SMOKE: What are the origins of the Drew Estate cigars?
MARVIN: Jon and I went to college together. We were fraternity brothers, and we started smoking cigars, mostly during card games. At the time, John was working for [New York] Senator Al D’Amato, then he went to law school.
JON: I smoked my first real memorable cigar with D’Amato, in Washington. I’d smoked in college a bunch of times, but right around then, ‘92 or so, that’s where it became heavy-duty.
MARVIN: And then in June of ‘95, we opened our own cigar store.
SMOKE: What made you want to open a cigar store after getting out of college?
MARVIN: We were both in other careers: Jonathan was in law school; I was in the financial world. The store was a side venture. And it turned out that before long, we ended up putting in more time at this so-called side venture than in what we were really doing for a living. That’s when we said to ourselves, “Well, this is a passion that we really enjoy.”
SMOKE: What was the first cigar you put on the market?
JON: The first one wasn’t even put on the market. We created it just for our own store, a house brand. It was called La Vieja Habana, named after the Old Habana in Cuba. We weren’t even looking for a “Cuban” taste. We were just looking for a special-tasting cigar, and we wanted to use Cameroon. We had it made in Manhattan, by Antonio Almanzar, a Dominican who’d been working in Manhattan for 30 years as a master blender and roller. He had a little shop with just him and one other cigar roller. I remember going in there in a business suit and he’s back there - there’s cockroaches running around, and he’s rolling cigars - and we said, “Sir, we have a proposition for you.” We became friends and he started to blend us some cigars. I became his personal apprentice for over a year, until he could no longer purchase quality materials. Unfortunately, he died in a car accident in the Dominican a few years later. He was a great cigar guy, a fantastic mentor, really involved in the leaf.
SMOKE: What kind of a blend was in the cigar?
JON: Dominican filler with a Cameroon binder and Ecuadorian wrapper, all torpedoes. People really liked it, but we couldn’t fill the demand because this guy was just a local tobacco retailer in New York City. All the good tobacco started going to the big companies.
So we got in touch with Nick Perdomo of Tabacalera Perdomo. Big Nick had his factory in Miami at the time, and I started going out there and worked with him. He had about 150 rollers at the time; it was packed. I would stay over there for like 30 days at a time, just learning what was going on in their factory. Finally we relaunched La Vieja Habana, with new, unique packaging and Nick as the manufacturer. People loved it and we promoted the hell out of it. We stayed with Nick for about two years, and then after Hurricane Mitch, we realized there just wasn’t sufficient space in the factory for us. He was getting so successful with La Tradicion Perdomo Reserve, there simply wasn’t room in the factory to make our products anymore. He couldn’t fulfill our demand at the time.
SMOKE: When did you make the transition from store-owners to full-time manufacturers?
JON: At one point, we closed the store and were selling La Vieja Habana while repping other brands. So we both learned that side of the business - how to be reps.
MARVIN: At the same time, we were making a decision: are we going to just be distributing cigars, or are we going to get hardcore? One day, Jon came to me and said, “I can do it. I can open up a factory. But what it’s going to mean is me moving down to Nicaragua.” This was in late ‘98, after Mitch. That’s when we opened up our first factory.
SMOKE: And that’s where Natural and Acid were born. Which came first?
MARVIN: Acid came out first. We introduced it at the 1999 RTDA trade show.
SMOKE: What convinced you that the market was ready for something like the Acid line, something radically different from the cigars that were out there?
JON: Everybody likes different things. People like different tastes in food, wine, and everything else. With cigars, we realized that we wanted a blend that was a little bit more dynamic, more adventurous, more exotic than other products that were offered on the market. We know this is a market where people are willing to experiment. The whole passion of smoking cigars is trying something new and saying, “Hey, I really like this.” So, we knew that people out there wanted to experiment with some more exotic tobaccos.
SMOKE: Did you feel like you were taking a risk commercially?
JON: Of course. The risk is that, once you make that decision, the next day you already have some people who say, “Those guys aren’t cigar people. They’re not real cigar makers. They don’t know anything.” To them, we say, speak to the few people who’ve been to Nicaragua, and toured our two cigar factories and tobacco fields.
SMOKE: What led you to places like Turkey and Syria - places not generally known for cigar tobacco?
JON: Marvin and I went to Amsterdam, and we were experimenting with a lot of Dutch tobacco. People are very serious about smoking in the Netherlands. You can’t smoke Dutch tobacco as puro; it would taste like pepper. But a little bit of it the right way, blended with a smoother tobacco to give it a little balance... we realized that if we put a lot of work into this, we can really blend some intricate tobaccos.
MARVIN: We were experimenting with different tobaccos as long as five years ago. There are dozens of countries that produce tobaccos, and we’ve experimented with just about all of them at this point. When we started blending certain tobaccos from countries such as Turkey, Syria, Cyprus, that had never been used, to our knowledge, in a cigar, we saw that some of their properties mixed really well with each other. We call it gourmet blending. It’s horizontally blending, not from two or three different regions, but from as many as 12 different regions.
SMOKE: When you perfected and put these unconventional blends out on the market, what was the early reaction from retailers?
