Reincarnation: a Second Life for 7 Cigar Brands
I am a bit of a history nerd.
And then I found Tony Hyman, and his insanely in-depth website on the history of the cigar industry in the United States. Talk about taking it to another level.
According to Tony, there have been over 2,000,000 different cigars brands and boxes of cigars throughout the modern age of smoking. Of those 2 million plus, a relative fraction remains. Sure, it seems like the choices of cigars on the market right now are almost limitless; yet somehow, most of us have found favorites and go-to’s. But think about that number for a minute…let’s say you’ve smoked 500 different cigar brands in various shapes and sizes. No small feat – and while it seems like a lot, realize that you’ve only scratched the surface…you’ve smoked .00025 of the cigars out there throughout history, or about 1/4000th of the total ever available.
Much of the production was during the so-called “Golden Age” of cigars, from the mid 1870s to about 1920 (when rolling machines came into their own). It was a boom: there were over 26,000 registered cigar factories, making in excess of 8,500,000,000 cigars per year before the first World War, many with the most random of cigar brand names (Old Nut, Willey’s Yara and Happy Heine). And that was just here in the States – Cuba had her own massive cigar economy.
Of course, many of those U.S. marques were clear Havanas whose brand owners were put out of business by the Embargo, or companies so small that today’s boutiques would look like Ford or Chevrolet in comparison. And with massive consolidation, Prohibition and other economic drivers throughout our (relatively) recent history, the majority of them were shuttered forever.
Today, some resourceful cigar makers have looked to the past for inspiration – and while they can’t use Cuban tobacco to replicate the original recipes, they’ve brought history back to life with tasty blends like these…
The J.C. Newman Company’s entry for a hearty everyday smoke, Brick House has its roots near the end of the Great Depression. Because, as we can all attest, even when times are tough – we still will find a way to enjoy a cigar. Grandfather to the current generation and namesake of the company Julius Caeser Newman apprenticed as a cigar maker while a teenager in Ohio; he launched his own company in 1895 with a single order of cigars for a local grocery store. Twenty years later, business was booming. Newman would survive the Depression intact, releasing the original Brick House cigar in 1937 as a Cuban puro. His new cigar was intended to pay tribute to his family’s Hungarian heritage: before emigrating to America, the Newman family lived in what was the only brick house in their town and entertained friends and family regularly. But as the Cuban embargo reared its ugly head, it spelled the end for Brick House.
Newman’s grandsons, Bobby and Eric, revived Brick House as a puro – though this time, a Nicaraguan. Hand rolled and wrapped in a proprietary, naturally dark leaf called Havana Subido, today’s version is a spicy offering that’s thick in both size and flavors.
New Hampshire is more than a moose-filled, politics-addicted tax haven for Massachusetts ex-pats; it is the home of the “Largest selling 10¢ cigar in the world.” (Note: I lived in NH for a couple years, about a mile from the old factory. Not as many moose as you think; they’re kind of shy. But the political scene in a year like this is insane.) Started in 1874 by Roger Sullivan, the Sullivan Cigar Factory had many homes within the Manchester millyard; and producing upwards of 80,000,000 cigars a year by the 1920s, he made the millyard a global tobacco hub. His shop was the largest Union 10¢ cigar manufacturing company in the world; and with it, Sullivan had the privilege of being the upstanding individual who paid more in income taxes than anyone else in the country: $500K a year. The Cold War put the family out of business, but the factory would later become home to Indian Head athletic shoes – who made footwear for Johnny Unitas (it’s rumored, at least) and Peggy Fleming’s ice skates.
Enter Kurt Kendall. He was “collecting everything from Coca-Cola to cigar memorabilia,” but running out of room to hang it all. Among the items in his collection of cigar brands were 7-20-4 goods. Kurt devoted himself to learning more about the brand, and revived it with a juicy mix of Nicaraguan, Honduran, Mexican and Colombian long fillers under a Costa Rican binder, and wrapped it with Brazilian Mata Fina. Then they’re aged for deliciousness. A scrumptious boutique morsel, if there was one.
You know Nat Sherman today as a prominent tobacconist…but the 1920s were an interesting time. The cigar industry took a big dent from Prohibition, as cigars and booze have always paired so well. But liquor flowed freely at Sherman’s Manhattan speakeasy, as did the cigars; so freely, that Nat “inherited” half of a local cigar company, supposedly to make good on gambling debts. If you believe that sort of thing. It was his first foray into the cigar industry – and Sherman would go on to buy out the remaining interests, wholly owning the Epoca brand. Epoca was another clear Havana, medium to full in body but with a light wrapper, manufactured in Tampa up until the Embargo.
While the Sherman family went on to create a tobacco empire, somewhere along the way they lost the trademark rights to the Epoca name. But with ownership restored, blends were tested for over a year before resurrecting the brand officially in 2014. It’s now manufactured at Quesada’s factory in the Dominican Republic, a bountiful mix of Nicaraguan and Dominican-grown Cuban seed tobaccos under an Ecuadorian wrapper – and packaged in boxes replicating the original Epoca designs. The company says this cigar brands revival has “a full rich flavor that remains balanced and approachable.” I’m hard-pressed to disagree.
