Saturday, May 25, 2024

The Artisans of Artista Cigars: Ram Rodriguez and Kevin Newman

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Ram Rodriguez – The Humble cigar maker of “Artista, the Artisans Cigars”

Lincoln: Ram, tell us a little bit about the history of Artista Cigars, from the beginning of the history of Artista Cigars, and a little bit who you guys are today?

Ram: Artista Cigars is the product of a family business. We’ve been in the tobacco industry since 1956. My grandfather founded a small little company in his backyard called Tabacalera Puro Cigars, back then in the ’50s just to make some cigars to sell in the local market. In the mid ’60s, we were already selling in the whole Cibao region, the tobacco region of the Dominican Republic. By the ’70s, we were already selling our cigars nationwide.

My grandfather got sick during the ’80s and in 1984 my father took control of the operation. He came with a new set of mind. He was recent graduated from business administration from a college here in the Dominican. He had the idea of taking the factory to the next level. In order to do that, he changed the name of the company from Puro Cigars to Tabacalera El Artista. Mainly because cigar is an art and every hand that touched the tobacco during the whole process should be considered an

Ram: We started exporting our products in the ’90s.

Ram: We not only have been manufacturing cigars, but also growing our own tobacco.

Ram: Nowadays, Tabacalera El Artista is the head of the whole operations, including Artista Cigar, which is our facing for the consumer. We are a vertically integrated company with operations here in the Dominican Republic with around 2,000 acres of tobacco growing locally, plus another 800 in Ecuador. We have operations also in the US, our warehouse is in Miami. You can see our products in most of Europe and North America nowadays.

Lincoln: How many years total, Ram, does your family go back in the premium tobacco industry?

Ram: My grandfather was a farmer that knew how to roll cigars. That was the standard back then. He’s the one that started everything. I’m third generation, my grandfather was the first that started everything.

Lincoln: Your grandfather started in Dominican Republic?

Ram: Yes, in the Dominican Republic. We are a 100% Dominican.

Lincoln: Are all of your cigars made a 100% Dominican? The binder, wrapper, still today?

Ram: No. We also grow tobacco in Ecuador. Plus we use tobacco basically from all over the world, from Indonesia to Africa and South Central and North America. We use a little bit of everything on our blends.

Lincoln: Okay. Ram, one thing that we just talked about was El Artista Cigars before. Correct?

Ram: Yes.

Lincoln: Now, today it’s Artista Cigars, which has been for the last how many years now?

Kevin: Since last year.

Lincoln: Since last last year, we’ve seen a big change. By the way, El Artista Cigars has gotten numerous ratings over the years, 90 plus ratings. You’re known for having some of the best tobacco and some of the best cigars in the world. Tell me more about the rebranding of Artista Cigars?

Kevin: Lincoln, what we wanted was something that was modern yet classic for the branding. If you look back in the history of the company, the logos and that sort of stuff really reflect the way that the Dominican factory operates. In fact, the logo of the factory has three tobacco leaves on it. One for each of the generations, Ram’s grandfather, father, and of course Ram.

Lincoln: You seemed to be able to accomplish keeping the classic look while modernizing the brand.

Kevin: For the consumer-facing brand, we wanted something that was a little bit more classic, a little bit more modern, kind of spoke to what we wanted to do with the company. We contracted with a design company in LA to come up with something that really spoke to our values and what we saw the future of the company be. The company that we contracted with works in tobacco, they did a fantastic job. It took us a while to come up with something that would work. The new direction of the company is really just a continuation of the direction that Ram and I have been working towards for the last seven years together.

Then Ram, of course, 11, 12 years now, he started the El Artista Cigars in the US and abroad. That is to bring some of the best tobaccos from our farms and from around the world to the consumers at a very reasonable price. What you probably have known about Artista Cigars, is we’re the largest tobacco grower in the Caribbean. If not the largest, one of the largest. Ram knows the numbers exactly on that. What that means is we can do things at scale. We can get fantastic tobacco leaf, put it into a blend, and offer it at a price that you won’t see anywhere else.

