Interview: Felix Assouline
This is the first interview 99 Cigars has conducted since launching back in November of 2017. In the cigar cosmos of today, there is no shortage of compelling and entertaining stories due largely to the constantly evolving culture of our cigar community. From the frontline farm hands to the indulgent cigar smoker, authenticity, like fresh rich cream, rises to the top naturally. There are plenty of cigar makers out there who claim to have you, the cigar enthusiast, and your best interests in mind though inasmuch as your wallet. Their motus operandi or “passion” smack more of a punchline or marketing gimmickry. I naturally gravitated to Felix Assouline Cigars as our passions, like a Columbo-tuned Ferrari V-12, drives what we do. It is the defining characteristic and more than anything it is crystal clear because ultimately within the sea of antagonists, WE must be satisfied with our own body of work. Felix has kindly agreed to sit down with me and humor us with a candid glimpse into what a world of passion looks and feels like.
99: I understand one of your first passions was writing, can you tell me about that?
FA: Since this is your first question, I would guess you are a writer of some kind. Am I right?
99: Yes, I am, but I’m better at smoking cigars.
FA: I like writing screenplays and other film related projects. It’s a very specific type of writing. You have to show an action through as few words of dialogue without any prose of any kind. I have degrees from NYU in filmmaking. In Los Angeles, I applied to the American Film Institute for screenwriting and did well there. I was working with producers at the time when I started in the cigar industry. At the time, I was quite an impatient young man and since making films is slower than the fastest hare, I decided to spend some time selling cigars. I’m still with cigars.
99: Tell me more about your first experience smoking a cigar and what about it continues to ignite your passion.
FA: My cousin, an avid cigar smoker kept asking me to join him and open a cigar lounge. Since I had never smoked anything before, I had no desire or intention to do so. He insisted for quite a long while. Made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Give me a cigar, I said. I’ll smoke it and if I like it, we’ll do something. If I don’t, then go away and leave me be. So he countered with a Davidoff Robusto Special “R”. My cousin was no fool, he knew how to draw me in. I loved it. It was smooth, clean, no bitter after taste. It made me slightly woozy. I liked it. So I was and still am, over 20 years later.
99: Prior to making your own cigars, what is/was your favorite cigar and why?
FA: In the beginning, I smoked everything. As my palate developed, I became a cigar snob. I was first introduced cigars with Davidoff, Arturo Fuente and Padron. After, it was a question of how other cigars measured up. I know that people claim that it takes them up to a third or a quarter of a cigar before they can tell you how a cigar is. I have no such compulsions at this point. Whether it offends or not, I can tell with a couple of minutes how a cigar is going to perform throughout. Living by the motto that “life is too short to smoke a bad cigar” is quite important to me. If I’m going to have a relationship for the next couple of hours, it better be a deep and meaningful relationship. Who has time for a quickie and then walk away? I want it all. I want to inhale that aroma that lifts my spirits as I spend my time with my friends or look within and ponder the meaning of life. Can you do that when all you want to do is spit out that offending stick in your mouth?
99: What drove you to blend and make your own cigars and how has that experience changed your opinion of the cigar industry?
FA: My life is like making a movie. I’m not into epics. That being said, I like to have new experiences all the time. I have had many businesses that I open, work, build up and then sell to try something altogether new. With the cigar business, I had retail shops, was a distributor for many years, so it was quite a natural fit that the next endeavor if I was going to stay in the cigar business would be to produce cigars. I was new to the business.
I was certainly not going to have private brands make their sticks if I had no idea what I was doing. So the only way was to make my own. There are so many facets to the industry of producing a cigar that it has kept my attention these many years. It took over six months to learn how to blend my first cigar. My first effort is what we now call the CSB Vintage. I first had other people blending but I quickly shied away from that. If I was going to have a factory making cigars, shouldn’t they be my efforts? Otherwise it would be the same as selling other people’s cigars and that, I was tired of.
