This is the second interview in a series, featuring upstarts making their way in the cigar industry. Nathan Cryder has the long view in mind with his Puig Cigar Company. He is unwilling to compromise quality in order to make a profit, something rare in this day and age. Hailing from Kentucky, it is our pleasure to present Nathan Cryder, founder of The Puig Cigar Company.
CM: I’ll start with the same question I did in our previous interview because I think it’s pertinent. When did it start for you with cigars?
Nathan Cryder: It started with Swisher Sweets on the roof of my best friend’s farmhouse. We were 16 and had just gotten our drivers licenses, so I suppose we did it to feel more grown up. We’d wait until his parents were asleep and then sneak out his window and smoke on his roof. I don’t think I’ve smoked a Swisher since then, but at the time I actually enjoyed the cigars, as well as the bonding experience. Cigars have an amazing way of fueling deep contemplation and existential thoughts in the same way the ambiance of a star-filled sky does. So when you combine the two, you end up with the perfect environment for bonding if you’re with friends or for hitting a nice, meditative or reflective state if you’re alone.
Fast forward about 7 years when I began a Friday night routine of smoking premium cigars with premium bourbons on the back porch. I started picking up issues of Cigar Aficionado at the best walk-in humidor in my hometown (Lexington, KY) and became increasingly interested in how Kentucky’s famous bourbon industry functioned. I keep mentioning bourbon not just because it usually accompanies my cigars, but also because it ties directly into the story of the Puig Cigar Company.
CM: How did your love of cigars and cigar culture become the impetus to create your own?
Nathan Cryder: The Friday night routine I just mentioned started almost 15 years ago, so my appreciation for and knowledge of cigars has slowly but steadily been increasing since then. But the real impetus for wanting to create my own cigar was when one of my best friends since childhood (not the same one from the rooftop) opened up a cigar shop in Lafayette, Indiana with is brother-in-law and father-in-law. This was a couple of years ago, and it meant I had someone to discuss cigars and the cigar industry with on an almost daily basis. I’d also gotten to know a man named Allen Mobley from Lawrenceburg, KY who in 2004 founded Kentucky Gentlemen Cigars. To find such a gem of a craftsman a thousand miles from the American cigar-making meccas of Tampa and Miami was incredibly fortuitous.
Allen’s family has been growing tobacco in Kentucky for over 150 years, and he dropped out of school to work in the tobacco fields full-time when he was in the fifth grade. After starting his cigar company, Allen quickly realized that Kentucky tobacco was much too strong for cigars. Nevertheless, tobacco was in his blood, and he learned the art of crafting fine handmade cigars from Cuban expats in Texas, as well as from living with a cigar-making family in the Dominican Republic.
So knowing that I had one friend who could help on the retail side and another who could help on the crafting side, I decided to take a stab at creating a cigar company. I couldn’t have developed the blends in such a hands-on way without Allen, and I wouldn’t have had the know-how to proceed on the sales side without Russ (co-owner of Crossroads Cigars). What I’m able to bring to the table is branding and customer service.
CM: What is your background and how did it give you the confidence to market Puig?
Nathan Cryder: For five years, I was the Director of a small non-profit and branding was an important part of my portfolio. For the past three years, I’ve been involved in politics and political campaigns, and these days candidates are thought about in terms of their “brands”.
But a more direct tie comes from living in bourbon country and deliberately studying how so many different premium bourbon companies market themselves. I’ve been touring Kentucky’s bourbon distilleries for years, I have friends who started a bourbon magazine (The Bourbon Review), and I’ve read a dozen or more books on the industry. It’s been a fascination of mine for years.
CM: Interesting. Cigars and whiskey often cross paths, so what have you learned about branding bourbon that applies to cigars?
Nathan Cryder: Number one is that you have to have an extremely high-quality product, and number two is that the only way to build brand loyalty is to treat your customers almost like royalty and certainly better than your competitors. In the bourbon industry, the ultimate examples are Pappy Van Winkle, who’s mantra is, “We make fine bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon” and Maker’s Mark who’s mantra is “We’re committed to two things—making great bourbon, and selling it the right way.”
A lot of corporate slogans are just empty rhetoric. But with both Maker’s and Pappy, they are truly the foundation of everything they do. Maker’s “Ambassador’s” program is brilliantly designed to make customers feel connected in a very personal way, and it’s been incredibly effective. I have the same goal with Puig, which is why I wanted to firmly root the company from day one with a similar type of mantra. So I decided upon the following: Puig’s commitments are to honor our customers by listening to them and honor our cigars by following our first commitment. It’s simple, and it’s 100% true.
