Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a tiny town with a population just over 30,000, recently hosted one of the largest cigar events the state has ever seen—the Drew Estate Barn Smoker. In a section of the state nearly three hours from Louisville and more than an hour from Nashville, out in the country past tobacco and corn fields, cigar lovers learned first-hand how fire-cured tobacco is made.
Guests came from as far away as Florida, Michigan and California to learn about Kentucky Fire Cured Tobacco on October 1, rubbing elbows with Drew Estate co-founder Jonathan Drew and his crew in a tobacco barn rocking with loud music.
To say Drew Estate has a following would be an understatement. At nine in the morning the line to attend the 10 a.m. event was already dozens of people deep. It moved swiftly as guests, who stood clutching cups of coffee and smoking cigars, presented their tickets at one station, made name tags at the next, and purchased cigars at a third.
The massive tobacco barn where the event was held looked different than the others in the area—it had closed sides, unlike the open-sided ones lining the service road. Tobacco hung in numerous rows overhead, forming a luxurious tapestry that was low enough to touch. Tables and chairs filled the space and guests filed in for more than an hour.
Music played as people mingled, sipped cocktails and smoked cigars. Then, suddenly, Jonathan Drew appeared on stage, speaking not only of the program to come but of the Cigars for Warriors charity, which provides cigars to soldiers serving outside the United States. Then he handed the microphone over to Sam Morales, Drew Estate's lifestyle marketing manager. Morales divided the group in two, sending the first group out to start the first of four sessions.
Today's consumer wants to know as much as possible about the products they buy, and the Barn Smoker meets that need by showing cigar enthusiasts how the process of barn smoking tobacco works firsthand. Typically tobacco used for cigars is air cured, while fire-cured tobacco is subjected to smoke from a low-smoldering fire over a period of days. The process is often repeated a few times. Drew Estate uses this tobacco in its Kentucky Fire Cured line, which made its debut in 2013.
The first session took place around a massive bonfire behind a nearby barn and allowed the consumers to do a little work as they emulated part of the fire-curing process. Guests scooped embers into a metal pail, threading a long pole through the handle and carrying it into the nearby barn for the next session. There both Drew and tobacco farmer Robert Gray explained the process of fire curing the tobacco as they used the embers to stoke up a small fire. During a full barn-smoking session, flammable mulch material is piled up along the floors and fires are stoked in evenly spaced divots. The fire smolders for days, making the barn hot and adding the smoky, peaty note that is present in the final product. Finally, when all the flammable material is used up, the barn is opened up to air out.
A few barns over, the third session featured Drew Estate's Pedro Gomez, who explained the process of harvesting and hanging tobacco as well as the differences in leaf treatments like air curing and fermenting. The last station featured both Drew Estate's Master Blender Willy Herrera as well as Kyle Henderson, his counterpart at Angel's Envy whiskey. Together they explained the art of blending their respective products.
After the stations came a late lunch, leisure cigar smoking time and, finally, the raffle everyone had been waiting for. The eight hour-plus day flew by, leaving everyone in attendance with the distinctive aroma of a barn full of fire-cured tobacco, and a new appreciation of the work involved to make it happen.