Established in 1903, La Aurora is the original cigar factory in the Dominican Republic. What started as a small family-run business has expanded into a global operation, with their cigars now distributed in over eighty countries worldwide. La Aurora boasts one of the world’s most pristine factories, and its lush tobacco fields are sublime. The brand’s tobacco barn and aging rooms are meticulously cared for, and that standard in the premium cigar world is elite.
If you’ve had the pleasure of working your way through La Aurora’s portfolio during the past thirty years, your smoking pleasure should in no small part be credited to the expertise of Master Blender Manuel Inoa. He’s the architect of some of the finest cigars in the world.
Recently, we had the pleasure of chatting with Manuel to talk about all that’s involved with being a Master Blender. We found ourselves drawn in with his magnetic personality, and the insight he shared about blending with La Aurora. With a cigar in-hand and an easy smile on his face, Manuel offered us a glimpse into the passion he has for creating cigars. He’s possesses an eminently good cigar mind–the best of what we have in the landscape of premium cigars.
Cigar & Spirits Magazine: Congratulations on thirty years with La Aurora. What was your path to becoming a Master Blender and how long did it take?
Manuel Inoa: Well, I don’t think anyone can prepare to be a Master Blender—there’s not a traditional path. There’s no book to teach you, so you must learn every day, every month and every year. One thing you learn is that you can make unique blends for yourself—maybe something really “out there”—but ultimately you have to serve the consumer. You have to make cigars that the general public will love. And that’s my passion as a Master Blender. I am still learning every day, so in a sense, the path takes a lifetime.
What does a Master Blender do?
That’s complicated to answer. It’s exciting, but there are lots of things involved. Of course, I make new creations for La Aurora, but one of the more involved tasks is to maintain the consistency of each current blend—which is harder that it sounds. Tobacco crops vary a lot in flavor and aroma, depending on weather conditions. And crops change from year to year. So I have to make sure that each blend is as consistent as possible by overseeing the quality process and determining which tobaccos should be used with each blend. It keeps me focused every day.
I heard that the La Aurora Especiales cigars had an interesting story behind them. How did those cigars come about?
Great story! A few years ago, several [retail] stores from several states in America came to the Dominican Republic to learn about the cigar industry. Through the course of events, they had the idea of creating a special new blend that they would all sell together. They sent a few people at a time to come to the factory and try some of my blends. I ended up making about four different blends, they chose the ones they liked, and we made a special cigar line based on their tastes. It was a great project, because it ended up being something different than I would normally make, and these stores really loved the result. They really knew their stuff, and I learned a lot in the process. It took about two years, but it was very rewarding.
What goes into the process of making a new blend?
There’s a couple of ways we start. One way could be that we need to plant a certain crop of tobacco, and then figure out how to blend it in a harmonious way. Another way would be to take tobacco from our current inventory and then create a blend based on flavors and characteristics we are looking for. The secret for any Master Blender is to have a full inventory of tobaccos to use. And we have tobaccos from all over the world like Brazil, Peru, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Cameroon. So I check my inventory to see what meets the requirements, and then create a couple of samples and see how they are. Most likely, they won’t be exactly right on the first try, so I’ll adjust different percentages of the proportions of each until you get it just right. I will then move on to the binder, using only one wrapper. If I’m using a Connecticut shade wrapper for this blend, I try it with the binder and adjust that percentage of binder until it’s what I’m looking for. We could end up doing anywhere from 50 to 80 different prototypes in this process—always in a corona size. And then I’ll send our blend to our factory owner for him to make the final decision. And this process can take years from start to finish.
Do you consider blending more of an art or a science?
I think they’re both important. It’s science, because you watch the weather, the curing process, the growth of the tobacco plants, the fermenting process—this hard work involves a lot of precise science. But the blending and creating requires more passion and love. Blending a cigar is almost like a painting–choosing the right shades to blend and showing the world your creation. That’s the art.
As a Master Blender, do you have a certain style that makes you stand out from other blenders?
Oh absolutely. Every blender has their own personal tastes. I personally love to munch on tobacco during the day, and I enjoy the flavor it brings. I also love to make blends with a lot of power—I want that punch of nicotine. I have made many of our blends with those things in mind. Many times, the fuller blends may lack that power I’m looking for, so we’ve made several medium and medium-plus blends that strike the balance we want. Through it all, I just want to make the people happy, and to do that you have to bring flavor and power. I’m lucky in that I have a wider range of tobaccos from around the world that I can work with, so if there’s something that tastes great, I can add it to the blend.
How often do you make new blends with La Aurora?
We do so many blends. If we’re talking about the whole company, we do a lot of private label blends as well as blending for our own brands. All together, we can make twenty to thirty new blends every year. For our La Aurora and León Jimenes brands, of course we’re always working on something new. For example, right now we’re very deep in development for a project coming out in 2023 for our 120th anniversary. So we want it to be something unique.
What is your favorite cigar you’ve made with La Aurora?
That’s hard to answer because they’re like my babies. I love them all. But if I had to choose, it would probably be the 100 Años. It’s a 100% Dominican cigar that celebrated our 100th anniversary, and it was considered the best Dominican-made cigar at the time. Since then, it’s won a few other awards. This is absolutely one of my go-to smokes. Also, the Fernando León from the Family Reserve Collection is another favorite. We initially released them in corona, toro, gran toro and robusto sizes. The coronas aren’t as popular, but I’ve been smoking a lot of those.
Which of your cigar blends would you suggest to someone new to the world of premium cigars?
We have so many from the line that people could start with. The normal La Aurora line is perfect. But for someone new, our León Jimenes is a great suggestion, I think. It’s our luxury line, and it’s great for any level of experience. As for sizes, robusto is always popular, but I like to suggest the corona for someone starting off because it’s the perfect medium size.
Finally, what’s the one thing that you love about being a Master Blender?
Tobacco is in my blood. I love everything about the tobacco business. As a Master Blender, though, there’s always something new to discover and learn, and that’s exciting. I get to meet a lot of people, share my expertise and get theirs in return. It’s so much fun, and I love every minute of it.
Dave Johnson is a fragrance review critic and entertainer on the popular YouTube Channel, FragranceBros.com