Behind the Scenes
Text: Colin C. Ganley / Photos: Colin C. Ganley
Delicious cigars satisfy the soul when harmoniously blended. Blending is the key to making satiating cigars that are smooth on the tongue, aromatic in the air and comforting to the nerves. Superstar blenders are improving the quality of cigars and the credibility of brands around the world.
Hendrik Kelner (Davidoff), José Orlando Padrón, and the Fuentes (Carlos and Carlito) have each created cigars that are unmistakably emblematic of their companies. They are all master blenders. For every cigar on the market, there is at least one master blender behind the creation and maintenance of that specific taste/blend. There are as many philosophies of blending as there are blenders. Nevertheless, the process of creating and maintaining a blend has some common elements from company to company and across countries.
What makes one cigar taste different from another cigar is its unique blend of tobaccos. It is the job of blenders to gather processed (fermented and aged) leaves from different primings (cuttings) of the plant from different fields. They combine them in specific proportions and that is what creates the unique flavor of a Davidoff, Padrón, Habanos or Fuente.
“Blending is a process”, says Carlos Oliva of Oliva Cigars. It begins in the fields with the cultivation of tobacco. Ultimately the blending of a cigar depends upon the quality of tobacco available for use in production. All blenders agree upon this. Because blending begins in the field, we begin here.
In the Field
All Blenders seek information from the growers about the progress of tobacco throughout the growing season. Bad wea-ther can leave an important leaf tasting drastically different from how it tasted the year before. That is why blenders monitor tobacco as soon as it is planted.
Vertically integrated companies are able to grow tobacco on their own farms. Knowledge of the soil, sun, fertilizer, and irrigation is essential to keeping a consistent blend, according to most blenders with a hand in cultivation. Carlos Oliva explains that monitoring is important because knowing what is coming down the line is how Oliva maintains the flavor of established lines such as the Series G, O and Special S. He adds that “we grow it and cure it the way we like it” which is why their blends are so consistent.
Manufacturers who do not own their own fields purchase tobacco. Purchasing tobacco that has been processed, dried and fermented, has upsides and downsides. Even those manufacturers who own their own fields often purchase tobacco (often wrapper) from other farmers to achieve a desired taste. The upside is that manufacturers can buy only the tobacco that they need and nothing more. It can, however, be difficult to obtain the same tobacco year after year if one does not grow it oneself.
Don “Pepin” Garcia, who planted his first fields in Nicaragua during 2007, explains that blending is a constant process. There are two distinct types of blending. The first is the creation of a blend. In this type, the goal is to create the perfect cigar for the profile the blender desires. The second is the maintenance and production of a blend. Production blending involves the whole staff of a factory from master blenders to specially selected rollers.
Creating a new blend
When the marketing team of Habanos S.A. decided to create a new full-bodied line of cigars under the Cohiba marque, they proposed this idea to the Cuban Institute of Tobacco. The marketing group asked for a full-bodied cigar because of market research and distributor’s requests.
Arnaldo Ovalles Brinones, Production Director of the Laguito factory in Havana explained how the Cohiba Maduro 5 was devised. The Institute proposed six initial blends after which point the factory became the center of blending. Raul Valladares and Juan José López led the blending team from this point.
One roller was assigned to create the cigars during the six months of testing. This roller was a highly trusted worker and was also involved in tas-ting throughout the process. Every day that the new blend was being improved, about ten people tasted the day’s version of the cigar. Six workers from the factory were aided in tasting by two from the Institute and one from Habanos headquarters in Cuba. Nearly fifty tasters had been involved by the end of the six-month process of refining the taste of the new Maduro 5 cigars. The process ended when those at Habanos S.A. agreed that the cigar was what they were looking for. All members of the team had at this time agreed that the blend was up to the standards of the Cohiba marque.
“Blending is magic” – Maya Selva (Owner/Blender for Cumpay and Flor de Selva)
Regardless of company, all blenders consider five characteris-tics of the performance of a cigar when creating a blend. Those five characteristics are: flavor, aroma, strength, combustion and draw. In order to achieve balance, blenders use their knowledge of tobaccos to create promising combina-tions. They then test and modify the blends until the desired taste has been produced. A balance among these five characteristics is what creates a true premium cigar.
Unlike Habanos, not all blenders begin with the consumer fore-most in mind. Pete Johnson, the creator of Tatuaje and Cabaiguan cigars uses his personal tastes to guide his blending. “I’m making these for me”, he jokes, “if I can’t sell ’em at least I can smoke ’em.”
Maintaining an Established Line
As crops change from yield to yield, it is the task of the Mas-ter Blender to keep the ultimate taste the same. At the Padrón factory, José Orlando Padrón takes the lead in maintaining his brand’s unique flavor. He keeps his blends close to his chest and only solicits the advice of his family and Factory Manager Gabriel Fernandez. Other factories, such as the Oliva’s and Plasencia’s utilize the expertise of expert tasters in each department (sorting, aging and rolling).
All manufacturers deal with the difficulty of keeping a consistent taste in an established line. A bad wrapper crop or abnormal wea-ther can leave a manufacturer without the essential component of a blend. This is when it is necessary to either change the taste or stop producing a line. Michael Chiusano of Cusano Cigars has become comfortable with creating limited editions and specific lines based around limited/rare leaves. Carlos Toraño was less comfortable when he had to end “one of the finest cigars ever made” which was his Nicaraguan Selection.
State of Blending
This is the age of the superstar blender. While Habanos blenders are less recognizable than some others, the Cohiba Maduro 5, Hoyo de Monterrey Regalos, and Romeo y Julieta Short Churchill all show that the art of blending is alive and well in Cuba. Dominican Republic producers Henke Kelner and the Fuentes among others, are keeping high standards and producing new blends to much applause.
Nicaragua is the hottest, fastest growing, cigar exporter to the world. This is in no small part due to the success of Mas-ter Blender Don “Pepin” Garcia. He is more than doubling his rolling space in Estelí, Nicaragua to accommodate his own lines as well as those he produces for Ernesto Padilla, Pete Johnson, and Ashton (San Cristóbal).
The biggest blending stars bring great, consistent blends to the expanding global premium cigar market. The state of blending is healthy and as newer makers learn from the older generation we expect high quality blending to bring years of well-balanced smokes to the growing global market.