Cigars & Whisky

The spirit of Oliva

The story of The Oliva Cigar Company is one of family, tradition and expert craftsmanship
By Christopher Coates
The story of the Oliva cigar company begins in 1886, when Melanio Oliva grew tobacco in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio region. Following in his footsteps, the subsequent generations of the Oliva family learned from their patriarch and continued to take the path he had forged. Unfortunately, like many of his generation, Melanio’s grandson Gilberto Oliva was forced to leave his fields and his home in the late 1950s and make a new life for himself in Nicaragua. Thankfully, the climate and soils of this new home nation were perfect for continuing the Oliva family’s tobacco-growing legacy.

The following decades held a number of ups and downs for the family, but they persevered. Then, during the ‘cigar boom’ of the 1990s, the fourth generation of the family, who had been raised in the USA, decided to take the family’s collective knowledge and high-quality tobacco, and launch a cigar brand. The Oliva Cigar Company had been born. Though the highs of the 90s didn’t last, this new enterprise continued to impress cigar enthusiasts and gradually gained recognition as one of the leading New World producers.

In 2016, the Belgian cigar company J. Cortès, which was founded in 1926, acquired the Oliva Cigar Company. This union saw two historic, family-owned companies joined by a shared passion for quality tobacco. The legacy of the Vandermarliere family, J. Cortès is a producer of quality machine-made cigars and cigarillos, and is well known for its celebrated J. Cortès and Neos brands. Today, two great-grandsons of tobacco visionaries, Jose Oliva and Fred Vandermarliere, work together to bring quality hand-rolled cigars to smokers on both sides of the Atlantic.

This is a story that Oliva’s export manager and travel retail coordinator Thomas Gryson, who is also the founder of cigar experience company O My Cigar (www.omycigar.com), has been sharing since joining the company in 2013. We caught up with him at TFWA Cannes to learn more.

Where did your cigar journey begin?

“The Gryson family name is well known in the tobacco industry. After WWII, Mr André Gryson and Mrs Angele Vandemergel founded the Gryson Tobacco Factory, which in 1984 was sold to Mr Guido Vandermarliere of J. Cortès – so you could say the cigar industry is in my blood! I’ve worked in the industry for more than 10 years and I’m fascinated by the art of producing and smoking cigars. I’ve had the privilege of learning the industry inside out.”

For you, what are the key things that stand out about the Oliva and J. Cortès cigar companies?

“Quality and consistency is what we do. We sell craftsmanship and products with true heritage. Though we live in a time when the tobacco industry is faced by a number of regulatory challenges, the high-end cigar category is growing, thanks to brands like Oliva that offer quality products backed up by an authentic identity.”

Has much changed at Oliva in the time you’ve worked with the brand?

“Since J. Cortès acquired Oliva in 2016, we’ve certainly narrowed the portfolio, to make it more clear and concise. However, Gilberto and José Oliva are still very much involved in the company and nothing has changed in terms of quality and how the cigars are produced. We’ve also championed consumer education and embraced new technology to do that. For example, we were one of the first cigar companies to use virtual reality (VR) technology, which helps us to share the Oliva story with our customers. This VR course is now available online.”

Smoking habits are changing, how has this impacted Oliva?

“The tobacco landscape has definitely changed, as part of a general shift in consumer preferences in favour of quality. The days of sinking lots of cheap beers and smoking a pack of cigarettes will soon be gone. Instead, customers would rather drink four craft beers or a couple of fine whiskies and smoke one quality cigar. This is part of a wider shift in preferences toward ‘less but better’ and authentic brands that help consumers express their identities. People are now much more discerning about the brands that they engage with and by choosing brands with genuine heritage they tell the world something about themselves.”

Are consumers becoming more open to New World cigars?

"Though mature cigar markets outside of the USA are still quite focussed on Cuban cigars and many of the developing markets, such as Asia, tend to prefer very well-known brands, consumer preferences in Europe and the US are definitely shifting to more niche and often New World brands.

Further, the company’s commitment to quality and consistency has helped build a degree of confidence in Oliva that Cuban brands can’t always deliver. Our cigars have a reputation for reliability, as well as great flavour, because every Oliva cigar is draw tested to ensure it will burn perfectly.

As people have less and less time to smoke cigars these days, it is becoming more of an occasional indulgence and that means the cigar chosen must perfectly enhance the experience and never disappoint. This shift in the cigar-smoking landscape has definitely brought many smokers to Oliva!"

The Master's Legacy
Oliva Serie V Melanio Figurado and Tomatin 40 Years Old

The Serie V Melanio series is the undisputed jewel in the Oliva crown. Hand rolled using long filler tobacco, the binder and filler blend is made up of Oliva Nicaraguan Habano that is characterised by tobacco from the Jalapa region. Meanwhile, the wrapper leaf is a proprietary seed grown by Oliva in Ecuador. Though presented in six different sizes, all of which are beautifully box pressed, I chose the figurado (6.5” RG52) to pair with the Tomatin 40 Years old.

Pre-light notes of dark chocolate, espresso and a slight herbaceousness hint at what’s to come. The first third opens with sweet Turkish coffee, pistachio and hint of both clove and cinnamon. It's very dessert-like. Strength is medium, mouthfeel is full bodied and smoke production is superb.

During the second and final third, strength builds somewhat but lingers at the higher end of medium. A more savoury note enters the equation, along with a return of the dark chocolate.

The tropical (mango, pineapple) and peach notes of the Tomatin 40 Years Old serve well to cut through the cigar’s heavier flavours, while its somewhat green (tomato stem) background notes on the finish help tie in similar aspects that play at the edges of the smoke. This pairing is well worth your time.