“The cigar industry is like a brotherhood and it’s a great industry to be a part of. Rocky and I are still on great terms, but it’s just something I have wanted to do and he was very supportive.” These were the words coming from Patrick Vivalo after announcing that he was leaving Rocky Patel and formally launching his own cigar brand, aptly named Vivalo Cigars. Patrick joined Rocky Patel in 2002 and was most recently in-charge of the in-house sales. Patrick talks about how he got into the cigar business, what made him start his own company, and what makes Vivalo Cigars special.
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Cigar Cafe Radio 5-7-15 Vivalo Cigars with special guest Patrick Vivalo
Harris, thanks for having me in the show. How are you doing?
I’m doing great. I’m excited to have Patrick with us from Vivalo Cigar.
We started this radio show to cover the cigar lifestyle and to us the lifestyle revolves around enjoying the finer things in life with the people that you’re close to. We’re looking forward to bringing you guests that are relevant in the cigar world. We’ve got Patrick Vivalo with us. Some of you may know some of his previous work with Rocky Patel, but he’s started his own line. Patrick, are you smoking?
What are you smoking?
I’m smoking my Lonsdale.
You guys are awfully lucky. I’m in the house, in my office and I can’t smoke.
Harris is in his office and he smokes.
There are benefits to that.
He happens to be inside our cigar shop.
There you go, Sean, you just need to go to a cigar shop.
I need to buy it, Harris. Come on you’ve sucked me in. Every time I tried to get out they’ll pull me back in and now I’m going to buy at cigar shops.
Cigars in a more shy town.
Patrick, which one are you smoking? Are you smoking one of your own?
I’m smoking a Vivalo Serie Exclusivo Lonsdale.
Why don’t you give us some background on it?
Lonsdale was the first cigar that came to fruition. In a nutshell, I did a majority of the Honduras factory trips during my tenure at Rocky Patel. I’ve always loved blending. I love to cook, so I’ve always loved to see what tobacco tastes like together. I wanted something different for me to smoke. Every time we went down to the factory, I would play with different blends. Some were horrible. It looked good on paper, but they turned out not to taste good and some turned out good. By chance, this cigar was something that I have been smoking for years.
It’s a simple blend. It’s all Nicaraguan and has a Jalapa Colorado shade wrapper. The binder is Esteli and the filler is one-third Esteli Ligero and one-third from Jalapa Ligero and one-third Jalapa. It turned out to be the cigar that I love to smoke, and it turns out that it’s my own brand. I’m super excited. I’ve always wanted my own cigar. I didn’t know when and where it would happen. I’m grateful for everybody that helped me out along the way. Looking forward to grow the brand.
Patrick, you had a cigar under Rocky Patel. Is that the same cigar or is there another one?
This is the same exact cigar. This started out as a private label for a company in Maryland and now it’s a nationwide brand. I left Rocky and I started Vivalo Cigars.
Harris, I know you’re smoking one of Patrick’s cigars, too. What do you have?
I’m smoking the Robusto size of the Vivalo, same blend that Patrick has mentioned, but in the Robusto size.
What does it taste like?
I can taste the Ligero. It has a little bit of spice to it, but very smooth and medium flavored to me.
Patrick, is that how you envisioned the medium body cigar to smoke? I’m getting more complex in my cigar smoking myself. Something that’s a little overwhelming where I get nicotine sweats is not my bag.
I’m glad you asked me that question because I have five sizes in the Vivalo Serie Exclusivo. I’ve been smoking cigars for nearly eighteen years. I’ve been in the cigar business for nearly eighteen years and what I’ve come across is it’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s not indifferent where you have a line of cigars from company X and they might have four, five, six different sizes anything from a Lancero all the way up to your 6x60s. Generally, the bigger you get, you tend to lose the finesse and the flavor because of the larger ring gauge. What I did differently is I tweaked the ratio of filler. While keeping the core flavors, I wanted each cigar to have a little nuance. The smaller ring gauges on Belicoso and Robusto.
