Hoochly spent some time with one of the men behind Cubariqueño Cigar Company and he tells us the story behind Protocol, how he got started in the industry, the plans for the brand and a very special message for all the cigar geeks out there!
Hoochly: Tell us about how you first got into cigars?
Juan: I first got into cigars at a very early age. It’s not the traditional way everyone would think. I wasn’t born into it or came from a tobacco family, however oddly enough, my grandfather used to work in tobacco fields in Puerto Rico, when tobacco was being mass produced there. From 1900 until 1927, Puerto Rico produced around 35 million tons of tobacco a year. Record exports were made as late as 1957 to North America, England, Spain, France, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica and other main cigar making areas of the world. Until that time, Puerto Rico was the fifth largest exporter of tobacco in the world after the U.S., Mexico, Venezuela and Africa. Enough with the history lesson.
My family practiced a religion called Santeria. Cigars were involved with many of the rituals of Santeria. I always loved the aroma of the cigars during the “limpieza”. My grandfather would put down a lit cigar as an offering to the Saints. When he wasn’t looking, I would pick up the cigars and smoke it. We would always come back, see the cigar was smoked and exclaimed that the “Santos” were happy with him. As I got into adulthood my passion for tobacco grew stronger with each passing year.
Hoochly: What motivated you to create your own cigar company and brand?
Juan: I am a cigar nut by trade. It is a passionate lifestyle I truly enjoy. My dream has always been to one day own my own cigar line, as probably the same with many other cigar nuts! The motivation was an opportunity that presented itself to fulfill a dream.
Hoochly: What did you do professionally before getting involved in the cigar industry?
Juan: I am still a full time Law Enforcement Official with under 3 years to retire.
Hoochly: Pick the 2 people who have influenced you the most in the cigar industry and tell us why.
Juan: Erik Espinosa is my Idol in this industry. He has grown from a sales rep to Cigar Factory Owner, but he’s too easy, after all he produces my cigars. I want to go a little deeper. The 2 people that has influenced me the most in this industry is Rocky Patel and Jonathan Drew. Both are close friends, both have been to my house and have broken bread with my family. We have had great laughs together and I consider each one to be a dear friends. They both have influenced me greatly and for the same reason. Look at these 2 guys. Both super successful in an industry dominated by Hispanics. An industry where only families that were doing this for generations would to prosper and thrive.
Both Jon and Rocky were not born into this Industry, same can be said about me. They are both from different cultures, and different carrier paths. Rocky was an Indian lawyer and Jonathan was a Jewish Kid studying law at Brooklyn Law. Both left their career paths and took a big chance to follow their dreams. They both put a lot of their blood, sweat, tear, time and money into something that they weren’t sure they would be successful. At first they were laughed at by their predecessors. Everyone gave them 2 year to be out of business. They did not let that stop them or cause them to give up! By following their passion and chasing their dream, today they are each one of the largest in the Cigar Industry and still growing. Each of their stories can be an inspiration for anything not just the cigar industry. They are both remarkable men.
Hoochly: Let’s talk about Mr. Bill Ives. How did you meet him and how did you two decide to start this business venture together?
Juan: Bill Ives is the other half of the company. He is the “Cuba” part of Cubariqueño Cigar Company. I am the “Riqueño” part. We created that name to honor our Cuban and Puerto Rican Heritage. I met Bill Ives through cigar circles. Bill Ives would go to the Leaf Cigar Bar & Restaurant which was my main cigar hang out. He later became a member of Cigar Club, that I along with a few others founded. So we started to hang out and get to know each other through those two channels. Our friendship grew as did our passion for cigars. After knowing each other for a few years, a third friend by the name of Bill Agathis, who later also became our business partner, suggested that we should come out with our own cigars. Bill Agathis planted the seed for all of this. The next step consisted of sitting down with Erik Espinosa and asking him if he would be willing to produce our Cigar. He said yes and here we are today.
Cubarriqueño’s first cigar, Protocol was made at La Zona factory owned by Eric Espinoza. Why? Tell us about the process.
Juan: After deciding that we wanted to become cigar brand owners, the next question was who will produce our cigars? Like I mentioned before, I am an Extreme Cigar Nut. Throughout my years I’ve been to many Cigar events, excursions, safaris, and trips to the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Florida, all following the passion of cigars. In those travels I have become friends with many cigar celebrities. It is actually surreal to me that these guys call me up, sometimes out of the blue, just to see how I’m doing. It’s an amazing thing. So at the time I was really digging La Zona Cigar Factory. I was basically an Espinosa fanboy. Everything out of that factory, to me tasted amazing. So when the question of who was going to produce our Cigar, the first person that came to mind was Erik Espinosa.
