Cigar Weekly Interview with Tony Borhani of Bahia Cigars

Cigar Weekly: How do you see the cigar industry as a manufacturer?

Tony Borhani: What I have noticed over the past few years is the cigar smoker’s profile has changed; or at least, those who are more vocal about it, the true cigar smokers. And we are in the age of the Internet and I’ve notice a lot more younger smokers, twenty-ish. And these folks are becoming very fanatic about what they smoke and they have control the trends that come and go. The ring gauge, the length and how strong the cigars are becoming. It’s sort of a young macho mentality, the bigger, the bolder, and the larger and as a result, manufactures are making 60 ring gauge cigars, which in the past were almost unheard of. Also, I see a trend of super strong cigars. To me as a cigar maker, I appreciate the art of cigar making. The beautiful leaves of tobacco and the balance of the flavors and aromas help enhance your senses. We are still selling the same amount of cigars but there’s been a shift to these bigger, strong products. Remember, in 1994 when we came to market, we were selling one of the stronger cigars. And everyone who smoked our cigars felt that was a reason for our success. That’s how we grabbed people attention in the beginning.

CW: Do you think that it’s a trend for stronger cigars or could it be that more people are switching over from cigarettes and are looking for the bigger tobacco?

TB: That’s a good question; it’s a brilliant question. I’m not sure if that’s what the smoker is after, the intake of nicotine or my thought that it’s still the macho mentality of the younger crowd. I want a bigger cigar and stronger smoke. The Cuban cigars are strong, they’re good and therefore I want my cigar to be big and strong. Unfortunately, the cigar makers give in to that demand and they make cigars that are strong but what it is, is excess nicotine. Green, young, unfermented tobaccos that all it does is give you a headache or a buzz instead of the aroma and array of flavors, that’s what I look for in a cigar. Not something that will give me a buzz or make me sit down. Smoking a cigar is an experience, an enjoyment, a pleasure, as I said before, it really enhances all your senses. Like your sense of touch, you grab this great cigar in your fingers and you feel the wrapper, it’s bound to enhance your sense of touch. A cigar helps involve all your senses when you think about it. So you can understand when I say I’m a bit disappointed about this war of bigger, bolder, stronger cigars. I bet it will go away.

CW: Do you think this demand for bigger, stronger cigars is a trend?

TB: The guys who have been smoking their cigars for the past 20 – 30 years will still be there buying those cigars that have become market standards, those are my friend, me. I am very aware of those who are making these high demand cigars. Drew Estates, Jonathan is a very good friend of mine. He’s making a million cigars a month. There are people out there who are smoking infused, aromatic cigars. There is a market out there for these kinds of cigars. Several cigar manufactures, not all of them, but some, are deviating from their standard cigar manufacturing practices and going with what they think the market wants in order to survive and that’s a bit disappointing. However, the encouraging part is that the cigar smokers are better educated than ever and more involved. You cannot fool then, you cannot sell gimmick, my tobacco is pre-Castro and my grandfather rolled it in his basement. And here’s a $15 cigar, you ought to try it. And because of the economy and because the so-called “boom” is dead, the cigar makers are putting more effort into making better cigars, really. It’s not like ’97, ’98 and ‘99 when you had 800 brands on the market, just get it on the shelf and it would be gone. People were tying anything and that was the reason this industry almost committed suicide. Thankfully all those crazy brands are gone – a few people are sticking around and still trying their hand at it but the good product has survived. Today you can get a better cigar for less money than you could buy five years ago and that’s the best thing to come out of the industry as a result of the so-called “boom”. Cigars, especially their quality is getting better and better because we know soon the doors will open to Cubans and we’re going to have to compete with these people here in the U.S. And the growers are growing better tobacco because the manufacturers won’t buy the crap they were selling five years ago. You’d buy third-rate tobacco at triple the price because you had to buy so you could put product in stores. Unfortunately, things got out of my hands and we paid the price but that won’t happen again.

CW: From your knowledge and where you sit in the industry, how far away are we from opening up Cuba to the American consumer?

