Francis Ford Coppola likes these cigars so much that he established his own private label to sell them at his winery in Napa. Madonna was a bit shocked when I offered her one, long before her famed appearance on David Letterman's show. Rush Limbaugh tried one and began to recommend these cheroots to his listeners.
The smokes in question are not premium cigars. With prices that start out at 45 cents each and top out at a dollar and a quarter, the cigars produced by the Avanti Cigar Company are not status symbols. But for the serious connoisseur who wants to experience a unique, mild, and flavorful smoke, these Italian-style cheroots are anything but a step down.
"We feel it's our turn now to be part of the cigar phenomenon," says Tony Suraci, Jr., marketing director and part of the third generation of the Scranton, Pennsylvania based clan that produces Parodi, DeNobili, Avanti, Petri, and several other regionally recognized brand names for the Toscano-style cigar market. All told, the company manufacturers and distributes over 30 million 100% US tobacco cigars annually. While those numbers might sound impressive, the company routinely sold two to three times that number during its heyday in the 1960s. Nonetheless, Avanti still produces more all-tobacco cigars than any other U.S. company.
Dark-fired tobacco that is fermented and aged before rolling is what makes these smokes unique. Fermented? "The same as a brewer fermenting hops or a vintner fermenting grapes," says Dominic Keating, one of the third generation owners, and head of production at Avanti's 35,000 square foot plant. The filler is fermented for 61 days in Lancaster, Pennsylvania before being shipped to the Scranton facility. Keating explains, "You just can't achieve this taste any other way."
The filler is very wet when it arrives in hogsheads huge, round wooden containers - at the Scranton facility, and it's then dried before being sent to the factory floor, where it is wrapped. "The wrapper goes around the filler twice," says Tony Jr. "We don't use a homogenized binder because it's made with some non-tobacco elements."
The company has 45 employees in the Production end. Sixteen machines make the five cheroot sizes that the company markets, in 31 packages, under a variety of brand names. (A cheroot is a cigar clipped at both ends during manufacturing.) The sizes vary in length from 3.5 to 6.5 inches long, with ring gauges from 34 to 37.
Once the filler and wrapper are joined, the newly minted cheroots are then placed in curing rooms where large trays of cigars are racked to the ceilings. "It's not only a drying process," says Keating. "It's here that the wrappers ferment and are married to the filler."
Halfway through the curing, some of the cigars are cut into the more-popular half-sized cheroots. Once the curing is complete, the hardened cheroots are either packaged immediately or they are hand-brushed with anisette or bourbon flavors. "The anisette-flavored Avanti cigar is our second biggest seller," Tom, Jr. says. (Avanti also manufactures private label flavored cigars for Francis Ford Coppola and others, using red wine and vanilla flavors.) The flavored cigars sit overnight before being packaged. All packaged cigars, flavored or natural, are then sent to the humidor for a final mellowing of three months, before being shipped. The total combined aging process is six months. (Caveat Emptor: Smokers familiar with a premium stick should be aware that the Toscano-style cheroot is hard and dry when smoked Chomping down can cause the cigar to disintegrate between the teeth.)
The brand names for Avanti products include the DeNobili and Parodi lines, Kentucky Cheroots, the bourbon-flavored Ram Rod and Ram Rod Longs (featuring Tony Suraci, Jr. as the cowboy on the package). On the West Coast they are marketed under the Petri label.
While the Parodi, DeNobili, and Petri brands have enjoyed a largely regional popularity, the anisette- and bourbon-flavored cigars have national followings. This phenomenon was by design. Marc Suraci, another third generation family member, notes, "With the pleasant flavored cigars, we looked to reach a man in his 30s, like me, who wants to look good while, at the same time, exude a nice aroma from his cigar. These days, we have cigar smokers of both sexes taking advantage of the cordial aroma of bourbon Ram Rods and anisette Avanti."
The dark-fired tobacco that is used for both wrappers and filler in the Avanti products is grown in eleven counties in Kentucky and Tennessee. Anthony Suraci Sr., president and son of one of two brothers who originally founded the company in the early 1900s, is the chief tobacco buyer. He was in the middle of buying his share of the 1997 crop when we spoke. "We buy the wrappers directly from the farmers," he says. The Italian government's cigar-making monopoly and a Swiss manufacturer are the only other entities that buy wrapper from the dark-fired crop.
"Our representatives follow the crop all the way from the fields through the curing barns," notes Suraci Sr. "We choose the wrapper after the crop is cured and partially stripped. We buy the filler at auction."