Cigar Industry

2018 Big Smoke Las Vegas: Cult Cigars

Nov 15, 2018 | By Andrew Nagy
2018 Big Smoke Las Vegas: Cult Cigars
Photos/Jacob Kepler
The panel on Cult Cigars featured Kyle Gellis of Warped Cigars, Dion Giolito of Illusione Cigars, and Pete Johnson of Tatuaje Cigars.

Depending on its connotation, the word “cult” may cause the hairs on your neck to spring up. In recent times, though, pop culture has adopted the word to define people who share a passionate interest in a personality or object that deviates from the norm such as cult films, television and games.

As senior editor Gregory Mottola explained to the sold out Big Smoke Saturday Seminars crowd, cult cigar brands also exist. “Like the movies, their cigars are subversive and challenge social norms,” said Mottola, adding that cult cigar brands are often defined by their creativity and rabid fan base.

Joining Mottola on stage for the final Saturday seminar before lunch were the owners of three such cult cigar brands: Kyle Gellis of Warped Cigars, Dion Giolito of Illusione Cigars, and Pete Johnson of Tatuaje Cigars.

Pete Johnson, far right, has grown a loyal following with his Tatuaje brand, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year.
Pete Johnson, far right, has grown a loyal following with his Tatuaje brand, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year.

Mottola began the discussion by asking the panel how they came about choosing the names for their brands. According to Johnson, Carlito Fuente (the creator of another cult cigar, Fuente Fuente OpusX) gave him the nickname “Tattoo Pete,” a reference to the ink that covers both of Johnson’s forearms. “I was such a super fan of Opus X, that I actually have an Opus X tattoo on my arm,” Johnson said.

So Johnson asked a friend what the Spanish word for tattoo was, and thus the Tatuaje brand was born. The cigar industry, however, didn’t exactly embrace the name from the start, as many retailers found it hard to pronounce. “I can’t pronounce the name, and the cigar is too expensive, and I don’t like the sizes,” said Johnson, describing early retailer feedback. “Originally the retailers thought it was Hawaiian. I made one of the stupidest decisions of my life calling it Tatuaje. Then I came out with a cigar called Cabaiguan, and no one could pronounce that either. So I think I keep going after the unpronounceable names.”

Johnson’s Tatuaje brand, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary, has grown a loyal following who go to great lengths to get their hands on his cigars, be they his Cabinet line (a.k.a. “brown label), Havana VI Verocú, La Vérité, or his immensely popular Monster Series. “I had no idea that the brand would take off the way it did,” Johnson said.

Dion Giolito, center right, draws on conspiracy theories as the inspiration for his Illusione Cigars brand.
Dion Giolito, center right, draws on conspiracy theories as the inspiration for his Illusione Cigars brand.

For Giolito, the story was a little different. A fan of the campy side of conspiracy theories, Giolito wanted a name that reflected his love of UFOs, secret CIA programs and secret societies.

“So I look at the word ‘illusion’ and start to think that there’s always something behind the scenes,” he said. “I was trying to think of something that was something counterculture. And I saw that if I put an ‘e’ on it, Illusione sounds much more European.” Needless to say, the move has struck a chord with cigar fans, as Giolito’s Illusione cigars have appeared on the Cigar Aficionado Top 25 a total of seven times.

Gellis, who was the youngest of the speakers, found inspiration for his Warped brand in an entirely different industry: paintball. Before starting Warped Cigars, Gellis established Warped the paintball company. While his paintball career didn’t pan out, Gellis simply transferred the name when he jumped over to the cigar industry.

Kyle Gellis of Warped Cigars once established a paintball company under the same name.
Kyle Gellis of Warped Cigars once established a paintball company under the same name.

Like Johnson and Giolito, Gellis’ fans sometimes go the extra mile to track down his cigars, which include Futuro, Flor de Valle and Maestro del Tiempo. Earlier this year, a customer wanted to smoke his new limited-edition Moon Garden, but couldn’t track one down at retail.

“French Laundry was the only place that still had a box,” Gellis said, referring to the famously expensive Thomas Keller restaurant located in Napa Valley, California. “So he booked a flight, received a table and got his hand after paying about $125 for a stick.” 

All three panelists agreed that, while they may have creative lulls, their well of ideas don’t seem to be drying up anytime soon. And for the cigar smokers who adore these brands, that’s music to their ears.

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  • The Big Smoke Returns to Las Vegas November 15-17, 2019
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Click here for more information on the 2019 Big Smokes.

Big Smoke Evenings

2018 Big Smoke Las Vegas Evenings

Saturday Seminars

Top Three Cigars of 2017

The New King—Nicaragua

Talking Cuban Cigars With Fernando Domínguez

Lunch With Micallef Cigar

Sunday Seminars

Cigar Lover’s Breakfast

Roll Your Own Cigar

Pairing Bacardi Rums With Fine Cigars

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