COVID-19 still has a firm grip on the globe. A face-to-face meeting with Jonathan Drew in the legendary La Gran Fabrica in Estelí or his adopted home Miami will not materialize. Jonathan is sitting in his home office in Wynwood, Miami’s arts district, famous for its graffiti art. The background behind JD is interesting: a large tondo (circle) by the artist Cleon Peterson. “What Cleon reveals is often brutal, but powerful and sophisticated, really human and relative today. I appreciate him a lot,” Jonathan explains to me. Despite, or perhaps because of, our virtual meeting we get into an intense, open, and very personal discussion. Again and again, our dialog returns to three topics: visions, truth, and vulnerability.
The beginnings of what is now the second-largest cigar factory in the world are to be found in a tiny kiosk in what was then the World Trade Center in Manhattan, in 1995. Drew, then still a law student, was financing his studies with a small tobacco shop and as an antiques dealer – all in all, a life that even at that time had to survive without breaks. I would like to know why he chose the name “Estate” for the company. “I’d had the initial vision in my heart and soul for a long time. I envisioned a beautiful estate with tobacco plantations and vineyards and a nice beehive also. This early image of a large, beautiful world was probably behind naming the company Estate,” recalls Jonathan. In 2007, this vision became reality; he opened La Gran Fabrica Drew Estate in Estelí. The building is still unparalleled today: visitors rave about bright, huge but friendly rooms decorated with colorful graffiti paintings. Factory #1 is more than just a gigantic factory of almost 9,000 square meters (96,000 square feet). “Our courtyard is like a Zen place; we’ve got huge religious statues standing in it. I want you to feel God’s presence and the spirit of love. At the same time, we have 50 full-time graffiti artists working here. That’s our passion! We’re unpredictable and that reflects precisely the zigzag zigular path that we live,” JD enthuses about his factory in Estelí. He loves this town, had lived there from hand to mouth for a long time under the simplest conditions before becoming the owner of the country’s largest factory. La Gran Fabrica is one of the biggest employers in the city, now employing over 1,750 people. “Drew Estate has helped to create an entire middle class in Nicaragua’s second biggest city through social programs, health and life insurance, a five-day week, and good salaries,” says Jonathan, proudly. “I want to give back to our city at least as much as we got. And that was a lot. Everything is a cycle: you give what you get and get what you should receive. ”The year 2014 saw the addition of the DE2, a hall of 5,600 square meters (60,000 square feet), built especially for processing raw tobacco at a cost of four million US dollars. A medical center for employees was also added. “Being there and seeing the workers truly happy and to feel that they’re doing well is really rewarding. They spend a lot of their lives with us and we want them to feel appreciated,” says JD. Meanwhile, the “Estate vision” has become a reality, covering a total area of 16,000 square meters (174,000 square feet). There are 165,000 cigars produced here daily. What started with the first brand La Vieja Habana – even before La Gran Fabrica existed – has now manifested into 18 of their own brands, as well as numerous partnership brands, including the brands Java and Pappy Van Winkle. Recently, The Cigar Authority podcast published the rankings of the biggest cigar companies in the United States in terms of sales: Drew Estate, or DE for short, occupies third place, behind two enterprises, General Cigar and Altadis. “I believe in visualizing your dreams. We still do. The ‘visions’ we have now are very different to the ones we had when were just starting out. They’re deeper, more pragmatic, better thought out and programmatic, while continuing the same foundation based on the intersection of art, culture and freedom.
The Drew Estate site is technologically and logistically up to date; from a personnel perspective, the company is at the top in all areas. The current owner Swisher International – Drew and partner Marvin Samel sold the company to the tobacco giant in 2014 – allows JD to operate freely. His credo of being true to himself in everything he does is something Jonathan can continue to implement as president of the company. JD cannot think of a single example where the new owner has had a negative impact on Drew Estate, but reaffirms that the company has been able to remain true to itself and that the relationship with Swisher allows them to look further ahead. “Just when you think you’ve understood DE, we come up with something completely new, sometimes radical. We surprise. We act in contradictions and show antitheses. Cuba is the thesis and tradition; DE is the antithesis. We’re the troublemakers, even before you say the word ‘trouble.’ And by the time our competitors begin to understand where we are at, we’re already somewhere else,” Jonathan says, explaining his place in the industry.
