Never judge a cigar by the color of its wrapper. That’s what Jose Blanco, owner of Las Cumbres Tobacco Co., tells people at the cigar blending seminars he hosts across the country. Jose is a firm believer of blending cigars from different countries and he says you have to work a lot to achieve what you want. Rolling and blending cigars is an art and a process that shouldn’t be rushed. With the Senorial, it took over seven months to blend which involved 30 test blends and 120 days of aging after being rolled. Jose adds that if you want to evolve your palate, you have to smoke different countries, different profiles, different sizes, different wrappers, until you feel comfortable. You’re always going to have your one, two, three, go-to cigars, but you got to have that special cigar once in a while, once in a week, on occasion cigar.
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Cigar Cafe Radio Jose Blanco Interview | Senorial | Freya | Blending
This episode is all about cigar because I’m really excited to have José on the show and to talk about a bunch of stuff. Guys fire away. He’s here and ready to rock and roll.
José, to get us started, what are you smoking?
I’m smoking a prototype I’m working on. It’s a Lonsdale with a wrapper that was grown by friend of ours a couple of years ago. He sent us some samples and we’re looking at it. It’s not your traditional tobacco country. We’ll see how it goes. I’m a firm believer of blending cigars from different countries and sometimes you really have to work a lot to achieve what you want.
When we did Senorial, we took seven months and over 30 blends to make it and we gave the cigars 120 days of aging because a lot of people think what you put on, you make a blend, smoke it two or three days. The way we do it, we leave the cigars, the first test blends 21 days and we tweak them around, then we were comfortable, then we leave them 30 days, then we leave them 60 days.
Believe it or not, a cigar with 21 days can be phenomenal and even at 30 days it can be phenomenal and all of a sudden with two months of aging it could go flat on you or miss some complexity and some balance on it. It really takes time and I’ve always said that rolling cigars and blending cigar is an art. I have the utmost respect for many people out there that I’ve been friends for many years.
We always encourage people to come to Dominican Republic, come the Procigar, visit our friends at Drew Estate Cigars. It’s a great experience for everybody. I always tell people, “You’ve been smoking for 30 years but until you don’t go and spend two or three days in a factory and see the harvesting and the fermentation and the curing of tobacco, it’s like a three-legged horse, something like that.” Everybody should put it on their bucket list.
I know Harris has visited many factories and his father too. I would say he’s one of the young talented brick and mortars and BLTLs. He has been successful not because he has four stores. I would say he’s successful because he’s passionate and he wants to learn. He’s been traveling. He’s a person that’s young and listens because unfortunately, there are a lot of people who are young and don’t listen. He started it the right way. He’s got a lot of support from his father too and I guess that Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Hyde next to him also help him out a lot too.
That’s funny that you say that. We’ve talked about brick and mortar and we don’t have a whole lot of great stores in my area. I’m on the south side of Chicago. I am a firm believer that it’s the passion that the people inside the store have for cigars to make that successful. I have yet to meet anybody but a guy at Venice that gave me any feedback or any original thought on selecting a cigar in a year that I’ve been smoking them. I totally agree with you. I think on Harris, the guys that you have in your store that you teach about it, they help you sell cigars and not just one. They help you sell all of them.
One of the things I always encourage people to do is seminars. We have everything practically that. When people do the blending seminar, many of them are a couple of years smokers, some are ten years, twenty years, 30 years and when they do the seminar, two things come up. He’ll tell you, “I thought I knew a lot about cigars. I don’t really know shit so I still have a lot to learn.” The thing is that with the seminar, people after that, they smoke in a different way. They evaluate cigars in a different way.
One of the things I tell people is never judge a cigar by the color of the wrapper. Harris remembers, we talked about that at the seminar because a lot of people see a Maduro wrapper and all of a sudden, they think that’s strong. It’s not strong. Majority of good Maduros, they’re going to be medium to full, very rich, very flavorful when they’re done correctly with a nice Broadleaf wrapper, it could be Habano from Nicaragua, it could be Alapelarca, Negros San Andres.
For you to develop your palate, you have to smoke different cigars in different countries. It’s like I see these people say, “I only smoke that cigar.” I tell them, “I love steak and I love pizza but I can’t have it every day.” The thing is that if you really want to evolve your palate, you have to smoke different countries, different profiles, different sizes, different wrappers, until you feel comfortable. You’re always going to have your one, two, three, go to cigars but you’ve got to have that special cigar that you want to have once in a while, once in a week, on occasion cigar. Maybe a cigar that is more expensive but more expensive doesn’t mean better. I’ve had $3 cigars that are phenomenal and I’ve had $50 cigars that suck.
We’ve had this discussion, José. Lane threw down the gauntlet on me and said, “I can give you a $5 cigar that would make you forget about $15 cigars.” To back up your point here, you’re probably right. Unfortunately, I am a super snob and I’ve been blessed with having Harris as a friend, so I always get good stuff.
Tell a little bit about your background on cigar smoking.