TB: Before President Clinton left there was this buzz going around that any day now…but since the Republicans are in power and especially in Florida, I don’t see anything happening in the near future unless Fidel Castro dies or a major shift in both counties' foreign policies, which I think is almost impossible. I would guess we are five to eight years away. But the question becomes, will the Cuban cigar industry be able to complete with us now? They have the most amazing tobacco crops in the world. There’s no doubt about it and anyone who says no is full of crap! I think Cuban tobaccos are the most aromatic, most delicious, most powerful, muuum…yummy. I been there 15 times, I’ve been to many farms and I’ve seen their tobacco, it’s wonderful. Now, do they know how to make cigars? Do the have good blenders? No! I smoke a lot of Cuban cigars. They aren’t fermenting properly because they are in a hurry because they just need the money so just get cigars to the market. Their industry is going south because the older generation of master cigar makers is dying off and the younger generation doesn’t care. They want to wear Nike and listen to Hip Hop and play baseball. They don’t want to work in the factories anymore and the passion is gone, the love is gone. And the more Cuba is opened to western civilization you see the quality significantly diminish. I smoke Cuban cigars a lot and two out of every five are plugged or they are green as hell or you have to light them ten times. Can they over come these problems? I hope so for the sake of cigar smokers all over the world. When the door opens, I can’t wait to get my hands on some Cuban tobacco because I think the blending of Cuban tobacco with Nicaraguan or Dominican tobacco will make a far better cigar then the Cuban have ever made. I’m waiting for the day I can get Cuban tobacco because I know our company can make a magnificent cigar with the blends.

CW: I understand that you have an entire new line of product due out in late July?

TB: I was able to become creative again with the help of my good friend Victor at Tambor. We sat down and created three new blends and we’re bringing back one old blend. We are going to introduce the Bahia Blue, which I think is one of the most exciting cigars introduced in a long time. The Bahia Blue has two Nicaraguan fillers from one of the best farms in the world run by Silvio Perez’s son and grandson and they do an amazing job. We use a binder from the surround areas and we’re using a wrapper from Leon a costal area great for growing a wrapper. It will be full bodies, flavorful, delicious, bold and big. Great fermentation and, an additional fourth fermentation, which I don’t think has been done before. The cigar is big but at the same time, a mild smoking because the excess nicotine is gone. This is a hard thing to do and yet the flavors and aromas are there and I’m most proud of that accomplishment. It comes in three sizes, Toro Robusto and a Churchill size and will sell at about $6 to $7. We’ve got an economy line, long filler, hand-made called Deseo, which means desire in Spanish. It’s very spiritual to you…in the sense that we look at what’s inside that matters, not what’s outside. It might not have the most beautiful wrapper you’ve seen, but the cigar inside is fantastic! I think this will be the best $3 to $4 cigar that I’ve tasted since I don’t know when and it comes in four sizes. We’re bringing back the Bahia Vintage…the very first cigar we made from the 1988 vintage. It’s from a farm in Nicaragua north of Esteli, all the filler and the binder that’s used in the vintage, every vintage we’ve done ’88, ’89, ’90 ’91, ’93, ’96, ’98…when there is an exceptional crop we use the whole harvest to make that vintage cigar. When it’s not exceptional, we use it to blend with our other cigars. 1998 was a fabulous year and I can’t wait for everyone to smoke (Bahia Vintage) this cigar. I think ’98 was as good as’88, that is quiet exciting. It will come in four sizes and we have to make a big cigar, the tobacco requires a big smoke. We will have a double Corona 8 X 50 and a Corona Gigante that is 7.5 X 54. As far as the Bahia Gold, I decided to sell everything we had from the ’98 blend and come up with a new blend. But the new blend is really the blend that was made and designed for Bahia Gold Maduro blend from day one. And now we will work again with Tambor and bring back the Bahia Gold Maduro blend with the original band.

CW: How do you feel about the future of the smoking community in America?

TB: I left California because the State where I employed a lot of people and paid taxes and excise tax did not support the business I was in. When I left after eight years, I never thought it would be so contagious that every other month there would be a new state or city like Chicago and even New York that would start this prohibition. To be frank with you, I’m stunned…do I want to be politically correct…is this America we’re living in? If you don’t enjoy smoking, at least let the bar or restaurant decide if they want smokers. Then you can choose whether to go there or not. To let the government decide where and when we can smoke, I don’t think it’s the American way.

CW: Do you think smoking will eventually become an underground activity?

TB: So be it! I think what will happen is that more cigar stores will extend their space and create small smoking clubs and I think that will be good for the industry. Like the mid nineties when many cigar stores had big, beautiful smoking lounges and humidor lockers, people got together and sat around smoking a cigar with a little drink and talking. I think guys will still go to a cigar store and sit down and smoke and maybe this politically correct thing will help clubs spring up and who knows, maybe another boom.

CW: Thanks to Tony Borhani for answering our questions.