Aganorsa Leaf: An Interview with Terence Reilly

Aganorsa Leaf: An Interview with Terence Reilly
Date: June 2024
Author: lukasmagdeleyns

Aganorsa Leaf was founded during the cigar boom of the 90s. The brand is popular in America and is gaining popularity in Europe as well. I smoked a few of their cigars and fell in love with the brand. This made me curious about the company and I wanted to learn more about the brand. I had the honor of interviewing Terence Reilly.

Who is Terence Reilly?

Terence Reilly is the Vice President of Sales & Marketing at Aganorsa Leaf. His father was Half-Cuban (Cuban on his mother’s side), and he had family members who already worked in the cigar industry. When Terence was in his 20s, he decided to go to the Dominican Republic to work at the factory his family worked in. He spent the summer working in the factory and gained a lot of knowledge about the product. Thanks to this adventure, Terence learned to appreciate the art of making a cigar and how much time goes into this process. Terence started smoking cigars to join the Sunday ritual at his uncle’s. Every Sunday, they would go to his uncle’s house to have lunch, play cards, and smoke cigars. A few years later, Terence started working in the cigar industry, and about six years ago, he came to work for Aganorsa Leaf.

The History of Aganorsa Leaf

Could you tell me a bit more about the history of the brand?

Aganorsa is an interesting company in the sense that it is very similar to other brands in certain ways, but then it’s totally different in other ways. It’s similar in the sense that Eduardo Fernandez is of Cuban origin and left Cuba in the 60s like so many others. And that’s where the similarity ends. Eduardo had no pedigree for tobacco; none of his family was working in the industry. Eduardo studied at Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. He worked in finance for some time until the 80s. In the 80s, Eduardo opened a Tele-Pizza company with his brother in Spain, which he sold for a great amount of money later in the 90s.

Eduardo always wanted to be involved in agriculture. With the money he made selling his business, he went to Nicaragua and invested in cattle, pigs, and rice farms. Since Nicaragua had a great past in producing tobacco, he decided to invest in this as well. Because Eduardo had no personal know-how about the process of growing tobacco, he went to Cuba and brought back semi-retired employees who used to work at factories and tobacco farms. He gave people like Chandito Gomez, Arsenio Ramos, and Jacinto Iglesias the resources of Nicaragua to start making tobacco. In the beginning, it started with purely growing tobacco on the agricultural side. Aganorsa literally stands for Nicaraguan farming and ranching company. After a few years, Raices Cubanas got involved in the manufacturing process, and we bought Tropical Tobacco for distribution. Today, Aganorsa Leaf is vertically integrated in the U.S. side. We grow, manufacture, and distribute our brands, and we have been doing this for 25 years now.

Why Nicaragua?

During the cigar boom, a lot of people chose countries like the Dominican Republic or Honduras to start tobacco operations. Why did Eduardo choose to set up operations in Nicaragua?

Well, Eduardo started in 1996 in Nicaragua. This was right after the embargo was lifted from the 80s with the Sandinista government. So, property was very inexpensive, and the country had a lot of resources. During this period (1996), we had the opportunity to invest at a level that would have been difficult in another country. Eduardo was able to acquire some of the best farms for Aganorsa Leaf, making doing business in Nicaragua around this period very interesting for Eduardo. Remember, Eduardo went to Nicaragua to do all sorts of agricultural businesses, and tobacco ended up being one of them.

Capturing the Cuban Essence

The flavor profile of Aganorsa Leaf cigars reminds me of Cuban cigars. On their website, they proudly announce that the company tries to capture the Cuban essence. But how do they do it?

