Some things never change. And in the case of cigar production, that’s not always a bad thing.
Premium hand-rolled, long-filler cigars are, and always will be, about the tobacco above all else. The premium cigar blend that is formulated from this plant’s nicotine-rich leaves comes thereafter, along with any fermentation techniques and the skilled hands that craft the cigars.
So if that centuries-old cigar train is chugging along just fine, why in the hell would anyone attempt to jump aboard this far down the track? Legacy cigar brands have been doing just fine all these years without a bunch of start-ups fooling around with the fermented order of things.
Maybe that’s why up-and-coming boutique cigar brands have become so wildly popular in the past few decades. They aren’t your grandpa’s golf stogie or the business suit’s after-five cocktail accouterment.
As a society, we love a good underdog story, and the cigar business is no different. That’s why we’re reviewing 23 boutique cigar brands that are shaking up and reshaping the cigar landscape. Some of these names may be completely foreign to you, whereas others may seem a tad familiar due to being resurrected and repurposed.
Either way, the following boutique cigar brands have all left their mark on the world of craft cigar manufacturing, and we could not be more thrilled to offer all of their products within the Klaro Cigars monthly subscription membership.
Created by Rafael Nodal and launched in 2011, Aging Room Cigars are made in Dominican Republic, with a secondary production plant in Nicaragua being the result of collaborative work with Nestor Plasencia Jr. and the following boutique cigar maker on today’s list, A.J. Fernandez.
Since its formation, Aging Room has secured a name for itself as a very highly revered brand, with pretty much any cigar rocking one of its wrappers earning a 90+ rating. Since 2017, distribution and control of the Aging Room line has been an Altadis U.S.A. Inc. affair, which has allowed the cigar brand to reach a far broader smoking audience.
Our pick is the Aging Room Quattro F55 Maestro. A beautifully crafted, milk chocolate colored medium strength cigar, with loads of coffee and cedar undertones.
This family-oriented cigar company is based in Miami, Florida, with every cigar offered within the portfolio being a premium cigar blend concocted by A.J. himself.
While the brand’s headquarters may be in Miami, the magic happens thousands of leagues south in the loamy soils of Nicaragua. There, the brand cultivates its very own strains of tobacco in every growing region Nicaragua has to offer, including the island of Ometepe.
Production takes place in one of the brand’s two Nicaraguan cigar factories, which when combined produce over 100,000 hand-rolled cigars per day.
Over the years, collabs and contract work have become a staple for the A.J. Fernandez brand. Naturally, this is due to the grade of tobacco grown at the company’s many plantations, A.J. 's brilliant blending capabilities, and the quality of finished products coming out of his factories.
When Alec Bradley company founder Alan Rubin and his father sold their hardware store in the mid-1990s, they immediately started looking for new business opportunities. Alan wanted to pursue a career that he loved, and it did not take long to realize that cigars were his true calling.
Founded in 1996, Alec Bradley Cigar Company is the result of the great Cigar Boom’s untimely bust a couple of years later. After keeping the business afloat by crafting flavored cigars, Alan and his dad got out of the dessert cigar business as quickly as possible and began to look toward new cigar options.
Faced with an uncertain future, Alec Bradley released a last-ditch attempt at keeping itself afloat with a cigar called “Occidental Reserve” serving as the brand’s savior. Co-developed with famed former Davidoff master blender Ralph, Henke Kelner, Occidental Reserve proved to be a huge hit with cigar smokers.
Over the years Alec Bradley has gone on to craft a ton of cigars that are not nearly as traditional. Hell, they even rolled out a “Trilogy” line back in the day, which was this odd triangulated box-pressed barrel looking thing with three sides, three cigar wrapper options, and three vitolas.
Tobacco Nerd Note: Since day one Alan Rubin’s father, David, has been his top supporter. After selling their hardware company, David became Alec Bradley’s first employee, and even today continues to show up at Alec Bradley HQ, despite being told that he no longer needs to come to work.
As for the brand’s name, Alan opted to name the cigar brand after his two sons, Alec and Bradley, who have gone on to craft their own line of cigars beneath the company’s ever-expanding portfolio.
