Now that Boutique Blends Cigars has hit its stride with its small batch, limited production cigars, the company has quickly become known around the industry and among consumers for providing interesting quality blends. I took time out with company President Rafael Nodal to gain some deeper insights into his company, and find out what they’ve been up to:
Jon Shakill: Tell me a little bit about the history of the company. When did it start, and how did it first come together?
Rafael Nodal: Hank Bishoff and I got together, along with my wife Dr. Alina Nodal, and opened up our own distribution company on February 23, 2002. We formed our own company to distribute a brand that we were working on called Oliveros Cigars. From there we started developing more brands, and we developed a method for making small batch cigars. The first small batch controlled production cigar we released was Swag and the second one was Aging Room. We then focused our production and distribution on these brands. From there we created Boutique Blends Cigars to concentrate on the distribution and creation of new small batch blends. This started in the beginning of 2012.
Jon Shakill: How many cigars is the company producing now?
Rafael Nodal: In terms of the production of small batch blends, last year we produced a little over 1 million of these small batch cigars. We have expanded production this year, but we really want to keep it small and controlled.
Jon Shakill: What is your process for quality control? Do you have any unique practices?
Rafael Nodal: It starts with the actual tobacco that we have. For example, the first Aging Room small batch was the M356. This cigar is made from a small amount of tobacco that all came from one particular farm in the Dominican Republic. All the tobacco used for that blend came from one single farm, and was aged for 9 to 10 years. Once that tobacco is all gone, so is that blend. So it is limited production and the blend is limited to the specific tobacco we used. When the tobacco runs out, then we change to the next blend. We like to compare it to nice wine or spirits, in that there is a certain vintage year and when it is gone, it’s gone, and we move forward. Many companies make the same cigars for many years and they change over time, because the tobacco changes depending on the farmers, soil and things like that. The tobacco production changes. So we decided to make the production based on the amount of tobacco available, and when it’s finished, we move to the next blend. That’s when we created the Aging Room Quattro F55, which is a completely different blend. So that’s what we mean by a small controlled production, and small batch production.
Jon Shakill: That’s interesting, so each new line of Aging Room cigars is a completely different blend using different tobacco?
Rafael Nodal: Yes, with the exception of two Aging Room cigars which are made on continuous production. The Aging Room Havao which is the Connecticut line, and the Aging Room Maduro which is Dominican with a Nicaraguan wrapper. These two cigars are still made in small quantities, but we will continue to produce them. For the small batch cigars like the M356 and the F55, once the tobacco is gone we will move to the next blends. My whole philosophy and our business model is to continuously produce new blends that are made from limited harvest tobacco.
Jon Shakill: Where does the tobacco come from? Do you own the farms, or do you use tobacco grown by others?
Rafael Nodal: Well it is a combination of sources that we get our tobacco from. About two years ago, we partnered with Jochi Blanco to make the Swag line. Jochi is a veteran grower in the Dominican, and has been doing this for a long, long time. He has three very successful farms, and had a small amount of tobacco that was aging for several years. We partnered with him, so primarily much of the tobacco we use is from Jochi’s farms. For some of the blends, we have wrapper tobacco from Sumatra in Indonesia, or the Maduro from Nicaragua. But even with those tobaccos, we still age it and process it in Jochi’s factory.
Jon Shakill: Who is responsible for creating each new blend? What is the process for this?
Rafael Nodal: I am responsible for creating the new blends, along with my partner Hank as well as Jochi. But this is one of my primary purposes in the company. This is a very creative process. I like to compose music, and the process of making cigar blends is very similar, just as any other creative avenue. My primary idea or mission is to make complex blends with a lot of flavor and aroma, and a lot of character. Based on that we come up with a blend based on the tobacco that we have available. We concentrate on using a small, hard to find amount of tobacco. Each blend has its uniqueness based on the type of tobacco, but for all of the blends we are searching for complexity, flavor and aroma. That’s our main requirement for every single blend.
Jon Shakill: You have several different brands, from Oliveros and Swag, to Aging Room. How are they divided?
Rafael Nodal: These brands are all concentrated under Boutique Blends Cigars. We are responsible for the creation and distribution of all of these blends. Before we tried to do what everyone else was doing, and put a lot of cigars out on the market. We tried to put out every type of cigar, whether you wanted mild, medium or full bodied. That wasn’t working for us because we were trying to compete with the multinational and huge companies that are mass producers. We didn’t have the resources to keep up with that. So with our concentration on small batch and small controlled production, we have hit the sweet spot. We are focused on a specific type of consumer. We are geared for the connoisseurs who are looking for great, complex blends. We’re not producing cigars for everyone. We are producing cigars only for those people who are connoisseurs, who are looking for great complexity and character. Not every consumer will enjoy our blends, but those looking for complexity will.
Jon Shakill: So you are focused on appealing to the more experienced veteran type cigar smoker?
