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Written by Kevin Godbee

Thursday, 22 December 2005

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Drew Estate Interview with Steve Saka – December 2005

The Drew Estate line of cigars was introduced to the market in 2000. Cigar smoker’s opinions of the line are usually polarized, but one thing is undisputable. The Drew Estate line is most certainly unique.
Drew Estate Logo
Before Drew Estate hit the market, “flavored cigars” were shunned by most consumers of premium handmade cigars. Historically, flavored cigars had flavor added to them to cover up inferior tobacco and catered to the less sophisticated palate. A “true cigar enthusiast” wouldn’t be caught dead smoking a “flavored cigar”. Then came Drew Estate. The company does not market their product as flavored cigars, but rather as “infused cigars”. Flavors are not added to cover up inferior tobacco.

The Drew Estate line is made of the highest quality tobaccos and the “flavoring” comes from an infusion of high quality, natural herbs and oils. The actual ingredients and blending “recipes” are kept highly secret. Unlike some other cigar manufacturers, Drew Estate does not offer tours of their factory. Over 200 different herbs and oils are used in the production of the various product lines, but the rest of the blending process is highly guarded.

Cigars have a long history. Most cigar manufacturers connote the “days of old” in their packaging, advertising and marketing. Drew Estate has once again broken the mold. The words that come to mind when looking at the Drew Estate packaging and branding are; “Cool”, “Wild”, “Rock ‘N Roll”, “Party”, “Hip Hop” …all with a youthful appeal.Steve Saka, President of Drew Estate These are words you do not usually associate with the stereotypical, old bald guy smoking a cigar. To find out more about the past, present and future of Drew Estate, Inc., I spoke to the President of the company here in Miami, Steve Saka.

Cigar Review: Drew Estate hit the market with something totally unique and continues to innovate. What was the impetus for launching the company and product line?

Steve: Drew Estate began as a retail cigar kiosk in the World Trade Center in mid-nineties owned fifty-fifty by Jonathan Drew and Marvin Samel. Wanting to offer something unique to their daily clientele, they introduced their own handmade brand La Vieja Habana made by a local NYC roller name Antonio Almanzar. It is from this seed of their first brand that Drew Estate has grown into the company it is today. As for the “impetus”, I believe it is the same reason why any of us get into the cigar business: they loved cigars and they loved being with people who shared their passion. Most outsiders think the cigar business is easy, but just the opposite is true. You are constantly bombarded with agricultural problems, legislative attacks and working with third world factories and their governments. Success is not assured; in fact, look at how many companies went the wayside after the boom. There are much easier ways to make money; those of us in the cigar business are in it because we love it and it is no different for Drew Estate.

As for the products, most of our lines, with the exceptions of La Vieja Habana and Natural, are infused with unique organic herbs, botanicals and extracts we create in our own factory. The cigar business is squarely owned by the “old guard.” It is one thing to create a brand and import a cigar made by a long standing manufacturer, while it is an entirely different magnitude of difficulty to actually open and operate a new cigar factory on your own in country like Nicaragua as did Drew Estate. Competing head to head with many-generation-owned family factories would be fiscal suicide and much to Drew Estate’s credit they realized this and decided to create something different… A flavored cigar that wasn’t just cheap tobacco with some artificial flavors developed in a NJ laboratory slapped on…Rather to secure the best black tobaccos possible, infuse them with the highest quality natural extracts and roll only the highest of quality of cigars from it. In short, we created the premium infused cigar. By doing so, we were not competing directly head to head with anyone, it was genuinely a new product, one which many in the biz thought would fail, myself included, but they proved all of us wrong. It turns out there is a vast group of cigar smokers that enjoy the unique sensations Drew Estate’s cigars provide them, in fact, our products have become so popular that many other newer and “old guard” companies are now attempting to create their own premium flavored cigars to compete with us. Truth be told, we don’t mind the competition, we are secure in knowing that our infused products are better and are confident that consumers can tell the difference.
Drew Estate Natural Cigars

Cigar Review: Your unique infused flavorings and branding seem to cater to a non-traditional, younger market. I am guessing that you may have the highest percentage of the 20-something market in cigars, and maybe the highest percentage of the female market as well?