We started the show, I was a very recreational cigar smoker in my early twenties. As I grew up in, got married, I stopped smoking. Anyway, they were having the podcast and I was recording the podcast and I would jump in from time to time to ask questions about it, probably more than time to time. Finally I said, “I think if I want to be on the show, I better start smoking cigars.”
I wanted to smoke flavored cigar, of course, I’m a newbie. I started with Drew Estate Java and I would say it wasn’t much after a couple of weeks where I completely shut that shit down. I had an Ashton VSG while we were in New York and went, “What am I doing with a Java?” Not that it’s not a quality cigar but just blew me away. As of this moment, there are no more Javas in the near future for me.
You’re smoking a little bit of everything now. You’re smoking all kinds of things.
It is my goal to smoke as many types and different types of cigars as I can.
To be honest, that’s the only way, Sean, that you’re going to really learn. I know because I’ve known Harris for many years now and I know he’s all across the board on that. Something that’s funny, I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine who has a company and we were talking about retailers. I said, “One of the biggest challenges for retailers is not only FDA, taxes and smoking bans, it’s to getting knowledgeable people in there.”
If you look at the people that have been really successful and I traveled all over the country. I do not only look at the shops, the image, the availability, all the things that go into it. I see how their staff handles people and how knowledgeable they are. Something I always tell retailers, and I think I had this conversation with Harris too, the day that people walk into the store and they know more about cigars than you do, that’s the day that you’re screwed.
You have one cigar gig and all this cigar wannabes that are on Twitter, Facebook, the magazines and all that that just eat all this stuff up. I’ve been in shops where the customers know more about cigars than the owner. Somehow it’s just in the middle of, “I’m good at selling, I’m not good at picking.” These are the guys that tell me what to buy, what they like, what would they buy again, which I think is good. At the end of the day, you have to have a knowledgeable staff, a staff that’s motivated, a staff that’s passionate.
I tell people that have a humidor with 800, 900, 1,000 facings, “Shame on you if somebody comes in here and wants to buy a cigar and you can’t sell them.” That said, there’s the exceptions maybe Liga is not around. Maybe this Opus is not around. Maybe something from Dion is not around or something like that, but the regular 95% of the stuff in there, everybody has those days that, “You can’t get this, you can’t get that.” Those days are over.
If you know the profile of a guy that’s asking you for a Nicaraguan cigar that you don’t have, you have a whole bunch of stuff from Nicaragua, also from Honduras, also from Dominican Republic. If you live up by the basics, the characteristics, what is he looking for? “He smokes this that’s spicy, that’s rich, that’s full body but I have this from so and so that’s more or less the characteristic.” Maybe the guy was looking for a $10 cigar and you give him an $8 cigar that you have in stock and all of a sudden, the guy likes the cigar. You’re going to have them as a customer and you’re saving the guy $2 and you’re getting the sales.
If you please him like that, he’ll buy that $15 cigar from you next time because he trusts you.
I think the key is you’re trying to guide the customers’ experience and make sure if they really need a mild cigar and they’re picking up a really full body cigar, that you’re guiding them maybe back to what it’s going to be an enjoyable experience.
I think that really is what sets apart the really great stores from the average stores is the guys that are working in the shop are trusted advisors to the people that are coming into the shop.
No doubt. When I go in, most of the time the humidors are not attended and the person that’s sitting behind the cash register knows nothing about cigars. Nothing.
It seems like around your area, that’s definitely a big problem around Chicago.
That was a big reason here that’s why I said, “Let’s open up a cigar shop here on the south side of Chicago.” José, to your point again, do you believe that with all of the smoking taxes and Illinois is a really high tax state for tobacco products, I think it’s 30%, do you believe that you can still have a successful brick and mortar building here in Illinois?
I think you can have it anywhere but it all depends. You have to look sometimes in the area, first of all, of the demographics. Second is parking and how much are you going to pay for rent. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t do their homework. I’ve seen, during so many years, shops that are gorgeous. They’ve invested hundreds and thousands of dollars but they forgot about parking. Then they spent $200,000, $300,000 and then they forgot to bring in the right people. I’m talking about a good manager, a good clerk, the events they do. You have to look at all those details. It could work anywhere, it doesn’t matter where because there’s always room for good customer service.
I always say there are five things that’s going to make or break a shop and a smile. First of all, the image. A guy who wants to buy a $2 cigar, he doesn’t care if it’s in picture, he’ll buy it. The guy at the end of the day makes the register ring and the numbers go up, he wants to see a clean store and everything organize. Unless you’re the only game in town. Second, availability. You have to have what people are asking for.
When I’m telling asking for, it’s not the two guys who came in because they know a guy that came up with a line or he’s from the rep. When you see something on social media a lot, that people are talking a lot, you have to have it. Number three, your pricing. You can’t price too high because you’ll scared people away and when you price too low, you don’t make money and you’ll have to close. Your customer service on a scale of one to ten has to be a ten plus. Fifth, more important than ever is knowledge. You have to have a knowledgeable staff.
