Nicholas Melillo, best known to cigar smokers as the founder and CEO of the boutique cigar company Foundation Cigar Co., sat down with Gary Korb from Cigar Advisors to talk about his beginnings in the cigar industry, Connecticut and the passion that drives him.
Those who prefer to listen to the original podcast should click here: Cigar Advisor Master Blenders Series with Nick Melillo.
Although I was quite familiar with his cigars, I had never met Nick Melillo until this interview, but once we started talking I felt like I’d known him all my life. He’s one of the most charismatic people in the business, and one of the most passionate about what he does. This interview was a little less formal than my usual podcast, which made it even more enjoyable, and I think you’ll find hearing what Nick has to say about his work ethic, tobacco farming – especially Connecticut-grown tobacco, the Highclere Castle project, and more, both lively and entertaining.
– G. K.
Gary Korb (Cigar Advisor): I’m going to ask you a question that I ask everybody on the show, especially the first time I interview them. What was the first cigar you ever smoked, and what do you remember about it?
Nick Melillo (Foundation Cigar): The first cigar I ever smoked was actually a Macanudo Hyde Park that was made in Kingston, Jamaica.
G.K.: Ooh, original!
N.M.: No cellophane in the box; original Connecticut shade from the [Windsor] Valley. This was 1996. It was just creamy-smooth delicious, and that sort of set me on my path.
G.K.: That’s a good one.
N.M.: So, actually, it’s technically the second one, now that I’m thinking of it. The first one was a Connecticut Broadleaf made [with an] Extra Oscuro Broadleaf which my grandfather had been smoking.
G.K.: Well, you’re a Connecticut guy, right?
N.M.: I’m a Connecticut native, born and raised.
G.K.: You were just telling me before, you worked for a cigar shop for a while; you graduated from Quinnipiac. Isn’t that the university where they do all the polls?
N.M.: It is. I was just there yesterday, speaking to some international business classes.
G.K.: And so you traveled around the world a lot. Around 2003 you ended up in Nicaragua.
N.M: [Yes,] March, 2003.
G.K.: Working with Jonathan Drew of Drew Estate [Cigars].
G.K.: And at what stage were you as far as your knowledge of cigars and tobacco.
N.M.: In ’96, I really started to learn everything I could about cigars. I was just fascinated by the ritual of smoking; my grandfathers all smoked Connecticut broadleaf cigars. You know, the history of cigar tobacco in Connecticut goes way back. My one grandfather worked at the Winchester [gun] factory in New Haven after World War II. It wasn’t too far from the F.D. Grave cigar factory. I ended up going to school with the grandson of F.D. Grave, so we would smoke cigars together. I knew everything from the retail side to the final consumer side, and I had book knowledge of the fermentation, the sorting selections, but I had no real hands-on experience until I moved down to Nicaragua, which was my dream.
G.K.: OK, so you were what they call a ‘cigar nut.’
N.M.: I was a complete cigar nut. I just fell in love with the ceremony of cigar smoking. I was never a cigarette smoker, and just always enjoyed the camaraderie with my grandfather smoking a cigar. I learned so much during those experiences at a young age; you know, being able to sit with my grandfather and my brother, exchange stories, and learn about life. So, it was always a special time for me.
G.K.: That’s interesting. It’s one of the reasons I got into it. Both my grandfathers smoked cigars. My grandfather who lived in Florida, he always had a cigar, and I think they were something like El Producto cigars. But he always had a cigar. And one day I said, ‚My grandfathers smoked cigars, and my dad smoked cigars for a little while, and I think I’m going to try this. I think there’s something about it that I would like.‘ I smoked a pipe in college, but that was so much work, you know. Now, you had a contract with Drew [Estate] and learned pretty much everything, you know – your core knowledge – from Drew.
N.M.: Sure, I jumped in the deep-end in 2003.
G.K.: And then you started a consulting company, Melillo International.
N.M.: Correct, May, 2014.
G.K.: So what went off of your mind that said, it’s now time to create your own cigar brand?
