Last year, veteran cigarmaker and tobacco man Eladio Diaz, 69, collaborated with Freud Cigar Co. owner Luis Torres, 45 to produce a cigar called Agape, a limited-edition release made entirely of Dominican tobaccos. Diaz, who spent his career as Davidoff’s head of quality control, left the Swiss company in late August of 2021 to branch out on his own and start a family-run factory called Tabacalera Diaz Cabrera in the Dominican Republic. Torres, who’s had a long professional life in cigar retail, also went independent.
Both Torres and Diaz recently paid a visit to Cigar Aficionado headquarters in New York City for a Q&A where they discussed their new chapter in the cigar world, covering everything from luxury brands to unexplored tobacco appellations. Managing editor Greg Mottola conducted the interview while Torres translated the questions to Diaz as well as his answers.
MOTTOLA: It’s been quite a year for you. How do you like being a free agent making whatever type of cigar you want?
DIAZ: I was tied down to what other people wanted. Now, I determine what I want to do in conjunction with my sons and wife, doing what should be done and exploring what could be done in the world of tobacco.
Q: The two of you collaborated for the Agape brand. Wasn’t it intimidating to work with someone like Eladio?
TORRES: Yes and no. He’s a very close friend of mine. There’s love and mutual respect. He was uniquely in a position to realize my vision to make a blend that’s been celebrated by everyone who’s tried it. I was intimidated to have my name on the box alongside his. It’s nothing I’d done before. When it comes to blending, he’s the master.
Q: How has the market responded to your cigar?
TORRES: Agape launched in July. Sixty five percent of the inventory has already left the door. People are talking about it on social media. It’s been the toast of every retailer. An incredible response. We worked very hard on it. This was the first cigar that was rolled at Tabacalera Diaz Cabrera. A labor of love.
Q: Let’s go back a few years. Eladio, you were born in the Dominican Republic, right?
DIAZ: I was born in Santiago May 28, 1953. I am Dominican.
Q: How long were you with Davidoff?
DIAZ: I commenced in 1988 with Oettinger Davidoff, but I started at Tabadom in 1984.
Q: When did Davidoff purchase Tabadom?
DIAZ: Tabadom sold the entirety of its shares in 2001 to the Oettinger Davidoff group.
Q: What did you do for them?
DIAZ: Supervisor of production. All production and quality control.
Q: How many cigars a year were you responsible for?
DIAZ: Between Avo, Griffins, Zino and Davidoff, 25 million a year.
Q: Were you with Hendrik Kelner at the start of Tabadom in the Dominican Republic?
Q: Were you ever able to be creative at Davidoff?
DIAZ: I’ve had the gift to always be creating and always be dreaming up blends.
Q: Is there any particular Davidoff blend you take credit for?
DIAZ: All of the blends are mine. Frankly, all the blends are very good. But there’s one blend in particular that I dreamt up for my own 60th anniversary. Oro Blanco.
Q: Davidoff’s infamous $500 cigar [Now $600]? What was it like making that cigar?
DIAZ: I arise at 3:45 in the morning every day. And I have these sensory elements in place in my mind. Six tobaccos within the filler. And the youngest tobacco had 10 years. The oldest, 19. The other ones had between 13 and 14 years. I go to the factory and I roll myself the first 10 cigars. And I arrived at the aromas that I dreamt of. I sent 25 cigars to Charles Awad, the CMO of Davidoff at the time. He calls me and sends an email. “Why don’t you come to Basel?” And I ask why? “They want to talk to you with respect to this blend” he says. “That’s my 60th,” I answered. They said no. This blend is too good. Get on a plane.
Q: What happened when you arrived?
DIAZ: When I get to Basel there’s a marketing guy and Charles says “How much do you think we can sell this for?” I don’t know anything about marketing I’m a tobacco man. I said timidly “$125? 150?” That price is commensurate with the aged tobacco. Awad says “No. This could go for $500 in the U.S.” And that’s how Oro Blanco started.
Q: Are you surprised that people will pay so much for one cigar?
