5 Cigars That Made My Career: Jonathan Drew
By Gary Korb, with Jonathan Drew in his own words
What began in 1995 as a 16 sq. ft. kiosk in the World Trade Center Mall run by two college fraternity brothers today stands as the most industrious premium cigar company in Nicaragua – Drew Estate Cigars and its factory, La Gran Fabrica Drew Estate. Known to many as “J.D.” and “JDizzle,” Jonathan Drew is one of those larger-than-life individuals who sees himself as just a regular guy. He’s also a marketing-savvy iconoclast whose impromptu rise to cigar industry rock star began in 1999 with the release of ACID Cigars. But it was the Liga Privada No.9 that embedded the Drew Estate name in the minds – and hands – of traditional cigar smokers worldwide. More bestselling cigars would follow, but those Jonathan feels are most responsible for Drew Estate’s success are enumerated here. Like many entrepreneurs, Jonathan has had his share of conflicts and triumphs, and he didn’t do it alone. To listen to Jonathan Drew talk about these cigars is to witness someone who is living the dream, loving every minute of it, and determined to not waste one second of it.
#1. Acid Kuba Kuba
Size: 5″ x 54
Wrapper: Indonesian Sumatra
Filler & Binder: Multiple countries
Jonathan Drew: “I believe the Acid Kuba Kuba is the number one selling SKU of any cigar in the United States. I’m sure it’s close between cigars like Romeo y Julieta, Macanudo, and the Acid line in overall sales, but in terms of one SKU, the Acid Kuba Kuba is a juggernaut. Why I would include it in the top five cigars that made my career, and Drew Estate’s career, is that Drew Estate is blue collar people; that’s who we are, and Kuba Kuba is a cigar that is loved by so many people because it speaks to the regular man, the working man, the man on the job like the policeman the fireman, the EMT, and even the military. Kuba Kuba is just very well made. It’s a super delicious smoke, not overly strong, and medium-bodied.
“At first, everybody pushed back on it, but the Acid Kuba Kuba is a phenomenon amongst cigars.”
“At first everybody pushed back on it, but the Acid Kuba Kuba is a phenomenon amongst cigars. It’s something that struck such a deep chord with blue collar people, and it’s incredible for me to see our servicemen and women, policemen and firemen who’ve just embraced Kuba Kuba as their cigar of choice.”
Since it first appeared in 1999, the Acid Kuba Kuba’s popularity has created a demand for four additional blends and sizes: Kuba Kuba Maduro (U.S. Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper), Kuba Kuba Green (Claro wrapper), Kuba Deluxe (a tubo presentation in a 6″x 50 Toro), and Kuba Grande (a 6″x 60 version of the original blend.)
#2. Tabak Especial Negra (Maduro)
Infused with Nicaraguan estate-grown coffee
Wrapper: U.S. Connecticut Shade Dulce, U.S. Connecticut Broadleaf Negra
Filler: Nicaraguan Criollo
Binder: Ecuadorian Sumatra
Strength: Medium (Dulce), Medium-plus (Negra)
Jonathan Drew: “The Tabak Especial line is part of what we call our ‘coffee infused segment.’ For example, Acid cigars has its own segment, but the coffee infused segment actually started with the Kahlua cigar. Then we did Java [with Rocky Patel], and then we did Tabak Especial and Isla del Sol. Between Tabak Especial, Java, and Isla del Sol, which are still on the market, that’s the segment, and it’s a segment where no one has done anything to compete with us – at least in a way that’s worthy. For me, the Tabak Especial in the maduro [Negra] is a real standout because it encompasses everything I want a coffee cigar to be.
“So, here’s what I’ve noticed about Tabak Especial smokers: Many of them smoke La Gloria Cubana, Rocky Patel, Drew Estate, but they’re not necessarily guys who smoke infused, or what some people call ‘flavored cigars.’ Most of the guys and women who smoke Tabak Especial are smokers of medium and full-bodied sticks who want to break-up their cigar sequence throughout the day by starting off with a mild stick like a Tabak Especial with coffee. What I also see is people smoking a Tabak Especial at the end of the day after they’ve smoked some full-bodied cigars. They want to finish the night off with something mild, creamy and smooth, and then you’ve got that beautiful aroma of the coffee. It’s just like when you think about brewing coffee. You know that smell? The thing about Tabak Especial is that it really illuminates your sense of smell. So, for that reason, the Tabak Especial maduro is the personification of the coffee infused segment of cigars, and it’s really amplified by the time of day you smoke it, like in the morning with coffee, or at the end of the day or in the evening; then again, you have that wonderful smell like you’re actually brewing coffee.
“The thing about Tabak Especial is that it really illuminates your sense of smell.”
“It’s also the cigar which most people say, ‘What are you smoking?’ When you smoke a traditional cigar, regardless of the brand, they typically tend to have a very similar smell. But when you’re smoking a coffee infused stick, like a Tabak Especial or Java, you really get that coffee smell, and that just brings all kinds of new people to the market who now want to try it.”
