Despite their boutique status in the industry, nearly every cigar enthusiast has heard of Alec Bradley. With over forty 90+ ratings from Cigar Aficionado alone and the Cigar of the Year Award for 2011 with their ‘96’ rated Prensado line, Alec Bradley established themselves as a player in premium cigars and their message continues to resonate with consumers as they continue to take market share from some of the biggest and best known cigar brands.
I get to see Alan Rubin, the company owner and President, several times per year and each time it’s truly a pleasure. Aside from his world-class hospitality, we share many common interests which, aside from cigars, include fine food and good whiskey. It was the end of January in Chicago and after a week of sub freezing temperatures, I was ecstatic when Alan phoned me and invited me to visit him in Florida to spend the day with his team. As we approached the entrance of his factory, I caught him looking at the name on the building and I jokingly questioned if it was his first time here. He laughed and after exchanging some sarcasm, Alan opened up to me about some of his childhood memories as we walked through the door. His family owned several businesses and he recalled a time when he was 8 years old standing in line at the school cafeteria. He spotted his dad’s truck outside with the name “Gloria Alan Industries.” He couldn’t believe his eyes. His father and his father’s business partner named the company after their youngest children, Gloria and Alan. When he sold his family’s business and incorporated as a cigar maker in 1996, he remembered the sense of pride he felt that day, which is what prompted him to name his company Alec Bradley after his own boys with the hopes they would one day look back with pride as well.
For those familiar with the history of the cigar industry, starting a cigar company in the late 1990s was probably about the most difficult thing you could do. The boom had ended and in its final year, 300 million premium cigars were imported but only 200 million sold. Huge inventories and poor sales made gaining accounts a seemingly insurmountable feat. Of the hundreds of brands that came out during the boom, only a small handful survived and are still on the market today. Alan, however, had two great assets that led to his success beyond his enormous passion for cigars; his business savvy and his partner Ralph Montero. Ralph was more of an industry veteran with all the right connections, as well as an unrivaled tobacco guy with thorough blending knowledge. Also struggling with a rapidly changing market, he left his business, Montero Cigars, and joined Alan in his quest to change the landscape of the premium cigar industry.
Being a smaller, younger, and more energetic company, I was somewhat expecting to see a scene one would expect from Google during the tech boom days with a foosball table and bean bags instead of desk chairs. While the energy level in the office certainly lived up to that of an entrepreneurial company, I was relieved to see a traditional setting. Past the front desk I could see the in-house sales bullpen busy fielding calls from customers and their reps on the road which Alan and Ralph rightfully named “the road warriors.” The underlying philosophy at Alec Bradley revolves around their high standards and integrity. As the staff busily approached Alan with everything from ad approvals to their promotion schedule, it was clear that every decision they make starts with and revolves around “the brand.” This type of discipline is evident given their success over the years and the way they have maintained their spot as one of the country’s top cigar makers for such a long period of time.
Knowing my affinity for good whiskey, our first stop was at the bar in Alan’s office where he poured me a glass of Hudson Baby Bourbon and then we proceeded into the conference room. The scene I walked into is difficult to describe, but it was as if a truck load of cigars had exploded and the resulting shrapnel was all over the room. Samples were strewn around and loose tobacco littered the table where cigars had been dissected leaf by leaf. Ralph looked up and greeted me with a smile while Sammy (head of marketing and PR) and George (national sales manager) removed their cigars from their mouths just long enough to give me a warm and welcoming greeting. Ralph shouted, “You’re just in time!” He grabbed a hand of tobacco and eagerly started stretching the leaves, showing off the latest crop of wrapper from Trojes, which had just come out of fermentation. Trojes is a small area of Honduras just across the boarder from Nicaragua’s famed Jalapa region and is an area where Alec Bradley has nearly 100% exclusivity when it comes to growing tobacco.
I took a seat at a table and got a rare look inside the blending process at Alec Bradley. They explained that every idea starts with a blend and every decision revolves around the brand. Seemed like a simple yet very effective corporate policy. It was only January but the task before them was to start narrowing down their choices for their new launches at the summer tradeshow. Despite the two dozen samples smoked, dissected and considered, none cut the mustard. I was personally surprised as I thought there were a few winners in there, per my taste, but it was clear the bar for the Alec Bradley crew keeps rising every year. Several hours passed, the whiskey was gone, and I was just about to wave the white flag but my eyes lit up when Alan slid a “Fine & Rare” across the table as a thank you for my visit. For me, Alec Bradley Fine & Rare is a lot like Ahab’s White Whale. You can search and search all year long and be lucky if you can find just one stick. Fine & Rare is a blend that should go down as a wonder of the world and a modern marvel in cigar blending feats. One wrapper, two binders, and seven fillers are harmoniously blended with careful leaf placement to create one of the most complex and balanced cigar smoking experiences on the market, all packed in a 52-ring toro.
Touching down in Chicago and walking onto the jet way was like stepping into a huge freezer; certainly not the more welcoming climate of Fort Lauderdale. I hailed a cab and as I started the ride home, I opened my bag to jot down what notes I could from the day’s events and to my surprise, there were ten Fine & Rare cigars neatly packed with a thank you note from Mr. Rubin that he snuck into my bag at some point during the trip. I believe this was the first time anyone had given me such a great gift and then thanked me for it too; like winning a car and then being thanked for showing up to claim it. So I quickly picked up the phone to thank him for a wonderful day.
My dad once gave me some great advice that I thought back on as I wrapped up my day with Alan and his team at Alec Bradley. He said, “Son, if you have to tell someone you are passionate, you are sincere, and you are trustworthy ... you aren’t.” He really hit the nail on the head. These are things which if you truly believe in, others will see in your actions and the way your carry yourself. Everything about Alan and his team exemplified this. Their passion, integrity, and energy were evident in everything they did. I can’t wait to see them again and hopefully, by then, they will have picked a blend for this year’s big release that meets their high standards because that is one cigar on the top of my “must smoke list.”