A lot has changed in the last 25 years—especially in the premium cigar business. And Cigar Aficionado magazine played no small part. Twenty-five years ago, this vibrant and diverse hobby was almost on the brink of extinction—little to no innovation, limited tobacco varieties, stagnant or declining sales and low morale from every aspect of the industry. Then things started to improve.
Three key players in the industry took the stage Saturday morning to talk about the changes they’ve seen over the last two and a half decades. John Oliva Jr. of Oliva Tobacco Co., Ernesto Perez-Carrillo of EPC Cigar Co., and Craig Cass, owner of the Tinder Box of the Carolinas retail stores. Together, these three represented each aspect of the industry: tobacco grower, cigar maker and cigar retailer.
Cigar Aficionado executive editor David Savona, who had been emceeing the entire Big Smoke Saturday Seminars, introduced them. The panel was co-hosted by senior contributing editor Gordon Mott, who has been with Cigar Aficionado magazine since the beginning.
“Marvin Shanken had come back from a trip to Cuba and that’s when he called all the senior executives to a boardroom meeting,” Mott recalled. “He asked what they thought about the idea of a cigar magazine. The answer was unanimous: they thought it was a stupid, crazy idea. But Marvin didn’t care. He wanted to do it anyway.”
This, of course created the spark for the cigar boom, a period of rapid, explosive growth in the industry that spanned from the time Cigar Aficionado was born to the late 1990s. Cigar smoking was back in. It was not only fashionable, but the activity gained status as an upscale and high-minded hobby with as much sophistication as wine.
“In 1992, we were growing candela wrapper, Connecticut and very little Sumatra,” Oliva said. He is the third generation in a family of tobacco growers that started with his grandfather Angel Oliva. The wrappers his family grew—green candela and golden-yellow Connecticut—were for mild cigars, many of them made by machine. “The concept of a premium cigar as it exists today,” Oliva said, “wasn’t really around.”
As tastes became more sophisticated, his family started to grow Cuban-seed tobaccos, and today, Oliva Tobacco specializes in Ecuador Habano, a versatile Cuban-seed wrapper that can elevate almost any blend of tobacco. “In 1992, we grew 60 percent candela,” he said. “Today it’s only five percent.”
Perez-Carrillo started making cigars in Miami in the 1970s, working alongside his father and rolling such brands as El Rico Habano and, later, La Gloria Cubana.
“Back in the ‘80s, I could only afford to buy one or two bales of tobacco at a time,” Perez-Carrillo said. “Then came the magazine and a high rating for the [La Gloria Cubana] Wavell and I was buying entire containers. Cigar Aficionado came around and suddenly, it’s OK to smoke. I never saw growth like this since I was in the industry.”
Perez-Carrillo recalled a story where he left the family business for a while to become a jazz drummer in New York City. His father contemplated selling the business, but at the last minute, the young Perez-Carrillo came back to Miami.
“Royal Jamaica wanted to buy us for $125,000,” he said. “At the time, that was a lot of money. But I made the decision to stay with the family business.”
It was a smart move. Eventually, after the high rating in Cigar Aficionado and the growth of the La Gloria Cubana brand, Perez-Carrillo was able to sell his brand to General Cigar for millions of dollars.
One retailer who sold La Gloria Cubana was Cass at his Tinder Box stores. He recalled what it was like selling cigars twenty-five years ago: “There was a lot of brand loyalty back in ’92. There isn’t much loyalty today. People come in looking for suggestions. They might get two or three cigars from a variety across 34 or 35 different flavor profiles.”
Cass also points to the evolution of in-store cigar events.
“In the old days, the event was all about the sale right there and then. Nothing else mattered. Now, when cigarmakers come into my store, they talk to customers and you hear about their stories and passion. The industry is very giving and they want you to be satisfied.”
Perez-Carrillo, who not only made cigars in Miami, but sold them in a storefront, echoed the sentiment. “In 1992, customers would come in, buy a cigar and leave. After the magazine, it created consumer interest in the industry as a whole.”
One question came from the audience asking about the role of women consumers in the world of cigars.
“There have been cigars marketed to women as a ‘woman’s cigar,’” offered Mott. “Over the last 25 years, I’ve seen that women don’t want a cigar made for women. They just want a great smoke.”
Another question dealt with the possibility of Cuba opening up and how it would affect the industry.
“I’d love a shot at growing tobacco in Cuba,” said Oliva Jr.
“The future now is in providing comfortable places to smoke,” said Cass of retail. “But if Cuba opened up, we’d love it. It would be another choice for consumers to taste.”
Perez-Carrillo concurs that the change would be a positive one: “In the next 25 years, if Cuban opens up, it will generate a lot of interest in the cigar industry. People used to say that if Cubans were available, it would put the rest of the cigar industry out of business, but that’s not the case. The industry is very strong now as it is.”
Savona said the cigars of Cuba already compete with non-Cubans, and the non-Cubans do well. “We’re not just smoking the non-Cuban cigar of the year,” he said, holding up his Andalusian Bull, “We’re smoking the cigar of the year.”
With a healthy amount of applause, the panel bid farewell to the crowd and stepped off the stage. It was time for the traditional Big Smoke lunch, which was hosted by Drew Estate.