Hoochly is very proud to present this exclusive interview with Cigar legends Jose Blanco and Emma Viktorsson of Las Cumbres Tabaco. We want to give a big shout out to Jose and Emma for taking some time out of their busy schedule to spend a moment with the Hoochly team to tell us about their experiences, current and future projects as well as a little bit about their exciting life in the world of cigars.
– Jose Blanco –
Hoochly: You started in the cigar industry at a very young age, pretty much grew up in the middle of it. Did you ever thought about doing anything else for a living or were cigars always your number one passion and career?
Jose: I started smoking cigars at a very young age, officially at 16 – when you grow up seeing your father smoking 4 or 5 cigars a day, plus seeing most of your family growing tobacco and making cigars, the industry crosses your mind – So by the time I was out of school this was on my mind.
Also, growing up in the industry back then was not really what it is today, remember we didn’t have Twitter, Facebook and Instagram lol… So it was definitely on a personal level.
But finally I would say that 1994 was the year that I said this is what I really want to do on a fully serious level – When you are young you want to be many things, and I worked in Rum and beer, but in the same time I was part of La Aurora’s Tasting Panel until I finally became fully part of their team – working with premium cigars is something I wouldn’t change for anything in the world.
Hoochly: How did you get into blending cigars?
Jose: At a very young age I would go to Jochy’s father’s (my uncle’s) factory Tabacalera Palma and play around with tobaccos, then of course when I arrived at La Aurora I really got deeper into learning more about blending, and of course had more origins to work with at that time.
Hoochly: You’ve been doing blending seminars for many years, tell us about these seminars and how you came up with this idea?
Jose: The idea of the blending seminar came up after seeing the ones that were done by La Aurora and Davidoff, then I said we can make this more interactive – the way was making everybody part of the seminar.
But also part of the ideas came from retailers and consumers when they asked questions at La Aurora.
That was when I started with the multiple filler seminars (pure grades), and then started with what I continue with: the four wrapper seminar.
Hoochly: What was the best part of working at La Aurora and La Joya factories and what was your best experience from those years?
Jose: Being able to work with the oldest factory of DR and the oldest of Nicaragua – this gave me the opportunity to really experience deeply the tobacco-culture and traditions from my own country the DR and this other giant in cigars, Nica.
Hoochly: What led you to come up with your own cigar?
Jose: When you work hard and make a name for yourself, but also while being humble you have a dream – I decided this with Emma who definitely agreed it was time to make our own brand. I felt it was the right time.
Hoochly: Tell us about the Señorial and the blend and what can we expect to see at this year’s IPCPR show?
Jose: Señorial was 7 months and over 30 blends of hard work to achieve what we were looking for; this is a brand that I’m very proud of.
We will have at the show our new Señorial Maduro Box Press.
Hoochly: What is your favorite food and drink?
My favorite is between Latin/Caribbean traditional food and Italian fresh pasta and Swedish “sill” (Scandinavian prepared herring)
Drink: A Single Malt or a quality Rum (I mean the good stuff).
Hoochly: Taylor Ham or Pork Roll?
Jose: Bacon lol
Hoochly: Aurora 100 or Cuenca y Blanco?
Jose: Aurora 100 Años probably one of the top 3 cigars ever made in Dominican Republic!!!
Of course Cuenca Y Blanco was made in Nicaragua, so I am not comparing origins. I love the CyB of course, I am very happy and proud of it.
But my answer was to show how much it’s hard to been La Aurora 100 Años for me, it is on top for me.
Hoochly: You quoted the saying “Never Smoke Next to an Asshole”, have you ever smoked next to one? Any funny anecdotes?
Jose: I wish I had a dollar for every time I’m asked this, LOL!
The best one was in Arizona: This guy comes into the shop after one of my seminars, we were about 10 people in the lounge. He looked like a linebacker, was big, pulls out a LFD 700 which is a 2-hour smoke – in 20 minutes the cigar disappears, Houdini couldn’t make it disappear that fast! After a couple of minutes trying to be polite, I asked him “how was the smoke?”, he said “awesome I smoke 7 to 8 of them a day.” Then I tell him “I think if you would have smoked slower you would enjoy it more” – then he gets up and starts to give me a lecture on cigars, ranted for about 10 minutes… Meanwhile people were laughing. He goes “wtf is funny?” – the owner of the shop brings out a Cigar Aficionado magazine, she says “look” – there was a nice article of roughly 5 pages about me and photos. When he finished reading a little and looking at the photos of me, very graciously he said “For years’ people have told me I’m an asshole, today it’s confirmed I am!” – this was very funny.