N.M.: You know, I felt at that point I had built up experience for 12 years starting with Drew Estate in 2003 – one of the smallest factories in Nicaragua at that time – then leaving it as the largest factory in Nicaragua. I was responsible for the tobacco purchasing, blending, production planning; so, I felt like I built up a foundation of knowledge. Finally, I knew if I didn’t start my own cigar company at that time it would be difficult. It was also a very difficult decision to leave Drew Estate, because moving to a foreign country, working with the team, etc. – we’d been there for 12 years together – they had become family for me. It was a decision that I really struggled with for almost two years. And then I said if I didn’t do it I’ll probably never be able to do it. Then there’s all this FDA stuff also. I just personally knew I really wanted to get on the branding side and create brands, not just blends.
G.K.: So would you say that had you not started Melillo International first, it would be harder? Did that make it easier for you?
N.M.: For me, Melillo International had so many different farmers, so we were more involved in the tobacco side of things. I knew so many different farmers that knew farming. You have different people along the process. Some are just farmers, while others know how to sort, ferment, and sell. Others just are using the tobacco from a production standpoint. I started to see a lot of connections that could be made, that would help farmers, and then also help get tobaccos onto the market that not necessarily a lot of smaller factories could get their hands on; for one, [Mexican] San Andrés. For me, that was just a transition point, because at that point I had actually formed the consulting company to help with the transition; with Drew Estate, to make a transition through, and then from there I took on clients. It kept me busy while I was forming Foundation and working on the back end of my first brand.
G.K.: El Gueguense . . . [pronounced, el-way-wen-say]
N.M.: Yes great wise fish. [laughs] You know, it’s a Nahuatl word. Even Spanish people have difficulty with this word because there’s a lot of umlauts, and the ‚G-U‘ is pronounced as a ‚W.‘ This is a very important . . . ‘dance’ that has happened since the late 1500’s in Nicaragua. The imagery can be seen everywhere in Nicaragua. It’s very much like the Statue of Liberty is here as far as imagery. It’s really the cultural identity of Nicaragua. I obviously knew people would have difficulty pronouncing the word, but for me it was a passion project to really take this cultural icon which is recognized by UNESCO. They protect the Pyramids of Giza and they also protect this as a cultural treasure.
G.K.: So, ‚The Wise Man‘ is kind of a symbol in Nicaragua?
N.M.: It’s actually a play; the oldest indigenous satire of the Western Hemisphere. It’s the story of The Wise Man who’s being called by the Spanish Governor at the time in Nicaragua. This is [the 16th century] after the Spanish have taken control of Nicaragua, and the Governor is blaming The Wise Man for all of the problems Nicaragua is having. So, [The Wise Man] is called before the Spanish Crown and using satire to make them all look like fools. The Wise Man is poking fun, but they don’t know it. He brings his two sons before the Governor. One of his sons says he’s poor. The other one says he’s rich. By the end of the story he’s convinced the Spanish Governor that one of his sons was rich enough to marry the Governor’s daughter. It’s an interesting critique on what was happening to the indigenous cultures of Nicaragua at that time. And ‚Nicaragua‘ is a part Nahuatl word meaning ‚the land of lakes and volcanoes.‘ This is what makes Nicaragua very unique in its own language and culture.
G.K.: Have you ever read Memory of Fire? [by Eduardo Galeano]
N.M.: I haven’t.
G.K.: You should read it. It’s phenomenal.
N.M.: What drove me to make El Gueguense was, I knew I wanted to do a 100-percent Nicaraguan blend. That was something that I never did in the past. Worked with, of course, a lot of Nicaraguan tobaccos but I never had worked on a blend that was filler, binder, wrapper all from Nicaragua.
G.K: Let’s talk about boutique cigars. You consider yourself ‚boutique.‘ In terms of a trend, have you been seeing the sales of boutique cigars eating further into the major brand market? It all feels like a growing trend continuously, because even I’m starting to get more into the boutique stuff.
N.M.: Yeah, I think definitely. I mean, I think this whole trend of boutiques; I don’t know the exact stats, but it seems like a trend that started maybe around 2006-ish. You know, with the onset of certain boutique brands, and it’s sort of grown as time has gone on. So, you know this word ‚boutique‘ is kind of an interesting one because there’s no exact definition.
