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Getting to interview huge cigar industry big-shots is a very fun part of my job here at BestCigarPrices.com. I genuinely enjoy finding out some interesting stuff about their lives, backgrounds, and their personal methods for creating the cigars we all love so much. I’ve gotten to do a few of them now, and this month’s catalog issue features the most recent one, with Rafael Nodal, President of Habana Cuba Cigars, makers of Oliveros, Swag, and of course our very own Bella Torres among other fine smokes. If you don’t have your issue already, you should be receiving it shortly.
Talking with Mr. Nodal was an absolute blast. He is hilariously funny, very insightful, and boy can he talk! Not to mention how inspiring his story of success is. I was certainly flattered by the amount of time he spent with me, and he is very much a personable guy who made me feel comfortable and at ease.
Unfortunately, due to space constraints in the catalog I had to cut a couple of questions out, but since there are no storage restrictions on the internet I thought I’d post the full transcript here for anyone who is interested in hearing even more of the story. I hope you all enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed talking with Mr. Nodal.
Rafael: I was born in Cuba, and my family grew tobacco there. I moved to the United States and studied music in New York City before moving to Miami and working at a hospital. There I met Hank Bischoff, and he was really into cigars. He introduced me to Nick Perdomo, and that was when I began smoking cigars again. Hank and I opened a small online retail store that sold mostly boutique brands from Miami. Oliveros was one of our best selling brands. We sold so much Oliveros that eventually they brought us on as consultants. Then in February of 2002, the owners decided to close the company. Instead of letting them close, we took the company over, and the rest is history.
Travis: Interesting, I’ve actually read before that you’re an accomplished pianist and violinist – do you ever wish you’d stuck with music instead of cigars?
Rafael: Life is very interesting. I began studying music when I was six, and I continued to study in New York at the Manhattan School of Music. However, my family wanted to be in Miami, not New York. I did what was best for my family, and we came to Miami, but there was nothing here for me musically. The reality of being an immigrant hit home for me then, so I did what I had to do to support my family. I still play from time to time; I am working on a CD based on my love for Cuban music and how it ties into the cigar industry. I do go to concerts, and sometimes I think, “That could have been me.” I worked very hard, six to seven hours a day as musician, but its nothing compared to what I do now. This is a lot more work than being a musician. It is by far the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, but also the most enjoyable.
Travis: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in building your company?
Rafael: There have been two major challenges in building Habana Cuba into what it is today. The first was the small factory that was in place when we took over the company. The size limited our ability to produce enough cigars to meet the growing demand. In 2004, we opened a brand new facility in the Dominican Republic. It centralized the operations of the company, allowed us to store a much greater amount of tobacco and most importantly allowed us to make many more cigars.
The second challenge was overcoming Oliveros’ image as a “flavored only” brand. The new factory was also a major factor in meeting this challenge. With the ability to create blends from a wide variety of tobaccos, we first made the Oliveros Classic Collection, followed by the XL line. These premium blends earned us the respect of non-flavored smokers and proved that we could make complex and innovative blends.
Travis: Is there a difference between blending a flavored cigar and a non-flavored cigar?
Rafael: We look for different qualities of tobacco when making different kinds of cigars. Flavored cigars do not have to be low quality cigars mixed with flavor. Our goal has always been to make true premium cigars that also have flavor added. For flavored blends, we typically start with mellow tobacco so as not to overwhelm the flavor. We then start flavoring all cigars with a technique developed by Oliveros well before Hank and I took over the company. We start with red wine from Spain, and mix it with molasses and honey. We let this mixture age and ferment, then we apply it to a Dominican Olor tobacco leaf that has great aroma and combustion. Once we add the mixture to the leaf, we age it for three months and then roll the cigars, adding more of the sweet mixture at the same time. At this point we add in whatever the actual flavor of the cigar will be. Starting with this baseline mixture gives the flavored cigars a sweet taste, and also allows the smoker to really taste the flavor that we infuse the cigar with.
Travis: I hope you didn’t just give up too many of your trade secrets! How about letting us know what goes in to selecting a non-flavored tobacco blend and creating a new premium brand, specifically our Bella Torres?
Rafael: Blending premium cigars is our passion. This is what my family has done for generations. First we decide what qualities we want in a particular cigar. These days we are looking for a foundation with a good strong body, but that will also be flavorful and have a good aroma. The average cigar consumer’s tastes have matured and evolved, so they can appreciate more complex blends that allow strength and flavor to marry. When we know what we want, we then test a huge amount of different tobacco. We currently have tobacco from 16 different countries in our warehouse, which allows us a nearly infinite amount of potential combinations. Much trial and error goes into finding the perfect blend.
