Small Batch Smokes
Premium cigar companies are finding big success with small-scale releases
From the Print Edition:
Jeremy Irons, March/April 2013
In any industry, from cigars to bourbon to craft beer, the notion of small-batch or limited production usually implies high craftsmanship, rarity and exceedingly superior stock. The time and care afforded to small-production operations can often separate artisan, luxury products from homogenized commodities, and while cigar-smoking skeptics may dismiss phrases such as "limited edition" as overused buzzwords, cigar manufacturers have been taking the terms very seriously. So seriously that almost every major player in the business is offering a small-batch or limited-edition cigar line in one form or another.
The cultivation of high-quality, low-yield tobacco is evident, as more and more small-batch expressions find their way to the market, garnering high scores and critical praise for both character and distinction. In lieu of their larger production core lines, small-batch releases give cigarmakers the chance to experiment creatively with rare tobacco that they may never see again, and turn it into a limited offering.
Small batch, depending on the company and the project, either means that a regular-production cigar is made in very small, controlled quantities each year, or that a singular batch of unique tobacco is allotted for a one-time production run—one and done—and when the tobacco is finished, the brand is gone.
Take for example EPC Cigar Co., which makes E.P. Carrillo cigars in the Dominican Republic. Brand owner Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, who started as a boutique cigarmaker in Miami, began his Short Run campaign in 2010 as a limited-edition offshoot of his core E.P. Carrillo line.
"My decision to start the Short Run was based on tobacco that I thought had special characteristics but was not available enough to use in regular production lines," says Perez-Carrillo. "So far, the Short Run releases have been one-time runs. We experiment with seeds and tobaccos from areas that fall outside the realm of those found in our normal brands."
The first E.P. Carrillo Short Run in 2010 focused on a Sumatra-seed Ecuadoran wrapper with a Dominican and Nicaraguan blend. In 2011, Perez-Carrillo used an Ecuadoran Habano 2000 wrapper for Short Run, and last year he layered an Ecuadoran Connecticut wrapper over a Connecticut broadleaf binder for the 2012 Short Run. Every Short Run only sees about 108,000 cigars per release. By comparison, Perez-Carrillo's regular-production core lines total around 1.5 million cigars each year.
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Litto Gomez, maker of La Flor Dominicana cigars in the Dominican Republic, also comes across small quantities of distinct tobaccos but knows that there aren't always enough to make a sustainable brand. In 2006, Gomez made use of a small amount of Sumatra-seed wrapper that he grew on his farm in La Canela, Dominican Republic, and released the LG Small Batch. It came in one size: 7 inches by 52 ring.
"Every LG Small batch we make can't be replicated because those tobaccos used from that specific year don't exist anymore," says Gomez. "Depending on how much tobacco is available, we make from 20,000 to 30,000 Small Batch cigars. But for the last LG Small Batch release [Small Batch No. 4], we only made a little over 15,000 cigars because we just didn't have enough good-looking wrappers to make any more."
Gomez has released four LG Small Batch editions since 2006, each of them boxed in crates of 120 cigars and draped in strikingly dark, oily oscuro cover leaves unlike anything else in the La Flor Dominicana line. While all have been Dominican puros, made only of Dominican tobacco, the cigars have varied in size and in blend.
"Our fans tell me that they have a lot of fun comparing editions from different years," explains Gomez. "They also know that when we run out of those cigars, we really do."
Some releases are based around single-estate and vintage tobaccos. In the case of Illusione Cigars, brand owner Dion Giolito has most recently launched his Singulares project, a very small line of cigars that showcases specific tobacco outside the portfolio of his core Illusione brand. Giolito's first run of Singulares came out in 2010 and was made at the Raices Cubanas factory in Honduras alongside his core line. But last year Giolito changed the factory location for Singulares. While Illusiones are still produced in Honduras, Singulares are now made in Nicaragua at the TABSA factory in Estelí. The 2011 and 2012 Singulares, made with different blends and different vintages, both came out last year packaged within the same box. The 2011 has a Nicaraguan Corojo wrapper, and the 2012 a Mexican wrapper from San Andrés. They share leaves from a Nicaraguan plantation called Chilimate, which Giolito says "grows very distinct tobacco." Only 1,200 boxes of 15 were produced.