Some of the new blends that we have, the Harvest and the Midnight and some of the upcoming stuff that we have for 2024 and 2025 are featuring some of those tobaccos that you just don’t get anywhere else. Unique combinations that you can’t say you’ve ever smoked before, and that’s the artistry of Artista Cigars. Ram touched on it, but I’m going into it a little bit more. What we’ve seen in the tobacco factory– Ram’s been around in the tobacco factory off and on since he was a kid. Is, it’s really a symphony of different instruments all playing this same song.

What you’re getting in the end, and other people have talked about this, but what you’re getting in the end is the final product of years of labor in the tobacco, in the presentation, in the history and the story. Artista is simply presenting that to the audience and saying, “We really hope that you like what we put together. Decades of work, years of development, and years of getting it out to you, Mr. and Mrs. Consumer.”

Lincoln: 65 years in cigars, is how long its been a family owned factory. Correct?

Ram: Yes. 65 years of family, passion and tradition.

Lincoln: Some of your lines that you guys have, you have the Exactus, is that still going to be available to consumers and the Puro Ambar, and then the Pulita? Are those also still available?

El Artista Buffalo Ten

Ram: Right now we are focusing most of our efforts on the new Artista lines, the Buffalo TEN, which is our top selling product. As we speak, we still have the Exactus line. We are focusing more is on these other new projects. Eventually, we will have to pause the Exactus and maybe Puro Ambar the future.

Lincoln: Are you still selling the David Ortiz series, Big Papi?

Ram: Yes. Soon we are releasing a new one for the David Ortiz line.

Lincoln: Tell us of the relationship with The Big Papi by David Ortiz? Tell us how that came to fruition. How did you guys end up together and even a good story with David Ortiz?

Ram: I have the most amazing story with David Ortiz that you could imagine. Everything started because he has such a beautiful heart.

Ram: Everything started by us being the sponsor of his Golf Celebrity Classic tournament. He used to do here in the Dominican, now he’s doing it in Florida every year, the David Ortiz Celebrity Classic. We always brought some of our products plus a cigar roller just to roll cigars during the venue. Every time David would see the roller, he’s always intrigued and asking questions and playing with different kinds of tobacco.

One day during one of those events, I told him, ”David, if you are so interested in this, why don’t you go to the factory and store, and make a little blend with me. We’ll play around with some tobacco and see what can we get out of it.” He told me he wil he would like to, that was like an empty promise after having some drinks in a big event like that one. What was a surprise it was for me his manager contacted me around two weeks after that event to set a meeting for David to go to the factory. It happened, he came to the factory. We start playing a little bit with tobacco and we came up with the blend that right now we have as Big Papi by David Ortiz.

Everything started like a tiny little project, a private project. We were manufacturing probably 100 to 200 cigars every one or two months to ship to him, for him to share with his friends. When he announced his retirement, we gave him the idea like, ”Hey, why don’t we make a business out of it? Why don’t we let the consumer try this cigars that you already blend.” He loved the idea and that’s where we are today/

The really cool history that I wanted to tell you is actually related to his fundraising. He raised funds for children with heart diseases, not only here in the Dominican Republic, but also in the States. They basically operate kids with heart conditions. Around three years ago, we opened a new warehouse, couple of like 40 minutes away from our headquarters here in the Dominican, we needed somebody for the receptionist position over there. As a rule, in our factory, HR needs to look, if any position opens, they need to look inside our organization before hiring somebody from outside.

We saw that this girl was in college studying business administration and she was working in the sorting facilities; They decide to interview her to see if she had interest of becoming a receptionist, and she did. I remember the message, the person in charge of HR sent me, that she’s very proud of working in Artista and mainly because we manufacture for David Ortiz. She actually got heart surgery through David Ortiz’s organization, that was amazing.