– Emma Viktorson –
Hoochly: How did you meet Jose? Tell us the story…
Emma: I met Jose through work in Santiago, DR. I was then working for Swedish Match Premium (which basically is General Cigar cigars). During those years 2005-2010, Swedish Match was distributing for La Aurora in my markets which were Eastern and Central Europe. I was growing to become Marketing Manager Premium Cigars CEE Countries for Swedish Match.
In Summer 2008 I spent all Summer in Santiago, DR, with General Cigar in order to train in their factory every day – It was magical! Hard work and many hours but a true passion! And an honor to have this opportunity.
Well, since I also represented La Aurora in my countries, I met with them too. I had actually visited La Aurora a couple of times before then when I traveled to Santiago with some clients from Europe, but during both those trips Jose was traveling.
So Jose and met at a private dinner that summer of 2008, with people from La Aurora and myself – but those times have nothing to do with where we are today! (Ha-ha!).
Jose and I only started our private friendship in 2010, and that was the year, later in the year, that I decided to resign from my position at Swedish Match in order to join Jose in Santiago from where we soon thereafter moved to Nicaragua.
Hoochly: We know that you are the marketing genius of Las Cumbres, tell us about the Señorial concept and design?
Emma: As you see in my previous answer I am in marketing in premium cigars ever since I was out of university, but while working for a large multinational corporation my hands were tied – crazy marketing ideas versus the finance-department haha 😛
So when I started Las Cumbres Tabaco I was 100% free and I just went with it! I loved it! I was so excited, I love preparing Marketing-plans – our son Jasper was then only between 12 and 15 months, a dear friend of mine from Macedonia, Biljana, was spending some months with us in Casa de Campo (La Romana), DR – I was so much in my zone that I literally forgot to eat, and once in while Jasper ran to me for breast-feeding and Biljana came running behind with a large water-bottle – I was fully focused.
This story reflects the personal feelings toward this company: Las Cumbres Tabaco means “The Summits Tobacco” and although we aim for the summits, the real meaning of this name is Jasper’s very first home! When Jasper was born we lived in Nicaragua and our address was “Las Cumbres de las Colinas” in Managua.
Señorial is a name that for me represents Jose Blanco. I did not even know the word in Spanish yet. The meaning is “Lordly” but I was not searching for “lordly” either (both Jose and I are much too humble for that haha!). I was going through words that for me represent “Jose in premium cigars” – in a few stronger languages for me which I would google translate my way forward – this took days and weeks… I don’t remember how long.
Basically I wanted a name/word that embodies: maturity, wisdom, passion, culture, tradition, history, family… and somewhere down the line “Señorial” popped up and before actually translating it for myself it was like a light shone on the word – Just the start of “Señor” in it felt relatable for many people… And then I was happy with the meaning of the actual word too.
The logo is a painting – I love art and from Go I was set on using art for our brands. I took a photo of this street in the Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo, which represents Jose’s Dominican roots and tradition, and I sent it to my step-mom, Deyana Mincheva Viktorsson who is a painter – we discussed the coloring and there it is!
Hoochly: Let’s talk about Freyja, how did you come up with the blend and how was that experience of creating your own cigar?
Emma: This was never a plan of mine. But I was asked quite often “why not be face of something…” So one day I thought to myself, the marketing-geek that I am “OK I will try, but it will be a “Fully-made” product – meaning I would not be happy with myself if I did not actually blend the cigar as well as create the full product so speak.
This is also why I did not tell Jose nor his cousin Jochy Blanco, about this, because if I did they would automatically influence me which would mean that: 1. I would not know if I actually blended or not; and 2. IF I would manage a blend I would not find my own style.
I know Señorial’s blend, and I knew that Jose was working on Señorial Maduro in the same time with a Mexican San Andres wrapper, so I knew which wrappers not to work with, and I secretly made a few blends.
