One might expect Cuban-born Rafael Nodal, owner of Boutique Blends Cigars and the Aging Room brand, to have familial ties to tobacco and cigars, but he doesn’t. When he fled Cuba as a teenager on the infamous Mariel boatlift, cigars were the last things on his mind. Once he reached the United Sates, musical ambitions and an unshakable work ethic brought Nodal to the cigar world, but his early efforts found little success and it was a struggle for him to stay in the business. After re-evaluating his entire philosophy, Nodal has landed a series of favorable ratings, and his Aging Room Quattro F55 Concerto has been named the No. 2 cigar of 2013.
Cigar Aficionado senior editor Gregory Mottola recently caught up with the 49-year-old Nodal to discuss the pitfalls of the cigar business, what he’s learned and how his new vision is paying off.
Mottola: Where did you grow up?
Nodal: I was born in 1964 in a small town called Ciego de Avila, right in Camaguey, Cuba. I lived there until I was 16.
Q: Did you smoke cigars or work with tobacco?
A: No. The area was known for citrus, not tobacco.
Q: What was it like going to school in Cuba?
A: I remember every day from the first grade to the 10th we had something called “revolutionary hour.” It was a daily indoctrination about the wonders of the Cuban revolution and there was always a counterpoint addressing the imperialistic Yankees and how we had to prepare every day for an invasion by the Americans. There were lots of drills and places to hide. Instead of fire drills like they have today, we had military drills. But the language in revolutionary hour was always based on how the new system was helping children get free education and healthcare, and how advanced Cuba was when compared to the rest of the world.
Q: What did you think of that?
A: I was always inquisitive. You always heard stories about how things were before the revolution. I’d ask questions—before-and-after type questions—trying to make my own comparisons—and was always told to shut up. The way I was taught, Cuba was in constant movement and evolution. First was feudalism, then capitalism, imperialism, socialism, and now communism. By my thinking, something had to come next. So when I’d ask, “What comes next?” they told me that just posing the question in the first place is a counter-revolutionary thought. Just bringing it up could get you in trouble.
Q: When did you eventually leave Cuba?
A: In 1980. I left with my parents and younger sister on the Mariel boatlift. My older sister came years later.
Q: What prompted the desire to leave?
A: My father no longer felt that Cuba was a good place to raise a family and that there were not enough freedoms. We were always in survival mode and constantly worrying about food and clothes, but we could put up with that hardship. For my father, it was about freedom.
Q: What was the process for expatriating? I imagine that you couldn’t just show up at the pier and get on the boat.
A: Just wanting to leave the country in and of itself was considered an act of aggression against the state and made you suspect. We were bussed to an encampment and stayed there for a week. Then we went to another encampment and had to remain there for another five days.
Q: How was the boat?
A: It was a 50-foot-long shrimping boat and they put about 300 people on it. About 20 of them were friends and family members. The rest were from prison and mental institutions. Normally, it takes about 12 hours to get from Cuba to Florida by boat, but we were hit with storms, so it took four days. The first thing I got [when reaching Key West] was a Coca-Cola and an apple, which I had never seen before. There were no apples in Cuba, and I had never had a Coke. I still drink it to this day and love it. We stayed in Miami for a week and then headed up to New York City. I lived in the Bronx and went to JFK High School.
Q: You studied music in the U.S. right?
A: I had been playing violin since I was six years old and continued to play in high school and with a youth orchestra. I stayed in New York until 1983 and then went back to Miami where I continued to study music and play the violin.
Q: What were you doing before you entered the cigar business?
A: I was an associate director of finance at a Florida hospital and continued in health care until I became executive director of a national psychiatric company. That’s where I met Hank Bischoff [now a partner in Boutique Blends]. He was a mental health therapist who was interested in Cuban culture. At the same time I hired a psychiatrist as my medical director—she’s now my wife, Dr. Alina Cordoves Nodal. Alina is originally from San Juan, Pinar del Río in Cuba and her family has been in the tobacco business for two generations. Her father used to distribute La Aurora cigars in Tampa before Miami Cigar & Co. took over the brand’s national distribution.
Q: How were you introduced to cigars?
A: Hank and I had lunch with Nick Perdomo in Little Havana. Nick had a shop and a factory in Little Havana. I was given a cigar, La Tradicion. I liked it a lot.
Q: How did you get into the business?
A: Hank and I started a website in 1998 selling cigars. We sold mostly cigars from small Miami-based manufacturers: La Gloria Cubana, Puros Indios, Bohio (now Gran Habano), Don Sixto, Escudo Cubano and a brand called Oliveros. Oliveros didn’t belong to us back then, but we were Oliveros’ main distributor. Shortly after, Hank and I became consultants to Oliveros’ parent company the Habana Cuba Cigar Co. Due to family problems, the owners got out of the business and in 2002, Hank, Alina and I took it over.
Q: Are you the sole owner of the company?
A: No. Hank and Alina are my partners. I would not have been able to do anything without them.
Q: When you acquired the Habana Cuba Cigar Co., what did the Oliveros brand portfolio consist of?
