Cigar Industry


Veterans of the premium cigar industry reflect on the changes of the last quarter century
| By CA Editors | From Michael Jordan, November/December 2017
Curt (left) and Fred Diebel, owners of Diebel’s Sportsman’s Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri, circa 1970s.

David Berkebile, owner of Georgetown Tobacco in Washington, D.C., remembers a lackluster industry 25 years ago. But by 1995, it was booming. “Sales for us that year were up 48 percent,” he says. The next year they grew another 47 percent. Berkebile marvels at the chaos. “Everyone was making a cigar, particularly those who did not know how and were in it for the money. Some companies just shipped you large quantities of whatever they thought you might be thankful for, and I wasn’t,” he says. “In one incident, I loaded my pickup and drove it full of cigars back to the sales rep’s home and put it on his doorstep. He got my message.” 

Craig Cass

When Craig Cass’s family opened its first Tinderbox store in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the late 1980s, it sold far more pipes than cigars. “At that time the pipe business was very good,” he says. Cigars made up only 25 percent of his business, and until 1992 cigar prices were far lower.

“The superpremium cigars in the early 1990s were Macanudos, which were $3, $4 cigars,” Cass recalls. “I had an 800-square-foot store. My humidor was an oversized closet.”

Cass was steeped in the action as the cigar boom saw soaring sales on the front lines of retail. “In the 1990s, the cigar business began to grow and the tide started to turn. It was 1992, 1993 when our humidor started to grow.” When Davidoff moved into the U.S. market in the early 1990s, it brought prices of $8 to $10. Cass’s father was dubious. “He said, ‘There’s no way in this country we can sell an $8 cigar,’ ” Cass remembers. Cass now owns six Tinderbox of the Carolinas stores, four in the Charlotte area, two in Myrtle Beach. “Today,” he says, “cigars and related items make up 90 percent of the business. That’s a pretty big transition.”

Edgar Cullman Jr.

In the 25 years since Cigar Aficionado was launched, it would be a challenge to come up with people who contributed to the renaissance of cigars more than Edgar Cullman Jr. As the former president and CEO of General Cigar, he oversaw one of the largest cigar brands ever created for the United States, Macanudo. “When the magazine came out, it was really exciting to see cigars become so popular,” Cullman says. “I mean cigar families went from being just old cigar makers to becoming celebrities.” But he says that the magazine’s real achievement was portraying cigars as elements in a broader lifestyle. “That’s what we used to create the Club Macanudo concept,” Cullman says. “The whole idea was to take it beyond just a cigar brand, and turn the club and the brand into something that was part of a lifestyle.”

Cullman also oversaw the expansion of General Cigar, and its acquisition of such major brands as Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey from Villazon, and La Gloria Cubana. “There were just so many amazing things happening in those days,” Cullman says. “Cigarmakers were forced to learn how to market their cigars better, and it was good for the industry.” He saw the retail part of the business change as well. “Everyone started building walk-in humidors, and we all had to learn how to display our cigars differently. Consumers went from buying a box, and that was their cigar, to walking in a shop and walking out with a variety of cigars.” 

Jhonys Diaz

Jhonys Diaz has been in the cigar business since 1992 and is in charge of one of the largest cigarmaking operations in the world as vice president of operations for General Cigar. He’s seen the cigar boom come and go, the dawn of social media and the changes in preferences among cigar consumers, but despite all the progress he says that General’s techniques for making cigars has essentially stayed the same. “The way we approach cigarmaking has not changed and I’m very proud of that,” he asserts. “For us, it’s about passion, and a staunch commitment to quality and old-world techniques.”

He does allow that consumers are searching for different flavors and novel smoking experiences in a way they were not two and a half decades ago. This has led to the search for new taste profiles through developing new cigar blends and experimenting with new tobaccos. “It’s been fun and rewarding to spread our wings and wow cigar lovers with cigars made with exotic and new tobaccos,” he says. “It’s like the best of both worlds—keeping true to our heritage while keeping up with the times.” 

