Changing of the Guard – Recent shifts in the cigar business

Some people say change is a good thing while others are the exact opposite, they can’t handle it. In the past year, the cigar business has seen some serious changes, not from a tobacco and cigar perspective, but from a manufacturer business side of things. It started with CAO and General being merged under the Swedish Match umbrella, followed by Sam Leccia leaving Oliva, the company that gave him his start. We then saw Willie Herrera, then the master blender and cigar maker for El Titan de Bronze join forces with Jonathan Drew and company at Drew Estate. And most recently we saw Jose Blanco, the long time face of La Aurora, retire from his position with his former employer to eventually take a similar position with Joya de Nicaragua. All of this makes for some serious shake-ups in the cigar industry and leaves many people wondering where this all leads. Some of these changes have been in effect for long enough for both retailer and consumer to see the changes begin, while others are still so fresh we have yet to decide for ourselves how great they could be.

Let’s start by looking at the merger of General Cigar and CAO. Many people saw this change as the death of a smaller brand, CAO, because the 800lb gorilla would destroy it. So far the opposite seems to be happening, with General moving Rick Rodriguez from his previous position working with La Gloria Cubana into a partnership with Ed McKenna to oversee and market CAO. Rick has been training for years under Benji Menendez, a master blender with great success and respect in this business. Rick took this opportunity on head first and charged right into it, beginning to blend a new cigar for CAO almost immediately, and looking to prove the naysayers wrong. In doing so, he created OSA, which stands for Olancho San Agustin, the area for which the wrapper leaf for this cigar is grown. While this product is just hitting shelves in local B&M’s, it was met with early success and fanfare at the annual tobacconist trade show, IPCPR, in July. Ed McKenna is the marketing man behind this new product and has stuck to the edgier style that CAO is known for. Using a white box with lime green and black as the complementary colors, this cigar truly stands out and catches ones eye. It isn’t a full bodied monster like a lot of product we see hitting the market these days as it stays firmly in the medium body range with a nice crisp flavor. As part of the launch of this product, Rick will be traveling to B&M’s throughout the country on the CAO OSA Sol tour starting in September. Right now dates for the event are planned into November, with more dates to be added as they come closer. Be sure to check out CAO’s website or with your local tobacconist to see when they are coming to a town near you. Rick is a truly great cigar guy and this event is not one you want to miss. He will be here on Saturday, November 12th for our CAO OSA Sol event.

Moving forward, we look at a change that hasn’t fully played out, we’ve only started to see it begin. I am talking about Sam Leccia leaving his original “home”, Oliva Cigar Co. Sam is credited with the creation of both the Cain and Nub lines and the idea behind Studio Tobac, the edgy design and innovation arm of Oliva Cigar Co. Unfortunately, this was not a pretty split and became quite the topic at the beginning of the summer in the tobacco world. Shortly after leaving Oliva, Sam decided to launch his own brand of cigar, aptly titled Debut. We as tobacconists were to see and sample this cigar at the IPCPR in Las Vegas, however it was revealed that Sam had a non-compete clause as part of his departure and Oliva stopped this from happening. We haven’t heard much out of Sam’s camp in recent months but Oliva continues on. Studio Tobac appointed Bryan Scholle the new ambassador for Cain and Nub and has sent him on the road for the Studio Tobac Tour. They built a custom Studio Tobac Corvette, packed his cigar rolling gear into the matched trailer, and sent Bryan out to roll cigars and eventually raffle off the ‘Vette. This tour included events that started on the East coast in February of 2011, making its way towards the West coast, and ending in November in Florida. Even without Mr. Leccia, Studio Tobac has forged ahead and continues to create new product with Bryan at the helm steering the ship. What will happen with Sam has yet to be seen and unfortunately will end up being played out in court.

The next major movement we all saw created quite a splash. Willie Herrera, the cigar master and man behind El Titan de Bronze left his former position to join the boys at Drew Estate. Willie had spent years working on and creating this small boutique blend out of Miami that had quite the following at the time of his departure. This change is just part of Drew Estate’s effort to expand into the non-infused market for which they have become known through cigar lines such as Acid, Natural, and Tabak Especial. Willie will be creating blends in Drew Estates factory located in Esteli, Nicaragua and will have access to many tobaccos for which he never has before. Steve Saka, the President of Drew Estate, has stated that Willie will spend the first year of his time working closely with his new teammates, working with new tobaccos, and eventually hitting the road to meet the people who will one day be smoking his creations. This has the makings of a great new relationship and should add nicely to the non-infused portfolio they currently have, including Liga Privada and the soon-to-be released Liga Undercrown. One thing is for sure, working for Drew Estate opens many doors for Willie and should allow him to truly hit his pinnacle as a cigar blender and master.

The most recent change we have seen was the departure of Jose Blanco from La Aurora S.A., a company which he was employed with in some capacity for 29 years. Starting with Grupo Leon Jimenes as part of it’s beer and cigarette distributorship, Jose would eventually join Guillermo Leon as part of La Aurora’s tasting panel because Guillermo recognized Jose’s passion and palette. In 1999, Jose took the position of Sales Director for La Aurora, a title he held until his retirement in June of 2011. He did one last blending seminar for La Aurora at the IPCPR in Las Vegas and then left on a long vacation. Shortly after returning he made a trip to Nicaragua where he met with old friends such as Don Pepin Garcia, Jonathan Drew, and Dr. Alejandro Martinez Cuenca. During this trip, he accepted a position as Senior Vice President of Joya de Nicaragua, responsible for brand and blend development and working with the consumer public. He relocated from the Domincan Republic to Nicaragua and has already begun blending and testing new cigars. Part of this major change for Blanco also means working closely with Drew Estate as they are the U.S. distributor for JdN. Blanco made a name for himself in this business blending for the oldest cigar company in the Dominican and will continue his legacy with the oldest cigar maker in Nicaragua, quite the accomplishment for a boy from the Bronx. Jose’s passion for this business was apparent when he left La Aurora as he said himself he would be back after his vacation because cigars are “in his blood”.

All of these changes mean many things for the cigar industry. Some of these changes have already started to make waves and be seen while others are still in their infancy. While some people just can’t accept change, this industry has been around for a long time and change has what’s kept it alive. Changes like we’ve talked about above keep the business on it’s toes by injecting new and fresh ideas to manufacturers we know and love. For a business that is steeped in such tradition and history, it is amazing what new blood can do. Combining the radical ideas of people like Jonathan Drew with the traditional style of Willie Herrera or the historical perspective of both La Aurora and Joya de Nicaragua could mean great things for consumers. Only time will tell and that time can’t come soon enough.

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