August 2020

Interview with Jose Blanco. Last month, we had the pleasure to interview Jose Blanco. The former director of sales for Grupo Leon Jimenes, former blender and director of sales for La Aurora. Former vice-president of sales for Joya de Nicaragua. The former head of international sales for EPC Cigars and now international sales for Arturo Fuente.

The New York-born Dominican industry veteran took an hour of his precious time to talk to us about Fuente, about his famous seminars. But also about legislation and the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Ministry of Cigars - Jose Blanco joins Arturo Fuente International

The interview

Welcome Jose, thank you for taking the time. We can’t imagine that any cigar smoker in the world doesn’t know you. But in case there are newbies that don’t know you, who are you? What do you do and how long have you been in the industry?

First of all, good afternoon to you, Ferdinand. My name is Jose Blanco. And I don’t think everybody knows me even though a lot of people do know me. But I’ll tell a little bit about myself. In October of this year, I’ve been smoking cigars for the last 55 years. My great grandfather grew tobacco. My grandfather, my father, my cousin Jochy Blanco grows tobacco. 

If you cut me up. You know, a lot of people would bleed blood. For it would be essential oils from tobacco leaves. This has been my life. This is what I believe in, what I’m passionate about. What I will always defend, because smoking is not about health, smoking is about rights. We can get into that later on. So at a very early age, around 14 and a half, during the summer vacation, I started to go to my uncle’s factory, La Palma in Tamboril. And I was smoking little cigars. And learning a little bit about tobacco. They used to make me, and remember that time there were no molds, a cigar, that would be more or less for four and three quarters, five, maybe by a 30 to 34. I thought it was very cool, very elegant. And then, all of a sudden, my mother found out that I was smoking. She told my father and my father was not happy about it. He said, “you’re gonna wait till you’re 16 to smoke.” So on my 16th birthday, we had a little get together. Friends came over there and my father gave me like a little bundle and said: “Now you can start smoking.”. And my mother said, “well, okay, he’s 16.”. Then my father pulls me aside and “ You think I don’t know that you have been taking my cigars all the time?? And it was true, you know, two or three times a week I would take one of his cigars, early in the morning. On a Saturday I went out to play and buy chewing gums and mints and things like that. But you know, you can’t fool your parents. So from there on, I started to smoke one to two cigars a week. When I was around 18, started smoking a little bit more by going to my uncle’s factory. I was getting involved, learning about the Piloto Cubano and Olor and the different types of tobacco at that time. You know, we would basically see a few Dominican wrappers and a lot of Indonesian in the factories. I started from there. So then I just started to smoke more and more starting to travel to the states seeing different things. Then I started working for Grupo Leon Jimenes, the company that owns La Aurora. I was head of sales for beer, had to do a little bit with cigarettes too because we had a Marlboro. But then 1999, Fernando Leon talked to his son Guillermo that I was so passionate about cigars. And to be honest, I criticized so much in the boom with a lot of things that were made. They offered me the job to be the director of sales. And then I got working into making the blends and things like that. I spent almost 30 years with Gruppo Leon Jimenes. Then I retired. Emma, my wife, and I were in Sweden, and all of a sudden I start getting calls from this company, that company. 

And then I got a call from a good friend of mine, Alejandro Martinez Cuenca (editor note: owner Joya de Nicaragua) who asked me if I wanted to come down. Nicaragua. You know, just to check out and see if we can get something going. So I asked my wife, hey, you want to go to Nicaragua? She says, Yeah, why not? She’s been in over 60 countries, she likes to travel a lot like me. So we went there, one thing led to another and I had two great years with Alejandro, Ernesto, and Manuel. A great family and I learned a lot. But after two years, we got a little bit nostalgic. We went back to the Dominican Republic. I did almost eight or nine months consulting for an American company going to Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Thailand, working certain things with the monopoly and all that. But then there was a big change in government. And you know how things are in China. It’s not easy to deal with. Everybody’s a boss. 

