Drew Estate Cigar Safari 2012
by David "Doc" Diaz
Thursday, June 14, 2012
[Note: To see all our photos of the Cigar Safari, visit our Facebook photo album.]
While traversing the interminable space between Los Angeles, Miami and on to Nicaragua, I decided to get an early start on writing about my upcoming cigar sojourn. With a tumbler of Jack Daniels at my side, I started pecking on my iPad with the purpose of chronicling an adventure, which would take me to Estelí, Nicaragua and a chance to visit one of the hottest cigar companies in the world: Drew Estate.
About 15 new media cigar publishers (i.e., bloggers, podcasters, videocasters, etc.) were invited to experience the ‘rebirth of cigars’ in the form of the Drew Estate "Cigar Safari." Cigar Safari is a 4-day excursion to Nicaragua to visit the colonial style Drew Estate factory and residence. Along the way, we would learn about the unique aspects of the company’s philosophy of making cigars, their approach to cigar culture and branding and we would experience some of the rich cultural traditions within this Central American country.
Prior to this tour, I had never been to a cigar factory in Nicaragua and, in fact, I had never even set foot in the country. Therefore, I had no experience on which to base my expectations. That was fine by me because I prefer to treat each cigar tour separately from others and save my comparisons until after the trip.
MOST IMPORTANT LESSONS: There is no better experience for a cigar enthusiast than going on location to the farms and factories of a cigar company. I should know, I've visited a dozen factories and a half dozen farms in 5 countries throughout Central America and the Caribbean. I have taken many of the tours multiple times or been given private tours of some of the factories. In all, I’ve been on around 20 factory tours. I think it's fair to say that I'm pretty well acquainted with the experiences typically found in cigar tours.
When I embark on a cigar excursion, I come armed with plenty of questions and an open mind. For someone who has written about and studied the cigar industry for many years, I have found it best to come without any preconceived notions about cigar production. I want to hear the answers to the same questions from different cigar experts.
LESSON #1: Be ready to take many of the traditional maxims heard from manufacturers and brand owners with a grain of salt. As it turns out, no two people in the cigar industry will completely agree on such questions as: whether to use plastic or wood cigar molds, or whether or not to use a Lieberman machine for improving consistency when bunching tobacco, or whether its best to use draw test machines for quality control, and others. There are a great many different viewpoints and when two viewpoints clash and/or completely contradict each other, it doesn’t mean that either viewpoint is wrong. It could simply be that these contradicting methodologies, viewpoints, and philosophies are BOTH RIGHT within their unique circumstances. It is also possible that they could be BOTH WRONG. In any case, I do find it interesting to compare and contrast the plethora of philosophies and practices of the different cigar companies.
LESSON #2: Be SURE to take many of the traditional maxims heard from your favorite bloggers with a grain of salt. There is so much to learn about the cigar industry. When I listened to the explanations from Steve Saka, Jonathan Drew and those from Mario Perez and Jose Blanco of Joya de Nicaragua, it just further entrenched my belief that there are so many nuances in how cigars get made. The danger for people that know a little bit about cigars is to take the methods and processes and philosophies of one company and think that that is the way that everyone does it. Not true. Not even close to true. The premium cigar industry is an art, as well as a science. There are some things about the industry that haven’t changed in hundreds of years and there are other things that are still evolving. But making premium cigars is not a cookie cutter process. There are hundreds of decisions that can be made during the process from seed to smoke that can be different decisions between manufacturers and still result in an awesome product.
All that to say, that it is a real danger for cigar writers like myself to arrive at the point where we start believing and endorsing our own reputations. There is no sufficient reason to believe any one person has a solid lock on the truth and therefore, consumers should be ready to take the maxims from their favorite bloggers with a grain of salt.
See Doc's Youtube video: DREW ESTATE Cigar Safari May 2012
GENERAL FACTS ABOUT NICARAGUA: Food and libations
Speaking of eating and drinking... the typical meals in Nicaragua consist of rice and beans (prepared in various fashion), chicken, pork, beef, or fish. Seasonal fruits such as Mango, watermelon, pineapple tend to be popular.
The best national rum is Flor de Caña and the most popular beer is
a pilsner named Toña.
