You would expect to get a tattoo in this part of Los Angeles on Sunset Boulevard, where most of the shops are funky clothes stores, offbeat restaurants, foreign language bookstores and the odd guitar shop. But it's also where Pete Johnson of Tatuaje ("tattoo" in Spanish) calls home for most of his working day.
I walked into his offices in early January, and nearly fell over a shiny new black Ducati Monster motorcycle parked just inside the front door. It was still smoldering from a recent ride down Sunset Strip. Pete, 36, was hanging out with a couple of cigar shop owners from Southern California in his small lounge area.
"This is a cool hangout, Pete," I say to the heavy metal guitarist—turned—boutique cigar manufacturer. We lit up small petit coronas from his La Riqueza label while walking around his offices. They were mellow yet flavorful with plenty of tobacco and tea character. They left your mouth fresh and clean with each puff, just like a fine Cuban cigar.
In fact, Pete is a big Cuban cigar fan, and he has modeled all of the cigars made under his six brands—Tatuaje, La Riqueza, Cabaiguan, Cojonu, Triunfador and Ambos Mundos—after the great Havanas. Ambos Mundos is a new brand that is expected to be launched this year, while Tatuaje is his most sought-after smoke. In all, he sells about 1.2 million cigars a year. Pepin and Jaime Garcia make Johnson's cigars in their factories in Miami and in Estelí, Nicaragua. Pete started having cigars made for him in 2003.
"I have always styled my cigars after Cuban cigars," says Pete with a smile. Elaborate and colorful tattoos spread from under his T-shirt onto his forearm. A large part of his body is tattooed. Tall and handsome, Pete looks the rocker he is. "The Cubans are the ones to beat when it comes to cigars. I don't want to beat people who have brought me up in the cigar business, like the Fuentes, the Padróns or Litto Gomez. It's just like wine. If I were making a wine, then I would want to try to compete with the best in France."
The boy from Maine is doing pretty damned well already and certainly has the Cubans on the run. His cigars have racked up high points and kudos in this magazine, including a most recent ranking of No. 13 in the magazine's Top 25 cigars of 2008 for the Cabaiguan Guapo (92 points). He says that he can't meet the demand for all of his cigars, but that doesn't seem to bother him. He has always taken things slow and easy.
"I always went into it thinking that this was my hobby, that I love it a lot, and I am going to make sure that I don't force-feed this to people," he says, kicking back in a leather lounge chair. "If people like it, then they will sell it, they will buy it and they will smoke it. But I am never going to be the guy that gets on the phone and says, 'Hey, I am Pete Johnson. How about trying my cigar?' That's the first guy you hang up on."
He still remembers the first time that he thought he might be on to something in making cigars. He was working for the Grand Havana Room, a private cigar club and retail shop in Beverly Hills, California, and a customer smoked one of his cigars and ordered a few boxes. The man was from Switzerland and a major Habano lover. Pete gave him one of his cigars and told him that he might want to try it along with the other top non-Cubans that he sold him that day, including Fuente Fuente OpusX and Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series.
"He lit up my cigar in front of me and in the first millimeter he bought a box," says Pete, with a huge grin. "The next day, he came back and bought two more boxes . . . that was a big compliment!"