10 Lost Cigar Gems of Wisdom from former Drew Estate CEO and Dunbarton founder, Steve Saka
Time to read 9 min
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FREE SHIPPING ON ORDERS OVER $99
Time to read 9 min
Around ten years ago, Steve Saka connected with the smoking public and participated in this “Ask Me Anything thread (also known as an “AMA”) on Reddit. Unlike the usual brief responses, Saka offered up an outpouring of cigar knowledge, wisdom, opinions, insider tips, and lots more. We figured it would be a shame for this uncensored, unfiltered information to go to waste, and wanted to highlight some of the more interesting bits and lessons.
If you’re at all curious about what goes on behind the scenes in the cigar business, set aside a stogie and puff away while browsing the thread. There’s a ton in there! But if you want some of the highlights, stick around and we’ll cover what we think is most interesting in this post.
Some folks have persisted in the belief that Liga Privada cigars, which really helped put Drew Estate on the map for premium smoke, were treated with oil to make big smoke. But Saka says this just isn’t true and offers a ton of information about how these special leaves are actually treated in the process of becoming Liga wrapper leaf.
First, the Stalk Cut T52 and Broadleaf No. 1 leaves used to wrap Drew Estate’s Liga Privada cigars were, according to Saka, “extremely thick oily wrappers, in fact the thickest and oiliest being use by anyone I know.” So, they start out quite packed with oil.
To preserve as much of this flavorful oil as possible, Drew Estate then followed a different process when preparing the leaf than other cigar makers used – one which required careful control and that took painstaking measures to do correctly.
For a start, Drew Estate did not even allow the tobacco grower or broker to do ANY primary fermentation on Liga wrappers. Instead, Drew Estate would ship it directly from the curing barn in refrigerated containers. They did this to keep control over their own fermentation process which seems to follow a low and slow approach that many backyard meat smokers will find familiar. Instead of high heat phases (180 degrees for a few months, then 145+ for a year and a half), Saka’s team went for 120 degrees maximum over three years of fermentation or “bulking.” The reason was to avoid robbing the leaf of precious oils and flavor.
Speaking of which, he said the team aimed for flavor optimization, even if this left the leaf looking mottled. They didn’t try to create a leaf that had a particular color. It was all about that smoke – the final experience that most will agree is the key to whether a cigar is “good” or not. Even the final preparation of wrapper leaf in a caldera (heated room) was avoided to preserve the maximum amount of that sweet, sweet leaf juice!
The result of all these process choices, of course, was a smokier Liga cigar and quicker staining of any packaging that the cigar touched. This led to plenty of theories about what was going on. After all, it wasn’t crazy to think that Drew Estate, the creators of infused ACID cigars, might experiment with all kinds of methods, right?
But for those top-rated Liga Privadas? It was all-natural, baby. That Liga broadleaf was just a particularly “sweaty” type of tobacco.
We’ll let Steve state this one in his own words:
“Combustion in our opinion is a cornerstone of achieving consistent flavor, so while wrapper x with binder y and filler z might taste great together… if they don't burn well together there will come a time when they taste like something else.”
You just can’t get that flavor profile if the leaves won’t burn in harmony the way you intended. That’s why proper construction is so critical. Balance totally depends on each leaf burning properly. The next time you smoke a cigar and it seems out whack, check that burn line and see if one of the leaves just refused to do what it was supposed to.
You might imagine that visionaries in the cigar business have detailed plans for world domination that they follow to the letter. And you might be right, in some cases. But for other tobacco artists, it’s a matter of following their interests and seeing what catches on when it comes to certain blends.
For Drew Estate’s popular My Uzi Weighs a Ton line (aka “MUWAT”), it was a passion project, not one with a “master plan” at the outset. Bait Fish and Nightcrawler were not necessarily part of the original idea, but you’ve got to give the people what they want. As the blend line took off, Drew Estate came up with plans one phase at a time, the same as anyone might. You can’t do it all from your armchair while puffing away, as much as you might want to.
Follow ideas that interest YOU, and you just might find something big that the world will love.
It's a cigar-rolling method that uses tobacco leaves that are snugly rolled up one by one, and then bunched together. In Saka’s words, this “allows for great air channels and draw (when done right – regretfully many Cuban factories suck at their technique) but can result in funny burn patterns if the fillers do not burn at near identical rates.” For example, if you get a spike of leaf sticking out, your slow-burning ligero has probably peeked out its head and is messing things up. The blend won’t taste right.
It's a bit different. Here, leaves are folded so as to “have more surface area contact with their neighboring leaves in the bunch which allows for the quicker burning ones to help along the slower burning ones.” If you rush this method, though, it also will be messed up and lead to an uneven burn.
