PCA 2024 Day Three Recap

PCA Day 3: Expanding the Range of the Non-Enthusiast

Imagine you are walking into a cigar shop for the first time. The humidor is a reasonable size, and although the staff in the humidor offers their help, you may not want to out yourself as someone who does not know what they are doing. You B-line it to the most prominent brand you know, perhaps Padron, Cohiba, Gurkha, etc. You pick the first cigar you see, and when you light it up, it might not be exactly what you were looking for. 

This is an all-too-common theme with new cigar smokers. Similar to the world of wine, the overwhelming nature of the variety of cigars and the pressure to buy can sway the non-enthusiast into purchasing something other than what they are looking for. The “big” brands will always have fantastic products, but many smaller, lesser-known brands to the non-enthusiast may be local and create a product that encapsulates what they want in a cigar. 

As Enthusiasts, and with anything else, we may know many of these brands and give them the recognition they deserve. However, going back to that first overwhelming experience in a shop for the first time, we often forget that these are not common knowledge. At PCA this year, these “micro-brands,” used loosely in this context, came in full force and showed what they are about. 

Brandon: Apostate Cigars

Apostasia is the Greek root word for this brand, meaning defection, departure, and rebellion. The term Apostate is the title which people who leave the Mormon church are called. Brandon and Kendrick are Utah natives who grew up as members of the Mormon Church. According to Brandon, they split ways with it when they were around 25, and as he states, “… When it was time to start making cigars, we would lean into that vibe. We brought elements from our past and brought them into the cigar world.” Apostate’s lines intricately weave prominent symbols in the Mormon faith into their bands and cigar names. Staples in their line, such as The Deseret and The Initiatory, are heaped with flavor and complexity. At PCA this year, they are debuting the final two cigars in their core line, Moroni’s Trumpet, which will be the boldest smoke in their line. They are also debuting their capstone cigar, The Endowment, a blend of excellent tobaccos that creates “Something totally different, but it is totally smooth, totally balanced, creamy. It is kind of like a dessert cigar.”

“We are still in Utah; we are thriving in Utah in an industry that should not be doing well there,” proudly said regarding the business’s success so far. They are currently distributing nationwide but are looking to increase their presence in every state between now and next year. Co-Owner Kendrick also owns
Beehive Cigars in Salt Lake City, Utah, which has been serving as the home base of Apostate. Beehive is an excellent cigar shop with an immaculate selection. Brandon mentioned that if you find yourself in SLC, stop by Beehive and smoke an Apostate with the crew.

Felix Lugo: Felix Lugo Tobacco Company

The Felix Lugo Tobacco Company started growing tobacco five years ago in the Dominican Republic. It recently started blending tobacco with Eladio Diaz of Tabacalera Diaz, also known as the Master Blender of Davidoff. “Basically, we are growers getting into the big boy business of cigars,” he laughingly said during the interview. Lugo currently has two cigars: an incredibly smooth Toro with a Mexican San Andres wrapper and a Corona with an Ecuadorian Corojo wrapper. 

“I love classical music, but I also love house music,” he said when describing the process of creating the logo. The designer, Juan Carlos, known in the cigar business as “JC,” helped create the intricate logo on the bands of these cigars. The ornate gold lettering is contrasted against a dark blue background that immediately draws the eyes to the product. The boxes are eloquently designed and are comparable to significant names in the super-premium realm. 

The company is new and hopes to be available nationwide incredibly soon. Felix stated that there were currently 40,000 cigars ready to ship, and the amount of traction he has gotten at PCA this year has allowed him to start breaking into brick-and-mortar shops across the country.

Vlad Somm Cigars

The company motto, “Selective by choice,” encapsulates the 15+ years of experience Vlad applies to his cigar company. Vlad is a sommelier and has been in the hospitality business, paying close attention to the close relationship between fine wines and cigars. The company has been in the US market since 2017, and each cigar pays homage to the world’s famous wine regions. 