I went heavier on Jalapa Ligero, which gives you a little bit of spice, not as much as Esteli, but it gives you that nice earthy, sweetness. On the bigger ring gauges with the Robusto Grande and the Gordo, I went heavier on the Esteli Ligero. The bigger you go, the spicier or you get. When you walk into a cigar shop and you see my cigars on the shelf, generally people are like, “What size do you like?” In this instance, it’s like, “What profile do you like? Do you like a spicier cigar or do you like a little more of a sweeter cigar?” From what I’ve heard from the shops that have carried the cigar so far, the guys had smoked a 6×60 or bigger, they were intrigued that there was so much flavor in the 6×60. Once I explained to them how I tweaked the ratio of the filler it made sense for them.
I’m smoking what looks like a Robusto. I’m definitely getting some of that sweetness in mine. There are almost some fruity flavors that are underneath the spice that I’m detecting.
It was important for me to have each size while maintaining the core flavors to give each cigar its own little personality. If I kept the same recipe for the Lonsdale, Robusto Grande, Belicoso, and Gordo, it would go back to saying, “What size do you like?” Sometimes with a bigger ring gauge, you might move the expression of the tobacco where you want each cigar to has its own uniqueness, quality, and flavor.
Is this your only line so far where you’ve got one line in different sizes?
This is the first line. This is called the Vivalo Serie Exclusivo.
Since you’ve been with Rocky Patel, are there any plans to do any infusion type of stuff?
Look at you, straight up. That was emphatic.
He has already made one for you Sean.
I want to smoke when I like and like what I smoke. Getting back to the sizes, I’m not a big fan of big ring gauges but the demand is there for big ring gauges. I told myself, “If I’m going to come out with something that big, I want to be able to enjoy it.” There are a few bigger ring gauges that I enjoy only because of the flavor, not because of the size. It took me the longest out of all the five sizes to get the ratio of filler where I thought I can use my profile flavor.
How did you get into the blending? Is that something you picked up when you did a lot of the tours? Where did that come from?
I’ve been going down to the factory for quite some time and when I was working with Rocky, part of the tour is we would have our guests blend their own cigar. We would have two big long tables with a wrapper, binder and filler. They get their sheet, fill out that sheet and then get to watch their own cigar being made. It happened like that to where every time I would do a tour, I would help this customer blend the cigar. I would tell them if that would go good together or whatnot. It so happened that every time I was down there I would try something different.
When I went on the tour with you, that was one of my favorite parts of the trip and you are unique. You’re the only company I know of that does that on their tour. I’ve done on factory tours with most of the companies and that was very unique and a very fun part of the tour.
It gives people more of a hands-on approach instead of listening to me talk for two days about tobacco and the whole process, the fermentation, quality control, testing. It’s more exciting that way instead of seeing people show them how it’s done. They have the opportunity to come up with their own caution. Some people came out with great blends, some okay. It’s a fun thing for people to be a part of.
Some were downright awful?
Do you still have a relationship with Rocky?
Absolutely. Rocky and I have been friends since 2001. I used to work at a shop here in Naples. Whenever he was in town, which is often he’d come in and we’d shoot the shit, smoke cigars, play chess, have a good time talking about the industry. I wanted to break through on that side of the business. I was working in the shop the first four or five years in the business and at that time, it was still Indian Tabac Cigar Company. Rocky wanted to grow his in-house sales, so he offered me a job to be an in-house sales guy.
What an awesome story for the industry to come from working in a shop, to meeting Rocky Patel, to friending Rocky Patel, to having your own private labeled cigar and now having your line.
It sounds like it’s been organic over the last fourteen years or so. Has it been a steady pace or has it taken off in the last couple of years in regard to getting closer to launching your own line?
