Drew Estate Cigar Safari 2013
by David "Doc" Diaz
Wednesday, May 08, 2013
[Note: To see all my photos of the trip, visit the Cigar Safari 2013 photo album.]
Just over a year ago, I set out to discover the riches of Cigar Safari, a cigar and cultural experience at the home of one of the industry’s most innovative, risk-taking and not-by-the-book cigar companies: Drew Estate. For all intents and purposes, tours of tobacco farms and cigar factories are not available to the average cigar smoker. Not so with Cigar Safari. For a price, you can sign on to visit Nicaragua and Drew Estate, a one-of-a-kind cigar trip and, for most, a once in a lifetime experience.
Once again I am starting my journal on-board a behemoth American Airlines 777 with a tumbler of Jim Beam, a warm cup of roasted nuts and a plate of Parmesan cheese at my side. Right now, the on-board flight information tells me that we are traveling at 39,000 feet at a speed of 538 mph with an outside temperature of -31°F. All the more reason to pinch myself to be sure that I am really returning to the Land of Oz.
As visions of sugarplums dance in my head, I am excited to see what St. Jonathan and his merry band of magic cigar elves will have in store for us. Even after an incredible trip last year, I am dutifully, yes, even purposely skeptical that there is enough magic in the Drew Estate stocking to exceed or even match that experience. Though duty calls me to remain objective about this cigar sojourn, I nevertheless have heightened expectations...
Day One: Arrival
West Coast born and bred, there was no mistaking that I was light years from my California home when I de-boarded the plane. The heat and humidity of Managua enveloped me in the sticky, sweaty sweetness that I have grown to love.
At last, the wait was over as, along with several other friends and acquaintances, I climbed aboard the Drew Estate Cigar Safari bus (see photo at left). This is not just a means of transportation, but is also a mental transport into the culture of Nicaragua and the subculture of Drew Estate. Cigars, libations, cool tunes, air conditioning.... Yeah, it'd dope. Without much delay, I could hear the snip, snip snip of cigar cutters doing their deed and the click, click, click of lighters and the pop, pop, pop of beer cans. And finally it was sinking in... I'm in Nicaragua baby!
Before leaving Managua we stopped for lunch at El Tiscapa, a beautiful open-air restaurant. Polished tile floors, a garden and high ceilings with fans... It's your basic stunner. What's more, the food was awesome! Steak, fish, soup, dips... This place had nothing but top-shelf fare. After dessert and coffee we again boarded the bus and settled in with cigars and libations as we steadily made our way to Estelí.
Estelí is home to numerous tobacco farms and factories. Outside of Santiago, Dominican Republic, there is perhaps no other more significant city to the U.S. premium cigar market. To a large extent, the cigar industry drives the economy of Estelí and in many ways Drew Estate is one of the largest contributors to local business.
Arriving at Drew Estate is a Shangri-La experience for cigar smokers. The outside of every building is replete with magnificent graffiti-like murals (see photo below) that are as rich in color as they are in the ethos of the Drew Estate subculture. In fact, that is likely why the art studio within the compound is referred to as, "Subculture Studio."
The rooms at Drew Estate have whimsical names like "Acid Cigars" (my room), "Ambrosia," Tabak Especial," "Liga Privada No. 9," "Dirty Rat," and so on. After checking-in to our rooms we immediately headed upstairs to the main lounge where we were treated to a lovely view of the surrounding hills and valleys as well as to a Garden-of-Eden-like view of the Drew Estate grounds.
Downstairs is the Liga Privada pool and a surrounding patio where most meals are consumed. Rooms are sprinkled around the central residence/lounge in a cottage-like layout. Most of us were immediately attracted to the small table in the lounge where several boxes of Drew Estate cigars were waiting patiently to be consumed.
After dinner and a lengthy bout of cigar smoking and libation swilling, it was time to hit the rack in preparation for Day Two.
Day Two: Curing Barns, Tobacco Fields and Joya de Nicaragua Tour
In the morning of day two, we visited the farm of the Oliva family (not the same people as Oliva Cigar Company), who have been growing tobacco for generations and who supply tobacco to many within the cigar industry.
We first looked inside a tobacco barn where the leaves are hung after they are harvested. As tobacco leaves hang in the barns, they will gradually lose moisture and will turn in color from dark green to light green, to yellow, light brown, and finally, to brown.
Next we walked among the tobacco in the fields. This is something that always brings Goosebumps to the back of my neck. It really all starts and ends with the tobacco. From choosing the right plants to provide seed stalk, to planting the seeds and then transplanting the seedlings into the soil, every precaution must take place and much care and attention must be given the tobacco at every stage of development. Steve Saka (photo right, above) and Nicholas Melillo talked us through the steps of tobacco growing and related the subtle, yet distinct, varieties of tobacco, which must each be handled differently.
Joya de Nicaragua
After a lunch at poolside at the Drew Estate compound, we spent the rest of the afternoon at the Joya de Nicaragua factory (photo at left). One thing that was apparent was the physical renovations taking place at the Joya factory. Since my last visit, the factory building displayed a crisp coat of paint with a new color scheme and a new logo adorning the outside of the factory. There was also a new roof and a new archival room that displays artifacts from the company’s history, including a box of cigars from 1972.