There are a few factors involved in this. One is that we use Cuban seed varietals like the Corojo 99 and Criollo 98. These seeds are Cuban seeds and not hybrids developed outside of Cuba. The second factor is our growing operation. We brought over a lot of Cuban agronomists, and they are growing it the old-school way. The complete process of growing the tobacco, the fermenting process, and the seeds we grow, we still do this the traditional Cuban way. The third factor that plays a role in this is that we grow a lot of tobacco in the Jalapa area. Jalapa comes very close to the climate we find in Pinar Del Rio, only the humidity is a little different, so we have to adjust this a bit. Our goal is to recreate the flavor of cigars that come from Pinar Del Rio. We want to offer the same kind of flavor profile as Cubans by using the resources from Nicaragua.

How Do You Make a New Blend?

Being a brand that tries to offer Cuban flavor notes, how do you start making a new blend? Do you base yourself on specific Cuban cigars when you create a new blend?

At this point in the market, we look at where we have a gap in our portfolio. In the beginning, however, there was a lot of looking at existing Cubans and trying to match up to these. We looked at, let’s say, a Partagas D4 and tried to create something that reminded us flavor-wise of this cigar. Nowadays, we see what we have in our portfolio, and we try to focus on the flavors or styles that we are missing. Sometimes it’s a large ring gauge or a certain kind of wrapper, and at this time, it’s getting more difficult to find this gap because we have a pretty robust portfolio.

Which Tobacco Regions Do You Use?

Nicaragua is known for its many premium regions to grow tobacco. Can you tell me a bit more about where your operations take place?

We grow in Jalapa, Condega, and Estelí. Most of our tobacco is grown in the Jalapa and Estelí regions. Jalapa has very sandy, reddish soil, and the climate condition is very similar to Pinar Del Rio. We grow our Corojo 99 up there, and this kind of tobacco really flourishes out there. Corojo 99 is a very difficult seed variant to grow, which is why almost no one grows Corojo 99 at this point other than us. The second big advantage of the Jalapa region is that you can grow wrapper leaf quality out there.

Estelí, on the other hand, is your quintessential tobacco from Nicaragua. The region has dark, rich volcanic soil. In fact, if it rains too heavily prior to when you till the land, they have to wait because the land will break the plow. And essentially, this is what Nicaragua offers you: very robust, rich quality tobacco that Nicaragua is known for. When people refer to Nicaraguan tobacco, they are mostly talking about Estelí and the flavor profile that Estelí produces.

And then we have Condega. Condega tobacco is very similar to Estelí but toned down a bit. It lies relatively close to Estelí (half an hour drive apart). The soil we find in Condega is completely different than that in Estelí. Condega does have the same temperature and humidity, which is why I call it the little brother of Estelí.

Corojo 99

You mentioned the Corojo 99 leaf a few times in this article, but what is special about this type of seed variety?

Corojo 99 is distinctive because we grow it for flavor and aroma. For instance, the tomatoes in the grocery store are not the most flavorful ones. The farmer didn’t say, “We’re going to grow the most flavorful tomatoes, and that’s what we are going to sell.” The tomatoes grow too fast, they ripen too fast, and all these things have an impact on their business model. So, flavor is obviously a part of it, but there are other factors. This is the same principle for tobaccos. Some ferment faster, some yield more per acre. If you compare Corojo 99 to other tobaccos, it’s less attractive because it yields less and has less disease resistance.

Financially, Corojo 99 isn’t as attractive as other tobaccos. As far as I know, we are the only ones growing it, but we do it on such a large scale that it is profitable. We grow it because we love the flavor and aroma produced by this type of leaf. We grow Corojo 99 in Jalapa and Estelí, but our Jalapa one is one of our flagship tobaccos, especially the wrappers.

Apart from Corojo 99, we also cultivate Criollo 98. This type of tobacco is very popular, and almost everyone grows it in Nicaragua. We grow this type mainly in Estelí because this type of tobacco is more quintessential Nicaraguan tobacco, whereas the Jalapa Corojo 99 is more distinctive to us. And if you blend these two types of tobacco, it creates the signature flavor of Aganorsa. The 99 is a little bit spicier and has a lingering sweetness; the 98 is more earthy and saltier on the top of your palate.

How Long Do You Let Your Leaves Ferment For?

