For AJ Fernandez, it has been a quick ascension to the top of the cigar industry where today he works side by side with his father as one of the youngest, most accomplished master blenders and cigar makers in the premium market. On a recent visit to Nicaragua, I had the unique opportunity to sit down with both AJ and his father to see what they have been up to since Ismael (AJ’s father) joined the company last year.
Alex: Your family has a long pedigree in the cigar industry. How did it all start?
Ismael: My father Andres (AJ’s grandfather) immigrated to Cuba and he immediately fell in love with tobacco. It was not long before he commenced to work in the business, growing and processing tobacco and making cigars in Cuba’s famed Pinar del Rio region. My earliest memories were working side by side with him in all facets of the business. I loved spending my mornings at the farm and afternoons in the production area at the factory.
Alex: What kinds of cigars were made at the factory?
Ismael: The factory mainly worked with long leaf tobaccos and produced premium cigars. The factory name was San Lotano and the cigars made there were of the same name.
AJ: That is why our current San Lotano line made in Nicaragua is so near and dear to my heart. I had been making cigars for several years for various clients and when it was time for me to launch my own brand, the concept and blend came very easy for me. In many ways, I had been thinking about what the blend and look of the product would be my whole life. I always wanted to do something on a large scale to celebrate my family’s history in the cigar industry.
Alex: A great deal occurred between the time Andres planted his first seeds and the first San Lotano came off the table in Nicaragua. Can you take us back in time and describe how you two ended up here today, finally working together again?
Ismael: The industry changed quite a bit in the 1960’s in Cuba as was everything at that time. While we were no longer making San Lotano, I remained in the industry and was as passionate about tobacco as ever and continued to exercise my talents as a tobacco grower and processor while still finding the time to produce a limited number of cigars. AJ was born in 1979 and as he grew up he reminded me so much of myself. He spent every minute he could with me in the fields. He was like a sponge, absorbing all the knowledge that was passed down to me by my father and his passion was evident from the earliest age. I knew immediately he was destined for great things. In the 1990’s there was an enormous boom in demand for cigars in the US market and I was invited by the Plasencia Family to join their operations in Nicaragua to help them keep up with the mounting demand. Leaving AJ was difficult, but I knew for our family’s legacy to continue, the future would be in Central America. Being invited by the Plasencias to join them was a true honor. They are the largest growers of Cuban seed tobacco in the world and have a history in tobacco that dates back even further than our own. They put me to work immediately upon arrival and I ultimately managed the largest tobacco processing factory in Central America for them. I cherished this time in my life. Processing tobacco in my opinion is where the real magic happens so to speak. It is where the tobacco takes on its ultimate flavor and identity. By 2004 I had finally gotten everything in order to start bringing my family to Nicaragua to join me.
AJ: Upon arriving in Esteli, the industry looked very different to me than what I had known in Cuba. I worked in a variety of jobs and capacities in the industry in Northern Nicaragua from production, growing, processing and even selling cigars. My priority was my family and providing for my wife Janet. I credit these two years as being the most important in my life. Specifically, while I certainly observed and felt the passion of the cigar community in Nicaragua, I could not help but notice so many of the old traditions in working with tobacco had either been forgotten or were being ignored. Mass production of cigars had replaced what I had been raised to understand is an artisan craft and the patient process of nurturing tobacco from seed to finished cigar had been sped up to a point where most of the tobacco on the market was not reaching its full potential. It was this realization that set my dreams into motion. I began to devote everything I had to bringing traditional cigar making to Nicaragua. I rented a small house in town and hired 6 pairs (a pair is both a roller and buncher) and started making cigars. Having the right people in place was key to my success and I trained many people from Cuba to assist me with this. Today, Tabacalera Fernandez is one of the largest operations in Nicaragua. We have 150 pairs and produce 12 million cigars a year. To accommodate our production, our tobacco comes from over a dozen countries from throughout the world, much of it grown on our own farms which we have acquired over the last six years.
Alex: That is quite an accomplishment in just nine years and such an amazing story. Working closely with the end consumers here in the states, I always tell cigar makers, if you focus on quality and make a great product, the rest will fall into place. So when did Ismael leave Plasencia to join you?
Ismael: I joined AJ in 2014. The timing just felt right. I was getting older and I wanted to spend the final stages of my career like they started, working with my son. Since his arrival in Nicaragua and through his ascension in the cigar industry, we always spent a great deal of time together and I was frequently at his factory. That said, I remember the day I walked through the front gate officially as his colleague and not a guest. I had seen the name “Fernandez” outside many times but that day, it took on very special meaning. I remembered thinking to myself, “Look at what my son has created!”
Alex: What were those first few days like?
Ismael: I immediately realized that AJ was in desperate need of help. As he pointed out, he had a great team but the factory faced many challenges. There was considerable demand for the cigars he was making and because he had an unwavering commitment to patience and tradition, he had a hard time keeping up, never rushing the process in the name of getting orders out the door. The operation had become so expansive between the farms, processing and production that he literally needed to be in two places at the same time. I was able to take on the other half of that workload.
AJ: Having my father here was an instant relief for me. I’m not sure our company would have been able to take the necessary next steps without him. Today we are both at the farms a minimum of twice each day and spend the rest of the time ensuring our employees from top to bottom live the values of patience and tradition we have put in place. The blends we are making today are the best and most complex we have ever produced.
Alex: What was your first project together?
AJ: Once my father settled in and the factory was running on all cylinders, we devoted a great deal of time thinking about the next steps for our brands. It was clear to me that customers demand quality and value above all. I don’t mean value in terms of inexpensive, but rather that the end consumer wants a cigar that will perform well and that they get more than their moneys worth. If I make a $6 cigar I want it to perform like a $10 cigar. If I make a $10 cigar, I want it to smoke like a $15 cigar. It was this line of thinking that paved the way for our New World brand which debuted at the 2014 IPCPR trade show. It has everything from exceptional flavor, balance, body and combustion. The name New World is very significant, not just its historical significance in tobacco but also within our company. It marks a new era of our family working side by side once again and we wanted a cigar that would be priced in such a way that we could share this experience with all cigar lovers, regardless of their budget. I will be the first one to admit, we really don’t make any money on New World, but the project was not about that. I was elated this past winter when Cigar Journal awarded the brand the #1 cigar of the year for 2014. It is a constant reminder that passion, quality and the customer focus must always direct our decisions. If you focus on these principles good things will happen.
Alex: So what’s next?
AJ & Ismael (in unison): Connecticut!!!
Ismael: We noticed the New World blend appealed greatly to natural and maduro cigar enthusiasts alike. We will be launching a very rich and creamy Connecticut version before the summer.
Alex: Is there anything you would like to add before we wrap up?
Ismael: Just a reiteration that I am so proud of my son.
AJ: I’d like to thank all of the fans out there that have been loyal to our brands, without such wonderful customers, I would not be sitting here today living my dream of once again working alongside my father.