BLENDING FOR SATISFACTION
Note: This interview was conducted in September of 2013. As of March 12, 2014 Stephan A. Miller officially stepped down as President of Wilson Adams Cigars.
With close to a year under their belt, Wilson Adams has managed to gain a foothold in the southern California cigar scene. As you can see from our review, they’ve created a quality medium bodied cigar that’s complex enough to keep you engaged yet smooth enough to smoke back to back. When we sat down at Taps in Corona, CA with Brandon and Stephen to find out where it all started, what we got was a unique insight into the the cigar industry and one of its newest arrivals.
Josh (Cigar Memoir): How did you guys meet?
Brandon (Wilson Adams): I used to run a golf course and Stephen used to work at a cigar shop. I held a nation-wide tour at the golf course where I worked. Stephen’s cigar shop had a booth they’d set up during these types of events, so I’d walk over to the booth. Well we became acquaintances and we’d trade cigars for golf and that kind of stuff. So I started to really get into cigars and then go hang out at the shop where Stephen worked. You (talking towards Stephen) had Felix over there (at Stephen’s shop), who was making hand-rolls, and Felix used to roll a pretty good cigar. And your experience of how we first started hanging out? (Asking Stephen)
Stephen (Wilson Adams): I was using Brandon to get free golf, and then we became friends (laughter).
Brandon (WA): So basically, he went from a douche bag to a friend (laughter).
Josh (CM): How long were you guys friends before you decided you wanted to make a cigar together?
Brandon (WA): Around 7 years.
Josh (CM): What was the initial spark that went from “We love to smoke cigars” to “We want to make a cigar.”?
Brandon (WA): Well for me, it’s like “Lets see if I can do it.” It’s like you’re sitting at a stop light right? You’re seeing a guy in a Bentley and you go “What makes that guy different from me where he can drive a Bentley and I can’t?” It’s like, I know a little bit about tobacco, I know a little bit about the flavors, if I can get that platform to do it, then can I do it? And it happened.
Josh (CM): (To Stephen) How about for you?
Stephen (WA): It has kind of always been in the back of my mind. I’ve been in the business for almost 10 years. Everybody would ask “So when are you going to come out with your cigar?” Along with that I kind of got tired of smoking a cigar and saying to myself “I can do this better.” So I went out and did it.
Brandon (WA): And you know, it’s not necessarily like “If we can do it better.” It’s about if we can do it to fit our taste profiles and everybody else would enjoy it. That was the initial thought when we went into making the cigar, an everyday smoke that anyone can enjoy.
Josh (CM): And you have to have that kind of confidence in yourselves when you go about making a cigar right?
Brandon (WA): Oh yeah, the first cigar that we blended, I wouldn’t give it to my worst enemy (laughter). It was terrible, you know?
Stephen (WA): Just…It was boring.
Josh (CM): So during the process of blending, did the two of you blend it from scratch yourselves or were they (Plasencia) just giving you cigars that could fit the flavor profile you were looking for?
Stephen (WA): Well Plasencia has a blending room where they have a wall of every tobacco they’ve got and it’s in these cubbies. So they give you the menu to look through, and pull out tobacco’s from the cubbies and smoke to see what you think.
Josh (CM): So at that point do you roll up one leaf and smoke it to get a better idea of that particular leaf?
Brandon (WA): Yes and taste it. We were lucky enough to have one of the master blenders there and he’d come in the room. He wouldn’t necessarily assist us, we’d tell him what we’d want and the proportions we wanted and he’d sit and roll it right there for us.
Josh (CM): So with that very first cigar, the one you found “boring”, how did that process unfold?
Brandon (WA): We told them what we liked and they had someone make a cigar there just from what we told them. It wasn’t necessarily a bad cigar, it was just one dimensional. To me it just didn’t have a good aroma. So that was why, for me, I’d consider it awful.
Josh (CM): So you knew immediately, “No way, we want something else.”
Brandon (WA): I mean, it would have worked, but we wouldn’t be different, or unique. We would have blended into the scene and we would have been just another mediocre cigar.
Matt (Cigar Memoir): And plus, you wanted to be happy and it seems like you weren’t enthusiastic about that cigar.
Brandon (WA): Of course, you’ve got to believe in your product.
Josh (CM): So to back track a bit, once you decided to make the cigar, what was that next step. How did you go about making it happen?
Brandon (WA): Well he (Stephen) went down (to Esteli, Nicaragua) first to write a book. I went down there for a vacation and through his connections already and through various friends, like Akhil from Regius Cigars. He’s really good with the Plasencia’s. He just sat me down and goes “Do you really want to do this?”, and I said “Yeah, I’d like to at least try.” So he personally took me in there, and I’d say three days before I left we went to talk to them and they said “Well since you’re here, we’ll just start tomorrow.” It wasn’t like, “Let’s set-up a time.” They cleared the slate, let us have time, and it just started from there.
