Friday, February 23, 2024

One on One with Glen Case: Kristoff Cigars’ Founder Talks Passion, Balance, and the Art of the Blend

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LS (Lincoln Salazar): I’m here with Glen Case, Founder & CEO of Kristoff Cigars. Enthusiast Report aims to appeal to both existing enthusiasts and educate those new to cigars about Kristoff and your journey. Let’s begin at the start of Kristoff and your journey. Can you tell us how Kristoff began?

GC (Glen Case): Before my cigar career, I spent 18 years in the financial services industry. My last nine years were as an executive at a top-three bank. I grew tired of the politics and bureaucracy. My wife was an independent broker in the cigar industry, so we partnered to broker cigars in the Midwest for about six months. Then, one of our largest manufacturers fired us despite our success. Manufacturers hire brokers initially to save on overhead, and my wife was used to this cycle. I didn’t want that uncertainty. So, I decided to make my cigars, despite knowing nothing about it.

A Dominican gentleman named Rolando Villano flew to Chicago to meet us, originally to discuss brokering. I informed him we’d no longer broker and that I wanted to create my cigars. He offered to help oversee production if I liked what I saw at his factory. Within two weeks, I was in the Dominican, ready to make it happen. The company initially operated under the name Exclusive Cigars. It wasn’t until a year later that I introduced the first Kristoff cigar. I believe blending a cigar is an art, not a science. The first few cigars weren’t very successful, but when I introduced the first Kristoff, it put me on the map. Over the next 12 months, I rebranded the company as Kristoff. Anything not called Kristoff either got discontinued or rebranded. This journey started in 2004.

LS: And Kristoff was named after your son Christopher, right?

GC: Yes, it’s named after our son, Christopher.

LS: Please continue.

GC: So here we are approaching our 20th anniversary in Q1 next year. We’ve grown significantly, being available all over the US and in over 50 other countries outside the US. It’s been an exciting journey.

LS: Were you a cigar smoker before starting Kristoff, or did your wife introduce you to cigars? Can you tell us about your first cigar and how you fell in love with the business and the opportunities you saw?

GC: I was a casual cigar smoker. I started smoking cigars at around 16 or 17, occasionally enjoying Pusher Sweets with friends at Harold’s Pool Hall. I continued to smoke cigars periodically throughout my life. However, when I began manufacturing my cigars, I became captivated by the industry, the blending process, and the cigar community. Nowadays, I average about 5 to 7 cigars a day, and I love it.

LS: You’re on the road for most of the year, right?

GC: I used to be, but I’ve significantly cut back. About ten years ago, while building the company, I was on the road 200 to 220 days annually. However, when I promoted Jure Trudeau to our VP of Sales, he took over a lot of the travel. Now, I might travel around 50 days a year.

LS: That’s a notable reduction.

GC: Absolutely.

LS: Can you share with our readers what defines a good cigar for you? What criteria do you prioritize when crafting a premium cigar?

GC: For me, it’s all about achieving balance in the cigar. I’m not a fan of overwhelming pepper or spice notes. I aim for a balanced sweetness with a touch of spice. We double and triple ferment all our tobacco, which ensures a smooth, full-flavored cigar without any harshness, bitterness, or lingering aftertaste. Of course, construction is vital too. We rigorously draw test every Kristoff cigar. If it doesn’t pass, we sell it to a company that makes chewing tobacco.

LS: Fascinating. Where are your cigars manufactured? Do you produce them in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua?

GC: The factory is in the Dominican Republic, but the cigar’s origin is less about the location and more about the global tobacco we use. We source tobacco from various countries, including Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Ecuador, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Africa. So we don’t stick to one particular blend; each cigar is unique.

LS: So everything is a distinct blend?

GC: Exactly.

LS: What is your current top-selling cigar?

GC: It’s our original Maduro, which was actually the second Kristoff cigar we introduced. Surprisingly, it’s still our best seller.

LS: Are you handling distribution in-house, or do you collaborate with others? How has your journey from being a broker influenced your current business model?

GC: When I initially started the company, we set up a warehouse in Miami and worked with brokers because, as I mentioned earlier, when you’re just starting, you often lack the cash flow to support an in-house sales team. Now, nearly 20 years later, we have in-house sales representatives across the country, and we handle our warehousing and distribution. Additionally, we provide warehousing and distribution services for one or two smaller manufacturers.

LC: Are there any new blends on the horizon for this year?

GC: We have a lot in the pipeline. We’ve been members of the Tobacco Association of America for about 15 years, and we’re preparing to release a TAA exclusive. The convention is scheduled for the end of March, where we’ll launch it. Additionally, I have another cigar called “The Tres Amigos,” which should be available around the July convention.

LS: Regarding “The Tres Amigos,” is it a San Andrés blend?

GC: It’s a Nicaraguan puro. This is our first puro blend, and it’s incredibly delightful, scoring high in smoothness and creaminess. Most Nicaraguan puros are associated with big pepper and spice notes, but this one is light on spice and exceptionally creamy. The name “Tres Amigos” pays tribute to my best friend of 42 years, who passed away about a year and a half ago, and Rolando Villamil, a figure in the industry for nearly 49 years who also passed away a year ago, almost to the day. Both of them were dear friends, and they connected through my involvement in the industry.

LS: What about other releases?

GC: I have a PCA exclusive for the show and another blend called “Nicaraguan Puro,” which will be our second Nicaraguan puro blend. Both of these should debut at the convention.

LS: Glenn, your last name, Case, sounds like it might have French or Irish origins. Am I correct?