The BDX, Rioja, BDX Blanc, and the Premier Cru are all cigars in the company’s elegant lineup. At PCA this year, they are debuting the BDX Blanc, a medium-bodied Connecticut wrapper with tobaccos aged for three years. This creates a smooth, creamy flavor that can be enjoyed on any occasion. 

To enhance the smoking experience, each box has a QR code linked to a video of Vlad discussing the cigar, tasting notes, and how to get the whole experience from his cigar. Somm Cigars is currently distributing nationally and has an up-to-date store locator to find the products in the nearest shop. 

Juan Lugo: Don Doroteo 

Don Doroteo is the name of Juan Lugo’s grandfather, who started growing tobacco in the Dominican Republic in 1936 at 16. Don would sell tobacco to La Aurora for the majority of his life. In 1983, his retirement from the industry seemed like the end of the tobacconist’s career. In 2021, his grandson, Juan Lugo, rekindled the familial tradition of growing tobacco by leaving his “tech” job in the United States and selling the freshly grown tobacco to La Aurora in the direct footsteps of his grandfather. 

At PCA this year, they are releasing the El Alcalde, a cigar that has been brilliantly aged for 15 years. Lugo credits his grandfather for the ability to manufacture a cigar of this caliber, especially through the aging process. He also pays his respects to La Aurora for their family-like business relationship. El Alcalde is the second cigar in their legacy blends. The company has another line titled, The Salt of the Earth, featuring two additional cigars. 

Don Doroteo is currently distributing nationwide and has begun negotiations to distribute internationally. Additional information can be found on their website, www.dondoroteo.com, which hosts a miniature documentary about the creation of the brand. Like many of the companies in this article, this brand is destined for greatness, and their current releases are only a small example of what they will be capable of in the future. 

Gerald Tritt: Freud Cigar Company

The conversations had while smoking a cigar can lead to many breakthroughs. A conversation between the owners of Freud Cigar Company led to the company’s creation several years ago. The company currently has six different cigars, with more on the way in the coming months. These cigars fall underneath two lines: the namesake Freud and Carlos and Maria.

The brand’s name is an homage to the habitual cigar smoker and historically prevalent psychologist Sigmund Freud, who was aptly known as a chronic cigar smoker. Tritt explained that Freud was known to “…smoke up to twenty cigars a day… people knew if that you were in his office getting therapy, there was a plume of cigar smoke at all times.” This continues to be represented by their naming of cigars within the Freud line, representing key definitions during his psychological research. 

Their Carlos and Maria line captures the “…love and passion of the cigar industry” with the 2024 PCA release of the Orgasmo. Tritt explains that this is the second installment in the newly minted line, and smokers should be on the lookout for the third installment in the coming months. Freud Cigar Company is currently distributing nationwide and internationally.

Brandon Marsh: Big Sky Cigars

Montana is home to some of the best fishing in the United States. It is also home to the 2018 established Cigar Company, Big Sky Cigar. The brand has experienced incredible success to this point and now has eight different blends, all paying tribute to the incredible outdoor sights of the Montana wilderness. 

The Montana River Series is the core line at Big Sky and depicts the imagery of Montana’s Blue Ribbon trout streams. “We want a brand that represents our lifestyle, and that is being outdoors.” Co-owner Brand Marsh explained the beautifully painted scenes on their boxes. At PCA this year, they are debuting the sampler pack of their core line and the Mad Minnow Fly Box, which features four of their medium-bodied Mad Minnow cigars in a magnetic fly box and eight hand-tied flies from Montana Fly Company. Marsh stands by this collaboration as he utilizes the box provided while fishing in the immaculate streams he depicts with his cigar line. 

Big Sky is currently distributed in 35 states and Aruba and utilizes online retailers. Marsh hopes to continue growing the brand and offer its products in all fifty states in the near future. The company represents the outdoor spirit of Montana, which blends with the idea of having a cigar to celebrate the incredible wilderness.

