5 Cigars That Made My Career: Rick Rodriguez of CAO Cigars
By John Pullo with Gary Korb
CAO Cigars’ Rick Rodriguez wasn’t always a cigar maker…but he’s always been a cigar guy.
Well before the days of LinkedIn, networking was as much luck as it was hard work; and it was one of those chance meetings that led Rick down the path to making premium cigars, and coming full circle with his family’s history. He’s trained alongside the masters: Daniel Nuñez, Benji Menendez, Edwin Guevara, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo. You might recognize some of these names – they are old school cigar legends, the people who taught Rick everything about agriculture, tobacco and every aspect of cigar making “from the seed to the box and everything in between.”
Now, nearly two decades later, Rick Rodriguez has a series of CAO hits to his credit – he is part of a special team, he says, that’s been created to keep the CAO brand “true to its roots” of using new tobaccos, and of innovation as a whole: we’re talking Flathead, Steel Horse, Amazon Basin and CAO Pilon, just to name a few.
But what we wanted to know was, what were the milestone cigars that made a difference in Rick’s experience: his first smoke, the other cigars that inspired him to try something new when he blended, or maybe the CAO cigars that stand out because he tried a special technique for the first time. Then, we put him on the spot to pair each pick on his list with “a little something special”: a unique memory about each smoke, and why it stands out as one of his great “wow” moments.
As you’ll see, Ricky does not disappoint.
Watch and learn how hard it can be to get a cigar “just right,” and how to break bad news to your boss when that blend isn’t up to par. See why he believes the presentation is as important as the product, what gives a cigar the “wow” factor, and some little-known facts (and great stories) about your favorite CAO cigars.
John Pullo: Hi, I’m John Pullo, Managing Editor for CigarAdvisor.com and it’s another edition of Five Cigars that Made My Career. This time, we go back in time with CAO cigar blender Rick Rodriguez. Rick thanks for joining us, bro – good to spend some time with you and talk with you.
Rick Rodriguez: Well, thank you so much for having me.
JP: We wanted to go back a little bit…I’m here with Gary, and we’re going to pick your brain (OK, perfect)…and kind of look back on the cigars that informed your taste buds, your blending styles, the CAO cigars that you’re making throughout history and through to today and just kind of – if you have a little bit of a story that that goes behind each one of those five cigars that you think were critical in making, or in putting you, where you’re at today.
RR: Perfect. Yeah, yeah. So that’s easy for me and I could start whenever you want – but, if you look at me and say, you know, “what got you into the business,” is my first cigar I ever smoked – it was a Fuente. Because I’m from Tampa. So growing up, when I was 18, 19 years old – I remember smoking my first cigar. And not knowing what I’m doing, why I’m enjoying it. But it was a 858 by Fuente. And it was something that hit me like a lightning bolt: that this is something special. Kind of back story is, my grandfather and grandmother were master rollers in Cuba. And they left Cuba in 1953 because my grandfather was laid off from his job, because Tampa was outproducing, making Cuban cigars. So my grandfather was laid off, and my grandma said, “We cannot support the family with one income. So let’s move to Tampa.” And that started my family’s history in Tampa, and from that point on it was…I knew I wanted to be able to smoke a cigar and enjoy that cigar, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be in the cigar business.
Gary Korb: Was the 858 the natural or the Maduro?
RR: The natural, the Cameroon.
GK: That’s how I got into it – I loved the Maduro!
RR: You know what, I’ll share this – and the company hates this…
JP: I love when somebody starts a story this way…
RR: I hate Cameroon wrappers. But for some reason, I really enjoy Fuente.
GK: Yeah, there’s something about that particular cigar.
RR: And so, for me when I look at Cameroon now…As a chef, you can go to a restaurant and see the menu. And turn to the chef: “Do you like everything on your menu?” They’re going to say, “No, I hate fish.” “But you have two or three fish dishes!” “I’m in business.” So either because I don’t like it, I can make it, but is not one of my favorite. But I think there’s something special that they do with that Cameroon that just struck with me.
JP: So Fuente 858. That covers your formative years, your initiation. (Right.) What would be next?
