Friday, June 21, 2024

Blending Tradition and Innovation: An Interview with Anto Mahroukian on JM Tobacco’s “Year of the Dragon” and 30 Years of Excellence

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Lincoln Salazar (LS): Could you give us a brief overview of JM Tobacco’s history and the evolution of its brands?

Anto Mahroukian (AM): Yeah, sure. JM Tobacco has its roots in a personal journey. It all began when my father, John Mahroukian, had to quit cigarettes due to health reasons, back in 1994 or 1995. He had some heart issues, possibly a minor heart attack, and his doctor advised him to quit smoking. Considering he had been a smoker for years, it was a significant lifestyle change. So, for his birthday, I decided to get him a couple of Connecticut cigars as an alternative. These were pricey, and when he loved them, he asked me to buy him a box. But I explained the cost implications to him, and he was surprised at the price. My dad, being in the jewelry business, had connections in the Dominican Republic, where he had a small factory making jewelry. He decided to explore the possibility of making cigars there. He sent a box of those cigars to his contacts in the Dominican Republic, asking them to find someone who could replicate them. They managed to do so, and my dad was intrigued. He ordered 10,000 cigars, thinking even if they didn’t sell, he’d have cigars for a lifetime. That marked the beginning of our journey into the cigar business. We named our first brand “Espanola” after seeing the name “Hispaniola” across the whole island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic on a map. Espanola was a mild to medium Connecticut cigar, which became quite popular, especially amidst the cigar craze of the mid-’90s. Before we knew it, the initial 10,000 cigars were sold out. Encouraged by this success, we ordered 50,000 more and expanded into different sizes and eventually introduced a Maduro wrapper. That’s the story behind JM Tobacco and our first brand, Espanola cigars.

LS: Can you describe the typical customer who enjoys your cigars and what appeals to them the most about your brand?

AM: Espanola gained popularity rapidly, especially due to the scarcity of cigars in the mid-’90s. Many novice smokers, attracted to cigars by celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, found our mild, creamy cigar appealing. As the cigar market became saturated in the late ’90s, we faced challenges competing with cheaper alternatives flooding the market. That’s when we launched JM’s Dominican brand, catering to budget-conscious smokers who couldn’t afford premium cigars anymore. It was a handmade cigar, packaged in a box with a band, but priced competitively to meet the demands of a changing market. So, our typical customers became those looking for quality at an affordable price, smoking multiple cigars a day.

LS: Let’s dive into your latest release, the “Year of the Dragon.” It recently received an exceptional rating of 93 with Enthusiast Report Magazine. Could you share some insights about this cigar, which seems to hold special significance for you?

AM: Absolutely. The “Year of the Dragon” cigar marks our venture into the zodiac sign cigars, something we hadn’t explored before. We wanted to make a statement with this product, especially after the positive reception of our repackaged Espanola brand last year. This limited edition cigar features an Ecuadorian Corojo wrapper with a San Andres binder, a blend we started experimenting with in early 2023. After finalizing the blend in late 2023, we began production in early 2024, allowing the cigars to age for about four to five months before their release on June 1st. Personally, I’m thrilled about this cigar as it embodies the qualities I enjoy in a smoke, reminiscent of Cuban cigars that I admire. We aimed for a medium to full-bodied profile, striking a balance between robust flavor and smoothness. The blend, consisting of Dominican filler, delivers a satisfying experience with every puff.

LS: What’s the price point for the “Year of the Dragon”?

AM: The “Year of the Dragon” is priced at around $13 to $14 MSRP for a single cigar, or $300 for a box of 24.

LS: How long did it take to develop the blend for the “Year of the Dragon”?

AM: We started experimenting with the blend in early 2023, toggling between a Habano and a Corojo wrapper to achieve the desired flavor profile. After about a year of refining the blend, from early to late 2023, we settled on the final composition.

LS: What new innovations or trends is JM Tobacco embracing to cater to the ever-evolving preferences of cigar enthusiasts?

AM: Historically, we focused on value-priced cigars, but we realized the potential to expand into higher-end blends. With our expertise and capabilities, we reintroduced premium offerings like the Espanola, which was well-received. Building on this success, we decided to create a new limited edition, the “Year of the Dragon,” packaged in a visually appealing red box adorned with a gold dragon emblem, symbolizing the year 2024. We’re committed to delivering exceptional quality, controlling every aspect of production from seed to cigar. This includes sourcing the finest wrappers, binders, and fillers, with meticulous attention to quality control throughout the process.

LS: When blending a new cigar, what specific qualities are you aiming for? I understand it’s like being a chef in the cigar industry. Are there particular specifications you look for during the blending process?

AM: Absolutely. We aim for a smooth smoking experience without any harshness or tongue bite. We’ve worked on reducing background ammonia flavors, partly by changing our fumigation process to a cold blast method instead of using chemical-based fumigation. If a blend doesn’t meet our standards, we adjust the aging or curing process, or even switch out fillers to achieve the desired profile. With various filler options available, such as ligero, seco cubano, or piloto cubano, and different blend ratios, we meticulously test and refine each batch to ensure consistency and quality.

LS: What was the first cigar you remember having?

AM: I vividly recall trying one of our samples from the Dominican Republic when I was 18. Despite being inexperienced, I was captivated by the creamy richness of the smoke. I savored every moment, not wanting the cigar to end. It was a transformative experience that ignited my passion for cigars.

LS: And as we close out, what does a premium cigar mean to you?

AM: A premium cigar is a masterpiece, a testament to the craftsmanship and artistry of cigar making. Each cigar is unique, yet they all reflect the dedication and skill of the people involved in every step of the process, from cultivating the tobacco to handcrafting the final product. It’s a symbol of tradition, quality, and the timeless enjoyment of fine tobacco.

LS: Fantastic. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

AM: Yes, next year marks our 30th year in the business, and we’re planning to release a special anniversary cigar to commemorate the occasion. We’re excited about this milestone and are currently working on crafting a blend worthy of celebrating three decades of passion and dedication to the cigar industry.

LS: Wonderful. We look forward to trying that 30-year anniversary cigar. Congratulations on reaching such a significant milestone!

AM: Thank you!

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Lincoln Salazar
Lincoln Salazar
Lincoln Salazar is the CEO/Publisher of Enthusiast Report. With over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry, Salazar presents Enthusiast Report which is a broader, modern vision of luxury and lifestyle.

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