Caldwell Cigar Company
Robert Caldwell first began to earn notoriety within the cigar industry back in 2008, after forming his own cigar distribution company. Six years later, he would go on to create Caldwell Cigar Company, with a very simple agenda in mind: to create special cigars using well-aged rare tobaccos and to enjoy the hell out of every step of the process.
Known for offering cigars that are loaded with obscure, rare, and unusual tobaccos, Caldwell is one of those boutique cigar brands that has evolved quickly. After moving operations to the Dominican Republic, Caldwell Cigar Company and its supporting parent brand, Down&Back Distribution, have gone on to formulate a portfolio that is rifled with unique brands and collaboration projects.
Be sure to try out Caldwell’s “Long Live The King Short Churchill,” for it is one of those intense cigars that is absolutely jam-packed with one intriguing cigar flavor profile.
Although Cano Aret Ozgener, the founder of CAO Cigars may no longer be with us, his legacy lives on in the cigars he cherished.
Ozgener first founded CAO in 1977 in Nashville, Tennessee as a Turkish pipe and the tobacco purveyor. A few decades later, Ozgener’s passion for cigars (and bank account) had evolved to the point where he was ready to launch his own line of boutique smokes.
After making a bit more profit within the humidor market in the early 1990s, CAO turned toward producing its first line of cigars in 1995. This was followed shortly thereafter by the introduction of CAO Gold, along with the CAO Criollo, and the ever deliciously box-pressed CAO Cameroon amongst others.
At one point CAO was even tapped to make a cigar for the hit TV show “The Sopranos,” which in retrospect was but one of many of the brand’s collaborative offshoots. Be sure to try out the CAO Brazilia if full-flavored cigars are your thing. This rich, espresso-like cigar is a real treat for those who enjoy a stouter smoking experience.
When it comes to cigar-making roots, few can contest with the likes of master blender Ernesto Perez-Carrillo. After fleeing Havana during the Cuban revolution, Ernesto’s family found themselves living in Miami, where a new beginning was about to be formed.
Upon realizing that a move back to Cuba would likely never happen, Ernesto’s father set to making Miami his home and got right back into doing what he did best: making cigars. After nearly a decade, Ernesto Sr. purchased a cigar factory in Little Havana and named it El Credito after his old cigar business back in Cuba.
It was at this point that Ernesto Jr. began to blend and bunch tobacco alongside his father, hand-rolling one cigar at a time. When his father threatened to sell El Credito in 1976, Ernesto convinced his old man to keep the business open a tad longer. But when his father passed away in 1980, Ernesto found himself solely in charge of El Credito.
Today, Ernesto relies upon the same examples his father set for him in everything that goes into a Carrillo cigar. Hard work, humility, patience, and respect are all there, plus flavor. LOTS of flavor.
Tobacco Nerd Note: The Birth of E.P. Carrillo is actually based upon another cigar, La Gloria Cubana. It was 1992, and four of the brand’s nine cigars had just scored 90 or higher in a previously unheard of tobacco publication called Cigar Aficionado. Sales skyrocketed, as the great Cigar Boom of the 1990s saw the boutique brand going from selling a few thousand cigars a year to millions.
Following a ten-year tenure with General Cigar, Ernesto returned to his roots in 2009, and craft his brand: E.P. Carrillo. Together, with the help of his son Ernesto III and daughter, Lissette, the Carillo brand has gone on to craft an impressive portfolio, with tobacco from the Dominican, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Cuba all playing a part.
C.L.E. Cigar Company
Named after its founder, Christian Luis Eiroa, C.L.E. Cigar Company is the result of decades of tobacco exposure. Just days after he was born in Danli, Honduras, Christian found himself thrust deep within the tobacco fields of the mighty Jamastran plantation, as his family’s financial lifeline was entwined with the crops.
By 1995 Christian was completely infatuated with tobacco and cigar culture, and by the year 2000, he had launched the stogie that would make him famous: The Camacho Corojo. The cigar was a hit, as was Christian’s offer to host any customer willing to travel to Honduras to see how cigars are manufactured.
