Pete Johnson has grown up in the cigar industry. The 41-year-old puffed his first premium cigar two decades ago while playing in a band, and soon his love of the leaf eclipsed his love for music. He quickly immersed himself in the cigar industry, forged friendships with major cigar makers and in 2003 created a cigar brand that he named Tatuaje, the Spanish word for tattoo. (Anyone who has seen his arms will instantly get the reference.)
Today, Tatuaje is one of the hottest cigar brands in America, with numerous scores of 90 points and higher. Johnson recently sat down over cigars and rum with senior editor David Savona for a long discussion about how he broke into the business and created such a memorable brand, as well as his plans for the future.
Cigar Aficionado: You’re from Maine.
Johnson: Born and raised in Maine. Moved to Los Angeles when I was 18 to do music.
Q: You were a bassist?
A: Yeah, bass guitar. I didn’t have a band. I just knew I needed to be in Los Angeles for the style of music I liked, which was Sunset Strip rock and roll. I was very green to L.A. Within a month I found a flyer for a band going on a small tour. We went on a short tour that got squashed after the first few shows. I think the tour manager ran out of money. We were getting kicked out of a lot of hotels. Later we played all the famous clubs, the Whisky, the Roxy. That was during the days when glam was really in. Grunge killed us all—that’s when the Sunset Strip died. I think half the city of L.A. tried to move up to Seattle.
Q: Is that when you took up cigars?
A: I was smoking and playing on stage. I started carrying around my kit—I had my empty cigar box, my lighter, my cutter, and at band practice I would smoke.
Q: Do you remember your first cigar?
A: Premium? It was a Pleiades petit corona. I remember calling my girlfriend at the time and apologizing because I spent $2.50 on a cigar. That was a good cigar, creamy, sweet, smooth.
Q: Can you tell me about your first job in the cigar business?
A: You want the real story?
A: I was working as a bouncer in a strip club. I had no money. I was shopping at Gus’s Smoke Shop. I loved the whole feel of the industry and I really loved cigars. This guy named Dennis Spike recommended me [to owner Jimmy Hurwitz] in late 1993. They needed a part-time guy for Sundays to help in the humidor and mix pipe tobacco. Sundays turned into a full-time job within six months, and I became their chief cigar buyer. I would study the humidor. I managed to take that humidor and take it from very few facings into a lot of facings, because I figured out this tray system. I think I smoked everything. I would go through the humidor and smell every cigar so I could get the sense of what was Dominican, what was Nicaraguan, what was Honduran. I collected books, I had memorabilia up the wazoo. I have the two different versions of the original Cigar Aficionado, and I still have every issue. I found that I did cigars way better than music anyways. Everyone was really friendly to me, and people took to me. It was a very welcoming feeling. If you showed your enthusiasm toward this industry, people would say, “Hey c’mon kid, let’s go.”
Q: What came next?
A: I had left Gus’s and stayed out of the retail business for six months. I visited cigar shops, factories. I actually tried to make a cigar back then, but it was impossible to find somebody who could make the brand.
Q: This was 1996?
A: Yes. Finally I said “I need a job.” And The Big Easy picked me up. I was there about a year and a half. Then The Grand Havana Room was having an issue with their humidor. I got into a conversation with the owner, Stan Shuster. He told me he had this plan to open stores. He brought me in.
Q: How long were you with Grand Havana?
A: I started my brand in 2003, but I actually stayed on and worked both jobs until 2006.
Q: You were still at Grand Havana when you started Tatuaje?
A: It wasn’t like I was printing money back then. It was a nice slow start. But after you guys did the Top 25 the second year, I was No. 4. Well, that year at the trade show, I couldn’t move.
Q: Let’s go back to the start of Tatuaje. How long was it in the back of your mind to make your own cigar brand?