Also inspired by estate-driven tobacco, Pete Johnson of Tatuaje Cigars created the La Vérité Tatuaje A.O.C. brand, which is a very limited run of smokes that come in only one size showcasing tobacco from one particular farm and one particular vintage. For the first release in 2009, Johnson chose to use a 2008 harvest from José "Pepin" Garcia's La Estrella Farm in Estelí, Nicaragua. The blend consists primarily of Habano-seed criollo tobacco.
"I can't make more of these," Johnson says. "There's no more 2008 tobacco." The crop only allowed for a production run of 50,000 cigars. His follow-up release of La Vérité was taken from the 2009 vintage and is a blend of Nicaraguan Habano seed criollo '98 and a small amount of Pelo de Oro for sweetness. There have been no subsequent La Vérité releases, but Johnson says that tobacco culled from a 2010 harvest is currently in storage for possible production in 2014.
One of Johnson's most popular small batches has been the Tatuaje Monster Series, limited runs of special smokes themed around the monsters of classic horror cinema. Released each year just before Halloween, the Monster Series generates considerable buzz. When the program began in 2008, only 13 retailers chosen via lottery were given the allotment of the inaugural monster cigar, called The Frank (named for Frankenstein). Johnson divided 666 boxes between the tobacconists. The concept has since generated so much interest (and disgruntlement among retailers who were not chosen) that Johnson expanded production to accommodate more of the market. Last Halloween saw The Mummy, whose limited run included an additional 3,100 boxes on top of the initial 666.
Oliva Cigar Co. has grown into one of the most prominent cigar producers in Nicaragua, so most of its cigars are meant for continuous production and sales on a broad scale. But once a year, the company releases a very limited production cigar, the Oliva Serie V Maduro Especiale. The smoke is what company president José Oliva calls "the maduro interpretation" of his Oliva Serie V.
Oliva Serie V Maduro Especiales were first launched in October 2008 as 6 1/2 by 52 pyramids made with Connecticut broadleaf wrappers. Oliva has altered the cigar over the years, changing the wrapper, tweaking the dimensions and moving from a figurado to a parejo. The one thing that has remained constant is the limited aspect—Oliva releases a mere 50,000 of the cigars every year. The cigar scored 92 points and was named one of Cigar Aficionado's Top 25 cigars of 2010.
On the edgier side of the industry, Drew Estate has found success by releasing a series of limited-production cigars that retailers have a difficult time keeping in stock. Brands such as the Liga Privada No. 9 and Liga Privada T-52 have very loyal followings. Liga Privada started out as the personal blend of chief executive officer Steve Saka, and it became so popular that Drew Estate is now perpetually back-ordered. Small-batch offshoots like the Liga Privada Único Serie, with unorthodox smokes such as the Ratzilla, Flying Pig and Dirty Rat, have cult followings.
Midsize companies such as S.A.G. Imports, which produces its flagship Fonseca line in the Dominican Republic, also have an interest in small-batch runs. "We usually need enough tobacco to make at least 1,000 20-count boxes," says Terence Reilly of S.A.G. Its Quesada Jalapa is a new limited-edition made with a specific Nicaraguan wrapper from 2002, but brands such as the Quesada Oktoberfest are continually produced, though in a controlled capacity. "The hybrid seed for Quesada Jalapa is no longer grown. We can't acquire more tobacco, so the cigar is a finite limited-edition. For Oktoberfest, the wrapper we require is consistenly available, but in low supply, so the brand is offered once a year, but in small quantities."
Rafael Nodal of Habana Cuba Cigar Co. recently reassessed his mission and reined in production, focusing on smaller batches of cigars. "There is no doubt that the decision to focus on small batches has been a success for me," says Nodal, referring to his aptly named Aging Room Small Batch M356. "Mass production satisfies a need in the market, but we've made a conscientious decision to limit the number of cigars we produce.
I have some great tobacco but not enough to make millions of cigars." The Aging Room Small Batch M356 is produced in the Dominican Republic, and the Presto size grabbed the No. 16 spot on Cigar Aficionado's 2011 Top 25 cigar list. Made entirely of Dominican tobacco, including some Habano-seed ligero, Aging Room Small Batch M356 is not a "one-and-done" cigar, but a regular-production brand made in small quantities.