Camacho Cigars was purchased in 2008 by General Cigar, giving Christian both the room and financial support he needed to form his pwn brand in 2012, with the launching of C.L.E. Cigar Company.
Tobacco Nerd Note: Strict hygiene and environmental standards help set C.L.E. cigars apart from the pack. The Eiroa family farm controls every stage of the cigar manufacturing process, and only grows premium “Grade A” tobacco. The family farm is located deep in the lush Jamastran Valley, where Christian was born and raised.
Dominican Big Leaguer (D.B.L.)
Being that the Dominican Republic is a hotbed for baseball fanatics and cigar smokers alike, it only makes sense that Dominican Big Leaguer (DBL) came into existence. Formed by Francisco Almonte, a man who started deveining tobacco leaves at the age of 7, and rolling them by hand by the time he was 12, the D.B.L. brand is a cigar success story in the making.
After being tutored by two of the world’s most famous cigars makers (Carlos Fuente of Arturo Fuente and Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana), Almonte got right to work getting the D.B.L. brand off the ground.
Produced in the Dominican Republic, D.B.L. utilizes some of the best tobaccos from countries like Peru, Brazil, Nicaragua, Mexico, Ecuador, and you betcha, the Dominican Republic. In 2013, D.B.L. began growing its own signature crop of tobacco, which has gone on to grace various cigars within the brand’s portfolio. Be sure to fire up an Amarillo from D.B.L. with your best torch lighter if you ever come across one. The Connecticut cigar wrapper on the toro size is a particularly nice specimen.
Drew Estate emerged on the scene way back in 1996, when fraternity brothers Jonathan Drew and Marvin Samel realized that they had the same dream of someday owning a successful cigar business. But before Drew Estate could become one of the world’s largest boutique cigar manufacturers, its founders had to overcome some insanely tough odds.
For instance, when the Cigar Boom turned bust just shortly after the two frat brothers opened up shop, Jonathan Drew opted to move down to Esteli, Nicaragua for a full-on immersive experience. What began with a handful of rollers in a dilapidated building eventually returned a solid premium cigar blend that the brand could sell back in America.
This was followed by the launching of Natural by Drew Estate in 2000, and then the return of La Vieja Habana in 2001. Then, after befriending artist Scott “ACID” Chester, Drew Estate launched the wildly popular line of ACID flavored cigars, cementing its name as one of the originators of “cigar subculture.”
Since July of 2007, Drew Estate’s cigars have been produced at its 96,000 sq. foot La Gran Fabrica manufacturing headquarters, the largest cigar factory in Nicaragua, and one of the largest in the world. Here, over 94,000 handmade cigars are produced every single day, where a mixture of Nicaraguan culture and brand-inspired art adorn every aspect of the structure.
Since its formation in 2018, Espinosa Cigars has focused on its goal of taking things to the next level. Forever in search of ways to make history one cigar, one premium cigar blend, one day at a time, Espinosa Cigars has crafted a healthy array of boutique cigar styles for a wide range of cigar connoisseur.
Although quite a few cigars within the Espinosa portfolio that may be unfamiliar to most, there are some real stand-outs you should give a shot. Both the Espinosa 601 Red Label Habano and 601 Blue Label Short Churchill in maduro form are quite tasty and earn impressive points for their balanced combustion and construction.
Foundation Cigar Company
Merging old-world traditions with modern styles and customs to produce unique premium cigars is what Foundation Cigar Company is all about. This group of tobacconists shares a passion and dedication for quality artisan tobacco products, with production in the valley of Esteli, Nicaragua being the company’s home base.
Founded by master blender, Nicholas Melillo, Foundation Cigars has grown into one of the greatest boutique cigar brands the world has ever seen. Transparency and agricultural responsibility are a core part of what this brand stands for in every stage of its cigar producing operations.
The company even created an 11-minute “Seed-2-Cigar” time-lapse video that spans an entire year’s worth of cigar tobacco production. Every stage of the process is covered, with more content being teased for future release on the company’s website. Being that Foundation produces its own cigars from the farm forward, its tobacco fermentation and cigar aging operations require scheduling releases at least 2-3 years in advance.