DIAZ: It’s very surprising. It’s very good with nine different tobaccos. Made by the supervisor and supervised by me. But yes, it surprised me that people would pay so much. For a smoker looking for something different, that is the cigar.
Q: Did anyone make you an offer to work for them once you left Davidoff?
DIAZ: Yes. Altadis. But I considered Tabadom my family. I was kind of raised there. I have an affinity for that place. I wanted to create something lasting for my family.
Q: Is that why you went out on your own?
Q: Luis, how did you get your start in the cigar business?
TORRES: I’ve always been in luxury goods. To bring the perspective to cigars was great fun. To bring better products at higher price points. I was hired as the GM at Davidoff on Madison Avenue in 2011. I had worked for Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard previously in the jewelry and watch sector. My mandate was to elevate the field and the price points and to build community. We increased business by $1 million.
Q: You mean sales in the New York City Davidoff store?
TORRES: Yes. We accomplished that by bringing in Dunhill and S.T. Dupont accessories. On the cigar end we brought in higher price points. Great fun.
Q: How long were you there?
TORRES: For seven and a half years.
Q: Then you went to Casa de Montecristo.
TORRES: In June of 2018. I was there a year. I wanted to do consulting and decided I wanted to do something new on my own. By happenstance all these things came into place.
Q: What made you want a cigar brand?
TORRES: I always wanted to do a luxury cigar. Something unique and different. I had ideas about packaging I had ideas about blends. I thought Freud was the perfect namesake. People talk about Churchill and rightly so, but Freud was such a prolific cigar smoker, it made sense.
Q: Eladio, was having your own brand part of the long-term plan? Or did you not think about it?
DIAZ: No, not necessarily. In reality I always thought that Tabadom was my own thing. It was born with me. It felt like it was a part of me.
Q: Eladio, you have a factory now. Talk about that operation. Where is it?
DIAZ: It’s a small factory we opened in January of [last] year. And the idea is to try to do something that has the flavors and aromas that I want to create. Something of high value and artisanal value. It’s in the Pisano Freezone in Quinigua, near Via Gonzales. Four or five kilometers away.
Q: How many rollers?
DIAZ: Ten rollers, or five pairs.
Q: Is it difficult to get material?
DIAZ: No. Twenty-five years ago, Tabadom would buy tobacco from Leo Reyes. I have a very clear understanding of the tobaccos he grows. His inventory is some of the best.
Q: Let’s talk about the Agape brand. Other than saying that Agape is a Dominican puro, the blend is pretty much undisclosed. Why the secret?
TORRES: We wanted mystery. Not that I’m worried about anyone else copying it. But I wanted it to have some intrigue.
Q: Luis, the cigar you make with Eladio falls under your umbrella of Freud Cigar Co. How did Freud Cigar Co. come about in the first place?
TORRES: Venture capitalists David Stadnyk and George Tsafalas were friends of mine and approached me in Miami about a luxury cigar brand. They took me out to a lavish dinner on a Thursday. The next week, I was on a plane to the Dominican Republic to talk to Eladio. I visited Eladio and William Ventura. I knew that I wanted to work with both. As a consequence of Eladio not being ready, our first line was with William Ventura. Our second line was with Eladio.
Q: When was this?
TORRES: This was in June of 2021.
Q: Luis, there are a lot of great cigars on the market right now. What do you think you bring that isn’t already out there or that hasn’t already been done?
TORRES: I don’t think that there are a lot of great luxury cigar brands. I think the market would benefit by having another voice. When you look at our packaging, our storytelling and now one of the greatest blenders to have done this, it’s a compelling story and a story that’s resonating with consumers. In a crowded market I think our story is impactful.
Q: How so?
TORRES: When you look at a box of Agape and you see the seal the QC seal, the band, it’s like a jewel box. People have really taken to what it looks like, not just the delicious cigar that it is.
Q: You think the market is crowded?
TORRES: Yes, but on the luxury end, there’s room for growth.
Q: Your cigar is also pretty expensive. [The Agape has a suggested retail price of $30.] What do you say to the consumer who’s outraged at the price?