Art Garcia: Tabacalera Segovias de Esteli SA / Segovias-Esteli Cigars

Garcia first described himself as “the one and only but never lonely,” wearing a beautifully tailored suit and undeniable charisma. Garcia Represents Tabacalera Segovias de Esteli SA in Nicaragua and the American cigar brand Segovias-Esteli Cigars, which is produced in the factory. 

The brand is in its ninth year, starting with a debut in 2015. In 2019, they were awarded the “Best Small Cigar Booth” at PCA. Art explained that this led to the opening of their factory in 2021, which has experienced incredible success and is now producing tobacco for many companies. 

“If you like super premium cigars, you gotta smoke Segovias; if you don’t, then I don’t know where you’re coming from,” he said while describing the three new cigars he is debuting at PCA this year. A Maduro, Habano Coro and Habano Torpedo. The company is currently distributing online to many retailers across the country. Garcia emphasizes that if the shop you frequent does not have their product, you should have them reach out, and he will take care of you. In closing, he stated, “Live on, smoke-free, live free,” highlighting his passion for his work and the good times associated with smoking.

Josh Bowling – Espinosa Premium Cigars

Josh Bowling, the Midwest Territory Manager, and a long-term friend sat down with me to describe the incredible lines that Espinosa Premium Cigars was showcasing at PCA this year. The Chef’s Special ’24, Warhead 10, and the final installment of Las 6 Provincias were displayed on the show floor. 

The Chef’s Special is an addition to the core line Knuckle Sandwich, a collaboration between Chef Guy Fieri and Erik Espinosa. It is made with a Connecticut broadleaf, rounding out the line with a lighter smoke. The collaboration started when Guy Fieri reached out to Erik to produce a cigar tied in with his brand and a fantastic smoke. There are currently six cigars in the Knuckle Sandwich line, three of which are consistently offered: the Habano, Maduro, and Connecticut. The line also has limited editions, such as the Prix Five, which came in a special box and included a challenge coin. 

At PCA this year, they have increased their reach into all fifty states and are only growing from there. Their unique artwork, accompanied by a fantastic smoking experience, are just a few takeaways from this brand that are doing great things.

Jesus Martinez – Martinez Handrolled Cigars

Martinez Handrolled Cigars is a legacy brand that started with Jesus’ father, a cigar roller in New York City. After moving to the US from the Dominican Republic, he established the brand in 1974 in Manhattan on 29th Street and 7th Avenue. Today, the company is one of the few remaining cigar brands in the United States that still manufactures its cigars in-house. 

At PCA this year, they commemorate their 50th Anniversary Cigar and a blend for Peter James cigar. The company has nine different lines in a multitude of sizes that are available nationwide and in Canada. Jesus is committed to excellence in his brand, as well as the fact that he is one of the remaining cigar factories in the US. His passion for his father’s creation lives on in his work, continuing the established quality. 

Martinez added that the cigar factory is open to the public and has a retail space within it. “Come by for a smoke,” he said in closing. Jesus is an incredible human being whose stories align with many of the legacy producers at PCA. Support for brands like Martinez assists in carrying on a family tradition that will likely span generations. 

Greg Free: Fuerte y Libre Cigars

“Smoke strong, and live free” is the company motto of this brand, which commenced in 2012 while owner Greg Free was smoking a cigar. He took five years to build the baseline business and released his first line in 2019. The cigars are manufactured in the Tamboril Region of the Dominican Republic, where the founder of La Aurora was born. 

At PCA this year, they are debuting the Intimidador with a Cuban seed tobacco grown in the Dominican Republic. The binders and fillers are grown in both the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. “It smokes like a full when it is first rolled, but we are releasing it after 15 years in the resting room, and now it’s a nice medium-full with a lot of Cuban flavors,” Free said while describing the smoking experience of the new release for the first time. 

FYL has seven lines with many sizes and is currently distributing nationwide. The brand is available in eighty-seven shops across the US and utilizes Illusione Cigars for distribution. The brand also heavily contributes to Stogies for Servicemen, a company that dedicates itself to the donation of cigars for service members deployed and on the home front. 