TEAM DREW ESTATE: My thoughts on the Drew Estate staff
I was quite impressed with the staff people that I met during this excursion. I felt like for the first time I made a real connection with Drew Estate. Though I have had the opportunity to communicate with various people in the organization via email and telephone, and at several local events, it is much different sitting and chatting with them in person. During the trip, I had excellent conversations with Jonathan Drew, Jessi Flores, Johnny Brooke, Steve Saka and David Lafferty. These conversations tied our relationships together and made me feel like family. As a journalist, I got a much better feel for what makes Drew Estate tick and to better understand their vision for the cigar industry.
I’d like to make a comment about some of the individuals that I met on this trip and I think I’d like to start in chronological order. That is, in the order I met them on the trip…
John Brooke: The first person that I worked with was John Brooke, who took care of all the scheduling and arrangements for airline travel and other logistics. Having coordinated events in the past, I really appreciate the effort involved in such and undertaking. The preparation for the Cigar Safari started months in advance and was relatively painless for us as participants, but was no doubt a lot of work for John. I have planned and led many different kinds of events and I know and appreciate how much effort is expended behind the scenes and long before the event. The Cigar Safari was so successful, in part, due to the great pre-planning by John Brooke.
Below: Jessi Flores
Pedro Gomez met us at the airport and was with us until we left the factory on the last day. I guess you could call Pedro the “fun director.” He is perfectly suited as a tour guide and was constantly available to anyone in the tour group that had a question or needed help in any way. He is outgoing and gregarious and also a well-read raconteur; just a delightful person in many ways.
Jessi Flores: The next person I met on our first day of the trip was Jessi Flores. Jessi and Jonathan Drew came to meet us at the restaurant called El Bucanero on our first day. I sat next to Jessi during lunch and had the chance to talk with him about a variety of topics. I didn’t know what his job was while I was talking with him because I usually avoid the need to ask somebody what they do. At least until I’ve had a chance to get to know them a bit. It turns out that Jessi is the art guru for Drew Estate. All of the way cool logos and graphics that you see on Drew Estate products, have likely been created by Jessi Flores and his team of artisans. This guy is mega-talented. He is a humble guy and just a real nice person.
Jonathan Drew: Over the course of the trip, I had the opportunity to talk with Jonathan Drew at length. What I like about Jonathan is that he is as real as the day is long. Jonathan will speak his mind. He is honest, direct, opinionated, well-informed and he doesn’t sugar coat anything. He lays it all on the line and you can either love that about him or not. Personally, I love it and I find his implementation of his position in the cigar world both refreshing and unpretentious.
Below: Jonathan Drew
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited cigar factories where the people try and perpetuate a simple romantic notion of the cigar industry; the whole mysterious and romantic tradition of premium cigars that seeks to reduce the industry to tobacco fields, panama hats and guayabera shirts.
Drew Estate has broken that mold and has traversed an incredibly broad path in its marketing, both in the broad array of cigars that they make, and in their philosophies of making great cigars. Many people will think of Jonathan Drew as a contrarian to tradition in the cigar industry. He is often seen as one who has trail-blazed the hip marketing hype and as one who shuns anything traditional. In my opinion, that is not an accurate statement. He doesn't disown tradition any more than he exclusively embraces novelty. He is all of that and at the same time, none of it. I really don’t think Jonathan thinks in terms of hip, style, rock stars, and marketing hype. I don’t think he favors traditional over novel, or flavor-infused over traditional cigars. He impresses me as a person who just is. He is faithful to his own personality and values and implements those into his business. He lives his personal and professional life at the same time and in harmony. He doesn’t apologize for being different, but at the same time he is not trying to “buck the system.” He is pursuing a higher ideal, one of his own dreams and aspirations and his goals have nothing and everything to do with the historical cigar industry.
I guess what I am trying to say is that Jonathan defies categorization. He doesn’t fit labels, whether traditional, non-traditional, conservative, radical, hip, hop, yin or yang… He just is. And, if that is confusing, well, so be it.
Steve Saka: I mean no disrespect when I say this, but I secretly have referred to Steve as "Steve Sake" (a double entendre of Japanese rice wine and Oriental mysticism) because he reminds me of a cross between a Confuscious and the Buddha. Steve is intimidating physically–he’s a big guy–and he’s also intimidating intellectually. He takes a very cerebral approach to the cigar industry and if you get the chance to spend even 5-minutes discussing cigar topics you will be treated to a wealth of information.