In 1989, a man by the name of Kaizad Hansotia decided to resurrect Gurkha Cigars, a cigar type that was supposedly formed more than a century prior, but long forgotten by the sands of time. Riding high on the Cigar Boom of the 1990s, Ghurka would go on to establish a name for itself as the premier option for those in search of an ultra-premium cigar smoking experience.
Nowadays, Gurkha’s cigars can be obtained in a wide range of flavors and styles at a dizzying number of price points. But regardless of how pricey or affordable the brand’s cigars may be, every Ghurka comes packed in some sort of ornate cigar box. Each stick receives a band that is equally opulent, which in itself is impressive, especially when you consider that Ghurka currently oversees the production of over 105 brands.
As the story goes, it was a man by the name of Simón Veja Peláez who first began producing the Gispert cigar in Cuba. But what began way back in 1940 eventually became a shadow of its former self, and by 1993 virtually every cigar bearing the Gispert name was a machine-made product. Then, in 2005 the Cuban Gispert brand was dissolved entirely, and the name was soon forgotten.
However, outside of Cuba things were a bit different, as Altadis had begun manufacturing its own line of Gispert cigars with Honduran tobacco. After reintroducing the world to the brand in 2003, Altadis launched two versions.
The first bore an Ecuador-grown Connecticut wrapper, whereas the second rocked a rich maduro cigar wrapper from San Andrés, Mexico, and relied upon a blend of Honduran and Nicaraguan filler tobacco. Recent releases include the full-strength Nicaraguan Gispert “Intenso,” a maduro wrapped cigar that was co-created with none other than A.J.Fernandez.
Gran Habano is another one of those boutique cigar brands that was around a long-ass time ago, disappeared, and was then resurrected decades later.
Looking to keep the brand’s tradition alive, tobacco farmer and cigar maker, Guillermo Rico, keeps quality control at the forefront of all that Gran Habano has to offer. This stems from the days when Guillermo’s grandfather, who began growing dark tobacco in 1920. Some of his fondest childhood memories are of him watching his mother rolling cigars from his grandfather’s homegrown tobacco at home.
Handmade in Danlí, Honduras since 1998, the Gran Habano factory produces some really solid traditional cigar styles, with the company’s original shade-grown Connecticut #1, Habano #3, and Corojo #5 continue to be the brand’s best sellers.
To this day Gran Habano remains a family-run operation, as Guillermo and his father, George, strive to keep honesty and passion at the forefront of everything they do. Humble yet incredibly successful, Gran Habano’s founders stick with the belief that as cigar makers they should always “...look to the future with optimism and a great sense of appreciation for those who have come to know us and our brand.”
Since its debut in 2006, Illusione cigars have seen a whirlwind of accolades and action in humidors across America. Created by eccentric cigar retailer and conspiracy theorist, Dion Giolito, Illusione’s cigars are just as complex and oddly entitled as it gets. Illusione Cigars came about when Giolito contacted Pete Johnson, owner of Tatuaje, for help creating a one-off cigar for sale at Giolito’s Reno smoke shop.
Relying heavily upon medium-to-full Nicaraguan and Honduran tobacco, Giolito has developed a name for himself as a talented blender and cigar visionary, with his line of Illusione cigars earning a bevy of high scores since the brand’s inception.
The majority of Illusione’s offerings are produced in Nicaragua in the Estelí TABSA factory, many of which sport a darker natural or maduro cigar wrapper. Owned by tobacco grower Eduardo Fernandez of Aganorsa, this partnership allows Giolito ample room to create any number of blends and vintages as he so chooses. Our personal pick is the Illusione Mk Ultra Corona, which may be slight in stature, but packs one hell of a delicious kick
Established in 2004 by Glen Case, Kristoff Cigars is a boutique cigar brand that focuses on quality, consistency, and availability above all else. The brand’s lineup is loaded with double and triple-fermented tobaccos from all over the globe too, so bring on the maduro options.