Steve: It seems logical that 20-somethings and women would be our core consumer, but it turns out the reality is that ACID has a much wider appeal. Our offices are dotted with photos of sixty year old guys who swear Kuba Kuba is the favorite smoke! It is all a matter of taste; people choose what suits them best and really couldn’t care less about tags like “traditional, infused, aromatic, etc.” If the cigar brings them pleasure, then they will buy it and enjoy it. It is true that 20-something cigar smoker is more willing to try an ACID than a fifty-something one, but that can be said of all brands. Some brands appeal more to the suit and tie types while others seem better for rugged individualist. As to where a brand like ACID fits into that equation, I have no clue nor do I really care, ideally what I want is for everyone to give our cigars a try and decide for themselves. If they suit them, great, if not, we understand and hopefully someday we will make one that does. By the way, most people assume that all of our brands are like the infused ACID, but this is not the case. For example, Natural is a totally non-flavored cigar, its different flavors are derived by the use of unique tobaccos like Perique and Latakia being blended with traditional cigar tobaccos.

Cigar Review: Do you think Drew Estate can be looked at as beneficial to the growth of the cigar market as a whole because you market to a crowd that perhaps wouldn’t try a more traditional style cigar? Sort of growing new cigar enthusiasts from a new pool of consumers?

Steve: Retailers tell us that we help to bring new business into their stores. This is good for us, it is good for them and most importantly, it is good for cigar smokers. If there was ever a time in our history where we need to stand together, this is it. Our local and state governments are going crazy with their legislative attacks, not a week goes by where there isn’t some sort of new tax, law, or restriction on our rights being introduced. All of us here at Drew Estate are proud that we help to strengthen our base.

Cigar Review: Do you have an idea of how many “cross-over” smokers you may have? For example, what percentage of Drew Estate smokers are strictly into your style of infused smokes and what percentage of your smokers enjoy both Drew Estate and other more traditionally flavored cigars? (I am one of those cross-over smokers by the way.)

Steve: Everything we know about this is anecdotal. From what we are told and have seen, there seems to be more and more crossover smokers, many of them being guys who regularly smoke a more traditional product, but like to take an occasional walk over to the dark side to challenge their palate. Because of how popular our brands have become people often forget we are a young, growing company. Not only do we not study this sort of data, we have no way to collect it. We are too busy buying and working tobacco and improving our cigars to even dream about getting into data collection and analysis. Plus I am not sure we would want to know, having too much data starts to skew what you do, instead of doing things from instinct you end up doing things because of the numbers. To me this ruins it, everything is better if it comes from the heart.

Cigar Review: How are the responsibilities divided up between yourself, Jonathan Drew and Marvin Samel? I met Marvin at a cigar event earlier in the year and his business card reads, “Founder / Executive VP”. I would have thought Jonathan Drew’s card would say “Founder”?Kevin Godbee & Marvin Samel

Steve: (laughing) Man, what a busy body question… tsk tsk! Truth is you have to put something on business cards, but in the end they really don’t mean squat. People in the biz already know who is who, so almost all the cards are handed out to consumers. Jon and Marvin are equal partners; they share equally in all decisions. Jon deals more so with the tobacco and the factory, while Marvin concentrates more on the business aspects. As for where I fit in, I am squashed between the two. My duty is to help improve the company at all levels and to provide guidance for both Jon and Marvin. I am basically suppose to be the wise, old guy – did they get snookered or what? (Smiling) Currently I have my fingers into nearly everything, from cigar development to intellectual property.

Cigar Review: For those readers that haven’t yet tried Drew Estate, but would like to, which cigars would you recommend for the different levels of body different smokers enjoy, from light, medium to full-bodied?