Below: Steve Saka
Steve is a much harder guy to get to know than others I have met. I get the impression that he doesn’t make friends easily, but that once he is your friend, he would ferociously defend that friendship. I also get the impression that Steve doesn’t suffer fools. That he is impatient with people who think they know it all or those who make sweeping statements about the industry in general and/or Drew Estate in particular. I have actually had the opportunity to butt heads with Steve on a couple of minor issues. Nevertheless, I appreciate and respect his knowledge and his approach to analyzing the cigar industry. He was in his element during the trip as he discussed cigar tasting, the methods for fermenting tobacco, why they don’t use Lieberman machines and a host of other topics. Steve Saka is very knowledgeable about many areas of the cigar industry and he is on top of his game when analyzing why Drew Estate does what it does.
I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Steve Saka and Jonathan Drew serve as dynamic catalysts to each other. They display a symbiosis that enhances not only their relationship, but their interactions with everyone within listening distance. This is a team that displays the magic and genius of a Martin and Lewis, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cheech and Chong. Well, okay, you get the idea. These guys are good together and they challenge each other and push each other’s limits besides displaying all the aspects of great friends. When they led tours together I could have sworn that they had scripted their lines. It was unbelievable to watch and we were the beneficiaries of their interactions.
David Lafferty: David is the Regional Manager - East Coast. He works with sales reps east of the Mississippi. He coordinates events and does many other things. I had one chance to sit and chat with David for a while and he impressed me as being a super guy. He is obviously on the ball, he listens well, his comprehension is off the charts and he genuinely cares about the topic at hand. I wish I would have had more time to spend with David, but I really hate to dominate a discussion with any of these folks. I know they are trying their best to get around to everyone, to make them feel at home and feel like part of a family. I try to be sensitive to that. I take my turn to engage each of the staff members, but try not to monopolize their time.
DAY ONE: Arrival/Granada (Cultural Day)
I refer to the first day of our trip as a cultural day because we did not start our factory tours in earnest until day two. I have visited 5 of the 7 Central American countries (never having stepped foot inside Belize or Pananá), have spent a good deal of time in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, and a brief time in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Each of these countries has their beauties and cultural and historical landmarks and during day one of our Cigar Safari, we explored the cultural and historical aspects of Managua and Granada.
Photo: Doc and Jonathan
If you have a chance to visit Managua during the rainy season, I can sum up the weather for you in two words: hot and humid. The weather in and around Managua was insufferably hot and humid, so finding a hotel with a pool would be especially nice and finding a tourist activity near one of the many bodies of water would also be a good idea. Fortunately, the Cigar Safari took care of both.
To escape the heat, we first headed for water. First stop on day one was lunch at El Bucanero restaurant overlooking Laguna de Masaya, one of the many lakes that dot the Nicaraguan tropical countryside.
Jonathan Drew met us there for lunch and was with us for most of the rest of our stay. One of the cool things worth mentioning was that Jonathan walked into the restaurant and just happended to be wearing a team Stogie Fresh t-shirt that I gave him a couple years ago. Coincidentally, I was wearing my own team Stogie Fresh t-shirt. So, on day one, Jonathan and I were "cut from the same cloth"... literally. Jonathan says that the Stogie Fresh t-shirt is one of a half-dozen or so that he likes to wear all the time.
After lunch we headed to another lake, we were pretty close to Granada so this would have been Lake Nicaragua. This time we took a water excursion around and about the tributaries that surround several small and privately owned islands. This excursion really took on the feel of a Safari as boat drivers took us for a ride that included views of rustic country manors and a wide array of wildlife including an occasional monkey. This was a perfect way to beat the heat and to enjoy the tropic scenery and the local flora and fauna.
We spent our first night just 30 miles from Managua in the city of . This is a quaint little town that seems to be a tourist destination for many Americans and Europeans. We checked-in to Hotel Colonial and some of the guys immediately hit the pool. I have never experienced this kind of heat and humidity in Central America, except near an ocean and the jungles that line them. So, I can recommend access to water during your own excursion in and around Managua.
Dinner was a festive occasion as we enjoyed a culinary repast in a restaurant called Darío. The restaurant name is probably a reference to Rubén Darío, who was a Nicaraguan poet that initiated the Spanish-American literary movement known as modernism. Anyway, he is a very popular native son, so I am pretty sure that’s where the restaurant derived its name. Actually, the meal at that restaurant was excellent, consisting of a finely cooked steak and impeccable side dishes.
