The Drew Estate Cigar Factory
Drew Estate stands out in Esteli, Nicaragua. Eschewing many of the traditional aspects of manufacturing hand-rolled cigars that you'll find in Pepin Garcia's factory, it has a more American flair, with the conversion of construction and marketing at every point in the process. Born of the minds of two Long Islanders, Drew Estate has grown into a substantial cigar manufacturing operation with an incredibly wide range of cigars and its own collection of secrets.
On my recent cigar trip to Nicaragua, I hadn't expected to visit Drew Estate. Hell, I'd never heard of it. I knew a few of the brands it produces but never related them back to Drew, simply because they aren't cigars that I smoke. Most of what comes out of Drew Estate is infused, with Acid cigars the most prominent. I don't look down my nose at those who smoke infused (hey, the point is to enjoy whichever cigar you choose), but I simply don't lean that way. Nonetheless, I was excited to see the factory, if only to deepen the experience.
I'm glad I did.
In addition to seeing an impressive cigar operation and learning of a fun travel alternative, I discovered that Drew Estate is also moving into the traditional cigar market, and its fairly new T9 and T52 cigars are certainly worth more than a few puffs. What's really staggering, though, is the planning and execution that goes into running a segmented operation that draws hard lines between the infused and traditional products.
Gallery: Drew Estate Cigar Factory
While Pepin's cigar complex is regimented and predictable, what happens in the different rooms at Drew Estate varies with the types of cigars being manufactured on each day. Staying nimble in regards to customer demand, the company is able to shift its workflow to address the needs of infused and traditional cigars, and significant care goes into ensuring that these two product types never cross, lest the infused products affect the taste of those that would appeal to mainstream cigar smokers.
While it can be a bit confusing, unless you're at the top of the food chain, the process clearly works. Sorting, bunching and rolling proceeds quickly and efficiently with tobacco that is purchased on the open market (Drew Estate doesn't have its own farms yet ... but hasn't ruled out the possibility for the future). The tracking involved transcends color-coding, with barcodes used to ensure traceability back to a particular roller and batch of tobacco. A two-filter quality control procedure has been implemented to minimize rejects and prevent inefficiency from driving up the prices on what is already marketed and sold as a premium product.
The atmosphere is relatively loose and casual, with rollers talking with each other from time to time and plenty of laughter rising above the music that plays in the background. The executives explained that this is by design. They have an easygoing style, and they are happy to see their employees adopt it. And, somewhat enlightened for rote manufacturing work, they believe that happy employees are more productive and deliver better quality. These measures, along with a commitment to the staff and the community, have contributed to low turnover and the retention of institutional knowledge at each rolling station – and across the company.
More than Manufacturing
While the principal activity on the Drew Estate compound is cigar manufacturing, the company's commitment to marketing and style is well-represented. It maintains an art studio on the premises, which takes care of design and production for all artwork associated with its brands. In-store posters, cigar labels and box artwork are designed in this studio, which also handles printing. But, there's an exciting side to this aspect of the business. The designers engaged are allowed to pursue their own artistic dreams using these facilities, as well. Their visions have contributed to the oversized replicas of Nicaraguan postage stamps that adorn the factory walls, not to mention an enormous mural in the "resort" section of the complex.
Yes, a resort.
"Cigar Safari" is where the marketing prowess of Drew Estate is most pronounced. In addition to giving visiting sales reps a place to stay, the rooms are often home to visiting cigar smokers, who can participate in the 16 trips a year that the company offers. Priced at a modest $450 for three nights, it provides a chance for consumers to become vocal advocates for the brand ... or at least committed cigar smokers who are more than happy to tell their friends about their stays.
In addition to the comfortable rooms that are available, guests have access to a pool and bar behind the guestrooms, not to mention a cigar lounge that boasts several large televisions, leather couches and a poker table where the action can last well into the night. Food is served, says Jonathan Drew, which definitely won't disappoint the company's guests.
While staying at Cigar Safari, there's little agenda (aside from the obvious, which certainly isn't hidden). Visitors are taken on tours of the factory, and they are given plenty of opportunity to relax by the pool, play a few hands of cards and sample al the cigars in Drew Estate's portfolio. The point of these trips is to make cigar smokers feel at home, help them get to know the Drew Estate brands and above else to allow them to enjoy their unique experience.
Despite the hospitality you'll encounter at Cigar Safari – and at Drew Estate in general – some doors will always remain closed. Jonathan Drew laughed when someone from my group asked to see how the cigars are infused, noting, "Someone always asks." While the guys at Drew are beyond pleasant and only too willing to answer your questions, they take the "secret sauce" seriously and protect it zealously. Nobody gets to see the infusion process without a damned good reason.
Since this is the key to the infused cigars that put Drew Estate on the map and continue to be the company's leading sellers, the caution is not only understandable but appropriate. Beg and plead, and you still won't be able to see the most important part of the manufacturing process. But, every "no" will be accompanied by a smile ... and probably an offer of one of the cigars that has benefitted from what you'll never get to see for yourself.
Interested in learning more? Check out these articles:
Five Reasons to Visit a Cigar Factory (Luxist)
How to Book a Cigar Tour (Gadling)