An Interview with Ruben Ysidron
Ysidron created the first branded cigar for Savinelli 15 years ago, and the standards have been high ever since.
From the Print Edition:
Jay-Z, May/June 2009
Ruben Ysidron began working for Savinelli Inc. nearly 40 years ago. Born in Tampa, Florida, the son of a cigar roller, Ysidron created the first branded cigar from the Italian company 15 years ago, in conjunction with the Fuente family in the Dominican Republic.
The executive, who is fluent in English, Spanish and Italian, now oversees the creation and sale of Savinelli cigars made in a host of varieties, including the Savinelli Special Selection 2005 Torpedo, one of Cigar Aficionado's Top 25 Cigars of 2008.
Ysidron, 65, recently sat down in Cigar Aficionado's offices for a wide-ranging discussion with senior editor David Savona.
Savona: How did you enter the cigar business?
Ysidron: My dad had two things he did in his lifetime. He was a barber, and he rolled cigars. I'm originally from Tampa. I was born in the same hospital where Carlito Fuente [Carlos Fuente Jr.] was born.
Q: Were you born in Ybor City?
A: Yes. There's a lot of heritage that goes back. And we knew the Fuente family for many years—we'd been friends long before the cigar boom ever took place. And my dad smoked a cigar constantly. He rolled cigars and brought back some cigars from where he was working. So I was always around cigar smoking.
Q: You once told me a funny story about how many cigars your dad smoked.
A: My mom would tell him, 'Richard, you're going to the bathroom—put it down.' That's how much he smoked cigars. He always had a cigar. So I grew up with that. And I moved to New York, and went to school at Fairleigh Dickinson University [in New Jersey]. And at that time I worked for Martin Marietta Corp., worked there for about six years before I started with Savinelli. We were in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, and I headed up Savinelli.
Q: What year was that?
A: 1969. And in the middle '70s, I was contacted by a gentleman named Simon Camacho. We talked about distribution of the Camacho cigar line, and in 1975 we contracted with him to represent Camacho in the United States.
Q: Was that Savinelli's first dealing with cigars?
A: That was our first endeavor in the cigar business. I was interested because of the background I had: my dad was a cigar roller; my grandfather was a cigar roller as well. My grandfather was born in Cuba, and he lived with us, because my grandmother passed away at a young age. And he was a very big influence on my life.
Q: So your grandfather came from Cuba. What kind of name is Ysidron?
A: It's a name from Spain. My other grand- father came from Spain, and my two grandmothers were French. So then we got involved with Simon Camacho, and at the time we represented his three lines of cigars: Camacho, Valencia and Monte Carlo.
Q: And he was making the cigars in Nicaragua at the time?
A: Well, that was part of the problem. Mr. Camacho, based out of Miami, would get on a plane and depending upon where he landed, his next production would come out of that country. It could have been Honduras, it could have been Nicaragua, it could have been Costa Rica. So after we started selling that product line, we started getting resistance from customers. They said they weren't consistent. They were all good, but when you bought the next box, they were different from the first box, because [they were from another country]. So we had enough customers complaining to us about the consistency for us to get out of the cigar business. After two years we said, "This is just not working," and we ended our relationship in 1978. In the middle 1970s, I took a tour of the Fuente factory in Tampa, Florida, with Arturo Fuente Jr., the brother of Carlos Fuente Sr. I saw this gentleman there rolling cigars. And I said, "Hey, Uncle, what are you doing here?" Arturo turns to me and says, "How can he be your uncle? He's my uncle." Turns out, he was married to Arturo's mother's sister, which made him Arturo's uncle. He divorced her and married my mother's sister, which made him my uncle through marriage.
Q: So you're not related to the Fuentes, but you have the same uncle.
Q: That's a bonding experience, for sure.
A: Around '93, I said, "We need to get back into the cigar business," maybe not representing someone, but making our own cigar with the Savinelli name.
Q: And how was that received? Did you have to suggest it?
A: I had to suggest it to the Savinelli family. The Savinelli family was involved for 133 years at that point, in pipes. I said to them, We're going to make a cigar line. So I met with Carlito, and I said, "We want to do a cigar." He said, "Ruben, our production is maxed out."
Q: You went to him first?
A: I went to Carlito first. He said, "I can do something, but you're going to have to wait." I said, "I can wait for the best." I consider them one of the best cigarmakers in the world. Nine months later, we started working on different blends.
Q: What's that process like? Take me through the creation of your first cigar.
A: I sat down with Carlito and his father, and we started talking, first about what kind of cigar do you want, what kind of flavor do you want it to have, and the most important subject was wrapper. They said, "We have this wrapper, and we have that wrapper," and they were quoting me prices per pound. They said, "This wrapper is $10, and this wrapper is $12, and this wrapper is $15, that wrapper is $20." I said, "What's that wrapper?" He said, "Connnecticut [seed tobacco grown in] Connecticut." I said, "That's what I want." I went with Connecticut for the Savinelli ELR [Extremely Limited Reserve].
Q: Once you heard it was the most expensive . . .
A: Once I heard it was the most exclusive, one of the best wrappers out in the marketplace, I said that's what I want the Savinellis to have.