What’s different about Gispert (say it with me: “hees-PAIRT”) is that it wasn’t an American brand – and it’s not as old as you might think. Gispert had always been Cuban, founded as a brand in 1940 in Pinar del Rio. Simón Veja Peláez began production on this all-handmade tribute to a local man named Gispert, a smoke that was milder in body than most of its Cuban cigar counterparts. Then came Castro and “Nationalization”: production of Gispert continued under the State’s Cubatabaco, who turned it over to Habanos, S.A., making it at the same factory as El Rey del Mundo. Gispert was a popular, mild alternative, offered in 11 sizes as recently as 1972; but all handmade vitolas were discontinued by 2003, with the brand’s two remaining machine-made small cigars – and the brand as a whole – being phased out entirely in 2005.
As the Cubans were giving Gispert premiums the axe, production started for a new same-named cigar in Honduras at La Flor de Copan. Today’s non-Cuban Gispert features a Connecticut wrapper grown in Ecuador (and a maduro, too) that cloaks a mix of Honduran and Nicaraguan long fillers, making for a still mild-to-medium bodied smoke. Creamy, cost-effective and classic tasting, this highly-rated cigar is a renowned humidor staple.
La Antiguedad is not just old…it’s an antique (literally: it’s Spanish for “the Antiquity”). This is the second revival brand from the House of Pepin, brought back to life after the success of Flor de las Antillas. It, too, is an old Cuban brand…but there’s not that much out there on the original line, meaning that the story has more or less been lost.
What remains, however, is the Garcia family’s regard for authentic and original Cuban art, as it is their heritage. Janny Garcia had mentioned in an interview that the My Father team “had this name in mind since 2009. Since it is an old Cuban brand we started looking for the original artwork and it wasn’t easy to find.” But find it they did – and to add to the cool factor, the Garcias displayed an original La Antiguedad box and artwork from its 1870s incarnation at the IPCPR trade show last year, when this cigar was introduced.
It’s a super-premium, to be sure – crafted by Jose and Jaime Garcia, using select Cuban-seed long filler tobaccos that were grown on My Father farms in various parts of Nicaragua and cured for over three and a half years. La Antiguedad features a double binder, one each of Nicaraguan criollo and corojo – and the wrapper on this spicy treat is an Ecuadorian Habano, cured to a darker rosado oscuro. As with most things Pepin, it is complex…medium-full…and delectably robust in both smoke output and flavor.
Samuel Paley was a one-man cigar operation, starting out in Chicago in the late 1800s. Having emigrated from the Ukraine with a solid education, Paley went to work as a cigar factory lector reading newspapers to the cigar rollers. Intoxicated by the tobacco around him, Sam studied tobacco blending and immersed himself in the cigar tradition – learning to roll and blend soon after. Paley struck out on his own in 1896, opening the Congress Cigar Company; the first Congress cigar was La Palina, named for Goldie (yes, namesake of the size) Drell Paley, his wife. Sam’s son William joined the family business in 1910, and headed up their advertising: to promote La Palina cigars, Congress bought a local radio station and broadcast local acts during their sponsored “La Palina Radio Hour.” Sam continued to make cigars; William decided his future was in radio, and purchased more stations to grow his fledgling broadcasting company, the Columbia Broadcasting System (you know it today as CBS). Within a few years, Sam would retire and Congress Cigar went out of business.
Flash-forward a generation, and it’s now William’s son – Bill Paley – who’s revived his family’s nearly-forgotten La Palina marque. Today’s version is a medium-bodied blend of Nicaraguan and Dominican tobaccos that feature a balanced, earthy flavor that hints at a sweet n’ spicy combo underneath…and for that you can thank the Habano wrapper that’s been sourced from Brazil. Scrumptious.
Let’s step back to pre-Castro Cuba, when it was Andres Fernandez – grandfather of AJ – who was working the family farm in San Luis. He grew his own tobacco, and launched his San Lotano brand in (if my math is right) somewhere around the 1940s. It was great while it lasted…and then dropped the C-word: Castro.
Andres was forced (probably at gunpoint, knowing Fidel) to abandon his brand; he left the country, and settled in Nicaragua to resume his work, reestablishing his farming practice. And that’s where he taught his son Ismael, and his grandson Abdel (AJ), the methods of working with premium tobacco. “I have also been blessed to have been given many of Cuba’s most coveted cigar making secrets,” says AJ.
What was retired for a generation was revitalized in 2010, when A.J. released the new San Lotano in three blends: Connecticut, Habano and this maduro variety. Made by hand in Esteli at the Tabacalera Fernandez factory, A.J.’s rollers are still using older, traditional Cuban methods to combine Nicaraguan and Honduran tobaccos under a rich, oily San Andres maduro wrapper. It’s spicy and darkly sweet at the same time, in that maduro kind of way – and presumably, not unlike the original Cuban incarnation.
If anything, these cigar brands are but a few examples of the fact that there’s a good bit of nostalgia in the cigar game…but that’s part of why we like cigars. We’ll never know what the originals taste like, but as we all can appreciate a good throwback – I’m certainly ok with being stuck in the past, with smokes like these.