So then after that, we started Senorial. We started Freyjja, everything was going great. I blended Senorial, Emma is responsible for the blends of Freyja. But along came the ruling of the FDA. Predicate dates, grandfathered stuff. We made a decision and you know, spend seven 800 who knows a thousand dollars on something. And to be honest, it turned out very good for a lot of people because they kept going on. Well, there came extensions, I think they’re still going to be more extensions but eventually the thing with the FDA one day after the pandemic, and when everything is over, they will do the ruling. I just wish all my friends, all these small guys that have started now and are making some great stuff will be able to continue and do their thing. So after that, three years with Ernesto as the senior vice president. I very happy and then the contract came up. I had a lot of family issues in the DR with land and things like that. I had to address that for three or four months. Most people know that Carlito and I’ve been friends for many, many years. Over 30 years. We would go to have lunch or dinner. In December he says, let’s get together. We talked, nothing came up. In January I stopped by the factory. In February I started going to the farms with him and all of a sudden I’m here with Fuente. Excited to be I would say, without a doubt one of the greatest cigar companies in the world.

You took a lot of wind out of my sails because you actually answered five or six questions I had prepared. Going back to La Aurora. You blended cigars for La Aurora or but La Aurora also makes a lot of private labels. Did you also blend those some of those private labels for other companies or just blended La Aurora?

No, of course, I work with a lot of blends for private labels. One of the ones that we did it was very successful the cigar even though the packaging, had some mistakes was the CAO vision. It was 100% Dominican. Amazing cigar. And I loved them to death, the Ozgener family. But that the box, that humidor box that came in it had a lot of flaws and things like that. A lot of people made a lot of jokes about the box but the cigar was phenomenal. I remember it got rated in the top 10 of the top 25 cigars of the Year from Cigar Aficionado. It was number eight or number nine. A very, very good cigar. Rich complex, medium to full, nice spice. Dominican binder, Dominican filler, to be honest, we can say now it was the same wrapper as the La Aurora Cien Años had. So it was amazing cigar unfortunately but those the box issues. It did sell well. But that was the main problem, the box.

Yeah, I remember the box had like the blue LED light

Exactly, exactly. It looked like a disco.

Yeah, it was well unique and that’s something that fits CAO. And then you left for you went to Joya de Nicaragua.

Yes, I was the senior vice president in Nicaragua and working with Alejandro. Traveling a lot in the states. The CyB that originally was Cuenca y Blanco. But unfortunately, there was an issue with somebody who: “no you can use this, it is a copyright violation..” It was a phenomenal cigar. Still, people tag me on it, write about it. On the Halfwheel consensus award, it was the number one cigar the year. The Cuenca y Blanco CyB Lonsdale. I mean a phenomenal cigar. I mean, to this day it’s still great but then we started to see people were put on social media, the box of Cuenca y Blanco and then the boxes CyB and then they went asked me or anybody related to us which is which and then it got confused there. Something people have to understand in this business, like many other businesses, when you change a band, you change your paint color or just about anything, people go berserk. They say it’s not the same. And it becomes like a collector’s item because I know a lot of people that ask me all the time where I can find them. It’s a great cigar and I’m not saying this because I blended it. But it is a phenomenal cigar.

It is it is. But just like La Aurora is the oldest factory in the Dominican and Joya is the oldest factory in Nicaragua. Did you see any similarities because of the age or was it a different country, so completely different?

