wanted their own cigar named after them. Overnight, 100 factories opened up in the Dominican Republic and Honduras by people wanting to get rich quick. The price of tobacco was being insanely bid up, doubling every six months. A mediocre cigar maker in an established factory one day could be hired away by a new factory to be their factory manager the next day. It was a crazy time to be in the cigar industry.” —G.M.
José Orland and Jorge Padrón
Padrón cigars have been made since 1964, when Cuban émigré José Orlando Padrón opened a cigar shop in Little Havana, Miami. His cigars—dark and gutsy fumas that were rolled quicky and sold very cheap—soon found a following in the local market, and were rolled in the millions. The elder Padrón endured bombings, an embargo on Nicaraguan products, hurricanes and more throughout his years, while his son Jorge saw the promise in opening up new markets. In 1994 the duo created a masterpiece, the premium-priced and elegant Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series. With their distinctive box-pressing (rare at the time) and well-aged Cuban-seed tobaccos, the cigars soon established the Padróns as a force in the market. “We’re lucky,” says Jorge Padrón. “My generation hasn’t had to face the same problems—the fires, the bombing, the starting of a company from scratch. My challenges are all different. Improving on what has been done. It’s trying to understand and appreciate what my father did, and all the sacrifices are worth it. Growing the company. Having the restraint to ensure that it doesn’t get compromised.” —D.S.
John Oliva Sr.
John Oliva Sr. played both offense and defense for the University of Florida, but he never had a harder day than the one in 1962 when his father, Angel Oliva Sr., decided that 144 cartons of wrapper tobacco needed to be repacked—by the two of them alone. “We started at 8 o’clock in the morning,” he says. “We finished at 3 o’clock in the morning. Hardest I ever worked in my life.” Hard work goes hand in hand with the Olivas, Cubans who settled in Tampa and are known for growing some of the world’s finest tobacco, including Ecuador Sumatra and Habano, leaves that go around such well-known cigars as Ashton VSG and My Father. The past 20 years have brought great demand, but Oliva has remained circumspect. “We believe [growth] has to be controlled regardless of outside or market pressure if quality and, therefore, longevity are to be maintained,” says Oliva. “We focused on the long-term effects to the smokers and our company, and easily chose to increase only what we could handle without sacrificing quality.” —D.S.
David Perez comes from a long line of tobacco men, but when he was about to join the family business in 1992, his father and grandfather advised against it. “The business was slow. The sales volume was declining, from the ’80s to the ’90s. It was on a downward trend. People were skeptical. My dad and my grandfather said, ‘Go become a lawyer.’ ” Today Perez is in charge of A.S.P. Enterprises Inc., his family’s tobacco business. “Now, the challenges are weather conditions,” says Perez. “From November of ’96, it rained nonstop until March/April of ’98,” he says. “We struggled to harvest 40 or 50 percent of what we would normally harvest in Ecuador. There was one, two feet of water on the roads in Guayaquil. Mother Nature didn’t comply with us.” Today A.S.P., known for its Connecticut-seed tobacco from Ecuador and spicy Nicaraguan filler tobacco grown in Estelí, is among the world’s leaders and the business is more than 80 percent larger than when Perez started. —D.S.
One afternoon in 1991, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo was checking his inventory of tobacco in his small rolling gallery in Miami where he produced the La Gloria Cubana brand. Marvin R. Shanken, the publisher of Wine Spectator magazine, came in unexpectedly and asked him what he thought about the possibility of a new cigar publication. “I wished him luck but considering the state of the cigar business at the time, I didn’t think he’d succeed,” says Perez-Carrillo, now the owner of EPC Cigar Co., which he runs with his son and daughter. “It was the big companies making most of the premium cigars. The rest was bundle business.” When Cigar Aficionado had its unveiling, Perez-Carrillo found himself writing more orders than he ever had before. Then in the Spring issue of 1993, the magazine featured the cigars of the then-little-known manufacturer, and he was flooded with requests. “People saw the rating for the Wavell. It got a 90. I didn’t even see the score.” When asked whether he thought Cigar Aficionado was in any way responsible for the boom, Perez-Carrillo responds: “I don’t think. I know.” —G.M.
