In the minds of some, cigars are merely another vice, hardly different from a cigarette. For others, it’s something to indulge in on occasion. For us however, the enthusiasts, it represents much more. Cigars, and their culture are a lifestyle. Cigars incite passion into nearly all aspects of our lives. It brings about a sense of excitement and enthusiasm. A cigar can be the center of your focus, holding your attention with the way in which it invigorates your senses. A kick of nicotine can help you unwind and collect yourself after a long day. Old friendships rediscovered, and bonds formed between new friends; one does not have to look far to notice the ways in which cigars enrich the lives of those who choose to join the brotherhood.
Moving on, since taking over the writing duties for The Cigar King Blog several months ago, my goal has been to further expand the scope and breadth of topics covered on the blog. This is the first step in that direction, so I’d like to take a moment to elaborate. Working here at Cigar King has been a blessing for myself as a cigar enthusiast, and has afforded me many opportunities that would have otherwise been unavailable to me. One of those opportunities is access to individuals across all parts of the industry, in order to pick their minds for insight in all things cigar related. Thus, it became apparent that conducting interviews for the blog would be a great way to both expand the blog, and indulge in my passion for cigar nerd-ery. My aim with these interviews is to provide insight into their thoughts on various topics in the industry, what cigars mean to them, and a general knowledge of the men behind the magic.
One of the first people I was interested in interviewing is Jose Blanco, a man who has had his hand in the cigar industry for over four decades. He held the position of National Sales Director at La Aurora, and blended one of the most highly regarded cigars among enthusiasts – the 100 Anos. After retiring from La Aurora, Jose Blanco received an invitation from Dr. Alejandro Martinez Cuenca to become the Senior Vice President of Joya de Nicaragua, the oldest and arguably most prolific Nicaraguan tobacco company in existence. Together they released the Cuenca y Blanco (later changed to CyB), a cigar that according to halfwheel, took home the honor of cigar of the year across the internet. Despite his elevated positions on the business side of the companies he’s worked with, Jose has remained humble and hasn’t lost touch with his love of smoking. Through my own observations, and albeit brief interactions with the man, it’s apparent that Jose is a true enthusiast that doesn’t get too caught up in status or fame. Few people have put more thought into what goes into making a truly great cigar. Mr. Blanco continues to give back to the community by hosting seminars, aimed at teaching consumers on how to go about understanding the nature of how tobacco interacts with the palate, and how to further refine your ability to appreciate the finer points of a cigar. I could go on and on, but at this point I think it’s best to let the man speak for himself.
First and foremost, I can not thank you enough for doing this interview, it’s an honor to talk to a man in the industry who has forgotten more about tobacco than I will likely ever know. How are things in the world of Mr. Jose Blanco?
Thank you for those very nice words! I feel great thanks! I have spent a wonderful month in Sweden with my family and we’re now back home in the DR.
How did you first get started with smoking cigars?
Growing up, seeing my father smoking 5 to 6 cigars a day had some influence on me, also the fact that my uncle had a cigar-factory, Tabacalera Palma which I’m sure you know, so I took my first cigar at the age of 14 but my father caught me smoking and said “you’ll smoke cigars when you’re 16.” So I have been smoking cigars since I was 16.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to have a career in the industry?
I have always been as far as I can recall been passionate about cigars and in almost all my adult life I have been testing cigars for friends in the industry, I have always been thankful for their trust. I was working for the Empresa Leon Jimenez since 1981, starting at the brewery-division. Ever since then I was climbing the ladder and changing divisions in the company, and throughout the years I was part of the smoking panel for La Aurora. It was finally to my great happiness in 1999 that I was officially working full-time and only for La Aurora.
What’s your take on the current state of the tobacco industry? What trends do you think will positively affect the industry, and what trends do you think will have a negative impact?
Currently there is a lot of hype altogether, people are very enthusiastic about cigars, going to events, supporting the stores and the brands, making trips to cigar-making countries, and there are many great cigars being made. Also, many cigar-lovers are developing their own brands. It is altogether a very exciting time in our industry!