Steve: Almost all of our current cigars are mild to medium in body. For us one of the most important issues is draw, we are emphatic about our cigars having an easy draw – there is nothing worse than a cigar that fights you as you smoke it. Basically, here is a short list of what I personally think are the best cigar within each of the brands to try.

Within ACID, the very popular Kuba Kuba is a mild-medium bodied robusto with an extra sweet flavor and aroma, the Extra Ordinary Larry is a monster of a smoke that is heavily infused, Cold Infusion Tea is a subtle smoke with a green tea leaf like infusion to my palate, and finally ACID One, which in my opinion is the best, is a Cameroon wrapped belicoso whose black tobaccos have been cased in red wines from France, Italy, Chile and California.

Within Natural, the hands down favorite with consumers are the Root, Clean Robusto and Dirt. Dirt is a sweet maddie petite corona with a great aroma, the Clean Robusto is an excellent, mild cigar that shows tremendous balance with intricate, subtle nuances and the Root is one of our most “traditional-like” smokes. It is a very smooth, medium bodied Nicaraguan black tobacco blend spiced with Perique and Latakia capped in a rich broadleaf wrapper. The new Dirt Torpedo is proving to be very popular with smokers.

Probably our strongest cigars are the La Vieja Habana fumas with the Corojo wrapper. These are mixed filler cigars handcrafted from a blend of non-infused trimmings. This is one of the few fuller bodied fumas on the market, a great value choice with a lot of flavor. 

Kahlua Cigars by Drew EstateWe are very proud of our Kahlua infused cigars. We are honored that Allied Domecq chose us to be the manufacture of their brand within the cigar market. It says a lot about the quality of our infusion process and our cigars that our small company would be chosen to bring this world renowned brand to cigar smokers. While this is not likely to be a choice of most traditional cigar guys, it is hard not to appreciate how well we manage to incorporate that classic Kahlua flavor and aroma into this smoke.

We are also the makers of Ambrosia which is a line of cigars spiced with a wide variety of exotic natural ingredients. Although not one of our biggest sellers, it has a very loyal following particularly, the 5 x 42 Nectar.

This year we delivered the first of the Sauza tequila infused cigars. I can’t even describe this cigar, it is definitely different. Very smooth, has kind of a butter-like flavor, but the tequila is definitely there. In fact the other day we were sampling the new Sauza Hornitos while drinking shots of the same, it was amazing just how close the flavors and sensations were. Now whether this is a good thing, I dunno… (laughing)


Cigar Review: Since your cigars have such unique tastes, are there any special drink accompaniments you would recommend with different Drew smokes?

Steve: Naw, drink what you like. I know I do…

Cigar Review: What are your three favorite Drew Estate smokes?

Steve: I knew this question would eventually come up and here is a statement I guarantee you would never get from any other cigar company’s president: I seldom smoke any of our cigars for pleasure. Anyone that remotely knows me knows that I am total cigar junkie who definitely prefers to herf strong, habana-style smokes. One of my personal talents has always been able to find the good and bad in any smoke regardless of my own tastes, I can appreciate a cigar as being good while understanding that it is not necessarily for me. So while I can see the appeal in a Kuba Kuba or a Blackout, I am never going to be the guy smoking either of them, they just don’t suit my personal taste.

What actually made me even consider taking this partnership position in Drew Estate is a cigar Jon gave me well over three years ago nicknamed “HEX.” It was a traditional blend he was working on from a variety of small tobacco lots in his possession. The result was dark, rich, satisfying and delicious. He knew my tastes and he gave them to me as a personal gift, and every time I smoked one I couldn’t help but think, “Damn, this guy can really make cigars…” One of Jon’s strengths is that he is not limited by tradition or any sort of cigar making dogma, he is always willing to try something new and different. And from this he created these amazing cigars. The bad part was he was soon out of the leaf needed and this amazing smoke was as quickly gone as it had arrived. But what that cigar showed me was promise; it let me know that Jonathan Drew had tremendous potential.

