From musician to cigar sommelier to cigar maker: there’s never a dull moment in the life of Pete Johnson. It has been a fairly wild ride as he approaches his 10th year as a cigar manufacturer.
The heavily tattooed former musician developed a love for cigars while playing in his Los-Angeles-based band. As the band wound down in the Nineties, Pete started working part time in one of southern California’s oldest tobacconists, Gus’s Smoke Shop just as the Cigar Boom took off. As Pete says, his start was anything but glamorous, “I was the shop’s go-fer and helped blend pipe tobacco, but within six months I was buying cigars.”
Johnson developed an excellent palate for cigars in a relatively short period of time. His favorites were the Cubans people would give to him while he was in the band and, like Rudyard Kipling in his famous poem The Betrothed (“A woman is only a woman but a good cigar is a smoke”; “There is peace in a Larrañaga, there’s calm in a Henry Clay”), Henry Clays also appealed to him. Pete got to know cigars and tobacco fairly well.
How do you say tattoo in Spanish? He replied ‘Tatuaje’, and I knew that was the name for me.
After leaving Gus’s in 1995 at the height of the Boom, he began to think about making his own cigar. Due to the renewed interest in cigars, he had trouble getting any manufacturer to pay attention to him. Many offered stock cigars on which he would be able to place his own cigar band. But that was not for him. By 1997, he was hired at the exclusive cigar club, the Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills. There, he tried more Cubans and other domestics, further cultivating his palate. In selling cigars at the prestigious club, Pete got to know many cigar makers and reps; one called him in 2003 to tell him about a company with a great roller.
This company was Tropical Tobacco and the roller was José “Pepin” García. The first samples Pete received from the company were good, but not what he wanted.
In April, Pepin traveled to California for a cigar event and began rolling new samples for Johnson. These samples still were not it. After a brief conversation with Pepin about Cuban cigars, García rolled one and Pete knew he had found his cigar. He then needed a name and, after several attempts, “[He] finally asked one of the bus boys at Grand Havana, ‘How do you say tattoo in Spanish?’ He replied ‘Tatuaje’, and I knew that was the name for me.”
The first production, rolled in the Tropical warehouse in Miami in 2003, was only 300 boxes. Today, Johnson will produce about two million cigars, which consistently garner high ratings, des-tined for the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, Japan and Russia. This figure doesn’t include his newest venture L’Atelier, with his brother K.C., friend Dan Welsh and Sean Johnson (no relation), which operates as a separate company, although Pete helps on the blends.
As for what’s next? Pete, an oenophile, is bottling his first wine, a French Bordeaux. The name? Tatouage – French for tattoo. He’s not certain if he’ll sell it, or simply use it at events (and drink it himself). Either way, you won’t catch Pete standing still.
Tatuaje Cigars Inc.
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Winter Edition 2012. Read more