I’m going to ask Harris this question. How many times a guy comes in, “Good morning, Harris, how are you?” “I have a new cigar.” “Tell me about it.” “It’s good.” “Can you tell me the wrapper?” He has to open up his book and said, “It says here it’s Connecticut.” He closes the book. “Can you tell me about the filler and the binder?” He has to open the book again, “It says it’s Sumatra, Ecuador binder and the fillers are Dominican, Honduras and Mexico.” He doesn’t even know the description about it.
The first thing you do as a salesman is you sell yourself and after that you sell the product. I know more about the products of other companies, the people that work for those companies. I’ve been in shops when the guy has been struggling and I’ve even helped them out and after that, “Thanks for helping me out this stuff.” We’re not here to put anybody down. Me as a retailer, somebody would come out of that, I wouldn’t buy a damn cigar from them because they don’t want your product. Then the one that really kills me they’d go like, “We use a Cuban seed.” 90% of all of us, we all use Cuban seeds. That was something that it’s not about that. It’s about the history. What company makes it? Who’s been behind it? Who’s the blender? Where are the tobaccos? Where is everything happening?
A lot of people said, “You’ve done great, a year and a half you’re already in some stores in some countries.” I said, “Yes,” but you have to understand, I’m fourth generation. My great grandfather was a tobacco grower and buyer. My grandfather, my father, my cousin. My cousin is probably the second biggest independent grower of tobacco here. We keep between 14,000 and 15,000 bales of tobacco.
If you’ve been on Facebook, you’ve seen these two new warehouses, it’s 48,000 square feet more of storage that we have for the two new farms he bought. You have to have that inventory. You have to have that tradition. That doesn’t mean that somebody could come out right now with a little brandy and make it. Everybody in the industry, we all started small one way or another. It doesn’t matter who it is, everybody starts small. The thing is that you have to have the passion.
It’s not that you were sitting in an office and you like cigars, you’re going to come out and make cigars. Some of them make it, the majority don’t because it’s all about passion. The other thing is you have to be traveling. You have to be talking with people. Social media has changed everything. I even tell a lot of shop owners, “Do you have a Facebook page?” “No, I don’t have time for that.” What do you mean you don’t have time? It takes two minutes to open a Facebook page and says, “New arrivals. We’re having an event on Saturday. So and so is stopping in to say hello from 12:00 to 2:00.”
I take advantage of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, everything. When I’m visiting from one place to another with an hour difference, I let anybody know I’m going to be there. Sometimes two or three people show up because people work. Sometimes eight or ten people show up. Sometimes a couple of guys buy boxes and so that’s $500, $600 that the guy sold. If I wouldn’t have publicized it, he wouldn’t have done it. If you’re not willing to get the knowledge, get the staff, get good product, do your social media, you’re just going to be another store and you’re going to be struggling.
Speaking of history and what you’re talking about, José, tell us a little bit about your background in the cigar industry and how you started and all the things you’ve done. I heard you’ve done a little bit of everything.
Everybody knows that I started smoking around fourteen. I’ve told this story many times. My father caught me, he used to smoke five, six cigars a day, died almost at the age of 90. I would always go to Jochi’s father’s farm, Don Arnaldo, my uncle and on the summer, we would go there, learn how to swirl tobaccos. At that time, I would go to the master roller there, an old man called Gumek to make me little cigars. I started taking a leaf of this, leaf of that. My old man caught me one day and he said, “I know you love this but you’re going to start smoking when you’re sixteen.” Once in a while, at least once a week, I would smoke a cigar.
Then I was working with Grupo León Jimenes for many years. I used to be the Director of Sales for Marlboro cigarettes and Presidente. I was on the smoking panel and always helping out Guillermo and going to La Aurora and visiting other factories. I had a good longtime relationship with Carlito, Hanky, we spent a lot of time. Then officially back in 1999, I took charge of the blending and the sales director for La Aurora travelling all over the world. I was there until about 2011 when I put in my 30 years, I retired and then I was in Sweden with my in-laws.
After a month to be honest, I got bored. I started getting calls from this company, that company, “Do you want to be vice president of this, vice president of that?” I said, “No.” Then my good friend, Alejandro Martinez Cuenca, who I’ve known for many years, made me an offer to go to work with him in Joya, Nicaragua and we developed some brands there. We did have a problem unfortunately with the Cuenca Blanco that we had to change it for CyB that hurt the brand a lot. There was a lot of confusion.
Then I decided when the contract was up, “Let’s go back to the DR.” We thought about it, “Should we continue to work?” My blood is not really red blood. My blood is tobacco. I said, “Let’s start our own little company. I would want Jochi, which I’m always seeing, look at thousands and thousands of bales of tobacco.” He said, “This is where we’re going to make our cigars.” Emma used to work for Swedish Match. Her father used to be the head of it and she was the marketing director from Russia all the way down to Macedonia. She spent six years with them. Then she was at the factory all the time in Nicaragua and in the fields. She would spend time up with them learning more about different types of tobaccos from Nicaragua.
