When he announced his retirement from La Aurora in June 2011, some wondered what Jose Blanco would do next or if he would just walk away from the cigar industry altogether. But a select few wondered what the cigar industry would do without Jose Blanco. As a leading educator and brand ambassador, his blending seminars have educated countless cigar smokers and retailers, while his appearances on behalf of La Aurora endeared him to many as one of the friendliest people in the business, and his presence would be sorely missed were he to leave the business.
His absence from the cigar world wasn’t long, however. After a brief appearance at the 2011 IPCPR trade show in July, the end of August brought an announcement that he had joined Joya de Nicaragua as a senior vice president.
In his new position, he is developing blends and brands for the company, as well as interacting with customers at events and continuing his blending seminars where consumers get first-hand experience with tobacco and education about cigars.
What remains to be seen is how his knowledge of tobacco beyond Nicaragua meshes with Joya de Nicaragua’s practice of only using Nicaraguan tobacco. The company recently partnered with Drew Estate for distribution and marketing in the United States, and Blanco’s addition could suggest they will look to launch new products in the near future that will reinvigorate the company in the increasingly competitive cigar market.
You went from working for a Dominican based company to a Nicaraguan based company, and you subsequently moved from the Dominican Republic to Nicaragua. Can you explain the differences between the DR and Nicaragua, both in tobacco and in their sensibilities toward tobacco?
I think the first aspect that we have to look at is that La Aurora and Joya de Nicaragua are the two oldest companies in their respective countries. La Aurora was started in 1903 in the Dominican Republic, and Joya de Nicaragua in 1968 in Nicaragua. The passion for cigars is there in both companies – La Aurora has been in the Leon family since Guillermo’s grandfather, and Dr. Alejandro Martinez Cuenca, who owns Joya de Nicaragua, is very committed to continuing the legacy and the tradition of making great cigars.
Now the tobaccos are a bit different, because each country has its different characteristics.
If there’s a big difference between the two companies, La Aurora for many years has been working with tobaccos from different countries, while Joya de Nicaragua has been strictly working with tobaccos from Nicaragua.
But the traditions of fermenting and aging their tobaccos, using aged tobaccos – those are very similar. Both look for quality before quantity. I also have to say that both companies really, really look after the people that work there. At Joya de Nicaragua, Alejandro takes care of them – you can go to the factory and see people who have been working there for 20, 30, 40 years, and now you see kids working there who have fathers or uncles who worked there.
Nicaragua seems to be one of the hot countries when it comes to tobacco, yet Joya de Nicaragua but doesn’t seem to have the buzz that other companies who use Nicaraguan tobacco have. Is there going to be an attempt to match up the buzz of the country with the company?
Definitely. Joya de Nicaragua has been very stable in their sales, and they have a very good presence internationally, because a lot of companies focus on the big market, the 320 million cigars that are sold in the United States. But how many companies can say they are in 35 or 36 countries like Joya de Nicaragua is? One of our efforts this year is to reach our goal of having Joya de Nicaragua in at least 50 countries by the end of next year.
You might not see that much of a buzz, but the sales grow, and it’s a product that has a following. What we plan to bring to is new excitement and different things via social media, the forums, the bloggers, the magazines and so on.
Joya de Nicaragua has a great opportunity – it has the basic thing, which is a good reputation; good, aged cigars; very well constructed; good price point; good distribution. It just needs a bit of a wake-up in the sense of creating a little bit more awareness of it.
When you were hired by Joya de Nicaragua, Dr. Martinez called you ‘the missing link’ and said that “he (Blanco) knows what our weaknesses are and how we can deal with them.” Can you elaborate on what you think he meant by that, what those problems are, and what’s being done to deal with those problems?
I don’t think there’s problems – I think what Alejandro meant, and you have to remember that he is a very busy man who takes a week a month to be out travelling – I think we need to be out more, in front of consumers, be at more events, be involved more in social media, have more presence with the bloggers and the magazines – but at the end of the day, it’s about the consumers. They want to see the people that are behind the brands, that are making the blends.
What he said about the missing link, I think it was more because of my experience with different tobaccos, and working for so many years with a very prestigious company in La Aurora. We’ve been friends for many, many years and have shared different opinions about the business, and I guess that he just wanted me to bring my experience to Joya de Nicaragua. The company already has tons of very well aged tobacco and a fermentation system that is one of the most unique around. When you pick up a cigar of Joya de Nicaragua, you’re not going to find any youngness or sense of ammonia, because it’s very well aged tobacco. The way the tobaccos are selected, it costs more to do it, but at the end of the day it delivers a great product.
You’re still a very active person on Twitter and Facebook — both starting conversations and responding to questions. Is that going to carry over to Joya de Nicaragua, and in particular, does it become another bridge between the company and Drew Estate? You’re now competing with one of the kings of social media in Jonathan Drew.
Jonathan is the king – no doubt about it. Jonathan – and I said this many years ago – the innovations that Jonathan, Steve Saka, Marvin Samel and all the great guys there have done there are very unique. You just have to look at the cigars they’ve come out with.
I will continue to be active on social media – there’s not a day that two or three of the bloggers tweet me or write me on Facebook, or via e-mail, and then consumers do the same. That’s one thing I do personally – all my tweets, Facebook posts, and answers come from me. What I get are a lot of questions about education – unfortunately there are a lot of misconceptions that consumers have. One of the things that unfortunately we have is a lot of people talking about tobacco, cigars, origins, and characteristics that they don’t really know about. They hear it from somebody and then they continue it along.
That’s why I encourage people to go to the seminars, where you can get a first-hand look and taste for the things that you should be looking for when you are smoking a cigar.
Talking a bit more about the relationship between Joya de Nicaragua and Drew Estate, you’re bringing in what seems to be – on the surface – two very different groups of people, yet so far the partnership has been good. Can you talk about where you want to see that go in the future?
The relationship has been very good and it will continue to be very good. If you look at it, Alejandro and I have a certain style, and Jonathan and his crew have a certain style. But with that combination of personalities that we have, I think we have a flavor for everybody.
We just did an event together for the first time and I can tell you that it’s great to work with Jonathan. He knows how to work a room, he has a great following, he’s a very knowledgeable room, and not only is he very creative, but he knows about tobacco and is passionate about it. He is one of the most creative, outstanding people out there. The awareness and respect amongst consumers and store owners that he and Drew Estate have gained is something I really admire.
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