I love Mexican San Andres tremendously, so I decided to try it as a Binder – very untraditional way of blending is to start with the binder and on top of that stick to it through the end! So it was that binder from day one, in a low seco-priming in order to keep a good draw. I knew I wanted to try with a Dominican wrapper as I knew that Jochy has fantastic ones! I tried with a couple of different seeds (it became a Criollo ’98) … And the filler was tweaked a lot before finding the final blend – I have seen Jose blend a lot, even since the CyB I was with him blending and tasting…
I took my ideas to Gerladito Perez, the production manager at Tabacalera Palma, asked him to keep this secret until we have a few good blends. He was very excited about this! Jose was in the office with Jochy while I was on the factory-floor with Geraldito every day… It never occurred to Jose to ask me what I was doing, I guess he was focused on Senorial Maduro and in his own zone.
Finally, Geraldito went into the office and had Jose and Jochy try a few blends of which one was to become “Freyja” – they loved it and mentioned something about “what to do with this!” And Geraldito said “Nothing, this is Emma’s blend” and I sheepishly smiled and nodded in the background.
How it all felt… Exciting! Passionate! Every single draw on every tobacco (even the ones I didn’t particularly care for) and every single blend, and every touch and scent of every tobacco was each and every one a deep moment of pleasure!!!
Hoochly: What came first for Freyja, the cigar or the name?
Emma: Hard to say… Like I answered above, I never planned this, but in the same moment as I decided in my own secret mind that I will try to blend, the name would be Freyja – A beautiful name of this Goddess of ours just clicked somehow as I wanted my cigar to represent me and my culture (The same way that the name Señorial represents Jose and his culture).
However, I would never have created anything past the name Freyja, nor any cigar “Freyja” at all if I would not have pulled off blending… Like I mentioned above, I am very demanding of myself and simply would not gone beyond Jose’s brands and leave my job at that and that point.
But I managed!
So truly I would say that the Blend came first.
Hoochly: What is your favorite part of cigar making?
Emma: Ouff all of it!!!
I cannot decide… I love marketing and brand-development as much (or sometimes more) as tobacco-work. So just as how I described creating Las Cumbres and Señorial, for Freyja I was in an even deeper zone!!! I was studying Norse Mythology further with my history and Viking-geek friend Danilo Popovski (who was then interning with us), I was in contact with my Macedonian friend Jana Jovanova, the painter of my verison of Freyja… The work on names… The sizes and vitolas to both fit the market(s) and to represent me as an SOTL and creator… etc…
Tobacco: Choosing tobaccos, in the very early stages, of choosing seeds and earth, touching, feeling the scents of tobacco-leaves… I Love that so much! Smoking pure-grades… Philosophizing about what will match and/or enhance the next tobacco…
Then final smoking of the finally chosen few blends all put together is exciting and also moments I love but frankly I prefer both steps above: the more primitive dirty hands-on tobacco-work and the marketing/designing/creating.
Hoochly: What is your message for the women in the industry that are trying to make an impact? Do you think women have to work harder than men to gain respect and credibility in the cigar industry?
Emma: I often get this type of question and I always stay as “political” as possible but as more and more women express their feelings towards cigars, I will be more open in this answer this time and I answer this with full respect to every woman’s wish and communication with cigars:
I have to say that it is today blurry as to which women want to “make an impact” as you say and which ones just want to be seen/discovered as women on some level/or who just want to have fun with cigars on a serious level or on a light-felt level.
As a continuation to that, I feel that it is this “blurriness” that actually makes it harder for women to sometimes be taken seriously. This leads me to answer you: “do I think women have to work harder than men to gain respect?” YES, we do! But not necessarily because of men:
During my job for Swedish Match in the early-mid 2000’s to 2010, I was faced with challenges due to men, yes: I was in my 20’s in Eastern Europe before Social Media was into “business” as we see it today. Men challenged me a lot, often on purpose, with more and more questions during seminars… I made sure to learn as much as possible before doing Seminars and made sure I could always stay confident – this pushed me to work harder on learning more.
I did not complain, I Loved those challenges and used them in the right way: learn more, gain more confidence and Achieve.
Now, today, I am sorry to say that women are making women have to work harder – and this is not a “fun” type of challenge… I am saying this with full respect as many women really don’t mean anything negative and just want to have fun, but this has become a blurry line and I can feel it.
So to answer your question: for those women who truly want to make an impact:
- First of all, learn as much as you can! If one cannot afford a trip and long stay enough in a place with factories, then read: read read read! Read and take a trip, and even from home ask, ask ask ask!
- Find out why you as a woman (not “you Carolina” lol J), why “you” as a woman really want to make an impact? For what reason? This is where the line gets blurry.