Keith – Lovely Cigars

“Four years ago, in the United States was kind of a weird time,” Keith explained in his opening remarks about the Green Bay, Wisconsin-based company. This group of friends made it a point to safely meet weekly throughout the pandemic as they saw innate value in the importance of face-to-face interaction. Towards the end of the pandemic, they decided to start their own cigar brand. 

“Who says that in Green Bay, Wisconsin?” He asked me as he explained that a series of events on a whim to try something new snowballed into a successful cigar business. Lovely Cigars aims to revitalize the history of cigar manufacturing in Green Bay. According to Keith, Green Bay only has 103,000 people and is almost strictly blue-collar. Prior to the arrival of the Green Bay Packers in 1921, commerce thrived along the Fox River. Sailors traveling through the Great Lakes and beyond would make port in Green Bay and purchase vital supplies. 

Keith noted that one of these vital supplies was tobacco products. “In the city of Green Bay, there would be about 200 cigar rollers at the port, making cigars for sailors.” He explained the booming industry of the 19th century. Keith additionally explained that the Great Depression and the Cuban embargo eradicated the cigar business in the small Wisconsin city. 

“Truly, the state was built on tobacco… Tobacco was one of our biggest exports until about 100 years ago.” He explained. The Lovely Cigars team noted this rich history of tobacco in Wisconsin and aimed to resurrect old tobacco brands. All the cigars in their line pay homage to the original brands of Green Bay. The artwork in their boxes represents these brands of old, and before creating the line for a particular brand, they request permission from the surviving family members. 

The past three years have been nothing but successful for the young brand. Keith explained that they have gone from just starting to being a show sponsor over the past three years of PCA. They are currently being distributed in 26 states and are constantly growing. Keith emphasized that the orders are filled by a team of three. “The sky is the limit,” Keith proudly exclaimed about the brand’s success. He noted, “America has a rich history of cigars… and we are just trying to bring that to light.”

At PCA this year, they are distributing the 162, an homage to the 162nd Workers Union, the largest workers union in United States History. Its origins lie within a Green Bay tobacco roller union. They are also debuting The Bay City Cigar, a Maduro with the actual artwork of the original brand. Keith stands by his product and encourages history buffs to check out the website and read about the incredible history of Wisconsin tobacco.

Danny Difabio: Rodriguez Cigar Company

The Rodriguez Cigar factory sits in a small Key West, Florida plaza. The old building is beige with rustic metal bars, highlighting the island’s rich history. The family has been manufacturing cigars for over sixty years, with forty years as a company, and the quality of their operation pays homage to the generation’s past. 

Danny Difabio, the grandson of the original factory creator, sat down with me during their PCA debut. The company is one of the only remaining factories that assemble their cigars within the United States, and it is the oldest cigar manufacturer in the Florida Keys. “The past forty years have been interesting, to say the least, but the past five have been even more interesting.” He said while we sat at his booth.

The company currently has four core brands: Reserva Privada, Series ’84, Series ’84 Maduro, and Primera Clase. At PCA, they are generating excitement for their 40th Anniversary piece, which will have more information released in the coming months. Difabio also emphasized the four core brands at his booth, notating that the quality of the cigar is the most important thing. They will approach the idea of different releases as they attend more events. 

The factory currently offers tours where they can witness cigar manufacturing. Difabio describes the process as a “sense of peace” while witnessing the creation of their artwork. Difabio adds, “It’s a different ball game when you go down and see different people working in their own element. For tourists and for people all over the world, it means a lot because of the reaction,” in reference to the cigar making process not being readily accessible for the public to witness. 

Rodriguez Cigars distributes to over seventy countries and all fifty states through its website. It also offers an accessory line with cutters, lighters, humidors, and various products. Factory tours are conducted twice daily and can be booked online through its website. The team at Rodriguez Cigars represents the long-standing family traditions of cigar manufacturing and continues to produce an incredible product.

