On Super Bowl Sunday in 1996, Jonathan Drew opened a cigar kiosk in New York’s World Trade Center. He called the company Jonathan Drew Inc.
The Brooklyn native was then studying for a law degree while working two other jobs. That kiosk dramatically changed the course of Drew’s life – and that of many others. Today, Drew Estate (DE), as it is now known, operates the second-largest premium cigar factory in the world. Its ACID line of infused cigars is among the three best-selling, handmade brands in the United States.
The Winding Path
After his success with the kiosk, Drew and his fraternity brother Marvin Samel, began having cigars made in the small factory La Rosa under the brand La Vieja Habana (The Old Havana). But cigars from La Rosa cost so much that every wholesale transaction netted the partners a loss. In order to keep selling their brand in retail stores, they needed to produce their cigars at lower cost. With his cigar factory in Nicaragua, Nick Perdomo was able to produce La Vieja Habana for Drew Estate so that they could keep selling cigars without losing money.
Hurricane Mitch soon hit Nicaragua, and the flow of cigars to Drew Estate dried up. Inches from closing the business, Drew moved to Nicaragua with borrowed capital. This was the beginning of the company’s life in Nicaragua. When Drew moved there in 1998, Samel managed the US side of the company’s business.
We have a handful of Nica Rustica vitolas that we’ll be releasing.
Every day, Jonathan lived and worked in the factory that he’d set up. The company’s fortunes changed dramatically after it began making an infused cigar for Scott “Acid” Chester, a New York artist. The infused cigars use unconventional tastes from oils, botanicals and herbs. These cigars became the engine of growth for Drew Estate, and one of the top selling long-filler brands in the US. In 2007, Drew Estate opened its big factory, La Gran Fabrica. It currently produces about 100,000 cigars per day. The factory is in keeping with the colonial style of Nicaragua’s Granada. Inside, it is filled with murals and other art works from Nicaragua, or made by the in-house art studio, Subculture Studios.
At the same time, the company was working on what would become its largest traditional (non-infused) cigar brand, Liga Privada, meaning “private blend”. It was made for then-executive Steve Saka who defiantly wanted to smoke traditional, not infused, cigars. The brand has become significant in the Drew Estate portfolio.
Willy Herrera, new Master Blender
In 2014, the traditional side of the Drew Estate business became as important as the production of infused cigars. Brands such as La Vieja Habana, Liga Privada, Undercrown, and others are staples in cigar shops around the world.The most recent addition to the portfolio of traditional cigars came with the hiring of Willy Herrera, whose Herrera Estelí cigar has been very popular. Herrera became Master Blender at Drew Estate in May 2014. It is a newly created position. Herrera is the first to hold the role and is exclusively responsible for working on blends.
“For the first time in DE’s history, this role will be clearly defined and limited in scope,” explains Drew. “Willy will be laser-focused on his core passion – blending premium cigars.The job will be streamlined to create new blends and maintain current ones. He’s being asked to live out his passion to the fullest extent, as Master Blender of the second largest premium cigar factory in the world.”
“This is an incredible opportunity and a dream come true for me to become Master Blender of a company as globally well respected as Drew Estate,” says Herrera on the most exciting part of his new role. “Everyone who knows me understands my passion for premium cigars and its rich culture.
I’m excited to take all my years of hard work and apply it to producing something deeply personal. Witnessing the second largest factory produce the blends that my team creates is an epic achievement.” Previously, Nicholas Melillo and other members of the executive team had the master blender responsibilities. Melillo was also responsible for leaf buying and other management around the factory.
Herrera will be given the freedom to create new kinds of cigars, the latest of which is called NORTENO by Willy Herrera, and will debut at the 2014 IPCPR tradeshow in Las Vegas in July. “The cigar features a Mexican San Andres wrapper and is trunk-pressed,” Herrera says. “It will come in six sizes. This is a truly sophisticated blend, with just the right amount of strength and body.”
Before joining Drew Estate, Herrera worked with Sandy Cobas at El Titan de Bronze, a small premium cigar factory in Miami’s Little Havana. There he gained experience buying tobacco, managing rollers, marketing, and blending both for customers and for the factory’s own brands. In recent years, Herrera has been traveling around the United States, meeting with enthusiasts and retailers to talk about the Herrera Estelí. This will continue, but with the added responsibility of representing all the cigar blends in the Drew Estate portfolio.
DE2 – A Mammoth Building
When the Gran Fabrica was built, it contained more space than was then needed. The company has since filled the factory and began using different warehouses for the storage of its tobacco. But DE2 contains no cigars. It is exclusively for the storage, aging and sorting of tobacco. So, why did Drew Estate need to build DE2?