The Bella Torres specifically was an interesting project for us. We were creating a cigar that had characteristics of a Habana Cuba premium, but also taking into account Best Cigar Prices’ ideals of what your customers wanted. We started the blend totally from scratch, not using any previous ideas. I began by selecting the outstanding Cuban-seed Dominican Habano wrapper that brings a tremendous amount of flavor to the cigar. At the time, we were experimenting with a lot of Peruvian tobacco. Tobacco from Peru brings great flavors, and is also very well balanced. This made it a natural fit, since we were also using Nicaraguan tobacco grown in volcanic soil that brings a very distinct flavor profile to the cigar. The Peruvian tobacco balanced out the Habano wrapper and Nicaraguan filler, and put the finishing touch on the blend. The end result is a medium bodied cigar, but one that still brings strength along with a complex and multidimensional flavor.
Travis: What is your favorite aspect of the Bella Torres?
Rafael: I think that Bella Torres is a cigar for connoisseurs. Of course it’s enjoyable for any smoker, but people who can really appreciate the subtle flavors will especially enjoy this smoke. If you get the right balance of sweetness, spice and flavor, you make a cigar that enhances the smoking experience. I think we have succeeded in doing so, and the complexity is what draws me to this blend.
Travis: If you were going to suggest a cigar to a smoker that hadn’t tried a Habana Cuba product before, which would you choose and why?
Rafael: That’s like picking my favorite child! It is difficult because they are all very unique, and each product was blended to fit a specific need. Right now, I would either choose either the King Havano or the new Swag. The King Havano uses all Nicaragua Ligero tobacco, which makes for a strong and complex smoke. I also would suggest it because the 3 wrapper shades give lots of options for someone to find the right one for them. The Swag just got a 90 rating, so the critics are enjoying it. All the tobacco used in the Swag comes from the same farm in the Dominican Republic, which makes it a very unique cigar. We are very proud of it, and I think it shows what our company is capable of in a premium smoke.
Travis: Speaking of Swag, as marketing guy myself, I really appreciate the edgy marketing plan behind the Swag brand. What was the inspiration?
Rafael: It’s not only about making a great cigar. For Swag, we tried to create a complete concept behind the brand. Marketing is one of the 3 elements to really bring a cigar to the consumer, and so we really made an effort to back a unique cigar offering with a concept that would appeal to the next generation of cigar smokers.
Travis: What does Habana Cuba have in store for us in 2011?
Rafael: 2011 is going to be an outstanding year. We want to continue to build and innovate with new blends, like Bella Torres and Swag and King Havano. We also want to expand on that with new offerings, like Swag Maduro and some of the new BCP brands we’ve been talking about. Overall, my main goal is to continue innovating, and continue to offer quality cigars at great prices.
Travis: What is your take on the growing taxation and legislation currently happening in the cigar industry? Where will it end?
Rafael: These are the best of times, and the worst of times. If you’re a cigar smoker today, you have access to the best era in tobacco history. You’re getting better cigars and more choices than ever before. On the other hand, it is the worst time in the history of the industry for regulations. I consider the government of the United States to be my biggest competitor. We have to survive in spite of smoking bans, taxes, and the way we are viewed by the government. The government wants us to pay higher and higher taxes, and at the same time gives us fewer opportunities to smoke. We are fighting back as best we can. The Cigar Rights of America group is doing a great job letting people know that we do not want more government interference. As a whole, I think the industry is moving in the right direction. Better cigars, better packaging and more choices make me optimistic about the future of our industry. If we continue to work towards the goal of bringing great cigars to the customers, we can work with the customers to fight unfair government regulations.
Travis: Do you have a personal favorite cigar?
Rafael: I smoke a lot of cigars. I actually think I need to smoke a little less. I smoke about 15 cigars a day, mostly our products, testing new blends, that sort of thing. The rest are cigars from other companies. It’s hard to pick one favorite. Two come to mind right now – Swag, which I am enjoying very much. I know it sounds over the top for this interview, but the other is really the Bella Torres. I think the mix of the blend is very complex and appealing to my palette. I actually had a couple stick with me the other day when I went to visit a cigar shop to pitch some of our products. The owner saw the Bella Torres, and I had to tell him I couldn’t sell him what I was smoking! So Bella Torres and Swag are two brands I’ve been enjoying recently, but my favorites change all the time.
Travis: Any final comments?
Rafael: What the consumer is getting by purchasing Bella Torres and BCP blends is an opportunity to try great cigars with innovative blends at great prices. I salute BCP for bringing many great new choices for the consumer, keep up the good work. It was a pleasure to make a blend for you that I personally enjoy so much. For all the smokers out there, I encourage you to keep enjoying fine cigars, and join the Cigar Rights of America. We need to stand up for our personal liberties, and together we can keep the government from taking more control over our industry.