GC: It’s primarily English and German, and I’m quite modest about it.

LS: Did you encounter any challenges entering the cigar business, especially two decades ago when it was primarily dominated by Latin American heritage and culture?

GC: Not really, but it’s amusing. I often joke that it makes perfect sense to be a gringo living in Chicago, making cigars.

LS: Do you think that’s made you stand out in the industry? Has it been an advantage?

GC: While we don’t have the multi-generational lineage of cigar makers, it hasn’t posed any significant obstacles for me.

LS: Your success in the industry and the respect you’ve garnered, even from families with centuries of heritage, is quite remarkable. What do you attribute your success to?

GC: I believe our business mantra plays a substantial role: quality, consistency, and availability. The quality of the cigar must be exceptional, spanning from the tobacco used to construction. Consistency is equally important. Our original Maduro, for example, still tastes the same today as it did nearly 19 years ago. Lastly, we focus on availability. We aim to prevent backorders on our products. While it occasionally happens, we don’t want to lose shelf space in brick-and-mortar shops. Business mantra: quality, consistency, and availability has helped establish our brand.

LS: Were you self-employed or owned a business before launching your cigar line?

GC: No, this is my first venture into self-employment, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

LS: You’ve been in this industry for nearly 20 years. Can you share the most significant advantage you’ve gained and the most challenging obstacles you’ve faced, not just in the cigar industry but also as an entrepreneur and business owner? Were there moments when you considered quitting or faced a pivotal decision?

GC: Absolutely. One major obstacle is the blending process in the cigar industry. Blending is an art, not a science, and there are no textbooks on the subject. Rolando served as my mentor in this area. It takes time to grasp the nuances of tobacco, study flavor and strength profiles, and understand the characteristics of tobacco from various regions and states, including within the US.

In the first year, I wasn’t making any money, and my wife, understandably, asked when I would start making a profit because it was getting challenging. Building the brand was another significant obstacle. Living in Chicagoland, I personally called on stores in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana, introducing myself and Kristoff. Initially, no one knew who I was or what Kristoff was. But now that the brand is established and international. In terms of the positives of owning a business, it has granted me a degree of freedom, especially as the company has grown over the past 19 years. That freedom and independence are among the most significant benefits.

LS: Can you tell me, in a couple of minutes, why a consumer should choose a Kristoff cigar when they have a multitude of options in a humidor? What sets Kristoff apart?

GC: Kristoff cigars offer a full-flavored, incredibly smooth, and well-balanced experience. If you’re looking for a cigar that embodies these qualities, that’s why you should try Kristoff.

LS: I concur, and I find Kristoff cigars to be consistently wellbalanced. When you’re developing a new blend, do you rely solely on your palate? Do you involve others for sampling, blind tastings, or focus groups? What’s the process for deciding, “This is the blend”?

GC: While I make the final decision, I involve others in the process. Once I believe I’m heading in the right direction, I have employees and friends who smoke cigars sample it, seeking their feedback. However, it’s typically close to the final blend before anyone else tries it. Based on the feedback I receive, I make the call on whether it’s the one, and then you hope it resonates well with consumers.

LS: When you seek feedback from friends and others, are there specific aspects of their palate you focus on, or do you consider their cigar preferences, even if they like cigars you might not rate highly?

GC: I value their opinions, and it’s essential to understand what appeals to their palates. However, if I don’t personally like a particular style or flavor profile, I can’t make a cigar like that. For example, I won’t create a cigar that’s intensely peppery or spicy, even if some people like such cigars. The feedback I receive often comes from Kristoff fans who are already familiar with the cigar’s profile, and I appreciate their input.

LS: I understand. I’m not a fan of overly spicy or peppery cigars either. To wrap up, in your own words, what does a cigar mean to you?

GC: I call a cigar the equalizer. When you’re in a cigar shop, you can find people from all walks of life, from the unemployed to neurosurgeons, coming together. It fosters conversation, forms friendships, and brings people together.

LS: You call it the equalizer. That’s a beautiful way to put it. What’s in store for Kristoff Cigars in the next 3 to 5 years? Do you have any significant plans or announcements?

GC: Our plan is to continue growing both nationally and internationally. You’ll also notice a change in the packaging for new blends. While our existing products have a rustic elegance with rough-cut cedar boxes and loose tobacco, the new releases will feature a different look with lacquered boxes, giving them a more upscale feel. For instance, the recent launch of Guardrail at PCA had an elegant black lacquered box, and you’ll see more like that.

LS: The new blends with their elegant packaging will certainly be exciting. One thing our readers might be curious about is the use of Cuban seed in some of your blends. Can you explain the significance of this and how it’s different from Cuban cigars?

GC: Certainly. Cuban seed or Habano seed originates from Cuban seeds that are then transplanted and grown in different countries. For example, we might grow Cuban seed tobacco in Honduras, Nicaragua, or the Dominican Republic.

LS: Do you prefer using Cuban seed for your blends, and does it influence the flavor?

GC: Yes, Cuban seed, for the most part, is a preference for us. It tends to provide a smoother and creamier finish in our cigars.

LS: Lastly, what legacy do you hope to leave behind with Kristoff Cigars and your personal legacy? Is there any plan for family involvement in the business?

GC: My legacy is to be known for crafting well-balanced, incredibly smooth cigars that most people can enjoy. As for family involvement, my children aren’t interested in entering the business, but my son in Austin occasionally asks for a cigar refill. They have no plans to get into the industry.

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