Welcome to our 2014 IPCPR Trade Show Preview.  During the next five weeks, we will provide a preview into the cigar industry’s biggest event – the 2014 IPCPR Trade Show that begins on July 19th.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll have a weekly preview from an industry standpoint.  In between, expect lots of announcements and previews from the manufacturers.   Today as we have done in the past, we open the 2014 series with a look at five boutique cigar companies to watch.

This has become now our traditional kickoff to our IPCPR 2014 coverage.  Like we have done in the past, when we look at our definition of a boutique company, we are looking at it more from a business point of view as opposed to a cultural point of view.  Our boutique focus will be on the emerging  boutique companies as opposed to established ones. We look for a company that might be floating under there radar.  We also look for a company ready to “break through”. Finally, we look for companies in which for the most part the individuals behind it are relative newcomers to the cigar business 

In 2012, we provided guidelines for defining a boutique company.  As we said in the past, this is not a precise definition.  They are the criteria we used for this article – and are more slanted from a business perspective. It caused a lengthy debate in the past.  The most important thing is that these are our guidelines and a boutique cigar company will not satisfy all of these criteria:

-The size of the company is relatively small
-The company does not own their own tobacco fields, and if they do, it is usually a small farm.
-The company does not own a factory, and if they do, it usually is a small factory.
-The company usually has under 5 brands.
-The company does not have a large production of cigars due to their size and/or tobacco limitations
-From a retail perspective, careful consideration of bringing in the line must be considered as usually something needs to come out of the humidor for the boutique to come in. 

Each year, there has been a boutique that usually has been the “buzz” of the trade show.  In this list, this is who to keep an eye on as to who might be the buzz of the trade show.  None of these picks are rookies to the IPCPR, but they truly are emerging and exciting companies on the rise. We list these selections in alphabetical order.

Black Label Trading Company

Black Label Trading Company is a boutique company from Texas run by James Brown.  The company is a true small batch boutique company as they employ a small batch, high quality process.  The company launched seven distinct blends over the past year.  From a retailer standpoint much of their presence has been in the Texas / Louisiana area.  At the same time, the cigars have been developing a nice following to those who have smoked them.

Black Label Trading Company incorporates Central and South American tobaccos in their blends, but a constant is that each of the seven blends contains Nicaraguan tobacco. One thing I’ve noticed is that the company is not trying to do cookie-cutter blends, but really carve their own niche.  Recently Black Label Trading Company launched their seventh line, Morphine.  What is distinctive about this cigar is that it features an outer and inner wrapper (San Andres Maduro and Ecuadorian Maduro respectively) – in addition to binder and filler.  This further exemplifies the the company’s ability to think out of the box.

Outlook: This company has all of the makings for a breakout year at IPCPR.  The cigars they have been released have been well received and what they are doing gives a lot of retailers a reason to make room on their shelves.  Production on all of the lines is still limited, but there is a nice variety of options to choose from.  My gut tells me Morphine will be the company’s star of the show. Coming out of IPCPR I see the footprint of retailers to expand to a more nationwide view.

Epicurean Cigars

Epicurean Cigars is a company run by Steven Ysidron.  About 18 months ago, Ysidron became the sixth company to be distributed by House of Emilio.  In terms of brand identity under House of Emilio, Epicurean Cigars has a distinct focus – small batch, Nicaraguan-based blends using premium crop tobaccos.

In a lot of ways, Epicurean has been the one brand that has flown under the radar under House of Emilio.  Much of that has because 2013 was a quiet year for Epicurean, however 2014 was a different story.  The company came out with a bang releasing its fourth blend called the Gonzo Santeria.  The Santeria was released with much critical acclaim.  In fact, we scored this one a 92 back in March.

The company has three more releases planned over the next few months.  There will be another cigar in the Santeria line called the Santeria Mojo.  The company also has announced on its web-site the Epicurean Carnivale is also coming this June.  A third cigar called the Southern Railroad is planned this winter.

Outlook: New product is always a good thing.  My feeling is on the release on the Gonzo Santeria alone was enough to give this House of Emilio brand a lot of attention – especially those House of Emilio shops which might not have paid attention to this brand in the past.  The company has three other small batch lines in the Gonzo Vintage 2007, AG Vintage 2007, and the AG Azul Vintage 2008.  Small batch or not, the quality is here with this line.  Epicurean has all of the ingredients to be one of the hottest brands out of the show.

