Master Of Illusione
Ask Dion Giolito who killed Kennedy, and he'll quickly answer: "the Mob." Did Roosevelt know in advance that Pearl Harbor was going to be attacked? "It's plausible." How about the existence of UFOs? "Definitely yes." Normally, nobody takes much notice if the makers of their favorite cigars believe in conspiracy theories, but for the Illusione cigar brand, which Giolito brought to market 10 years ago, government cover-ups and secret societies have come to define the brand's image.
"There's a fine line between having fun or being campy and not being taken seriously as a cigarmaker," contends Giolito. He gets up from a small desk in the back corner of the TABSA factory in Nicaragua and stretches his long legs. Today, it doesn't matter who killed Kennedy or how many extra- terrestrials the U.S. government has in captivity. What matters is tobacco.
Standing somewhere between 6 1/2 and 7 feet tall, Dion Giolito couldn't look more out of place at a cigar factory—and it isn't just his height. The fair-skinned, Nevada-born Giolito sports an old-Vegas-period pompadour that adds to the illusion of tallness, and large, heavy sideburns—a vintage look that's been imitated ever since the birth of Rockabilly music and the emergence of Elvis. Or perhaps he resembles the comic-book hero Wolverine, depending on your generation. Either way, Giolito seems to pull off the look naturally. He also has an innate talent for blending cigars. In the decade that his Illusione brand has been commercially available, the cigars have risen from a local brand known only to Reno's modest enclave of enthusiasts to a national cigar line with comprehensive U.S. distribution. And his Illusione cigars have appeared on Cigar Aficionado's Top 25 list an impressive six times, most recently in 2015.
Situated in Estelí, the heart of Nicaragua's cigar country, this grade-school-turned-factory is where most of Giolito's Illusione cigars are produced. As cigar factories go, TABSA is a small operation, but this one-story building is buzzy and clamorous with the chatter of chavetas, the shuffling of tobacco leaves, the occasional rumble and screech of wooden chair legs sliding over the tile floor. It's the cadence of any busy cigar factory, but Giolito, who easily stands an entire foot over most of the workers, spots something from across the room. He approaches a roller who's applying the binder to a cigar. Giolito stops him and takes the cigar out of his hands. In broken "factory Spanish" he instructs him how to apply the binder properly.
"You can't let the binder overlap too much during rolling," Giolito says. "It won't smoke right. The binder tobacco will overpower the cigar if you do that."
The cigar roller looks up at him with a "why-should-I-listen-to-you" expression on his face, but he quickly snuffs out his own flash of defiance and nods. He understands. When the tall man is in town, he's the one who gets to call the shots. Giolito doesn't own the factory, nor does he micromanage the workers or strut around with an air of colonial superiority. But, as the factory's star client, he pretty much gets free rein.
"Rollers can sometimes get into bad habits, especially when they're used to making a cigar to someone else's standards," he says calmly.
Giolito is referring to the other brands made in the factory. He may be the star client, but he isn't the only client, and a roller making Illusione cigars one day might be making a different cigar the next. "Sometimes I can communicate the problem right to the roller," Giolito explains. "If I can't, I'll have to tell the factory manager. It all depends. I don't want to get anyone in trouble. I just want it done right." He shrugs and walks across the room.
His free rein extends to the pick of the tobacco. The TABSA factory is owned by Eduardo Fernandez, co-owner of Aganorsa tobacco growers. All tobacco supplied to TABSA comes from this agricultural conglomerate, and that includes several types of varieties of tobacco from all over Nicaragua. Plots range from small farms to large plantations. Seed varietals vary as well, and Giolito is quite particular as to which tobaccos will go into which blends.
He exits the rolling gallery and walks outside into the adjacent tobacco warehouse, which is another brick building separated by an alleyway of concrete and asphalt. Giolito clears the alley in a few lithe strides and disappears through a dark doorway into the tobacco warehouse where hulking piles of tobacco are arranged for fermentation. The room is sparsely lit, but bright enough to read the description on the tags of each pile. One pile is marked "St. Nicholas," denoting the farm, and also gives the harvest date, as well as when the tobacco was put into fermentation.
He pulls out some leaves, takes a smell and rolls up a crude little purito to smoke. The sampling process gives him an idea of how the tobacco will taste when fermentation is complete. Tobacco from the St. Nicholas farm is bright and sweet. The next hulking pile comes from a farm called Chilamate. This tobacco is nutty in flavor with a smoke that's unctuous and mouth-coating. Giolito is partial to this tobacco and it's easy to see why. Even in its semi-raw, under-fermented state, it's still oily and grand. And this is how Giolito blends. He finds a distinct, captivating tobacco, and then builds around it. If he likes it, (and is willing to pay for it) the tobacco is his.
"I start from the dirt," says Giolito of his blending. "If I find a great tobacco that has what I'm looking for in terms of palate and olfactory, that's what inspires me. I want it to be multidimensional. Sometimes, single tobaccos will smoke like a complete cigar and I'm impressed. And then I want to put together a blend that enhances these characteristics. In the case of Illusione Fume d'Amour [which was Cigar Aficionado's No. 3 Cigar of 2014, in the Clementes size], it was a particular seco leaf from Chilamate."