Now, to be honest, that is a very interesting question because that’s something that I’ve, I’ve talked about that I’ve had the privilege to know most of the great cigar people. Benji Menendez, Don Carlos, Don Jose Padron. Rolando Reyes. Don Pepin Garcia is a good friend. Fernando and Guillermo Leon, Jonathan Drew. Jose Seijas, Alejandro Robaina. Benji Melendez is like an uncle to me. Nestor Plasencia. I mean all the great minds I’ve met or interacted with them a lot. So to have had the privilege to work with the oldest factory in the Dominican Republic and work with the oldest factory in Nicaragua, and now working with one of the oldest cigar companies in the world is a true privilege. But to be honest, there’s a lot of difference. Not a huge difference, but there are differences in the way the tobacco is fermented. The way that tobacco is aged from one country to another. You have to understand that Joya at that time was working basically with a lot of, almost everything was, 100% Nicaraguan. When we came in there we incorporated different origins. We did different things on the aging. We started to use the oak barrels. Aging tobaccos, the Cuenca y Blanco already had very old aged tobaccos and we put them in the barrels, and it just gave him a different touch of a flavor and notes. But I did learn a lot and I learned about the different regions of Ometepe, of Jalapa, Esteli of Condega. And even though let’s say you would have a Habano seed, the same seed grown in the four different regions, the tobacco would have big differences. Maybe in Jalapa, you would pick up more sweetness. In Esteli, you will pick up more spice. In Esteli you would also get stronger aromatic notes to the aroma then you would get from Condega. So it was interesting. I learned a lot I spent a lot of time with Jonathan Drew and the people of Drew Estate. When I would have time I would go see Pepin being a lot. I and Emma will go there. See the farms, visit other factories, so it was a great time. So but after two years, and all our friends were people from the embassy when the new ambassador came in there was not a lot of people to see. And even though we lived in a beautiful house in Managua, it was time to go back to back to the Dominican Republic. But I have the utmost respect for Alejandro, for Juan, his son, for Mario, for all the people of Joya de Nicaragua and we wish all the people in Nicaragua all the best. My son was born in Nicaragua, so it means a lot to me. And to Emma, we have very good memories of that and just wishing the people of Nicaragua all the best.

Well, you mentioned Nicaragua. You mentioned Jonathan Drew. And before we started doing the interview, you mentioned the painting behind you. And the blue and white remind me of Nicaragua. And there is a connection with Drew Estate on that painting, right?

Oh, yeah. You know, a lot of people have seen it. It seems small here. But it’s, it’s a very big painting. And to be honest, this was done by Jesse Flores back in 2012, I think. It could have been the end of 2012, beginning of 2013. My wife, Emma, she’s really into painting and things like that. Here at our house, we have so many paintings. So she went to Jessi one day who had never actually made a painting. She gave them the idea. In the painting, you can see a Nicaraguan girl dancing. Then you see the el-gueguense. That is part of what Nick Melillo did (editor note: Nick Melillo created a cigar with that name). And then on the other part, you see also a typical Nicaraguan guy at a party or at a festival in something like that. So it is a very very unique painting. We’ve been offered a lot because it’s his first painting and let me just say this, it’s not for sale.

I have some Jessi things, but not something big as that.

Oh, no, this is huge. This painting is huge, it’s big. It covers almost the wall. It’s the size of the couch. So you know that I don’t know the dimensions. But like I said, this was Emma’s idea. She gave all the ideas to Jessi, and Jessi just went through. He might have done other paintings after this, but a painting like this, this was the first time that Jessi ever did anything like this.

 And it’s very cool. It’s very cool. So props to Jessi for that.

 Props to Emma too because it was Emma’s idea. She wanted to take it with her as it reminds her of Nicaragua. There is symbolism in the picture. The handsome man with the mask carries a knife and you know what that means. There are also beautiful flowers on the painting.

 Your wife’s cigars, Freyja, and the Senorial? Those are made at La Palma, right? Your uncle’s factory and now your cousin

 Jochy, Yes.

Have you ever considered working with him on a Blanco y Blanco cigar or something? Well, I don’t Blancos probably registered already, but something like a family thing.

Well, to be honest, things came back. We talked a little bit about different things, but you know, every time something would come up, or some company would pull me over, or I would go work for this or that. But to be honest, I think I’ve told many people I’ve had a degree with cigars for many, many years. Now I’m doing a Master’s for the next five years for Fuente. And then from 75 to 80, I plan to do a Ph.D.

Old soldiers never die, Jose, you know that as well

Right old soldiers never die.

So, you’re with Arturo Fuente now. What’s your role with Fuente because Carlito does all the blending. He doesn’t need another blender.