Lately there has been a trend of hype towards Nicaraguan cigars, and I was in fact one of the first ones to really blend in a lot of Nicaraguan tobaccos into my blends here in the DR many years back. The difference is that Nicaraguan cigars compared to most other origins have, until recently, made cigars with all, or almost all, local tobaccos: these are trends that are changing – after this hype, like most strong-in-the-moment-trends (like the boom in the 90’s), Nicaraguan cigars are starting to be a bit more blended, and the interest in Dominican cigars is getting more attention again this year. I only see a positive affect on that: the more stable and neat the competition, the more interesting is the industry as a whole, and finally the better cigars we all thrive to make! At the moment I don’t see any negative impact to be honest, the industry is growing and the competition is evening out.
If I really dig for a negative impact it would be taxes, smoking bans and government, but that is not in relation with any trend.
You have quite an extensive history in the industry, including being the man directly responsible for the famed 100 Anos. What do you personally consider to be your single biggest accomplishment of your career?
You said it – it is the 100 Años! That is a cigar to which that I dedicated over a year, day by day, blending, working, tasting. Not only that, I had the privilege of working at the oldest Cigar-company of the Dominican Republic for a great family and a great boss, so the concept itself of the 100 Años was a part of it that I truly loved.
How do you think the internet and social media has affected the industry? Companies like Drew Estate blew up, and I think it’s fair to say that a big part of that was due to their fantastic social media presence. What’s your take?
Social Media is a craze! It is, not only in our industry, but also in other industries and in our personal lives, something big with great overall impact, both good and bad – for instance, do we really need to know what our friends had for dinner and with what toothpaste they brush their kids’ teeth with! But within our industry of cigars I see only good impact! Social Media creates hype, no matter what is being posted, both positive and negative publicity is good publicity as “they” say.
I definitely use Social Media a lot but I am also very consistent – with a few exceptions of proudly showing my little son once in a while, I ONLY post about cigars and tobacco and what is related!
It is true that some companies have great success mainly due to Social Media. Drew Estate is of course huge in Social Media and they use it right – Jonathan Drew is the Dean of Social Media! However, at the end of the day, the cigars have to be great too, Social Media only carries you a little bit along the way, then ultimately it is about your blending. That is where I want to mention Drew Estate and Jonathan again – no matter their Social Media hype, they blend great cigars!
Who do you think is currently doing the most interesting work with tobacco, and why?
As many people know, I have the utmost respect for most cigar-companies and blenders, so it would be hard for me to choose who is currently doing the most interesting work. Of course there are a few that I can find most interesting right now, but I prefer not to mention them because yesterday it was others at the top of my list, and tomorrow it will surely change too. Basically, we all have up and downs, our crops change, we improve our blending-styles ongoingly… so most cigar-companies have been doing the most interesting work at some time or another.
Who do you think is the most talented blender right now?
There are many great blenders out there and I have many favorites, and for the same reasons as my previous answer I cannot answer that now – the most talented one today was someone else yesterday and will be someone else tomorrow.
Also, I always say taste is subjective. Some like spicy and earthy and some prefer sweet and smooth, some like medium to full strength and some like that extra power of full strength… Blenders have different styles of blending and some even have “signature-blending” – who is to say who is the most talented, that will be depending on taste of the consumer.
What do you think is the most important stage in a tobacco leafs life? Soil, curing and fermentation, aging? At what point does the leaf gain the qualities that will define it’s flavor?
It’s very easy, those points are all important and fundamental! A tobacco-leaf cannot gain its best qualities without each and every single one of these steps. For example, the soil could be very rich, the seed of good quality, the farmers done a great job picking and curing the tobacco, but if then the tobacco was over- or under- fermented you will not have the results desired. Under-fermenting would make the ammonia take over the flavors plus its bitterness and harshness. Over-fermenting would make it lack flavor. And so it goes for each and every step, they can all change one characteristic each.
I think it’s pretty fair to say that you posses one of the best palates in the industry. What, in your opinion, makes a cigar go from good to great? What qualities do truly special cigars posses that puts them above the rest?