As I spend more and more time making cigars, I found it quite bewildering to that so many people make subpar cigars. There are so many wonderful tobaccos out there, so picking out good tobaccos can be learned, but what happens after? So I have this to say on the subject which I have discussed at length with many people. I am not by any means glorifying my efforts or proclaiming that I make great cigars. However, the final answer is that people don’t know how to smoke. It is an acquired art. To finally be able to put those dead leaves together in such a way that they come alive with joy as you put a flame to the foot, roast it well and then take a deep puff. This is the true mystery to be solved. Which leaf will marry another and create a wonderful experience, that is what drives me. I am altogether terrified to offend anyone with a subpar product, so I make cigars that I can enjoy. If others enjoy them as well, I am truly overjoyed. If not, well then, at least I have one good satisfied customer, me.
99: As a boutique cigar manufacturer, what is your greatest concern about the impact of the new FDA regulations?
FA: Not sure yet since they haven’t been clear about them as of yet. So far, they have vacillated from one end of the spectrum to the other. Only time will tell what the final decisions will be and how they affect our industry. What I can definitely say is that we are an industry of adults, no minors allowed or interested, so aren’t we old enough to know what is good for us or not? Why does the government need to involve itself in an industry that polices itself anyway?
99: What was your inspiration behind the “Ego” series and can you describe how the development and release of the Ego Red “put you on the map?”
FA: If it is a map, it is a small map for now. I make cigars that inspire me and words are very important to me. To enjoy a cigar is not like smoking a cigarette in furtive seclusion. Enjoying a cigar is like beating your chest and proclaiming “I made it”, I am one of the cool guys. I can sit in a comfortable chair, light up a beautiful cigar, lean back and take a deep draw. Ego has a lot to do with it since you need a healthy ego to go forth in the world. Shouldn’t your cigar be reflective of your outlook on life? Smoke it like you live it.
It just seemed quite natural to extend the EGO line. Since each blend is total different, we now have EGO Red, EGO Black, EGO White (which a client of ours smoked and negotiated to purchase the entire production), and now we are at work on the new EGO Ocean Blue.
Exclusive video: One of Felix’s aging rooms where his cigars age for a minimum of 5 years
99: I’m astounded that more publications and reviewers have not picked up on your portfolio: why is that?
FA: You have to add retailers and a slew of cigar smokers to the list of publications and reviewers. So far, we have had many reviewers, bloggers, retailers consumers write and say glowing things about our cigars. However, it is a mystery to me as well. One of my assumptions is that people may wonder at who the hell I am? I admit I am not the greatest marketer. I have a hard time beating my chest and proclaiming to the world to try my cigars. I’m from the old school of “Build it and they will come”. People are slowly recognizing us, and so puff after puff, we will slowly fill the air of cigar lounges and porches with our aromatic smokes.
As a recent large retailer and mailing house said to me “How come I never heard you? How is that a man that makes cigars like these be invisible? “ So I told him to buy a lot of boxes and I will not be invisible to him any longer, so he did.
99: With the boom of many new brands being released, largely due to the impending FDA restrictions, do you think this is a good thing that so many are rushing to market?
FA: Is anything rushed ever really good?
99: Many start-ups of all kinds usually commit to a goal of selling off the company within 10 years. Do you foresee selling to an Altadis, General cigar or other multi-label conglomerate?
FA: Well, it’s over 10 years. I’ve been sitting by the phone and it hasn’t rung yet. I didn’t start to make cigars with the intention of selling it off. If I continue to make cigars the way I want and people choose to buy and smoke them, then why should I sell? On the other hand, if someone did offer to buy our brands and it was an offer that couldn’t be refused, then I would have many stipulations. For example, I would want to work our brands as long as I possibly with the people I trust now and work with; developing new brands and blends; making sure that all of the people who are in production in Nicaragua and Honduras are able to work with us, etc.
99: When is your favorite time to light up a cigar?
FA: I love to smoke a cigar that was just rolled, fresh from the roller’s hand. The cigars in the mornings at the factory are amazing with a cup of Nicaranguanese coffee, black and sweet. I absolutely love smoking cigars while I’m on the road anytime, and finally at the end of an evening with a friend or alone by the pool.
99: Do you ever attend or exhibit at any of the trade shows, and if so, which ones do you prefer?
FA: If I do, it’s usually the IPCPR. You know why you’re there and why others are there, for the cigars, period. Other shows combine many industries and you never know who you’re talking to.