We asked Eric to sit down and have a meeting with us. We presented the idea to Erik, thinking he was going to laugh at us and walk out of the room. To our surprise he actually said he would love to do a cigar for us and then we started talking about production and numbers, etc. Once it was agreed that Eric was going to produce our cigar, the next step was actually the cigar itself and coming up with the right blend for the cigar. This is where I met my now mentor, Hector Alfonso Sr. Héctor is the master blender at La Zona. The amount of talent that man commands in tobacco is extraordinary. He has blended some of the biggest hits coming out of La Zona. That guy is a monster and is a huge inspiration to where I would love to one day be with my Tobacco knowledge. So we sat down with Hector over the course of three weeks and he picked our brains as far as what kind of blend we wanted.
Hector created 9 different blends with our palates in mind. Bill and I smoked all of them over a course of a week. The final blend that we used for the Protocol was a blend we both picked as our #1. He blended the Protocol specific to our palates. Many people told us that we should try to blend the cigar that everybody would like, basically try to make it appeal to a broad range of people. We did not listen and blended a cigar that we(Bill and I) loved. We figured, if we never sell the cigars and would be stuck with them for the rest of our lives, then let it be something we loved and enjoy smoking. That was the birth of Protocol
Hoochly: Why the name “Protocol”?
Juan: Erik Espinosa told us in the beginning that the easiest part of this whole process was actually going to be the cigar. What he did say was that the hardest part of it was going to be finding a name. I looked at him like he was crazy. But eventually I got to know exactly what he was saying. Bill and I spent that entire weekend trying to figure out the name of the cigar. We started early Friday afternoon and went all the way through late Sunday night. Every time we thought we had a great name we would look it up and find out that it had been taken. Bill was at my house and we were drinking Ron Zacapa XO, which happens to be my favorite thing to pair when smoking cigars. We drank an entire bottle of the Ron Zacapa XO. Then we wanted more. I told Bill that there was no more and he said in a drunken state “what do you mean there’s no more? It’s standard Protocol to have Ron Zacapa XO in the house.” We looked at each other and Protocol was born.
Hoochly: What is next for Cubarriqueño?
Juan: We are going to continue to grow our company until the FDA forces us to close our doors. Until the FDA drops it’s decision, we are in full steam ahead mode. We will continue to produce our inaugural sizes of a 6 X 52 Toro and a 5&5/8 X 46 Corona Gordo. Next we have the Protocol coming out in a Lancero. It’s a traditional Cuban Lancero size of a 7.5 X 38. We are doing a new cigar called the Protocol Billyclub in 2 Vitolas. One is a 5×52 Robusto and the other is a 7.5 X 48 Short Churchill Semi Box Pressed, both with a closed foot.
Hoochly: Tell us about your charity, the Port Authority Police Hispanic Society.
Juan: I organize a yearly charity event called the Port Authority Police Hispanic Society Cigar Night. This year on October 13 marks our 10th year doing the event. Attendees pay $150 and get between 20 and 30 Cigars. They also have a five hour open bar, a four course gourmet meal, mingle with over 25 different cigar celebrities and Brand owners, and a chance to win thousands of dollars worth of raffle prizes. There is also a live Latin Band that plays most of the night. 100% of the money raised go to bettering the life of inner-city children locally and abroad. We sponsor inner city sports, we sponsor educational programs such as SAT prep programs, and even do a large turkey drive on Thanksgiving to give out turkeys to needy families. We have build homes and paid for educational programs in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. I believe a big part of moving forward is always giving back.
Hoochly: What are your Top 5 Cigars right now?
Juan: #5. Flor De Gonzalez 20th Anniversary Maduro Toro
#4. Sobremesa Cervantes Fino
#3. Epic Maduro Lancero
#2. Espinosa Especial No.1
#1. Laranja Reserva Caixa
Hoochly: What message you have for our readers?
Juan: I have been on many many Facebook Cigar Groups and have seen first hand people get upset at the oddest things. I think people should be able to laugh at things, others, and themselves. Everyone should lighten up and chill. Don’t take everything as a personal attack. Have fun. Don’t be so serious. You know what they say “the only thing that can ruin a great cigar is smoking it next to an asshole!” Don’t be an asshole and don’t let no asshole ruin your cigar!
There are way too many assholes out there. If you pay attention you will never enjoy a cigar again. So just chill and fully enjoy every cigar you smoke!