That’s for sure. But believe it or not, Carlito and I talk a lot about tobacco. We love tobacco. We’ve been talking about tobacco for years and right now. If the COVID would not be around, I probably would have been in the factory a couple of more times. Giving ideas, things like that. But yes, he and Juan Sosa, and of course Don Carlos, have been doing everything for the last 30 to 40 years. So what I do is I, I deal with all the international markets, west Europe, east Europe, Middle East, Africa, Asia. But the problem is now with the COVID. I haven’t been able to travel. I was supposed to be traveling already at the end of March, beginning of April, and we’re still stuck here. And seeing things getting worse and worse every day. So what I do is I call a lot of distributors. I call a lot of stores a lot of people that are on the internet, bloggers. Try to keep up to date with what’s happening, the trends going on the market. My friends still in the States, I get a lot of calls. So we’re trying to do our best and just praying to God that this will just go away. So we can start traveling again and doing events and seminars and you know, connecting with people. I look forward to really going to your neck of the woods and you know, sit down with a cigar geek like you. And we could probably talk for 24 hours and just get a bite to eat and keep

I’m actually smoking an Opus x right now.

Oh my God,

This has been aging for a while because I already had this before I moved to Asia. So yeah, it’s a good cigar. Do you see a lot of issues with international sales at the moment? Did sales drop a lot because of COVID-19?

Now, to be honest, our in our situation, and it’s this is not to brag about, you know that we sell every cigar we make, every cigar that meets our quality standards. So we’ve been in backorder I don’t know for how many, many years. Now because we had to close down a lot, a lot of time and we’re taking very much controlled with our manufacturing, but you know, we age our tobacco and have cigars always. So it hasn’t been. What’s been a little bit hectic for everybody has been the logistics. That has been a nightmare. Freight has gone through the roof. For airfreight, even though most of our stuff I would say almost all our stuff is, is by container but still the containers and everything going on. It’s been taking a lot of time. Look, in our case, our sales are steady. Believe it or not, some countries in Europe, even though with the COVID the sales have gone through the roof. And then a lot of people say how can that be? Well, let’s just do a little bit of analysis. When things are normal. People smoke and drink. But when people are stressed out going through real horrific times. I personally think and I’ve seen studies people tend to drink more and smoke more true or false? 

True. and I honestly think because of the lockdowns people working from home having more time so also having more time to smoke

Definitely definitely.

So can we expect any new cigars from Fuente soon?

You know that Fuente is like the CIA in certain things. Nobody gets to know anything till you see a press release. And that’s about it. Carlito once in a while will hint about anything. But to be honest, of course, in Carlito’s head, there are always things on the horizon. He’s, he’s been very creative. You just have to see all the things they’ve done with all the cigars. The sizes, the concepts, but at the end of the day, you know, you can have the greatest concept in the world, the greatest idea in the world, the greatest, most beautiful box in the world, the most gorgeous band in the world. But what people don’t understand, what a lot of people don’t understand, it’s not about any of that. It’s all about this. It’s all about the cigar, the tobacco, the age, how it was processed, how it was fermented, how was it blended? How long did it go into the aging room, all the steps that you have to take. And you know, I can say to some people, you might not like you may or not like a Fuente cigar. But when a company has been around for 108 years, I think they’ve been doing something right.

They have been the way that you know, they’re the flagship of the, of the Dominican cigar industry. So they’re doing a lot of things right.

Well, and the other thing is that, let’s face it, the foundation. I mean, there are very few foundations, at least in Central America, the Caribbean, in the Dominican Republic, that have been recognized by the UN. A lot of people from different countries, especially Central and South America have come to see how the foundation works. It’s not like some of these foundations that have 100 million come in 99 million goes on staff and trips and things like that. And 1 million goes to the people here. Every cent goes back to the schools, to the education, to the baseball, to the karate to the labs, to the technology room. I mean, now they’re going to open up this new building that it’s, I can’t remember how many square meters it is. So at the end of the day, it’s a foundation that has really done a lot of good. God, even worse, Chateau de la Fuente used to be a hideout for criminals, for people killing themselves, for kids not going to school for all the bad things in the world. And look at that now. We have people who have graduated as entrepreneurs, as doctors, as lawyers and accountants. I mean, it has been amazing. But it’s been a combination of good faith between Carlito and his family and of course, the Newman’s who are also great people. So when there’s a will, things can be done, but there has to be honesty. And that’s the problem with unfortunately with a lot of foundations.

