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A Conversation with José Blanco

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

José Blanco, the gregarious sales director for La Aurora, has been with the parent company, Empresa León Jimenes CxA, for decades, but it was only six years ago that he was allowed to follow his love to join its cigar business. The company veteran had spent the bulk of his career in the core beer and cigarette businesses, and as a lifelong smoker was overjoyed to join the oldest cigar company in the Dominican Republic. Senior editor David Savona sat down with the outspoken Blanco in a restaurant in the Dominican Republic for a conversation about Aurora cigars and the state of the U.S. cigar market.
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.
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