Gary Pesh, the owner of Old Virginia Tobacco Co., a group of cigar stores around Washington, D.C., began working in his father’s store when he was in school, and went full-time upon his college graduation in 1980. “The cigar business was a bundle business then,” he remembers. He was stunned when Davidoff—which at the time didn’t have a non-Cuban version—partnered with Baroness Philippine de Rothschild in the 1980s to introduce Zino Mouton Cadet cigars at a price that seemed unthinkable. “It was going to retail for the astonishing price of $3.60. And we were looking at each other like she was nuts.” Then the advent of black-tie cigar dinners at Ritz-Carlton hotels later in the decade elevated the stature of cigars. “Culturally, we had just gone through this fad where everything that was fun was bad to do. Red meat was bad, you couldn’t drink, you couldn’t smoke, but then there was this idea: you were going to celebrate these things, damn it.” —D.S.
“The cigar industry was very conservative before 1992,” recalls Manuel “Manolo” Quesada of S.A.G. Imports. “Smokers were married to one size of one brand and it was quite difficult to introduce new cigars into the market.” From Quesada’s perspective, Dominican premium volume was low, blending was simple and cigar makers had scant contact with retailers or consumers. “Then in early 1992 Marvin Shanken and Gordon Mott visited the Dominican Republic to announce the coming of a cigar magazine. We had no idea of what was to come. Cigar Aficionado came out and it was the most fabulous ride our industry ever took. The after-effects are still being felt today—closer contact with consumers, new tobaccos from new seed varietals, and more diverse blending giving the smoker the biggest range of tastes and sensations our industry has ever provided.” —G.M.
If you’ve smoked a cigar over the past 20 years, you’ve probably smoked tobacco grown by Nestor Plasencia, Central America’s largest cigar tobacco grower. The cigar boom that began two decades ago kick-started the Plasencia business. “For 20 years the market didn’t change—until 1992,” says Plasencia. Then demand soared, both for tobacco leaf and cigars made in his factories in Nicaragua and Honduras. Since the cigar renaissance, Plasencia, working alongside his son, Nestor Andrés Plasencia, has expanded his tobacco plantings from 500 acres to 2,500, employees have increased from 500 to 5,000, and cigar production quadrupled from 25,000 cigars a day to 100,000, including Rocky Patel Decade and Casa Magna. As good as the last 20 years have been, Nestor Andrés says: “I think we are living at one of the best moments in this industry in terms of quality.” —D.S.
“The industry in 1992, or at least an important part of it, was confused about what a premium cigar was,” says José Seijas, who served as vice president and general manager of Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd. in La Romana, Dominican Republic, until he retired earlier this year. “In many people’s minds, a cigar should be sold at cost, plus a fixed rate like a commodity, not like the luxurious product it is.” The factory where Seijas worked for almost 40 years is the largest factory in the country and the home to Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta and many other handmade and machine-made cigars. He adds that in that year for the industry “there was nothing more relevant than the first issue of Cigar Aficionado. The magazine had a remarkable, almost impossible, alignment with the market. Cigar Aficionado came out like a baby that is desired for long time. The rest is history.” —G.M.
Sherwin Seltzer entered the cigar industry in 1957, when virtually every cigar smoked in America was green. “When I got in the business, everything was candela,” says the longtime marketing man for Villazon & Co., the makers of Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey cigars in Honduras, a company that’s now part of Swedish Match AB. “In New York, there used to be a store on every corner, these luncheon stores that sold sandwiches, sodas and egg creams, and had big humidors in the back.” Seltzer, who retired late last year, worked through the days of the Cuban embargo, when manufacturers had to change their blends, but nothing in his experience compared with the way cigar sales soared in the early 1990s. “In the boom, we went crazy. There wasn’t enough tobacco, so we ran out of cigars,” he says. “We couldn’t keep up, we just couldn’t keep up.” —D.S.
“The market [two decades ago] was dominated by the major players. There was little in terms of brand differentiation and only a few smaller players existed,” says Joel Sherman, president of New York City’s landmark Nat Sherman Tobacconist, who started working at his father’s shop in 1956 and joined full time in 1962. “But I remember when Marvin [Shanken] came to me with the idea of Cigar Aficionado. Over the years, we have not always seen eye-to-eye but in terms of this one, the timing and idea was brilliant. People wanted to learn more about premium cigars, they wanted to be educated about the history, and wanted to learn about the people who cultivated this passion. Cigar Aficionado quickly became the credible resource for consumers as well as those employed in the industry to keep their fingers on the pulse of its development.” —G.M.
