5 Cigars That Made My Career: Rafael Nodal
Featuring Rafael Nodal, in his own words
By John Pullo, with Gary Korb & Fred Lunt
Rafael Nodal has seen the top of the mountain: he’s blended Top 25 cigars, worked alongside some of the biggest names in the cigar business, traveled the world. He’s trending: #Rafaeling. Not bad for a kid who was forced to pick oranges in Castro’s Cuba at age 15.
Interestingly, his “first cigar” story is a lot like yours and mine: a friend took him to a cigar shop, and he fell in love...
Now, he’s helping craft premium cigars with the likes of Plasencia, Altadis’ Grupo de Maestros and AJ Fernandez.
An accomplished musician and savvy blendmaker, what’s evident right away is Rafael's passion for the epicurean side of cigar making. You’ll see for yourself in our interview, as he shares the details behind some of the cigars that were important to his cigar journey.
You’ll also learn what Cubanesque means from a Cuban’s perspective; why aroma is one of the most important qualities of a cigar, and why making premium cigars is like preparing gourmet foods, and like composing music. Watch Rafael and you will understand how and why cigar smoking is a labor of love. And if you’re a fan of Aging Room cigars, or if you’re liking some of the new Romeo, Montecristo and Trinidad releases – the story behind how they got their flavor and what inspired them starts with a trip to a cigar shop in Miami, during the Cigar Boom. All great stories, all in Rafael’s own words.
Watch the entire interview below and scroll to see some of the highlights we’ve pulled about the 5 Cigars that Made Rafael Nodal’s Career…even though we ended up talking about 7 or 8.
#1. LA TRADICION PERDOMO
Rafael Nodal: “That was the first cigar that I tried…my friend and my partner, Hank Bischoff, took me to this little place in Little Havana and he wanted me to meet this guy where he bought his cigars. And [me] being Cuban, Hank thought that ‘hey - you have to smoke cigars.’ Which I didn't! And I purchased my first cigar in that little place, at the time it was called Nick's. And that was Nick Perdomo's place. I bought my first cigar and I smoked my first cigar that day. I bought a full box, took it home and I fell in love with it. To tell you the truth, a lot of emotions came to me because, you know, cigars represent Cuba. I'm Cuban. I left Cuba when I was 15 back in 1980.”
I not only was able to smoke that cigar, but I was able to smoke cigars with Nick Perdomo sitting right there. And he taught me how to light the cigar. I saw so much passion and so much love for what he was doing that I immediately got home that day and I said, “This is what I wanted to do.” ~ Rafael Nodal
“Just from the cigar and I bought my first box of cigars, and I think - I smoke a lot today - but I think I smoked the whole, full box within - I think it was a Saturday and Sunday, I smoked a full box.”
Perdomo’s La Tradicion would later give way to the Perdomo 10th Anniversary Reserve, when it was released to mark the La Tradicion’s 10th anniversary; soon after, you'd know it as the Perdomo Champagne - wrapped in your choice of Ecuador Connecticut, Nicaraguan Habano Maduro (Champagne Noir) and Habano (Champagne Sun Grown), each now a Perdomo humidor staple. Perdomo has reintroduced some of the La Tradicion Reserve selections, including the Limited Edition Cameroon shown above.
#2. OLIVEROS GRAN RESERVA
Rafael: “I started an Internet site back in 1999 selling cigars, then ended up working with Oliveros as a consultant; later on I bought the brand…Oliveros Gran Reserva was made with Nick and some other people, because that's who I knew when I started working with Oliveros. Oliveros was making mostly flavored cigars - we had the Long Lady, Vanilla and many other flavors - and I wanted a regular cigar. And I went to Nick, and we came out with Oliveros Gran Reserva.”
One of the first traditional cigars from Oliveros, the Gran Reserva was made at Tabacalera Perdomo and introduced in 2001. The line was offered in Nicaraguan Maduro and Cameroon wrapper; CigarCyclopedia graded it an ‘A’, with the following review notes: ‘[M]edium to full in body, but with a remarkable smoothness and creamy taste. There’s a nice, toasty aroma and a medium finish, but the focus never left the relaxed, mellow taste. Well made with an even burn, the Gran Reserva was consistent to the end and easy to enjoy from start to finish.”
