As the newly appointed master blender for Drew Estate Inc., Willy Herrera's workload just got a lot bigger. The 41-year-old started with the company in 2011, and will now be working with such well-known brands as Liga Privada, MUWAT and Undercrown. Herrera is also the creator of the Herrera Esteli brand, of which the Piramide Fino was Cigar Aficionado's No. 8 cigar of 2013. Herrera told Cigar Insider's Clay Whittaker how he got to this point with Drew Estate, and what plans he has going forward.
Whittaker: Where did you get your start in tobacco?
Herrrera: My family's got a cigar factory in Miami, in Little Havana called Titan de Bronze. We have our own lines, the Titan de Broze Redemption-Redemption Maduro, Redemption Habano, Titan de Bronze Grand Reserve, and Titan de Bronze Gold. Those are our house lines, and those are the first lines I ever did, for our in-store factory. We also have a little retail display where we sell our stuff. From there I started doing house blends for different shops around the country.
Q: Were there bigger brands as well?
A: During that time people who already owned existing brands would come in wanting to have something made in Miami. So I've done blends for La Palina (the Goldie series, the Mr. Sam), for Shawn Williams, for Padilla, for Nestor Miranda, and a number of other smaller new companies to the market. So I was doing that and three years ago (in June) Jon proposed that I come over to Drew Estate and do what I was doing in Miami, but on a much larger scale. Bring my style of blending, my ideas of the boutique world into Drew Estate.
Q: So he gave you free reign to explore?
A: Absolutely. He opened the doors, he took me over there, and he said ‘Here's what you got. Get whatever you want, use whatever you want, except for broadleaf and Connecticut Habano.' Other than that, yeah it was whatever I wanted. If we didn't have it I was able to order it, play around with it. There were no limitations.
Q: Did it feel intimidating?
A: Well I was in awe at first, I didn't even know where to start. Being in Miami, you're so limited in what you had access to. A lot of the stuff I had never seen. I had never played around with it, never blended with it. It was a little nerve-wracking. I moved to Nicaragua for a year-and-a-half. Every day I was on the factory floor, sitting down with all the other rollers and just playing with different tobaccos. Blending and blending and just trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted Ecuadoran Habano. I knew that from the start. That was the wrapper I wanted to go with for Herrera Esteli. But then the fillers man, it took some time to really see everything else that they had.
Q: Was Herrera Esteli your first blend at Drew Estate?
Q: Have you added any new sizes?
A: Yeah, we introduced the lancero size this year and it's the first of the Edicion Limitadas for that line. Right now it's 2,000 boxes. And all Herrera Esteli accounts will have access to that.
Q: You have a lot of smaller vitolas in your line. What do you like to smoke?
A: I'm a traditional type of guy. That's how I learned. From the moment that I was put in a factory in Miami from hanging out to being there full time, it was all Cuban rollers. So I learned from guys from the Romeo factory, I learned from guys from the H. Upmann factory, from Partagás—the Laguito factory. That's how I learned. And just as a personal preference also for me—I can't smoke those really big ring gauges. I don't get a lot of flavor in them. They're uncomfortable. They don't feel right in my hand and my mouth. I've blended 54 and 56 ring gauges before out of the factory for some of the other companies or shops, but me personally I'm 44s, 48, 50. That's my preference.
Q: When did you roll your first cigar?
A: About 12 to 14 years ago is when I had to learn to roll in order to stop bothering all the rollers in the factory in Miami. Because I always wanted to try different stuff. And I was always putting stuff together, and having them stop their production, and then, ‘Hey can you do this for me?' And after about a month of that I started getting dirty looks, and I said, ‘You know what, I better figure this out.' So I started sitting down every day in my factory and looking at them and mimicking what they were doing, and every once in a while one of them would stop by and say ‘You're doing this wrong,' or ‘Hold your wrapper like this,' and that's how I learned.
Q: Do you think being able to roll your own samples gives you an advantage?
A: I'd say so. When something pops into my head, I just go in the back, roll it and I smoke it. It's a little different from getting something in your head, putting it down on paper, and then give it to somebody to get the tobacco and waiting for it. It's definitely helped me. There were plenty of times where I was in the factory before Drew Estate, where something would pop into my head, I'd roll it I'd smoke it right there. Even today there isn't a day that I don't go in there and roll up a cigar. It is pretty cool when you can just go in there and do it yourself.
Q: Were there any total flops?
A: Absolutely. I can't remember exactly what I used but there were many blends that were just awful. You never know. Just like sometimes the process of developing blends for Herrera Esteli—it was 30 days before that blend opened up and I knew we were working with something. I think a lot depends on what tobaccos you're using. If you're using heavier leaves, those are not going to taste good right off the table. Lighter tobaccos taste better right off the table.
Q: So with you taking the reins, what's going to change for you? And what's going to change for Drew Estate?
A: Instead of being involved in just developing new brands for myself, I'll be doing everything for Drew Estate, whether it be developing new brands or working on old ones. I'm not going to change anything. The Ligas, Undercrown—everything we have now will continue to be as-is. But you're gonna see maybe a Habano Liga, or Mexican. We're gonna see a lot of new stuff coming from our existing lines. Different wrappers. But mainly I'm going to be worrying about new stuff for Drew Estate.
Q: Will you still be blending regularly for Herrera lines?
A: Yes. Definitely. We've got the Norteño. That's the next one, and it's a totally different smoke. Wrapper is from San Andrés. Spicier, heavier, box-pressed—soft-pressed. I already have a couple other things I've been working on for the past year that will be under the Herrera line at some point. But yeah, I'll continue to work on Herrera brands as well.
This article first appeared in the May 20 issue of Cigar Insider