CM: Since you don’t sell your cigars directly to the smoker but rather through retailers, how do you plan to listen to the smoker and build that trust that many of the great bourbon makers have garnered?
Nathan Cryder: Through social media. Social media is the perfect platform for Puig since our number one objective is to communicate directly with our customers. It also doesn’t require a budget, which is another huge plus. The only way to grow the brand given our limited resources is through word of mouth. The most important thing to realize about social media, as I can tell y’all already understand at Cigar Memoir, is that it has nothing to do with marketing in the traditional sense. Rather it’s all about developing relationships with your customers. It’s about one-on-one interaction, not using it like a megaphone or billboard.
This is something that comes pretty intuitively to me anyway. However, my belief in the power of this kind of organic-growth method using social media is reinforced by people like Gary Vaynerchuck. Gary has documented countless success stories in books like, “Thank You Economy” and “Crush It”, including his own with Wine Library TV. On the inside lid of our cigar boxes, you’ll find only two things–our company mantra and the QR codes will take a customer to our Twitter, Facebook, Instatram, and Tumblr accounts. Every person who connects with us via any of these platforms gets a personal message from me asking them if they enjoyed their cigar. It’s not a canned response either, it’s the beginning of a real 2-way conversation.
While we’re on the topic of books, another book that has influenced how I approach Puig is “Small Giants”, which documents companies that chose greatness over profits. Puig is a labor of love for me, and believe it or not, I don’t anticipate turning a profit for at least a decade. In fact, I can essentially guarantee this, because it’s built into my business model. This doesn’t mean I don’t expect the company to grow and be successful, it simply means that operating at a break-even basis until we’re firmly established is all a part of the plan.
CM: How can you distinguish yourself and sustain Puig without pulling a profit?
Nathan Cryder: Like beer and wine and even perfumes, cigars are a “lifestyle” product. And like most lifestyle products, the industry is not just saturated with brands, it’s super-saturated. Yes, there’s huge demand out there. But there’s still not enough to adequately feed the balance sheets of the thousands of brands out there. To see what I’m talking about, just open up a Cigar Aficionado from 10 years ago, and you’ll see how many brands have dropped by the wayside. And for every “big boy” brand that fails, there are dozens of boutique brands that do the same.
If my goal was to turn a profit this year, or even in 5 years, I’m almost certain that I’d fail. It’s just too competitive, and there are just way too many brands. So I’m forced to figure out my competitive advantages are. Being in a position of not needing to turn a profit anytime soon, I’ve come to realize, is pretty huge. Instead of calculating how much I need to sell each stick for to pay myself and cover my overhead, I only have to ask myself “how much do I need to charge per stick to break even?”. I pay myself nothing and I have virtually no overhead, so I’m able to sell a premium boutique cigar for $8 or $9 rather than $10 or $11. I feel my customers will get more bang for buck.
At the moment, I’m actually selling my cigars to retailers at a slight loss, because I’m still in experimentation mode as opposed to seeking economies of scale. But I should be able to break even later this year with the next three blends I have planned. It’s much more important to me strategically to build loyal customers than to make money off of them. I remember telling this to a person in Kentucky’s Dept. of Revenue Tobacco Division when applying for our license, and she simply replied, “I don’t believe you.” But I can assure you that this is absolutely true. I’m not anti-capitalist. I love capitalism. However, I’m convinced that this is the best long-term strategy and the best way to survive in such a hyper-competitive industry.
I’m fortunate in that I have a full-time career that pays pretty well and that I actually love. Puig is a labor of love that fills my nights and weekends. This non-profit mentality also fits in perfectly with the slow, organic growth strategy I mentioned earlier. I seriously doubt we’re going to have to deal with the problem of growing too quickly. But in the off chance that this happens, I’d be forced to choose between two jobs that I love. And that’s a choice I have no desire to make for at least a decade.
CM: Onto something else. Where did the name Puig come from? Is it a family name?