Rocky’s always knew I wanted to come up with my own line and the timing was perfect. The opportunity was there for me to branch out on my own. People always asked me, “Why are you doing this now with the FDA hovering above our heads?” I said, “I don’t want to be that guy when I’m 60, 70 years old, sitting on my porch wondering about what if?” I’ve always loved cigars since the first cigar I’ve had cigar. It’s in my blood and I could not see what couldn’t happen or what could happen. I’m grateful for everybody that’s helped me along the way. Everywhere from when I first started working in the business to Rocky and where I’m at now with my retail or the friends that I’ve been able to have a relationship with over the past decade. It’s humbling and it’s an honor for me to have my family’s name on a cigar, to bring my years of hard work and labor and to see people enjoy my cigar. It is amazing.
I’ve always been a fan of cigars, whether it’s working for Rocky or smoking other cigars that I like. I’ve always wanted that. I’ve always appreciated people who took that chance whether it’s having their own cigar or any business, it takes a lot of guts. It takes a lot of work to get to where you want to go in life and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. The cigar industry as a whole is fantastic. The people are great, we’ve always said it’s like a brotherhood, like a frat house. Everybody’s trying to get sales, but at the end of the day like when you go to a trade show everybody’s hanging out together. You don’t see that in a lot of industries.
It’s awesome to be part of that. The people who have guided me along to where I am now I’ll never forget the people that helped me out, whether it being a friend or a mentor or somebody for me to ask questions to. When I first started cigars, all this wasn’t available. I couldn’t hop on the internet and go to a cigar blog site or read about different cigars. It was asking questions, being a pain in the ass, but I wanted to understand not just about the cigars but the history and the tradition of cigars.
I felt like if I was going to contribute at all to the show that I should start smoking cigars and I did a little bit when I was younger. What I love is that there is so much out there that you can find. I love smoking a cigar and then go writing down notes. Then, going back to see what other people have said about the same cigar and getting it right. When you first start smoking, it’s like drinking a bottle of wine for the first time. You could drink a $300 Pinot and you would never know it. It’s another Pinot that you like. Once your palate becomes accustomed to it, it’s neat to know that you got it right. You’re right, you did it when the information was scarce or at least tough to come by.
I like that you brought up that you have a love for the cigar industry. I’m going to have to fess up a little bit. I stalked you on Twitter a little bit and saw that you like barbecue, whiskey, wine, craft beer, and cigars. I realized at that time that we were probably Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito separated at birth. Going back to our previous interview you were trying to associate the difference between craft beer and cigars. To have a true understanding of both you need to dive into both worlds because they are very similar.
What do you like to drink with your cigars?
It depends on what I’m smoking. I’m huge into pairings. I don’t know if you read Cigar Press Magazine, but I’ve known Thor for years. We’re good friends and I write his whiskey reviews for the past three years. I have a simple rule. Do I think it’s the perfect pairing? I don’t know. I think so. Anything with a Maduro wrapper, I like to drink wine. The natural sweetness from the Maduro compliments the sweetness that some of the real wines have. With whiskey, I prefer Habano wrapper, Camacho or something with a little more spice or character.
I talked to a lot of guys that say that they like to drink coffee with their cigar. Are you one of them?
Yes, in the morning. I’m not going to drink whiskey in the morning.
You could, but it could be a long day. Maybe during a trade show time. I don’t think that the clock matters.
Harris, can you tell us if the trade shows be a little wacky?
It’s nonstop for a week. We go all day and then it’s all night, every day. They have big cigar dinners. They have parties that different cigar companies host at night or even hanging out at the hotel bar areas. There are always people congregating around. It wears me out more than any week of the year. It’s fun but tiring.
And damaging. I’m sure that if you could cut yourself open and hang your liver out to dry during the following week, that would be a good idea.
It’s probably amazing that everyone survived that week.
Is it usually in Vegas?
This year, it’s in New Orleans. It was in Vegas. It alternates but it’s in Vegas more often than not.
Patrick, I know that we’re here to promote your cigar, but I always like to ask people, “What else are you smoking that people can go out and take a peek at that you like now?”