RR: The next one was, you know, the first cigar that – after my training – that I was able to work on. And that was when Ernesto [Perez-Carrillo] finally made an announcement that he was leaving. After my training, I went to work with Yuri [Guillen] and Michael G[iannini] and we formed this Team La Gloria. And then I remember Michael says, “I’ll do the packaging, Yuri will do the tobacco, you do the blending.” And we created the Artesanos series. And there was a double wrapper that started with a Connecticut shade wrapper, and it went into a wrapper from Ecuador – and it was just a beautiful cigar. But I think it was before it’s time because everybody looked at it like, what’s this two wrapper kind of thing?
RR: But for me, I just wanted to kind of say, I learned so much in the factories, I just wanted to share it with everybody at once – and these are my favorite wraps to work with. And so, it worked for a little while…and we had Series R, I mean Series N came out. And so it was good – but after that, I was only with La Gloria for about 18 months – and after that they approached me and said, “You’re fired (laughs). We’re going to give you the opportunity to work with CAO.”
JP: So you’re moving on up…(yep, right). So, interesting, that you mentioned Artesanos. We talked to Ernesto about that cigar; he’s very proud of that cigar.
RR: You know what, because – you know, remember, we worked under the guidance with Ernesto for a year – and he was in it all the way. So he, kind of behind the scenes, allowed us to be the front guys – blend it, but it has to pass what I think La Gloria represents. And so when I showed him this two-tone cigar, he said, “This is not what we represent.” And Michael, bless his heart, says, “We’re going to take La Gloria forward, not backwards. And we believe in this project.” And Ernesto, he’s just a beautiful man: “If you believe in it, do it.”
GK: That sounds like him.
RR: It was amazing. So I owe this guy so much. I owe so many people that touched my life from Benji, to Mr. Cullman, you know, the owner of General Cigar, to Sherwin Seltzer to Jhonys Diaz, to all these guys who have touched my life and allowed me to do what I do today. And what I do today, I love – I just love. I can’t believe I’m doing it.
JP: For people who don’t know, tell them – in a nutshell, real quick – who Benji Menendez is.
RR: Benji Menendez is…
JP: Because he’s a legend name. It’s a legend name.
RR: He is legendary. Well, he is the owner of an old factory, Cuban factory. His grandfather started with H. Upmann, and so all that was passed to me. So Benji left Cuba in 19…I think, 1962, ’63. And for him to share all this knowledge that his grandfather passed to him, his father passed to him, every other tobacco guy that Benji ever talked to – allowed him to teach me what I do for a living. Because what the factory did for me is train me how to receive tobacco. What we do in the factories to get the tobacco, how to box it, how to roll it – but they never trained me how to make a blend. And Benji taught me why this tobacco works well with this tobacco, and why this tobacco doesn’t work well with that tobacco. And he’s just a great teacher. And so, if you’ve never heard of Benji, don’t know about Benji – do yourself a favor and look him up on the Internet, and discover this true gentleman of this passage called “cigar making.” Because he is one of the legends of the business. A hall of famer. He’s a Hall of Famer.
GK: For sure. So we’re at the third cigar. So what was that?
RR: That would be the OSA. The OSA was the first cigar that, we got together –
GK: Yeah, I remember – CAO OSA. Green and white band.
RR: Yep. So we got together, and we just merged with CAO – and all of a sudden I found myself not in the D.R., [but] now in Honduras. And so, “what are you going to do? What are you going to do?” And so, taking what Benji always taught me – my job is to share the information, what we do, how we do it – with everybody that wants that information. So that packaging, and knowing the DNA of CAO at that time, doing some research – what they were known for is introducing new tobaccos. They were always the first guys that introduced to Brazilia wrapper, the first guy that really launched a cigar with Italian tobacco. So they were always known for that. So, my challenge – from the marketing department: “What are you going to do new? What are you going to offer?”
