A Conversation with José Blanco

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

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Q: What was the first cigar success you remember for La Aurora?
A: It was first the Preferido, then the Preferido tube. It's always on back order. A roller can make 400 robustos a day. With a Preferido it's only 125 to 135 on a good day—if the hangover is not too big. (Laughs.)
Q: Let's talk about your biggest hit, the Aurora 100 Años.
A: The funny thing is, the first day I came to work at La Aurora, the first thing I told Guillermo [León, vice president of La Aurora S.A.] was that we have to start to work with the 100 Años project. Already some filler and binder had been put aside, on the order of Don Fernando [León, the patriarch of the León family business]. They started putting away 40, 50, 60 bales, some of their best fillers each year at that time. That's the way we did it. Actually, we made 40 blends to get that blend. And it came down to two. And I think the one we didn't do, a lot of full-bodied cigar smokers would appreciate.
Q: But 100 Años isn't weak. Are you going to do something with that other blend?
A: We might.
Q: Why four shapes?
A: I think, with shelf space now, you can't go more than five sizes. Now when you ask people to take your cigar, sometimes they say, I'll take it, but what do I take out? A lot of our projects now are four sizes. I don't think now you need more than four or five sizes. We're going to commit to those 400,000-plus cigars in the States. We still have '06, and maybe a little bit '07, but when they're gone, they're gone.
Q: But that blend is so good, you should do something with it after the cigars are gone.
A: Well, that's another thing. Maybe down the road we could come up with something. But with the 100 Años name, or box, or numbers, that will never be done again. It's a one-time deal.
Q: You're very opinionated about the U.S. cigar market. What do you think of the market today, and where we stand?
A: Cigars, in the last three years, everybody is making better cigars. The consumer of today, nine out of 10 going into the store, they like what they see. In 1997, 1998, maybe four out of 10 liked what they got. That's why you're seeing a lot more people coming back and smoking cigars, and youngsters, people who are 24, 25, 26. Sales are going up.
Q: What is the difference between the cigar market now, which is growing at a very good rate, maybe 8 percent annually, and the cigar boom?
A: '97, '98, 10 people would go into a cigar store, eight people would come out unsatisfied. They were buying $10 cigars that weren't worth $1.
Q: What is happening now that is keeping the sins of the past from happening again?
A: Even the new players are making something unique. They're trying to get a different shape, a different wrapper. They are making things that are not common. Unless you're a big company, there's no way that on a Cameroon wrapper or a Connecticut wrapper, you're going to make it. There has to be a story, there has to be romance behind it. A lot of store owners say they want new things, but from old companies.
Q: So what are we going through right now? A boom? A mini-boom?
A: I don't even want to mention the word "boom," to jinx it. I think consumers are appreciating the good cigars that are coming out in the industry. And I do have to give credit to a lot of retailers. There are a lot of retailers out there who are doing great jobs.
Q: What does a cigar company today have to do that's different from five or six years ago? What do you do now that wasn't part of the business before?
A: Before, you could have anybody go out and take orders for cigars. During the boom days, there were order takers. Today, there are people going out there to sell.
Q: Let's talk about this cigar that we're smoking now, the 1495. You said this is your baby.
A: I took a very old Sumatra Ecuador wrapper we had for a project that didn't go through. Because of the yield on Corojo, we had a lot of wrapper we couldn't use. So I took an Ecuador wrapper, put a Corojo binder on it, and put different leaves, and on the third blend we got it right away. A lot of people said it's one of the best cigars we have done, and it was a big hit at the [Retail Tobacco Dealers of America] show. People didn't even ask price.
Q: It hasn't always been like that for La Aurora.
A: Never. Not even for 100 Años. It really went through the roof after the rating. [The 100 Años Belicoso was rated 93 by Cigar Aficionado in 2004 and was named the magazine's No. 2 cigar of the year.] But this one, I think it has a lot to do with the wrapper, and a lot of people are starting to enjoy Peruvian ligero.
Q: The Peruvian is stuff you bought when you were short of tobacco?
A: Yes, just to have it there.
Q: It's good. José Seijas [of Altadis U.S.A.] uses Peruvian, too. What do you think it adds to a blend?
A: To me, it adds a lot of flavor. It has body. It's a different type of tobacco. I'm a firm believer that the soil does everything. You have to have a good seed, but the soil is the main thing. These six types of tobacco [in the 1495], they all harmonize. Sometimes you take two good leaves and you don't get anything out of them. It's not appealing. But with these six they blend very well. I think it's a medium- to full-bodied, but totally different smoke.
Cigars today are more complex than before. Everybody's working harder. But you only get good cigars with good, old tobacco. There's no such thing as good, young tobacco.
Q: How many cigars do you make?
A: We do cigars for C.A.O., for Savinelli, for Miami Cigar, we have private labels in Europe. We should be around, big and small cigars, this year 19 million cigars.
Q: And if we only talked about large cigars?
A: Around seven million this year.
Q: How does that compare with 1997?
A: It was more than that [in 1997], but the product we're making now is totally different than what we were making before. We were just down to piloto Cubano, San Vicente, Connecticut and Cameroon. Now we have wrappers from Ecuador, we have wrappers from Brazil, we have wrappers from Nicaragua. We're growing Corojo.
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