The first priming’s of tobacco leaves are essential to get a perfect end result. Can you tell me how long you ferment your tobacco leaves for?

This depends on the priming of the leaf. Obviously, a seco leaf (lower on the plant) is going to need a little less time than a ligero at the top of the plant. Our fermentation process is actually very interesting because we use very little water. The reason for this is that when you use very little water, it naturally heats up the tobacco piles. It’s like a rotisserie compared to a flash fire. By wetting down the tobacco heavily, it speeds up the fermentation process, but it turns it more into a flash fire than a slow-cooked process. Depending on the tobacco, you’re talking about 6 months to a year and a half.

Why Box-Pressed Vitolas?

I noticed that inside the Aganorsa leaf portfolio are a lot of box-pressed cigars. Do you prefer using box-pressed vitolas?

Well, I wouldn’t say that we use box-pressed a lot, but a box-pressed cigar brings a lot of elegance. People who like box-pressed cigars don’t have a lot of variety to choose from. In the U.S. market, the box press is perceived as a little bit more difficult to make, which technically it is. It’s another step in the process. When you are pressing a cigar, you need to be careful with how much filler you put in because when you press it, you can cause a draw problem. But I just think they feel nice in the hand. The American market is definitely growing in terms of box-pressed cigars. The prestige that these types of cigars bring with them is appreciated by aficionados, and then it’s just personal preference.

Personally (Terence), my favorite vitola is a 5 by 5/8 to 46. That is just a perfect size for me. Except that I really like box-pressed cigars like a Rothschild or a short Robusto 4 and a half by 50 box-pressed. That is a great size. Once you go under a fifty, I prefer the cigar not box-pressed. This is because the larger you go in ring gauge, the cigar becomes more unwieldy, and a box-press really narrows it down for me. It’s not so much about the flavor, but I find a regular ring gauge 60 too unwieldy for me.

The Aganorsa Company Today

Talking about the company today, do you have an idea of how many cigars you make?

I have to do the math on that one, but we are currently around 30,000 cigars a day. This makes us probably a mid-size factory. If we are talking about staff, we have a couple of thousand employees. That is if you include our growing operations. Our growing operation is the largest part of the business. Only in this part do we have thousands of employees. Just the sorting operation alone is good for a couple of hundred people, never mind the fields and the factory, so I don’t know the exact number, but you are talking about thousands and thousands of people.

Our best market for now is the USA, but our international markets are growing as well. If you look at global sales numbers, you can clearly see that there are more cigars sold in the U.S. alone than the rest of the world combined, so it’s obvious that this is the biggest market. Additionally, the tax structure in the USA is generally better than in other countries.

What is the Best Cigar in Your Portfolio?

Inside the Aganorsa leaf portfolio, what is your absolute favourite smoke?

Well, the best is subjective because you have to keep in mind that there are different metrics for popularity. For instance, we have our cigar, the Supreme Leaf, and we release them once or twice a year in a different vitola every single time, and these will sell out basically immediately. So, that’s that, but we sell more JFR in a year than the Supreme Leaf because the JFR is regular production. It isn’t comparable.

Personally (Terence), when I look at myself, you have the cigars that I smoke the most and the ones I like the most. To give you an example, when I travel and visit five stores, they all expect me to smoke a cigar with them. So, if I choose to smoke heavy cigars, by the fourth or fifth one, I don’t really want to smoke another one. That’s why I tend to smoke our Connecticut’s more often because these are lighter on the palate. But if I can choose a favorite, it would be our Rare Leaf Maduro. This is a very rich cigar.

The Perfect Pairing

What do you think is the perfect pairing with a cigar?

This is very personal. I think it goes with what you like. I hear sometimes about people pairing a cigar with the craziest things, but if they like it, why not? But personally (Terence), I think the best pairing with a cigar is black coffee. I think this is kind of universal. What you can do with different types of coffee, like an espresso or a ristretto, to pair with a cigar.

