Ammo & Gear Reviews

Cigar Hunter: Drew Estate’s Marvin Samel, the accidental not-really-a-lobbyist

David Martosko Executive Editor
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The next prize giveaway will conclude on Monday, Oct. 22. Make sure you’re at least 18 years old and registered for the Cigar Hunter email list, and you could win a box of House Resolution by JC Newman cigars and a Thunderbird torch lighter from Corona Cigar Co.

Today’s photographic guest smoker: Right-hander Connie Marrero, now the oldest living former baseball player at 101 years old. A Cuban emigre, Marrero played for the Washington Senators. The Time Life photographer noted in 1951 that Marrero puts his cigar down “only while pitching.”

If you’ve never met Marvin Samel, you’ve missed out on one of the nicest, most thoughtful people in the cigar business. And if you’ve never smoked anything from Drew Estate, the company he co-founded in 1998 with his college roommate, you’re not much of a cigar nut.

In April, the Food and Drug Administration announced a tentative timetable for finalizing a list of new regulations covering premium cigars. The industry had introduced a bill on Congress to tie the FDA’s hands, but Samel was worried that they might be too late. (RELATED: A “House Resolution” to stymie the FDA)

So on April 25 he told the rest of his management team — and his fiancee — some strange news: He was going to pack up his things and move from Florida to Washington, D.C. for four months so he could pitch in, along with a team of other cigar bigwigs, to build a congressional majority around the idea of leaving cigars alone — or at least of clarifying the intent of the 2009 Tobacco Control Act.

It worked: At last count, 220 of the 435 House members have signed on, including such political opposites as Florida tea party Republican Allen West and New York Democrat Steve Israel, who runs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“It’s not a partisan issue,” Samel told me.

I caught up with him at the end of his four-month experiment as his stuff was being loaded from a rented townhouse into a moving truck for the ride home, and he paused to reflect on what the heck he had been thinking when he became an accidental not-really-a-lobbyist lobbyist.

“It’s been one of the most profound experiences of my life,” he said, while we lit up a few Liga Privada No. 9 cigars. He would have enjoyed the experience a lot more, he added, “if it wasn’t for the fact that every night I go to sleep scared shitless that our industry is going to be a relic of the past someday.”

Samel, of course, has a business to protect and 1,300 employees to pay — mostly in Central America. But peel back a few layers of the onion and you’ll find a broader-minded patriot with a libertarian streak.

“Look, I get it,” he said. “I understand that there’s a stigma attached to tobacco. But our products aren’t marketed to kids. They don’t have the same health risks. And cigars are smoked in a celebratory manner.”

Americans, he said, “have many choices to make. I’m not someone who eats fast food. But I don’t have the right to tell another human being, ‘You can’t.’ I don’t have that right, contrary to what [New York] Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg thinks. … The fact that Mayor Bloomberg is kidnapping our rights is atrocious to me.”

“As adults, I believe we should have the right to choose, while knowing what the risks are. You know what? Are we going to ban skydiving now?”

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.

The wrapper is a Connecticut broadleaf ligero oscuro, and the binder is Brazilian. Inside, the No.9’s blend includes seven different tobaccos, each from a different farm in Honduras and the Dominican Republic. Each of them is dark and complex.

I don’t think I know another cigar that’s this rich without being the slightest bit harsh. There’s a unique mustiness — the good kind — in this smoke, with a bitter coffee note and a faint, delicious tanginess that makes you regret putting it down even for a minute. If I could afford to, I’d have a few boxes aging in my Tampa Humidor Salerno treasure chest. (RELATED: What to do with that humidor you got for Father’s Day)

Thankfully, Samel sprang for our 7-inch x 52 ring gauge double coronas out of a batch he hadn’t gotten around to packing. Otherwise, they would cost me about $14 each by the box.

With a Liga in my hand, it’s hard to picture the same group of torcedors cranking out flavored cigars. Samel stops me at the word “flavored,” which is a dog-whistle for one of the FDA’s most-hated categories. Teens, the story goes, somehow find ways to buy fruit-flavored “little cigars” with their pocket change. Many hollow them out and replace the chopped up tobacco with marijuana. (That’s my observation, not Samel’s.)

The whole reason I met Samel was that the subject of a previous Cigar Hunter interview claimed Drew Estate was making fruit-flavored cigars for the drugstore market. (RELATED: Paul Garmirian the calm contrarian, part 1)

“That’s categorically false,” Samel told me. “We’ve gotten a big, bad rap.”

“This whole [FDA] issue of so-called flavored cigars is so offensive to me,” he said, suddenly a bit agitated. “Because we kill ourselves to maintain strict quality control. Every single cigar that comes out of our factory uses no machinery whatsoever. None! … No machines whatsoever. It’s all by hand.”

I was surprised. There’s not even a machine on his factory floor, he said, to strip the center veins from tobacco leaves. (RELATED: ‘Hecho a mano’ in Tampa)

“This is a hand-made product,” Samel insisted. “From the time the tobacco seed is planted in the ground to the time a cigar is packaged in a box and shipped to a cigar shop, over 300 hands touch this cigar. It’s an art form.”

It’s clear that if the FDA extends its regulatory authority to the Liga Privada No.9 and other premium cigars, there won’t be much of an industry left standing, if any at all. The U.S. market drives the entire non-Cuban cigar industry. And if the federal government clamps down, Samel said, he’ll likely be out of business. According to the industry’s economic study, 85,000 jobs could be lost.

But I was left with the picture of an optimistic man, one who learned by tussling with congressional staffers just how much he loves his country.

“The reason why I’m exposed to this amazing experience might be the death of our industry,” he said. “It’s an extremely conflicting emotion.”

This column was updated after publication to clarify Samel’s comments about infused cigars.

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