#3. OLIVEROS XL FOR MEN
Rafael: “Right away I started getting a love for blending the different tobaccos. The Oliveros XL for Men...it had it really a name that, you know, many people told me that sounded like a perfume stuff, or something. One of the first big ring gauge, big cigars. We did it in 60, 63, 55…And then if you look at the band - at the time, many people told me it was very minimalist. But that's one of the first boxes that we actually got painted. All of the boxes at the time were wood. We had to use car paint because there was no other paint that I knew how to use for boxes. So we had to go through a process of putting a grey field first and then…like you paint cars.”
The feedback Rafael received on his design was that it was "minimalist." (pic via cigarcyclopedia.com)
One other person that I have really enjoyed so much and really admire so much and happened today is a very close friend of mine as well is Ernesto Perez-Carrillo. He had La Gloria Cubana and then he came out with Serie R, right - and he also made some of the first big ring cigars. And I fell in love with that style of big ring cigars and there were not too many people doing it. And you know, that's something that I wanted. ~ Rafael Nodal
“[XL for Men] had a lot of new things: in that particular cigar there was a blend that, at the time, those types of different tobacco were not used. We used a Brazilian Mata Fina wrapper. We used a Broadleaf binder. We used tobacco from the Dominican, Nicaragua and Honduras. So it actually was a 5-country blend that we created, and in big ring sizes at the time.”
No longer in production, XL for Men was a medium-full Oliveros cigar that flashed a ton of peppery Nicaraguan flavors, along with coffee, wood and rich earth. But it didn’t last long - 60-ring cigars weren’t nearly as popular as they are today, and few smokers were ready to tackle what they were calling “a HUGE cigar.”
#4. OLIVEROS KING HAVANO
Rafael: “I continued my journey into Oliveros and went to Nicaragua. It was my first Nicaraguan cigar, made at the Plasencia factory. After I started learning about tobacco one of the things that I really wanted to do was the “Cubanesque” flavor. It's a word that is used now but it's basically trying to imitate - or are trying to recreate, if you will - some of the Cuban tobacco flavors in different types of tobaccos. Cuba, as an origin, has a tremendous amount of great different soil, great seeds that we use also now in Honduras and Nicaragua and the Dominican. Not long ago I created a cigar called La Boheme. And that for me was the epic of the Cubanesque flavors.
I remember the aroma of my grandfather smoking a Cuban cigar, smoking the cigars in this little park by my house. And that aroma and that flavor was unique, I believe. And so when I say about Cubanesque, it is just a different type of flavor that reflects the type of tobacco and flavors and aroma. ~ Rafael Nodal
“For me, cigars are amazing. It's necessary for you to really enjoy the whole experience; and that flavor and that aroma of a Cuban cigar, I think, is very unique. And not that it's better or worse, it's just different. It's just different origin, different characteristics with the tobacco. And so when we say Cubanesque, it's those flavor characteristics that are common on Cuban cigars.”
#5. AGING ROOM M356
Rafael: “It was my first small batch product. That was the first transition - Aging Room took off because of that first blend. That was all tobacco from the Dominican, which at the time, not many people used Dominican wrapper. The Dominican doesn't grow a lot of wrappers, and we did a whole Dominican puro. I liked the idea of purity, and the Small Batch was one like that. And then we did the Quattro...It was funny because I did the M356, and I knew that I started with a Perdomo cigar - which you know Nick uses a lot of the square, box press cigars. And Cuba has a lot of history, some old Cubans were box press the way they put it into the boxes - and they became kind of square.”