Fratello Cigars

Fratello Cigars is a company that in one year has made a big a splash as any boutique company starting out from the ground floor.It was about a year ago when a new boutique company called Fratello Cigars announced the launch of their company and their eponymous cigar.  The company is run by a newcomer to cigar-making named Omar de Frias.  A month later, the cigar was given to attendees of the FDA seminar at the 2014 IPCPR Trade Show.  While this gave the company a nice jump start, it is what happened afterwards that is nothing short of amazing.  De Frias began a grassroots journey which he calls his “retailer countdown” and hit what he terms “Fratello Road”.  This involved visiting retailers and consumers and spreading the word of his cigar.

De Frias is involved with all operations of production and distribution of his product.  He took the time to learn both perspectives of the cigar business.  On top of that, the Fratello Cigar was a big hit – scoring a 92 on Cigar Coop.  He is also growing his company slowly – planning only one release this year.  This cigar will be a box-press torpedo that is a modification of his original blend called the Fratello Boxer.

Outlook:  De Frias and Fratello could easily have been considered best newcomer to the industry in 2013.  He has gone from unknown to being on the map.  No doubt retailers who might not have been on the path of Fratello Road will have this company on the radar.  Those retailers that have had his product will be targeting the new Fratello Boxer.  The big question is with De Frias still virtually one man show, can he keep up with the growth?  De Frias is a man who has a vision and has grown smartly.  I expect him to be very busy at the trade show.

Moya Ruiz Cigars

Moya Ruiz Cigars is named for the two principal partners, Danny Moya and Nelson Ruiz.  Moya Ruiz is the company behind the La Jugada Cigars line. The company was formed in late 2012 and work with Erik Espinosa’s La Zona factory to make their cigars. Early in 2013, they launched their first blend, the La Jugada Prieto.  Last year at the 2013 IPCPR, they launched their follow-up the La Jugada Habano.  In 2014, they have turned their attention to their third release – a limited edition cigar called the La Jugada Nunchuck.  This is a cigar that will be sold in pairs and feature two cigars fused together with a pig-tail – giving the appearance of a Nunchuck weapon.

The cigars have been very well-received.  Both the Prieto and Habano have built a nice following.  Back in March, Cigar Coop scored the La Jugada Habano a 94 – one of the highest scores we awarded for 2014.  Their footprint is already well established – in over 20 states that are geographically spread across the country.  Yet, there is still plenty of whitespace to tackle.

Outlook:  I expect the growth to continue, but I also expect the Nunchuck to garner considerable attention for obvious reasons.  Cigar Insider recently covered the announcement of this cigar in a recent issue, so that has given the company a nice boost on top of a very good social media presence.  The Habano and Prieto have been solid offerings and I expect many retailers to take notice or fill re-orders. Coming out of this show, Moya Ruiz will be a boutique that will be a very well known name.

Selected Tobacco

For the past couple of years, this has been the best kept secret in the cigar industry.  Selected Tobacco is run by Nelson Alfonso.  Alfonso is a graphic artist who is most famous for doing the artwork and packaging of the Cohiba Behike.  In 2012, he launched Selected Tobacco and has now launched three names – Atabey, Byron, and Bandolero.  Due to limited tobacco supplies, his brands were only distributed to United Retailers Network retailers.  This year, United Retailers is now opening things up for all retailers at the 2014 IPCPR.  Cigar Coop smoked the Atabey last year and the cigar scored a 95 – one of our highest scores for 2013.

The three lines are targeted more for the ultra-premium market.  The Atabey and Byron lines are priced over $20.00 per cigar while the Bandolero is priced over $10.00.   The cigars feature some very innovative packaging including humidified tubes and humidified jars.  As for the make-up of these cigars, Alfonso keeps these a close guarded secret – not disclosing any of the details.

Outlook: Those who have smoked Atabey, Byron, and Bandolero can relate to these blends being the best kept secret in the industry.  The price point and limited distribution have probably held these cigars back from making a splash.  With some of the distribution limitations lifted, there should be more interest in these lines.  While the price point is still high, these cigars can easily go along side premium offerings like Davidoff, Opus X, and Debonaire.  I expect the secret to no longer be kept coming out of the show.

What about others?

We will be covering some other boutiques such as Phil Zanghi’s Debonaire Cigars, Victor Vitale’s Legacy Brands, and Jose Blanco’s Las Cumbres Tabaco in some later installments.  While they are most certainly boutiques to watch, these are names that didn’t fit into our “relative newcomer” status.  These are companies doing some great things and generating a lot of interest in the industry and definitely will be spotlighted.

Other Parts to this series

Part 2: The Potential Cigar Trends
Part 3Manufacturer Spotlight
Part 4Around the Show Floor (First Pass)
Part 5Around the Show Floor (Second Pass)
Part 6Predictions for the Five Hottest Cigars
Part 7Around the Show Floor (Third Pass)