But do you think that there’s also some good coming out of the whole pandemic and COVID-19 situation?

I don’t see any good and I’ll tell you why. Because like many people have said, one Life is one life too many when you see already close to 150,000 in the States (editor note:: this interview was recorded mid-July). Spain was hit hard. Italy was hit hard England is a mess. In Brazil, they’re just making ditches and burying people there. So the only good I could see of this is that maybe countries will now spend more money on health, research and trying to help more. Because at the end of the day, even though it’s the rich, the millionaires, the middle class, the poor people. But we have to be honest, at the end of the day, the majority of people that are hurt are just the poor people that unfortunately, very few governments really help

You took out of the direction. I was aiming. I was thinking more of the cigar industry. And I was going to say all the zooms I think all the zoom meetings that are good for the industry

For the industry. Well, to be honest, yeah, I took it differently. I didn’t take it that way. Has it been good that we have been able because of zoom and social media in interconnect with thousands of people? I think with all the zooms that I’ve done and you’ve done, we reached thousands of people. For a while, we’re doing zoom every day. Our show (editor note: Fuente & Meerapfel present the professor) we get a lot of people. I’ve been invited to a lot of ones and we’ll still be doing more. I know that you and I will schedule one probably for the next two weeks. And it’s been good because people have seen another side. Like in our case, we don’t promote our brands. What we promote are all the things that we’ve done as a company, the good the bad, the ugly, the tears, the blood, and sweat. But also talking to Ernesto Perez Carrillo. Also talking to Benji Melendez, talking to Alberto Turrent. See another side from George Brightman and Gordon Mott. We still have a lot of people lined up. So the zoom and social media have really given in my opinion, another view to learn the behind the scenes of a lot of these companies. So it’s been in that sense. It’s great. If you want to leave out the other part and just go with this part. Of course, 

I’ll leave it all in because you know, you took it from the broader approach. And I was so focused on the cigar industry. You’re famous for doing your seminars and tastings with cigars with the four different wrappers.

I use four and sometimes five, four, and sometimes five.

Are you still going to do those for Fuente as well?

We’ve talked about it. But like I say, I’ve said there’s a lot of things going on right now. We’re working on how the seminars are going to be depending on the country and where we want to go. We have different ideas. We just don’t want to talk about it right now because it’s concepts that we’re discussing and talking about the seminar. I don’t know, I’ve done maybe 1200, 1300. I lost count of that many, many years ago. 

But one thing I can really tell you is that the amount of people that have learned of the impact of the wrapper has been amazing. Plus the importance of retro hailing. And the misconceptions that people have when they see as a dark wrapper, oh, it’s strong.No, the difference between Maduro and Oscuro, or the difference between flavor and strength. So we don’t get into really a deep conversation. People that have been in my seminar, that have been smoking 20 years after the seminar have come up to me and said “I’ve been doing this wrong for the last 20 years. I mean, the retro haling, my misconception that I have between flavor and strength, my idea that the bigger ring gauge, the more flavor the more strength.” I mean, there are so many little details. And if there’s one thing that I’ve been proud of is that whatever knowledge I have, whether it’s a lot or it’s a little bit I’ve had been willing to share with people. I firmly believe that the more educated the consumer is, it’s better for the retailer, the more educated the retailer is, it’s better for the company because then the interconnections flow circular. And it really gives a sense to that retailer. When a consumer says “I didn’t like that cigar.” Okay, that doesn’t tell me anything. What did you not like about it? Was it too strong was a one dimensional? Did it lacked depth, was it not aromatic? It didn’t have a long finish. Was it not complex? Was it an imbalance? So you got to look into all these details. If the retailer is smart, that’s when he starts to educate. And that’s why all over the world when I’ve been educating, I make a point to the retailer how important education is. And to be honest, a lot of companies don’t do it. I think at the end of the line, you’ve got to look, the bottom line is, are we red and black? Are we selling? So I think has to be a combination. Because the more you get out there, and you educate people, they’ll say, well, that guy from Fuente, he really hit it off. He really taught me about this. And that is something that people do not forget. I’ve been out of La Aurora for a long time yet a lot of people tag me and write to me about them. I’ve been out of Joya, still with our own brands and everything, and now even with Fuente asking questions, asking questions, asking questions, and I will answer everybody. Whether it’s through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or people who just write to me directly I want to share knowledge with people and educate people. I don’t I’ve never been a selfish person and with cigars. That would be like criminal to me.