In regard to production, Kristoff’s heavily fermented tobacco is transformed into cigars the old school way via a bunching method called “entubar.” This method relies upon packing filler inside a preformed wooden or metal tube, thus forming a bunch that can be firmly packed, while remaining easy on the draw.
Kristoff claims that this centuries-old Cuban bunching technique allows for more aromatics and cigar flavor profile to bloom as the cigar combusts, allowing for a far more complex and enjoyable smoke. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Kristoff’s Connecticut Churchill and Corojo Limitada Torpedo.
My Father Cigars
When Jose “Don” Pepin Garcia opened his tiny cigar factory in Little Havana in 2003, he had no idea that it would evolve into what would someday be considered to be “one of the most recognized companies in the cigar industry.”
What began with hand-rolling cigars in Cuba at the age of 11, evolved into a bona fide industry leader in 2009, when My Father Cigars opened its operations in Nicaragua. Commonly referred to as the “Garcia Family Industrial Park,” this complex handles almost every stage of the cigar production process.
Nowadays, the family-owned business has two factories to its name, as the headquarters in Doral handles the majority of all boutique cigar production. Here, a select team of twelve veteran cigar rollers who have all apprenticed beneath Don Pepin himself handle daily operations. It is here that the brand’s most unique, ultra-high-end brands are formulated.
The Garcia Family Industrial Park in Estelí, Nicaragua on the other smoke ring, is where all of the brand’s readily available cigars are produced. There, over three hundred cigar rollers crank out stogies for the twelve company-owned brands beneath the My Father Cigars name.
Aromatic and relatively intense in cigar flavor, strength, and body, the stogies that “roll out” of both factories are revered by many to be some of the best in the biz, with the traditional triple-cap finish adding a nice little crown jewel to each stick.
Oscar Valladares Tobacco & Co.
Oscar Valladares Tobacco & Co. is a Honduran operation that first emerged on the cigar smoking scene in 2012. Founded by cigar-making masterminds Oscar Valladares, Hector Valladares, and Bayron Duarte, this tobacco trifecta has been kicking ass since day one.
A decade after opening its doors, the owners of Oscar Valladares Tobacco & Co. have turned their attention toward maintaining a hand in every aspect of this company’s cigar empire.
Oscar’s blending creativity is of particular interest, due in part to his 9-year-long tenure at Rocky Patel. Meanwhile, Bayron has well over 20 years of experience working as a master blender for General Cigars and Oliva. Oscar’s brother, Hector Valladares, has been his number one supporter since day one, and serves as a sound financial planner for the firm.
As for the products that are produced at their factory, let’s just say that this trio of entrepreneurs has deep ties to all that is robust and refined. If you are in the mood for an intense cigar, be sure to check out the massively sized and equally flavorful Oscar Habano Sixty.
With over 60 cigar styles listed on its website, Rocky Patel is one of those brands that didn’t just survive the great cigar bellyflop of the 1990s, it turned it into a business opportunity.
Named after its founder, Rocky Patel cigars are just as lively as the man who created them. Rocky (the man) is quite the force of nature too, and his enthusiasm for all things cigar tobacco-related is tough to surpass.
After developing an unwavering infatuation with cigars in the early 1990s, the former entertainment and product liability lawyer went on to form Indian Tabac, at which point Rocky Patel’s career as a cigar guru really took off.
Despite having a sales sheet that is expansive both in cigar flavor profile, style, and price point, Rocky retains his keen interest in teaching the public everything there is to know about his company’s style of cigar production. Here, “puros,” or cigars that have been blended exclusively from tobacco hailing from the same country are forbidden. Rocky is of the thought that various vintages of tobaccos coming from a wide array of regions around the world are well worth the headache, up-front cost, and sweat equity.
So if you get a chance to attend one of Rocky’s world-famous factory tours, be sure to smoke every stogie they hand you. Everything from the original corojo form of “The Edge,” to the beautifully box-pressed “Decade Torpedo” are right on the money and then some.
RoMa Craft Tobac
RoMa Craft Tobac runs its operations based arounda very simple philosophy: “Combine quality tobacco, experienced craftsmen, and the right amount of time and you will produce great cigars.”
