Cigar Advisor’s Master Blenders: Jesus Fuego of J. Fuego Cigars
By Gary Korb
As the man behind some of the best premium cigars for the past quarter of a century, you could say that Jesus Fuego was born to make cigars. Born into a tobacco growing family on the famed “El Corojo” farm in Cuba’s Vuelta Abajo region where the original Corojo leaf was conceived, Jesus knew more about tobacco before he could walk than many have learned in a lifetime. That may sound a bit exaggerated, but between what he learned from his father, José, and his neighbors, the Plasencia family, Jesus couldn’t have had better mentors. That experience, plus a formal education in agriculture, opened the door for Jesus at some of the world’s leading tobacco companies. In 2006 he launched his own company, Tabacos S.A. and produced the critically-acclaimed J. Fuego Gran Reserva Corojo No.1 selection. From there he went on to produce more high-scoring blends, among which include the J. Fuego Americana, Sangre de Toro, Connoisseur, and his latest creation, J. Fuego Heat. In this interview Cigar Advisor Executive Editor, Gary Korb, catches-up with Jesus who talks about his latest projects, opines on the recent lifting of the Cuban trade embargo, and much more.
CigarAdvisor: It’s been a long time since our last interview. Since then, you’ve released the J. Fuego Americana, Sangre de Toro, The Judge, Connoisseur, and Heat Corojo cigars. To help us catch-up, can you please give us a brief description of each cigar, and how they differ from each other?
Jesus Fuego: I think we have a very rich variety of flavor profiles to offer now. Americana is a good combination of body and complexity, the best of both worlds. The Pennsylvania grown wrapper combined with an all-Corojo blend from three other countries makes for an interesting departure from our traditional blends and yet holds a lot of the ‘J. Fuego character.’
Sangre de Toro is my first and only Nicaraguan Puro so far. It is more of a stout profile with that distinct Nicaraguan boldness; a little more in-your-face type of smoke with a lot of sweetness, but balanced, and without being too strong.
The Judge is a cigar that speaks a little more to my nose than to my palate. The Mata Fina wrapper that my father produces for us is a very sweet and aromatic tobacco that has very noticeable dark chocolate notes.
Connoisseur is all about refinement. The combination of an Ecuadorian Sumatra wrapper, a San Andres Maduro binder, and Corojo fillers from Honduras and Nicaragua, creates a very smooth and clean balance of body, subtle spices, and earthiness.
Heat is a medium to full body cigar with lots of spiciness produced by the combination of a Honduran Corojo wrapper, the presence of Ecuadorian Sumatra, and lots of Nicaraguan Criollo fillers.
C.A.: You’ve paid your dues for many years. It had to be rough going at the beginning, but finally, more smokers are starting to catch on to J. Fuego Cigars and giving you some well-deserved props. To what do you attribute this?
J.F.: There’s no substitute for time. Although I already had a few skins on the wall when we restarted the J. Fuego Brand in the U.S., the American consumer is very pragmatic and well-educated. They just needed time to realize that we’re here to stay and that we are a very serious family when it comes to protecting the quality of our product. At 44 years old, I’m the fifth generation of my family in the business, and I have already spent more than 25 years earning a living out of creating fine cigars.
I think the release of my Originals in soft five-packs was a turning point for the better; those packs made it easier for the smoker to try our stuff and see that we are all about the cigar itself. I could say that my Originals have helped make that form of packaging a little more popular, but in the end, it’s not about the packaging either.
There is no magic formula. You work hard, you respect your customers, you interact with and listen to your retailers and smokers (to understand the priest you have to go to church, you know), and eventually good things happen. But the most important thing is this: I have the best-of-the-best growers backing me up with amazing tobaccos – my father, José Fuego, and Nestor Plasencia. Trust me, everything goes smoothly when you have those two men supporting and teaching you.
C.A.: You were making boutique cigars before it was fashionable. Lately, it seems that more boutique and short batch cigars are entering the market on what seems like an almost weekly basis. What do you make of this new wave of “artisan” cigars?
J.F.: It’s the nature of the beast. A glamorous industry, a free market, and creative people all make for a good cocktail. On the other hand, it is not that hard to print some bands and get a plane ticket to The D.R. or Central America [laughs]. Seriously though, I think there is room for new people with fresh ideas and concepts, and every trip begins with a step. Anyway, some of what people call ‘established brands’ have been around cigar smokers for less than 15 years, but have managed to do a good job. So, as long as they continue to raise the bar, force us to make better cigars, keep them consistent, and manage to withstand the proof of time – a piece of cake, right? [smiles with a wink] – it’s all good.