Nathan Cryder: No, but it is a Spanish/Cuban family name, and that was important to me. With y’all being in SoCal, I’m guessing you’ve heard of the Cuban-born baseball sensation for the L.A. Dodgers, Yasiel Puig. Most people will assume I’m trying to capitalize off of Yasiel’s fame. But the truth is that I had picked out the name before I—or anyone for that matter—had ever heard of Yasiel Puig. About a year ago when I first thought about starting my own cigar company, I didn’t yet know the brand name but I did know that I wanted the first line within my brand to be called “Puro Fino”. This simply means “fine cigar” in Spanish, and I was surprised it wasn’t already taken. So when brainstorming names, I thought about alliteration possibilities and Googled “Spanish Cuban last names that start with ‘P’”. I think it was a Yahoo Answers site that I clicked on which had a list of a dozen or so names, and “Puig” was the only one that not only started with ‘P’ but ‘Pu’. When I said, “Puig Puro Fino” out loud to myself, I thought it had a really nice ring to it.
Fast forward almost a year later when I finally decided to pull the trigger. I’m ready to reserve the PuigCigar.com domain, so I do another Google search to double check that there weren’t any other cigar brands with Puig in the name. I saw thousands of results for this young baseball phenom and thought to myself, “Is this a good thing or bad thing?”. I’m a pretty big baseball fan, but I mostly just follow the Reds and usually don’t turn in until after the All-Star break. Yasiel pretty much exploded onto the scene out of nowhere. So I had no idea about him and was left with a tough choice: go ahead with the name, knowing that people would probably accuse me of capitalizing on his name or coming up with a new one. One thing that made the decision easier was that I had already created a “Puig” logo and band design and placed an order for my first 1,000 bands. So I figured that going forward, I just need to make it perfectly clear that my cigars are in no way affiliated with or endorsed by Yasiel Puig.
CM: You mentioned that it was important to find a Spanish/Cuban name. Why was that?
Nathan Cryder: I’m a huge history buff. But since I don’t come from a family steeped in a history of cigar-making, I at least wanted to come up with a name that showed an appreciation of that history. Even though Christopher Columbus was Italian, his famous 1492 trip to the Americas was commissioned by Spain, and he first came across cigars in Cuba. He brought them back with him to Spain, of course, and to this day Cuba makes the best cigars in the world. So these are the two countries with the most cigar history. When I researched the “Puig” surname, I realized that it was Spanish in origin but also had a long Cuban history.
One of my long-term dreams is to be able to make actual Cuban cigars one day, so that’s another reason. I have a few friends who feel that Cuban cigars are overrated. But most agree that no other cigar producing country in the world is able to compete with the consistency of flavor, intensity, and construction of a Cuban. Consistency is the key word, of course. You can find amazing cigars elsewhere, and you can occasionally find bad authentic Cubans. But in my 15 years of experience, the ratio of superb sticks to duds with Cubans is unmatched.
CM: Was there a conscious decision to use a Cameroon wrapper on the Puro Fino (Puig’s first release) or was it something that just worked out? Seeing as it’s grown in limited quantities, were there any difficulties acquiring it?
Nathan Cryder: It’s not just Cameroon seed–it was grown there. Allen Mobley, my blender, is pretty well stocked with it, from an order he placed a couple of years ago. While Cameroon and Connecticut Shade wrappers may be tough to find in the current market, since Allen has been at this for a decade now, a lot of his stock has been aging in his warehouse for years.
CM: Take us through the process of blending the Puro Fino.
Nathan Cryder: It involved a pretty straightforward process of me conveying to Allen the taste/aroma profile I wanted over a period of about a year. The first time I went to his factory and shop, I purchased at least three or four sticks of every blend and vitola he makes. This was about a year ago when I knew I wanted to launch the Puig brand, but I didn’t yet know what would be the best way for producing them. And, quite frankly, I was a bit skeptical that a boutique shop from Lawrenceburg, KY would cut muster. I was aiming for medium to full-bodied premium cigars of extremely high caliber and was definitely not going to settle for anything less.
I was pretty certain I’d end up needing to make a few trips to Miami or Tampa to find what I was looking for. My friend in the retail cigar business had a few different contacts for me, so that was my initial plan. However, when I learned about Allen through a friend, I thought I should at least give his cigars a chance. What I quickly realized was that he was in the same league as many of the best producers in Ybor City–at least in terms of his blending abilities. But just because someone is an excellent blender doesn’t necessarily mean they have the quality control mechanisms in place to consistently construct top-notch cigars.