"The average production of my Small Batch brand is about 80,000 cigars per year," he says. Nodal's follow-up release, the Aging Room Small Batch Quattro F55, came out last year, and earned an average score of 91 points in a Cigar Insider vertical brand tasting. It features an Indonesian Sumatra wrapper that so enamored Nodal that he built a brand around it. "Quattro can have a larger production than the Small Batch M356," assures Nodal. "But once this tobacco is finished, so is the brand."
Nodal is not the only one who has recently blended a small-batch brand around a wrapper leaf. When Jon Huber of Crown Heads LLC came across a small lot of wrapper leaf that was too dark in color to be consistent with his core Four Kicks line—but too attractive and tasty to reject—he decided to create a limited run called Mule Kick.
"We needed to utilize wrapper leaf we'd already purchased that was too dark for the Four Kicks line," says Huber. Mule Kick could be reasonably classified as a small-batch brand within a small-batch brand, as the regular Four Kicks production is already very limited. Made at Tabacalera Alianza in the Dominican Republic by Perez-Carrillo, the Four Kicks brand is about a year and a half old and has an annual production of only 300,000 cigars—a small number by premium standards—but the Mule Kick had an exponentially smaller production run of only 500 boxes of 10 (or 5,000 cigars). Mule Kick came and went, becoming somewhat of a cult release as a result of its rarity.
"It wound up snowballing for us and the reception it received far surpassed anything we'd anticipated," says Huber.
Viaje, a relatively new cigar company, takes a unique approach to the business. When Viaje started in 2008, two traditional core lines—Platino and Oro—anchored the portfolio. From these lines, brand owner Andre Farkas would later release small novelty editions of limited-production cigars like the Stuffed Turkey, the Skull & Bones and the Daisy Cutter. The curiously named limited editions created so much interest that they became significantly more popular than Viaje's core Oro and Platino lines. In fact, smokers were ignoring these two traditional base brands almost entirely, far more intrigued with cigars like the C4, Super Shot or Roman Candle. Viaje's two traditional lines simply sat on store shelves. Given this reality, Farkas reevaluated his business model and decided last year to focus the entire company solely on limited-edition runs. Oro and Platino are still produced, but in very restricted quantities and are now billed by Viaje as another small-batch brand. Viajes are made consistently each year in small amounts at the Raices Cubanas factory in Honduras.
"I always wanted to be a small-batch producer, but I couldn't start out that way," says Farkas. "Last year I moved Oro and Platino to a once-a-year rolling. So now I'm 100 percent small batch. My average production run of any brand is 200 boxes of 25 for the year."
Smaller companies, however, are not the only ones capable or driven to producing high-quality, small-batch cigars. Rocky Patel brought his namesake Rocky Patel Fifty line to market last year in celebration of his 50th birthday. When compared to Patel's yearly production of premium cigars numbering well into the millions, the Fifty had a total run of only 6,000 boxes, which translated to three sizes at 2,000 boxes each. The Robusto earned the No. 8 spot for the Top 25 Cigars of 2012. Made in Nicaragua at Patel's Tavicusa factory, the Fifty is blended around a dark, Ecuadoran Habano-seed wrapper. Its Nicaraguan double binder and Nicaraguan filler make for a heady, powerful smoke that is full of character and a distinction not often associated with high-volume operations.
When large numbers for long-term brands are projected, consistency can sometimes take priority over uniqueness or quality. But huge companies such as General Cigar Co., Davidoff of Geneva and even Habanos S.A., the global distribution giant for the Cuban cigar industry, have all created small-batch editions that are different from their mainstay brands.
Recall the Benji Menendez Partagas Master Series Majestuoso from General Cigar. Named after veteran blender and cigar maker Benjamin Menendez, General produced 5,000 boxes of the Majestuoso, a 6 by 46 cigar blended by Menendez himself using a dark Cameroon wrapper and a Habano-seed binder from Connecticut. It garnered the No. 15 spot on Cigar Aficionado's Top 25 Cigars of 2009. "With a small-batch cigar, we are able to call on our resources to utilize tobacco that's limited, and not available in a sufficient quantity for a full release," says Menendez. "Also with small batch cigars, we traditionally seek tobacco from individual farms." The cigar was such a critical and commercial success that General commissioned another limited run of the Partagas Master Series last year, this time in a different size-a beefed up 6 by 54.