Q: Is that what you talked about with the Savinelli family?
A: No, no. It was basically just talking that we wanted to go into the cigar business—they didn't know about the cigar business. I said, "I think the cigar business is a good diversification for the company." Prior to that we tried to diversify: men's walking sticks, men's wallets.
Q: Did any of those lines work?
A: Some of them worked, most of them didn't work. I said, [Cigars are the] perfect diversification for the company. It took a little convincing.
Q: What was it like working on the cigar?
A: We put 10 blends together. The 11th one was the magic one. I was [originally] there 10 days. We came away with three or four blends. I said, "This really isn't what I want," and they made some more blends. One day, Carlito called me up and said, "You have a definite thing in mind for what you want—this is blend No. 9 and you still haven't found what you want."
Q: You were being picky.
A: Yes. And the 11th one, when I smoked it, I said, "This is it. This is the one."
Q: What was it about that one?
A: It was the way that it smoked, the way that it burned. The taste of the cigar wasn't overpowering. The key to me was, it was a cigar I could smoke one, two, three without having any problems about I've smoked too much. We're still doing the cigar today 15 years later—the wrapper today is still as beautiful, if not more beautiful.
Q: Is it still the same?
A: It has not changed. It was launched in '94. We got a 91 from Cigar Aficionado.
Q: And you put "Made by Tabacalera A.
Fuente" on the box.
A: I sat down with them, and I said, "This is going to be a Savinelli cigar, but I'm very proud that it's made by the Fuentes. I'd be very happy to put your name on the box."
Q: It's a selling point.
A: It made me feel very good. Fuente at the time was already making cigars for other people without their name.
Q: You never were able to get a ton of the ELRs, right?
A: There wasn't sufficient production for us to sell to everyone. We had to select the dealers where we could place the cigar. Unfortunately, some of the dealers who weren't selected never forgot. So today, there are some retailers who have said, "When we wanted it, you wouldn't give it to us. Now that you're coming out with other cigars, we're not sure we want it." We couldn't pick everyone.
Q: What was your second cigar brand?
A: It was the [Savinelli] Oro, from La Aurora, which never really got legs behind it. And I decided after a while, maybe it was time to do something with Nicaraguan cigars. I met this guy from Estelí Cigars.
Q: Kiki Berger?
A: Yes. Kiki said, "I can make a cigar for you." I went down there, we started working on the [Savinelli] Nicaragua Reserve. Kiki started making it, and then he got very ill. We pulled the line away because I couldn't be down there for four weeks [at a time], and that's what it was taking. We gave it to Tabacos Puros [de Nicaragua, a company now known as Joya de Nicaragua S.A.]. They made the Nic Reserve for us.They made a good cigar and we were happy with it. We then added the Liga Especial, which was also made by Tabacos Puros. We stayed with them awhile, and contacted the Oliva Cigar Co., which started making a line of cigars for us that we called the Special Selection. The 2004 and 2005 were made by the Olivas. They made the 2004, we loved it, and then they made the 2005.
Q: Tell me about the years on those cigars.
A: It's about the wrapper and some of the crops they used in those cigars. The Special Selection started out with tobacco that some of these larger manufacturers had that was very good, but they didn't have enough tobacco for it to become a regular ongoing line. I said, "Hey, we change our Special Selection every year or two—these tobaccos are good for us."
Q: Almost like a vintage wine.
A: Yes. So we did that, and we've been doing that. We pulled away from Tabacos Puros about a year ago, after they entered a contract with Drew Estate. Their business changed, and everything going into the United States had to go through Drew Estate and prices were going to go up. We had a long conversation; I said, "No hard feelings," even though we didn't move forward with them. We started doing some more Nicaraguan cigars, and the latest is probably the strongest one that we have, the Series Y RyR. We're moving in a cigar direction obviously, and I think there's more room for expansion there. [Nestor] Plasencia is now making the Nicaraguan Reserve for us.
Q: Can you take us through all Savinelli's cigar brands?
A: You have the ELR, in natural and maduro, which is made by Fuente. We have the Nicaraguan Reserve, that's now being made by Plasencia. We have the Special Selection 2005, which is made by Oliva, and the Liga Especial, which is made by Oliva. And the RyR, we took a section of the Estelí Cigar factory and that's making RyR.
Q: So you're making more cigars now than you ever have.
Q: How many cigars a year are you selling now?
A: Somewhere between 600,000 and 700,000 total. There's a new blend we're working on now.
Q: Is there one thing that unifies the Savinelli brands? A house style?
A: It's a boutique brand. We pride ourselves on our quality of products. That's what we try to do—keep our standards high. Times change. Tastes are changing in cigars. People like a stronger cigar now. Nicaragua is, I think, one of the most favored countries now. I haven't done a cigar in Honduras, but I'm thinking about doing a Honduran cigar in the future; that way we'll have another country represented. Nestor wants to do one for us, and he is making great cigars. I think they have the capability of making it.
Q: You now have a lot of different cigars—you've been around for some time.
A: It's interesting what's transpired—there's been a lot of cigar companies that have come and gone in the 15 years we've been selling ELRs. We're very proud of the fact that we're still in the game.
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