When native New Yorker Jonathan Drew moved to Nicaragua in 1998 with $1,200 to his name to start a premium cigar company, he didn't speak Spanish and he was the only self proclaimed 'gringo' living in cigar making capitol Esteli. He had five employees and often slept on the floor of the little greenhouse that served as his factory. Over the next few years the staff grew from five people to 225 by 2002. Then he fired all his employees. Drew had noticed a serious production problem: cigars were being rolled too tightly to get a good draw. The problem was systemic, and the only solution was to start again by rehiring the employees in small groups and teaching them the right way to do things. Drew enlisted his friend and mentor Ernesto Carillo from La Gloria Cubana, who came to the factory for five days to help train the new staff, sleeping in the factory until the job was done. To this day according to Drew, "We are forever committed to having the best drawing cigars in the industry."
That obsession with doing things the right way is what has earned the Drew Estate brand a cult-like following. Now Drew Estate is the largest factory in Nicaragua and the second largest premium cigar factory in the world. As the brand grew, Nick Perdomo, Sr. from Tabacalera Perdomo allowed Drew to rent a room from him for $25 a month on two conditions: he wasn't allowed to touch the television or the refrigerator. Not only were his days of sleeping on the floor of the factory behind him, but he was also well on his way to building a premium tobacco empire. "We are known for opening people's eyes to the modern artesian culture of premium cigars, which transcends boundaries of urban, country, and suburban lifestyles," says Drew.
While Drew continues to contribute to multiple aspects of the Drew Estate franchise, the company has evolved to a point where it can no longer be led by one person alone. These days President Michael Cellucci oversees the day-to-day operations from the Miami offices. "I've been at the core of Drew Estate for 16 years, but for the last four as president... Rising from sales to VP to President over my tenure has allowed me to learn all aspects of each team and department at Drew Estate. Like my own journey, we have always brought leadership up through the ranks in both Miami and Nicaragua."
Meanwhile in Esteli, trainees start in the back of the training room, a small room compared to the main rolling floor and work their way forward as they learn the process of rolling cigars. After eight months of training, each employee is able to roll 50-75 cigars a day, compared with the 250-375 a day rolled by experienced employees. Yesenia Moncada, perhaps the highest ranking woman in the production side of the cigar industry, sets the production schedule and coordinates all aspects of the Esteli operations of Drew Estate.
Production is broken into different departments and buildings. The 'DE 2' building is the 60,000 sq. ft. pre-industry side of the operation that receives foreign and domestic tobacco. In the fermentation room of this building alone there are over 350,000 lbs. of Connecticut broadleaf wrapper ranging from one day to three years old arranged in 'pilones' fermenting. The fermentation process for typical cigar wrappers involves heat, water, pressure, and airflow. Pilones are constantly monitored for temperature and are rotated and restacked whenever the temperature reaches a given milestone.
The 'Drew 1' building is where the entire production process takes place currently, including the recently released Pappy Van Winkle Barrel Fermented Cigars. Cigars are hand-rolled with a very traditional method in teams of two people - a bunchero and a rollera - with strict quality control measures. "As wild as Drew Estate may appear and as progressive as we are in innovation, everything is very traditional in production scope. We really keep the factory old school," says Drew. Even so, the scale of the operation is vast. Drew Estate averages 4-5 million post-rolled units on hand at any given time throughout the year.
Drew has a knack for finding the right people at the right time, and this is where Drew Estate has changed the industry in so many ways. "It has always been a team effort," says Drew. "While I was the original Master Blender, the baton has been passed along a number of times throughout the last 19 years." The current Master Blender at Drew Estate is Willy Herrera, who had been with the company for only three years before reaching this esteemed position. "This has been like a dream come true. I came on board with Drew Estate to create my own cigar brand in strategic partnership with Drew and ran Titan de Bronze for eight years prior to this opportunity. My two brands really performed well on the market, but being named Master Blender of Drew Estate in its entirety was mind blowing and surreal."