GK.: I was going to say, are you even comfortable with the word ‚boutique?‘
N.M.: I’m comfortable with it. I guess it depends on who you’re talking to and the perspective. Because of all the stuff that’s going on with the FDA and stuff, I tend to look at the market as [if] our whole industry [is becoming] boutique. Because, if you look at the numbers, between the Dominican, Nicaragua, and Honduras that’s exported 315 million to 320 million units, compared to the machine-made cigar market [which is] 13 billion units. We could consider boutique in that sense, but then, within our industry. Yeah, I’d definitely say we’re a boutique manufacturer, and it’s great to see so many different brands, and I think there’s a lot of great products out there.
G.K.: I agree. I would say – not to put the kibosh on any of the major manufacturers – but guys like you and [Steve] Saka and Jonathan [Drew]; it seems like there’s so much more that goes into making these type of cigars and cigars that you guys make, then just the— even though they’re all handmade, blah-blah-blah, it just seems that there’s more . . . passion. And it’s also their choices of tobacco. They’re really picky about that.
N.M.: Yeah, what goes into it is very important. And I think you know, I’ve seen it over the years, companies that were smaller that have gotten bigger; you know, become I think when it gets into the hands of the accountants it’s more of a numbers game. It’s just a different perspective of the product and everything. You know, you start taking shortcuts that you don’t take necessarily. They think the final consumer is not going to notice, and it helps your bottom line and in the end I think consumers do end up noticing and it ends up hurting your bottom line. So, it depends, I think, on the difference between having a passion for cigars, and not it’s just going to be a different result. You know what I mean.
G.K.: If Foundation cigars were the only cigars available, and someone said, ‘Hey I want to get into cigars,’ where would you start them?
N.M.: I would either start them on the Highclere Castle, which is medium body. It’s a Connecticut shade. It’s smooth, creamy and it’s got some spice to it. I think our Charter Oak is also good. The El Gueguense, too. It’s not an overpowering [smoke]. It’s a nice medium-bodied— you know everybody’s got such a different palate. And I’ve met smokers that are just starting that can go right into a Tabernacle, which wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice. But then there’s other people that are starting out with a much milder cigar. But I think Highclere would be a good start.
G.K.: Speaking of Highclere Castle, you called it a ’surreal experience.‘ Because it was being made for a British Royal like the Earl of Carnarvon, did you put additional pressure on yourself to make it as perfect as possible?
N.M.: I’m always putting that pressure on myself. But yes, definitely, Lord Carnarvon I met through a good friend of mine, Adam Goodkind, is his name. He owns a distillery in Connecticut. He made the connection for us because Adam and Larkin Carnarvon are working on a gin and a whisky for Highclere Castle. So yeah, [Adam] said, ‚You’ve got to meet Nicholas he’s got a passion for cigars.‘ Adam was aware of the history at Highclere Castle of cigar smoking. I mean, the cigar room, the library— His great grandfather, when he discovered King Tut’s tomb he had a cigar in hand. Everybody [there] smokes after dinner. That was the customary thing to do then. So they came down to Nicaragua. I became very good friends with Lord Carnarvon; we really hit it off. He’s an incredibly down-to-earth guy.
G.K.: He’s not one of those upper-crusty types?
N.M.: I try to surround myself with really good people. So, if I think of that, if it was any other way, it probably wouldn’t have come to fruition. But he was just so down-to-earth, and such a great guy, and every time he would speak about just history, and his grandfather, and the formation of Canada; really down-to-earth. So, we hit it off, and then I began the blending process. I had finalized about seven blends which we all sat down [to smoke], and we all picked the exact blend, so we were all on the same page. It’s been surreal just because he’s just an incredible human being, and yet, he’s the Godson to the Queen of England, which is . . . you know . . . WOW! [You know], he left me in Nicaragua because the Queen likes to spend her birthday at Highclere.
G.K.: For lack of a better word, what was the ‚hook‘ you needed, or wanted I should say, to distinguish the Highclere Castle from any other cigar?