When I was working for Rocky, my favorite, and still is one of my favorites is the Fifteenth Anniversary. I love Erik Espinosa Cigar, especially the Laranja. Almost everything from Pete Johnson, Illusione, Liga Privada, Norteño, Herrera to give you an example. Those are all in my wheelhouse of playbook.
Harris, Liga Privada. I’m going for it.
It’s on the way.
I’m sending both. I’ve got it going out.
Smoke the No. 9 first.
Do you second that, Patrick?
Here’s my thing, when I’m smoking a Liga No. 9, I like to pair it with a bourbon. Getting back to the natural sweetness, the No. 9 wrapper that broadleaf paired with a bourbon I think it was great together. Then, with the T52, I enjoy a heavier scotch. I am into peaty scotches. I love the Laphroaig.
I turned in my drinking card years ago. Unfortunately, those are probably going to go with like an O’Doul’s Amber or something.
My preference is what I like. That doesn’t mean everybody’s going to like it, but they’re both fantastic cigars in my opinion.
When my wife was pregnant, we became connoisseurs of the non-alcoholic beers. We love trying all the different ones and I was impressed. I thought they were all very good out there.
I’ll usually get a dirty look if I light up a cigar outdoors at a beer event.
They’re not very cigar friendly.
I had a girl get up in my face and told me how rude it was that I was smoking a cigar outside.
My kids are fascinated by me smoking a cigar. They don’t understand that I’m not inhaling the smoke and my daughter loves the smell of them. She’s eight years old. She’s like, “I love the smell of it.” It’s funny that it brings back memories like that my father was a cigar smoker. In fact, Harris sent them a box of Montesinos. He had a cedar line chest that he keeps his cigars and his pipe tobacco in. This was back in the pipe days, jazz flutes and pipes were rocking.
Pipe tobacco takes me back to when I was a kid because when I was very young my granddad smoked a pipe. My sisters stopped him out of it a couple years later, but pipe tobacco is one of those things that reminds me of my childhood.
That’s part of the mystique of smoking a cigar is that my daughter likes it. She’s probably going to smell it when she’s older and hopefully has a fond memory of me. Hopefully I’m still around, but I know someday I’m not going to be so, but it’s been fun. Harris, thank you for getting me into the club. I don’t know that I get the full fraternity handshake yet, but I’m getting there. Smoking that VSG changed my life.
You’re making progress fast.
I did. I smoked it.
You’re two weeks off?
It was pretty damn good at. It was full-flavored. It crept up on me before I knew it and then by that time I liked it. I was like, “I’m just going to smoke the rest of it.”
Patrick, I know your website is under construction, but what do you plan with that?
Giving the customer all the information that they need about the brand, about the company, the about the cigars. It’s simple, clean, elegant looking website that’s easy to navigate given the information of the state of the brand, upcoming events. It’s not overwhelming the people with a lot of filler. I don’t know about everybody else, but you only get a small window of time before someone becomes bored with a website or if it’s too hard to navigate, they’ll leave. Basically, making it look nice and having it be a reflection of the brand.
That’s why I had to ask Harris what he was smoking because the label just says Vivalo on it.
I want a cigar to speak for itself, not to say down the road that I’m going to come out with something extravagant but still keep it classy. I feel that the cigar should speak for itself and I wanted to keep it something simple. If you even notice down to the detail, even the feel of the band is called Wine stock. Being that I’m into wine, I want to relate what I’m able to feel. Everything I do has meaning to it.
There are some successful branders in the last five years that have come through the cigar business, even though I haven’t smoked them until recently, I have followed some of them because of Harris and you. It’s neat that you’ve kept it like, “I’m not going to go that route, that’s super edgy, UFC font route. I’m going to keep it simple and elegant and how I want things to go.”
You don’t want to tap out cigar?
Patrick, what are your thoughts on the impending FDA regulations? You’re brave to launch a brand before possibly some of those new rules come out. What do you think about that?