Lincoln: That’s beautiful. Wow.

Ram: After that, I sent a message to David and a week after he was in the factory that he wanted to meet her and it was beautiful. A lot of tears coming from David and herself and her mother.

Lincoln: Then what happen?

Ram: Basically that’s it. It was just– What David told me when I send him the voice note is that, sometimes you cannot even imagine, because how many lives you touch and how close they are for you when you do these kind of acts. I think that’s amazing. The organization is doing a great job and we’re very proud of working with him.

Lincoln: Tell me about the new blends. You have the Harvest, the Midnight, and then you have the Buffalo Trace which by the way has gotten rave reviews and it’s– I’m sorry, not Buffalo Trace, Buffalo TEN.

Ram: Buffalo TEN.

Lincoln: Buffalo TEN has gotten rave reviews and is a pretty affordable price, by the way, correct me if I’m wrong, especially for that quality of cigar. Let’s start with the Buffalo TEN, which you’ve had out for about two, three years now, right, Kev?

Kevin: About four years now.

Lincoln: Tell us a little bit about the Buffalo TEN, what’s in that cigar? What makes it so special? And how do you keep it at that price with that quality?

Ram: Buffalo TEN is a project that Kevin and I created a couple of years ago. Honestly, we had no idea– We knew it was a great cigar, but we were not expecting such a good reception from the consumer. Everything started with Buffalo TEN Maduro. We were looking for a cigar, at a very affordable price that can bring a lot of value to the table. I think we were able to achieve it. We focused a lot on the blend and left everything else not as a protagonist, let’s say. That’s why it is such a beautiful but simple design on the packaging, on the band and everything.

What we agreed at the beginning is that there has to be two protagonists on the blend and a value and flavor. The flavors that we were looking for were floral and sweet notes. We were able to achieve that on the Maduro because of the binder. The binder that it has is negrito, which is not a very common tobacco variety that we grow here in the Dominican Republic. The wrapper is from Mexico, San Andres, Maduro and a blend of Nicaragua, Dominican and American tobaccos in it. The second release was the Buffalo TEN Natural.

Lincoln: There’s American tobacco in that.

Ram: Yes.

Lincoln: What region does that come from?

Ram: PA.

Lincoln: Pennsylvania?

Ram: Yes. Then we released the natural, again, we wanted the blend to be surrounded by a lot of sweetness and floral notes. In this case we decide to go with a Habano wrapper from Ecuador, the binder is a Sumatra from Indonesia, and also a blend of Dominican Nicaragua and American tobaccos in it. The third, at least for me to blend the hardest one was the Connecticut version. I’m not a huge fan of Connecticut wrapper, and it’s very hard to get sweetness out of tobacco that is naturally a little bit bitter.

We were able to achieve it by doing two things. First, the Connecticut is grown in Ecuador from our farms over there. The binder is the big secret on it which is a Cameroon, African Cameroon tobacco we have as binder, which is naturally extremely sweet. Then it’s a blend of Nicaraguan and Dominican tobacco and is the mildest one out of the three. It’s been the most successful brand not only the US but in other markets, Canada, Sweden and Germany, Austria, you name it. Buffalo TEN always, is the one that does the best in those markets.

Kevin: Lincoln, just to add to what Ram said, when we put together the Buffalo TEN, what we really wanted was to showcase the strengths of the factory. Ram talked about the two protagonists, which was flavor and value. For me, what I really wanted to do was demonstrate the strengths of the factory, which are quality tobacco leaf at a very good price. Again, you asked how we can achieve that price point, which right now, I think in the US, not necessarily in California, but in the US it retails for about $5.50 a stick.

Lincoln: Tell us about the Midnight.