A: Mostly flavored cigars. There was also an Oliveros Classic from the Dominican Republic and Oliveros Gran Reserva made by Perdomo [which were unflavored]. Once we bought the brand we cancelled the website and concentrated on Oliveros’ distribution. But we were transitioning to premium cigars and looking to create sub-brands under the Oliveros name.
Q: Were flavored cigars profitable for you?
A: They were too expensive. That’s an entirely different business. We weren’t making them by machine, but making our flavored cigars more like premium cigars—handmade with good tobacco.
Q: What was the first premium cigar you released after you bought Oliveros?
A: It was called Habana Premier Selection and we had it made in Nicaragua by Perdomo. It was the first release outside of the Oliveros brand. The Oliveros lines were being made in Santiago, Dominican Republic.
Q: In 2005, you released a very thick line of cigars called XL For Men. This was before the current trend of thick ring gauges, but the brand was discontinued. What happened?
A: XL For Men was not a successful line. I designed it to appeal to new smokers, gave it a great multi-country blend and had it made in big ring gauges. But we did everything wrong. We had consistency issues in the manufacturing and we didn’t market it properly. We should have marketed it as a niche product. At the time, cigars rarely went to 60 ring. Now, it’s normal. We may have been ahead of our time with the ring gauges, but we didn’t have the necessary knowledge to execute it properly.
Q: What was your next major project?
A: It was called King Havano. We wanted to concentrate on Nicaragua and have a Nicaraguan puro so we developed King Havano with the Plasencias. It had a good start, but we were still perceived as a flavored cigar brand. Plus, it became difficult to get as much of the Nicaraguan tobacco that we needed. People liked it, but again, we did not target our audience and we sold it to both the catalogs as well as the brick-and-mortar tobacconists.
Q: What was the production?
A: About 300,000 [units]. That was the largest premium production we had so far and the first brand we were able to sell in Europe. There’s a lot more to this than just making a good product, particularly in consistency and distribution. I didn’t fully understand the industry and all its different facets.
Q: What came next?
A: We had some new blends but we couldn’t put them out on the market because of where we were as a company. I worked hard but wasn’t getting anywhere. I think that’s when we hit bottom. It was very difficult for us. We tried to make blends with complexity but we were also trying to make blends for every type of consumer. It was hard to reach the consumer, and we had a diluted vision ourselves. We were trying to reach too many segments, going after both the younger smokers with mild cigars and at the same time trying to compete with the big international companies. Plus, our flavored cigars were too expensive for that segment of the market, which wanted a value-oriented product. We didn’t do enough to separate between brick-and-mortar products and catalog cigars nor did we have the right distribution channels to stay competitive. We misread the industry. We were doing worse and worse and made every mistake that you could make. Transitioning to a premium company created confusion, to say the least.
Q: At one time, you used sex as a marketing tool using scantily clad models in your ads. Have you moved away from that?
A: This was another one of our errors and a misunderstanding of the market. It’s difficult to be taken seriously when you use that kind of marketing.
Q: Did you consider leaving the cigar world?
A: Never. Success was eluding me, and my personal life suffered, but I’m very hard headed. We sat down and looked at what we were doing and came to the conclusion that we all love the industry.
Q: How did you change your strategy? Did you have a change in philosophy?
A: We thought that big companies were not paying attention to boutique-style blends—small-batch cigars that have unique character. So we shifted focus to small batches. The first time we implemented this new approach was with a brand called Swag. It was made at Tabacalera La Palma [in Dominican Republic] owned by José “Jochi” Blanco and it was the first time we did anything with him.
Q: How did the relationship between you and Jochi start?
A: We had just met in the industry and were friendly. Then Hank and I met with Jochi and discussed the idea of a small-batch cigar with controlled production. Jochi showed us the tobacco he had accumulated over the years of growing. It was perfect because he had lots of distinct tobacco, but in small amounts, so he wasn’t using it for anything.
Q: What was the blend for Swag?
A: We settled on a blend and as it turned out, there wasn’t enough tobacco for the production I wanted, so we put that blend aside and Swag ended up being a Dominican puro using Cuban-seed tobaccos all grown on Jochi’s farms.
Q: Was it well received?
A: Yes. The consumers really liked it. Certainly much more than anything we had put out before. And it rated very well.
Q: At this time your company was still called the Habana Cuba Cigar Co.?
A: Yes. Swag was part of our more boutique concept but we hadn’t changed our company name yet. It was one part of the puzzle that we were putting into place. Afterward, we decided to revisit the original Swag blend and out of that we created the Aging Room Small Batch M356 in 2011. It was a very small production, even smaller than Swag, and it was an all-
Dominican blend of tobaccos that came from the same farm—a single-estate blend. Like Swag, it was also made up of Cuban-seed Dominican tobaccos, but Swag’s tobacco comes from a few different farms. Aging Room’s tobacco is also aged longer and the proportions are formulated very differently making it a little bit stronger, but a lot more complex. Aging Room is also made at Tabacalera La Palma.
Q: Is that when you changed the company name?
