Cult Cigars And The People Behind Them

| By Gregory Mottola | From Kurt Russell, July/August 2019
Cult Cigars And The People Behind Them
Photo/Jeffery Salter
Pete Johnson, owner of Tatuaje Cigars.

Think of the definition of a cult movie: It’s a film that goes outside of the mainstream; incorporates unusual themes ranging from the subversive to the taboo; is shown in very few theaters and, most importantly, is known only to a relatively small, but passionate fan base that can appreciate something different. Eventually, cult films become cult classics, such as Night of the Living Dead or The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Now, apply that same idea to cigars. It may sound strange to the uninitiated, but the cigar world does indeed have a subculture of smokers who place high, sometimes fanatic, value on rare and obscure cigars unknown to the average enthusiast. What sets these fans apart from your typical aficionado is how far they’ll go to get their hands on something worthy of cult status.

Would you be willing to travel across the country only to wait in line for two hours in the cold just to have the opportunity to buy one or two cigars from a box of limited smokes? Or maybe tattoo your favorite cigar brand across your chest? How about paying $125 just for one, rare cigar? For a cult fan, extremism can be par for the course.

We’ve assembled a list of brands that started out as cult cigars, some of which have grown into cult classics. Cigars like these have been able to create small vortexes within the main current of the cigar industry. It may surprise you to hear some of the extremes that fans have gone through to get them.

In 1980, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo took over his father’s El Credito Cigar Co., a small Miami cigar factory that produced a few hundred thousand handmade cigars each year. El Credito was a “boutique” cigar operation before the term was even en vogue, but the little factory wasn’t particularly well known. Much of Perez-Carrillo’s effort was put behind making his version of La Gloria Cubana, a U.S. friendly version of an old Cuban brand. While some local Cuban expatriates may have remembered the name from Cuba, the La Gloria Cubana brand had little meaning outside of Miami. Demand for the cigar was pretty low. It was a regional secret.

Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, Owner of EPC Cigar Co.
Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, Owner of EPC Cigar Co. Photo/Perry Heller

Then, in the fall of 1992, the brand had a singular pivotal moment that turned La Gloria Cubana into an overnight cult cigar. The Wavell size, a 5-inch by 50-ring-gauge cigar, got a 90-point rating in the first issue of Cigar Aficionado. After that, cigar connoisseurs from all over the U.S. sought these previously unknown Miami-made gems. Production remained small, as the factory’s capacity was limited, giving these cigars true cult status. The rating changed everything. It was debuted during the annual cigar industry trade show, and as a result, Perez-Carrillo wrote more business at that convention than he ever thought possible.

“The real shocker was when I got back home and saw the lines of people waiting at my little shop every single day to buy the Wavells,” he says. “This went on for at least five years, six days a week. Needless to say not everyone got what they wanted but we tried to give them at least one or two bundles. It was an incredible experience which you have to go through to believe.”

Perez-Carrillo eventually expanded to the Dominican Republic and sold his brand to General Cigar Co., moves that gave the cigar a less culty feel. But General still treats La Gloria with reverence and dedicates a separate part of its Dominican factory just to the brand. It might not have quite the same status it once enjoyed, but La Gloria Cubana is an early example of a very-small-production cigar that gained a cult-like following in this country.

This cigar is perhaps the king of the cults. Before it even had an official name, its working title was named after a cult movie. In the early 1990s, Carlos “Carlito” Fuente Jr. had something to prove. He was told that nobody could grow quality wrapper in the Dominican Republic. This was the conventional wisdom of the time and it never sat well with Fuente. But when a French retailer visited the Dominican Republic and quipped that Fuente’s cigars weren’t truly Dominican, Fuente was motivated by indignation.

“He said to me ‘Carlito, you’re not a cigarmaker. You just assemble tobaccos,’ ” Fuente told Cigar Aficionado. “He told me that unless I made cigars [entirely] out of Dominican tobacco, I’ll never be a real maker of Dominican cigars, just an assembler of different parts. That really stuck with me.”