We came back here, from day one she’s been involved in everything with cigars. She did her own blending a little bit behind my back but I was good. She wanted to do it her way. She didn’t want to have Jochi’s signature on it or mine. It’s something very, very well. It’s a great blend and we’re very happy. She did all the marketing. She did all the boxes, the designs, work with the website. She’s on social media every day. Once in a while she travels with me and we’ll work the events together. It’s a combination. It’s a good one too.
I have a question about blending. When you want to create a cigar, I think I know your answer but I want you to say it. Do you have a flavor profile that you want to get out of the cigar or do you look at what the trend is in the industry and try to blend something that you think will fit? I think you’re going to choose the former rather than the latter. I’ve seen a ton of that happening where something is hot, they go after it and then they beat each other up. Obviously, supply and demand will rule and whoever does the best marketing will win. How do you blend? How do you do it?
We have to go a little bit back, the first thing is when I did Senorial, I didn’t want anything like I did in Joya. I definitely didn’t want to make anything like I made in La Aurora. We had at La Aurora, many years very successful cigars. What I look at is I smoke first the tobaccos pure grade. Pure grade means that you smoke a little 4×40 where you’re using the same filler as filler, binder and wrapper. Then you get the characteristics, the spice, the flavor, the aroma, the strength of it. Then it’s like cooking. You’re putting components together.
One of the first things that we did was not to try to make anything similar to anything I’ve made and even more similar to anybody. How many times do you hear somebody come up with something, “This cigar is just like Padron.” I tell those people that come out, “Forget that approach because those guys are already successful. Try to make what you are.” When we were doing our test blends in our first seven months and we have an international panel, we have a couple of guys in Europe, a couple of guys in Canada, a couple of guys in the States. One of the things that we would send them is three or four blends for them. When we’re down to the final three for them to pick, one of the questions was, “Is it similar to anything I blended?” A lot of people said, “This is totally different.” That’s the first thing.
On trends, I’m going to tell you what I personally believe is a trend. It’s a good priced, consistent, well-made cigar. Everybody’s doing, 7×80, 8×80. I remember at the previous show, some of the young crowd asked me, “What’s a cigar that you wouldn’t do that somebody else can do.” I said, “It’s a very easy, make a 10×100. Put a big band on it and full it enough.” I don’t actually go by trends. What I go more is before getting some special tobaccos, our fillers are three to four-year-old fillers. It’s like on the 65th anniversary, that’s a seven-year-old Dominican wrapper from Jochi’s farm. That was 20,000 cigars we made. It was a limited edition. We have maybe 60 or 70 left at the show, at the warehouse.
The new Senorial Maduro we came out, that’s a Negro San Andres wrap, five years old. When you smoke that cigar, razor sharp. The Freya also with Dominican wrapper grown in Jochi’s farm, a five-year-old wrapper. For me, even though I don’t have a factory, I can say I have and I don’t have a factory because Jochi and me are not only first cousins we’re more like brothers. We’ve been together all our lives together, smoking cigars, talking, going to the beach, hanging out, having drinks and everything. It’s very close. I have that advantage that I could say.
Everybody that comes and visit us and we get people every week they said I’m the owner but actually the factory has some as much to say in the factory as I do. That’s an advantage that we have that you have a certain amount of tobaccos where you can play with. I’ll give you an example about blending and I say this at the seminar. Blending is very similar as cooking. You’re taking different types of tobacco with different profiles from different primaries.
When you’re cooking, you’re taking onions, garlic, black pepper, white pepper, red pepper, tomato paste and different types of spices to make the cigar so that’s the same thing. What I tell people is this, I don’t think there’s any chef in the world that’s famous that got his special dish or special dishes on a first try. You really have to work it and work it and work it. Already we’re working for things that would come out at the show but we take our time on that because you have to give it time.
That’s one thing that you mentioned that I had no idea about is that I always thought that the longer something ages, the more it mellows out or smooths itself out. You said that’s not necessarily true. A blend can go bad on you.
A blend can go bad on you from 21 days, the 30, the 30 to 60. After 60 there is not going to be a lot of changes on it. One thing you have to understand, Sean, is that you have cigars that you smoke today and they’re phenomenal. You’ll leave them to rest for three years, they’re going to lose a lot. It also depends. Tobaccos with a Cameroon wrapper, mild Connecticut cigars are going to lose a lot of time.
You take a nice really Habano Ecuador, Habano Nicaragua, a nice Escurio 98 wrapper from here with a good viso for two or three years, of course, if a cigar on a scale of one to ten when you made it, the strength was nine and your flavor was ten. In three years, probably that strength is going to go down to seven and the flavor’s probably going to go down to eight and a half. It doesn’t mean it’s going to lose any type of its characteristics. You’re just going to smoke a little bit more mellow and it’s going to be a little more cleaner smoke. That said, all cigars do not age well.