Curt Diebel

Curt Diebel, owner of Diebel’s Sportsman’s Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri, recalls that the market for premium cigars was much smaller at the start of the 1990s. “Pre-1992, the premium cigar market was in decline,” Diebel says. “It had been in decline for about 30 years.” But a surge in consumer demand changed Diebel’s business forever. “The cigar boom peaked for us July ’96 to June ’97. We doubled our business every month.” For some of Diebel’s longtime customers, however, the expanding cigar market was a double-edged sword. “Pre-boom cigar smokers were always a bit put out by the boom. Even though it brought in a new variety of cigar shapes and brands and drastically improved the selection, it also brought in a bunch of newbies. You had this explosion of new brands, and with it, more and more smokers came into the market—the regulars couldn’t get what they wanted. They couldn’t get their favorite smokes. There simply wasn’t enough.” 

Fernando Dominguez

He’s been in the tobacco business for more than 30 years, but Fernando Dominguez Valdes-Hevia, of Imperial Brands, truly became close to cigars in 2000 when he moved to Havana in the early days of the joint venture between Cuba’s Habanos S.A. and Spain’s Tabacalera S.A. “It’s paradise for cigar smokers,” he says of Cuba. “When I go to Cuba now, I usually smoke seven, eight, nine cigars per day.” As the premium cigar director of Imperial Brands PLC, Dominguez has witnessed all manner of changes. “What has not changed? Everything but the essence of premium cigars,” he says. One notable new trend is the way cigars are sold. “E-commerce represents around 50 percent of total sales in a country like the United States, the world’s largest cigar market,” he explains. “Another change has been the gradual demand shift towards shorter but thicker cigars to enjoy their taste and aroma in less time.” 

Jonathan Drew

Today Jonathan Drew is an industry star, and as president of Drew Estate he oversees a company that makes tens of millions of cigars a year. But his 1995 entry into the business was modest, as a retailer operating a 16-square-foot cigar kiosk at the World Trade Center Mall in downtown Manhattan. He started small but always thought big, and three years after selling his first smoke he moved to Nicaragua to complete his evolution from retailer to cigarmaker, making a foothold in a business traditionally dominated by those with Cuban roots.

“The thing that’s baked in my brain forever happened when I moved to Nicaragua to live full time. Almost every house was still riddled with bullet holes, as people were just coming out of a brutal civil war,” he says. Today, Nicaragua is one of the world’s largest cigar producers, and Estelí is now riddled with cigar factories rather than bullet holes. Drew Estate even leads popular cigar tours to Estelí known as Cigar Safaris. “Anyone who has been on Cigar Safari knows that things are so different now,” Drew says.

Carlos Fuente Jr. 

When Carlos Fuente Jr. was a boy, cigars were made in the family living room. Today, Arturo Fuente Cigars, the company he runs, is an industry powerhouse, making some 30 million cigars a year by hand. Fuente has long been the blender of the family, creating such varied brands as the mild Chateau Fuente, the complex Don Carlos and the robust Arturo Fuente Añejo. Fuente saw firsthand how Americans have moved from more mild cigars to ones with fuller flavor, echoing his own personal tastes. Years ago, “everyone wanted mild, but I wanted more intense,” he says. “Maybe it’s part of my heritage, but it’s just what I love.”

In 1992, the Fuentes planted their first crop on Chateau de la Fuente, where wrappers grow for their signature product, the Fuente Fuente OpusX. Today, Fuente is changing his factory in the Dominican Republic, creating new rolling galleries, gorgeous outdoor spaces and new facilities. “One thing I learned from my father: you run the cigar business with your heart, not with pencil and paper,” he says. “And our greatest passion is tobacco.”

Litto Gomez

Two-and-a-half decades ago a moment changed the world for Litto Gomez. That’s when his Miami jewelry shop was robbed. He thought he would be shot and killed. Soon afterward Gomez left jewelry behind to forge a new business: making cigars. He opened his doors in the Dominican Republic in 1994, creating product completely unlike the powerhouses he is known for today. “I was a big fan of the typical, traditional Dominican cigar of the times,” Gomez says. “Connecticut shade, Dominican filler and binder, light wrappers—they were mild cigars. At the time, even if I wanted to make stronger cigars, I couldn’t. I remember calling, looking for tobacco. Nobody knew who I was.”

The next problem was the oversupply that followed the cigar boom, but as some pulled back and became conservative, Gomez took the opposite strategy, buying a tobacco farm in 1997. Those leaves expanded his abilities as a blender, as his tastes were changing. “My own palate as a smoker started demanding more flavor, more power, stronger cigars.” Stronger blends led to Gomez’s signature creation, the La Flor Dominicana Andalusian Bull, the 2016 Cigar of the Year.