This is why I purchased fifty sticks on my very first trip to his shop. Because consistency in construction is just as important as quality in taste. Eight of the blends I bought were being marketed under his brand (Kentucky Gentlemen Cigars), while the others were ones he was blending and marketing for other brands (Blanton’s, Buffalo Trace, and Pete Dye). Of the fifty, there were only two or three that didn’t draw well or burned too hot. In the fifteen years I’ve been enjoying cigars, that’s about as good a batting average as you can hope for.
That’s when I reached the conclusion that going back and forth to Florida wasn’t necessary, because I had found a gem practically in my own backyard. Allen’s cigars were of excellent quality, both in flavor and in construction. And the fact that he was only 25 minutes down the road meant I could be much more hands-on with the blending process, as well as monitoring quality control once we started production.
The blending process was pretty much smooth sailing from that point forward. When sampling the fifty cigars, I simply took notes about what I liked–and occasionally didn’t like–and shared them with Allen. It soon became clear that the profile that most appealed to my palate was leathery, earthy, toasty–perhaps even hints of espresso or dark chocolate. Basically fuller-bodied, bold flavors–and yet with enough balance so that I think few people–if any–would ever describe the blend we ultimately decided upon as being overpowering. Honestly, because the notes I gave him were so detailed, it didn’t take too many iterations once he took his first stab at what I was explained I was looking for. I loved the very first blend he gave me to try, although, he did tweak it slightly a few more times based on my feedback and that of a few trusted aficionado friends. After about eight months of sharing notes and another three months or so of going back and forth with each iteration coming closer to what I had in mind, I was finally 100% satisfied with the blend (the process could have happened more quickly, but I had to wait at least three weeks with each iteration while waiting for the cigars to settle) .
As far as the vitola, a robusto seemed like the natural choice for the launch of a new brand. I know the trend these days is toward the huge 60 gauge gordos. But since I’ve rarely come across someone who doesn’t enjoy a robusto, I felt like that was the best choice. Robustos have that Goldilocks quality of being just right–not too big and not too small. The really tough decisions will come with deciding the next several blends and vitolas. As an aside, as much as I love bourbon, I never considered using any of Allen’s bourbon-aged tobaccos–I’m just way too much of a traditionalist and generally hate flavored cigars. But even with his bourbon barrel-aged cigars, it was obvious he knew what he was doing. They only had the most subtle hints of bourbon and were a far cry from the flavored cigars that have turned me off so much in the past. Nevertheless, I still prefer bourbon next to my cigar, not in it.
CM: Where do you envision yourself and Puig five years out?
Nathan Cryder: My goal is to have the most loyal and satisfied customers of any boutique brand and to make the best cigars we can possibly make. What’s cool is that these two things are directly related. We won’t be able to make the best cigars unless we listen to our customers, and by listening to them and constantly tweaking and improving our blends this will ultimately lead to better and better cigars. Cigar tastes, like anything else, are highly subjective. So when my personal taste is in harmony with the majority of my customers’, that’s when all know we have a terrific blend. Since a solid percentage of my customers are likely to be seasoned connoisseurs, I’ll need to constantly experiment with the blends and offer more varieties in terms of shapes and sizes. So eventually, I anticipate having at least 8 to 10 continuously evolving shapes and sizes and at least as many unique blends.
I doubt we’ll be a whole lot bigger in 5 years than we are now, at least in terms of staff and overhead. But we’ll hopefully be selling thousands or even tens of thousands of cigars per year and have too many loyal customers to count. Even then, I’m determined to keep up the direct communication.
The most important thing for me is not just slow and steady growth but also to keep learning the craft of cigar-making—the quest for the perfect cigars. This is what makes Allen the ideal partner. He’s already an incredible craftsmen, but he’s also as committed as I am to constant experimentation. He’s an old dog who’s not afraid to learn new tricks. Some of his cigars (not mine) are made with tobacco aged in used bourbon barrels. He makes these for some of the bourbon industry’s most respected brands, including Blanton’s and Buffalo Trace. And even though I’m more of a traditionalist who shies away from flavored tobacco, my point is that Allen is an innovator and one of the few people who’ve managed to strike the right balance for traditionalists and adventurists alike.
Finally, if the Cuban embargo ever ends and Cuba finally allows private industry to take root, you better believe we’ll be looking for ways to purchase tobacco from the Vuelta Abajo or possibly even moving our production down there.
At this time, the Puig Puro Fino is sold exclusively at Crossroads Cigars in Lafayette, Indiana. They can ship them anywhere in the US with a minimum order of 3.
If you are a retailer interested in purchasing Puig Pura Fino cigars, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (859) 539-4040.