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Once Thought to be on the Road to Extinction, Boutique Cigars are Making a Comeback

by Andy Marinkovich

With so many new cigar brands having perished in the market slowdown over the past year, one might be surprised to learn there are still many more brands available today than there were before the cigar boom. The trick is finding them. These survivors, in addition to a few brave souls just now entering the cigar game, are proving that a cigar company doesn't need exceedingly deep pockets or widespread name recognition to gain loyal customers.

Today, "boutique" cigar brands - defined here as brands with a production of less than 1.5 million sticks per year - are filling a niche in the American cigar market. Much as micro-brews broadened the domestic beer market, the presence of these brands enhances the array of high-quality choices available to cigar lovers. And, despite the doom-sayers who predict that any cigar not named Fuente, Macanudo, or Davidoff won't survive the market purge, these boutique operations are all looking to the future with unfettered optimism.

So how have some boutique cigar makers survived the hostile market conditions, while so many others have perished, and why are the survivors so upbeat? SMOKE recently visited with four prominent boutique cigar manufacturers to find the answers....

The quaint Moore & Bode operation in Miami's Little Havana might possibly be the quintessential boutique cigar company. Owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team of Robert Bode and Sharon Moore, the concept for Moore & Bode Cigars sprouted in 1984, motivated by the couple's distaste for the Cuban government, which was at the time holding Bode's brother against his will. The idea of manufacturing a product to compete with Cuban cigars as a form of active protest appealed to them, despite their lack of background in tobacco. In 1990, after six years of intense preparation, the company opened its doors.

Armed with one cigar roller and one blend for their line of cigars (called "Miami"), Moore & Bode got a big boost early on from a Miami Herald article about the fledgling company, which focused on the fact that Moore is a woman and not of Hispanic origin - a rather unique pedigree for a cigar manufacturer at the time. "A lot of women read the piece and suggested that their husbands come by our factory," Moore points out. Most notably, a Canadian diplomat and some movers and shakers from Los Angeles became Moore & Bode converts and helped to spread the word in their respective circles. Through word-of-mouth and grass roots-style promotions, Moore & Bode gradually established a legion of followers attracted to the company's exquisitely crafted, mild cigars. In 1992, the company began to open accounts with tobacconists outside Miami, which spurred further growth and recognition.

With the advent of the cigar boom, Moore & Bode were determined not to allow increasing demand alter their approach to their work. Instead, they focused on maintaining what they had worked so hard to build by keeping production limited. "The only reason we're standing today is because of our unwavering dedication to the standards we set at the beginning," Moore states.

Despite increased competition for high-quality tobacco and attempts by rival factories to steal their workers, Moore says they were able to stick to business-as-usual during the chaos of the boom years. In 1995, the company introduced a second blend, called Flamboyan, described as more full-bodied than the light, clean style of "Miami." The company also offers Flamboyan Dark, which is the same as Flamboyan, except the Connecticut shade wrapper is used as the binder and the binder leaf is placed on the outside. According to Moore, this interesting twist imparts a slight variation of the Flamboyan flavor by putting the smoker's mouth in contact with the darker binder leaf.

This fall Moore & Bode plans to release a new blend that features a wrapper leaf they’ve grown themselves - a first for the company. While Moore won't reveal many details, she doesn't hide her excitement. "It's a cigar for the armchair adventurer, because the aroma and taste are very exotic," she gushes. As a company which has always moved at its own pace, Moore & Bode will flourish no matter which direction the cigar market takes. However, there is one issue that Moore feels the cigar industry must address to ensure a better future for both consumer and manufacturer alike. "We are adamantly against fumigation of cigars and tobacco," she states. "We've searched for alternative methods and have determined that the answer is deep-freezing, which kills every egg and larvae, and doesn't harm the cigar or the tobacco." Moore believes that all cigar makers need to move towards eliminating chemicals in the growth and treatment of tobacco, which she feels are primarily responsible for the bad reputation tobacco has received. With her proven determination behind the cause, one can't help but believe that her voice will be heard loud and clear.

You’ve probably seen the slick advertising campaign for Aristoff cigars, showing a perfectly formed female body next to one of its perfecto-shaped cigars, trumpeting the "world's most sought-after shape." While both titillating and tasteful, the ad also perfectly emphasizes the point that shape is one thing that makes Aristoff cigars unique.

Established in 1996, Aristoff's entire line of cigars consists of stylish figurado shapes, which happen to be the most difficult for cigar rollers to make. Why such a bold move, especially given the unforgiving cigar market? Aristoff president Guy Benhamou explains that setting lofty goals is all part of the company's style. "We like to do difficult things," he says. "From obtaining the finest tobaccos to rolling the most challenging sizes, everything we have done demands the absolute best efforts."

Of course, Benhamou will be the first to admit that snazzy shapes don't matter much if the cigars don't taste good. "Everything comes down to the tobacco, and only the best of the best is picked for Aristoff cigars," he says. "Because our production is limited - a larger company might need 100 bales, we need only 20 - we are able to pick the absolute best for our needs."

I Clearly, Aristoff has struck the right chord in composing a strategy for success in today's cigar market. The brand has made its way into many of the best tobacconists across the country, and you'll never find this super-premium in a discount catalog. Says Benhamou, Aristoff's strategy has always been to go through the traditional tobacconist, to maintain the company's image as a truly upscale product: "Our goal is to provide the tobacconists with something special to pass on to their customers; something they can't get anywhere other than a tobacconist."

While Aristoff has successfully navigated the treacherous waters of the post-cigar boom era, it doesn't plan to rest on its laurels. This summer, Aristoff unveils its very limited Millennium Series, which will consist of only two shapes - a robusto and a perfecto, each with a pigtail cap - and will feature a special Brazilian maduro wrapper. Only 48,000 Millennium cigars will be produced, each enclosed in an individually numbered, clear, square-shaped tube and packed in black 24-count, custom boxes from France. Each box will feature a special plaque that will be sequentially numbered from one to 2000.

Aristoff will also release Aristoff Black, which will be made in three traditional shapes - robusto, Churchill, and corona - and produced in 26 series, designated from A to Z, with 10,000 individually numbered cigars in each series. The Black series contains a new blend of Brazilian Mata Fina, a tobacco known for its aromatic qualities, and Dominican tobacco. Like the regular Aristoff line, the Black series will also be available with three different wrappers: Connecticut shade, Brazilian maduro, and Cameroon "Batouri."

And if that isn't enough, Aristoff also will unveil its "Made-to-Measure" program this summer, which will enable the customer to look through a catalog at their tobacconist and pick the type of wrapper, size, shape, and blend they want in their cigar, as well as a personalized label, if so desired. Benhamou emphasizes that the Made-to-Measure program adheres to Aristoff's strategy of providing retailers with unique products for their customers. "We will always stand behind the tobacconists who carry our cigars," he says. "Tobacconists are vital for our survival, and we are definitely here for the long term."

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