Alex Svenson: It’s great to see you again. How are things at Tabacalera Fernandez in Nicaragua?
AJ Fernandez: Great to see you too. Things are very, very busy. We moved into our new factory in March, which has been wonderful for our business as we were bursting at the seams at our old factory. I love having the extra space but more space means more to manage. Fortunately, we have a great team of supervisors, each from my hometown in Vuelta Abajo, Cuba. They learned about tobacco much the same way I did, the old way, the patient way, the correct way. Because of them, we have been able to grow without compromising our quality but also we have maintained my vision for producing cigars in deep rooted traditions like my father and grandfather.
AS: This cigar you gave me is excellent. It’s really complex with a nice body and perfect balance. Is this your new San Lotano “The Bull?” I like the packaging.
AJ: Yes, that is “The Bull.” We just launched it this spring as an exclusive for Meier & Dutch Wholesale distributors in the US. They’ve been with us since the beginning so when they asked for something special, I couldn’t refuse. We don’t make many box-pressed cigars since San Lotano has become fairly synonymous for our trademark Oval shape . I would have made “The Bull” round, which is what I would have preferred, but that blend just smokes better in the box-pressed format. That is the secret to San Lotano “The Bull,” half the influence of the smoke comes from the shape, the other half from the blend. It isn’t a powerhouse, but that isn’t what we were going for. We wanted something medium to full-bodied that’s packed with flavor.
AS: Speaking of new releases, what do you have in store for this year’s big tradeshow? It’s only a short while away.
AJ: We’ve been kicking around a lot of ideas. You’re going to have to wait and see. I will say that this year I’m releasing a limited cigar called El Mayimbe. I developed it from a private reserve of tobaccos I’ve been patiently working with for several years now.
AS: Sounds amazing. I can’t wait to try it. Let’s talk Cuba. Have you been back recently?
AJ: I used to go back and forth to Cuba quite a bit but I haven’t been there in several years. Most of my family has joined me here in Nicaragua and with a growing business, I find it harder and harder to get away.
AS: Do you miss it?
AJ: I do but I have come to love Nicaragua. A few years ago I bought a small ranch outside Estelí. I turned it into my “Cuba away from Cuba,” so to speak. I grow native Cuban fruits and plants, raise chickens and cattle, and even grow some beans and other crops. I grew up as a guajiro (Spanish slang for country boy) in Cuba and I’m still a guajiro today. I spend the weekends there with my wife and daughter as well as other family throughout Central America, especially around the holidays. In terms of the tobacco, Cuba grows beautiful tobacco, but after more than seven years in Nicaragua, I have picked all the right farms and worked the soil to the ideal condition and I think the tobacco I am growing in Nicaragua today is the best leaf I’ve ever grown my whole life.
AS: What is different about this tobacco that makes you say that?
AJ: Nicaragua provides something so unique to tobacco that literally no other place in the world can. The climate shares many similarities with Cuba which means the temperature, water, and humidity are all within the ideal spectrum for growing tobacco. But what you get in Nicaragua, which you can’t get in many other places with a similar climate, is soil diversity. Within this one small country, you have four vastly different growing regions. While there are literally dozens of areas, they all fall within the main four regions: Condega, Estelí, Ometepe, and Jalapa. The soil and nutrients vary so much between these regions that you get four distinct Cuban-seed tobacco varieties that are fantastic in their own right.
AS: That is exactly why I think I fell in love with Nicaragua, yet I still love wrappers from Ecuador.
AJ: That isn’t to say we only grow in Nicaragua. We actually grow all over the world. This year I have crops in Ecuador, Pennsylvania, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic.
AS: You just took the words right out of my mouth. My next questions were centered on your Pennsylvania Broadleaf maduro wrapper. You are one of the only makers in the world to use this wrapper. If you’re not the only one using it now, you were certainly the one who brought this wrapper into style.
AJ: You are correct. This wrapper is a bit crude looking but has an amazing flavor. It takes a lot of work to get it to wrapper grade which is why many people haven’t tried. It is grown by the Amish community in Pennsylvania. I love working with the Amish. They are just good old fashioned farmers … like me. I think people overlooked Pennsylvania Broadleaf as wrapper because they simply lacked the patience to get the tobacco to its full potential. Now Diesel is one of the most popular brands on the market; so much so that we are running out of tobacco, given the processing time.
AS: Working with Pennsylvania Broadleaf was really a game changer for you guys. No one blended with that. Many people may not realize it, but your one of the youngest blenders out there at 33 years young. How did you confront the challenge of working with an unconventional wrapper?
AJ: I may be young but I have something no one else has. I’ve been ingrained with over 100 years of knowledge, some of which was passed down to me by some of the oldest and most respected names in this industry. I like to think I was the recipient of generation-old secrets because my elders and mentors saw promise in me carrying the torch of their decades of work. It’s something that humbles me yet drives me. To implement these traditional concepts into a brave new market has been a wonderful and truly welcoming challenge. Pennsylvania Broadleaf was easy to work with once I understood what the leaf had to offer. The way it is grown and cured is very unique and I absolutely love discovering how it interacts with some of the more traditional Cuban-seed tobaccos.
AS: Where will AJ Fernandez be in ten years?
AJ: I would be happy if I could be where I am right now. I thank God for everything I’ve been able to accomplish. I’m able to be here, in Nicaragua, close to my family who have joined me at Tabacalera Fernandez along with my friends. I consider myself a humble man. I don’t need much. Just bringing my family’s brand back to the market and putting food on our table is good enough. That said, I would like to take this time to thank all the loyal AJ Fernandez fans out there. You have presented me with an opportunity of which I could have only dreamed.