While some pine for the good old days, Gomez lives for the here and now. “It’s exciting, it’s great tobaccos, great flavors, beautiful wrappers—you have it all now. I don’t think there was ever a time in history that there were so many good choices of great tobaccos available. As a cigarmaker, I’m having a blast.”

Pete Johnson

Pete Johnson hasn’t always been a cigar star. Before he established his popular Tatuaje brand, he worked on the retail side of the business. Before that, he was just another cigar lover.

He fondly remembers that Henry Clays retailed for less than a dollar in 1992, and how at that time every shop humidor stocked Jamaican smokes.

“I got into the business in 1993,” he says. “I bought my first cigar after seeing a news report about a charity dinner where everyone was enjoying cigars. It looked like a nice way to relax, so I went to the local liquor store and bought a 50-cent cigar. I had no idea what I was buying but I fell in love with that moment, and the peace of mind the cigar gave me.” He later bought a Pléiades for $2.50. “I couldn’t believe that I spent that much on a cigar and I was embarrassed and afraid to tell my girlfriend at the time.” But the cigar got him hooked on the culture and he visited every cigar store in Los Angeles. “I had no idea that I would be in the cigar business the following year.”

While Johnson is known for his creative use of Nicaraguan tobaccos in his blends, he remembers a time when the Central American country wasn’t as highly regarded as it is now. “Nicaraguan cigars were hard to find in 1992 because of the U.S. embargo against Nicaragua that ended in 1990. Now, Nicaraguan cigars are leading the pack.”

Hendrik Kelner

When Davidoff made the move from Cuba to the Dominican Republic, the Swiss company needed a true tobacco man to run the operation. Enter the talents and efficiencies of Hendrik “Henke” Kelner. His service to Davidoff began in the early ’90s, when the market was grim. “Before 1992 the cigar industry was a no-growth market, with imports to the U.S.A. between 90 and 100 million cigars a year, consisting of traditional consumers who were conservative,” Kelner remembers. “The industry was without any promotional enthusiasm, without a desire for knowledge, and no innovative offerings. It was an industry in decline, without a future.”

In a “no-growth” atmosphere and with plans to introduce some very expensive cigars, Davidoff’s confidence in Kelner must have been enormous. Certainly more than the confidence Kelner had for the future of Cigar Aficionado magazine. When Kelner heard of Marvin R. Shanken’s plans to create the magazine, he thought it would fail. “Marvin answered: I’m going to do it even if it costs me a million dollars,” says Kelner. “Today, thanks to Marvin, millions of people discovered what they did not have, a friend and companion for a life with more sensory experiences that we teach and train in the pleasures of life.”

Guillermo León

In 1992, Guillermo León was working at the holding company that ran his family’s group of businesses, which included the La Aurora S.A. cigar factory, makers of the oldest cigar brand from the Dominican Republic.  Two years later, León joined La Aurora, which, at the time, produced about three million cigars annually. It was the early days of the cigar boom, and sales soared. By 1996, the factory had doubled production to six million, and a year later it had doubled again to 12 million. “In the 1990s, the Dominican Republic became the world’s largest exporter of handmade cigars,” León says.

He became heavily active in ProCigar, an organization created to uplift and protect the image of cigar manufacturers in the Dominican Republic. “We needed to be able to defend, protect and disseminate the good work of our sector, while preserving our legacy,” León says. “ProCigar has been able to combine the efforts of all those who are part of the industry, not only to represent us, but also to manage the various situations that arise in the world of tobacco, which sometimes are delicate.”

Chuck Levi (left) with Marvin R. Shanken at an early 1990s cigar trade show.
Chuck Levi (left) with Marvin R. Shanken at an early 1990s cigar trade show.

Chuck Levi

Chuck Levi is the owner of Chicago’s Iwan Ries & Co., the second-oldest cigar shop in America. He recalls a cigar industry that was very different in the early ’90s. It was a time of stronger allegiance to a preferred cigar, and it affected how cigarmakers operated. “We didn’t have new brands coming out everyday like we do today,” Levi says. “A guy smoked a Macanudo or a Montecristo and that was it—nowadays the customer comes into the shop and wants to know ‘what’s new?’ ” He says that consumer trends have changed, but the importance of the cigar lounge has remained the same, especially for attracting new customers. “We’re still getting a good number of young smokers—you know, guys in their 30s. Not the numbers in the mid to late ’90s, during the boom, of course—but still a good amount. In my opinion, the cigar lounge has helped bring people in. Still does. It’s about the camaraderie. You can go to a nice cigar lounge anywhere around the country, sit down and have a smoke, maybe a cocktail, and meet new people. Start up a conversation. It really brings people together.”  

