CAO Cigars – a staple of every cigar store, and famous for smokes like CAO Italia, CAO Brazilia and CAO Gold, has endured as one of the most popular cigars online. It’s also one of those cigar brands owing as much of its success to humble beginnings and hard work, as it does to a happy accident.
The hard work came from founder Cano Aret Ozgener, born in Moda - one of the nicer neighborhoods of Istanbul - in 1937. A Ping-Pong champion during his high school years in Turkey, Cano (pronounced “Jonno”) emigrated to America in 1961 and graduated from Columbia University as an engineering major. Cano enjoyed smoking cigars and pipes – specifically meerschaums, artfully carved in Ozgener’s native Turkey.
After graduating, Cano Ozgener worked as an engineer with DuPont; but his appreciation for a good pipe, coupled with his engineering prowess, got him to start tinkering with and modifying pipe stems during after-work hours in his basement in an effort to improve their performance. Cano sold a few of his modified pipes (in addition to some humidors he built) to some friends and local tobacconists…which led to Ozgener creating some pipes of his own, and selling them on a small scale. After years as a boutique businessman, Cano decided in 1977 that he wanted to expand. He left his job at DuPont to form his own company, naming it after his initials: C.A.O. International, Inc.
In 1980, Cano decided he was ready to put CAO cigars on sale. That came to pass with the introduction of Casa de Manuel. That first CAO cigar didn’t last – a lack of consistency, along with a dying pre-boom market, doomed the smoke to the ashtray of history. Cano was able to fall back on his pipe and humidor business – that was, until the boom came calling. With the boom in full swing by 1995, Ozgener began to sell cigars again, this time a Honduran smoke made by Nestor Plasencia that was simply known as C.A.O.
The happy accident to which CAO Cigar owes its first success was actually borne out of a production problem on this original line of CAO cigars for sale. Cano launched a beautiful maduro, but it didn’t burn well – prompting him to recall nearly 150,000 sticks with potential burn issues. The recall, along with product shortages, forced the Ozgener family to look for an additional supplier. Help came by way of Tabacalera Tambor in Costa Rica, the same place where Bahia was being made. Tambor delivered to the Ozgeners a rich and spicy black maduro with a red band, and which name-checked the Cuban Partagas Serie D No. 4 as one if its biggest influences. It was this new maduro, and the rave CAO cigar reviews that followed, that put CAO cigars on the map.
Within 8 years, the company would grow its CAO cigar offering dramatically, giving anyone looking to buy CAO cigars online a bunch of new choices – including CAO Gold, CAO Brazilia, Criollo, Double Maduro (or MX2), as well as their L’Anniversaire series and CAO Flavours. And thanks to the help of some other manufacturers, CAO found new suppliers when Tabacalera Tambor ceased production for the company. Nick Perdomo began making the maduro blend as it rose in popularity; and not long after, gave Cano a cigar with a delicate Cameroon wrapper. The Toraño family partnered up by making C.A.O. Brazilias in Honduras, and La Aurora started creating the CAO Flavors cigars at their factory in the Dominican Republic.
The Ozgeners would make the decision in 2003 to take control of the production of CAO cigars – and in doing so, make the switch from marketer to manufacturer. Cano bought into two factories: one in Nicaragua, and one in Honduras. The shift allowed C.A.O. control of their tobacco supply, as well as the opportunity to centralize its manufacturing – and brought production of its CAO maduro cigar from Tabacalera Perdomo to C.A.O. Fabricas de Tabacos in Estelí, Nicaragua. C.A.O.’s factory shared the space with the Toraño family’s factory; the arrangement afforded the Ozgeners and the Toraños the access and ability to buy great tobacco together, and allowed for a close working relationship between the companies.
Fast forward to 2007: the CAO cigar brand grew internationally, as Henri Wintermans Cigars offered to buy CAO cigars from Ozgener. Based in Holland, Wintermans is a unit of Scandinavian Tobacco, one of the world's largest cigar makers at 1.3 billion sticks per year. CAO cigars were now being made in Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. Three years later, the last remaining member of CAO’s founding family left the company when Scandinavian Tobacco Group and Swedish Match merged, causing the ownership group to relocate CAO’s corporate offices to Richmond, VA from Nashville.
Today, true to its roots in the Ozgener family creed of innovation in blending and in packaging, CAO Cigars production continues primarily in two locations: Honduras American Tabaco S.A. (HATSA) in Danlí, Honduras, home to C.A.O. Brazilia, Lx2, Mx2 and C.A.O. Italia, while La Traviata, La Traviata Maduro, C.A.O. Gold and C.A.O. Cx2 are produced in Estelí, Nicaragua at Scandinavian Tobacco Group Estelí.