Though Giolito is cognizant of flavor and aroma, he rarely seeks strength for strength's sake when creating a blend. True, his Illusione Ultra line, which achieved the No. 6 Cigar of 2015, was intended to be the most full-bodied brand in the portfolio, but he didn't just recklessly assemble an amped-up blend for brute strength alone.
"Strength is a by-product of blending," he explains. "What I look for, first and foremost, is flavor. Personally, I prefer cigars that are mild to medium bodied. There must be flavor and complexity within the material."
This level of involvement isn't a given industry-wide. Often, a factory will simply produce sample blends for an investing brand-owner to try. He approves some, rejects others or asks for minor adjustments to be made on one of the prototypes. That's when development ends and production begins. While there's nothing inherently wrong with making a cigar this way, Giolito prefers to be much closer to the process.
"Dion knows Aganorsa tobacco very well and has specific tastes for certain farms," says Max Fernandez Pujals, director of TABSA. "When we find those tobaccos, we alert him. Much of the Aganorsa tobacco we process for TABSA is geared toward his blends. Since we have a very close working connection with Dion we smoke the materials selected for his blends with him as they begin to come from the farms."
Years of smoking through component tobaccos has given Giolito an exacting palate, and he's developed an uncommon facility for identifying tobaccos, their flavors and their performance characteristics.
"I always paid attention to the things that Henke [Kelner] said about palate stimulation," Giolito explains. "Not everybody knows why a cigar tastes good. I was able to back engineer the process and learn the characteristics of many tobaccos in a short amount of time. I got really good at ascribing different properties to different tobaccos. That goes beyond just Aganorsa tobaccos. I've become good at doing this with all types of tobaccos."
For Giolito, his serious interest in tobacco started in 1990. He had gone to school in Oklahoma for music theory and composition, but returned to Reno in 1988 and transferred to the University of Nevada to enroll in its teaching program. Though he was happy to be back in Nevada, this was an unfocused time in his life. He was a student-teacher for a few years before deciding he didn't like it. In fact, he hated it. When he wasn't teaching, he was working part-time at a Tinder Box franchise tobacconist in Reno. At night, he played drums in a punk-rock band called the Atomiks—and even went on a national tour—but those gigs, fun as they were, didn't exactly roll in the cash.
Eventually, Giolito dropped out of the teaching program and worked full-time at Tinder Box. While behind the counter, he was fascinated with the older generation of ornery cigar-chomping throwbacks who frequented the shop. They'd shuffle in and out of the store, buying inexpensive cigars without a care about who made them, what type of tobacco was inside or what other people had to say about them.
"These guys would come in and grab some cigars before going out to ‘bet on the ponies,' as they all liked to say," recalls Giolito with a chuckle. "I always liked those guys. I wanted to be those guys. I really felt like I belonged to whatever time period they came from."
At the time, Tinder Box primarily stocked products from General Cigar Co. and Consolidated Cigar (now Altadis U.S.A.). This was before the cigar boom, and Giolito convinced the owner to bring in smaller cigar brands like Cuba Aliados, made by Rolando Reyes Sr. Another Tinder Box shop not too far away was going out of business and Giolito tried unsuccessfully to convince his manager to purchase the shop and let him run it. In the aftershock of the rejection he came to the idea of opening his own store and separating from Tinder Box completely.
"There were a lot of cigars out there the Tinder Box wouldn't carry—enough brands to convince me that not only could I make a living carrying all these other brands, but I could do it in such a way that I wouldn't even be a competitor to Tinder Box."
In 2004, he opened up a smoke shop in Reno called Fumare and it distinguished itself as the first and only dealer of the Davidoff white-label cigars in the area.
"At first, Davidoff told me no because they already had merchants in Las Vegas," Giolito says. "But once they realized that there was an eight-hour difference by car between Reno and Vegas, they said yes."
Becoming a Davidoff store required Giolito to purchase $30,000 worth of cigars from Davidoff of Geneva up front. While that buy-in ate up a good portion of the Small Business Administration loan he took out to open up his shop, he was confident that it would pay off. The top sellers of the Fumare cigar shop became Davidoff, Cusano (now owned by Davidoff) and Arturo Fuente. It wasn't until he smoked cigars from Tropical Tobacco, formerly owned by Pedro Martín, that he had his eureka moment: he was going to start his own brand.
"Brands like Condega and Cacique were made with tobaccos that were bright and unique," Giolito recalls of two cigars made by Tropical Tobacco. Coincidentally, Pete Johnson, owner of Tatuaje, was having a side brand produced by Tropical at the time. Hardly knowing him, Giolito called up Johnson and asked for his help in getting Tropical to make him a custom cigar. He agreed, and Giolito purchased the cigars directly from Johnson.
"I bought 50 boxes from Pete," Giolito says. "I never thought I'd sell them all, but figured that a robusto size was the most likely to move. They were all made with Eduardo [Fernandez's] tobacco."
