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By: Lindsay Heller
Women have often been used as a vehicle for advertising cigars, but seldom does one see a woman on the national stage as the ambassador for America’s best-selling brand. Enter Laurel Tilley: an energetic, enthusiastic, and avid cigar smoker bringing new life and a fresh perspective to Macanudo.
Upon her 18th birthday she enjoyed her first cigar, and shortly thereafter began her foray into the industry working at a retail store during college. Laurel made the leap to General Cigar Company nearly six years ago, eventually becoming the Brand Ambassador for Macanudo, which was a signal that change was coming to cigars many often associated with their grandfathers.
Although she came to her current role with a lot of knowledge and experience, she’s in a fortunate position when it comes to exposure to expertise. Naming industry legend Rick Rodriguez (longtime CAO Brand Ambassador, now President West Tampa Tobacco Co.) as her biggest supporter from day one, Rick never strayed away from questions or requested guidance. Then there’s all the staff in the factory and on the ground, many of whom are descended from multiple generations of tobacco farmers and cigar rollers. “One of my most recent favorite memories was going down to our factory in the Dominican Republic to work on my event blend. I got so much one-on-one time with all of the guys and they’re just so knowledgeable and encouraging. I love spending time down there because I always learn something new,” said Tilley.
Speaking of events, Laurel says they’re some of the best aspects of her job. She’s a frequent guest on podcasts, traverses the country visiting retail stores, and represents Macanudo at high-profile events like the Barstool Sports Golf Tournament. Some of you may be thinking, “Wow, that sounds so cool with all the cigars she gets to smoke,” but Tilley also admits a side-perk is being able to try foods from all over the country.
There’s a lot that goes into being a Brand Ambassador, let alone for one of the most famous names in the business. Laurel is a member of General Cigar’s Blend Selection Panel, where with a select group of peers she’s charged with choosing upcoming blends not only for Macanudo, but also for CAO, Cohiba, and Punch to name a few. Of course, the conversation quickly moves to tobacco preferences, and I’m delighted to learn we’re both big fans of Cameroon wrappers; when I inquired about her dream personal blend, she quickly says that Ometepe and Sumatra are a must. (This just goes to prove, gents, that some of us ladies have great taste!)
I don’t think one has to fashion themselves an aficionado to know that Macanudo has an important place within the annuls of cigar history. The term macanudo is Argentine slang for “terrific/cool/great,” and when it came to premium tobacco, its origins stem from a specific vitola produced in Guatemala by the makers of Cuban Punch cigars. (Fun Fact: Macanudo is one of the very few General Cigar lines to not have official Cuban heritage.) Later they were mainly produced for the British market, and Macanudo became the property of Temple Hall, a Jamaican cigar manufacturer. General Cigar acquired Temple Hall in 1969, and legendary blender Alfons Mayer was charged with making a new Macanudo. Mayer honed his skills in Cuba; he was instructed by then-CEO Edgar Cullman to use an aged wrapper – something unheard-of at the time – and thus the legendary Jamaican Macanudo was born.
Two years later in 1971, Ramón Cifuentes (of Cuban Partagás fame) was asked by Cullman to create yet another Macanudo, one specifically meant to appeal to the American market. This handmade housed a long-filler blend consisting of Dominican, Jamaican, and Mexican tobaccos, housed in a Connecticut wrapper grown on land Edgar Cullman’s family had been farming since the early 20th century. The wrapper leaf was aged up to three years, and together this premium delivered naturally sweet and earthy notes in a mellow package: this ladies and gentlemen was the birth of the original Macanudo Café.
Although there have been other noteworthy cigars during its more than 50-year history, I do want to highlight the modern Macanudo portfolio, as the brand has undergone a significant transformation in recent years. I think the Macanudo tagline “Evolution of an Icon” is rather telling, as 2016 saw the introduction of Inspirado in the US. Home to five unique and equally-delicious blends, the ‘93’-rated Orange made Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 of 2017 list, and most-recently, Green – the newest Inspirado – earned a ‘91’ a mere few months after its 2021 release.
With Inspirado Orange as one of Laurel’s go-to cigars, her advice to those learning their own palate is to always select what makes you feel comfortable. She dispels the false notion that the time one spends enjoying premium cigars must directly correlate with an increase in strength. “There is nothing wrong with being a seasoned smoker and still preferring something on the mellower end, or flavored. There is no specific path to follow and too many people jump in too quickly and find themselves with a cigar that they just aren’t ready for or that they don’t really like,” says Tilley. For those who have smoked for a long time, it’s understandable to have “a favorite cigar/brand/flavor profile,” but she aptly points out that, “as a cigar enthusiast you’d be doing yourself a disservice to not see what else is out there.”
In closing I wanted to gauge Laurel’s experiences as a female in a historically male-dominated industry. Does she feel extra pressure to represent herself in a certain way both among her peers and with customers? “I think it just makes you work a little bit harder. I don’t believe (most) people outright think, ‘Oh, what is SHE going to be able to tell me?’, but I do believe there is a greater expectation to know the particulars of the blends and be able to convey that information properly.” Despite female cigar smokers still being viewed as a bit of a novelty, it’s a rapidly growing demographic, and she believes “the industry is not only accepting but quite welcoming to the shift. I always try to just be professional and remind people that I’m not a ‘woman cigar smoker,’ but simply a cigar smoker.”
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