One significant thing that I found out about Jonathan Drew was that he and I have something very important in common. That’s right, he’s a lover of fine bourbon. I started out the evening ordering a glass of rum because all they had behind the counter was Jack Daniels. Now, I’ll drink JD in a pinch, but I figured since I was in Nicaragua that I would try their own national rum, Flor de Caña. We got to talking about our favorite bourbon’s and, before I knew it, I had a glass of Pappy Van Winkle 20-year bourbon in my hands. I can’t remember now, who brought this bottle from stateside, but I do want to thank you and thank Jonathan for scoring me a glass because the bottle was way down the other end of the table.
The downtown area of Granada is very appealing because they have blocked off traffic from a several block stretch for foot traffic and many of the restaurants on this strip have outdoor tables, which were packed with people. I found this pedestrian congestion rather surprising, given it was a Wednesday evening in May. I was curious and asked a travel agent about why there were so many tourists in Granada and it turns out that Granada is a launch point for many different types of tours that are located less than an hour from the town.
The real beauty of Nicaragua is that it tends to be smoker friendly. We smoked in the tour bus, in the hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and pretty much anywhere else. While it is no doubt unacceptable to smoke in many business establishments and public attractions, the smoking laws in Nicaragua do not come close to the draconian writs that exist in the U.S.
DAY TWO: Casa Drew Estate and Joya de Nicaragua Tour
After a prolonged bartering session for trinkets sold by street vendors, we set out on the 3-hour drive from Granada to Estelí and the Drew Estate factory and living compound. Upon arriving, we could feel the drastic difference in temperature and humidity between Managua and Estelí. The difference is attributable to the difference in elevation. Managua has an average elevation of just 400 feet, while Estelí is situated at just over 2700 feet.
The Drew Estate factory and living compound feels like a cross between a Mediterranean Villa and a Country House. It is spacious with individual cabaña's where the guests stay. I found the cabaña to be small, but totally sufficient for my needs. Each room has a phone, a TV, closet space and a bed. A shared bathroom is just outside your door and is shared with the cabaña next door. We were so busy having fun and hanging out at other places on the property that we didn't use the room much at all.
After lunch at poolside, we spent some time sitting in the guest lounge, smoking cigars and just getting to know one another and then we made our way to the Joya de Nicaragua factory for a tour with Mario Pérez and José Blanco. Joya de Nicaragua (JdN) is the oldest continuously operating factory in Central America. In 2008, Drew Estate took over the distribution and marketing in the United States for Joya de Nicaragua cigars. Dr. Alejandro Martinez Cuenca, owner and CEO of JdN, emphatically expressed, "For seven years we have been working with SAG as our distributor in the US... However in order to increase our market share and strengthen our position in the US market, we felt it was imperative to introduce changes in our marketing and distribution strategies."
Photo: Mario Pérez (left) & José Blanco
Consistent with the role of Drew Estate in marketing JdN cigars, we were treated to an extensive tour of the factory by Mario Pérez who is the factory manager. This was an interesting tour that culminated with a chance to blend our own cigars. In this blending seminar we learned the important aspects of choosing your wrapper, binder and filler tobaccos. We learned about the different tobacco characteristics and flavor signatures found in tobacco from different countries, regions and even the differences between tobacco picked (primed) from different levels of the tobacco plant.
That evening after dinner at Drew Estate, we were treated to a cigar tasting seminar with José Blanco. If you have never had the opportunity to sit in on a tasting seminar with José, you've really missed one of the great experiences of the cigar life. José, besides being an all-around great guy, is an expert in many aspects of the cigar industry. José brought along specially made cigars that had 5 different wrapper leaves used on the same cigar. So, as we smoked through the cigar, we got a chance to experience firsthand how different wrapper types will affect the overall flavor in a cigar blend. That seminar gave us the occasion to listen and learn from José, but also provided the opportunity to listen as José and Steve Saka waxed philosophical about many aspect of making cigars.
DAY THREE: Drew Estate Factory Tour
On day three we were finally able to tour the Drew Estate factory. Talk about saving the best for last... this factory is over 100,000 square feet and is a state-of-the-art facility. This is one of the most impressive factories that I've seen to date. The working conditions are quite impressive: great lighting, temperature and humidity controlled, clean and with beautiful murals painted on the walls, both inside and out.
