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?
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.
Q: What was the first cigar success you remember for La Aurora?
A: It was first the Preferido, then the Preferido tube. It's always on back order. A roller can make 400 robustos a day. With a Preferido it's only 125 to 135 on a good day—if the hangover is not too big. (Laughs.)
Q: Let's talk about your biggest hit, the Aurora 100 Años.
A: The funny thing is, the first day I came to work at La Aurora, the first thing I told Guillermo [León, vice president of La Aurora S.A.] was that we have to start to work with the 100 Años project. Already some filler and binder had been put aside, on the order of Don Fernando [León, the patriarch of the León family business]. They started putting away 40, 50, 60 bales, some of their best fillers each year at that time. That's the way we did it. Actually, we made 40 blends to get that blend. And it came down to two. And I think the one we didn't do, a lot of full-bodied cigar smokers would appreciate.
Q: But 100 Años isn't weak. Are you going to do something with that other blend?
A: We might.
Q: Why four shapes?
A: I think, with shelf space now, you can't go more than five sizes. Now when you ask people to take your cigar, sometimes they say, I'll take it, but what do I take out? A lot of our projects now are four sizes. I don't think now you need more than four or five sizes. We're going to commit to those 400,000-plus cigars in the States. We still have '06, and maybe a little bit '07, but when they're gone, they're gone.
Q: But that blend is so good, you should do something with it after the cigars are gone.
A: Well, that's another thing. Maybe down the road we could come up with something. But with the 100 Años name, or box, or numbers, that will never be done again. It's a one-time deal.
Q: You're very opinionated about the U.S. cigar market. What do you think of the market today, and where we stand?
A: Cigars, in the last three years, everybody is making better cigars. The consumer of today, nine out of 10 going into the store, they like what they see. In 1997, 1998, maybe four out of 10 liked what they got. That's why you're seeing a lot more people coming back and smoking cigars, and youngsters, people who are 24, 25, 26. Sales are going up.
Q: What is the difference between the cigar market now, which is growing at a very good rate, maybe 8 percent annually, and the cigar boom?
A: '97, '98, 10 people would go into a cigar store, eight people would come out unsatisfied. They were buying $10 cigars that weren't worth $1.
Q: What is happening now that is keeping the sins of the past from happening again?
A: Even the new players are making something unique. They're trying to get a different shape, a different wrapper. They are making things that are not common. Unless you're a big company, there's no way that on a Cameroon wrapper or a Connecticut wrapper, you're going to make it. There has to be a story, there has to be romance behind it. A lot of store owners say they want new things, but from old companies.
Q: So what are we going through right now? A boom? A mini-boom?
A: I don't even want to mention the word "boom," to jinx it. I think consumers are appreciating the good cigars that are coming out in the industry. And I do have to give credit to a lot of retailers. There are a lot of retailers out there who are doing great jobs.
Q: What does a cigar company today have to do that's different from five or six years ago? What do you do now that wasn't part of the business before?
A: Before, you could have anybody go out and take orders for cigars. During the boom days, there were order takers. Today, there are people going out there to sell.
Q: Let's talk about this cigar that we're smoking now, the 1495. You said this is your baby.
A: I took a very old Sumatra Ecuador wrapper we had for a project that didn't go through. Because of the yield on Corojo, we had a lot of wrapper we couldn't use. So I took an Ecuador wrapper, put a Corojo binder on it, and put different leaves, and on the third blend we got it right away. A lot of people said it's one of the best cigars we have done, and it was a big hit at the [Retail Tobacco Dealers of America] show. People didn't even ask price.
Q: It hasn't always been like that for La Aurora.
A: Never. Not even for 100 Años. It really went through the roof after the rating. [The 100 Años Belicoso was rated 93 by Cigar Aficionado in 2004 and was named the magazine's No. 2 cigar of the year.] But this one, I think it has a lot to do with the wrapper, and a lot of people are starting to enjoy Peruvian ligero.
Q: The Peruvian is stuff you bought when you were short of tobacco?
A: Yes, just to have it there.
Q: It's good. José Seijas [of Altadis U.S.A.] uses Peruvian, too. What do you think it adds to a blend?
A: To me, it adds a lot of flavor. It has body. It's a different type of tobacco. I'm a firm believer that the soil does everything. You have to have a good seed, but the soil is the main thing. These six types of tobacco [in the 1495], they all harmonize. Sometimes you take two good leaves and you don't get anything out of them. It's not appealing. But with these six they blend very well. I think it's a medium- to full-bodied, but totally different smoke.
Cigars today are more complex than before. Everybody's working harder. But you only get good cigars with good, old tobacco. There's no such thing as good, young tobacco.
Q: How many cigars do you make?
A: We do cigars for C.A.O., for Savinelli, for Miami Cigar, we have private labels in Europe. We should be around, big and small cigars, this year 19 million cigars.
Q: And if we only talked about large cigars?
A: Around seven million this year.
Q: How does that compare with 1997?
A: It was more than that [in 1997], but the product we're making now is totally different than what we were making before. We were just down to piloto Cubano, San Vicente, Connecticut and Cameroon. Now we have wrappers from Ecuador, we have wrappers from Brazil, we have wrappers from Nicaragua. We're growing Corojo.
Q: The impression we used to have was that, in the old days, La Aurora was such a big company, it does so well with the beer and cigarettes, but cigars weren't a big deal. But there seemed to be this reawakening—hey, we're the oldest cigar company in the Dominican Republic. Now you're making serious cigars.
A: It's been hard work, and Guillermo has given me a lot of support. I have to be grateful to four people, not counting my father: Guillermo, Don Fernando, Benjie Menendez [of General Cigar] and [Davidoff's] Henke Kelner. They have really taught me a lot. I'm very grateful. Remember that picture with Paul Newman, where he plays Rocky Graziano? It seems somebody up there likes me.
Photo by Walter Astrada/World Picture News