The name RoMa Craft is a blend of the names of company founders Mike Rosales (Ro) and Skip Martin (Ma). Whereas Skip has always had a passion for fine tobacco, Mike has long specialized in the imports business. Together, with the help of cigar factory operations genius Esteban Disla, the two created the CroMagnon cigar in Esteli, Nicaragua in 2010.
What began with hand-rolling sessions in Esteban’s garage eventually turned into an impressive allotment of 5,000 premium boutique cigars. Part of RoMa Craft’s initial success was due to Skip’s cigar shop clientele and social media presence, which resulted in every single stick being pre-sold before it even reached the box.
The RoMa Craft of today manufactures, imports, sells, and distributes millions of cigars and has its own annual cigar launch calendar. Headquartered in Austin, Texas, the brand’s portfolio has grown to include the likes of Intemperance, CroMagnon, Neanderthal, CRAFT, and Wunder|Lust brands.
Pete Johnson launched the Tatuaje brand in 2003 when a chance encounter with Jose “Pepin” Garcia caused an alliance to form alongside one hell of an insanely good cigar line. A real life rock-n-rolla, Johnson has collaborated with a massive number of cigar brands and master blenders over the years, and remains one of the most prominent names in the boutique cigar business.
Appropriately named after the Spanish word for “tattoo,” Tatuaje has gone from an unknown start-up to a highly sought-after specialty cigar type. The Tatuaje portfolio of today has well over 20 boutique cigar brands within its folds, with a multitude of collaborative spin-offs adding more fun to the fray. Anything wrapped in a maduro leaf from this boutique cigar brand is of particular interest, so keep that in mind if a richer, more earthy smoke is what you are after.
Once a European exclusive cigar brand, VegaFina has transformed into a very different sort of international smoking experience. This is due in part to its parent company, Altadis U.S.A., deciding that a rebrand was in order after the brand was reintroduced to American cigar smokers in 2007. Redesigned and reformulated (recently with far stronger tobacco blends), VegaFina cigars are crafted at the Tabacalera de Garcia factory.
Check out the VegaFina Magnum if you are in the mood for a natural cigar packed into a large serving size. Clad in an Ecuadorian Connecticut Shade cigar wrapper, and loaded with Dominican, Colombian, and Honduran tobaccos, all bound by an Indonesian binder, this is one balanced medium-bodied smoke.
First established in 2007 by visionary product and brand creator, Kyle Gellis, Warped Cigars is in a league of its own when it comes to creativity.
His tobacco roots may not run nearly as deep as some of the other boutique cigar brand entrepreneurs on today’s list, but Gellis has a knack for crafting one hell of a multi-layered cigar smoking experience. Beginning at the age of 18, Gellis started touring every cigar-related business he encountered in Miami’s Little Havana, forever on the lookout for inspiration.
Today, every product bearing a Warped Cigars band is hand-rolled at the El Titan de Bronze factory in Miami, the last name in what was once a booming cigar business. Every cigar is the result of Gellis’ blending expertise and a focus on producing traditional cigars with milder tobacco, smaller ring gauges, and more approachable cigar flavor profiles.
All told, Warped Cigars produces ten brands of cigars at its tiny El Titan de Bronze rolling factory, as it continues to stand behind its mantra of being “...solely dedicated to bringing unique blends with an extreme focus on quality and consistency…”
Well, what did you think? Was there something on that lengthy list that stood out to you as a “must smoke cigar experience” or was it more of just a fun glimpse into the backstories behind some of the world’s most talented boutique cigar manufacturers?
No matter how you feel about these brands, they all deserve a nod of recognition for taking a chance in an extremely competitive, and equally well-established premium cigar market.
Conspiracy theories, family traditions, hybridized titles, traditional cigar speak, and clever acronyms all gave cause to the formation of boutique cigar brands. And do you know what? Every cigar brand listed above kicks ass in its own unique way.
So if you receive a strange cigar in your monthly Klaro Cigar monthly subscription, look it up on our ever-expanding cigar database, and then give it a shot, for you may find that it is the underdog that has the last laugh.