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An Interview with Steve Saka of Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust

During these unprecedented times, CIGAR.com focuses on our community of cigar enthusiasts, bringing interviews right into your home with some of the most prolific names throughout the industry. See our CIGAR.com Facebook Page for the full-length Virtual Herf Seminar with Steve Saka of Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust.

LH: We’ve got Steve Saka here live from New Hampshire, and I’m here in Pennsylvania at the CIGAR.com offices. After a 26-minute delay, welcome Steve!

SS: Yay! You know what, this is the reason why I don’t screw with stuff like this. You know, I just smoke, look pretty, and I’m a happy man. All this technology stuff, I’m leaving it to the kids. 

LH: In any case, I want to talk a little bit about your early background in this business before we get down to what you’re doing right now. I’ve heard you call yourself this kind of uber cigar geek, and in the late 80's – early 90's, you were doing a lot of cigar-related travel. Where did you go, and what spurred this whole fascination with tobacco?

SS: I became fascinated with cigars when I was enlisted in the Navy. It was the first exposure I had. And when I got out of the Navy and I actually started making a little money, I could start to smoke better. And once I started smoking a little better, it really grabbed me. It was the fact that it was such a simple thing, but yet so complex. And the more you peeled back the onion, there was just more to learn. More to learn about tobacco, more to learn about manufacturing, more to learn about the people involved in the industry, it’s an incredibly diverse, complex, and endless topic. Here I am 30+ years later, and I’m still learning things. It’s one of the things that makes it such an enchanting—I don’t want to call it a hobby—because it’s even more than that. For me, I know it’s kind of cliche, but it really is an integral part of my life. 

Once I started making a little bit more jack, I started traveling to the Dominican, Cuba, Honduras; I went to Nicaragua right after the Chamorro election—when the Civil War ended and Ortega stepped down they had their first free election, so my first time in Nica was in ’93. That just kind of spurred me to—I was spending so much money. I was spending tens of thousands. I know my wife may see this, so I’m not going to exactly say how much I was spending, but it was a lot. I had a good friend—John—who was spending even more than me, and we concocted this crazy scheme to start a cigar website. It was called Cigar Nexus. We were really using it as a way to just kind of funnel our cigar expenses through. It was never going to be a successful business, but it was a successful tax deduction—I could tell you that. We did that for about three years, and at that point, just couldn’t keep writing off a lot of money and not bringing any money in; we ended up shutting it down. Which then led to a gentleman I had met along the way was Lou Rothman—he was the owner of what was at the time, the largest retailer of cigars in the United States—he wanted me to write a book about cigars and tobacco because a couple things: I had no commercial axe to grind, and I really knew a lot because I had the benefit of talking with everybody. Everybody was very open and willing and you’ve got to remember this was before the cigar boom, so nobody ever went to these countries; nobody ever cared. So I started working on a book, but ultimately it ended up with me not writing a book and going to work for Lou. I was there for about four years, then I got approached by Drew Estate—I wasn’t interested. Then it was we’ll make you President, I wasn’t interested. Then, we’ll make you President and we’ll make you vested partner for no money in. Then I was really interested. I really liked that concept: to own part of a company and I don’t spend any money. So I went to Drew Estate as President in 2005, I was there for eight years, and I departed in the Summer 2013. Got bought out again, this time by the partners, and two years non-compete. Then I started the company that I am at now. 

What I always try to tell people is I have the worst career path in our business. Most people work their way from the bottom up, I’ve been pretty much working my way from the top down. Give me another 10 years, and I’ll be sweeping up trimmings from the factory floor. 

LH: When Cigar Nexus led to working with Lou, you’re attributed with being the personality behind bringing cigars to E-Commerce, which was still at that time relatively new. 

SS: Yeah, that was the first project I had. Sadly, none of these companies had any technical expertise at all. I wasn’t exactly very technical when it came to internet technology, but I was way smarter than the average bear at the time. That was one of my tasks: to get them into online and be profitable, successful, functional, and all of those things. So that was a big part of what I did. 

LH: After John Drew had approached you and you guys came to your agreement, was there any trepidation on your end—joining a company whose, at that time, claim to fame was infused tobacco?

SS: I had a non-compete which Altadis let me out of, because they all assumed I was going to work for a real company. I remember the words so vividly when I said ‘hey I was thinking about going to Drew.’ They were like ‘why would you go to work with romper room?’ They actually had some inside bets about how long I would last. 

The thing about Drew Estate for me that was appealing was—we’re in an industry where so much of it’s based on falsehoods and lies—in the case of Drew Estate, as crazy as Jonathan was, he was actually living in Nicaragua. He actually did have a factory. He actually had the capacity to make cigars, and for me that was something that I found very appealing. It’s one of these things where too much gets put into legacy. The reality of the situation is, it doesn’t take a lot to make great cigars. It takes really good materials. It takes really good standards, practices, and methodologies. 

I’m a very no-nonsense kind of individual all the way around. I’m that way about business, dealing with customers, dealing with just pretty much everything in life. It’s simpler. I have found that has served me well over the years, and I’m too old, I’m not going to change. It is what it is. 

LH: With your time at Drew as President and eventually CEO, we all in this world got Liga Privada—still one of the most in-demand brands today. I’m curious to know how you became so acquainted with Connecticut Broadleaf. It really wasn’t something that was on everybody’s radar.

SS: Well, it was always on my radar. I’ve been smoking cigars for three plus decades—I’ve smoked roughly about 100,000 handmade cigars. I go through phases like most consumers. The one consistent thing for me was, I always loved medium to full, heavier body, chewy smoke, Connecticut Broadleaf cigars. Now during the 80's and into the 90's, Connecticut Broadleaf was kind of looked down upon, frowned upon. It was considered too rustic, too rough. It wasn’t really a cigar tobacco that was meant for connoisseurs. It was always put on lower-priced, lower-grade style of products. Inherently it was a flavor profile that I had always loved. 

For the full-length Virtual Herf Seminar with Steve Saka of Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust, visit our CIGAR.com Facebook Page.

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