As the business grew exponentially, Drew met Jessi Flores at a gas station and learned he was a prominent graffiti artist in the town. He hired Flores and created Subculture Studios to serve as a design studio for Drew Estate merchandise with Flores at the helm.
Today Subculture Studios employs 45 people, mostly young graffiti artists from the area, giving them an opportunity to put their talents to use in a positive way. "We not only want to utilise their skills but also help change their lives," says Cigar Safari Site Manager Henry Pineda.
Perhaps the most famous quote from the late Julian P. 'Pappy' Van Winkle is, "We make fine Bourbon at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine Bourbon." A partnership between the Van Winkle family and Drew Estate makes perfect sense in this context.
Premium tobacco for the Pappy Van Winkle Barrel Fermented Cigars is grown in Kentucky from Kentucky seed, where it is dark air cured after harvest. Fire curing is the next step, which takes places in Robert Gray's Garnett Farms in South Christian County, Kentucky over the course of 14 days. Fire curing is another old Kentucky invention. According to legend a farmer hung his unsold tobacco in the attic of his log cabin where the smoke from the fireplace rose all winter, creating a popular new product. The tobacco is hung in another barn where a smoldering fire is stoked for two weeks until the tobacco has completed its curing cycle. Fire cured tobacco, not unlike Bourbon, is an early Kentucky settler method of preserving a harvest. The 'Kentucky Fire Cured' series from Drew Estate has been an exemplar of innovation meeting tradition.
The fire cured tobacco is then packed up and shipped to St. James Parrish in New Orleans, Louisiana where it undergoes a process of Perique pressure fermentation in recently emptied used Bourbon barrels, the contents of which were bottled under the Pappy Van Winkle label. Like Bourbon distillation, the 'Perique Fermentation Process' is one that hasn't changed much overall since it was invented. Tobacco is packed tightly in the Bourbon barrels - 500 pounds of tobacco per 53 gallon barrel and pressure is applied from a machine that closely resembles a car jack. The pressure forces air out and the fermentation process begins. Also like the early Bourbon making process, the Perique Fermentation Process yields a release of gasses which causes a hearty bubbling in the barrel. The end product is gooey and almost black and the leaves become very pliable. One key difference in the process is the type of tobacco used. Typical Perique fermented tobacco starts with actual Perique tobacco from St. James Parrish seed; this particular cigar uses Kentucky grown, Kentucky seed tobacco that has been fire cured and then fermented in a Perique process. The process takes one year and the tobacco has to be rotated three times during that year.
The first release of Pappy Van Winkle Barrel Fermented cigars were pre-sold in three batches in 2015 to customers in the United States containing a note that said, 'If you've received a box, you've made history.' There's nothing close to the Pappy Van Winkle Barrel Fermented Cigars line in design, process, flavour, aroma, or taste. It's truly in a class of its own. The second batch will be available in June of 2016, and might include a
Carrie Van Winkle Greener founded Pappy & Co., the merchandise side of the Old Rip Van Winkle family business, two years ago with her sisters. "We create products that have a story, that mean something, and just 'fit in' with our family's Bourbon brand, so cigars were a no brainer," she says. "Bourbon and cigars just go together, and Pappy loved his cigars (as seen on the Pappy Van Winkle labels). We feel extremely lucky to have partnered with Drew Estate and to be collaborating directly with Jonathan Drew. He shares similar values and cares about quality as much as we do, and we have gained a friendship throughout the process. We entrusted him to make a cigar that paired well with Bourbon, and more importantly was really, really good! I remember JD telling me it was the best cigar he'd ever made. I didn't think much of it until our first batch sold out immediately and customers just wanted more. They are something special and something we are all very proud of, so we are excited to be releasing our second batch this summer. The Pappy Van Winkle Barrel Fermented cigars are only available through our website www.pappyco.com."
The success of this new Pappy Van Winkle Barrel Fermented line is certainly no accident - rather it is born of the convergence of two very different traditions which share common roots in the frontier days of Kentucky.