Brian Motola / Sebastien Decoppet: Cavalier Genève

Cavalier Genève is a brand that is distinctively known for a shining, golden diamond contrasted against the rich brown leaves that form the cigar wrapper. Sebastien Decoppet, the founder of Cavalier, gained an interest in cigars as a young man, which inspired him to leave his Swiss home and establish residence in Honduras when he was 22. After living with Honduras’ finest cigar makers for one year, he moved back to Switzerland and began the attempts to sell his product to local tobacco shops. 

“I’ll never forget that first day, just walking into all the shops I had known from the city I’m from, and just… trying to get something moving,” he said, describing the process of going from learning the manufacturing side into the business side of the newly minted company. Five years later, they have a company of 100 employees, their own factory and warehouse, and a “beautiful team that is growing, and it is something that we are really proud of,” Sebastien said. 

At PCA this year, Cavalier is debuting an addition to its White Series and the Black II Viso Jalapa. In June, they are also releasing a new cigar for each line. “This year, we are focusing on the gold diamond portion of our portfolio,” Sales Director Brian Motola said when explaining the new additions. He went on to say that the gold diamond has become the brand’s signature symbol. He added that the golden diamonds are hand-cut and expressed the utmost respect for the employees responsible for cutting and placing the diamond on the cigar. 

Some smokers may experience reservations about smoking the golden diamond for the first time. Motola assures that it can be smoked as it is 24k food-grade gold. “You can smoke right through it; nothing happens to the gold, and as you smoke it, it stays right on the ash,” he explained. He added that the burning point of gold is 1,948 degrees Fahrenheit. “If you get your cigar that hot, you are going to look real funny without lips,” he jokingly said. 

Cavalier Genève is currently distributing nationwide, adding Alaska to their repertoire at PCA. Additionally, they distribute to 42 different countries. The team at Cavalier is truly dedicated to their craft and maintaining a gold standard for their products. Their collective passion radiates to everyone around them, and their cigars are an incredible experience. In closing, Sebastien informed customers to keep their eyes out for a special edition July release. They opted to withhold definitive information about the cigar, so keep your ears and eyes open for this incredible brand’s 2024 releases.

Jeremy McDonald: Wildfire Cigars

In the heart of the PCA expo hall, a small camper nestled in the pines adjacent to a pond sat the campfire. I met with the Camp Counselor and founder of this exquisitely small camp in the trees to discuss his company, Wildfire Cigars. Jeremy Mcdonald has over twenty years of experience in the cigar industry. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he decided to, “go out on my own, and carve something out for myself.”

This decision led McDonald to a multitude of trips to factories, testing blends and figuring out the branding that he was striving for. The cigar company officially launched at the end of 2021. Today, as the company surges into its third year in business, McDonald offers three core lines: The Revivalist, The Wanderer, and Artaois. He utilizes two factories, Joya De Nicaragua and FTC, which is Cavalier’s factory based in Honduras. At PCA this year, he is debuting two limited-edition cigars from each factory: B-Side out of Joya De Nicaragua and The Hook out of FTC.  “[We have] been grinding and growing,” Mcdonald said, describing the process of debuting cigars of his own brand amidst the successes that he has already experienced with it. 

Wildfire’s branding is unique compared to the rest of the cigar world. Its edgy yet nostalgic marketing, contrasted with the beautiful scenery of the wilderness, creates an innately original experience for the viewer. McDonald emphasizes the experience with others as a catalyst for good times, which merges with the concept of the campfire and being outdoors. 

“…Smoking in cigars and talking about life… those are the things that actually matter. Cigars are the vehicle to get us into the interactions with each other. It’s the commonality that brings us together to discuss [stuff] that actually matters, life and all that kind of stuff, it creates such a platform.”

Mcdonald’s strives to be “consumer-based” instead of “retailer-based.” He describes that when he does an event, he invites potential consumers around the campfire to hang out with him, smoke cigars, and enjoy a few adult beverages. He finds that these interactions create a memorable experience for everyone involved. Although he wants people to try his cigars, he invites people to smoke other brand’s cigars with him as well, driving home the concept of community that he maintains throughout cigar culture. 