Diana Silvius Gits
Twenty years ago, there were few female cigar retailers. Even now the tobacconist industry is predominantly male, but shop owner Diana Silvius Gits had been in cigars for decades by 1992. She recalls the sorry state of the market before then and the dire prospects for her own Up Down Cigars in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. “It was difficult at that time,” she says. “We didn’t know if we’d be around for much longer. The cigar market wasn’t very built up and things weren’t stable or secure.” Over the years, her store developed a following, but there were no major sources of cigar information for Silvius Gits’s customers. “We finally got a magazine source full of accurate cigar information and actual facts. You could use it as a reference, and personally, Cigar Aficionado justified everything I was doing. The industry wouldn’t be anywhere near what it is without it.” —G.M.
The patriarch of Mexico’s largest tobacco grower, Nueva Matacapan de Tabacos S.A. de C.V. recalls the simplicity of the market in 1992. By that time Alberto Turrent was growing quality dark Mexican tobacco for the premium industry, but the company also had its own Te-Amo brand—a wallet-friendly cigar with most of its following in the New York City area. “It was a very stable time and smokers were loyal to their brands,” explains Turrent. “Taxes weren’t high and there wasn’t much consolidation. There were big companies and small companies.” The 113-year-old concern is vertically integrated, controlling both the fields and the factory. Before 1992, sales were steady without any dramatic increases or decreases in demand. After the spark of the boom, Nueva Matacapan de Tabacos soon doubled its growing operation, going from 2,000 acres of binder, wrapper and filler tobacco to 4,000 acres in the San Andrés Valley of Mexico. —G.M.
Pianist and brand owner Avo Uvezian points to an emphasis on cigar education as one of the great changes in the past two decades. He remains, even at age 86, a tireless promoter of his namesake brand, touring the world in a signature cream-colored suit and hat, all the while playing jazz standards. His brand, made at the Tabadom factory by Hendrik Kelner in the Dominican Republic, debuted in 1987 and was sold to Davidoff in 1995. “As maker and owner of my brand, I was traveling quite a bit, promoting cigar smoking and being an ambassador for the industry,” says Uvezian. “In 1992 my business was solid and growing. But Cigar Aficionado pioneered the mainstream education process. The more knowledge consumers possessed about the products, the more likely they would become cigar advocates. It was the beginning of the boom years for the cigar business and I knew I was in the right industry.” —G.M.
Stephen Willett remembers a far different cigar business before 1992, with most of the sales coming from smokes made on machines, packed in cardboard boxes and shrink-wrapped in cellophane. In 1973, when as a graduate student he began working at L.J. Peretti, the 142-year-old Boston tobacco shop that he now owns, little emphasis was put on the premium brands. “There were eight or 10 large, established brands,” says Willett. “People were buying King Edwards, El Productos and Macanudos. Royal Jamaica was here. Punch. Montecruz—it was a very limited selection of handmade cigars.” Back then, you could buy a handmade Punch for under $1. Today the shop only stocks premium cigars, along with pipes and pipe tobacco.
Willett points to two cigar brands over the past 20 years as the most unforgettable: Partagás 150 and Fuente Fuente OpusX. “I bought $38,000 of [Partagás 150], wholesale,” says Willett. “Mr. Peretti [then the shop’s owner] thought I was out of my mind.” He sold his entire stock in six weeks. “That was a lot of money in those days. And the buzz for Opus still goes on. Those cigar brands pushed the business ahead.” —D.S.
“I think we age tobacco better than we age ourselves,” says Philip Wynne with a smile. The 55-year-old entered the cigar business in 1991, at a time when pipes were more popular than cigars, cigar factories around the world worked at a leisurely pace, reflecting the slow demand, and prices were much lower than they are today. “Six dollars was the most expensive cigar at the time, so I said to myself, let’s see if I can make a cigar and sell it for $2 or $3,” he says, puffiing a Felipe Gregorio Refusion, one of his newest creations. The factory in Honduras that originally made his cigars received one container of tobacco a year, enough to keep it rolling for 12 months, something impossible to imagine in today’s world of constant shipments. Wynne survived the ups and downs of the cigar boom and the slow years that followed. “The consumer is getting a much better cigar now than they ever got before. I’ve learned so much from the cigar business—I have no regrets.” —D.S.
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