rafael nodal portrait piano

Rafael Nodal: From Asylum Seeker to Master of Boutique Blends

Rafael Nodal will never forget his arrival in the United States as a Cuban boat refugee. After four days on the open sea, the roughly 400 men, women and children in the fragile cutter could finally see Key West. They were at the end of their strength. The journey was supposed to take a maximum of 12 hours, but bad weather, high waves and navigation problems resulted in a dramatic fight for survival. The coast guards saved several of the people in critical condition via helicopter and then steered the boat to secure waters.


“We didn’t have any water or food,” remembers Rafael Nodal about the nerve-wracking ordeal. “I saw abandoned boats floating around in the sea … it was frightening!”

That was in 1980 at the pinnacle of the so-called Mariel boatlift when, within a few months, about 130,000 Cubans left their homeland to make a fresh start in the United States.

rafael nodal portrait window

Photo: Manny Iriarte/Boutique Blends Cigars

Stepping onto American soil opened up a new world for the then 15-year-old Rafael. As a welcome greeting the young man was handed an apple and a Coke. “Unimaginable! I’d never held either of these things in my hands. Well, I’d read about apples in books and, from the movies, you knew that Americans liked Coca Cola, but that was it,” laughs Nodal, who in the meantime is now a businessman who commutes between Miami and Tamboril (Dominican Republic). “Coke is still important to me today,” he says. Born in 1964 in Ciego de Ávila, previously part of the province Camagüey, Rafael Nodal already knew at the age of six exactly what dreams he would follow: he wanted to be a drum player. That it wasn’t drums in the end but the violin, was secondary to the musical boy – the main thing was to make music.

What he began learning at the provincial Cuban music school he then continued in New York City the years following his escape – his music studies. “The three years in New York were a dream come true,” he reminisces, “amazing theaters, the Metropolitan Opera, the Lincoln Center, the New York Philharmonic … overwhelming for a Cuban boy from the country. I learned to play the piano, composed and conducted.” For the young musician, a path in the music business seemed predestined.

An accident his mother had, however, was then pivotal for his family’s moving to Miami, where they hoped for more support and better living conditions in the circles of other Cuban emigrants. But, in the life of the aspiring violinist, the move represented quite a kink. “In 1983, Miami was still a relatively small city in which thousands of Cubans were trying to gain a foothold. There wasn’t much culture, not even a symphony orchestra.”

woermann nodal strickrock inter-tabac 2013

Photo: Christian Lünig

So Nodal tried his hand as a table musician in various restaurants – an unprofitable business, as it soon turned out. “As an immigrant you can’t be picky,” Nodal says with that experience behind him. “I was thankful to get a job in a hospital washing floors.” Yet the young man didn’t give up music and, alongside his job, continued his studies. In the hospital, however, he laid out a brilliant career, worked his way up to becoming an orderly, was appointed to management, and – after only four years – became associate director of finance. Before entirely devoting himself to his new passion, cigars, his career culminated in a top position in a big American hospital organization.

And thus, the end of his professional music career was sealed, not, however, his love for music, which today is reflected in the brands and frontmarks of his cigars. All of the vitolas from the Aging Room brand ring with musically related terms such as Vibrato, Rondo, Mezzo or Alto. His most recent cigar creation is the brand La Bohème, as an homage to his favorite opera by Giacomo Puccini and as an expression of his passion for the three important stages in his life: Cuba, music and cigars. At the same time, this work very well embodies the joy and suffering of creative types to which Nodal still feels an emotional attachment. And the Cuban box art originates from the 1800s, like the opera. “This cigar is what I associate with the golden era of the Cuban cigar industry … pure romanticism.”

Great Success with Small Batches

Boutique Blends Cigars – this is not only the company name under which Rafael Nodal, his charming wife, Alina, and Hank Bishop manufactures their cigars. The name is a concept: “Small batches – that’s our philosophy,” explains Nodal about the idea that the trio also communicate on the cigar bands and boxes.

