Toasted Foot’s Most Fascinating People in the Cigar Industry 2016
Two year’s ago, while watching the Barbara Walters special, I jokingly posted a list of my Most Fascinating People in the Cigar Industry to Facebook. When my buddy Jorge (who made last year’s list) saw it, he pointed out that in an expanded form it would make a great feature for ToatedFoot.com. One year later, our first annual Most Fascinating People in the Cigar Industry list appeared to pay tribute to the many people who make the industry we know and love what it is.
The only requirement for making the list is being fascinating, and making a significant contribution to the industry during the year. This year, the list is a bit more manufacturer heavy, but there were a lot of great cigar makers doing a lot of great things. Still, there are a couple non-manufactures who showed up on this year’s list, including one who made it for trying to destroy the industry.
Note: Unlike our annual Top Ten Cigars List, there is no ranking of the names on this list. It doesn’t seem right, especially since people have made the list for a variety of different reasons. Like last year, the list contains ten names, but there is no set number each year.
Antonio “Tony” Gomez – La Flor Dominicana
His father, Litto Gomez started La Flor Dominicana in 1994, and quickly proved that not all Dominican cigars had to be mild. While the LFD brand has remained popular with avid cigar enthusiasts for years, recently the company has had a whole string of great cigars, and it is all due to Tony Gomez taking on a larger role in the company. Since first venture into blending with the La Flor Dominicana Chapter One, Tony has also been responsible for the Capitulo II, TAA 48th (and it’s maduro counterpart), La Nox and now the Andalusian Bull. The La Flor Dominicana Andalusian Bull was named Cigar Aficionado’s Cigar of the Year, has shown up on countless Top 25 lists, and earned a spot on our Honorable Mention List for 2016. With such an impressive list of successes for the younger Gomez it’s hard to believe that he blended his first cigar in 2013. If the last three years are any indication, Tony Gomez is likely to become a giant in the cigar industry. (Well, more of a giant than he already is, Tony towers over me and I’m 6’6”.) For his stellar work on the La Nox and Andalusian Bull cigars, Antonio Gomez definitely deserves a spot on our list of Most Fascinating People in the Cigar Industry 2016.
Steven Bailey – Cornelius & Anthony
When your family has grown tobacco since the 1800s and involved in every kind of tobacco product, starting a cigar company seems like a logical thing to do, and that’s just what Steven Bailey decided to do. But he did it in style. The company really pays tribute to his family heritage in a great way. The company name and the name of our No. 2 cigar on the Top Ten Cigars of 2016 both pay tribute to Steven’s great-great-grandfather Cornelius. Even the Daddy Mac, which was on our Honorable Mention list, is named for his father, Mac Bailey. It would take way too long to go into the long history the Bailey family has in the tobacco industry here, but suffice to say it is prolific. Though it’s not entering the premium cigar industry alone that lands Steven Bailey on our list, but also the quality of the cigars that his new company has released. The Cornelius was one of the best cigars of the year, taking the No. 2 spot on our list this year. The Daddy Mac and Venganza were impressive enough to land on our Honorable Mention list. Partnering with factories like Miami’s famous El Titan de Bronze and Erik Espinosa’s La Zona Factory, Cornelius & Anthony has had some very impressive releases in their freshman year of business. Bring on top talent like Todd Vance (formerly with AJ Fernandez) and Courtney Smith (formerly of La Palina) only shows the kind of commitment that Steven Bailey has made into getting things right at his new premium cigar company. If a being a man from a Virginia tobacco family who starts up a new cigar company that takes the No. 2 spot on our annual Top Ten list and two spots on our Honorable Mention list in its first year isn’t a reason to make our list of Most Fascinating People in the Cigar Industry for 2016, then I don’t know what is. So far all his accomplishments this year, and the addition to his family’s legacy in the tobacco industry, Steven Bailey rightfully earns his place on this list.
Hector Alfonso Sr – Espinosa Cigars
If you watch Game of Thrones on HBO, then you are familiar with the title Hand of the King. That is essentially what Hector Alfonso’s role is at Espinosa Cigars. He is the right hand man of Erik Espinosa, serving as Head of Operations of the La Zona factory in Estelí and being responsible for a large number of the company’s blends. Many of the cigars coming from La Zona owe a lot to Hector Alfonso Sr, yet even many fans of the Espinosa brand have never heard his name. Though he has remained in the background, recently Hector has taken on an even larger role in the company, being promoted to Director of Operations. As Erik (who made last year’s Most Fascinating People list) recently said, “Hector is a no-nonsense guy and takes the future of this company very seriously. He has earned my trust and there is no doubt that this company means as much to him as it does to my son and I.” What else do you expect to be said about a guy referred to as the Hand of the King. Maybe it’s due Hector’s law enforcement background, but he’s a humble guy that never seeks out the spotlight. (He may also be the only person I know crankier than me!) With all the stellar cigars coming out of LA Zona this year, to the point where they earned four spots in our Honorable Mention list, it only makes sense to honor the man who keeps things at the La Zona Factory running smoothly. For all he has done to help Erik Espinosa make Espinos Cigars and the La Zona factory what they are, it’s kind of a shame that more people don’t know who Hector Alfonso Sr. is and about his contributions to the cigar industry, which is why he deserves to be counted as one of 2016’s Most Fascinating People in the Cigar Industry.