GK: Not too much pressure…
RR: No, no…Was it. But we have a great gentleman that is a tobacco buyer, and he says, “I have new a new wrapper that’s coming from Olancho. And so I think you need to smoke this and see if you can work with this tobacco.” And once I tasted that tobacco, I knew we had something. And so it’s my job to now create that cigar. So we knew right away that we wanted to use that wrapper. And so for me, any opportunity I can – I know that fans can’t all go to the factories. So if I can share something about the factory, or about where your cigars come from, that’s key for me. So if you look at the little box – the white box – it represents two or three things. Because the white box represents the first time I was in the farm, that I saw a barn in this area that was whitewashed. I’d never seen that. It was a white barn.
GK: Was it to keep the heat off the barn, I guess?
RR: Never was told to me why they whitewash these barns, because they were so old – so maybe they didn’t know. But they kept it alive. So the box is white. The farm that they grow the tobacco at, is split from Honduras and Nicaragua by a river. So if you look at the box design, it looks like a river running through it. I didn’t like the blue and white together; so, tobacco is green when it’s growing, so change that. And so – you can even, in the cigar box, in the band – you have coordinates that you can eye and go directly to that farm and see where that tobacco is being grown. So if I can share anything about what we’re doing, and how we do it and where we do it, that’s beautiful.
GK: Alright, well how about this: Ernesto also talked about, he says, “I usually start with the wrapper.” And I guess a lot of blenders do.
RR: Yes, yes. Yes.
GK: So now you’ve got this wrapper – and said, “Wow, this is good.” Now, how do you go about saying, “Alright, now what am I going to put inside this thing?”
RR: Knowing the tobaccos that you’ve already tasted – you know, like a chef – you know that you have a steak in front of you, you’re going to cook a steak. And you know, there’s something else you love to season stuff with – sugar. But you know that combination, if you put sugar on that steak and cook it for me, I gonna say, “There’s something wrong. It doesn’t go. I love sugar and I love beef, but this combination doesn’t go.” So when you have tobacco as a wrapper, our job is to look at the tobacco and what is going to enhance that – not take away from it, not overpower it, but enhance it. And so, just tasting the tobacco – knowing the body, the strength, the flavors – and so, that combination, you’ll know how to put that cigar together.
JP: Nice. Ok, next cigar.
RR: Ummm…well, Flathead. Flathead was…It’s unbelievable what we did with the Flathead, and the amount of time that we took to create Flathead. Typically, the marketing department will give us anywheres from nine months to a year to make a blend. So it was, “Take your time, don’t worry – we have time.” So you just kind of, you know, just go through your process. The back story is, we’re working for nine months on the cigar, that – end of the day – I was smoking it, I said, “I don’t like it. I just don’t like this blend, I don’t like…” And we worked, maybe created anywheres from 40 to 60 blends and we couldn’t fix, we couldn’t figure it out why this cigar is not performing the way we thought it was going to perform. So, being a young punk, thinking I have more power than I did, I called the president of General Cigar and said, “I’m going to inform you right now, that I don’t believe in this project.” The presentation was awful, the name was awful, the cigar was awful. I says, “I’m out.”
JP: You really said that?
RR: Oh yeah, yeah! “I’m out.” So he says, “Ricky. You have…we’re about six weeks from the trade show. If you don’t have a blend, you have nothing to sell at the trade show. And this is going to be your third year to introduce a new blend for you. So, what are you going to do?” I said, “I don’t know.” Luckily, I was in the factory. And so I said, “you know what, sir – give me 24 hours and I’ll call you back.” And I remember calling Ed McKenna – and Ed McKenna is the, at that time, he’s the marketing director of CAO. And I said, “Ed, we squished whatever that cigar was…” I’m not – because he loved it, because he named it. And it was an awful name. I’m so sorry! It was awful!
GK: Did he have the whole Flathead, the whole retro concept in mind, too?
RR: No, no no no no. The cigar, I buried. That was his baby.
