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A Conversation with José Blanco

The gregarious sales director for La Aurora speaks about the cigar industry.

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David Savona: Let's talk about your history with the company. How long have you been with Empresa León Jimenes?
José Blanco: Twenty-four years.
Q: But cigars are somewhat of a recent thing for you, right?
A: Six years. But smoking for 40.
Q: Now, who taught you to smoke cigars?
A: My father. My father grew tobacco, and Jochi, my cousin, his father has an old factory, so in the summers we would go out there and learn how to sort [tobacco]. I had my first cigar at 15, but really I started to smoke at 16. And rarely did I ever smoke cigarettes, as it was always cigars.
Q: Were you born here in the Dominican Republic?
A: My father was a political exile for 29 years, out of the 31 that [Rafael] Trujillo was in power. When Trujillo was killed in 1961, my father was able to come back in 1962 after the dictator was dead.
Q: And you came back here from….
A: Great Neck, Long Island [in New York].
Q: You may be the only guy from Long Island making cigars. How did you get with León Jimenes? What did you start doing?
A: I started as a salesman in 1981. And in '85 I became a supervisor, then in 1990 I became a sales coordinator, then in 1992, manager of promotion and public relations, and in 1995, sales manager for beer and cigarettes in the northeast part of the Dominican Republic.
Q: You were involved in beer all that time?
A: Beer and cigarettes. But the smoking panel would send me cigars.
Q: So you played a role with cigars, but not officially.
A: Yes, and sometimes they didn't like what I had to say.
Q: What year did you start in the cigar segment?
A: 1999.
Q: Tough year for cigars. Is that one of the reasons you were brought on? What led to that?
A: I was very passionate about it. I had my two cents always to say. When they made me the offer, it was [the chance] to get paid for something I really like a lot.
Q: Not many cigar companies were doing great in 1999. Cigar sales weren't so great, right?
A: We were down eight million cigars.
Q: Now this was before 100 Años, of course. Was this before Preferidos?
A: Right when Preferidos was coming out.
Q: Tell me about the early days in the cigar business. It must have been quite a challenge, going from the beer segment where your company has 90-plus percent of the market, to going to the cigar segment where you had….
A: Nothing. Even though I had been smoking cigars for many years, it was basically Dominicans and, on and off, Cubans. But it wasn't until I really went out, saw the stores, and a lot of store owners that were real nice to me gave me cigars to smoke, that I really started to appreciate tobacco, especially from Nicaragua, Honduras, Ecuador. I started to catch up. And one of the things that I said was, in our factory, we were very accustomed to smoking only Connecticut, Cameroon and everything that was Dominican. There was a big horizon in the tobacco world. I'm a great believer of blending. I don't care how good a cigar is, if it's good and it's one-dimensional, to me it's just a good, boring smoke. I like cigars that are complex and change a lot.
Q: So you're talking about blending a variety of countries?
A: That's right. Just take 1495. We have a Sumatra Ecuador wrapper, a Corojo [Dominican] binder, Corojo ligero, Nicaragua, piloto Cubano and Peruvian ligero. We're working with six types of leaves.
Q: So before you started, Aurora worked with Dominican, Cameroon and Connecticut.
A: That's it.
Q: So you said, "We have to expand our horizons."
A: I definitely was very impressed with the flavor of tobacco from Nicaragua. I think a blend of tobacco with a leaf of Nicaragua—it makes a big difference.
Q: Was the company growing its own Dominican wrapper at this time?
A: They were in the works of the Corojo wrapper, growing that first crop, which was '99, 2000. I like Corojo a lot, too. I'm a big fan of Corojo.
Q: What was the first cigar success you remember for La Aurora?
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