Joya is a company with a long history. The first assessment of the viability for growing tobacco in Nicaragua took place in the 1930’s with the publication of a manual describing the methods for cultivating tobacco. Actual cultivation of tobacco started in Estelí in 1965 with the production of Joya de Nicaragua cigars beginning in 1968.
There were many turbulent years in Nicaragua beginning with the Sandinista revolution in 1979 and continuing until around 1990 when peace ushered in an age of prosperity and growth. During the revolution the company was nationalized, but was returned to private ownership in 1995 when a group led by Dr. Cuenca Martínez retained ownership.
In 2001, the mighty Antaño 1970 was born and in 2004 the Celebración became another success for the company. But, arguably the biggest productive change for the company began when an alliance was formed between Drew Estate and Joya de Nicaragua. This merger produced a revamping of the brand along with a new logo and marketing focus.
A new cigar–the C y B–represented a change in the basic flavor profile for Joya, which has always favored big, bold, full-bodied cigars. The C y B is a 4-country blend that emphasizes complexity and nuance while still delivering a rich flavor.
The future looks bright for Joya de Nicaragua. The addition of Drew Estate’s marketing muscle and robust distribution channels should make for a healthy global growth in 2013 as they celebrate their 45th year of operations.
Highlights of the Joya de Nicaragua factory tour included an introduction and historical perspective from Director of Sales, Mario Pérez, followed by Joya President, Juan Martinez, who talked about the “Future of Joya de Nicaragua.” Martinez provided a clear perspective of the company’s direction and for the future of the brand. An interesting and entertaining cigar tasting seminar, conducted by Senior Vice President José Blanco (in photo above, center), followed this presentation. Interspersed between the presentations and tasting seminar was a tour of the factory floor with views of the rolling gallery, tobacco storage and the archival room.
All in all, the changes in the structure and presence of Drew Estate and Joya de Nicaragua have been nothing short of impressive over the past year. The addition of José Blanco from La Aurora and Willy Herrera of El Titan de Bronze factory in Miami has strengthened the company’s experience and cigar portfolio, while also adding more diversity into their lineup.
Day Three: Pre-production, Drew Estate Factory
Drew Estate does not own its own tobacco farms, however they have contractual relationships with numerous growers and as a result have substantial control over how some of their tobacco gets grown and handled. Drew Estate has very specific and non-traditional methods when it comes to curing and fermenting tobacco and even for bunching and rolling cigars.
On the third day of our trip we went to visit the pre-facilities where the tobacco leaves are sorted, fermented and otherwise processed. Currently, these activities take place in various facilities throughout the city of Estelí, but new facilities are now under construction that will bring all these pre-production processes to the site of the Drew Estate factory. We walked through the construction site of this massive 75,000 square foot building, which, when finished, will bring together all pre-production processes under one roof and will also include a tobacco research lab. Other new facilities that are currently under construction include a medical clinic and a restaurant for company employees.
In some ways, Drew Estate is as traditional as the oldest parts of the industry. In other cases it is blazing its own trail. The Drew Estate factory is unique in many ways. It is artistic and full of color, texture and life. The design is about efficiency and yet is designed for comfort for the workers. The processes used for rolling the cigars are specific to the tobacco used by Drew Estate, especially the Connecticut Broadleaf used in the Liga, Privada and Unico Series lines. The blending and aging is according to the tastes and style of the makers and not in accordance with any historical or industry norms. In short, Drew Estate is traditional where tradition suits its needs and progressive and cutting edge when their vision necessitates change.
Cigar Blending Seminar
One of my favorite aspects of the Cigar Safari tour is the chance to blend my own cigar (see photo at right). This exercise provides you with an appreciation of the complexity involved in blending a premium cigar and the difficulty in matching up the nearly unlimited number of combinations that can be put together using available tobaccos.
For this process, we assembled in a conference room just off the factory floor where we were given access to tobaccos from Nicaragua, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Ecuador, USA and Indonesia. We could choose from 10 different wrapper tobaccos, 8 binders, and 18 filler tobaccos. We were first instructed to choose a size and format that we wanted our cigar to have and then we were to decide if we wanted a milder or stronger blend. We were to select one wrapper, one binder and the quantity and variety of leaves we wished to incorporate as our filler tobaccos.
To make our selection, we had samples of all the leaves and we could look them over and feel the thickness. We smelled the leaves and lit them on fire to acertain the aroma. We could even roll them up and smoke or even chew bits of each individual leaf to better understand its flavor profile. After experimenting with the tobacco and taking notes on potential components of our blend, we wrote our recipe down on paper and our cigars were rolled and presented to us later that evening at our wrap-up party.
The Drew Estate experience is like no other. I have been on 21 cigar factory tours and I can say from experience that the Drew Estate Cigar Safari is unrivaled as a single-company tour. The itinerary is educational, fun and all-encompassing. You will not only learn, you will employ each of your senses to immerse yourself into the fine art of premium cigars. For 4 days and 3 nights you will revel in cigars as you have never done before. You will eat, drink, smoke and ingest the spirit of Nicaragua and the subculture we know as Drew Estate.
Below: Doc and Jonathan Drew repping Team Stogie Fresh
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