Owner, Holt's Cigar Store, Inc., and the Ashton Brand
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Levin: We started slowly. We began dealing with Europe in 1988. Initially, there were a lot of taxes and duties on Dominican cigars. They finally passed a law which lowered the duties off of Dominican cigars so they became very competitive, and the sales took off in Europe.
CA: In 1996, what will Ashton's sales be worldwide?
Levin: Worldwide, 2.5 million to 3 million cigars.
CA: And how much of that will be in Europe?
Levin: Unfortunately, because of the market in the U.S., Europe maybe will only get 200,000.
CA: So in 1996, you hope to sell about 2.8 million cigars in the United States versus 1.7 in 1995. That's up over 1 million cigars in one year.
CA: You're up over 1 million cigars. And what is your back-order situation right now?
Levin: About 3 million cigars.
CA: Your back orders equal about one year's sales.
CA: How many retailers across America sell Ashton?
Levin: We have about 800 accounts now.
CA: Of the 200,000 to 300,000 you sell in Europe, what is your largest market there?
Levin: The largest market for non-Cuban cigars is Germany. But demand in the other countries is starting to build. We just can't get them any product. I can't open up any new markets--we can't get cigars.
CA: Does Germany represent one-half or more of your European business?
Levin: More than three-quarters of it.
CA: Do you spend any time in Germany?
Levin: I used to go there a couple of times a year; I don't go anymore.
CA: What do you think has created the extraordinary demand for Ashton?
Levin: When I first started out with Ashton, I really wanted the best-quality cigar that anybody could manufacture. I knew I wanted Connecticut shade wrapper, but I also wanted it to be a little more full-bodied than other brands that were very popular. I wanted the brand to have some taste and body. From the beginning, I've pushed to maintain the quality. Ashton is a particularly consistent cigar and we've always tried to maintain a really high standard. As a result, over the years, people know what they are going to get when they buy an Ashton.
CA: What is the composition or the origin of each of the components of the blend?
Levin: A Connecticut shade wrapper. The binder and the four different tobaccos in the filler are from the Dominican Republic.
CA: They are all Dominican...
Levin: All Dominican Republic.
CA: Ashton is the main front mark, but you also have some additional labels? When did you start them?
Levin: There is the Ashton Cabinet, which we started in about 1988 at Fuente. The Fuentes were making their Hemingways and when I was in a factory one day, I just asked them, "Would you make Hemingways with the Connecticut shade wrapper for Ashton?" Carlos Jr. said he'd do it. We worked on the blend with the beautiful Connecticut shade wrapper. We came out with three sizes, three of the shaped sizes. We had three shapes for a long time and this year we introduced three other shapes, all larger ring gauge, regular-shaped cigars, not perfectos.
CA: What do you see as the future for Ashton? Is there any talk of a Dominican wrapper on Ashton, i.e, a Chateau Fuente wrapper?
Levin: Yes. We were supposed to come out with that two years ago, and it was going to be called Ashton Crown. As a matter of fact, the packaging and the bands have been sitting there aging along with the tobacco for about two years now. But the demand for Fuente Fuente Opus X and their limitations on the production have made it impossible to introduce Ashton Crown. Maybe next year.
CA: Is there a certain amount of cigars aging right now, held for you with your blend and an Opus X wrapper?
Levin: No. Not yet.
CA: Is it something you continue to talk about?
Levin: Yes and no. We talked about it two years ago. They have about four years' worth of crops that have been aging and fermenting. But the demand for Fuente Fuente Opus X and as you know, the limits on their production of Opus X, made it impossible to introduce Ashton Crown.
CA: So, in the next two or three years, there could be an Ashton Crown.
Levin: There's going to be an Ashton Crown.