Wildfire Cigars is distributing nationwide in Canada and Norway. Jeremy McDonald is a passionate individual who is loved by the entire community. In closing, he said, “Smoke what you like. Try my cigars. If you like smoking them, keep smoking them. If you don’t like them, smoke someone else’s. Just enjoy yourself, and that’s what it’s all about… Hopefully, I’ll see you on the road somewhere.”

Filipo Costi: Maya Selva Cigars

When asked how Maya Selva became a brand, Chief Commercial Officer Filipo Costi stated, “To understand that, we have to do a journey in the past.” In 1995, founder Maya Selva decided to break into the tobacco business by introducing revolutionary concepts for the time. The half-Honduran, half-French engineer introduced the concept of terroir into the tobacco business. Terroir is the French word used to describe the earth from which a wine is, implying the arduous, scientific, yet artistic process of winemaking. 

“It’s always been [about] the tasting experience and embracing the cultural tradition of the people of Honduras,” he proudly stated. Maya Selva comprises three brands: Flor De Selva, Cumpay, and Villa Zamarano. All of which represent the concept of terroir. The company chooses not to invest in “novelties,” meaning that instead of focusing on a release for a specific event, it maintains its dedication to its reputation within the cigar community. With this being said, they are preparing to debut a Flor De Selva which has been aged for ten years. 

“If you are a good man, you will become a good old man. If you are a good tobacco, you will become a good, old tobacco,” Costi eloquently phrased while explaining the choices in tobacco for this specially aged blend. This aging process started as a science experiment with 1,000 cigars of different blends under temperature, light, and humidity control. Costi mentioned that the company maintained its dedication to quality by periodically tasting the cigars. 

In 2023, they offered a box titled the 10+10, containing ten ten-year-aged sticks and ten one-year-aged sticks of the same blend. They distributed the box to increase exposure to “…the magical element which is time” to the aficionado. This year at PCA, they are releasing The Vitola, which will include ten aged cigars from this line. 

The trio of companies comprising Maya Selva are available in ten states and thirty-five countries. The Paris-based company heavily distributes throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, proving that the concept of terroir transcends borders. Their refined products contain a consistently excellent smoking experience, which will be remembered for years to come. Their dedication to the art of producing fine tobacco and their pursuit to create eloquently assembled cigars that the customer will keep returning to. 

Best of the Leaf Awards

The 2024 PCA Expo launched the inaugural Best of the Leaf Awards, in the words of PCA president Scott Regina, “to recognize outstanding tobacconists and to celebrate them and showcase their successes.” The awards were divided into three categories: Best Cigar Shop Only, Best Cigar Lounge, and Best Cigar Bar

The Best Cigar shop award is recognition of shops that do not allow smoking. Regina describes the characteristics: “These shops have to create an environment with great premium cigar aesthetics, great customer service, a quality humidor selection and merchandising to provide an overall superb customer experience.” 

This year’s winners are:

  • Norwood Royal Cigars, Norwood, IL

The Best Cigar Lounge award is for cigar lounges that do not serve alcohol. Regina stated that these lounges are “a [refuge] of friendship and camaraderie, where all are welcome to savor the bliss of premium, handmade tobacco products while enjoying the company of great friends. Both those who have been recently made and those who have been friends for years.”

This year’s winners are:

  • Diebel’s Sportsmen Gallery, Kansas City, Missouri (Midwest Region)
  • Industrial Cigar Company, Fresco, Texas (South Region)
  • Tobacco Shop, Ridgewood, New Jersey (North Region)
  • Cigar Mas Fino, Fresno, California (West Region)

The final category for this inaugural ceremony is Best Cigar Bar. Regina stated that this category “…offers various libations to go with the cigar to create the elegant dance that results in the perfect pairing for the customer to enjoy.” 

This year’s winners are:

  • Fox Cigar Bar, Scottsdale, Arizona (West Region)
  • Final Third Cigar and Whiskey Lounge, Ingalls, Indiana (Midwest Region)

Cigars on the Avenue, Winter Park, FL (South Region)

Erick Huertas