Samel understands that he hasn’t been twisting arms over defense policy or school lunches.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the issue of premium cigars is one of the most important issues in our country. Of course it’s not. But it’s a symbol of what’s gone wrong in our nation. … Look out McDonald’s. Look out Chevy Corvettes. Look out — you do this to cigars, and any type of ‘vice’ is not safe in our nation.”
Samel’s activity on Capitol Hill didn’t meet the threshold where he would have to register as a lobbyist. But there he was anyway, pleading his case on behalf of millions of cigar smokers.
Occasional charming bluster aside, he’s a decidedly modest, almost self-deprecating guy who begged me to write that the whole thing was a team effort. Which it was. (Note: after this column was published, Samel wrote me to underscore, again, that “this is truly a group effort, and many cigar manufacturers, distributors, retailers and consumers have gone above and beyond the call of duty to protect that which we love so much.”)
But not everyone in the cigar trade took the political reality to heart and drove 1,000 miles to try and change it.
I wondered about the rest of the big-name cigar makers — the guys who stayed home to run their businesses instead of pulling up stakes and renting a house in Washington. Did they understand Samel’s sense of urgency?
“Well, a lot of these guys think I’m fucking nuts to begin with,” he told me. “We never — my business partner and I, Jonathan Drew — we never took a conventional path with our company.”
True enough. The two of them started Drew Estate with a pushcart in the World Trade Center shopping mall and an outsourcing deal with a single cigar roller in New York City. This year, they’ll likely sell 18 million cigars — most of them infused with flavors that the rest of the cigar industry seems too skittish to gamble on.
“When we started our company, Jonathan and I didn’t have any money,” Samel recalled. “So I put in whatever savings I had, Jonathan put in whatever savings he had. But it wasn’t enough to start a business. We borrowed from who we could. Both of our parents mortgaged their homes for us. We almost lost our parents’ homes.”
They focused exclusively on infused tobaccos until 2005, making the ACID line a standout — and an entree to the premium cigar market for the uninitiated. Today ACID, by itself, is the third largest selling individual premium cigar brand in the United States. (The other two are Macanudo and Romeo y Julieta.)
Including the ACID line, Drew Estate’s Estelí, Nicaragua factory pumps out more individual blends of cigar tobacco than you can find under one roof anywhere else on earth. ”Over 80 individual blends,” Samel told me.
Personally, I’ve never liked infused cigars. I’m clearly in the minority, though, since they account for between 65 and 70 percent of everything Drew Estate sells.
But the Liga Privada No.9 is my “desert island” smoke, at least for now. It’s a dark, oily, chewy little miracle that was originally created just for Drew Estate president Steve Saka to smoke. It’s what the Nicaraguans call hecho exclusamente para el jefe — only not anymore. You can have one too.