N.M.: You know, I’ve never worked on a really high-end Connecticut shade. And Connecticut shade is a really difficult tobacco sometimes to blend with it being so thin; it’s so supple. So, the leaf that really put this whole blend together for me is the binder, which is a Mata Fina Brazilian binder [and] one of my favorites. And I tell guys, you know, have you ever smoked a Maduro cigar with a Connecticut shade wrapper? Because that’s really kind of what you’re getting. The Connecticut shade is that beautiful evening gown. It’s very nice to look at . . . very elegant. And that Brazilian Mata Fina is the black lace. Like Victoria’s Secret is holding everything together. But we [also] used some interesting filler tobaccos. There’s a hybridized seed that we used in there from Estelí, and a Criollo-Corojo cross-seed. Corojo generally has that sweetness; nice natural sweetness, where Criollo has a little bit more of that spice. We’ve got that one leaf [from] Ometepe, which is the volcanic island in the south of Nicaragua . . . it’s got some heat. What I wanted was, it has to be flavorful, I want it to be elegant, I want it to be creamy, but also have some good spice, and you know, decent body. It’s definitely more of a milder-bodied smoke. I always tell guys, body for me is like skim milk and half & half. You know what I mean? So it’s more on that lighter bodied, but there’s a lot of subtleties to it. The retrohale has a lot going on; a lot of good flavor.
G.K.: On the subject of tobacco, I love good San Andrés Maduro. I love it because I like cigars that are sweet, or have a nice sweetness and little spice to them. I know you use it on The Wise Man Maduro. I understand you’ve come up with a unique priming and fermenting process for San Andrés, so tell us a little bit about that.
N.M.: I started working with farmers in San Andrés again that had the farming experience, but not necessarily the fermentation and distribution. Mexico traditionally has really had their own culture of priming tobacco in the fields and fermenting tobacco. A lot of farmers would go into the fields and they would prime the whole plant at once which, traditionally, in Nicaragua we do priming [as follows]: the bottom two to three leaves; you wait six days, and then you work yourself up the plant. In Mexico, a lot of times they would go in and just prime it all at once. The tobacco would then go into more crude selected, sorted, larger fermentation piles of 10 to 12,000 pounds. In Nicaragua, we keep them smaller, 7,000 pounds. They do that because you can get the heat of the piles up much quicker, and you can ferment faster. Still a great tobacco right?
I said to myself: ‚What can we do to make this a little bit better?‘ So I ended up working with the Oliva tobacco family from Tampa – not the cigar family [from Nicaragua]. And they really have been integral in helping with the knowledge in Mexico; working with the farmers, and the farmers have come to Nicaragua, and we worked very closely with them. We ended up, instead of fermenting the tobacco in Mexico, when it comes out of the curing barns it’s packed and sent to Nicaragua where Oliva Tampa has an incredible sorting facility. They have many, many, many decades of experience. So everything’s sorted, really intricately, and then put into 7,000 pound fermentation piles. Lower heats, and longer amount of time preserving the essential oils of the heap. I always say, it’s like my grandmother’s pasta sauce. The difference between cracking the can open and throwing it on the oven; yeah, that’s one way. And then low simmer, low heat for eight hours, because once you turn the heat up, once that heat goes up, you start losing a lot of the essence to the elements and you tend to lose some of those essential flavors, so we try to keep it—
G.K.: So, it’s much more of a slow caramelization.
N.M.: Yeah, like that. And I’ve worked, too, with the Turrent family which is incredible. They do an incredible job in Mexico and really have done wonders over the years, and so I try to work with a variety of different people. But this project was something that one guy said to me one day when I came out with Wise Man Maduro; somebody made a comment: ‚Another San Andrés cigar on the market?‘ And little does he know. Because of this project, you couldn’t get San Andrés in Nicaragua unless you had the connections to Mexico; unless you had the ability to crop purchases or— so now, Oliva has the distribution within Estelí. So, there you go. Masters at Ecuador, they carry a plethora of different tobaccos there. So now, if you are a fabricita you’re able to go and purchase some San Andrés and use it, whereas in the past it might have not been that easy. And I think that’s partly why you see more San Andrés on the market.
G.K.: I love it, but I have been disappointed at times, noting, ‚this is not what I expected,‘ so I’m really looking forward to this one now.
N.M.: I hope you enjoy it.
G.K.: You have a farm in Connecticut, right?