Other than your own blends, what out there do you love right now? What’s one of them that jumps out at you?
Let me tell you something. I’ve been asked that a lot of times and I don’t answer for one reason. I have many friends in the industry that I respect and it would not be fair to me to mention this guy and that other guy, but I will tell you this. Anybody who sees my Instagram knows that I smoke four or five cigars every day and it’s from a lot of companies, good cigars. If you really want to know what I like just check out my Instagram and you’ll see that I post from a lot of people.
Everybody for a year and a half was asking me all the time, they saw me working on a Lancero. All of a sudden, three or four months ago we released the first 100 boxes and they flew out in a week. We released the last hundred for this year. That’s after the blend was made and I was satisfied. I let them rest for a year. It’s not a big seller. It’s 100 boxes of 48. That was like 4,800, now 4,800, almost 10,000 cigars because you have people that are really diehard fans of Lancero.
I wanted to make a Lancero for people to smoke it and when they would smoke it. There is really a way that you can make a great consistent Lancero because unfortunately a lot of people have gotten a little bit off a Lanceros because some people have not taken their time and done a great job on it. To be honest, this is a question I get a lot, “What’s one of the hardest cigars to roll?” Actually, it is a Lancero 7×38. You really have to be an artisan to really make that cigar work.
Why? Because it’s so thin and long?
It’s so thin and it’s the way that you have to send to that viso in the middle. If it doesn’t go in the middle, it’s going to canoe and sideburn on you. So far, we have not had one complaint about it. I encourage people to make Lanceros and just get their more skilled rollers to make them because to me it’s great. A Lancero and a Corona are one of my favorite sizes.
I know that CRA is something you’re really in loved with. Tell us a little bit about that. I know that’s a big thing you’d like to talk about.
One of the things about CRA is that my good friend, Glynn Loope, has won many battles. What I don’t understand is when I go to events, have 40, 50 people there and I ask everybody, “Did everybody have a good time?” “Yeah, this was great.” Then I tell them, “If FDA gets their way, we’re not going to be able to do this. It’s even going to get better.” This shop has four employees. If FDA has their way, the owner is going to be behind the counter with a big black and white book, with black and white pictures of the cigars you like. You’re going to tell them, “I want XYZ cigar,” but you can’t go into the humidor because in this case, Harris would go into the humidor and pick the cigar but he still can’t give it to you. He can’t even cut it for you.
When you say, “I’m going to go into the lounge and I would smoke it.” No, you can’t smoke it in the lounge either. You can’t touch the cigar. You’ve got to let Harris get it. You can’t smoke it in the lounge. He can’t cut the cigar for you and God help you, if you could find a place to smoke it and maybe if you’re nice to your wife and you give her a $5,000 more limit on her credit card, she might let you smoke the cigar on the porch.
I encourage everybody who loves cigars, who’s passionate about cigars to join CRA’s $35 and you’re going two great cigars. I tell people why the NRA so strong in this country? It’s because they have two and a half million card carrying members. Unfortunately, with all the work that we have done, I think our membership is up to maybe 24,000 or 25,000. I have to say that Glynn Loope has done a great job. He is a workaholic. That man works seven days a week, 24/7 and wherever he’s needed, him and his staff and my good friend, Patrick, are there to support. If you believe in rights, support CRA, join CRA. I’ve always said if you can die for your country at eighteen, you should be allowed to smoke and drink at eighteen.
Harris, I love getting my care packages from you, you know that I get all giddy inside when I get them. The tactile feel of me opening up a humidor and smelling it when I walk in and looking through all the different boxes and standing on my tippy toes to see which ones are at the top, to see if I can find that gem, that would remove a large portion of the fun of the buying experience for sure.
The things that are happening in our country and we’re not going to get into politics, but when you see that states want to legalize marijuana, when did you ever heard of a guy smoking three cigars going onto highway and killing ten people? How many times have you seen a guy drink six beers and killing a bunch of people or getting high on pot and just doing stupid things? If we talk about political incorrectness, I think we have too much involvement on how the government really wants to control us. We don’t target kids. It’s eighteen years up. Majority of the smoking is done at the cigar lounges. We’re not cigarettes, we’re not pot, we’re not all that crap out there. We’re adults just enjoying what hardworking adults want to. Go into the shop, mingle with people, buy some chop and just enjoy a cigar.
Speaking of good cigars, Lane and I are smoking the Senorial on the show.
It’s been very pleasant. It’s a little sweet, a little spicy. The spice has really changed. It started out as a sweet spice, almost like a cinnamon or something like that. About halfway through, I was getting almost a chili pepper off of it. It’s really nice.
