I love the people of the cigar business. They’re colorful, innovative and savvy. Getting to know and work with the great cigar makers of our time is a privilege that I will never take for granted. I recently had the pleasure of spending time with Jonathan Drew, one of those colorful characters, at both his factory in Nicaragua and in my hometown of Jacksonville.
To classify Jonathan Drew as merely colorful and a fun guy to party with would be selling him short; “short end of the stick” short. His quick-witted and fast-paced conversations are enhanced by a Brooklyn accent, while his curly mini-fro and oversized yellow glasses only add to his likeability. He is a visionary, a world-class pitchman and a cultural icon, but I think the best words I can use to describe him are game changer.
His creation of the Acid line, over the past 25 years, might be one of the most significant events in the cigar world. It not only introduced thousands of new customers to the cigar world, but it changed the industry and how companies currently market their products.
I knew I wanted to interview JD, but one doesn’t simply “interview” JD. It’s kind of like that boulder on top of the mountain. You just give it a little push and once it starts rolling it ain’t stopping ‘til it lands in the bottom of the valley. Just ask Jonathan a question and his passion ignites. All you can do is sit back and (happily) listen.
CG: So how did you develop your passion for cigars; where did it come from?
JD: I started smoking cigars in 1990 when I worked for Alfonse D’Amato in Washington, DC, the senator from New York. He was a big cigar smoker and that’s how I started smoking and by the time I got into law school, which was right around that time in ‘92, I fell in love with them. It’s an artistic product, a product of passion and my love affair with cigars really began then. In 1995 I knew I wanted to get into the cigar business but I was in law school, so in 1996, the year before I graduated, I opened my first school retail shop at the World Trade Center. By ‘97 I became an independent rep, by the end of ‘97 I became a distributor, and by 1998 I moved to Nicaragua. In moving to Nicaragua and becoming an actual manufacturer of cigars, it was a whole different thing than the retail side. But what is nice about it, I got to see each side of cigars: selling, manufacturing, growing, every aspect of making, selling or distributing a cigar, I worked in that sector.
CG: Do you think working on the retail and distribution side made it easier for you as a manufacturer? Not many people in the business go that way… most manufacturers are fifth generation or older.
JD: Did it make it easier for me? If you know Drew Estate the way I know you do—you’ve been to Nicaragua—I don’t make anything easy for me or for any of the fellas who work for Drew Estate. I know you didn’t mean it that way; that we take the easy path, but we’ve made this very complicated because we get so detailed-oriented and we are so passionate about our product. When you can make a cigar with one cigar band, we used three cigar bands. With the tobacco, you can make a nice Nicaraguan blend… what’s better than Nicaraguan tobacco, right? Then why aren’t we blending four or five different tobaccos in one cigar? Not only haven’t we taken an easy path but we have made things so damn complicated, where we are dealing with over 75 different blends at the factory. You know, we have earned our stripes. We have earned the right to say we are true-blue tobacconists, true-blue manufacturers and true-blue distributors.
CG: It’s evident that you haven’t taken the easy approach, but has your experience in retail and distribution given you the ability to fill a void? You understand what the consumers want and are, maybe, even able to provide them with a product that they don’t know they want yet.
JD: I think you just answered it right there brother. I don’t really give a shit what the consumer wants and I want to service them better than anybody. I want to service you, my customer and the final consumer. When you have a problem and you reach out to JD at email@example.com, I respond. Good service is quintessential but I am not here to let the consumer tell me what they want, that is not my job. I am here to make a product that excites the consumer because they didn’t know they wanted it. We are taking them on a journey and along the way we are listening and helping make our decision. It’s a real integration on what the consumers are wanting and what we make. It’s not straight consumer driven. We aren’t following the dog like that but at the same time we are paying a lot of attention to them. No other company has the type of interaction that we have with our consumers, the Drew Diplomat program being a good example. We value their opinions but it’s gotta feel right to us too. Like we are doing something; “raison d’etre,” is there a reason to be.
Drew Estate ain’t coming out with Lord Tennyson cigars. It’s not interesting and it’s not us. It can’t be contrived. We tried that with Chateau Real and we got kicked in our ass. We learned our lesson. We are comfortable in our own skin and if the product has a reason to be, like our Kentucky Fire Cured, then we are going to deliver it.
CG: That is a great segue into my final question. Acid was truly an innovative product; it really changed the cigar world and influenced many other cigar makers. Now it seems you have done it again with another new product, the Kentucky Fire Cured brand.
JD: Let’s first take a step back and look at the big picture. What is Drew estate? [It’s] the rebirth of cigars. Is “the rebirth of cigars” just a nice, fancy marketing phrase or is there something to it? What did we write on our website, 15, 16 years ago, first page, first word? We are not fifth generation cigar manufacturers. We are not giving you the Cuban experience. You want the Cuban experience; go smoke somebody else’s stick. That is not what Drew Estate is all about.
Do we have a Cuban-esque brand? Yes, we do the Herrera Esteli. But the rebirth of cigars is creating segments that didn’t necessarily exist in the stores. People didn’t know that they wanted what we got. (Boom) Acid. Second, coffee-infused cigars (boom) Tabak Especial and Isla del Sol, and then (boom) Kentucky Fire Cured segment.
The Kentucky Fire Cured concept is about fire curing tobacco the same way a large portion of the population loves to drink whiskey. Some guys like bourbon, some guys like Kentucky straight whiskey, some guys like Colorado whiskey, but there is a very big segment that loves peaty, smoky Scotch, an Islay Scotch.
Why do they like this smoky taste? Because that smoky-freaking-taste is good. They like this smoky taste. I wanted to bring that smoky, peaty, Scotch experience to premium cigars with no flavoring. It’s the way we fire cured the tobacco. We hang that tobacco up and we take maple, oak and hickory and we put sawdust on top and we burn it for 14 days. When we burn we aren’t using heat, we are using smoke. We are curing the tobacco and that gives it the peaty taste; the same way you smoke a grain of barley to make Scotch.
Innovation is more than a word, it’s an action and you are either full of bologna or you’re not. And when you are truly innovating it’s because you are taking something that is a constant and you are adding influence to that. So you are taking a thesis, adding an antithesis, and you come out with a synthesis. That is Socrates. Drew Estate is a philosophical company. We live it. I lived in the factory for 14 years but it’s not a one man show. This is a teamwork company. You can’t do what Drew Estate does without a team that believes.
It’s about creating a smoking experience for the final consumer, to take him on a journey that he’s going to remember and want to go on again.
Chris Gwaltney, Certified Retail Tobacconist and category manager: craft beer and cigars
Follow me on Twitter @abccigarchris
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