First of all, thank you! Well, in all my seminar I give my list of six characteristics in making a great cigar: flavor, strength, aroma, complexity, balance, and a good long finish. And also, good construction is of course a given – bad construction can make a great cigar mediocre. So first of all, a truly Great cigar must have all those. But if I pick one single extra to give that special greatness it would be complexity! A great cigar has to have complexity, it has to have flavors that keeps your mind working throughout the smoke, maybe with a change of flavor at the second half of it and so on. And to top it off a good long finish that makes those flavors linger in your palate for a long time, keeping that cigar on your mind for a even longer.
Again the type of those complex flavors and the level of strength are subjective.
What’s your thought process when creating a new blend? Do you have a specific profile that you’re trying to achieve, or do you just throw blends together and see what works?
Again it is my list of musts in this order: flavor, strength, aroma, complexity, balance, and a good long finish. Then I am very much into flavor, I like to “truly blend” in the real sense and meaning of the word “blend.” I like to play with different tobaccos, different origins, marry them differently, surprise myself if I can. I do not follow a specific profile, no, I just want it full-flavored and full of complexity, then the profile of the flavors will show during this “playing around.” When I like the direction my blend is heading I then choose to work on that found profile. As for strength I usually prefer medium to full bodied, sometimes full bodied but never over-doing it. That is not to keep it “safe,” it is more for the flavors to peak through strong.
You’ve been in the industry for over 40 years; do you have any advice for people looking to get into the industry?
There is a lot of advice! Where to start… this is a very special industry. Competition is growing and blends are becoming more and more interesting. Social Media makes it look huge, there are so many people talking about cigars and giving opinions and asking questions, but in fact, we are a small world. In this industry one has to be very open-minded, genuine and full of respect. With great cigars at the table, an oil tycoon, a truck-driver and a 20-year-old band-member can all sit next to each other in genuine conversation. Then there is the respect for tobacco and for the subjectivity of taste that is a must. There is so much to advice, there is no way to give a single good answer. But this I can say: take your time! To make a cigar right, to blend it well, to find the right concept and make the name, the image and the blend and taste-profile all fit is extremely important, because as mentioned above in different ways, a cigar has so much to give, it is not just a smoke.
Do you have any regrets or things you would have done differently?
No, and I am honest when I answer this, there is nothing I regret. Of course, retiring from La Aurora was a very hard move, but at my age I realized that if I want to try something different it was time. Then, spending two years with Joya de Nicaragua was extremely interesting for me mainly due to my love for Nicaraguan tobaccos and I had the chance to really experience it hands on. And now, to be back in my roots of the Dominican Republic feels absolutely great! That basically sums it up, so no, I have no regrets, which is the way it should be – a good blender has to be a happy blender!
What’s your favorite cigar of all time, and what’s your favorite cigar in the last five years?
I have a number of favorite cigars and for sure, my list of favorites has changed a bit over the last five years and it will change again over the next years. But one cigar that was, is, and always will be on my list is La Aurora Cien Años. The Cien Años might be competing with a few other favorites now and then but it is definitely there at the top.
There has been rumors floating around that you will soon be in Scottsdale to work with Cigar King. Can you grant any legitimacy to this claim? 😉
LOL I like that! If I will be “working with” Cigar King is questionable lol, but one thing is for sure, you guys have not seen the last of me in Scottsdale! That’s a promise.
The Cuenca y Blanco was a collaboration between Dr. Cuenca and yourself, and arguably one of the best releases of last year. What did you two initial set out to make when you first got together? Do you have any inside stories about the making of that cigar you’d be willing to share?
The Cuenca y Blanco was essentially a name to fit the collaboration of a Nicaraguan and a Dominican, and the cigar itself was also the meaning of me making a cigar in Nicaragua as much as JDN making a cigar with a different type of blend. They mostly blend pure, or almost pure Nicaraguan tobacco blends, so this was a big change for them. The profile I wanted to give was indeed flavorful as I always prefer, and that was also what I found most interesting for JDN for a change and a try in a new direction for them.
To elaborate on the previous question; do you have any inside stories or information that you’d be willing to share? Any cool pieces of trivia that those of us not in the industry wouldn’t be privy to?
Well, I plan to stay in this industry safe and sound so I will not tell any juicy stories LOL.
A huge thanks to Jose Blanco for taking the time to do this an interview, and to go as in-depth with his answers as he did! Jose, you’ve been a friend of the Cigar King family for years, we look forward to seeing you again in person soon!