“We go through a lot of tobacco,” Drew explains. “Before, we had four different buildings scattered around Estelí where we stored and cured our tobaccos. This was extremely inefficient and created a lot of extra work. We decided it was finally time to make the investment (a sizable one of US$3.2 million) last year. It’s truly state-of-the-art. We’re still growing into it and have many new innovations that haven’t been installed fully.”
DE2 is truly state-of-the-art.
The new DE2, measuring 61,000 square feet, features a modern fire suppression system and a tobacco sorting area above the pilon storage area, which utilizes natural light through skylights instead of fluorescent light. The use of natural light facilitates better efficiency in sorting tobaccos, making it easier to discern the minuscule color differences between the leaves. “The building gives us the space required to craft our skill and innovate, and work the tobacco to reach its fullest potential,” says Drew. “We needed this facility and are very appreciative of the help we received from some tobacco legends around the world to achieve it. Nick Melillo, Steve Saka and Manuel Rubio did most of the planning.”
DE2 was built in a similar style to the Gran Fabrica, employing the same color scheme, with nods to the Granada Colonial architectural style. But there’s no mistaking that it’s a giant warehouse. Once inside, you see that it’s not a big box, but, rather, has many “compartments” or rooms, each designed to provide the different climates that tobacco needs at various stages of its preparation for inclusion in a premium cigar.
The first and largest room contains well-organized shelves filled with bales of tobacco. To the side, there is a humidified and temperature-controlled space, especially designed for wrapper leaf. Farther inside the facility is a massive tobacco fermentation room with pilones of slowly fermenting tobacco from across the world. On the floor above the fermentation room is a sorting room, flooded by natural light; the majority of employees work here – the sorters, who separate bales of tobacco, leaf by leaf, to match leaves of the same size, quality, and color before they are sent to the Gran Fabrica for rolling.
Social and artistic aspects
Gran Fabrica is known not just for its cigars, but also for having the most murals of any cigar factory in the world. The in-house art studio’s largest mural is on an exterior wall facing the company’s villas. The once famous mural underwent a complete restoration in 2013. “The new mural is a representation of our ties to Nicaragua,” explains Jessi Flores, head of Subculture Studios. “With many of the national images of Nicaragua depicted, [it] serves as a token of our gratitude to this beautiful country. From day one, we entitled any mural placed in this position ‘Dos Formas.’ This means ‘Two Forms’ – for the graffiti-style and revolutionary style, combined. We also call it the Grand Mural because it’s 100 by 50 feet.”
According to Flores, the new Grand Mural is “more jovial. Everyone is having fun. We always keep it hard-core at DE, but we can’t forget about the fun. Drew Estate is credited with the social aspect of cigar smoking, not just dudes sitting in their leather chair alone at home. Premium cigar culture is about friendship and community. Keep it real. Keep it fun!” Every year, Drew Estate releases different artistic products that support its brands and the culture of cigar smoking.
While Jessi wouldn’t reveal details about his creations, he gave us an idea as to why art is so important to the Drew Estate culture. “Drew Estate has their roots in New York, which is known for its culture, including great art, in museums and on the streets. Jonathan was an art connoisseur from a young age, so it was a logical step for him to incorporate art into his cigar company’s packaging and image. He loves graffiti, but most people know that his dad ‘Bait Fish Gary’ was a big antique dealer in New York, so JD uses the design fusion of art deco, art nouveau, colonial, primitive and all sorts of styles. He’s versatile. He’s taught me a lot about art – but now the student likes to drop bombs on the teacher!”
The future – A mix of old and new
With a company that has grown from a kiosk to one of the world’s largest longfiller cigar companies in a short period of time, one wonders what direction the company will take in the future. Marvin Samel explains, “ACID continues to be our top-selling brand, and is one of the top-three in the United States. We’re very proud of its impact on today’s current premium cigar culture. Some exciting projects are coming up that we’ve been working on for the past few years. We’re approaching the 15th year anniversary of the ACID Cigar brand. We have plans for a new ACID Cigar line but we can’t disclose anything else at this time.
The history of ACID cigars is robust and profound. It was a game-changer for premium cigars.” With the promotion of Willy Herrera, what about the company’s plans in the traditional cigar market? Samel says, “We have a handful of new Kentucky Fire Cured vitolas and Nica Rustica vitolas that we’ll be releasing, along with the Herrera Estelí NORTENO.” But beyond this, the company is tight-lipped.
So, how will the company look in five years? “Drew Estate in Nicaragua is where we and many others started on premium cigars,” says Drew. “There’s no feeling like going home. It will look more professional, more corporate, and more mature. We’re a global company now and have new responsibilities. So it’s a healthy mix of the old and the new.” Having earned the respect of old Cuban families for their achievements, and the respect of the community in Nicaragua for its care and treatment of employees, Drew Estate appears to be on the path of consistent, long-term growth. Its product releases show that it is deeply connected to the desires of cigar enthusiasts.
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Summer Edition 2014. Read more