Josh (CM): So how many cigars would you say that you smoked in that two day period?
Brandon (WA): Around 40 in the blending room and whatever we took home. About 10 cigars of each blend. 4 blends in total.
Josh (CM): How much of each cigar did you smoke in the blending room before you said “No”?
Stephen (WA): In the blending room you’re smoking a quarter of a cigar then lighting up another one. Then you’re keeping that cigar going while you light up others. You get up to smoking around 10 cigars at the same time.
Brandon (WA): And then you think “That’s enough of this one”, so you put it down. But then after a little while you start thinking “Well, maybe that one had something special about it” so you pick it up and try it again.
Josh (CM): So it must have been difficult to find the exact cigar you were looking for while blending.
Brandon (WA): I thought that it was going to be more difficult. I thought that it was going to be more difficult because I thought that me and him (Stephen) were going to be on a different page, but we were on the exact same page so I think that was a blessing.
Overall, the aspect of blending was pretty easy. We brought back 4 different blends from Nicaragau and we let our friends, and people we know, decide on which they liked most. That’s how we ultimately decided on this initial blend. The hardest part about it was, honestly, naming the cigar. I said at the beginning “If we can’t make a cigar that’s pleasant for people to smoke, I’m not going to do it.” You know, I’ll come back with a few hundred samples and smoke them myself, but if nobody likes it, then there’s no reason to go any further than that. I didn’t want to make myself anxious and then get disappointed because we didn’t make a decent cigar. So there was no reason to try and make a name for the company at that point.
Josh (CM): So how did you come up with the name?
Brandon (WA): The name…I always knew that I wanted my last name in it. We were sitting down one night and initially Stephen’s cousin was supposed to be part of the company. So Stephen and his cousin were talking one night and I was listening in, we were drunk of course. They were talking about wanting to honor Stephen’s mother’s side of the family (Adams) by naming a cigar after them and then I was thinking “Adams Wilson? I don’t know.” Then “Wilson Adams” came, and that hit. It was perfect. People can remember it and I loved it.
Josh (CM): Of the 4 blends you brought back from Nicaragua, was this (Wilson Adams Review) the one that everybody seemed to like best?
Stephen (WA): That’s the one (points to the cigars we’re smoking) where as soon as I smoked it I was sold. I thought “That’s the one.”
Brandon (WA): I was in between. I knew this one was good but there were also ones that could have been as good. Even after…I still have those blends. I still have them aged. I’ll smoke one a month, each four of the blends including their original order.
Josh (CM): As far as that goes do you still have the “recipe” for your cigar. Is it specifically yours where nobody else can use it?
Brandon (WA): We have recipe’s for every blend. We have…over 60. As far as our recipe…you know I’m pretty sure somebody has had similar ideas and tried similar things. You know….there’s a lot of combinations you can work with but there aren’t too many tricks you can use when you’re working with natural tobacco. If you’re processing or fermenting it differently to make it taste a certain way then….but with natural tobacco…
Josh (CM): You know, the way Matt and I have talked about it is that most cigars have a base flavor of either wood, nuts, leather or earth. Almost every cigar I’ve smoked has some base combination of those notes.
Matt (CM): It’s hard for me to pinpoint what that base note is on your cigar.
Brandon (WA): There is none. You want the sweet, the salty and little bitterness. That’s all part of our flavor profile. You want a cigar to hit all of those key features to be satisfied. It’s just like eating food, you want salty sweet. You want to tickle all of the sensations.
Stephen (WA): I like palate trippers. I can smoke a cigar and tell you where the tobacco’s are from. Especially Nicaragua, I can tell you the regions. I wanted a cigar that I could smoke and have trouble picking out where everything was from. It doesn’t taste totally Nicaraguan, it doesn’t taste totally this or that.
Josh (CM): Do the “Master Blenders” down in Nicaragua have any tricks of the trade while blending to really pick up the flavors and character of the tobacco’s?
Brandon (WA): They do but they’ll never tell you. I observe. I’ve seen a lot of them sit there, take a puff, retro-hale and then bring in a lung full of fresh air through their nose. Take another puff and do the same thing. They’ll repeat the process 3 or 4 times and the flavors really intensify, it works.
Stephen (WA): A lot of the guys that I hang out with down there are the old school Cuban guys. The guys from Aganorsa. All the guys that they brought from Cuba. When we hang out with them and watch them smoke it’s uh…you have to be a serious professional for that. They inhale, they do everything when they blend. They smoke it every way you can possibly smoke a cigar. For example the french inhale. It gives you a better sense of the strength of a cigar. You can taste the ligero when you take it in.