Robert Levin

Robert Levin has been in the cigar business since the early 1970s, joining his father at Holt’s, the family cigar shop in Philadelphia. “It was a totally different business then,” he said. Cigars were still being made in the City of Brotherly Love. “There were several factories, and mass-market cigars were still being sold in the cigar stores. There was no such thing as Walgreens and CVS.” The machine-made cigars cost 50 cents, and handmades were about $1.

In the mid-1980s, Levin decided to create his own cigar brand, Ashton, to move to a more profitable segment of the industry. There were few new brands on the market at the time. “It wasn’t a growing business,” he says. “But it was the business I knew.” In 1989 he moved production of Ashton—then about a 300,000 unit a year brand—to the Fuente family, the company that makes it to this day.

“From ’88 to ’92, Ashton was growing at a very nice rate,” says Levin, “but after ’92, it was an explosion, after the publication of Cigar Aficionado.” Sales were doubling, then tripling. By 1994 it became a million-unit brand. Today, Ashton Distributors Inc. sells more than 8 million Ashtons every year. 

Levin has expanded the business considerably during his tenure, taking it from a shop employing five people back in the 1970s to a multifaceted company that includes retail and wholesale and now employs 125, including a full-time salesforce. Ashton has a host of other varieties, and the company also has cigars made for it by the Garcia family, including San Cristobal and La Aroma de Cuba. As he worked for his father before him, today Levin’s children Sathya and Meera work with him in the family business. 

Daniel Marshall

Danny Marshall has a gleam in his eye as he shows off the box, a modest wooden humidor he crafted in 1982. “The first humidor I ever made,” he says with pride. It was crafted with care, with a simple—and by today’s standards, quite primitive—series of vials that a cigar smoker would fill precariously with water to keep cigars from drying out. “That was the humidification system of the day,” Marshall says with a smile and a shrug. 

Humidification has come a long way since 1982. So have humidor sales. Marshall remembers how slow his industry was in his first decade of business. “It was such a small cottage industry. It was sleepy,” he says. “I’d be at trade shows and no one would come by.” Things changed in 1992, with the advent of Cigar Aficionado and the unprecedented cigar boom, which saw demand more than triple in a few short years. When people began buying more cigars, the need for humidors in which to store them boomed as well. 

Marshall has been there all along. And while the vial system is now but a relic of times long gone by, he still makes humidors built to last.

Carlos Fuente Sr., Hendrik Kelner, Benjamin Menendez, Manuel Quesada and Carlos Fuente Jr. at the Cigar Aficionado launch party, September 1992.
Carlos Fuente Sr., Hendrik Kelner, Benjamin Menendez, Manuel Quesada and Carlos Fuente Jr. at the Cigar Aficionado launch party, September 1992.

Benjamin Menendez

Benjamin Menendez’s cigar career can be divided into two incarnations: in Cuba and out of Cuba. He started on that Caribbean island making his family’s famous cigars: Montecristo and H. Upmann. When his family’s business was nationalized, Menendez fled his country of birth in the 1960s to make non-Cuban cigars for the U.S. market, first in the Canary Islands and, finally, in the Dominican Republic.  But he watched the premium cigar industry stagnate for some three decades. 

“In 1992, the industry was still in diapers,” says the man everyone knows as Benji. “When Cuba was out of the picture in the 1960s, the premium business in this country practically disappeared. It had to start over. There was a little left in Tampa, in Jamaica and the Canary Islands, but only a little bit. “ He credits the leaf broker José “Pepe” Mendez and Carlos Toraño Sr., who imported viable Cuban seeds, improving the quality of Dominican tobacco. 

“I don’t care what anybody says, Cigar Aficionado started the boom,” Menendez says. “But the boom was a flash in the pan. It was like the California Gold Rush in 1849 where everyone was panning for gold, except this time it was tobacco.”  In the ensuing 25 years, he says, came fantastic changes. “Look at companies like Fuente and Davidoff and brands like Partagás and Macanudo. They were small 25 years ago and barely developed.“ Menendez prefers today’s business climate. “It’s not experiencing the explosion of the boom, but the growth is steady and solid.” 