Jeff Borysiewicz – Corona Cigar Co.
While most people visit Orlando for the theme parks, but real cigar enthusiast know that one attraction that is not to be missed is Corona Cigar Co. President & Founder Jeff Borysiewicz has three large locations in Orlando. The one on Sand Lake Rd is right down the street from Disney World, and offers cigar smokers who need a bit of a break a place to relax with a normal priced cigar and a glass of scotch. (In fact, I made a quick pit stop by there on my honeymoon earlier this year.) Corona has a plethora of exclusive cigars, including a new vitola of our No. 1 Cigar of 2015, the Warped Flor del Valle Sky Flower. After winning a Davidoff Golden Band Award last year, this year Corona partnered with Davidoff on the 5,000 square foot flagship store and cigar bar in Tampa, Florida. As a board member of both the IPCPR and Cigar Rights of America, Borysiewicz has been committed to protecting the right to purchase and enjoy a cigar, even in these uncertain times. With all that he has done for the cigar industry over the years, Jeff Borysiewicz has become one of the leaders of cigar retailing. Because of the many new high shop exclusives, as well as the opening of the Tampa Davidoff Flagship Store, Jeff Borysiewicz makes our Most Fascinating People in the Cigar Industry 2016.
Abdel “AJ” Fernandez – AJ Fernandez Cigars
Raise in Cuban near the factory that produces the Hoyo de Monterrey, AJ Fernandez is the third generation of his family to be in the cigar business that started with his grandfather who began growing tobacco in pre-Castro Cuba. No AJ produces cigars out of his Tabacalera AJ Fernandez in Estelí, Nicaragua. After a rebranding effort, over the past two years AJ has a portfolio that features some stellar cigars that include the San Latano, New World, Enclave, Last Call, Bellas Artes and La Gran Llave. The Enclave even earned a spot on our Honorable Mention list of 2015. With the Last Call, Bellas Artes, and La Gran Llave all hitting shelves in 2016 it was a good year for AJ Fernandez Cigars. But, that is before you take into account the cigars he makes for other brands, or brands that come out of his factory. Notably, this year AJ teamed up with General on the Hoyo Amistad, which was perhaps the most talked about cigar at General’s booth at this year’s IPCPR Trade Show. Such well received brands as Robert Holt’s Southern Draw and Fred Rewey’s Nomad both come from AJ’s Nicaraguan factory. For the past three years there has always been a cigar that was made at AJ’s factory in the Top Ten Cigars. This year, Nick Melillo’s Tabernacle received the top spot on our Top Ten Cigars of 2016 list, and it too is manufactured at the Tabacalera AJ Fernandez. When you add it all up, this has been a pretty impressive year for AJ Fernandez, and it would be a big mistake not to include him on this year’s Most Fascinating People in the Cigar Industry list.
Robert Holt – Southern Draw Cigars
Over the past three readers of our site should have become familiar with the Southern Draw Cigars brand, as it has earned a Top Ten spot in both 2015 and 2016, and made the Honorable Mention list in 2014 and 2016. While the brand may be familiar, the brand’s owner may not be. Robert Holt is a fascinating guy no matter what year it is. He is Army veteran, and could likely kill you in less time than it takes to cut a cigar. He speaks with a Texas accent, drives a pickup and sport a ponytail, all despite being as straight out of Compton as N.W.A. He’s married to a woman who never seems to age. He also happens to be one heck of a nice guy. Most importantly, his company makes some pretty impressive cigars. With cigars like the Southern Draw Firethorn and Southern Draw Kudzu, the brand began to build a following. This year there was a lot of expansion to Southern Draw’s offerings. The QuickDraw line gained a Connecticut version and a new vitola. The company released it’s first lanceros with the Kudzu Axil and Firethorn Pome (and one event only lancero). The Kudzu Code Duello Perfecto, which is a box pressed figurado, earned the No. 6 spot on our Top Ten Cigars of 2016 list. With Code Duello versions of both the Firethorn and Kudzu being packaged in pairs meant to be shared, Southern Draw is trying to promote the camaraderie that occurs when staring a cigar with a friend. Sometimes when companies extend so many line so quickly there can be quality problems, but Robert worked with AJ Fernandez’s factory to insure that this did not occur, and Southern Draw’s cigar among the best coming from the factory already know for making great cigars. For the successful extension of his company’s lines and gaining a larger presence in humidors across the country, Robert Holt earns a spot on our Most Fascinating People in the Cigar Industry list this year.