It’s a good the way you describe it because that’s the way me and Emma was talking about it. Sometimes some people starts off with a little spice, then that’s very sweet, kicks in. Then you pick up a little bit of the sweetness profile from the Nicaraguan. It’s rich, it’s complex. It’s medium to full. For some people they say it’s medium. I said when you retrohale that cigar, it’s a full body cigar because unfortunately in this country, for people to define a full body cigar is a cigar that knocks you or just gives you a buzz.
To me, and I’ve said it a million times, that’s not a full body cigar. That’s a strong cigar. Unfortunately, we have so much disinformation out there. One thing is a full flavor, full body cigar and one thing is the strong cigar. A strong cigar is a cigar that’s going to have more strength than it does flavor but that’s not a full body cigar. Full body cigar is a cigar where your flavor is going to be a ten and your strength is going to be eight, eight and a half so the tobaccos can harmonize and they can be rich and they can be complex and they could have a great aroma and you have a total great stimulation in your mouth.
I’m learning a ton just listening to some of this. Having a great teacher like Harris and Lane guided me through the cigar process has been good. I’ve passed it along. My father has smoked Arturo Fuente 858 Maduros for 25 years or so. He smokes the same thing every time. I am finally turning him on to new stuff and he loves it, so does my brother-in-law. I’m teaching them how to retrohale. I’m talking to them about that kind of stuff and they love it and I love that they do.
The thing about that and Harris has been in the seminar, is that if you don’t retrohale, what are you really picking up? It’s salt, it’s bitter, it’s sour, it’s sweet. When you retrohale, scientists say that you’re picking up between 350 maybe 400 different notes. When you’re picking a cigar, it’s meaty, it’s sharp, it’s metallic, it’s grassy, it’s young, it’s sweet but what kind of sweetness are you picking up? Is it the sweetness of a milk chocolate or is it the bittersweet of a Godiva?
When people talk about spice, what are you picking up? Is it a red pepper, black pepper or white pepper? When people say I’m picking up leather, you don’t lick leather. The cigar is woodsy, you don’t lick wood. What I’ve never ever in my 47 years of smoking is picking up a hint of blueberry muffin. I saw that on a review and I just let it at that. I didn’t want to comment because there’s no way in hell this cigar could have a hint of blueberry muffin.
José, it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you. I’m good. I have to run but I want you to continue this without me. I thank you for coming on the show.
The pleasure is mine. I will continue with Harris because I know he is a partner in crime. They’re looking to me in a funny way and have some more questions. It’s been a pleasure and anytime, Sean, just write to me. It will be a pleasure.
Thank you for being so accessible. I appreciate it.
I know that I had a moment in there, where you’re talking about how you go about blending where I bonded with you a little bit. You were talking about how you take inventory of what you have and that no chef starts out with a winning recipe on this first try. The @MagicCityBurn, that’s my Twitter and Instagram. I’ve got a MagicCityBurn.com website. It started out as a food blog and then I would throw in an occasional cigar review or something like that.
That’s how I got mixed up with this group. You’re right, my barbecue recipes have evolved over the years. Probably the only one that stayed relatively static has been my pork spare ribs recipe and it’s just because it was a hit from go. My brisket, the first couple of briskets that I’ve put together, they were okay. It’s something that took work to get it down to where I was happy with it.
It did sound a little bit like you were saying that at the end of the blending process, you were looking for something that is greater than the sum of its parts. You’re going in with the filler and the binder and the wrapper and you’ve got all of these flavor profiles that each of those bring with them and you’re trying to make something unique out of all of those properties.
It’s something that I always tell people and I’ve had the honor that in my seminars, I always get two or three reps in different companies. They asked me can they sit in? When we did the one in, Harris, I think we had two or three reps from companies there and I said, “Of course.” I had a couple of reps from companies and a couple of times I’ve even had people that have their little brand in there. I said, “Absolutely.” After that they tell me, “I was giving more importance to the fillers and the binders and I didn’t realize after I smoked the cigar with the four wrappers, the impact it has.” At the end of the day, nobody knows it all. Nobody gets a hit on the first time.
Even sometimes when we started off making Senorial, we made up two or three blends, the first three or four of them. They were good but it was not really what we wanted to accomplish. Then you start to tweak them around, you smoke, you let them rest, you smoke them again. You ask different people that have different kinds of palates. If you try to make a cigar for everybody to like, you wind up making a cigar that nobody loves. I want people to love my cigars even if it’s a smaller percentage because those are the people that are going to go back and buy this cigar again. It’s a very personal thing. I’ve always said if all of us were to make only the cigars and the sizes we would like, but being Carlito, Guillermo, Hanky, we probably be all out of business because it will probably be totally different from what the majority of people want.
The majority of people want a cigar. If it’s a $5 cigar, they want it to be $5. Those days where you’re fooling people around, those days are over. If you’re going to ask for $20 for a cigar, it better be a good cigar for $20. What do they want? They want consistency. They want a good drawer. They want to see a nice wrapper. They want to see the band. The band is important but a pretty band and a pretty box is not going to make it. It’s all about the cigar and it’s all about the person behind. You have to be humble. You have to be open to people.