Menendez admits to smoking new cigars made by the current generation of cigarmakers. “Cigars that have nothing to do with the large brands I was involved with,” he says. “And they are very, very interesting. I was told many years ago that mass-market, machine-made cigars are for corporations, but premium cigars are a family business. Except for a few big companies, I see today how true that is.” 

The Newman family, circa 1994. From left, Stanford, Eric and Bobby.
The Newman family, circa 1994. From left, Stanford, Eric and Bobby.

The Newmans

For 122 years, J.C. Newman Cigar Co. has been rolling cigars, surviving two world wars, the Great Depression and adapting to the Cuban Embargo. Brothers Eric and Bobby, the grandsons of founder Julius Caeser Newman, who now run the maker of Diamond Crown, have also seen their fair share of ups and downs and challenges during their tenure.

In a joint statement, the brothers report that industry sales had dropped by 75 percent from 1963 to 1992. “No one made any money in the industry—not the tobacco growers, not the manufacturers, not the importers and distributors, and not the retailers. The industry was thought by many to be headed for extinction, until Marvin Shanken appeared on the scene. His magazine brought dignity, status and credibility to the industry for the first time. Overnight, cigar smoking became trendy and stylish.”

The Newmans believe that the cigar boom of the ’90s has led to better quality cigars today, as well as higher profits for the companies that make them. Increased margins for both the grower and the manufacturer, enabled them to dramatically improve their growing and manufacturing processes. “Tobacco growers could afford to employ the latest growing technology, using better quality fertilizers and insecticides and farming techniques, resulting in better tobacco. Similarly, cigar manufacturers could now afford to properly age their tobaccos and focus more on quality than on quantity, implementing new quality-control measures such as having teams of cigar supervisors oversee and inspect the work of the regular inspectors. The result was a more consistent, better quality cigar, assuring that the premium-cigar industry is here to stay.”

John Oliva Sr. and Jr.

The Olivas of Tampa, Florida, have been a major cigar tobacco family for three generations. John Oliva Sr. recalls a number of people who helped rebuild the premium cigar industry after Cuban tobacco was no longer available in the U.S. 

“I miss the giants who we had the pleasure of working with,” he says. “Frank Llaneza, Carlos Fuente Sr., Stanford Newman, Edgar Cullman, Carl Berger and many more. I learned almost as much from them as I did from the one I miss the most—Angel Oliva Sr., my father. He always told me: ‘Change is inevitable and all businesses have ups and downs.  Don’t worry about the downs and don’t get overly excited about the ups.  Worry about staying flat.’  He was right.  Not bad for a guy who never went past fourth grade.”  

Even with the high demand for tobacco during the cigar boom, Oliva Sr. didn’t expect the rock-star status conferred on people in the industry. “We all became celebrities,” he says. “I even had Tom Selleck ask if he could take a photo with me at the Grand Havana room.” 

His son John Jr. is treasurer, but his knowledge of tobacco makes him a key industry player. “My formal entry into the cigar business came sometime around September of 1992 and was preceded with a sit-down with my father whereby he explained to me the uncertainty of a future in the cigar industry,” he says. “Sometime later during the boom I remember the old industry stalwarts and their incredulity regarding Cigar Aficionado’s influence. When I started we were primarily growing Connecticut, Sumatra, and to a lesser degree Cuban-seed wrappers for natural and candela cigars in Ecuador and Honduras. [The magazine] allowed the cigar industry to think outside the box, try new things, and create cigars that were as coveted as those from Cuba.”

José Oliva

When American interest in cigars was reaching an all-time high in 1995, Gilberto Oliva Sr. and his son Gilberto Jr. created Oliva Cigar Co. Two years later, however, an oversaturated market put the young company in peril. During these lean times, when importing tobacco became unfeasible, the family was able to rely on Gilberto’s inventory of quality Nicaraguan leaf. “We had some very real advantages,” says José Oliva, president of the company. “Tobacco growing isn’t automated—you can’t control the weather—experience is always the answer.” 

A steady growth in the production of premium tobacco gives today’s new cigarmakers an advantage that did not exist two decades earlier. “Today quality manufacturers are very accessible,” says Oliva. “You see new companies with tremendous offerings and that benefits the entire industry.”  This, says Oliva, makes it possible for first-generation cigarmakers to create legacies of their own. “There’s no reason why these companies won’t also be around 100 years from now.”

Jorge (left) and Orlando Padrón in 1993, at their company’s first trade show.
Jorge (left) and Orlando Padrón in 1993, at their company’s first trade show.