TORRES: I think it’s an affordable luxury. It’s an experience for something curated and something dreamt up by someone as illustrious as Eladio. That’s worth $30. From what we’re seeing, people are agreeing.
Q: Eladio, you hear so much about Nicaragua these days, but you work mostly with Dominican tobacco—why is Dominican tobacco so important to you?
DIAZ: In reality, Dominican tobacco has different organoleptic properties from Nicaragua. Nicaragua produces very good tobacco, but there is no company, with few exceptions, working only with elements from Nicaragua.
Q: You mean there aren’t many Nicaraguan puros?
DIAZ: You’d be surprised at how many companies use Dominican tobacco and don’t say it in the blending. They don’t make it public, but a lot of them—more than you would know— use Dominican tobaccos. The ph is ideal. It’s not volcanic soil, so the flavor is different. But we are now discovering areas in the Dominican Republic that offer properties much different from the tobacco we’re used to in that country.
Q: For example?
DIAZ: In the southern part of the nation, I have contacted some growers and they are creating Compania of San Juan Las Matas de Farfán. The flavors are different from the Cibao region, completely different from what the end-consumer thinks of when considering the Dominican Republic.
TORRES: He’s not just content with what the Cibao valley has to offer but looking for new innovative tobacco flavors, aromas, etc.
Q: Luis, you’re pretty much a start-up company. Again, so many start-ups have all headed to Nicaragua. Two of your cigars are made in The Dominican Republic. What made you go Dominican in light of Nicaragua’s immense popularity?
TORRES: Some of the best blends come from the Dominican Republic. It can be a breath of fresh air when everything is Nicaraguan. Our sales brokers don’t have a Dominican cigar because the market is attuned to Nicaragua. This cigar is proudly Dominican. It shows that there is an opportunity there.
Q: Eladio, are there any key tobaccos you enjoy working with?
DIAZ: A native tobacco. There’s one seed in particular that’s excellent and gives different aromas. Quin Diaz. It’s a native seed.
Q: I’ve never heard of it.
DIAZ: People haven’t commercialized it.
Q: Why not?
DIAZ: The yield is not very great. But it’s excellent and I love it.
Q: You had a tragedy of sorts recently. The factory where one of your Freud brands are made recently burned down. William Ventura. How has that affected the cigar line?
TORRES: We were very close to them. They said they are going to rebuild bigger and better. We still plan to have the next batch of SuperEgo to come to market.
Q: Was it a setback?
TORRES: Yes. We were hoping for a second batch earlier last year. Now it’s spring of this year. Superego.
DIAZ: It’s very important to know that most people smoke the brand, they don’t smoke what their palate demands. You have to educate their palate. Same with eating, same with drinking a fine wine. People are not smoking and enjoying the way they should. They’re just blowing smoke. They’re smoking a brand.
Q: Being a tobacco guy, do you think packaging is important?
DIAZ: Just like the wrapper, it’s the first thing you see. Packaging draws you to the product.
TORRES: It took four months to develop the packaging. We wanted it to be disruptive. Wanted the seals to be different. Big. Old. We wanted the cigar band to be intricate. We wanted it to shine with gold tones and the embossing. It had to be fitting of a limited edition and the first cigar that Eladio created out of the gate.
Q: So, what’s next?
TORRES: We have a regular-production brand with Pelo de Oro tobacco called Alter Ego. We’ll also have a limited edition called Sigmund. For Sigmund Freud's birthday in May. And then Agape 2023 as this year’s limited edition.
Q: Luis, being in retail, you’ve had your finger on the pulse of the market, and insight as to exactly what the consumer wants. Have you seen the customer evolve or change over the years?
TORRES: Yes, they are gravitating toward traditional sizes. I think the big ring gauge trend is ending and people are becoming more educated. I don’t want to sound snobby, but cigars like lanceros, lonsdales, coronas, you’re seeing the consumer gravitate there. And I’m happy to see that. The consumer is getting more attuned to what a great cigar should be.