GK: Ok, it wasn’t Flathead –
RR: No. “So what are you going to do?” I said, you know what, people talk to me about, when I’m doing my thing – a lot of guys come up to me, and once we’re done talking about cigars, they start to talk about the other things they get excited about: watches, cars, women – I said, bro, really…So I had this strange concept called Flathead. Because it’s based on my love affair for the old cars. And also, growing up, I was kind of a strange kid because I didn’t really watch cartoons; I loved the old movies. So any gangster movie, any war movie – so I remember pinup girls. So I say, “I think I’m going to do a Flathead engine, and a pinup girl.” And he was, “What? This is – No. This is so wrong.” I said, “Well, if we don’t do it, in six weeks we have nothing to show.” He says, “If you can do it in a week, we’ll try to look at it and approve it.” And I focused in on the team, and got the team together and say, “Guys we don’t have nine months. We don’t have six months – we have six days. Let’s do it.” And so we blended. The second blend, for Flathead, we knew right away. Right away. The only thing we changed was, the blend that we used was a round cigar. And that round cigar was performing hot in my mouth, so I needed to cool that cigar down – because that hot smoke was not delivering the flavor that I wanted for it.
GK: It’s just a lot of smoke, yeah.
RR: Yes. And so one of the rollers…because when I’m doing the blending, I’m kind of strange – I learned from Benji, always do your blending in the center of your tobacco factory. You hear it. You smell it. You realize what we’re doing. And so don’t ever go to the office and smoke your samples – always with your people. And so I’m smoking, I said, “I need to cool this cigar smoke…” A roller says, “Señor – how about a box press?” Brilliant. Brilliant. So let’s do that. So, next day, we had a box press – we went, “bingo.” Because a box press allows you to cool your cigar’s smoke down, because on a round cigar, you can completely shape your lips around it. And you only draw in air and smoke through the cigar. But the box press allows some sides, cools that cigar smoke and just unbelievable. Unbelievable.
GK: And it’s a great blend, I mean – I like at least three or four of them in the line.
RR: Oh it’s amazing. It’s amazing.
JP: I hope you gave that guy a raise.
RR: The guy that I did, was the next cigar – that really put CAO on the…that high peak – was the Amazon Basin. The Amazon Basin was, “wow” – that’s the wow factor. I have never tasted anything like this.
RR: And you know, I remember rolling or blending in the factory, and saying, you know, “What’s your box look like?” I knew the box. “What’s your band look like?” Oh, I’m gonna take a white band, we’re going to go outside, muddy it up, spill coffee…and all of a sudden, about 15 minutes later, “Señor, how about this?” And he showed me that band, like that. “What is this?” He said, “Show me.” And he took me back, and he says, “This is what we trim on the wrapper. That little trimming.” So we just twisted it up, and…”Do it again.” It took him about five minutes. And I said, “Right. I need 500,000 cigars…if this is going to take five minutes each, we’re going to be launching this cigar in 2021. And so, what are you going to do? And the cigar manager says, “Follow me.” And he took a bunch of this loose tobacco, and we had a machine that makes twine for our hands of tobacco. And we started to feed it through – all of a sudden…it worked. So it’s on the Amazon Basin, the Fuma [Em Corda] and the Anaconda. And so this is tobacco that you can smoke through if you want to; I think it’s bitter, but a lot of guys love that extra power, so whatever you want to do – if you want to smoke it with it, or without it. I don’t care.
GK: It just looks so cool with it, you know?
RR: It’s amazing. It’s amazing. I was very proud of this.
JP: That’s a great story. So five cigars: we started with 858 from Fuente…Artesanos from La Gloria Cubana; CAO OSA, Flathead – which, if I remember, those – when you did that trade show that year, you only had like a dozen boxes CNC’d like, the night before.
RR: Right, right!
JP: You showed up with a couple of prop boxes and that was it.
RR: That’s another thing. We just bought that machine, and so I remember I say, “This is the design. I’m flying back to Tampa, call me with the amount of boxes you designed.” And they said, “Two.” I said, “2000?” “No.” “200?” “No, two boxes.” “Really? It took you 24 hours to make two lids?” And he said, “We have a new program, we’ll be good to go.” And that was…oh my god. Oh my God.
GK: And then the Amazon Basin.
JP: Five fantastic cigars that made this guy – Rick Rodriguez, CAO cigar blender. Rick, appreciate the time, man.
RR: Thank you bro, than you so much, guys.
This is a recurring Cigar Advisor series.