The Padróns

José Orlando Padrón began making cigars for a simple reason—he couldn’t find a good cigar to smoke in Miami in the 1960s. “When I arrived here [from Cuba], the only cigars available were these Filipino cigars that cost 10 cents a piece, and they were unsmokeable,” he says. “I felt that I had to produce a cigar for Cubans who missed their homeland.” He began making cigars in 1964, with one roller, selling them for a quarter apiece, $6 for a bundle of 25. 

His son Jorge had another motivation to enter the family business. “Before I drove, my dad would wake me up at 6:30 in the morning to go to the office,” Jorge says. “Early in the morning he would come into my room, turn on the lights and start shaking my feet so I would get out of the bed.” The company grew, especially when it began using Nicaraguan tobaccos. In the face of a civil war that would pockmark its factories with bullets, it moved its manufacturing there. But sales remained centered in Miami until 1993, when the company went to its first trade show.

Initial results were disappointing. “We sold to 12 retailers,” Jorge says. The following year, the Padróns debuted the super-premium 1964 Anniversary Series, with its chocolate-brown hue and box-pressed shape, and the world began to discover Padrón. The company has come a long way from 25-cent-cigars. Today, its most expensive smoke sells for more than $30. 

“My father has worked very hard to get where we are today,” Jorge has said, “and I consider it a responsibility, not just on my end, but my family members as well, to uphold that tradition that’s been passed down.”

Rocky Patel

Before Rocky Patel entered the cigar business, he was a cigar-smoking lawyer in Los Angeles. He recalls that in 1992, cigars were not only more openly enjoyed compared with today, but celebrated. “It was just super cool and hip to be smoking a cigar back then,” he says. “You were looked up to as a star when you had a cigar, a cool S.T. Dupont lighter and an Elie Bleu humidor in your house. It showed that you achieved some level of success. Anti-smoking establishment was not around.”

Patel would gather with an eclectic group of successful individuals inside the members-only Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills. “It was just an odd mix of plastic surgeons, attorneys, doctors, celebrities, writers, producers, directors. Very flamboyant. You know, everybody let their hair down and just enjoyed smoking a cigar,” he says. “It was mellow. It wasn’t like a party. People would just sit around, socialize and talk about cigars, life, work, politics, sports and movies—all that fun stuff. We were there almost six nights per week, and it was the place to be.”

What Patel misses most is the freedom to smoke nearly anywhere. “Cigars were all over, and cigar dinners were everywhere. Now it’s like the People’s Republic of China.”

David Perez

David Perez heads up A.S.P. Enterprises Inc., a tobacco growing and brokering concern that has been providing tobacco leaf for the cigar industry for decades and  he remembers the era of a quarter century ago as lean days for the company. “In the early ’90s we had just acquired the farm in Ecuador. It was a leap of faith—we had no customers. But we believed in tobacco. My dad believed in his heart that there was a future for tobacco. In 1992, I graduated college. I had to make a decision. My dad wanted me to be a lawyer but I decided that I wanted to be part of the family business.” Perez says that over the years, the company grew steadily and today, business is strong. “We’re doing quite well compared with 1992,” Perez laughs. “We never jumped like some other companies during the boom. Business grew slowly and steadily to where we are today—with quality tobacco.”

Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, surrounded by his family in his Little Havana cigar factory in 1992.
Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, surrounded by his family in his Little Havana cigar factory in 1992.

Ernesto Perez-Carrillo

Back in 1992 Ernesto Perez-Carrillo was selling cigars for about a buck apiece, making La Gloria Cubana, El Rico Habano and other cigars in a crowded, rustic factory/cigar store on Miami’s Calle Ocho. “At that time, when you made cigars, there was hardly any profit,” Carrillo would say a decade later. “The business wasn’t doing that well. We were making a living, but it was a struggle.” 

He very nearly left it all behind, for as a younger man he yearned to be a jazz drummer and didn’t see much of a future in his father’s little cigar business. In 1976, he and his father were close to a deal to sell their factory for $125,000 to the makers of Royal Jamaica cigars. He had a change of heart just before the deal was complete, and told his father he had changed his mind, and he wanted to be a cigarmaker. 

It was a fortunate move, for his world turned upside down when the little brand got a big rating in the third issue of Cigar Aficionado. Between 1992 and 1995 his cigar sales doubled, from 720,000 cigars a year to 1.4 million. He expanded, sold the company in 1999 for a good price—much, much more than $125,000—and today he is making cigars with his family at EPC Cigar Co.