Rafael Nodal: Yes. But I should point out that, whether it’s with wine or spirits or with cigars, people develop their palate in very different ways and at different velocities. Some people try many different varieties and have a lot of experiences and develop very quickly. Whereas other people stay with the same thing for a very long time and don’t develop the palate as quickly. So every consumer develops a little bit differently. But one thing that they should have in common for our cigars, is that they are ready for complex blends and they are able to enjoy these type of cigars.
Jon Shakill: Are there any special techniques used by your company in the growing of tobacco or making of cigars? Is your process a lot different than other companies, or is it more traditional?
Rafael Nodal: Very little has changed in the production of tobacco for a long time. You have to start with good tobacco. How do you get good tobacco? Well you have to start with the right seeds for the right soil, and then the art of processing tobacco through the curing and aging process is very important. It takes time and effort and not everyone can do it in the right way. For example, some of the tobaccos we have would not be enough for a big company’s regular production, it can only be made as small batch. We use the same production methods that have been in place for a very long time, but the difference is the type of tobacco that we use, as well as the process for aging and curing, and the special attention to the quality and details that can only be done by making a small amount of cigars per day. Compared to rollers that are making a tremendous amount of cigars per day, we are able to provide a high degree of quality control. It often comes down to quality versus quantity. Our philosophy is to concentrate on the quality of the blends we make, rather than the quantity. This is a niche market and it has worked for us.
Jon Shakill: How long does it typically take for your cigars to go from the field where the tobacco is grown, all the way to the hand of a consumer, or into the box?
Rafael Nodal: I will provide an example. This year due to weather patterns, we had a very difficult drought. So we had a less amount of tobacco, although it was better quality tobacco because we had to select it very carefully. This tobacco will be on the market probably about 7, 8, 9 and 10 years from now. It takes a tremendous amount of time. So even though we know we have outstanding tobacco from this year, we won’t see the results of that for around 7 years or more.
Jon Shakill: It sounds like you age the tobacco for longer periods of time than many other companies?
Rafael Nodal: Yes. A good cigar with good tobacco gets better with time. For example if you put a good cigar in your humidor and take good care of it, it will get better after another 2 or 3 years. Great tobacco, great preparation of soils, along with great processing from curing to aging, in addition to marrying the tobaccos together in the right blends. It’s really no secret as to how to do this, but it is not commercially as big as some other companies, because we are utilizing a small batch process.
Jon Shakill: What kind of advice or special tips can you give to cigar smokers about enjoying cigars or learning about them?
Rafael Nodal: First of all, one of the things that I always advise people is to reach out to their local cigar stores and lounges. Most of the stores have very knowledgeable people, and will help you find cigars that match with your palate. A good tobacconist will recognize the taste that his customer is looking for, and may even be able to understand where you are in terms of the development of your palate. They can bring you different ideas and different tastes, based on your palate. I believe this is crucial, because when you go to a cigar store, you may see 200 different blends and they can all fit into different flavor profiles. By utilizing the tobacconist to help match the flavor of the cigar with the palate of the consumer is very important. They can also help to consciously bring new ideas and new cigars to your attention. Visiting good cigar stores and lounges and discussing your preferences with them is a great way to really help develop your palate.
Jon Shakill: What are the plans for the future of the company?
Rafael Nodal: We are going to continue with our philosophy of continuously producing new and exciting blends from hard to find tobacco. Some of our current blends will end production once the tobacco runs out, and we will continue creating and introducing new blends. We are introducing the Aging Room Bin #1 at the IPCPR industry convention this year, which is another small batch production. The tobacco has been aged by Jochi Blanco for a long, long time. The tobacco is actually associated with some of the first tobacco that Jochi ever produced from the Cuban-seed varieties. Some of the tobaccos used are from 9 to 11 years old. So that’s our new release, and we will continue with producing new small batch releases.
Jon Shakill: What are your views on the current state of the cigar industry, and where do you think the industry is headed in the future?
Rafael Nodal: I think in the United States, we have a very vibrant premium cigar industry with the amount of small and medium sized manufacturers there are. Almost everything will depend, in my view, on how the government regulates or doesn’t regulate the industry. So basically I believe we are currently at the hands of the government. Someone asked me the other day who our biggest competitor is, and they were expecting me to answer with the name of a cigar company. They were surprised when I told them that our biggest competitor is the government. Our industry will depend on taxing and no smoking laws in the future, much of which is currently in the hands of the FDA and how they decide to regulate premium cigars. I should mention that premium cigars are much different than cigarettes and other tobacco products and shouldn’t be regulated the same way. In terms of the actual industry, it is very vibrant. Despite the regulations and unfair taxes, there are many people who love this industry and who are working very hard to bring the consumer new and exciting brands, like we are.
Jon Shakill: Rafael, thank you for your time and educating us about your company.
Rafael Nodal: No problem Jon it was a pleasure, thank you.