Liga smokes aimed to take the best of both worlds, using elements of both methods. In Saka’s words: “Essentially it is a style where we roll the fillers in entubado-style, but in very loose, wide tubes of the leaf then fold those in estrujado style into the hand which contains a "base' leaf that acts almost like a second binder leaf, but is actually part of the filler blend. We then break off the tips of the longleaf bunch and backfill the body of the bunch to get even compression throughout its length. I often refer to this as "lazy entubado", JD typically refers to it as Escuado.”
It's never simple! Saka reports that this method takes lots of time to do and also requires quite a bit of additional training for even the best buncheros. The result is worth it, though. Saka says that this leads to cigars that are “densely packed[,] yet exhibit an amazingly effortless draw while burning. [These] will burn not only more evenly, but longer [when] left resting than others.”
Construction is complicated, y’all. But if you get it right, the blend will stay right in the exact lane that the makers intended.
Liga Privada is a cigar that famously had to be banned from employee smoke sessions at the Drew Estate factory because not enough product was making it to market. This led to the creation of Undercrowns – a more “accessible” version of the Liga blend.
But still, there were times when it was super hard to get your hands on a Liga Privada. As Steve reported, the inventory shortages meant that “Consumers are upset with us, retailers are upset with us, and to be honest we are leaving a lot of money on the table.”
Of course, they could have ramped production up, but it might have led to consistency issues. So, they stayed true to the blend and compromised on nothing. Instead, they had to play the long game, plan ahead, and ferment more and more leaves each year in order to steadily increase production. Many customers went without their Ligas, but would you have wanted a subpar one?
Saka made a choice, and it was very probably the correct one. Although, in telling the story of the challenges, he did drop a “:<” at the end of his comment. It’s hard being the decision maker, even when people love your product. Sometimes, they love it so much that you wind up suffering from success! A good problem to have, but still a problem.
You might think that all cigar makers love to see prices skyrocket for their cigars, but that’s not the case. For Saka, he explained his feelings by saying, “I am blown away by the prices some of our products receive. And I will admit on a personal level a bit peeved, it seems like these consumers are being taken advantage of, yet in the end, I come back to my free market. Nobody is forcing these customers to pay so much, they are bidding of their own free will and it is their money to spend as they see fit. So who am I to say what is right and wrong[?]”
When inventory is short, some smokers are going to chase down their favorite blends no matter what. This takes prices through the roof. Our suggestion in cases like that might be to try something new and affordable, though, for most budgets. But as Steve says, if it’s your cash, you can spend it your way. We’re all looking for a great smoke, at the end of the day – and one that we know will satisfy our personal tastes.
He says they’re “far too sweet.” But he LOVES them for being a best seller. Honest about his personal tastes, and honest as a businessman. You gotta love this guy.
His favorite non-Drew Estate stick? The absolutely legendary Padron 1926. We can’t argue with him there. It’s a top-tier smoke, no matter what year it is.
Why do we purchase cigars from new brands with comparatively little experience when there are companies with not just five decades of knowledge, but five GENERATIONS? Well, Saka noticed that, “The biggest trend is not just the ready acceptance by consumers, but the actual desire of consumers to purchase new brands from completely unknown companies and people.”
The old guard wondered, “[W]hy would a consumer spend their hard-earned dollars on some Johnny Come Lately who once read a "bullshit" book about cigars last Tuesday instead of from a cigar maker with five decades of hard learned experience[?]”
Well, that’s one for you folks to answer. Our two cents is that there’s a ton that goes into making a purchase, but novelty will always be a big draw. That is, you can have your 300th Big Mac, and it will be fine, but the new menu item will probably entice you into at least one purchase, right? Variety is the spice of life! Maybe it’s the same reason that VIPs with 10/10 model wives still cheat…
Ever read a bunch of sophisticated flavor notes and thought, “This is all horses**t. No one can taste all that stuff. Who even knows what a ‘toasted cashew soaked at the bottom of a Turkish coffee’ really tastes like?”
You’re not alone. The funny thing is, that the ability to taste a variety of notes is not something you have to be born with. You can actually cultivate it! Steve mentioned that he wasn’t really able to “discern the individual nuances and characteristics of what [he] was smoking” for around a decade! So don’t be surprised if all those fancy notes elude you, for the time being.
Steve also said that this palate development period is a reason not to go too crazy buying stuff up in your first phase of smoking cigars. You may find that your taste shifts over time. Be ready to become a “better” cigar smoker as the years roll by.
Ever considered getting into the business? We don’t detail the steps here, but Steve covers some of the basic projects involved in launching your own cigar brand. If you’re interested in getting into the cigar game, definitely check out his thoughts on the matter. Even a decade later, it’s a great place to get a peek at what you’ve got ahead of you, even if another grower and factory will be making the tobacco and cigars for you. It's a lot of work, but it can be a beautiful industry to be involved in.
Okay, that’s all we’ll cover today. The thread is a wealth of information and insight, so do bookmark it to check out the next time you burn down a Robusto. Saka is an incredibly knowledgeable, straightforward, and earnest guy, and we’re fortunate he took out some time to share a bit of his experience with us all.