Since my arrival at Drew Estate, we have all been working feverishly on a wide array of blends and procuring aged tobaccos to add to our existing inventories. From this effort we have already created some very smokable blends, so for me my three favorite Drew Estate cigars are ones we internally call “ligas privada”, which means private blends. We smoke the bulk of these ourselves, myself consuming the lion’s share, with very few being shared – there simply are not enough of them. We have no current intention on marketing these, these are all works in progress and truth be told, as long as I can get my ration I am a happy man, so selling them is the least of my concerns. Selfish? Maybe, but there are some perks to having a cigar factory at your personal disposal…

Just so I don’t seem like I am dodging the question, here are the three cigars I would suggest a traditional cigar guy tries: ACID One, Natural Root and La Vieja Habana Rothschild Luxo. These three smokes will give you a great snapshot of three of our biggest selling brands.


Cigar Review: When I met Marvin in August 2005, it was at a Rocky Patel event. Marvin was there promoting the new Java by Drew Estate. Can you tell us about the Java cigar and the relationship with Rocky Patel?Java Cigars by Drew Estate & Rocky Patel

Steve: Java may be our best infused cigar. It is amazing the richness and texture of this cigar’s body. It strikes a perfect balance between the black tobaccos and the infusion where both can be enjoyed without encroaching on the other. Rocky Patel is our partner in this project and is its distributor. Anyone that knows Rocky knows just how damn picky he is about his cigars, and I think it says a lot about the quality of the cigars that he is willing to put his name along side ours and strongly support the product.

Cigar Review: How did you get started in the cigar industry? Tell us about Cigar Nexus, JR Cigars and about you being the first on the Internet to use the term "dog rocket" regarding a cigar.

Steve: Wow… to answer this question faithfully would require a day of good cigars and many bottles of single malt! Let me see if I can condense this… I had no intentions of getting into the cigar business. For me cigars were a passion, more than that, and all out obsession. For twenty years I would seek out every cigar to try, read everything written including century old texts and relish in talking with cigar makers and tobacco men. I tried to absorb everything I could about tobacco and cigars to feed my personal curiosity. Then the cigar and internet boom coincided and I learned via a UseNet newsgroup alt.smokers.cigars that I not only was I not the only cigar whacko on the planet, but that there were a bunch of us. I became a rabid poster, I don’t even know how many posts I wrote, and it was from this that I began to host herfs and share what I had learned over the years with others. Next thing you know, myself and few friends, John Chunko and Jonnie Zunski, started CigarNexus.com which gave me even a broader platform from which people could read my writings. I am still proud of the work we did on that site and am amazed by how many people still read it. This then led to my being personally offered a job by Lew Rothman of JR Cigar who is one of greatest cigar men in history. His impact on our industry is immeasurable. I learned a great deal from working for Lew for which I will always be grateful. And now I am here at the helm of Drew Estate, a young vibrant company whose whole future is before them. So basically, I just kind of meandered my way into it. 

As for my being first at anything, that can be debated. I don’t know if it is possible to be first at anything anymore, but to my knowledge I was the first to use it on the Internet. I however did not coin the phrase, but rather credit is due a USN Senior Chief.

I began smoking cigars while in the Navy back in 1985 or so. I was a young Third Class Petty Officer attached to the USS Connole FF-1056. It was an active duty anti-sub fast frigate that was constantly at sea - easily 8-9 months a year as part of Reagan's 600 ship Navy. Anyhow there was one Senior Chief Gunner on the ship who was a huge cigar fan, and almost every sunset he and others would gather on the fantail (back end) to smoke a cigar or two while we were at sea. He was a crusty old character full of stories and lies, and I use to really relish going to join the group for a smoke whenever I wasn't on watch or behind work-wise. He was our resident cigar, quim, and general life expert. 

We had this new Annapolis grad Ensign assigned to our ship in 1987(?) that was an absolute prick. He thought everyone that was enlisted was scum, and treated all of us junior petty officers very poorly - I was a second class at this time. Even the senior officers hated this guy. We called him not so affectionately Ensign Weasel - plus some other names. Anyhow one evening we are all standing on fantail smoking and lying during the middle of a long Med-Cruise - six months tour - and here comes Ensign Weasel with a yellow box of cigars. We all thought that maybe he was coming to join us??? Of course not...

