At our annual Premium Cigar Association trade show last week, we were fortunate to sit in on an amazing Blending Seminar with some of the industry’s greats: Manuel Quesada, Nestor Plasencia Jr., Christian Eiroa and moderated by Michael Herklots. This one hour session was inspiring to say the least — no matter how many cigars we smoke, or years we spend in the industry as retailers, we’ll never fully comprehend the depth and nuance of premium tobacco like these gentlemen who have dedicated their lives to creating the cigars we love from farms and factories nurtured by generations.
This session was so jam-packed, we covered just two of the topics the panel discussed in last week’s Caucus Brief, “Microclimates” and “Maintaining a Blend.” Continuing from where we left off, we’ll share what the panel had to say about “Puro vs. Blend,” “Innovation,” and a quick look at their “Bucket Lists.”
“Puro vs. Blend”
“What are your thoughts?,” posed Michael to the panel. Meaning both “cigar” and “pure” in Spanish, when used in this sense a “puro” refers to a cigar made entirely with tobaccos from one country. While all cigars comprise a blend, in this conversation “blend” refers to combining tobaccos from different countries in a single cigar.
“We love puros,” said Nestor. With farms and factories in both Nicaragua and Honduras, the Plasencias control every aspect of what goes into their cigars.
“99% of what we make are puros,” said Christian, “and blending starts in the sorting and fermentation rooms. The smells in there start the blending process.”
Manuel Quesada said, “We do both. We just start playing with the tobaccos and blending them. Blends give you wider ranges using tobacco from different origins. The Dominican Republic is more known for blending, though that has changed in the last 15 to 20 years.” (You may consider the Ashton Estate Sun Grown or Davidoff Royal Salute to try a great Dominican puro. The biggest challenge for the D.R. in creating puros has been developing great wrapper leaf with consistent quality and yield. Carlito Fuente was the first to prove it could be done successfully when he created the Fuente Fuente Opus X.)
The panel then moved into a discussion about creating new blends. “It’s infinitely harder to create and maintain a blend than to create a new one,” according to Michael Herklots. “Both are full time occupations.”
Nestor commented, “The core is the most important thing that we do. My team is unbelievable in the farms and factories.” As it relates to creating new blends, Nestor said, “We use what we call the gifts from nature. They deliver unexpected results and you put it aside to create something special. We are patient and wait, trying it each year until a new limited edition is born.”
Manuel Quesada added, “The story does not end by having a great crop. You can take it to the warehouse and ruin it with fermentation. The cigar is just a vehicle that in combustion will create the smoke that brings pleasure. We’re creating smoke. Smoke is the pleasure.”
Christian Eiroa believes, “It is important to take the business out of the process. We just make the right product and keep it consistent. You have to keep production small so you don’t overextend yourselves.”
If a particular cigar you love is ever out of stock, this is the likely reason. The best manufacturers will never rush the process to meet demand.
“When you think about it, a cigar is just a bunch of brown leaves, rolled up into a tube and lit on fire,” began Michael. “Where are the opportunities to innovate?” Michael referenced some of the unique shapes each of the panelists had created, so format is certainly one.
For Christian, “It’s creating our own microclimates, using solar and focusing on efficiency.”
For Manuel Quesada, creating new blends is a means of innovation. “There are tobaccos from Panama, Peru, Costa Rica, Pennsylvania… There are new things in our books — different origins, different years. Tobacco is dynamic, not static. The possibilities are endless. Of course we try to satisfy the palettes of the consumer.”
“My father always said you have to take care of the big little details,” shared Nestor. He laughed as he told about the first time they attempted the hexagonal Alma Fuerte. “We would take it out of the molds and two days later the cigars would be round. We made new molds and now that cigar is our number one seller. We learn from others in the industry. Christian is my neighbor.”
Michael shared, “You’re thinking 2-3 years down the road. We have the tobacco today and we have to wait to taste it.”
Hearing their conversation made everyone in the room look forward to what we’d be trying 2-3 years from now…
In a fun twist, Michael asked the panel, “What is the next thing on your bucket list?” The answers were a reflection of the caliber and character of the men answering the question…
Nestor Plasencia Jr.: “We really improve peoples lives with the products we make. For that hour to an hour and a half, you forget the madness. I think about the people who work for us. How can we improve their lives? That is my long term vision.”
Manuel Quesada: “I’ve already exhausted my bucket list (insert a room full of laughter here). We have to be sure we bring pleasure. Smoking a cigar has to be a refuge. The cigar has to be a friend. That is my bucket list forever.”
Christian Eiroa: “Back in 1963 in Jamastran, the trees were eleven people around. I want to replace every tree we consume, whether it’s to clear land or create boxes.”
Michael closed the panel with some great sentiments. “Every once in a while, there’s a mistake that slips through. It should be a reminder of just how difficult and complicated it is to create a great handmade premium cigar. Approach that with grace. It’s about the individual stories that make these cigars so special, not about Dominican or Nicaraguan, spicy or sweet. It’s about Nestor’s farm, Christian’s plane (Christian is an avid private pilot). It’s those stories that differentiate us from every other tobacco product. Share them.”
We will, Michael— whether it’s a casual conversation in the store, on YouTube, or in the Caucus Brief, sharing those stories is what brings so much joy to us as tobacconists— especially over a great cigar!