Mitch Zeller, J.D. – FDA, Center for Tobacco Products
Every other person on this list made it due to their contributions to growing the cigar industry and culture that we love so much. Mitch Zeller makes the list for his contributions in trying to ruin the industry and dissolve the cigar culture that has created term like Brothers & Sister of the Leaf. As the Director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products has been leading the charge in the FDA’s new regulations to effect the cigar industry. Claiming to be trying to prevent kids from smoking cigars (I don’t know about where you live, but at 35 I’m considered a “kid” by most at my local cigar retailer), he has been leading the FDA’s efforts to restrict the release if new cigars, ban samples, not allow retailers to blend pipe tobacco or roll cigars and require things such as bigger warning label and ingredient listings on new cigars. While the goal of protecting America’s youth is always admirable, stomping on the freedoms of voting age adults is not so much. The future of some of these regulations is uncertain in a Trump administration, but it is impossible to believe that they will all go away, because it is always hard to get a government agency to give up power it has taken upon itself. The effects of the these regulations are far reaching and are burdening small businesses. (I’m pretty sure you can tell what the Toasted Foot position on FDA regulation is.) Still, because the effects of these regulations had and will have such a major role in the cigar industry, Mitch Seller was definitely one of the Most Fascinating People in the Cigar Industry during 2016.
Michael Herklots – Nat Sherman
Staring out his career as a retailer in 1999, working and managing Davidoff on Madison Ave from 2002-2011, and eventually then eventually joining Nat Sherman. Since leaving Davidoff for Nat Sherman to serve as Vice President of Retail and Brand Development, Michael Herklots has done an impressive job with the premium cigar side of Nat Sherman’s business, for which is responsible for nearly all of. Nat Sherman began instituting a number of changes. Since that time the company has had a number of great cigars including the Timeless, Timeless Nicaragua, Sterling, Panamericana and Joel Sherman 75th (which was on our Top Ten Cigars of 2015 list). Building upon the company’s history, and with a penchant for performance and tailored suits, Herklots has helped rebuild Nat Sherman’s cigar brand into one know for its class and quality. This year led the rebranding of the Classic Collection, and partnered with Fred Schrader on the Schrader MMXIII which earned a spot on our Honorable Mention list this year. Few poeple have managed to turn around a brand’s reputation quite like Michael Herklots. And as anyone who’s ever spent any time with him will tell you Michael Herklots is one of the Most Fascinating People in the Cigar Industry.
Aaron Loomis – Developing Palates
As one of the founding members and co-owners of Blind Man’s Puff, Aaron Loomis became something of a public face for the novel cigar review site. Quickly Loomis became one of the more recognizable faces among members of the cigar median, and was elected to serve on the Board of Directors for the Cigar Media Association. This year, Loomis shocked the cigar media community when he announced that he would be leaving Blind Man’s Puff to form a new cigar media venture along with Jiunn Liu. The site they formed, DevelopingPalates.com took a novel approach to traditional online review sites by turning developing the palates of both readers and reviews into something of a learning together type experience. Aaron and Jiunn’s IPCPR Trade Show coverage is among the most unique of any cigar site, with entertaining videos of the two talking to the camera in their hotel room. Though only in there first year, Developing Palates is quickly becoming one of those must visit sites for avid cigar enthusiasts. This is made all the more impressive considering Loomis has only really been smoking cigars since 2011. For his contributions to expanding the cigar media landscape with a new concept, Aaron Loomis earns his spot on our Most Fascinating People in the Cigar Industry list this year.
Nicholas Melillo – Foundation Cigar Company
Nick Melillo made a name for himself at Drew Estate with cigars like the Liga Privada No. 9, but it’s what he’s done since leaving Drew Estate that lands him on our Most Fascinating People of 2016 list. Last year, Nick launched Foundation Cigar Co. The very first cigar they released, The El Güegüense earned the No. 2 spot on our Top Ten Cigars of 2015, despite having a nearly unpronounceable name. Coming towards the end of the year, the overall reaction couldn’t completely be judged at the time of our Most Fascinating People of 2015 list, but the cigar turned out to be a huge success that was hard for retailers to keep in stock due to demand. Though it’s this year’s Tabernacle release from Melillo’s Foundation Cigar Co. that is something really spectacular. Returning to using Connecticut Broadleaf, Melillo has created an another amazing cigar, this one taking the top spot on our Top Ten Cigars of 2016. On top of releasing the Tabernacle, his company also released to Charter Oak blends and partnered with Miami Cigar & Co. on the infused Upsetters cigars. It has been a busy year for Nick Melillo and Foundation Cigars. Nick has proven that there is not just life, but success after Drew Estate. Although he probably should have been on last year’s list, it would be ridiculous for him not to be on it this year.
Until next year….