Fuente became obsessed with creating a Dominican cigar from wrapper to the last leaf of filler. He planted the right Cuban seeds in the loamy soils of a very particular plot of land located in Bonao, now known as Chateau de La Fuente. Before the cigars were even produced, the undertaking got some press, and with it, serious interest. Attempting to grow wrapper in the Dominican Republic was considered to be a little—well—nutty. This magazine chronicled the process in an article called “Seeds of Hope.” Innovation in any arena is often met with skepticism and negativity, and this was especially true for Fuente’s wrapper project, but he tuned out the naysayers and focused on his farm.

Carlos Fuente Jr., owner of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia.
Carlos Fuente Jr., owner of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia. Photo/David Yellen

Fuente called the first run of cigars Project X From Planet Nine, after the 1959 cult film Plan 9 From Outer Space by schlock king, Ed Wood. By 1995, the cigars were ready, and they had a complete name: Fuente Fuente OpusX. “It sounds like sex!” Fuente often exclaims. The buzz about OpusX continued to grow until finally, one chilly November evening in 1995, a few select retailers in New York City began selling the cigar. It was opening night for OpusX, and lines went down the block. The powerful smokes, made with dark, reddish-brown cover leaves, were an instant hit. And the few stores lucky enough to get any OpusX would sell out immediately, often at much higher prices than set by Fuente. The limit was often two per customer. Exclusivity only fueled demand.

Today, OpusX continues to be rare, but the line has evolved into sub-brands with different themes and different strength levels. Collectors still go crazy for the cigars, and just when you think you’ve seen every OpusX out there, Fuente comes up with something new. His way, perhaps, of reminding the cigar world that the word “impossible” can be a relative term.

When the first Tatuajes slowly trickled into the market in 2003, everything about the brand said “cult cigar.” It had an unusual name that few could pronounce. The packaging leaned traditional, but at the same time, was intriguing with its unusual fonts. The cigars were made by an obscure Cuban roller named José “Pepin” Garcia in an equally obscure little factory in Miami. On top of that, brand owner Pete Johnson was a young guy covered in tattoos. It all added up to the makings of a cult machine.

Johnson started out working in a cigar shop in Los Angeles before finding employment at the prestigious Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills. After falling in love with cigar culture, he decided he wanted a cigar of his own.

“I was a fan of Cuban cigars from the late ’80s and early ’90s and I wanted to have my own version of what I remembered from those early years,” recalls Johnson. He eventually met Garcia, a Cuban cigar roller capable of bringing his vision to life. The word tatuaje is Spanish for tattoo—quite an unusual name for a cigar brand—and the blend was strong and spicy. It consisted of all Nicaraguan tobacco but it was blended in a way that didn’t taste like anything else on the market at the time. Word got around. And after a few high ratings Johnson was faced with a new problem—rationing out a very small production. “Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills was my first client [in 2003] and sold most of the production,” says Johnson. “By the time we had our trade show in 2006, we couldn’t supply the demand.”

With inventory short and demand growing, Tatuaje fans rose to new levels of extremism and cigar worship just to buy a box of these cigars and maybe meet the guy behind the brand.

“There are so many stories over the years with people traveling long distances to meet me and get limited product,” says Johnson. “But the craziest thing fans have done is tattoo the brand on their body. And the craziest tattoo was the art from my Little Monsters Series tattooed on the person’s chest. I ended up hiring that person.”

Johnson eventually expanded, making new products in Nicaragua at the My Father Cigars Factory to help satisfy the demand for his cigars, but he still maintains a small production (around 400,000 cigars annually) of the original brown label in Miami.

“I never created it to be a cult brand,” Johnson says with a chuckle, “but with the limited production in Miami, I guess it turned into one.”

Dion Giolito, owner of Illusione Cigars.
Dion Giolito, owner of Illusione Cigars. Photo/Tiffany Brown Anderson

With the frenetic cigar boom of the ’90s in the rearview mirror and the first decade of the Millennium more than halfway through, 2006 was an optimistic time in the cigar industry. Cigar fanaticism was alive and well, making the midaughts perhaps the perfect time for a new cult brand to materialize. And if anyone in the industry looks like a cult leader, it’s Illusione brand owner Dion Giolito. The Nevada native stands close to 7 feet tall, with distinctive sideburns and an old-Vegas, rockabilly hairdo that you can spot from across a room.