Ensign Weasel: "Gunny I bought this box of cigars for my future father-in-law while we were in France, they are suppose to be good, but I feel like the store might of taken me - would you try one for me and tell me what you think? I would, but I don't smoke..."

Senior: "No problem Sir, but won't your bride's Dad be mad one is missing?"

Ensign: "Not as upset if I gave him a really lousy box of cigars - I will tell him I had you try one."

Senior lays his bundled maduro robusto down and selects one of the torps form the Ensign's box, he looks at it, takes a smell, then bites the cap off and lights it. He takes a draw, and gets a funny looks on his face, then takes another and damn near spits it out. As he tosses the barely smoked cigar of the back into the water he exclaims, "Sir, this is one of the worst G'Damn DOG ROCKETS I have ever put in mouth!!! How much did you pay for these Stinking Turds?!?!"

Weasel's face dropped, and you could see the anger building as the thought of him getting taken advantage of became crystal clear in his pathetic whitebread mind. He swore some, then was about to toss the entire box off the back.

Senior quickly raised his hand, "Whoa Sir - don't toss those, those would make a great joke for the Chief Lounge! Let me use them to gig the Chiefs, and when we pull into Spain I will go cigar shopping with you, and we can pick out a great box of cigars for your Dad." 

Personally we were all surprised to hear Senior offer to help this prick, as was the Ensign. Some cordial banter followed with him quickly agreeing to the offer, Senior got the box of "dog rockets", and the Ensign walked away saying "thank you" to Senior for his promise of help. Even Ensign Weasel realized how important being a friend of the SC was onboard.

Once out of sight, Senior opened the box and said, "Here ya' go boys, smoke your first Cuban cigar..." with a sly grin.

It was a box of Cuban Diplomaticos No. 2s. and it was the best smoke I had ever smoked at the time - far better than Senior's bundled el'cheapos.


Cigar Review: What is your perspective on the current status of the Cigar Industry?

Steve: Scary. As an industry we are healthy, most of the fly-by-night types are long gone and the quality of tobacco and cigars being offered to the consumer are of exceptional quality. Plus the diversity of product is amazing; I don’t know if there has ever been a time in America where the cigar smoking public had a better selection of fairly-priced, high quality cigars to choose from. The scary part is the taxes and the constant barrage of new anti-tobacco legislation, not a week seems to go by where I don’t receive an email from the CAA (Cigar Association of America – a political action group that lobbies on behalf of the cigar industry and cigar smoker’s rights) detailing some new atrocity upon our liberty. I often find myself wondering if it will ever end. I can not emphasis how important it is for everyone to get involved and let their local and state politicians know their feelings when these issues arise in their own locals.

Cigar Review: What can we look forward to in the future from Drew Estate? Can you tell us of any new cigars coming out in the coming months or year?

Steve: For the ACID guys, we will be releasing the long awaited ACID 5 in March. This is a very limited initial production of just 5,000 boxes of robustos and torpedos made from five year old leaf with the ACID Limited infusion. Most of these boxes have already been sold to retailers, so if this is something you are interested in I suggest you ask your local store if they have preordered these. We have other major releases slated for 2006 both infused and traditional, but I would rather keep them close to the vest at this point. It is all too easy to hype a new product, in fact, most companies do, but I prefer for us to make the cigars first before telling consumers what they are and why we consider them worthy of trying and to then just let them decide for themselves. Some might regard this as naïve, but just as I faith in this company’s future, I have equal faith in cigar smoker’s being to separate the wheat from the chaff. In the end, I don’t believe that ads, ratings, free bobble heads and all that other nonsense mean squat, the truth is always in the smoke.

Check out the Drew Estate Web Site - Click Here
Drew Estate Web Site

 

Kevin Godbee
Kevin Godbee
Editor & Publisher
Cigar-Review.com

 




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