Ram: Artista Midnight is one of the creations we made out of the new Artista series, and one of the ones that we used to introduce this new presentation to the market. For us, it’s a very important project. We took a lot of time developing not only on the blend, but also on the statics of it. For us is something that really needs to represent us because it is the first time, we actually use the name of our roots Artista on a product. It’s the first actual Artista cigars in the market.

The Midnight is a full body cigar. This box press is available in Robusto and Toro. The wrapper is a very dark Ecuadorian Habano wrapper. The binder is Ecuadorian Connecticut shape and a blend of Dominican and Nicaragua and American tobaccos in it. Very, very interesting cigar. This is one of the creations that I did during the lockdown days. We had the factory closed, so I had all the fermentation warehouses just for me to play around and this is one of the little projects that we came with during that time.

Lincoln: Tell us a little bit about now the Artista Harvest.

Ram: The harvest is the second edition out of the Artista series, this one is more of a medium body cigar, a Sumatra wrapper. The binder is a Dominican Habano seed and the filler is a blend of Dominican tobaccos. This one, it was actually a very big challenge for the blending because I was looking to create something unique using some tobaccos that are very unique and very rare. It took me a little bit, but I think we were able to achieve it a lot of dry fruits notes on it, which is very interesting, very good cigar with a lot of sweet notes on it.

Lincoln: I guess I get a lot of honey from this cigar when I have smoked it

Ram: Yes. Honey is one of the things that most of the people perceive. Some people, they perceive it more dry thick, but for sure it’s very sweet and that’s one of the things that we were trying to achieve with it, so we are very happy.

Lincoln: Where did the name El Artista name come from?

Ram: We consider ourselves artisans, the people that interact with the tobacco for the manufacturing of the cigar, we consider they are artist. From the seed to the final product, every single hand that touches the tobacco should be considered an artist, and that’s why we name it that way. A lot of people ask me, oh, El Artista, so you are the artist? No, the artist is every single person that wakes up early in the morning with a lot of proud in their heart to go to the factory to make this beautiful commodity that we all enjoy.

Kevin: One of the things you have, I think you know this and this is on the record, but this is a conversation between you and I, pretend like Ram is not in the room. Ram is the most humble he’s very relaxed. He’s got this levelheaded confidence that comes from knowing so much about the business, so much about his tobacco, so much about his people and how they operate. We’re not the flashy, showy kind of people, we just stick to our business. We’re just some guys, I happen to work with Ram, but he comes from the heritage of tobacco.

That’s why the logo is simple, classic because it’s more along the lines of how Ram’s personality is, he just speaks plainly, he speaks honestly, he communicates clearly. There’s no pretense. He’s not trying to brag about anything. Everything he tells you, he’s downplaying everything. We wouldn’t want to say, “Hey, this is a $50 cigar.” It is really not. It is a $5 cigar at retail that smokes like a $10 cigar. Just so you have an idea, Lincoln, I know truly, Ram is the absolute artisan of tobacco I have ever met in my decade in this industry

Lincoln: Ram, tell tell us a little bit about your upbringing. Tell us a little about just your personal life, childhood, your upbringing, a little bit about your life?

Ram: I’m a tobacco guy in my whole life. My first memories with my father is probably the ones with me and him visiting the farms in the borderline with Haiti every Sunday. Since I was a kid, I always mention that in my house we never had a allowance. I always had a paycheck. The rule was always, after homework, you need to go to the factory. Of course, sometimes it was a pain to do it, but I did it anyways. In my family they were always very open for me.

When I was young I would wake up and think , “Oh, I think I want to become a doctor.” That was one of the main things I said when I was a little kid. “Okay, cool. Be a doctor, whatever.” then I want to be something else, and they always supported me, but the rule was always there. “Yes, you want to be a doctor, great. Remember, you’re running late to go to the factory.” During summer, I had to choose either in the morning or in the afternoons. I had to go to the factory to spend half a day. During summertime, I actually used to work, basically one day I had to be with the janitor, mopping the floors. Next day I’m with the sorting opening leaf. The day after, I’m with HR checking on resumes of people that we were going to hire. I went through every single department from the smallest one to the biggest one since I was a kid. On weekends, I used to play on the tobacco bales with my cousins paying hide and seek as well.

