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Lessons From Cusano: Bringing Upward Mobility to Independent Cigar Makers

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Both cigar retailers and producers are basking in the warm sun of rising cigar sales. As stalwarts like Altadis, USA continue to report solid growth in their earnings, independent cigar makers like Cusano and Alec Bradley are having to hire more employees to meet demand. These independent producers are discovering they are part of a changing world in which the newest cigar smokers — a growing population of twenty-something aficionados — are looking at them not as fringe independents, but creators of some of the highest rated smokes around. After hundreds of years of dominance by entrenched name brands, the independent cigar makers have finally found a way to garner upward mobility.

The result of all this is not unlike what has happened to the wine world in the last thirty years. Just as wine drinkers are realizing you don’t have to go to the entrenched omnipresent regions of France to find great wine, cigar smokers are discovering that the highest quality handmade cigars are not necessarily from Cuba. The Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua and other countries are doing for cigars what Napa Valley, Australia, and Chile have done for wine. Leading the charge to pioneer distinctive cigar tastes and styles in these areas are the independent producers like Cusano, Alec Bradley and others.

Cusano, for example, smuggled tobacco out of Cuba and blended it with their own strains to create a remarkably distinct and full flavor for its Cusano Corojo 97′. The 97′ along with the Cusano 18 both received a 91 rating from Cigar Aficionado, an accomplishment that puts them in the top 1% of all cigars rated. This comes from a company that had six employees a year ago (that number has now more than doubled).

Certainly there are a number of factors that converged to help these independents get their foot in the door. The 90s cigar boom saw such an explosive increase in sales that it was easy for start-ups to get investment capital and begin making some money. The natural result of this was that thousands of low-quality cigar makers materialized to cash in on the buying frenzy, nearly all of which are now defunct. But the few producers with vision were given the opportunity to get started and now that vision is paying off.

It has also helped a great deal that the dawn of the information age coincided with the cigar boom. Buzz that was nearly impossible to create pre-Internet seemed to propagate itself through cigar forums, blogs, websites, and email. Independents no longer needed a mammoth marketing budget to launch new products and get them recognized. The Internet, in turn, has helped bring distinctive, independently produced cigars to the attention of major publications like Cigar Aficionado and Robb Magazine. A single mention in a feature article means phones are ringing off the hook, and that means more money for independents to grow and continue to explore their vision.

Now add to these factors that independent producers tend to be younger and more innovative and thus eager to tap into new markets like flavored cigars and viral Internet marketing. It begins to become clear that these are the businesses that will lead the cigar industry in coming years, rather than the behemoths that are content to do business the way it’s been done for centuries.

As this new era of independent cigar production dawns, it’s comforting to know that most of the producers are cigar hobbyists just like their customers — that they understand cigars and will continue to bring their best to the table. Getting a top quality cigar for less than $5 a stick that happens to not be Cuban is certainly something every cigar smoker can appreciate, and getting more of them in the future is something we can all look forward to. When has there been a better time to be a cigar smoker?

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About Matthew Rosen