I’m not going to sugar coat it, but it is something that everybody should be well aware of. This is the biggest obstacle that the cigar industry has gone through. When we had the SCHIP tax years ago that was a huge deal but we’ll go through that. With the impending FDA, it is a little bit scary. I wanted to know that I gave it 100% effort to see what would happen with the brand. With the FDA coming down, it can go either way. I hear stories, I hear good things, I hear bad things. From what I’m told, we’ll find out sometime what’s going to happen.
What is the end game here? Patrick and Harris, you can comment too. Everyone’s talking doom and gloom. They’re not banning cigars, they’re making them very difficult to buy. Give me the background of that.
This is regulation just like when a pharmaceutical company wants to come out with a drug. It has to go through tests, time, and money. If the FDA gets involved with cigars, they’re going to want to know the blend, where the tobacco comes from, everything that goes into the cigar. This is going to cost the cigar manufacturer an X amount of dollars to get approved and it could take time to get that blend approved.
The big fear, too, is that it creates a huge barrier entry to new guys like Patrick that might not be realistic for him to do it. If it’s going to call $2,000 to even get your blends tested.
It’s going to monopolize the cigar industry. The sad part about this whole thing is that the cigar industry has changed so much in the last years because of Mavericks, because of the guys pushing the envelope. Now, you’re taking that away from guys like Patrick.
The cigar industry has been around for centuries and it’s that word organic. It’s one of those organic industries to where everything is 100% natural and machines are very seldom seen. If you walk through any cigar factory it’s people, not computers, not machines. If the FDA does get involved, you’re taking people’s livelihood away. I wrote an essay on behalf of the CRA and used the term global economic impact. If you take away or limit cigar making it’s not only the difficult for the manufacturer but you’re taking jobs away from people who work in the factory. You’re directly affecting the economy in these third world countries.
We started to crack open the door to Cuba and our president seems to want that very much to open the borders with Cuba. You’re going to slam it right back into their face.
Has anything the government does ever make any sense?
Patrick, when we think either possibly opening up or going to that direction cigar-wise do you think that’s positive? Is that a good or bad thing?
People that know me have that thought on Cuban cigars. My first cigar back in 1996 was a Partagás Serie D No 4 from Cuba and that’s what got me into cigars. Over the years, I personally feel that the quality, not only of the tobacco but the overall construction of the cigars are a shell of their former selves. I do think it will be great for non-Cuban manufacturers here in the US because it reignites the boom of the ’90s. What I mean by that is people want what they can’t have.
Cuban cigars are available if you’re traveling from Cuba back to the US, but prior to that, if someone’s smoking a Cuban cigar, they’re an outlaw. They’re doing something illegal. It’s like the forbidden fruit, once they become available in US cigar shops, people think they’re going to be able to pick one up at any brick and mortar, A, that’s not going to happen. B, Cuban cigars are very pricey, especially when you get to the Cohiba and the Montecristo No. 2 so on and so forth. They might pick one up, but they’re going to realize that there are cigars that they liked better at half the price.
If you think of the EK for $30, $40 or you can pick up a non-Cuban brand for under $10. It’s going to bring new smokers in and the ones that do it to be trendy and fashionable might not get it, but the ones that want to get into cigars, they’re going to explore other brands. You see it in Europe, if you pick up any issue of cigar journal the past five years, look at their top 25. The majority other top 25 are non-Cuban brains and new Europe for years has notoriously been a Cuban market.
Patrick, we were absolutely thrilled to have you on the show. We’d like to welcome you to Birmingham anytime you get the chance to come up. It’s not my shop, but I’m sure Harris would like to have you through here. We’ve got a big craft beer scene here. We’ve got fancy food restaurants with a great wine list and we’ve got some good whiskey bars.
Patrick, did he tell you that he also has a crappy college football team there in Birmingham as well?
I don’t think they have a football team anymore.
They cut it out?
What’s going on with that? Are they keeping it?
Doesn’t look like it, but they’re still talking about it. Harris, thanks for having me back in the shop again.
Thanks, Lane. Thanks, Patrick.