“We’re no better than anyone else. You can’t deny the wonderful stability and tradition of a Padrón or a Fuente. But we had to be true to who and what we are. We have to represent our block.” ACID, Drew Estate’s second cigar brand, triggered a tremor in the United States in 1999. It was not only that the cigars were “infused” that created a sensation in the brand. It was also the brand’s wild design, which combines and embodies hip hop and street art. The notion that only successful people in suits and cufflinks and high incomes smoke their cigars in the finest possible leather-armchair ambience to jazz or classical music was something that JD put to rest with the release of ACID. His fans are independent, wild, courageous, curious, and eager to try new things. This combination has created an entirely new market segment within the cigar scene and reached people who had previously only perceived cigars as something too exclusive, too luxurious, and too old-fashioned. Those who smoked an ACID cigar became passionate cigar smokers and tasted their way through the world’s cigar portfolios. So Drew Estate’s mission “The Rebirth of Cigars” benefitted all producers. Since then, the term cigar has been expanded, changed, and redefined. “Globally, we continue to create new market segments. We’ve still got years of progress in the pipeline. In just 25 years, we’ve done 100 years’ worth of innovation work,” says Jonathan, convinced.
Drew Estate has not only created a new culture around the cigar but an entire community of fans. “With us, you can be part of the whole DE culture, hang out and smoke a cigar with us. Or you can just come and not smoke a cigar. But you take part in our way of life. Fellowship is important to us. We want to take these people with us, we want to wholeheardedly embrace them,” he explains. Back in 2001, Forbes magazine recognized that Drew Estate had become a cult brand in only five years. “Being true” and “being yourself” had proven to be the right strategy. “We were mentioned in the same breath as Apple, Krispy Kreme and Harley Davidson. These companies have long been in the millions and billions and were much older than us,” Drew says, still enthusiastic about this accolade today. From a cult brand, Drew Estate quickly became a trusted brand, then a mega-brand. At the same time, the company took a second path and developed into a lifestyle brand. “In my opinion, we’re the only lifestyle brand in the cigar industry. What I mean by that, for clarity, is that the others have lifestyle aspects. But with us, our fan base seems to expand the footprint of our company. When you talk to us, you’re talking to an army. We’re much more than you can see at first glance,” Jonathan says. JD explains his success in having a huge following by always listening to his heart and recognizing where he fits in the world. “We’ve accomplished this as a company as well. We fit into this world; we’re here for a specific and important reason, and we understand that reason. We’ve got strong instincts and know what we want to achieve, and we take people there. Because you can’t achieve anything on your own,” JD says, convinced.
Jonathan Drew believes that the aspect of vulnerability is inseparable from the success of his company. “You only become a trusted brand by being vulnerable. By allowing vulnerability to exist, by showing it, by opening up, that’s what builds trust.”
Drew is convinced that because of and through this, consumers become partners. A company is always vulnerable during times of adversity, which Drew Estate also experienced at various times. In 2002, for instance, when the factory and production grew very quickly, an issue with quality arose. Some of the cigars had problems with draw. Together with Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, JD set out to find the cause – and fired over 200 people. The employees were rehired in groups of ten; Carrillo and Drew supervised the process and found the weak spot. “I was very nervous about the layoffs, but we communicated what was going to happen to the Nicaraguan media and our city, and, of course, the staff. So we were supported, and with Ernesto’s help, we were able to find the problem,” JD says. Ernesto Perez-Carrillo remembers this time well and considers Jonathan not only as a personal friend. “I consider him one of the greats of the cigar industry who has brought innovative concepts to cigars and marketing ideas. I know he says that I’ve done a lot for him, but he doesn’t realize how much I’ve learned from him.”
Since the brief hiatus between 2014 and 2017, JD has been back in operations at Drew Estate. Those who follow the scene will know that new products are launched almost weekly. In all his creative work, Jonathan never loses the closeness of his fans. Prior to COVID-19, Drew Estate hosted roughly 1,000 consumer events per year, including the popular Barn Smoker, where the work on the fields and farms and the entire process surrounding the cigar is explained at five locations across the US. Jonathan himself is present on location with key team members. Usually the happenings are booked out immediately. The newest member of the DE brand family comes from the Liga Privada portfolio and will be launched shortly: the Liga Privada Unico Bauhaus, a line that Drew Estate created exclusively for Europe. The Short Robusto (114×19.8|41⁄2×50)is made of filler tobacco from Nicaragua and Honduras, a Brazilian binder, and is completed with a Connecticut Broadleaf from the US. “The Liga Privada brand continues to drive the premium cigar segment deeper into the American tobacco movement with a conceptual lens on the Connecticut River Valley. The Bauhaus movement spread throughout all of Europe, inspiring a new viewpoint on architecture and design. As we look to unite these two concepts, passions, and inspirations, the new Liga Privada Bauhaus frontmark beautifully connects traditions of taste and design throughout Europe, Nicaragua, and the United States,” Jonathan says, illustrating the idea behind the newest line. After I have been initiated into the latest creation, our conversation draws to a close. Many thoughts and ideas move this ingenious and unconventional person, who is so much more than a tsunami, a troublemaker and a provocateur: he also carries peace, thoughtfulness, and vulnerability within him. Even if he likes to be provocative and to question things, he appreciates harmony just the same. Making trouble is only an inner need for him to be able to create new things – powerful, concentrated, transparent, and usually way ahead of his time.
Copyright Images: Joey Reichenbach & David Torres