MARVIN: We debuted the Natural line aboard a yacht, at a party with about 30 tobacco retailers. By the time the boat landed to shore, we knew we had a hit. These guys were calling workers on their cell phones, telling them to order some.
JON: You know why everybody liked it? A lot of cigar brands compete in a strong, super-full-bodied market, but the more-subtle Natural is always a pleasant smoke, with no bite at all. You’ll never smoke it and say it’s too harsh, too bitter, or too sharp. It’s a true medium-body cigar. These days, with everybody pumping lijero into cigars all day long, it’s a welcome change.
SMOKE: For the record, where did the Acid cigar line get its name?
MARVIN: Acid is a person. His name is Scott Chester, and he’s an artist. His nickname is Acid, which is an acronym for his company’s name, Arielle Chester Industrial Design. Arielle is his daughter.
SMOKE: What’s his connection to the company?
MARVIN: He’s an industrial designer. He’s worked with some of the biggest names in a variety of industries. He worked on the design of the Acid brand. Acid is an exciting, racy cigar. It fits Scott perfectly, because he’s an exciting guy. And a great artist.
SMOKE: What are some of the extra steps that you take in the aging and fermentation process to give these cigars the unique taste that they have?
JON: I believe Jorge Padrón once said that great factories produce only two or three blends; anything more than that is too difficult. We make 47 blends in a factory that’s just three years old. With the Natural, [the unique flavor] is really just a case of that intricate blending. With Acid, there’s a whole other step to it. A lot of Acid’s consistency comes from the aging process. We lay the tobacco down on pine; not many people use pine, and it gives the cigar a completely different taste. Aging it for a long period is also essential - a minimum of 120 days. Then there’s a seven-step process in which we blend up to a hundred oils, herbs and botanicals throughout the line. Each size in the line is independent of each other.
MARVIN: We also use four different types of red wine and sangria.
JON: We make the sangria in a garage twice a year. We condition the leaves in it, keeping them moist and humid. It’s a great way to age tobacco leaves.
SMOKE: What else is unique about the Acid and Natural lines?
MARVIN: With most cigars, the difference between their toro and a robusto is, well, an inch. Whereas with Acid and Natural, the difference between say, Liquid, which is a 5 x 50, and Freedom Flight, which is 6 x 50, is a whole world. No two blends are alike.
JON: There are different blends within the Acid line. We have red, blue, gold, purple. We have the Acid One blend. Now we have a new one called Acid Subculture.
In the Natural, it’s similar. Every cigar is a different blend, but certain sizes have similar characteristics, so we linked them together. If someone likes a Dirt, which is part of our Virgin Cuban Seed line, you’ll probably like a Root. It’s the diversity of the lines that allow a smoker to have a unique experience every time.
SMOKE: Was the Industrial Press line - a more conventional cigar with some interesting shapes - a response to critics who held the view that you only do what they consider “flavored” cigars?
JON: Not at all. We like cigars. We like Fuente, Padrón, Perdomo, Camacho - a lot of Nicaraguan cigars - so one day we said, “Hey, let’s blend some cigars primarily with this great Nicaraguan tobacco.” Then we wrapped them with a beautiful sun-grown Ecuador wrapper from the Oliva family.
SMOKE: How would you describe that cigar’s flavor profile?
MARVIN: Medium to full. The people who are expecting a taste similar to an Acid and Natural won’t find that in an Industrial Press. But if you like those Nicaraguan-style cigars, you’ll enjoy them. We really put time into aging them well.
JON: And even if you’re a fan of Acid, or Natural, or both, and you’re looking to try a more traditional blend, this is for you.
SMOKE: It seems your company’s always been about following instincts and bucking tradition. Is that an important philosophy in this smaller, post-boom market?
JON: Well, it’s not a smart thing to do.
MARVIN: No. If you’re looking to start a business, don’t look towards us as a model! (Laughs) We just follow our hearts, you know? And that’s what we’re doing by re-releasing La Vieja Habana, which never really got the chance it deserved.
JON: The first million boxes will be hitting the stores by the beginning of June And the tobacco is slightly different from the original. It’s got a really nice corojo wrapper. The Oliva family supplied a great deal of the tobacco for this one, also. It’s a tremendous, full-bodied smoke.
MARVIN: The brand means a lot to us. It’s what started us out, literally, in a little smokeshop in New York City. Now we’re full circle.
SMOKE: Now that you have companies like Corona Cigar - who you’re making the Ambrosia cigar for - coming to you for your specific type of product, is that a validation of everything you’ve done, the notion that you’ve created something that other companies are looking to get?
MARVIN: The validation comes in many forms. Both our parents have been extremely supportive; we’d never have succeeded without them. The people in our company deserve all the credit in the world, from our operations manager Michael Hyatt; our VP of sales, Rick Ardito; our COO, Mitch Budman; Michael Cellucci, our director of sales and marketing; David Sather, our inside sales rep; Alex Casula, our secretary; to Erik Budman, our warehouse manager. We’ve become a close-knit family that defines “teamwork.” The same goes for Marielos Baltodano, VP of Nicaragua operations, whose assistance to Jonathan has been invaluable.
JON: Working with tobacco legends in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Mexico, and around the world also makes you realize how much we still have to learn and explore.