That run of robustos became his house brand. He named the size 88, to signify the year he returned to Nevada and dubbed the brand Illusione, which alluded to the conspiracy theories and illusory tactics that often go hand-in-hand with government cover-ups, black-ops and secret societies who supposedly control the world. The themes always fascinated him, as he's the first to admit, but rather than writing music for episodes of "The X-Files" he projected his interest in conspiracy theories onto his cigars, giving them curious, quirky and unusual names.
It isn't terribly surprising that Giolito also has an interest in UFOs and mysticism. Cigar fans might recall scratching their heads seeing names like MJ 12, MkUltra, or hl. Sometimes Giolito is forthcoming with explanations, sometimes not. The cigar MJ 12, for example, is a toro-sized cigar named after the Majestic 12—a rumored secret team of scientists secretly assembled in 1947 by President Truman himself to investigate alien spacecraft. The MkUltra? That was the code name given to the CIA's secret drug testing program, using mind-altering substances on human subjects. The "mk" part stands for "mind kontrol." As for the hl, it stands for Holy Lance—a long, thin lancero meant to symbolize the biblical spear used to pierce the side of Jesus Christ shortly after he died on the cross. These are only a few examples.
"Illusione sounded like an inside secret," Giolito adds. "An indy cigar for people part of an inner circle. Plus, the word Illusione sounded nice. Very European."
If cryptic ciphers and masonic symbols of the illuminati seem too capricious for a serious cigar, consider this: the cigars inside each box have a more high-minded underlying theme—pre-Sandinista Nicaragua. When Giolito first put his cigars to market, the mission statement was to create a product that tasted like the cigars coming out of Nicaragua before the tobacco fields were decimated by the Sandinista wars of the 1970s.
Having smoked pre-Sandinista cigars from Nicaragua, Giolito sought to recreate this style. Agricultural conglomerate Aganorsa acquired many of the fields that had once been owned by former President Anastasio Somoza and brought them back to fertility. To Giolito, this was key. He found his tobacco, and in 2005 contracted Tropical Tobacco to create six sizes for the Illusione brand. The blend for the core Illusione line (now called the Original Documents) was based around a Corojo-seed tobacco grown on the San José farm in Nicaragua. Through Tropical, the cigars were made at the Raices Cubanas factory in Honduras.
Back in Reno, Giolito received his first shipment at the shop—and rejected the entire lot. By his estimation, the tobaccos he chose and blended in Honduras were not the tobaccos he received.
"The tobacco wasn't right, and they were way off," Giolito says. "The cigars were brash and one-dimensional. Very crude. And I was angry. I thought they might be trying to screw me. I admit, it was a freshman response. Factories really do want to make the best-quality product. I flew down to the factory and realized that if this thing was going to work, I needed to immerse myself completely in the process, especially on the back end. I learned a lot about tobacco.
"I told them that they had to make this properly, and that the only way it would be a success was if they made it my way. Sure, I was sticking my neck out by talking like that to these guys, but I was confident that the cigars had the best chance to succeed if they performed the way I wanted them to perform."
This confidence—and maybe even a touch of paranoia—set the tone for the relationship that Giolito would have with the factory. His first production was 7,000 cigars. Word started to get around online in cigar forums and on a few blogs. And Giolito would often chime in online himself, participating in the conversation and acquainting himself with his new and growing fan base.
In 2006, Illusione made a rather low-key debut at the RTDA tradeshow that summer in Las Vegas. Pete Johnson, whose Tatuaje brand was rapidly growing, allowed Giolito to pass out some of his Illusiones while squatting in the Tatuaje booth. The brand got some attention from retailers as well as from this magazine. By the next year, Illusione was rated in Cigar Insider (Cigar Aficionado's twice-monthly newsletter) and the entire brand performed phenomenally. After the results were published, demand naturally grew and the brand quickly became back-ordered.
Since then, the Illusione line and its subsequent brand extensions have only racked up the accolades. In 2007, the Illusione cg:4 was named Cigar Aficionado's No. 7 cigar of the year. After Giolito released his less powerful, but very complex, Illusione Epernay brand, cigars from that line appeared on the Top 25 list in 2009, 2010 and 2011. His newest regular-production brand, Illusione Fume d'Amour achieved the No. 3 cigar of 2014, and the Illusione Ultra Op. No. 9 earned the No. 6 spot for 2015.
It's important to note that Giolito has moved production of most of his Illusiones from Raices Cubanas in Honduras to the TABSA factory in Nicaragua. Although Epernay is still made at Raices, the "Original Documents" as well as the Illusione Ultra brand has been migrated to TABSA for logistical reasons. It's much easier for Giolito to assess and then roll tobacco at the location where it's stored, as opposed to hauling bale after bale all the way to Honduras.
Despite the critical and commercial success of his Illusione lines, Giolito still mans the cash register at his cigar shop in Reno. Not that he has to—the brand pulls in more income than the shop and has for many years.
"It's my gig," Giolito affirms. "It's where I came from. It helps me keep my finger on the pulse."
The store sits in a small shopping center just off one of Reno's main highways—about 375 miles northwest of Area 51. There are mountains in every direction you look, and beyond that, miles and miles of desert.
And for this tobacco retailer, obsessed with international conspiracies and the details of his Central American cigar production, most of the time he's somewhere out there.