Giolito wanted a cigar that echoed European opulence, but also carried an air of the mysterious. He gave each box of his Illusione cigars a vaguely Viennese look, and encoded every size with names that had hidden meanings. Some were religious. Others alluded to secret societies. Some were highly personal. All added to the mystique.

Illusione sounded like an inside secret,” Giolito told Cigar Aficionado. “An indie cigar for people part of an inner circle. Plus, the word Illusione sounded nice. Very European.”

There’s also the subversive nature of the brand that appeals to a certain segment of the cigar-smoking world, and with it, the idea that Giolito is speaking to his fan base through a code. Consider his MJ 12 (91 points). It’s named after the Majestic 12—a rumored team of scientists secretly assembled in 1947 by President Truman himself to investigate alien spacecraft. Or how about the MKUltra? It’s the name of an Illusione petit corona, but it’s also the supposed code name given to the CIA’s secret drug testing program, using mind-altering substances on human subjects. Kind of sounds like something right out of the movie The Manchurian Candidate, doesn’t it?

Despite how it may look, Illusione isn’t all kitsch and voodoo. Giolito’s vision was to make serious smokes that tasted like the cigars of pre-Sandinista Nicaragua, and he did this with the help of two key people: Eduardo Fernández, who supplied the distinct Nicaraguan tobacco he was looking for, and Arsenio Ramos, who mentored Giolito in the blending process.

It is exceedingly difficult to stand out in the premium cigar industry, especially as a newcomer. There are plenty of interesting, high-quality smokes with dynamic blends and enough variety at all price points to keep cigar fans occupied and engaged. So how did Kyle Gellis gain a cult following with his Warped brand? It may have had something to do with the unusual name. It may be the very limited production numbers (fewer than 1 million cigars a year). It could be the unique way he blends Aganorsa Leaf Nicaraguan tobacco. But it could also be the way he ties all these elements together with a serious emphasis on design. Simply stated, his cigars are beautifully packaged. This can be said of many brands, but Gellis seems to have a rather sophisticated aesthetic that combines the classic look of old lithography with a hip, modern twist in a way that you won’t find on other packaging.

If you look at Warped cigars such as Flor del Valle Sky Flower, for example, or Maestro del Tiempo, you’ll see detailed bands that could have graced some of the most elegant, pre-Castro Cuban cigars, but, at the same time, there is something quite modern about Gellis’ use of color, scale and design. Consider Gellis’ La Relatos brand. Sure, there’s a bit of dainty, Victorian affect to the patterns on the box, and yes, the smokes are packaged like a fancy bar of overpriced chocolate, but the look works, and the long coronas inside are remarkably delicious (92 points).

As for the unusual name, Warped was the name Gellis went by when he played paintball. He started a cigar company by the same name in 2009 and it has been gaining a cult following ever since. One particularly enthusiastic fan went to great lengths to get his hands on a cigar called Moon Garden.

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

Jonathan Drew, president of Drew Estate.
Jonathan Drew, president of Drew Estate. Photo/Jeffery Salter

From its industrial label reminiscent of what you might find for internal use in laboratories or distilleries to the intriguing phrase “Hecho Exclusivamente Para El Jefe” (made just for the boss) Liga Privada immediately intrigued smokers when they debuted in 2007. Of equal intrigue was the person and the company who put them out: the colorful and quirky Jonathan Drew of Drew Estate.

Drew already had a dedicated following in the flavored cigar category with his Acid line, but he was able to usher some of his flock into the handmade, premium world with Liga Privada—and also gain some new followers who never belonged to the Acid set. Of course, the cigars are made on a very limited basis (what cult cigar isn’t?), but they have some very distinct characteristics. For starters, they aren’t cheap. They’re made with an inky Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper and are packed with so much tobacco that each one is rock solid to the touch—yet they draw beautifully, and deliver a characteristically dense, earthy smoke with fringe notes of charcoal and licorice that you either love or hate. Like OpusX, the concept has since grown to include an assortment of unorthodox shapes like the Dirty Rat, the Flying Pig and other oddities, but stores tend to sell out of these quickly, no matter how strange the name.

Though the Liga Privada brand is now owned by a billion-dollar corporation, it still commands a cult-like following and Drew is still very involved, making sure to keep the cult alive.

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