- Then Honestly communicate why you are passionate in this area of products – and if the impact is truly passion for premium cigars, the tobacco itself, all the Work behind production, fascination of this work, the business-work following that, the challenges faced, may it be marketing or the FDA threatening us or any other business-related aspect… any of these serious reasons – After actually learning about tobacco – Then communicate the impact of your choice.
- What kind of impact does the woman want to make? Is it “as a ‘woman’?” or just “as a ‘person’ infatuated by this product/business?”
To continue from my experience: I personally never thought about this since I went straight from college to this line business, and my passion came from the product itself and for my clients…
So when I finally had to start making an impact from “myself” I was 10 years into the business which was when I created Freyja (I had between 2005 and Freyja’s debut which was in 2015) – so in my case the Product comes first and my credentials following my product.
So finally, what’s the desired impact? Oneself as a woman? Or as a person? Or is it your product and achievements? (The “product” can be a fun personal service such as a blog or anything at all…!)
And finally to be true to oneself and to everyone – that impact should be made on the desired level and reason.
Hoochly: What are some of your hobbies other than cigars?
Emma: I used to have time for so many hobbies before! This means before creating Las Cumbres Tabaco and before having my little Jasper.
– Horse-back riding
– In Skopje (Macedonia) I took on a full personal project of a failed attempt to close down the zoo but a full success to make that zoo much better and safer for the animals
– Visited orphanages
– Brief time of musical theatre studies
– And last but definitely not the least, Dancing!
Today, the ones I have time for is dancing and fashion 🙂
Hoocly: You and Jose have a beautiful son, only 3 years old. From his personality and character what do you see him doing when he grows up?
Emma: Jasper is a very confident child, he is very fashionable, always wants to dress as a man (proper shirts, a tie, sunglasses, long pants…), he walks and moves like a little man, he behaves like a Rock Star…. Lol…
But in the same time he has his little feet on the ground – this is hard to explain as he is only three and a half years old, but he is also quite mature for his age and likes to “discuss.”
Jasper is obviously also brought up very Internationally with many cultures from my side from Scandinavia to Balkan, and with my father and family living in Thailand, his dad from the Dominican Republic and himself growing in the US (Hoboken, NJ).
So all in all, I picture Jasper becoming a charismatic and charming International business-man.
But my dream is that he will become a professional Football-player for Juventus (sorry… “Soccer”, LOL :P)
Hoochly: What cigars do you smoke when you are not smoking a cigar from Las Cumbres?
Emma: I honestly don’t smoke very often and I smoke a bit of everything – when I smoke a cigar I like to enjoy the philosophy of it – I love to think about the flavors and body from inch to inch, to feel the difference between the retrohaled experience versus the puff experience; to think deeply about the origins and even seeds; the aging… For me it is not “smoking” it is a philosophy…
Unless I’m letting go at some event and just have fun and simply “smoke” but that won’t extend a very slowly well enjoyed single cigar.
So I smoke as much diversity as possible!!! Diversity in brands and origins make my “philosophical experience” so much richer, more interesting and fun.
I don’t want to mention brands as I will surely forget some and then feel bad for those blenders that I might forget in this moment…
But I love spice (so I can openly mention Pepin in this case… He, his son Jaime and their team have a lot of good spice in their blends, but from far are they alone with spice!), I love sweetness, and complexity. I am however not very fond of too much earthy notes if they are not accompanied by spice or sweetness or nutty or any other complexity… If we talk about Cubans (well made, well-constructed and “real” ones) then I can mention a couple of brands, such as H. Upman and Partagas for example: I love their sweetness, creaminess and complexity. Finally, in body I prefer a medium to full body or a full body too if the strength does not take over the complexity in flavors.
Hoochly: What exciting projects you have on the works that you can share with us?
Emma: Our latest is the Señorial Maduro 5 ¾ X 46 box-press called El Cuadro (meaning the frame which represents both the shape and “art” which means a lot at Las Cumbres), and the Freyja 6 ½ X 55 box called Mjölnir (which is the name of Norse God Thor’s Hammer which clearly shows the meaning haha).
I cannot disclose any future projects, I’m sorry.
Hoochly: Emma and Jose, thank you once again for this great interview, and to close this up what would be your message for our Hoochly followers?
Emma and Jose: In addition to all the passion and education we both like to communicate, and know what is true and what is misconception, we please ask everyone, Now more than ever to Support the CRA in every way possible!!!