This is a company that has a widespread diversity of cigar offerings, from high-end flavor infused cigars like the Acid line, to high end traditional hand made cigars like Liga Privada and Undercrown. You may be surprised to hear that the Drew Estate factory manufactures over 90,000 cigars every day! They take pride in their quality control and in their ability to manufacture cigars that are never plugged. This is due to the rigorous training procedures that they use to train their new rollers.
The tour was led jointly by Steve Saka and Jonathan Drew. These guys work together and draw strength and idea from one another. We would be so immersed in conversation and great question-answer sessions that our guide Pedro Gómez would have to keep reminding us that we had a schedule to adhere to.
In the afternoon we participated with Jonathan Drew in another cigar blending seminar. This time we had a great variety of great tobaccos to work with and Jonathan gave us all kinds of help regarding how he goes about choosing tobaccos for a blend. Besides looking at the tobacco pedigree (characteristics of country and growing region), the parts of the tobacco plant (ligero, viso, seco), and color, Jonathan was also concerned with leaf texture and aroma. So, not only did we read up on the characteristics of the tobaccos, we looked at their color, smelled the leaves, assessed the surface feel and thickness and then we lit each leaf and smelled the aromas wafting from the burning leaf. This procedure gave us a real 3-dimensional feel for the tobaccos that we used in our blend. This was certainly one of the highlights of the trip for me and my compleged blend is awaiting future smoking as it rests in my humidor for at least 3-months.
Last but not least, we were given a tour of the art division: the Subculture Studios, headed up by Jessi Flores and his team of Drew Estate artisans. The studio is where Jessi and friends design and create packaging and bring to life any of the great Drew Estate art pieces from cigar boxes and ashtrays to pottery and furniture. I have seen nothing like this in any other factory that I've visited and I think that art studios may be a harbinger of future changes in marketing and branding in the cigar industry.
That night was our last evening in Nicaragua and the festivities reached a fevered pitch, starting with the exit dinner and introductions of guests, which included Gilberto Oliva of the Oliva Tobacco Company, Gary Griffith from Emilio Cigars, José Blanco and Mario Pérez of Joya de Nicaragua. Besides getting cigars from Oliva Cigars and Emilio Cigars, we were provided our cigar that we blended at Joya de Nicaragua and Drew Estate. We ended our evening at The Cigarzone Disco/Nightclub. This place was rockin' and we rocked the night away until good sense and diminishing stores of cigars bid us to return to Drew Estate and a few hours of sleep before the long trip home.
As I boarded each flight the next day, I came full circle to where I started the trip and this article. I downloaded my photographs and video onto my computer and then spent a long time outlining my thoughts and beginning to craft the narrative for this piece. Make no mistake, the Cigar Safari is a dream trip for cigar enthusiasts. You will find few cigar expriences comensurate with this one and if you have the chance, don't hesitate to take a Safari, a CIGAR SAFARI with Drew Estate.
CIGARS I SMOKED:
Liga Privada Unico Serie, L40 Lancero (first time smoking these and
they are awesome)
Undercrown Corona Viva (another first, this is my favorite Undercrown vitola and is right up there in overall experience with my favorite Liga Privada No. 9 vitolas)
Liga Privada No. 9 (still a gold standard among the non-infused Drew Estate cigars).
Liga Privada T52 (I had only smoked the Dirty Rat before the trip, but the other vitolas are also stellar)
Dirty Rat (love it!)
Black Rat and Big Black Rat - a take-off on the Dirty Rat with a different wrapper. Both excellent smokes.
Feral Pig (too much bulk for my liking)
MUWAT Bait Fish (seemed harsh to me)
T52 Pilon Sample from Steve Saka (they use these to test the readiness of tobaccos in a pilón)
Oliva Serie V Lancero (Thanks to Gilberto Oliva: I've had these before: love them)
Papas Fritas: This will be a short filled cigar using the leftover tobacco from the Liga Privada No. 9
About the Author
David "Doc" Diaz is the publisher and the editor of the Stogie Fresh Cigar Publications. He has served as an educator, researcher and writer and has taught in the Health Education and Health Science field for over 30 years. He possesses an earned doctorate from Nova Southeastern University. Doc is a Certified Master Tobacconist (CMT), having received this certification from the Tobacconist University and is a member and Ambassador of Cigar Rights of America (CRA)blog comments powered by Disqus