If you are talking about adult beverages, I would say that Scotch is the easiest thing to pair with cigars, at least non-peated Scotch. It is light enough so that you can pair it with some light cigars but still strong enough to stand up to something bolder.

What is the Minimum Age for a Cigar?

I ask this question to everyone, what is the minimum age a cigar should have and why?

Well, are we talking about aging after the cigar is rolled? The first thing is that if the tobacco has been grown properly, I’m talking about cured, fermented, and aged prior to rolling, then that cigar should be able to be enjoyed within three months of rolling it. The three months are meant to let it settle a bit, and it should be enjoyable to smoke at that stage. That’s what all that time the leaves fermented is for. I never worked with good quality tobacco that after three months of rest isn’t enjoyable.

A lot of times, the problem is that the tobacco isn’t processed properly. For instance, if your tobacco is under-fermented, then aging won’t fix that. You can age those cigars for years, and it really won’t get much better. At Aganorsa Leaf, we really focus on the early stages so that when the cigar is rolled, it only needs three months to be ready to smoke.

But overall, I think that aging is beneficial. There are people that sit on their cigars for a couple of years, and yeah, sure, it will enhance the flavors. I think the difference between an enjoyable cigar and an aged cigar really lies in the aspect of flavor. Aged cigars will become more refined, but there shouldn’t be a huge difference between them if the cigars are already made with premium, well-processed tobacco.

The Perfect Setting to Age

I have gotten a lot of different opinions about the perfect setting of your humidor. What do you think is the perfect setting?

This depends a bit on the setting. For instance, if you live in Arizona, you definitely want to keep the humidity a bit higher because anytime you open up your humidor, the air will just suck the humidity out. In Florida, it’s the opposite problem. Our rooms here will keep the humidity around 60 to 65 because every time you open up the humidor room, the humidity is coming in. I think you have to adjust it to the climate conditions you’re living in. Personally (Terence), I like to keep my humidors at 68-69 percent, around that area. It also depends on what is inside your humidor. For instance, with Cameroon wrappers, you need to be a bit more careful.

What Sets the Aganorsa Leaf Portfolio Apart?

As you probably know, there is a lot of competition between New World cigars. What sets the Aganorsa Leaf portfolio apart from other brands?

I think the biggest advantage of Aganorsa is its signature flavor. Our cigars don’t taste like anybody else’s cigars. That is because we almost use entirely our own tobacco, and it’s the unique combination of the Corojo 99 and the Criollo 98 that makes our flavor.

I would say that Aganorsa is kind of like a Scotch bar. There are all different types of Scotches. Of course, you have peated and non-peated Scotch, but if I present you with a bottle of Scotch and you like Scotch, then you know what you are getting into. There might be a certain brand of Scotch that you prefer to another, but it’s not going to taste like rum. Aganorsa is kind of like that. And the benefit of this is that when you get an Aganorsa Leaf cigar, you know what you are getting into. The only disadvantage this has is that we don’t have a cigar for everybody. It’s like the Scotch bar. If you are not into Scotch… But if you like the style we do, we are the only ones that have it. You would have to come to us to get this signature flavor.

A Message to You

Is there something that you would like to say to our readers?

I would like to say two things to the readers of this article. One is to trust your palate! We at Aganorsa are much more interested in what our consumers think, experience, and believe than anything else because, at the end of the day, we are depending on them. The second thing I want to say is to stay in touch with us. We have a group on Facebook, we have Instagram, LinkedIn, and all these social media platforms, so join a group and stay in touch with us. We find it very important to know your experience with our cigars.

Final Thoughts

For me, this was the first time meeting Terence. I really enjoyed the conversation, and I’m glad that I learned more about Aganorsa Leaf. I personally (Lukas) don’t smoke a ton of their cigars yet, but the ones that I smoked, I really enjoyed. A special thanks to Terence Reilly for clearing up an hour of his time to conduct an interview with us, cigar inspector!

Article by: Lukas Magdeleyns

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