99: Do you think social media has helped cigar makers like yourself or is there a high price?
FA: I believe social media is great. It lets everyone chime in about what’s important to them about the industry. A long time ago, you can make a subpar product and get away with it. Today, I find that people find you out quickly for the good and for the bad. People will let you know if you’re doing well or not. Manufacturers with subpar products are following the formula of accelerated outright fabrications, more advertising and their products ending up at mailing houses with incredibly low prices. If your products are so great, why would you bastardize your name and products by selling them there? Consumers and brick-and-mortars slowly lose faith in the brands.
99: Can you give us a taste of what future releases are in store from Felix Assouline Cigars?
FA: Since I don’t know what the FDA rulings are going to be, I am going to keep working on our old brands and expand on those, namely CSB, EGO, Ringo, II Saints, Something Special, Havana Sunrise and others such as FIERCE, Tiempo Libre that I haven’t released in years.
99: The cigar industry is, by nature, very incestuous. Can you share with us who you like most to collaborate with?
FA: I am not sure what you mean by collaboration? Is it in producing cigars or in distribution? As far as distribution, I would like to work with people who understand and appreciate our products. As far as producing cigars, I love working with people that “get it”. People that are shopping for price usually go to other manufacturers, so enough said about that.
99: I’m amazed at what passion can drive us to do, but what are 2-3 pointers you would give someone who wanted to make their own cigars?
FA: Bluntly said and repeated often is the phrase I always use, “Any dick with $10,000 can make their own line of cigars.” We see them all the time. People walk in to a manufacturer, says he wants to make a cigar so the manufacturer puts down some stock blends, the potential client lights up and usually the deed is done. There are some variations, of course but that’s basically it. The problem is even if you like the blend you were handed, you don’t know that it’s going to the blend you get on the next shipment or on the one after that. However, that is not the question you asked. For me, the first step would be to learn how to smoke well. Smoke as many different cigars as you can and learn to differentiate the nuances of each blend you try out. After you smoke a cigar halfway, take a knife and rip the cigar lengthwise, look and smoke each leaf individually and see how that translates to the entire cigar. Then pick up another of the same cigar and smoke it again. Now you have an idea how each leaf corresponds to each other.
The next thing I would do is visit the main countries of production, Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. Visit small and large factories, taste their products with your new-found sense of smoking. After you choose a factory to make your cigar, ask to see how they process their tobacco and have them take you through that process. There is so much to write on this subject that it would take days to properly answer it all.
99: I’m sure you’ve experienced many highs and lows on your journey to making premium cigars, but what would you consider your fondest memory so far?
FA: To finally smoke my first blend that I actually enjoyed and to tell all the expectant rollers and bunchers that we have a blend and they can start to work the next day. The next day, when the rollers were stacking the cigars on the day’s production, to walk over, reach for one and light up your cigar, your blend, now that is heaven never to be forgotten.
As I listened to Felix’s words, I thought about folks like him who were bitten by the cigar bug and were driven to higher and higher levels of involvement in the industry. While maybe not their initial ambition, the common thread with the top cigar makers is the unwavering belief that cigars can be so much better – higher quality, a more robust flavor palette and a lot of possibilities. There are a lot of lousy cigars out there and we’ve all smoked at least one. I agree with Felix that the cigar industry is becoming at little more transparent. I think its fair to say this is not just due to the rise of new and upcoming boutique makers or the generalization of a “more competitive marketplace.” It’s that special DNA within each one. Just going through the motions with mediocre blends, blanket marketing and clever positioning is not going to get it done. Fewer and fewer cigar enthusiasts are allowing themselves to be fooled. As Felix said, life truly is too short to smoke bad cigars. I’ve tasted it for myself with the FAC Ego Red and CSB Habano. My final thought is that some, like Felix and his group, are finally putting passion where their mouth is.
We’re incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity to chat with Felix in between his tireless travel. I’d also like to give special thanks to VP of FAC, D’Artagnan Clark, for his invaluable guidance, assistance and comic relief. Stay connected as we’ll have more reviews on Felix’s upcoming super secret releases. – In Fumo Pax!