The venerable William Shakespeare once wrote “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” We have all heard the terms boutique, craft, or small batch applied to cigars and certain manufacturers. What does it all mean?
The word “cigar” in and of itself is a very broad term used to describe the physical product. However, in the world of premium cigars, there is an ever expanding universe of choices as it relates to cigar diversity. Much like the craft beer explosion, our own industry is experiencing a similar movement and has been for some time. Now more than ever, a cigar enthusiast can venture into his or her local tobacconist and find offerings from makers that simply didn’t exists five or ten years ago. These manufacturers offer a small batch or “craft” experience that differentiates them from their larger cigar manufacturer brethren. There are a few key designations that separate these smaller companies from the titans of our industry and this article will serve to both carve out those distinctions and shed some light on what these craft companies bring to the table.
If you are an experienced cigar enthusiast, you probably have old stand-by sticks that you tend to gravitate to. They are safe, familiar, and consistent. This cigar lover is no different. However, if you take notice on the next trip to your local shop, you will probably notice names that you have never heard and brands that you have never tried. Names like; CRUX, Roma Craft, Aging Room, Leccia, just to name a few. These manufacturers are just a few of the “boutique” brands that have been gracing the shelves of your favorite humidors, just waiting for you to dive into the world of small batch cigars. According to Oxford dictionaries, small-batch means “Designating or relating to a type of small-scale production in which goods are made in limited quantities, often by means of traditional or artisanal methods.” (1). As one can probably guess, The term “small-batch”, as it relates to the cigar industry, can mean several things. First, many of these craft cigar manufacturers can only release a limited number of a given offering due to the size of their company and manufacturing facility. Unlike their large format competitors, they do not have hundreds of employees endlessly rolling sticks in a warehouse. These smaller brands tend to release a limited number of a given offering to the public to also gauge interest in the particular blend before going wide with it. If the offering is successful and there is a renewable supply of tobacco used in the blend, the manufacturer can continue rolling out the product on a smaller, continual scale as their manufacturing capabilities dictate. Second, these manufacturers may have a very finite availability of the supply of tobacco used in a certain blend that they have released to the market place. This rare supply of a blend lends itself very well to a limited, craft cigar release. Much like a fine vintage wine, these cigars are revered for their prime blend and the unique flavors that they offer to the enthusiast. Their limited availability only serves to enhance the small batch appeal. Evidence of this can be seen in comments from Aging Room’s own Rafael Nodal. “The first blend my company released using this concept was our Aging Room Small Batch M356. That blend number was derived from the date that the blend was first created: Monday, the 356th day of the year. I bought tobacco that was aged for a long time and all grown on the same Dominican farm, but there just was not enough for a high quantity production, and that’s really how the Aging Room Small Batch concept was created.” (2)
Another key aspect of the small batch cigar experience is the care taken to differentiate the cigar blend from larger competitors. Cigars, like food or wine, can vary wildly in quality, appearance, and flavor profiles. Cigars that are made on a large scale tend to steer their product toward a consistent, repeatable appearance and flavor. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The market certainly needs consistency and volume in abundance and the mass production manufacturers fill that part of the marketplace very well. The differentiation and appeal of a craft tobacco company is that they can offer a rustic, unique product that looks and tastes nothing like their mass produced counterparts. Because the smaller boutique cigar companies source premium, aged bales of tobacco that are in short supply, they must place a premium on the construction and the unique tobacco blend of their cigar. To be competitive with large format manufacturers, these smaller companies can offer creative flavor profiles that cannot be found in large mass production facilities. These Craft makers also tend to utilize every bit of the tobacco bail possible to maximize their offering to the public.
Wrapping up, we must also consider that the very term boutique can be both broad and loose in terminology. Fifteen years ago, names like CAO, Rocky Patel, and others may have been considered a boutique brand. Now, these brands lend themselves to a more mass produced market. This begs the question; when is a small batch company no longer considered small batch? Do we as an industry have hard definitions as to what constitutes when a company can be considered a mass producer? The simple answer is no. When using terms to describe these small (for now) manufacturers, it can be very ambiguous and perhaps a little misleading. This writer recently had an interesting discussion with a co-owner of a renowned craft tobacco cigar manufacturer and he was asked what it meant to him to be a boutique label. His answer was both insightful and profound. The tobacconist likened his company to a craft beer brewer. He steered away from the issue of the volume of product that his company is able to produce and focused more on the unique flavor profiles that his company produces in their Esteli, Nicaragua based manufacturing facility. By placing the emphasis on superior tobacco blends and construction quality, he clearly envisions a world where unique, differentiated flavor takes precedent over production volumes and availability. Whether we call a company such as this a boutique label, small batch, or otherwise, we can all agree that their products fill an expanding part of the market place. Now more than ever, consumers are placing a demand on creative blends, sophisticated flavor profiles, and amazing handmade construction. Are all cigars similar? Maybe Shakespeare was onto something after all. What’s in a name?
This is the first part of a three part series where Big Six Tobacco will dive into the world of boutique cigar labels. Co-Founder Cory Allen already penned an article about the recent FDA ruling and part two of this series will attempt to explain the potential impacts that the recent FDA rulings could have on the small, craft cigar industry. Stay tuned for more from Big Six Tobacco!