A: I always wanted to do it. A friend of mine in the business, Ben Gehrman, had started working for Tropical. He said, “We got a guy who might be able to make you a cigar.” The first samples they sent me I thought were horrible. They showed up in Los Angeles in April 2003, and some guy named José Garcia, who they called Pepin, was there. He asked me in Spanish what I liked, and I said make me something on the stronger side. I still didn’t like them. We started a conversation about what he knew about Cuba, where he was from and that turned into me going to get a Cuban cigar out of my stash that I knew was smoking good at the time. He looked at me and he said, “You want one like this?” I said, “Do what you do best.”
Q: Did he make one on the spot?
A: Yeah. And it was great. He understood Cuban cigars better than what other people were making outside of Cuba. As soon as he tasted that Cuban he said, “This one’s easy.”
Q: How long did it take to go from that first meeting with Pepin to getting a product on the shelf?
A: They started rolling them right away. They were in a small space in another person’s warehouse. And the first dates on my boxes were May.
Q: That was quick.
A: I remember going down to the warehouse. It was Pepin, Jaime [Pepin’s son], Janny [Pepin’s daughter], Pepin’s wife Maria, and Jaime’s wife Danny. It was all family. But Jaime was also in charge of making sure the packing was right.
Q: So what do you do with those first cigars?
A: I had 50 boxes of each size. Originally I wasn’t going to put a band on it, but people said name recognition is everything. So I came out with that thin, ugly brown band. I didn’t want to take away from what was beautiful, the cigar itself. I didn’t know where I was going to sell them. Thanks to Stan Shuster, I was able to sell them in the [Grand Havana] clubs. That was June.
Q: How was the reception?
A: It was different. People dug the unique character of it. And when I went to the trade show I borrowed space from Cyril Brizard. I put my price list on top of a humidor and I walked away, ‘cause I had to do my job for Grand Havana. And as I was walking around I would see friends who were running stores, and I would say, “Try this cigar and tell me what you think.” I think I left the show with five orders.
Q: We have to talk about the name Tatuaje.
A: The name came about because Robby Levin, Carlos Fuente, Wayne Suarez, they all gave me the name “Tattoo Pete.” I had tattoos, but my OpusX tattoo really stood out. I kept on looking at different brand names, then I thought “let’s try Tatuaje.” People said you can’t pronounce the word, but I think it worked to my advantage. People would say, “do you have those Tats? Do you have those tattoo cigars?” My first rating was the following trade show and I got a 90. That was a big deal for me. Every week I would pick up a new account, slowly, slowly, slowly, and I walked into the trade show in 2006 with 125 accounts, and I walked out with 350.
Q: That was a result of your excellent showing in the Top 25?
A: That really killed it for me. I could not move. I was stuck in my booth. I was stuck against the table the whole day. I didn’t have enough product. There were times, early on, when the factory [in Miami] would call me and say, “Pete, we need you to order some more cigars.” I said, “Be patient.” But after the whole craze of the ratings and everything I would call the factory every week—I need more of this and more of this and more of this.
Q: When did you realize you could make a full-time business out of your cigar brand?
A: In 2003 it was a hobby. In 2004 it started to become a business. In 2006 I said I should do this full time, or I shouldn’t do it at all. I realized I had something.
Q: Your first cigars all came from Pepin’s factory in Miami. Can you talk about the expansion into Nicaragua?
A: I knew I needed to do something different. I couldn’t get away with the seven [Tatuaje sizes] and the four Cabaiguans I had in Miami. It wasn’t enough. I knew I had to do something with the Tatuaje line because that’s what people wanted. But I didn’t want to just take the brown label [the original Tatuaje] and have that made in another country. So Tatuaje Havana VI [the red label, made in Nicaragua] had to prove itself.
Q: Did it take some time?
A: Everybody wanted the Miami cigars. But it’s funny. I love the rollers in Miami, but I feel like some of the rollers down in Nicaragua are making better cigars. The Garcias are down in Nicaragua every week, and some of the rollers there are just amazing. Miami will still hold a soft spot, and Pepin told me, “I’ll never stop making cigars in Miami, because this is the birthplace of Pepin Garcia.”