I’ve been to cigar shops all over the world. To me, and it’s often shocking to see how little retailers know. And that is, come on, you know, how can you How can you advise a consumer, if you don’t know the basics yourself?

To be honest, really honest, that has a lot to do with the cigar companies not taking the effort to go out and educate people. One thing I can tell you, before working with Fuente, I would see it a Fuente salesman go in there, very professional and really talk about the blends. Talk about smoking, what to look for in a cigar. And I see a lot of companies, and I don’t mention them, just go in. They want to take an order. In and out, or do you want to do an event? No, it has to be successful. It’s a combination of a lot of things. And that’s one thing. I’m very happy with the Fuente sales team and the marketing team. They spend a lot of time in the Dominican Republic on the farms or in the factory. They learn from Carlito, from Juan Sosa, and from Ciro Cascella. From all the people down there. Really, to learn about cigars and the process. And the more educated your sales team, it’s good, better for the consumer and much better for the retailer.

And yeah, better for everybody. And it all comes back to the company as well.

Oh, yeah.

We’re talking a bit about the different wrappers now. Arturo Fuente International is a joint venture between Fuente and the Meerapfels. When you say Meerapfel, the famous thing, and if it’s not Meerapfel, it’s not Cameroon.

Well, you know, it’s funny, you mentioned that because a lot of people that forget that about me. There was somebody on social media the other day. And I had to respond to this one. “Oh, you’re talking about Cameroon now because you’re with Fuente.” And I, I took it a little bit, kind of insulting in the beginning. But then I realized, you know, people forget. And then I wrote to him and said “do you remember, I think was maybe two years ago, or three years ago? You were one of my seminars. And somebody asked me, what’s the best wrapper in the world? Do you remember what I said?” So I waited for him to answer. And he says “Oh my God, my bad. Let me delete the post. You said Cameroon is the best wrapper in the world.” And to me it is and I’ve been saying this for the last 30 years. I’ve been smoking cigars, especially at that time. La Aurora was the first factory to use a Cameron wrapper. And then, of course, the people who have made it famous worldwide without a doubt has been the Fuentes. But what people don’t understand about Cameroon it is very unique. It’s very exotic. It tastes like no wrapper in the world. It tastes like no tobacco in the world. The sweetness and the spice and the aroma from that tobacco are unique. Now, unfortunately, a lot of people say well, it’s Cameroon when it’s not. You have a Sumatra seed grown in Nicaragua, grown in Honduras, grown in Ecuador. No, it’s not Cameroon, because if it’s not grown in Cameroon, it cannot be a Cameroon. Can you say that champagne grown in, in Spain or in Chile or in, California is champagne? No champagne only comes from France. It’s sparkling wine when it comes from other areas. So it’s the same analogy of that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it’s just that it’s, it’s different. Like so-called Cameroon grown in Ecuador. It doesn’t have the sweetness, it’s spicier, and more earthiness. In all honesty and I will defend it because if I defended it before, I will defend it even more. You cannot call a wrapper Cameroon if it’s not grown in Africa. Now, if you tell me, you’re Juanquito Perez and you’re growing Cameroon in Cameroon, of course, you can call it Cameroon. But unfortunately, for the last, I don’t know how many years, the only company or the only a family that has been growing Cameroon has been the Meerapfels. People don’t understand: no electricity, no water, no security, no hospitals, in one of the highest risk countries in the world but still, Jeremiah & Joshua Meerapfel still go out there and keep going. It’s the most costly wrapper in the world. because of that, and also because, people don’t understand that the yield is very, very small.