When people tag you on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, answer them. I think it’s a disrespect not to. I’m not saying that I do it 100% but I’m 95%, 96% plus. I can miss one because I’m traveling sometimes going from here to like Hong Kong or Shanghai, a day and a half out of internet. Especially if I’m in China where Facebook is not allowed. When I get back, I try to catch up with everybody, give a like, make a comment. My inbox everyday on Facebook have ten, twelve, fifteen questions. Direct messages on Instagram. On Twitter they asked me about this, asking opinions, trying to clarify misconception and I do it. Some people will ask me sometimes, “How do you do it? Because I see you at 11:00 at night or 5:00 in the morning you’re up answering people.” I said, “Because I respect the industry and that’s the way it should be.”
You’re definitely one of the most accessible people in the cigar industry and that you do actually respond in Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, all of that very quickly. It seems like a lot of guys at your level, it’s pretty tough to get them or maybe they never respond at all.
You’re making great boutique cigars at this point. Do you find that it complicates things? That you’re mixing origin of tobacco and stuff now as opposed to when you were doing puros?
No. One of the things when I got on board with La Aurora is that I loved tobacco from Nicaragua so we bought a little bit of tobaccos from Nicaragua, some tobaccos from Peru, some tobaccos from Brazil. I love tobaccos from Brazil. They’re very sweet, very aromatic. They burn good. Sometimes you have two great cigars, two great tobaccos but they do not harmonize because they’re fighting for first place in strength and in flavor so there’s a clash. Sometimes they’d become very one dimensional or they’re not complex enough. That’s the things that you have to play with. It’s not easy. People think it’s easy but it’s not easy to take my word.
What are you hearing on the FDA front? Any new developments or is it still hearing the same information?
It’s the same, they’ve appointed a new guy there. IPCPR has been very active. CRA has been very active. I’m active on that every day in my seminars. The first thing I’d bring up is the CRA. I encourage people to join. This is something I brought in sometimes to a lot of our retailers. If there’s a tax that’s going to go into your state and IPCPR and CRA sends you this petition for you to sign, take two minutes and talk with your regulars. Get them to write to their congressman, to their senator, to their assembly men, to their mayor. For many years I went to work in Washington, and the way it works is that if somebody from Alabama writes to their congressmen, four or five people, the last guy on the chain will make a note of it. If the guy gets 30, 40, 50 calls and 200 or 300 emails, it goes to the Chief of Staff. If it goes over that then they have to direct it to the senator or the congressman.
They’re hearing us because I think that a congressman lost the seat in Virginia for 100 something votes. There were a lot of cigar smokers that said, “FU, we’re going to work hard to get you out of that,” and he lost that. I’ll give you a prime example and I don’t like to talk about politics. A lot of people say that Al Gore lost the elections for all the shit that happened in Miami. No, Al Gore didn’t lose the elections to that.
Al Gore lost the election because he couldn’t win in his own State, Tennessee. You know where Al Gore’s family made all their money? In tobacco. At the end of the day, they all voted. If he would have won in that State it didn’t matter what happened there. People are getting more active about it. If you can die for your country at eighteen, you should be allowed to smoke and drink at eighteen. These cigars and smoking is not about health. It’s about rights. Enough is enough.
I think it’s important that you brought up not just your congressmen and your senators, but you’re talking about local city councils and mayors too. A lot of times they are the frontline, the beginnings of these new and better regulations that impact us all. Here in Birmingham especially, a lot of the anti-tobacco crowd went out to the suburbs to put pressure on the city of Birmingham. Now most of the municipalities in the area including Birmingham have no smoking regulations. If we had been fighting as hard to retain what we already had as the anti-crowd was fighting against it, it might have turned out very differently.
The thing is you can’t be reactive. You have to be proactive. That’s why it’s like in my daily speech when I do the events, I bring it up and I encourage consumers and store owners to be part of the fight, to join and say, it’s the livelihood not only for you guys but for us too. Millions of people depend from Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, on us.
Something I’ve always sent up when I went to Washington, it’s about small business with the exception of two or three companies that own these big internet sites and things. 90% is one shop owners and maybe some people have two and three and the exception of having four or five shops like Harris and my good friend, Craig Cast, it’s very few. I would say 85% is one owner, husband and wife or a man or a woman that owns the store. It’s all about small business. We don’t hurt anybody. We don’t target kids. Fast food does more harm than we do.
What do you do when you’re not smoking cigars? Do you spend all your time in the factory and working on your blends? Are there other things you’d like to do too?
I love to dance when we can, movies, get together with friends. We travel a lot. She loves to travel. I love to travel. We’ll be going to Sweden but at the same time over there with a distributor that’s done amazing. We’re amazed at the numbers he had done for a small country. We’ll do three or four seminars to the people who have been begging. We love to travel. We love to go out and eat too. We have little Jasper. He takes up a lot of time. He’s going on three but he’s acting like ten.