N.M.: I don’t directly, but I have my office right now on a 50 acre tobacco farm, which is owned by the Thrall family. The Thrall family in Connecticut is one of the oldest tobacco growers in Connecticut. They’ve grown some of the first Connecticut Shade there. So, I actually am renting the farm from them right now. But I work with a lot of farmers in Connecticut. And again, I do sort of a similar thing from Connecticut with Broadleaf.
G.K.: So it’s only broadleaf, or you do shade and broadleaf?
N.M.: Right now, it’s pretty much Broadleaf. Most of the shade market has moved to Ecuador, unfortunately. But in Ecuador they don’t have to put up the shaded tent to filter the sunlight; it’s cloudy there all the time. So the yields of the plants in Ecuador have really lowered the acreage in Connecticut. But Broadleaf is the exact opposite. Now we can’t grow enough broadleaf right now for the market. That Broadleaf seed you can’t replicate anywhere else.
G.K.: Really? That’s good to know.
N.M.: The Valley, you know, that Connecticut River, it’s about 410 miles long when it empties, when it comes through the north of Hartford. The meadows there for growing tobacco are just perfect. Sandy loam soil, clear irrigation; you don’t need as much water, as you get nice filtration through the soil there. And the Broadleaf seed, it’s been grown in Pennsylvania, it’s been grown in other areas, but you don’t get that natural sweetness.
G.K.: You’ve been doing this for a while now . . .
N.M.: Is it more than 20 years? 15 years ago this month I moved down to Nicaragua.
G.K.: At what point did you know that Foundation Cigar was going to make it? That you had hooked-into the market?
N.M.: You know, I always feel like we’ve never made it. That keeps me going. That keeps the drive going, because I never, especially in this industry and what I’ve seen over the years is, you can never be sleeping or think you’ve made it. And that’s when maybe the head gets a little big. I always keep my head wrapped in a bandage to keep the swelling down. [laughs] I keep myself in check. But it’s, you know just the reception from initially— a lot of people didn’t know me in the market originally because I was behind the scenes for so many years. It’s really, I think, the hardcore community that really knew about what I was doing behind the scenes at Drew Estate. And retailers that I’ve met. You know, you guys [Famous Smoke Shop], have just been incredible, and Arthur [Zaretsky] and I have known each other for many, many years. So it’s that combination and the support from tobacconist’s around the country that we really focused on. And our first show, when we launched in 2015, man, it was just overwhelming for me to see the response, and to work so hard on something and see people enjoy it has been very rewarding, and makes all the stress and sleepless nights worth it.
G.K.: And you’ve had some high scores, too.
N.M.: In our first year. Well, once we got number one cigar for the consensus, a lot of top-10’s, and then we got Cigar Aficionado Top 25. It was for me . . . You know, I’ve been reading Cigar Aficionado for 20-plus years, and to get those accolades . . .
G.K.: I was just talking with Nestor Plasencia about the [’93‘ score on his] Alma Fuerte and he said, ‚Oh my God, that was just unbelievable!‘ He’s another one of these guys who just loves tobacco, just loves what he does.
N.M.: Nestor’s incredible.
G.K.: So, it really does make a difference and you’ve got to be grateful for that.
N.M.: It’s guys like Nestor and his father. You know, when I moved to Nicaragua I had read about a lot of these guys because I was the cigar nerd. And so to learn from these guys over the years is just— Nestor and his father are two guys that taught me a tremendous amount. The Oliva families. The Perez families. I was 24 when I moved down to Nicaragua. So yeah, and I know that they’re mainly Cuban guys, but being from Connecticut I was able to hold my head high, and Connecticut’s always been respected in the tobacco world.
G.K.: This is a question we’ve been asking a lot of people lately. You smoke a lot of cigars during the day. How do you cleanse your palate? What do you use?
N.M.: San Pellegrino. The carbonation really helps clean your palate. There are about four to six thousand flavor receptors on your tongue. That helps. I always have lime and San Pellegrino, and if not, some sort of seltzer. Soda has way too much sugar and whatnot, so usually San Pellegrino is my go to.
G.K.: I want to do something that we call the lightning round. Like if you had to give an elevator speech on each of your brands, and I’ll go through ‚em real quick. So, one or two sentences on Wise Man, the original, that’s the Corojo ’99, and then of course the San Andrés.