I’ve been working on an article about Cameroon. So I’ve been reading a lot and I’ve been talking to Jeremiah a lot about it. So I understand and it’s my favorite wrapper in the world as well. So we agree on that. You’ve been working in the industry for so long with all these great names these industry veterans. But there’s a group of younger blenders and younger people coming up right now. People like Ram Rodriguez. Abe Flores, Indiana Ortez who’s only in her mid-20s, Juan Martinez. Do you see potential legends coming up now? Is there a lot of talent and quality in the newer generations as well?

Yes, there is. But you know to consider yourself a legend. Like Benji Menendez, like Don Carlos, like Ernesto Perez Carrillo, Fernando Leon, Guillermo Leon. And my cousin Jochy. I can’t mention everybody here as there are too many. I’m grateful to have been able to work with all of them. I mean, it takes time. It takes dedication and longevity. Because you could be successful in five years, four years, 10 years. 15 years but at the end of the day, how long will they continue to do it? What will they bring to the table? What changes will they meet? What will they create what will be something they will do those people will remember them by. Y don’t become a legend because you’ve been doing it 50 years because I know people who’ve been doing this 60 years and nobody knows what their name is. It’s the value that you add. What are you bringing to the table? So of course, there’s a lot of the people that you have mentioned and other people that have done very well in the last eight or 10 years, but we have to see what they’ve done. Nick Melillo, Steve Saka, Skip Martin, Abe Flores. I mean, there’s a whole bunch of guys, they’re making just phenomenal cigars. But you know, you have to really have a continuation of all this and these are, those three names are of people that are pretty well known. And the other ones you mentioned also too, but, you know, you’ve got to keep going and going and working and working and spreading out the word and the love and meeting people and shaking hands and working hard at the factory and coming up with new ideas and new tobaccos or something that really impacts the industry. You know, it’s all about that, my personal opinion.

Okay, and where do you see the future of the industry? Because now, here in Singapore, we just got plain packaging. The Netherlands is getting plain packaging in two or three years. That is spreading like wildfire and especially a company as for Fuente who is so big on their amazing beautiful boxes on these beautiful rings that Opus X ring is one of the classics. How will that affect the industry?

Ah, it’s a shame, to be honest. It’s like taking the heart out of a human being. Just or taking the eyes out of a person who still breathes. I would say not the heart. The eyes, still alive but he’s not seeing. It’s artistic. I mean, some of these countries have just gone ballistic with all this. I’m the first one that respects not smoking close to school, close to children, or somebody who doesn’t like to smoke. I won’t get into a fight. But what they’re doing is just totally incorrect. There’s a lot of things that are much worse out there. And I’m not going to get into that. Governments just work on the other side. Because of the revenue or, or other things. smoking is for grown-ups, especially cigars. So of course it will affect but at the end of the day, that person that likes XYZ cigar whether it’s in the beautiful box or not will go to his retailer. And if that happens, what a lot of people do, is to save the boxes. Keep them at home and when they get the cigar they just put it next to the beautiful box and keep smoking.

There might somebody who creates a website for boxes only. Going back to the past with boxes and things like that. I hope it doesn’t happen. But people will still keep buying cigars. Well, it affects our advertisement and the awareness we try to create and the marketing and all that, but I hope that at least the big countries do not commit that stupidity because it’s not good.

The data actually shows that it doesn’t affect anything. When Australia the first country did plain packaging. They had a declining number of smokers for years, the moment they introduced plain packaging, it flatlined instead of going further down, and amount of while that was mostly cigarettes, the number of fake cigarettes that got imported and made in Australia, skyrocketed, so they had to form a tobacco Task Force. So it’s completely counterproductive. And even though that is a known fact, other countries still implement it, it’s it makes no sense. No sense.