Q: Let’s talk about your relationship with the Garcias.
A: They’re like family. We kind of grew up with each other. We really made a life for ourselves by doing something together. They give me credit all the time and it’s a two-way street. I praise what they do. I think they’re phenomenal cigarmakers, and they take the time to teach me. They took the time to actually explain the history of what they did, and why they roll the way they roll. That’s why I made a commitment to work with them only.
Q: Tatuaje is a huge success. It was named the hottest brand in America in 2009 by Cigar Insider. And you’re selling more cigars than you used to. How many cigars are you making now?
A: Worldwide? Just under two million.
Tatuaje is the majority. I do just under 400,000 in Miami, with the small amount of rollers they have there. All the rest is Nicaragua. And surprisingly enough we do it with three people in the office: one guy on the computer, two packing and me on the road. I increase 12 to 15 percent every year, comfortably. I like slow growth.
Q: Some would say 12 to 15 percent growth isn’t that slow.
A: (Laughs) Yeah, I know. It’s a comfortable growth level though.
Q: How big do you see this getting in the foreseeable future?
A: I don’t know. I don’t think I want to make over three million cigars. That seems a lot for what I want to do. I’m on the road a lot. Retail events. There’s so many people coming out with new brands and there’s a lot of great ones coming out. Even now I have to step up my game to make sure my brand stays viable. That’s probably also the reason why I have so many brands. I wanted to build not just a Tatuaje book, I wanted to build a portfolio of old brands, and I’ve been lucky to get a lot of old brands that weren’t registered, and I’ve been able to snatch them up and get the artwork. El Triunfador is an old brand, La Riqueza, Fausto. Most of them were chinchalle brands. I try to pay tribute to what they might have been back in the old days.
Q: One of the things your success has allowed you to do is push the boundaries of tradition. Talk about what you’ve done with cigars like La Vérité.
A: La Vérité was really my way of not trying to bullshit people. That’s why it’s called “the truth.” I wanted to see if it could be done. It’s one farm, one year, truest form of a puro, and it’s really to see how tobacco will age. The key is fermentation. Simple. If you don’t have good fermentation or you just didn’t finish the fermentation, you’re not going to be able to put that tobacco in a cigar and really have it taste right. Or age right. There are some people who take tobacco and age it for years before they start using it, but as long as you have that first fermentation, you can start using it immediately. So my point with Vérité was the tobacco is ready, it’s clean, there’s nothing bad left in it that’s going to make it taste wet or grassy or whatever, or filled with ammonia, let’s put it in the cigar and let it age gracefully in the cigar, and it will hold the strength levels longer.
Q: You have great cigars, you’ve built a huge success—is there something you haven’t done that you want to do in the future?
A: In cigars, I don’t think I have much more to offer. You can’t come out with something new now. I don’t think there are more tricks that no one has seen before. But I also want to do wine one day. I’m doing my own wine in Bordeaux right now—just a barrel. I started with 2011, which isn’t a great year.
Q: You’re working with a winery?
A: It’s a small château, you can pick the grapes, be part of the whole process if you get in early. I’m in late, so I’m adopting juice and going there in April to do my blend of three parcels in St. Emilion. It’s a personal project for me, it’s so I can see if I know what a good wine is. One day, I actually want to have a vineyard. That’s the one thing I’m really curious about.
Q: Why St. Emilion?
A: I go there every year. That’s vacation for me. I have good friends in the industry. I like that style more than I do left bank. I like right bank wines. I decided to work with those grapes first.
Q: So 10 years from now we might see the debut of Tatuaje wine?
A: Yeah. One day. I’ve been very fortunate. One of my keys to success in this industry is I had good people who taught me. I had good mentors. I think it’s a privilege, and working with these great people has taught me great lessons in this industry.