We really appreciate you joining us on the show. Lane, do you have any other questions?
No. Thanks for spending time with us.
It’s a pleasure to be on Cigar Cafe and it was great meeting Sean. We’ve been going back and forth a lot of times and I’ve known Harris now for many years. They’re an example of what good retailer is. Not only as a good retailer but as leadership, I would say one of the young talents in our industry that’s open-minded and willing to go out of the box to bring excitement and pleasure and helping out people. It’s like when the kid that just graduated from college that his father used to smoke and his grandfather, he wants to go in there. I’ve seen this a million times in shops.
Store owners want to slap something that’s not moving, something that’s not that. No, you’ve got to take your time and get them on a couple of mild cigars, not even one, two or three mild cigars. Smoke this, smoke that. Come back in two or three weeks and see what your tolerance scale is. If you can handle, then you go from mild to medium, maybe they’ll stay at medium. It’s like baby steps. When you’re learning to walk and learning to ride a bicycle, you’ve got to take them by the hand. You have to educate them. You have to have patient. Unfortunately, we have a lot of stores that don’t want to deal with that and what they don’t realize they’re missing a potential longtime customer.
It’s all about building the relationship with the customer so then they trust your recommendations and know that you’re really trying to help them out, not just trying to sell them another cigar.
It’s been a pleasure and anytime you want you can come by. We can combine one of these days so Emma can be on the program too. She’s a lot of fun and she has a lot of experience and she has a lot of different views about the industry. It will be fun too and exciting. She has a lot of background especially you can talk about the difference with her about the European markets compared to the American markets, which are totally different the way things are done. Anytime, you just let us know. If it’s this time she’ll be more than happy to be there. We’ll bring you some samples of all the new stuff and it’s always great to be with rich and spend some time with you guys. If you want me on the show again, I’ll be more than happy.
We’ll definitely take you up on that.
Procigar is the best time to really come down here. That’s the premium worldwide event of cigars. It’s absolutely great to spend time with Guillermo, with Hanky, with Carlito, with Lito, with Ernie, with Jochi, with the people of Artales. It’s a great event. It’s a beautiful country, safe. Some of the best cigars in the world are made here and it’s just exciting times. I always tell people, “After your honeymoon, if you’re a cigar smoker, first thing you’ve got to put on your bucket list is to come visit a cigar-producing country and spend a couple of days at a factory in the fields.”
You learn so much on those trips. It’s made to see how everything’s made and how much labor goes into that. There are so many hands touch a cigar to make it. It’s incredible.
It’s funny you bring that up because in the seminars I ask people, from the seeds to when it arrives in the shop, how many people directly and indirectly touches a cigar. “Maybe ten, maybe twelve.” Some people say 50. It’s actually between 230 and 240 hands touch a cigar before it reaches you there at Cigars & More. Thanks for having me in Cigar café. To all of you there, join CRA, support your local brick and mortar. Go to the events. Ask questions. There’s no such thing as a stupid question. Stupid is not to ask questions. I’ve been smoking for 47 years, I live in Nicaragua. I’ve been to Cuba many times, Honduras, Mexico and I’m still asking questions.
Thanks again, José. We really appreciate your time.
It’s been a pleasure and try to behave.
- José Blanco
- Drew Estate Cigars
- La Aurora
- José Blanco’s Instagram
- Glynn Loope
- Arturo Fuente 858 Maduros
- @MagicCityBurn – Lane Oden’s Twitter
- Instagram – Lane Oden
About Jose Blanco
José Blanco was born in New York City, and eventually moved to the Dominican Republic where, at age 16, he smoked his first cigar and began working with his uncle, Arnaldo Blanco, at Tabacalera Palma. This is the same factory, now run by his cousin, Jochi Blanco, where José’s Señorial cigars are made today.
José’s business career began at La Empreza Leon Jimenes, where he sold Dominican-made Marlboro cigarettes, and Presidente Beer. Leon Jimenes also owned Tabacalera La Aurora, and José’s knowledge of tobacco and cigars landed him a seat on the company’s tasting panel. By 1999 he was working solely for La Aurora Cigars and eventually became the company’s Sales Director while also working on their premium cigar blends.
After retiring from La Aurora in 2011, José joined Joya de Nicaragua cigars. During his two-year tenure as Sr. Vice President, he worked with JDN President, Dr. Alejandro Cuenca, which resulted in the release of the critically-acclaimed Cuenca y Blanco cigar series.
In 2014, José founded Las Cumbres Tabaco with his wife, Emma Viktorsson, a knowledgeable and highly-respected tabaquero in her own rite, and the creator of Freyja cigars.
In addition to his Las Cumbres responsibilities, José continues to do his blending seminars at retail cigar stores across the country at which the participants learn about blending cigars and the different varieties of cigar wrapper tobaccos in an interactive, hands-on setting.
For more information on Señorial cigars, Freyja cigars and Jose’s seminars, visit Las Cumbres Tabaco online, and enjoy the podcast.