And consider Davidoff's yearly limited-edition smokes such as the Davidoff White Edition. Both the 2011 and 2012 White Editions feature alternative wrappers and stronger blends that deviate from the mild- to medium-bodied flavor profile of the core Davidoff line. Most recently, Davidoff's Year of the Snake is a 7 by 48 cigar with a hybrid Ecuadoran wrapper developed by blender Hendrik "Henke" Kelner and made in the Dominican Republic. Only 4,500 boxes of eight were made. Not to ignore its smaller brands, Davidoff keeps its Avo Uvezian range fresh as well by introducing an annual limited-edition anniversary cigar, which differs in blend, size and character with each release.
Habanos, despite its vast global reach, has mastered both the limited-production and the "one-and-done" format for its massive portfolio of Cuban cigars. The Cohiba Behike BHK, for example, is a regular-production smoke that is made each year in very limited quantities on account of the rare medio tiempo tobacco used for the line. The BHK52, which is the smallest size in the brand, took the top honor of Cigar of the Year for 2010. Habanos projected that it would only produce 150,000 Behikes for 2011.
The Edición Limitadas and Regional Edition cigars, on the other hand, are "one-and-done" releases of special, limited-edition sizes that have a fixed production number and are discontinued after that number has been reached. The limited-edition, or Edición Limitada program started in 2000. These cigars are special sizes of Cuba's large, well-known brands and, although limited, are shipped to retailers around the globe. The Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011 secured the number two spot for the Top 25 Cigars of 2012. It measures 6 1/2 inches by 52 ring and is unlike any other size in the normal Cuban portfolio.
Regional Edition smokes are made from Cuba's smaller, lesser-known brands. Like Edición Limitadas, they are rolled in unique sizes outside the normal Habanos brand portfolio, but these cigars are not offered worldwide. Rather, they're contracted for specific markets. Italy, Germany and the U.K., for example, can all request a limited run of unique cigars through their regional distributors. The brand and size is approved by Habanos and then a few thousand boxes are shipped to the specific region.
"For SEITA, which is the exclusive distributor for the Jose L. Piedra and Quai d'Orsay brands in France, the 2011 Quai d'Orsay Robusto Embajador was our very first Regional Edition," says Antoine Bathie, SEITA's premium cigars manager. Quai d'Orsay is one of the smaller Cuban brands, and the Embajador scored 92 points in Cigar Aficionado. Only 1,000 boxes of 25 were made and SEITA sold out of the entire allotment in only six months. "If I could go back in time, I would have increased my order by at least twice as much!" says Bathie. "Many cigar smokers have discovered Quai d'Orsay thanks to this program. This kind of innovation is an efficient way to recruit new aficionados to the brand."
The Regional Edition program officially began in 2005 with only two countries, Switzerland and Italy, participating. By 2007, national participation quadrupled and 2012 saw small batches of regional-edition cigars made for countries such as Canada, Switzerland, China and Lebanon.
But where do these limited editions leave the consumer? When faced with the choice between a pricy special smoke, or a tried-and-true brand, it isn't always easy for smokers to open their wallets and take the leap of faith.
"My feelings are mixed," says Nicolas Fauteux, an enthusiast from Quebec who smokes mostly Cuban cigars. "On one hand, it feels like a marketing ploy and I hate being taken for a fool. On the other hand, it does add a lot of variety. All in all, it's hit or miss. Many of Cuba's Edición Limitadas fall short of expectations. But the Cohiba Edición Limitada from 2003 is probably the best cigar I've ever smoked."
When asked if the increased price tag is justified, Fauteux responds: "Only when I like them. It's a gamble, but I accept that, and the pleasure of the chase to find and obtain them is worth the price of admission for me."
This mentality also applies to the non-Cuban cigar market.
"We all want what we can't have," Huber adds of the limited-edition phenomenon. "The other side of that coin, however, is that the expectations are much higher. When you do a limited release, you set the bar higher for yourself to produce something that is above and beyond."
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JONATHAN DREW — NEW YORK, NY, UNITED STATES, — May 8, 2013 1:41pm ET
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