Gary Pesh

Gary Pesh, owner of the cigar-store chain Old Virginia Tobacco Co., recalls how the ’90s brought a variety of new faces. “The cigar business became a cool thing. I saw it in our consumer demographics. Before the ’90s, our typical cigar customer was the ‘bundle guy’—he didn’t really care what cigar he was smoking, he just wanted to smoke. Suddenly there were people willing to try new, interesting cigars—cigars that often had a higher price tag. It was a new crowd of young professionals who wanted to learn more about cigar culture, to spend money, sit down and enjoy a cigar—maybe enjoy an adult beverage, you know, sit with the guys. And as you move to the mid-’90s, there’s more women coming into the marketplace. There are people enjoying cigars in restaurants, hotels, people who weren’t smoking everyday—just once a month—the casual smoker.”

However, Pesh notes that as cigar companies rushed to meet the demand of consumers, the quality of the cigars suffered. “In my opinion, there weren’t enough cigars of consistent quality. There wasn’t enough consistent tobacco.” Now, Pesh celebrates the variety of high-quality cigar blends and the amount of information available to consumers. “Today, the consumer is more educated, the retailer is more educated—and you have cigar manufacturers who are willing to give more information about their brands.”

Tobacco grower and cigarmaker Nestor Plasencia (left) in Honduras in 1993.
Tobacco grower and cigarmaker Nestor Plasencia (left) in Honduras in 1993.

The Plasencias

If you smoke Nicaraguan cigars, you most likely have tobacco that was grown by the Plasencia family somewhere in your humidor. The company is run by the father-and-son team of Nestor Plasencia and Nestor Andrés Plasencia. “My father recalls that in 1992 very few clients came to Honduras and Nicaragua,” says Nestor Andrés. In high school at the time, he always accompanied his father to the tobacco fields and cigar factories. “The taste of the cigars around 1992 according to our experience were cigars with lighter wrappers and thinner ring gauges,” he says. “I remember many vitolas, such as coronas, lanceros, etc. Now the cigars that we make have more flavor with darker wrapper such as colorados and maduros.” Size preferences have shifted to much larger ring gauges, he says, noting that today’s tobacco varieties are more resistant to disease than they were 25 years ago, thanks to the genetic work that has been done in the fields. “The first thing my father said when asked about the tobacco industry in 1992 was, ‘There are two great eras in this industry: before Cigar Aficionado and after Cigar Aficionado. Period.’ ”

Manuel Quesada

Manolo Quesada remembers a time when cigar lovers were tied to one brand with very little desire to leave that pattern.” The level of cigar and tobacco knowledge of the smokers [in 1992] was very low or nonexistent,” says Quesada. “However, countries of origin did have a high level of loyalty.” The man behind such brands as Fonseca, Casa Magna and others also recalls that most cigars maxed out in thickness at 48 ring gauge, though Churchills had started to climb near the 50-ring-gauge range.

“In the 25 years since, the changes that have occurred are known by all. First and most impacting was the appearance of Cigar Aficionado, which started providing an immense amount of information that the smokers took in as long awaited nourishment. Smokers with a thirst for knowledge were now interested in countries, farms, varieties, manufacturers and their factories, tobaccos used in the blends of cigars they were enjoying, humidity and temperatures in all stages of tobacco fermentation, making and storing for aging. Smokers also became aware that their palates were evolving—more intense blends began to appear and thicker ring gauges also increased in popularity.”

Today, Quesada believes smokers are more informed than they ever have been. “Before, places where information could be obtained were nonexistent compared with today,” he says. Plus communication among smokers has changed the market drastically. “It’s a whole new world in the cigar industry.”

Hirochi Robaina

Hircohi Robaina was handed the keys to a tobacco kingdom by his legendary grandfather, Alejandro Robaina, who ran the family’s iconic farm, Cuchillas de Barbacoa in San Luís in Cuba’s Vuelta Abajo. When his grandfather died in 2010, the young Robaina took total control of the farm, keeping intact its reputation as one of the best tobacco growing lands in the island nation. “I used to sit on the porch with him nearly every night talking about tobacco,” he says. “I have notebooks filled with the things he taught me.” Robaina has not only kept the farm’s legend intact but he has expanded beyond Cuba in a way that would have been unheard of decades ago. He launched a cigar brand with Omar Gonzalez Aleman that is made in Nicaragua, and he consults on tobacco growing projects around the world. In 2010, he also started growing tobacco in Ecuador in collaboration with a cousin, Igmar Robaina.

