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  • Writer's pictureBen Balliro

What is a Boutique Brand Anyway?

Updated: May 8, 2020

Some say it’s based on the number of cigars a company produces and the exclusive choices of cigars to choose from. Others say it’s how long you’ve been in the cigar industry as manufacturer. Both of these responses are correct in their own way, but is there a definitive answer as to what exactly is a boutique brand?

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines boutique as: “a small company that offers highly specialized services or products”. Now the next question is what is considered a “small” company? In the cigar world there are several large companies employing hundreds sometime thousands of employees in the production of cigars. Brands like Ottenger Davidoff, Rocky Patel, Oliva Cigar Co. and of course Padron cigars. These companies can have multiple factories and produce a global scale. E.g. Oliva Cigar Co. produces cigars in a 60,000-square-foot in a rolling facility located in Estelí, Nicaragua, capable of producing up to 50,000 cigars per day. One of the most infamous producers of premium tobacco is Aganorsa Leaf. Although they also make their own cigars, they also grow tobacco over 1200 acres and produce an average of 7 million cigars a year, and it’s growing annually.

There are, however, other smaller brands such as Nomad, Room 101, Viaje, Foundation Cigars, Global Premium Cigars a.k.a. 1502, Warped, and J.F.R. (Just For Retailers) and to a more popular boutique brand Illusione. These brands do not necessarily have multi-generational family pedigrees passed down from 100's of years of practice. Sure the tobacco they use may be from the D.R. or Nic., but the owners of these brands are relatively new compared to the Olivas or the Padrons of this industry. They don’t employ hundreds of factory workers or a massive factory custom built in Nicaragua. They borrow their production within some of the larger well known factories already built. For example, the aforementioned tobacco grower Aganorsa Leaf produces cigars for Illusione, Warped, and J.F.R. Although Aganorsa produces over 7 million, Warped produces less than 1 million per year. It’s still a lot, but where does boutique production end and “major brand” production numbers begin?

In a cigar filled interview Pete Johnson of Tatuaje did with Cigar Aficionado, he makes an interesting point towards the boutique argument. Pete said [referring to his own brand], “...if you look at each line extension I think they are all boutique, as a company as a whole, maybe not so boutique.“ I think I know what he’s talking about because he also mentioned in the interview that his original Brown Label line production in Miami is about 400k cigars. His cigars produced in Nicaragua is about 2.5 million. When you combine his entire production and distribution it’s around 3 million worldwide; which according to his opinion has arguably transcended what we think of as “boutique”.

Did you know that in 1980, E.P. Carrillo was handed the reigns of his father’s company El Credito Cigar Co.? It was a small cigar factory operation in Miami that produced a few hundred thousand handmade cigars each year. Peanuts when you compare it to Aganorsa 7m+ cigars a year. The long term repercussions from that little "boutique" brand, however, flourished one of the tobacco giants of our industry; E.P. Carrillo Cigar Co. what is now a worldwide household name.

One of the things I like about small boutique brands is their sometimes limited production runs; kind of like microbreweries that release that "special" beer only once a year. It works the same in the cigar world, these limited production releases generates a cult-like following of brand loyal followers and curious what new limited edition recipes are in store for them. I think it fuels the creativity and innovation of small business owners. They have to be creative and innovative to stand out in the crowd and attract attention, then also deliver a phenomenal product to keep that small group repeating customers. Some of the most delicious smokes you and I enjoy everyday start off as "boutique".

As I said, E.P. Carrillo grew from humble beginnings with his dad's company. Pete Johnson of Tatuaje has only really been in the game since 2003. Jose Orlando Padron of Padron Cigars got his company started in the early 1960's when Jose was looking for work so he could save up money, a friend of his who worked in the Cuban Refugee Office gifted Jose a small hammer since Jose had previous carpentry experience. Jose worked hard and saved up 600 dollars which was enough to open his own cigar factory and turned into colossus of a company. Jonathan Drew of Drew Estate cigars started with him and his best friend Marvin Samel selling cigars in a small retail kiosk in the World Trade Center; now has arguably the largest cult following of any cigar company in the market. Rocky Patel got his start as an attorney and went into the business almost blindfolded and worked hard to gain traction and through much heartbreak and perseverance, has now become a premium tobacco empire.

Of course there are many other boutique brands that I didn't mention here, these are just some of the more popular Slumdog Millionaire stories. I've met a few of the aforementioned superstars over the years like Pete Johnson of Tatuaje, E.P. Carillo, Enrique Sanchez of G.P.C. (1502), Matt Booth of Room 101 Cigars, and I've met Fred Rewey former owner of Nomad. I can honestly tell you these guys really are that cool. Super friendly, knowledgable, down to earth and also very passionate about what they do and the quality behind their products. It's an industry unlike any other I've experienced. That's why we have to fight harder now than ever, so we don't lose this spark we've generated in this smokeless world.

My opinion, however, is not the only one that matters. Please contact us with your thoughts and ideas, and whether you agree or disagree. Thanks for reading.

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