I agree 100%, stupidity

But and what do you see, you know, with all the legislation going on.

(editor note: this interview was recorded before the court ruling of August 19th) That to me is more dangerous than anything else. FDA, and these health nuts out there. They really make it hard. Smoking bans, FDA, taxation, all that, to me, that is more dangerous than any other thing. But at the end of the day, the same thing happened with prohibition. People will not stop smoking. People will never stop drinking or smoking. So what they do with this is just in states, they put these high taxes, people will go onto the internet. People will travel miles, days. Stock up, come back. And the states just losing the revenue. We’ve seen it happen in California. We saw Minnesota that went from 20 to 40 to 70 to 90 percent. 47 Shops closed down, then they realized how stupid it was. And they brought it down to a 50 cents tax. The same thing happened in Arkansas. California was one time 48 went to 42, then 32 to 27. And then two years ago, 27 to 67%, a whole bunch of stores close, the state has lost revenue. And people are just doing contraband, black market, gray market, whatever you want, or just buying off the internet, which the state cannot police. To me, it should be a flat tax all across the country. And that’s it.

I totally agree. Even here in Singapore, Singapore used to be a British colony. So we have that stupid British system per pound, and then and then the GST. It’s about 300 US dollars per kilo tobacco tax here. So cigars here are very expensive. And then we got that stupid plain packaging as well.

Yeah, the one that’s really bizarre is South Africa, the last four months. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. You can’t buy cigarettes or booze. It’s down by four months. So the black market and the contraband is just skyrocketing. The government is losing allthe money on taxes. Crazy.

I know. I was talking to a brand owner who found a distributor in South Africa. And then there was a complete tobacco ban so he can’t export to South Africa at the moment.

 Yeah, yeah, it’s crazy. 

In Amsterdam in the Netherlands, right before that COVID-19 hit, the Fuente distributor, Sasja van Horssen, he wanted to open a Fuente exclusive store like the one in Las Vegas. Is that something that Fuente is exploring as well, to have more exclusive Fuente shops.

To be honest, I couldn’t answer that because it’s a subject, to be honest, you would think that we’ve talked about it, but we haven’t talked about it. I would be lying to tell you that. I’ve heard it from other people, but not directly from Jeremiah, or Carlito or Lianna or anybody else. So who knows? Could be, might be.

I think if there’s one brand that can do it. It’s Fuente, the Fuente name is strong enough to do that.

I don’t have any doubt about that. I know that a lot of people are willing to partner up or license or whatever the deal is, but In the case of Amsterdam, I don’t really know. I might ask and but even if I would know the answer, you know how they are they like to do their own things themselves.

Yeah, I know Sasja postponed it because of the COVID-19 thing and the lack of tourists in Amsterdam. So maybe in a few years, he/ll relaunch the idea. You know, I used to work for Sasja and we spoke about this five, six years ago. So it’s been a long term process anyway. So, those were the questions I had. Do you have anything else you want to say to the readers ? 

Well, first of all, Ferdinand Thank you for the opportunity to share. The only thing I can tell people is, be respectful towards fellow smokers don’t bad mouth the cigar. Because even if you don’t like it, somebody took the time to grow that tobacco. Blend that tobacco, age it, and made the cigar. it might not be your cup of tea. You don’t have anything good to say about a cigar, don’t say anything because the same way you’re talking about bad about that brand another person could be talking about you. Support your local tobacconist. Fight for the rights to smoke. Anything in legislation. It doesn’t matter what country you’re in, write to your senator, your congressman, your ministers. cigars are for adults, consenting adults that we know what we’re doing, that smoking is not about health, it’s about rights. We have the right to smoke and just keep enjoying cigars and your pairings. Trying new stuff and old stuff, and just being out there enjoying what I consider the greatest industry in the world. You’re not judged by the color of your skin. You’re not judged your religious beliefs or you’re not judged whether you’re smoking a three euro cigar or a $50 cigar. So it’s all about the people. That’s what it is.

Thank you, Jose, thank you very much for making time for us

No. Ferdinand, It’s always a pleasure.

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