Edward Sahakian, puffing in London in 1993.
Edward Sahakian, puffing in London in 1993.

Edward Sahakian

Edward Sahakian is puffing away on a Trinidad Reyes via a video chat from his London cigar store, tie knotted just so and a pleasant smile on his face. “Nineteen ninety-two for us is a landmark in the cigar world,” he says. “It’s like when people talk about B.C. and A.D., before Cigar Aficionado was published and after.” 

Sahakian opened his Davidoff shop in London in 1980, and has watched the market for cigars change considerably. “The biggest change I have seen is in a younger generation of people smoking cigars,” he says. He estimates the average age of his customer has gone from “50-plus” to around 35 over the past 25 years. He also has witnessed his customers evolving to embrace the value of aged cigars. Back in the early 1990s and before, he says, “A lot of people would throw [old cigars] away, thinking they’re gone beyond their sell-by date.”

One change the 73-year-old Sahakian hasn’t enjoyed is the fattening of cigars. “In the old days the fattest cigar was a robusto,” he says. “Now robusto is one of the smaller ring gauge cigars.” He enjoys the classic sizes, such as lanceros, and smokes several cigars a day. 

José Seijas, some 25 years ago, at work in La Romana.
José Seijas, some 25 years ago, at work in La Romana.

José Seijas

The career of José Seijas has not only spanned 43 years in the cigar industry, but includes an addendum. Best known as the man who once helmed the Tabacalera de Garcia factory, where the Dominican versions of Montecristo, H. Upmann and Romeo y Julieta are produced, Seijas briefly retired before forming his La Matilde Cigar Co. in 2013 and now makes cigars on a much smaller scale.

Not surprisingly, he has seen some substantial changes. “Blends are more complex, packaging plays bigger roles in purchase decisions, sizes have become larger and we have a wider range of consumers,” he says. “Cigar aficionados now span generations, from the young adults starting off their careers to their grandparents enjoying their retirement, they cross socioeconomic brackets and can enjoy the magical experience that is a good cigar all over the planet.”

Seijas has also seen a shift on the production side, as a business once dominated “by a handful of large companies” now is more diverse. “We now have the full range of enterprises—from one-man-shows to small and medium family-owned—all the way to multinational corporations,” he says. “The democratization of producers has provided a boon to our consumers.” 

Seijas says the change has not come without some important things remaining the same. “This has been an industry that has embraced the changes of our times without forgetting its roots,” he says. “While everything appears different, nothing has really changed: a cigar is still a cigar. It still gives us that singular experience that each of us has found in our favorite smoke. And that’s a beautiful thing, a beautiful thing indeed.”

The Turrents

If there is a first family of premium Mexican tobacco, it is the Turrents. Alberto and Alejandro Turrent, the father-and-son team behind Nueva Matacapan de Tabacos S.A. de C.V., not only make Te-Amo cigars but they grow more cigar tobacco than anyone else in the country. Their San Andrés maduro wrapper leaf, cultivated outside of Veracrúz, is in particularly high demand today.

That wasn’t always the case. “What my father remembers about the cigar industry in early 1992 is that back then the general feeling was a bit sad and pessimistic,” says Alejandro Turrent. “There was no excitement. People in the industry were happy if their sales were flat year after year. The majority of the cigar smokers were getting old and there weren’t any newcomers...I used to join my father in some shows, all the booths were quite simple, in general, you could see that there wasn’t much excitement going around,” says Turrent. “Of course things changed drastically in the years after.”

Stephen Willett

The Boston tobacconist L.J. Peretti had but one humidor in 1992, but over the years owner Stephen Willett has slowly removed pipes from the wall to make room for more cigars. These decisions have not been made in haste, as the tobacconist, founded in 1870, prides itself on offerings of pipe tobacco. But consumer interest in the growing cigar market forced Willett to carefully consider which brands he puts on his shelves. “I don’t buy every boutique cigar,” he says. Before the 1990s, L.J. Peretti would keep about $35,000 worth of cigar stock. Today it’s closer to $750,000. “But we still don’t have a walk-in humidor,” says Willett. “We take the box out of the humidor and give it to the customer. We’re old school.” 

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