Box press really changes the dynamic of the smoke: if you think about it, in a round cigar, you have the air flow throughout the cigar. Now, you add more pressure when you put a box press - the air goes through different channels, now you capture flavor from different tobaccos. So the box press changes the dynamic of the flavor profile and the experience of smoking. And I knew by design that I wanted to do a blend for that wrapper, and I wanted to do a box press because of my beginning. That was the first box press that we ever made. ~ Rafael Nodal
While in Germany, Rafael visited a warehouse where he found an Indonesia wrapper from 2003. He took that tobacco – “this unbelievable wrapper, extremely well aged,” he says - to the Dominican, and did the blend with Jochi Blanco based on that leaf. Unfortunately, the tobaccos used in the original M356 have run out; it’s been replaced with a similar-smoking blend of another vintage, called the M356ii.
“At the end of the day, you know just like in food and drinks, everything starts with ingredients, right? The ingredients have to be the best. And it has to be natural, and all those things. And when you start with great tobacco, it’s very easy to start mixing it and get great taste.”
BONUS - #6: ROMEO SAN ANDRES (Romeo y Julieta)
Rafael: “I'm doing the blends now for Altadis USA. This Romeo San Andres is a cigar that breaks a lot of barriers, and it's very important to me because it's part of my developmental stage in testing and blending and that. And the Romeo San Andres is made at Tabacalera AJ Fernandez, and AJ's a great friend. We incorporate tobaccos from Nicaragua. We also incorporate tobacco from the Dominican Republic from Jochi Blanco, which is tobacco that I'm used to working with. And they’re using a very well-aged, triple fermented wrapper from San Andres, from the Turrent family – which is also part of the family of Altadis. So bringing all these components...more complexity in the flavors and modern, if you like, blend. It's not a cigar that you said, ‘Oh, this is like another cigar from Rafael.’”
San Andres is very unique. Using tobacco from different regions in Nicaragua but blending it with Dominican, where I started...you know for me, symbols are very important in my life. Everything that I do has a reason as why we do it. And using tobacco from Jochi with different regions in Nicaragua, with this San Andres...working with AJ Fernandez making the cigar, really brings a lot of circles together in my life and that's part of my whole journey. ~ Rafael Nodal
Rafael says the Romeo San Andres “represents a lot of where I am now, as a blender, as a tobacco person.” It’s also a more robust Romeo y Julieta cigar than we’ve been used to, being very rich in both tone and texture: it’s a collection of big, earthy, slightly sweet and spicy flavors from an oily Maduro.
BONUS - #7: AGING ROOM SOLERA SUN GROWN
Rafael: “Solera is a method of aging…it's basically used in wines and rums and things like that. So normally you have wine from 2000, from 2001, 2002. But for the sherry, in the Southern part of Spain, what I learned is that they mix all the years and they start bottling from that mix. And they continue to put more from the new year, as they continue to bottle. So the idea is always to have it the same, trying to have this same uniformity every year, versus having great years and bad years. So I took that idea and I created this Solera method of aging. We took tobacco three years old, five years old and seven years old. We mix it together and we put it in a bale, keep it for 12 to 24 months and then we do the cigars. So I started with the [Solera] sun grown, the yellow one in the box and did that. And I said, “Well, what about if I do the Corojo wrapper - how it tastes?” Wow. This is not bad. “Same blend, OK - what about if we try now in the Maduro San Andres wrapper?” Let's try, I have this San Andres, let's put it…not bad. And well now we're getting crazy, let's try the Connecticut Shade, right? Wow, not bad. Which one are we going to release? Well, let's start with one - but let's release all of them! And I can tell you I have many more combinations that I want to go do. But I was running out of colors!”
This was a perfect example of a project that we took, based on the actual aging process adjusted to the cigar industry and the tobacco processing; and then having different wrappers and which one, we had to decide. And I had endless sleepless nights saying, “Which one should go first?” And that's when I said, “Listen - I'll do all four. Because they're all good.” ~ Rafael Nodal
We reviewed the Aging Room Solera Sun Grown in the Fanfare (6 1/8” x 57 Belicoso) size, and found it exceedingly complex: “Coming and going, constantly revolving throughout these flavors with a medium, maybe medium-full body. This Aging Room has some moves, and wants to show them off. Let it happen.”