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By: Lindsay Heller
The name "Ashton" is synonymous with higher-end offerings in the premium cigar world, but as a brand, it's a mere 37 years-old. Encompassing a portfolio made in the Dominican (Tabacalera A. Fuente) or Nicaragua (Tabacalera My Father), brand founder Robert Levin got his start after his father purchased the historic Philadelphia cigar store, Holt's. A young Levin assumed control of Holt's in the 1970s, and after a successful retail expansion and burgeoning mail order business proved stable, he decided it was time to create a brand of his own.
Levin went into Ashton's creation with a clear vision: he wanted a mellow cigar to suit the tastes of the day, and he wanted it to be Connecticut-wrapped. Given his retail experience he knew all the major manufacturers, but deciding to work with the Fuente family was a no-brainer given their long-standing presence in the industry, and their similar penchant for luxury. One day a friend who was importing a distributing Ashton pipes asked Levin what he'd be naming his upcoming brand, but Robert didn't answer. Without a better alternative, his friend quipped that he should call it "Ashton," and thus Ashton Cigars was born.
The Fuente family wasn't the first to manufacture Ashton, however—it was Henke Kelner. Prior to heading up Davidoff's cigar production in the Dominican Republic, Kelner was in Colombia; his original Dominican factory known simply as Tabacos Dominicanos (Tabadom) was then managed by another party. Levin began working on Ashton's first release circa 1983-84, and it came to market two years later. Ashton was manufactured at Tabadom for a couple of years before Levin made the switch to Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia.
Once Levin struck up a deal with Carlito Fuente, what we now know as Ashton Classic was reworked according to the two men's tastes. The new brand experienced steady growth until 1993, when things doubled and then tripled rapidly after an initial high rating was published in an early issue of Cigar Aficionado. Ashton became a million-unit brand in 1994 and ever since, continued to expand their output and their offerings.
At this time of tremendous growth Robert's son, Sathya, but remembers being drawn to the cigar business despite his parents not pressuring him to do so. From the age of 13, Sathya could be seen sweeping the warehouse floor and breaking down boxes during his school vacations; upon graduating college in 2004, he knew he wanted to join the family business full-time and has never looked back. Sathya proudly recognizes being the third generation carrying the Levin family name and the Ashton brand name into the future, and cites his father and grandfather as part of his motivation to succeed. In the years since he's come on-board, Ashton has experienced a variety of changes to both diversify their cigar portfolio and their corporate portfolio, but two things remain true: quality and consistency are paramount for this father-son team.
From its core, Ashton's foundation is built on a bond between multiple generations of the Levin and Fuente families—there's a mutual admiration for classic flavor profiles, and the tobaccos which form them. After the '90' rated Ashton Classic became the brand's keystone, Robert Levin worked with Carlito Fuente to methodically expand, matching the evolving taste of the modern cigar smoker. Enthusiasts can choose from now-emblematic blends such as Ashton Aged Maduro ('92' rated), Ashton Cabinet ('91' rated), Ashton Heritage Puro Sol ('94' rated), Ashton ESG and Ashton VSG (both '94' rated), and Ashton Symmetry ('94' rated).
Another prominent father-son team is none other than José 'Don Pepín' García and Jaime García of My Father Cigars who, together with Robert and Sathya, have reimagined two classic Cuban brands: La Aroma de Cuba and San Cristobal. Both portfolios contain a plethora of '90'+ ratings, and many line extensions continue to appear on multiple Cigar Aficionado Top 25 lists. (Most recently the San Cristobal Quintessence was ranted the #3 of 2021 and awarded a '95' rating.) The use of Nicaraguan tobacco to emulate Cubanesque profiles came about in the 21st century, and Pepín is one of the manufacturers accredited with launching Nicaragua into the cigar limelight.
Under the careful guidance of his father, Sathya Levin literally has learned his family's business from the ground-up. Robert stresses the importance of patience and always doing things the right way, and it seems Sathya's methodical climb up the proverbial ladder is indicative of Robert instilling into him "the Ashton way". Simply listening to Sathya speak about Ashton and its future, it's obvious that he is both an optimist and his father's son: he believes in supreme quality, spending a lot of time on new product development, not flooding the market with excess, and that each new release must fill a void within the overall company portfolio. For the Levins it's never about making a quick buck, but rather building the all-too-important relationship between themselves and consumers—something that which despite the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen their business grow. Both men believe cigar smokers prefer to take refuge in the familiar, citing quality, consistency, and reverence for time-honored tradition when electing to spend money on premium cigars.
Although Robert Levin is in his mid-70s, he's young-at-heart. Still highly active in the business he built, he recently completed a seven-year term as Chairman of Cigar Rights of America (CRA) in 2021; following again in his father's footsteps, Sathya was elected to fill the vacant seat in May of last year. Now the Executive Vice President and COO of Ashton, and CRA Board Member, Sathya will continue to fight alongside other prominent families and individuals so that the premium cigar industry as we know it can continue for at least another generation. Never willing to reveal his hand too soon, if following his father's example continues to be Sathya's guiding principle, there's no doubt that Ashton will thrive for many years to come.
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