N.M.: Smooth, medium-bodied cedar and spice and everything nice. That’s what Wise Mans are made of.
G.K.: Highclere Castle . . .
N.M.: Elegant, creamy, complex at the same time; mild to medium, but full flavor.
G.K.: Charter Oak . . .
N.M.: Great everyday, cutting the lawn cigar. You get the Maduro broadleaf, you’ve got some sweetness, some earthiness, and then you get the Connecticut Shade; a little bit milder, still some good spice. You know, great smoke, great price.
G.K.: (In a Jamaican accent) The Upsetters . . .
N.M.: An unusual [one]. It’s got Jamaican Cow Tongue tobacco.
G.K.: What is that?
N.M.: Jamaican Cow Tongue is called ‚cow tongue‘ because of the shape of the leaf. It’s indigenous to Jamaica because it’s a much more narrow leaf compared to a lot of the Cuban seeds that are more round. So, that’s why they would call it Cow Tongue. It’s also called ‚Silver Tongue.‘ It’s extremely mild. You’d be surprised how mild and smooth it is. I wanted to blend it with Nicaraguan tobaccos, and it takes in the infusion process really well too.
G.K.: And also you do coffee.
N.M.: Yeah. Foundation Coffee. We have a Nicaraguan blend for The Wise Man. For Tabernacle, we have an Ethiopian blend. And then we have a Jamaican Blue Mountain for The Upsetters.
G.K.: And they all kind of pair with the strength of the cigar?
N.M.: They do. Mainly more of light roast, the darker, more drip style coffees instead of espressos. But I’m not a huge drinker. I like my bourbon, I like my Scotch, but I’m always drinking coffee on the production floor. So I did El Gueguense with the [coffee] pairing [because] tobacco has a lot of those natural coffee, earthy—
G.K.: And Tabernacle. ‚The Chief of the Broadleafs.‘
N.M.: The Tabernacle for me is a full-course meal. It’s complex, lot of depth, full-bodied, you know, but balanced at the same time. That’s key for me and all of my blends, is to keep the balance amongst the blend no matter if it’s full bodied later. So, it’s got to have balance, but it’s definitely . . . I would say, that one’s ‚flavor country’.
G.K.: I don’t think I’ve tried the Tabernacle yet. I’ll have to get my hands on one.
N.M.: Try the Toro.
G.K.: So with your beard and glasses, do you ever get mistaken for Jonathan Drew?
N.M.: Let me tell you, in Nicaragua that happens. You know, for so many years, because I was the guy down there all the time people still refer to me . . . you know, I’ll be out on the weekend at a restaurant or a bar and they’ll say, ‚Jonathan?‘ Oh God. So, I’ll say, ‚yo soy mas bonito,‘ ‚I’m better looking.‘ [laughs]
G.K.: What do you do for fun? Do you get to travel as much as you used to?
N.M.: I travel a lot. It’s mainly work related. I love music.
G.K.: I love it too, I’m also a musician.
N.M.: What do you play, drums?
G.K.: Actually, John Pullo is the drummer. I play piano, some guitar. I have a little duo [with a percussionist]. We’ve got practice tonight. We really don’t play out. We’re kind of past the bar scene at this point. We just like to have fun.
N.M.: What kind of music?
G.K.: We do totally deconstructed versions of popular rock, cool songs with like a funky-blues edge, a little jazz. I’ll send you some of our stuff.
N.M.: My grandfather was a jazz drummer, a Big Band drummer for a while.
G.K.: You should talk to John, because his father is a jazz drummer.
N.M.: So, I love music, seeing live music. In Nicaragua there’s a few great places outside of Estelí to go on the weekends. Hiking, history . . .
G.K.: Then you’ll love Memory of Fire.
N.M.: That book sounds right up my alley.
G.K.: Anything else you want to say specifically that we can cover this July [at IPCPR]?
N.M.: We’re launching Highclere Castle at the castle. We’re going to be actually launching [and] selling at the castle. The castle has a lot of tourists going there because, of course, ‘Downton Abbey.’ Filmed there, as you know, which is interesting. And keep a look out. We’re going to have some treats again next year. It’s good.
Photo: Master Blenders host, Gary Korb, and Nick Melillo pose for post-podcast selfie.