A: Yes. Boutique Blends is not only the new name of our company, it is also a reflection of our new philosophy. Now, we are no longer trying to make cigars for everyone, but introducing new blends for educated consumers. The idea is to continuously use rare tobaccos that Jochi has accumulated and archived.
Q: Your Aging Room Small Batch M356 scored very well when it first came out and even earned a spot on Cigar Aficionado’s top 25 list in 2011. Would you consider that a turning point for you and your brands?
A: Without a doubt. Immediately at the release everyone liked it. People kept coming back and reordering it. The response was overwhelming and told me a couple of things. Firstly, it told us that our new focus was the correct one and secondly that we shouldn’t make a cigar for everyone.
Q: But you knew from the beginning that you couldn’t make the Aging Room Small Batch M356 blend forever. Aren’t the tobaccos limited?
A: That’s right. By the time we came out with M356, we already had at least five more Small Batch blends we were experimenting with for the next release. The next project ended up being the F55. We had already begun selling the M356 in Europe and my German distributor had this Sumatra wrapper grown in Indonesia intended for the German market. He wasn’t using any of it and was happy to sell it to me.
Q: What made you think you could find a use for that tobacco?
A: It was seven years old at the time. I had to try it and wanted to mix it with Dominican tobacco. We ended up with a production run of the Aging Room Small Batch F55. It has the Sumatra wrapper around only Dominican tobacco, but contains less ligero than the M356.
Q: Was it a success?
A: Immediately. Even more so than the M356. First we got very good ratings in Cigar Insider, and then went on to be the No. 2 cigar in Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 list for 2013, but even before that happened I acquired the rest of the Sumatra wrapper from Germany. I first figured that the F55 would be out of production by the Spring of 2014, but we were fortunate to have bought enough wrapper to make it go a little longer.
Q: How did receiving an accolade like the No. 2 cigar of the year change the company?
A: It had a tremendous affect. It gave us a lot of brand awareness and demand increased. This only confirmed that we moved in the right direction with Boutique Blends.
Q: With the tobaccos limited and the demand high, isn’t there a temptation to continue producing the brand with different tobaccos once the original stock runs out and hoping that no one notices?
A: No. These brands have been successful because they’re limited and finite. The business model only works if we continue to release small, limited batches.
Q: How much longer will the M356 be around?
A: We’re coming to its conclusion. The last production will be finished by this summer.
Q: Are people skeptical of the term “small batch?” Do they believe you or do they think the term is just another marketing gimmick?
A: The term has been used in so many different ways, but retailers and consumers appreciate the honesty that goes with our concept.
Q: So with your two biggest successes yet, how are you going to continue the Small Batch concept and keep it interesting and relevant?
A: We’ve done some smaller productions of single-size cigars like the Fortissimo. We only made 30,000. We also released a five-pack sampler of five blends and crowd-sourced the feedback. The most popular one will be an upcoming release. We thought it was a good idea to enlist the consumer in the selection process. Another release is called Bin No. 1. It’s made of tobaccos from Jochi’s first crop of Cuban-seed tobacco when it was still an experiment for him. Jochi has really been an integral part in this new concept. Not just because of his knowledge as a grower, but because of his knowledge of tobacco throughout the entire cigar-making process and the amount of properly fermented tobaccos he has stored away.
Q: Do you find it easier to get shelf space in cigar shops since you’ve switched over to Boutique Blends?
A: It’s easier now, but I’ve also been on the road for the last two years and I’ve traveled most of the country, visiting many, many cigar shops talking to not only shop owners, but consumers. In 2013 I only slept in my bed about 63 nights out of the year.
Q: Does social media play a role in your business model?
A: When I first heard the word “social media” I didn’t know what it meant. Now, it’s constant. We started with the help of my youngest son using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I’ve become more active on social media in the last year and I think it’s very important. It allows me to expand the personal relationships with consumers. I have conversations with fans of my cigars whom I’ve never met. People all over the world, which is amazing to me. We didn’t know at the beginning that brands required so much traveling and so much support. It’s a difficult thing.
Q: Your brands are distributed in Europe. Is the European market important to you?
A: Yes. Our European distribution started in 2012, mostly in Germany. Now, Aging Room M356 and F55 can be found in Austria, Poland, Budapest, Russia and England. About 9 percent of my sales are European and Canadian.
Q: Was it difficult to break into that market?
A: We didn’t get into Europe until M356 placed on the 2011 Top 25 list. Europe’s perception was that the Dominican Republic only produces mild cigars. They weren’t used to experiencing strong Dominican tobacco. They’re starting now to appreciate the diversity of tobacco from the Dominican Republic.
Q: Do you still play the violin?
A: Yes, of course.
Q: Do you think that being musical affects the way you blend a cigar and the way you think about flavor?
A: Absolutely. When you blend a cigar you’re creating a profile of flavors. Not much different from creating music, where you take the musical notes and arrange them in different ways to create a melody and harmony that reflect your own feelings. It’s the same process really. If I’m using tobacco or using musical notes, I’m looking for the same thing in the end.