“With small batches of special tobaccos you can’t roll cigars for the masses. This insight may be obvious, but it took some time before we internalized it and started building on it instead of trying to emulate large corporations,” explains Nodal about the breakthrough.

And using the Aging Room Quattro F55 series, describes what he means: “In the warehouse of Woermann Cigars, our distributor in Germany, we were lucky to discover a special Sumatra wrapper from Indonesia. Not only was the wrapper stored for three or four years, but was from the year 2003! We successfully experimented with it and use it to roll the Quattro F55 series. As soon as this wonderful wrapper is used up, that’s the end of this cigar. Then it’s over.” Incidentally, in this case, the epithet Quattro stands for square, that is, box-pressed.

With small batches of special tobaccos you can’t roll cigars for the masses.

And F55 refers to the day on which the specific tobacco blend was recorded in the factory’s blending log book: on Friday, the fifty-fifth day of the year. Rafael Nodal has been waiting to answer the question about whether the Quattro series will bite the dust once the wrapper is used up. “The blend for the series following the Quattro is already ready, as well as for some others. More than a year ago, we presented our customers with so called Wildpacks – ten count cigar boxes with five different tobacco blends. They voted, and today we already know which blend we’re going to use for the next Quattro – it’s going to be a Dominican Puro that will be released in 2015,” he discloses. It was a similar story with the Aging Room M21 Fortissimo, presented in summer 2013 and which had a Habano wrapper from the Dominican Republic matured for seven years.

nodal blanco aging room

Photo: Boutique Blends Cigars

The batch of 30,000 is almost finished and the successor product of this year is called M20 (also after the day of creation). It is covered with a Mexican wrapper from San Andrés, matured for 14 years. This cigar will also just be available under the caveat “only while stocks last.” Boutique Blends Cigars sees itself as a laboratory for special tobacco blends that can’t be found every day, and the availability of which has a natural end, similar to great wine vintages. “What nature gives us we like to pass on,” says Nodal, who swears on being at one with natural resources. Crucial pillars for the kind of concept which makes it clear from the outset that a product will only be available for a relatively short period of time are, naturally, tobacco production and processing. Where do the special tobaccos, which powerful corporations with huge budgets are known to look out for, come from?

In José “Jochi” Blanco and his Tabacalera Palma in Tamboril, Dominican Republic, Rafael, Hank and Alina have found their ideal partner. Jochi not only has extensive areas of farm land, but he also likes to experiment and is quite selective when it comes to marketing his tobaccos. Rafael Nodal speaks from experience. “Since I’ve been working with Jochi, I’ve known that he has tried to keep the mysterious Area #1 a secret. It was always taboo, which made me more and more curious every year. I finally found out that he’s been aging tobaccos from a special Habano seed there since 1998, but only in small amounts from each year.”

This will now become the new Aging Room Bin No. 1 with a huge amount of Ligero, and rolled with an Ecuador wrapper. Jochi’s strong binder tobaccos are matured for an extremely long time; they are very full-bodied but at the same time well balanced. As much as Boutique Blends Cigars focus on small batches, it is also evident that the company processes tobaccos that are available in the same quality year after year.

That’s what the brand Swag stands for (at least partly). In summer 2014, the new line Swag Black was presented, a Dominican Puro made from Dominican tobaccos matured for eight to nine years. “It isn’t a limited production, but isn’t a cigar for everybody, either: full-bodied and expressive,” stresses Nodal. “What I won’t ever be making again is a cigar that is the same as any others I produce.”


Boutique Blends Cigars


This article was published in the Cigar Journal Autumn Edition 2014. Read more

His journalistic career began in 1979 as a freelancer for German-language newspapers in the US, and later for Austrian media including Die Wochenpresse and Das Wirtschaftsblatt. For ten years he also produced programs for over 60 radio stations around the world. In 1994, Reinhold C. Widmayer devoted himself to all things cigar, publishing technical articles in cigar magazines. He began working for Cigar Journal in 2001 and became editor-in-chief in 2005; under his auspices the journal has established itself as the world’s leading cigar magazine.


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