#3. Liga Privada No.9
Wrapper: U.S. Connecticut Broadleaf #1 Darks
Filler: Select Honduran & Nicaraguan Cuban Seed
Binder: Plantation-grown Brazilian Mata Fina
Jonathan Drew: “One of the most iconic cigars in the cigar industry. You know, you have cigars like OpusX, but for me, after OpusX in the cigar world is Liga Privada. It’s amazing. And anybody who says it ain’t is full of shit. When it comes to a cigar that captivated the world outside of Cuba it was the OpusX. I believe it has sustained itself, and it demonstrates excellence and the best of the best. But Drew Estate’s answer to that is the Liga Privada brand. And the best part is, it happened organically. It wasn’t like a huge build-up with a big advertising campaign, either. It started with 52 stores who wanted to carry the damn thing, but Liga Privada No.9 (even though the T52 is probably a better stick), is that iconic cigar that broke the mold for Drew Estate.
“Liga Privada No.9 is the cigar that broke the mold for us and let people recognize Drew Estate as a cigar company.”
“So, why is Liga Privada No.9 one of the top 5 cigars that made our career? It’s because, we were kind of pigeon-holed for a while. We were known as ‘the Acid guys.’ First we were the ‘flavor guys’ then it was ‘the Acid guys,’ but it was really our Cigar Safari that got consumers ready for the Liga Privada. When they came down to Nicaragua and saw our 114,000 sq. ft. factory, at that time, and the millions of tons of tobacco, that really opened up their hearts and minds to say, ‘Wow, Drew Estate is not a flavored cigar company.’ And the Liga Privada No.9 was there at the right time, with the right blend, and the most beautiful taste, so Liga Privada No.9 is that cigar that broke the mold for us and let people recognize Drew Estate as a cigar company, not just a flavored cigar company.”
#4. Kentucky Fire Cured
Filler: Virginia & Kentucky Fire-cured
Jonathan Drew: “The Kentucky Fire Cured line is a very significant line even though it’s not as big as Kuba Kuba or Liga Privada, but that’s OK. The Kentucky Fire Cured line was instrumental to Drew Estate, because it’s like the way that you make a really smoky, peaty Scotch. Basically, you take grain and barley and you smoke the barley by heating up peat coal, and when the barley is finally distilled it has that nice smoky taste.
“Same thing when you’re making fire-cured cigars. We smoke the tobacco [in Kentucky] by putting it up high in the barn. Then we burn maple, hickory and oak hardwood for ten days, take a day-off, then burn it for another ten days. Then we ship that tobacco to Nicaragua. That dark, fire-cured tobacco process has led Kentucky Fire Cured to be one of the most significant cigars we’ve done because it represents ingenuity, innovation, and it’s a cigar that when you think about premium cigars and spirits coming together it crosses the boundary.
“That dark, fired-cured process has led Kentucky Fire Cured to be one of the most significant cigars we’ve done.”
“What we’ve noticed is that a lot of the people who love bourbon love the Kentucky Fire Cured. The bourbon, the Scotch, the rye drinkers – just like with Tabak Especial how the coffee guys love it – people who love to have a bourbon with their stick love the Kentucky Fire Cured. And now we’ve got the new green one, the Swamp Thang, that’s selling like a motherfucker. ”
#5. Pappy Van Winkle Tradition
Wrapper: Ecuadorian Habano Oscuro
Filler: Dominican Republic, Nicaragua
Jonathan Drew: “It’s a feather in your cap when you get to work with the reigning family of Bourbon. Think about the bourbon lifestyle. Just like we have a cigar lifestyle, if you’re in cigars either as your livelihood, or you’re part of the culture, you understand when someone says, ‘the cigar lifestyle.’ Well, if you live in Kentucky, or you’re part of the bourbon lifestyle, you know what it is. Just like what we have in cigars; it’s got its differences, but it has that same feel. Yes, there’s a lifestyle behind the bourbon experience and the bourbon world. So, being able to work with the Pappy Van Winkle and really create a blend with Julian Van Winkle was a really special experience.
“The Pappy Van Winkle is Drew Estate at its best in terms of a class product.”
“I can’t take credit for the actual blend itself, but the Pappy Van Winkle cigar is. . .well, let me put it this way: When you think about Drew Estate you think about how we have kind of a mashup between hip hop and cigars, graffiti and cigars, pop culture and cigars, and there’s a blue collar significance to Drew Estate. We’re a people’s product. We’re not meant to be Davidoff White Label. We’re not meant to be the cigars for doctors and lawyers and all the fancy dudes. We’re the regular, everyday guy, but we do have a couple of standout products that touch those groups and those lifestyles, and the Pappy Van Winkle is Drew Estate at its best in terms of a class product. It’s very expensive, distinguished in so many characteristics, and people are going to pay for it because it’s a commemorative product. So, the Pappy Van Winkle Tradition, which is now available at Famous is really a hugely important product.”