When I graduated from high school, I went to school for industrial engineering. By then I already knew that tobaccos and cigars was what I wanted to do my whole life. All my education was based on that. I was basically taking classes and whatever they were explaining, I was trying to understand how I can apply that to my workplace, which is a cigar factory. I realized that I wanted to be in the industry for my whole life when I went to a cigar show for first time, which is where I realized what happened with cigars after you put some big boxes on a truck and seal the doors.

I had no idea that people out there are smoking our products and it’s such a big lifestyle. I honestly had no idea until I actually went to the marketplace and saw it. That’s where I fell in love with this industry.

Lincoln: what separates Artista Cigars from the other brands that are out there?

Kevin: [I think it’s the quality and the value that you’re getting. Again, there’s no lack of cigar brands in the marketplace. If you’ve got $30,000 in a dream, you can come up with something, but the reality is, you’ve got 65 years of history. You’ve got thousands of people who are working every day to make this tobacco, make this cigar for the masses. Tabacalera El Artista in a small top-tier group of manufacturers. I don’t need to name them. I think you already know who I’m talking about. We’re vertically integrated, we grow our own, we roll our own, I think we distribute our own.

Of those top-tier manufacturers, what you see is really a lot of top-tier premium-priced products that sometimes are out of the reach of your everyday man. What Tabacalera El Artista is doing is we’re taking that vertical integration. The thousands of acres of tobacco, the thousands of hands that are touching that tobacco, the decades of work that’s been done to develop tobaccos that are unique and interesting. Like nothing you have seen the marketplace before, and they’re offering that at a very sharp. Now, Ram and I go back and forth, we argue about the pricing all the time, but it is the thing that separates us. You’re getting the same top-tier, ultra-premium quality tobaccos that you can get anywhere else with other manufacturers, but at a price that’s much easier on them.

Kevin: We’re not skimping on presentation. We’re not skimping on advertising or marketing. We’re doing all the things. We just want to provide a taste of the Dominican Republic, a taste of the history of Tabacalera El Artista, to try to get our name out there as one of those factories that does all the things but does it better and at a better price.

Lincoln: what does a cigar actually mean to you?

Ram: For me, a cigar it means a lot. That’s a very deep one. On one side, I always say that for me, this is the international language of friendship, because I’ve been traveling all across the world visiting cigar lounges all over the place. Yes, the culture is different, what they eat is different, the people is different, but the dynamic inside of a cigar shop and everything that happens while you are sitting there enjoying a cigar is the same all over the world. This helps you make new friends. If you want to prove that, just visit your local cigar shop and you realize how easy is just to sit down there, be quiet, and smoke a cigar. Probably have some polite conversations that can end up in a very good friendship with people from your community.

At the same time, a cigar is the final result of all the efforts my family has put into this. I remember when I was a little kid smelling the young tobaccos straight from the curing barns and feeling it the sticky oils on it when it’s very fresh. Just talking and learning from my dad, all the way to sitting down and enjoying and appreciating something that has taken us decades in order to achieve and improve. For me, it means the world, basically. It’s everything.

Lincoln: What is the legacy that you would like to leave behind in this world?

Ram: The legacy I want to leave behind in this world. I don’t need to be remembered as somebody, but at least when I leave this world, I want to know that the people that have been next to us. Not only the ones now, but the ones in the future to have taken something out of this whole organization. For them to be able to say thanks to the tobacco, thanks to the premium cigar industry I was able to build this house, I was able to do something.

There’s also a lot of families and there’s also a lot of art on it. Here on the premium cigar and some other tobacco-related industries, you can see it, there’s just much heart, passion and artistry that go into each and every cigar.

Connect with Ram and Kevin during this year’s PCA.

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