Matt (CM): In talking to other blenders, one thing they have in common is the importance of aromas. How big of a factor was the aroma when blending your cigar?
Brandon (WA): It’s very important. Say you were smoking in a cigar lounge and it had good aromas. It would be a lot more likely for a guy walking by to ask you “Wow, that smells good! What are you smoking?” than if you were smoking a cigar with sub-par aromas. I think it’s really important that the aroma’s don’t offend a female.
Josh (CM): So once you knew you had the blend and name, what was the process like getting your cigars into the States? How much of an issue was that?
Brandon (WA): It really wasn’t an issue because of all the friends we have. Like my cigars, they’re imported through somebody else. So we’re blessed in that aspect. It really helps us, a lot of issues come with importing. We did have a problem with customs because the paperwork was wrong. I had an event at Tobacco Barn, it was a Friday or Saturday and my cigars came in that Thursday but they were stuck in customs for 10 days. It’s wise to let the cigars rest to acclimate after shipment but we didn’t have that luxury for our first event. Thank God everyone still liked our cigar. We sold 36 boxes that night, so to us it was a validating experience. It let us know that we had to have been doing something right.
To this day, I have doubts. I’ve never had anyone come up to me and say “I don’t like your cigar.” But I’ve had people say that it doesn’t fit what they smoke. Which is understandable but it’s still discouraging. It’s like, I’m 100% fully behind my cigar and I hope that it’s going to do good things and still till this day after seeing it’s success so far, I still hope to continue to see it grow. But there are and always will be those doubts about what happens in the future because it’s still unknown. It’s a little scary at times, but when you land an account and it’s a big order, it’s just more reassurance that things are looking good.
Josh (CM): I noticed you both are really active on Social networking. How important is that to your marketing and success?
Stephen (WA): I love Instagram because I’m borderline ADD. It’s like twitter for ADD. I don’t have to read anything I can just look at the pictures.
Brandon (WA): It’s the same thing. Like I love desserts. If I eat a bread pudding with a blind fold it’s gonna be good but if I look at it and eat it I’m like damn that’s gonna be good. It makes it a lot better. Instagram’s fucking amazing actually (chuckle), and I was initially against it.
Josh (CM): What has the reception been like from people who had no previous connection to you or your cigar?
Brandon (WA): It’s been good. Actually it’s been excellent. There’s been cigar reps who’ve smoked our product and liked it. They even bought our product and took it to shops because they were personally smoking it. You know they’re smoking in the shop while they’re there and people will ask them “what are you smoking?” They’ll tell them “Oh this is Wilson Adams out of Southern California I really like it.” It’s been spreading around.
Josh (CM): How did know where to price your cigar? Was that something you always had in mind from the beginning?
Brandon (WA): You know, first I was going to go guerrilla market, I was going to go strong at a higher price point. On the other hand with the market we’re in, we’re competing for shelf space for one. When competing for that shelf space, you have to be reasonable. To me your product has to outweigh the dollar amount. I would consider my cigars a higher-priced cigar than what we actually sell them for. It’s like someone will say “I can buy this since I know what I’m getting, or I can spend less money and try something new.” When they try it, it validates itself. So I think we still have that same initial quality that everybody else has, we have a little bit of a unique flavor and our price point is a little lower. People will visit it once, but we want to get them to visit 2, 3, 4 times.
Josh (CM): Are you able to offer your cigar at such a solid price point because you guys are still so boutique?
Brandon (WA): Yes and no. I wish we could charge more for cigars everybody wants to make money. Who doesn’t wanna be Padrón, who doesn’t wanna be Davidoff? It wasn’t the money that initially did it, I said alright well I might lose money or I might come even. It’s a lot of groundwork. I’ve hit the pavement hard. We’ll hit up shops and go this day, this day, this day and we’ll be there from 10 o’clock in the morning when they open to 1 o’clock in the morning. Shooting the shit, making the connections and everything.
Josh (CM): When going out and promoting your cigar how important is it to sit down with the owners of shops and really get to know them?
Brandon (WA): That relationship is very important but the relationship that’s more important is with the customers in our industry. If you go into a store that will allow you to pass out samples, you can sit there and talk to customers. Those are the guys who are buying the cigars and you get to hear them say whether they’ll support the brand or not. There will be times where the owner of a shop will be pushing the product and suggesting it to customers and then we’ll tell them to stop pushing it. I want to see if the product can still carry itself and sell just as much as it did when they were being pushed.
You can find Wilson Adams at various lounges accross southern California. Tobacco Barn in Lake Forest, CA carries Wilson Adams exclusively on their website.Visit Tobacco-Barn.com