C.A.: I know you’re working on a re-blend of a popular cigar for a major re-launch by Famous Smoke Shop. Since cigar smokers seem to “bond” with their favorite cigars, how do you approach re-blending a cigar that already has a loyal following? Some might think that’s risky.
J.F.: Risk has made many things possible. There is a reason why I was honored with the chance to make them, so I spent a lot of time learning from the Famous team and tried to improve the blends while keeping the good qualities they already have.
C.A.: I’m told that you are also going to be blending line extensions for this brand. How far along are you with this new version, and in what way will it differ from the re-blended core line?
J.F.: I’m taking my time with it. Famous is not easy to please, and I know they want happy customers. We have narrowed it down to a couple of really good blends that are aging as we speak, and will be tried by a lot of people at both Famous and J. Fuego. Only then we will know that we have a winner.
C.A.: You’re considered one of the industry’s leading authorities on growing, curing, and fermenting Criollo and Corojo tobacco. For those who may be new to premium handmade cigars, can you briefly describe the appearance and flavor differences between them?
J.F.: ‘Criollo’ means ‘native,’ and it was the most popular and widely used seed for premium Cuban cigars at some point. Then the industry started looking for nicer looking and thinner wrapper, which meant you could get more leaves per pound. A long and careful process of positive selection was made using the Criollo seed as a starting point on the ‘El Corojo’ Farm in Cuba, part of which my family owned, and that’s how the new Corojo seed came to be. Basically, it’s an adaptation of the best Criollo plants into the shade grown system. Over time they became two distinct plants. The Corojo produces larger leaves with better colors and more refined flavors than Criollo. Therefore, when you talk about pure Criollo and Corojo (not the ’98 and ’99 strains, etc.), you have Criollo, which is used mostly as filler and binder, and Corojo which is used mostly as wrapper.
C.A.: As a Cuban émigré, what was your reaction when you heard that the President of The United States was lifting some of the trade restrictions with Cuba?
J.F.: Politicians will be politicians. I just hope the people of both countries get something good out of it. In the meantime, I think it’s great news for our industry since cigars are the colorful note within the bigger news. It is the first time in many years that the American public has been reminded by all of the major media networks that there are these things called ‘premium cigars,’ and not in a negative way either.
C.A.: We have all of these awesome, post 1959 cigars that have been made in The Dominican, Nicaragua, and Honduras, yet, many cigar smokers continue to be spellbound by Cuban cigars. No doubt, there are still some excellent Cubans to be had, but with the playing field now leveled, is it fair to say that Cuban cigars have finally met their match?
J.F.: I have always believed that. On one hand, it doesn’t matter if it’s big or small, older or newer; you have a lot of creative people who are putting their names on the band and their reputation on the line making cigars outside of Cuba all working towards pleasing a very sophisticated market. On the other hand, you have people that get poorly but steadily paid, no matter what their results are, making cigars for an almost captive clientele. You do the math. Besides, people talk about Cuba like they are talking about a farm but it is a country with good and bad farms like any other. Take the ‘forbidden fruit’ thing out of the equation and Cuba is left with some hard work to do.
C.A.: Are there any other future projects you are working on, either with your team or another manufacturer that you can talk about?
J.F.: I don’t want to advance too many details but we are about to release a new cigar line that I’m eager to share with the smokers out there. It’s made in The D.R. with a really wild combination of tobaccos we have been putting aside for years, but for now, I’ll have to leave it there.
C.A.: Do you feel that the J. Fuego Cigar Company has grown in the way you envisioned, and what’s been the biggest surprise for you?
J.F.: Definitely, yes. When I saw the first cigar magazines from the U.S., a little over 20 years ago in Cuba, my most ambitious dream was one day having the chance of working for one of the cigar makers they wrote about. Now, I’m competing with the same guys I once dreamed of working for, my cigars are getting rated, and my work is being recognized in the same magazines. Then, once in a while, I get lucky and some smoker somewhere decides to make time to smoke one of my cigars when there are so many other options. Talk about surprises . . . only in America, man!