Firm Foundation | Tobacconist magazine

Firm Foundation

“Tobacco is like a baby. Gotta keep it warm. Keep it sheltered … all the time care. All the time work … and in the end you get nothing but trouble.” – Parrish

By Stephen A. Ross

Parrish, Mildred Savage’s 1958 novel and the 1961 film adaptation about tobacco growing in the Connecticut River Valley, might not have won any prizes for literature or Academy Awards, but it has served as something of an inspiration for Nicholas Melillo, owner of Foundation Cigar Company, who keeps a copy of the movie at his Connecticut home and quotes from it occasionally.

“Tobacco is surprising all the time,” Melillo explains. “Savage understood that it has a life all of its own. It talks, and you have to be able to listen to it. That’s what the best tobacco guys are able to do. It doesn’t react the same way all the time. I learned a little about it from Parrish, but seeing it firsthand brought to me how much care it truly needs. Tobacco growing causes some sleepless nights.”

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Melillo would know. For the past 15 years he’s been intimately involved with tobacco growing, tobacco processing and cigar blending—first with Drew Estate and, since last year, with his own company, Foundation Cigar Company. His journey has taken him around the world and led him to adopting Nicaragua, where he spends much of his time working, as a second home. The Southbury, Connecticut, native grew up about an hour west of the Connecticut River Valley’s historic tobacco farms, and as a young man, he became fascinated with the cultural heritage of Connecticut tobacco farming. He was also enamored of the pipes and cigars that his grandfathers enjoyed, and while a teenager, he read as much as he could about tobacco.

“I was always surrounded by the aroma of broadleaf, and my other grandfather smoked his pipes,” Melillo recalls. “I grew up in the enjoyment of the local tobacco, and I started learning about the brands from Connecticut, such as F.D. Grave. I enjoyed a cigar with my grandfather and listened to his old war stories and learned about life. It was part of the ceremony of spending time with him. I was intrigued by the curing, sorting, selecting and the history between Cuba and Connecticut, and the indigenous use of tobacco. By the time I was 18 I knew every brand that was in the market. I knew the blends they were advertising and how much they cost.”

In the summer between graduating from high school and enrolling at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, Melillo visited the Calabash Shoppe, a premium tobacco shop that his grandfather had frequented for years. It was 1996 and the height of the Cigar Boom. Melillo saw the long lines at the register and offered to help, giving the shop owner his telephone number. It took a few months, but the week he was set to begin school he got the call and was offered a job.

“They handed me two garbage bags filled with cigars that they had gotten from the RTDA show and told me that I was in charge of ordering new products, and they wanted me to tell them what ones I wanted to bring into the store,” he says. “I was in heaven. They weren’t huge cigar smokers, and they put me in charge of dealing with all the customers, inventory and new products.”

Melillo studied international business at Quinnipiac, and while he might not have harbored any thoughts of working with premium tobacco beyond his college job at Calabash, he began making contacts with manufacturers, including Jonathan Drew from Drew Estate, whom he met in 1999. After graduating in 2000, Melillo found work in Rome serving as a guide to pilgrims visiting the Eternal City for the Grand Jubilee and helping in a soup kitchen. He also followed Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers around Europe.

After that summer abroad, Melillo returned to the Calabash Shoppe and attended graduate school at Quinnipiac, but the wanderlust had taken hold. A year later, he returned to Italy to work for Italian Passage, a program that guided advanced high school students to the great cultural centers in Italy. From there, he planned to return to the United States the long way, with stops in Spain, France, India, Thailand, China and Japan. While on the trip, he got a call from Drew asking about his plans when he returned to the States.

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“I had gone to Honduras the year before to visit Camacho, and that really set things up for me in wanting to learn tobacco,” he recalls. “Before Jonathan called, I had planned on taking a trip to Honduras and Nicaragua to learn about tobacco. He knew I was a serious cigar nerd and that I had studied international business, so he offered me a job. I was really excited, but I knew next to nothing about Nicaragua.”

As soon as he landed in San Francisco, Melillo found a bookstore to start a crash-course education about Nicaragua. A month later he was bound for the land of lakes and volcanoes to begin a new job. His education as a tobacco man was about to begin in earnest.

“Up to that point I knew everything only from a book and conversations I had had with cigar makers such as [Carlos Fuente Jr.],” he remembers. “I soaked up anything I could get my hands on and scoured the internet for information so that I was a little familiar with the process. It was a dream because it was the next step in the evolution of learning. I had taken the learning from books and the retail end as far as it could go; now it was time to become a cigar maker myself.”

Once he settled in Esteli, Melillo made contacts with tobacco growers in the area. He appreciates the time men like Gustavo Cura from Oliva Tobacco, David Perez from ASP and Fritz Bossert from Universal Leaf spent with him teaching him the art of growing tobacco and blending cigars.

“They taught me a lot about curing, sorting and fermentation,” he says. “I began to learn about where the tobacco that gave particular flavor profiles would come from. Nestor Plasencia Sr. and Nestor Plasencia Jr. were always great to me too. It was a dream for me to be able to work with and see the fermentation firsthand. The next evolution for me was to learn how to bunch and roll and then see the fermentation and selection process. I then started blending my own cigars, and some of these became favorites for Drew Estate’s fans.”

Melillo worked with Drew Estate from March 2003 to May 2014. During his time there, the Drew Estate facility grew to become Nicaragua’s biggest cigar factory. After 11 years with Drew Estate, Melillo decided it was time to begin the next step in his career and establish his own company. First, there was Melillo International, a consulting firm, and then he created Foundation Cigar Company.

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“It was always my plan to start my own company,” he says. “I had always had the entrepreneurial spirit, and if I didn’t do it then I would always be second-guessing myself. I’m always learning, and it’s a continuous journey. I had started to develop the idea for Foundation and developing a brand. I knew I wanted to do something that would really express my experience of living in Nicaragua. I wanted to tell a story about Nicaragua through the first cigar I made for Foundation.”

Parrish might have romanticized tobacco growing in Connecticut and captured Melillo’s imagination years ago, but a Nicaraguan cultural masterpiece inspired his first cigar, El Gueguense (wah-WHEN-say). El Gueguense is a combination of Nahuatl, the native Nicaraguan language, and Spanish for “The Wise Man.” It is a famous and much loved Nicaraguan folklore character similar in tone to the Brer Rabbit stories shared among slaves in the American South. The wise man might look stupid to the authorities, but his genius is such that he fools his oppressors without their knowing it.

“It is the pride and joy of Nicaraguan culture, and it is recognized by UNESCO,” Melillo explains. “It might be a mouthful, and it would score a helluva lot of points in Scrabble, but my Nicaraguan friends wanted it to be true to Nicaragua, so I named the cigars El Gueguense instead of The Wise Man. People have heard a lot about what happened in Nicaragua in the 1980s, and this gives them an introduction to a cultural masterpiece. I really felt like it should be shared with the rest of the world. The word carries recognition even if you can’t pronounce it. It’s strange and unique, and it’s a real passionate project for me because I wanted to put in a cigar box what my experience for the past 12 years living in Nicaragua has meant for me. The cigars are like my biography. If American cigar smokers can’t go on a trip to Nicaragua, this introduces them to the history, culture and linguistics of the country. It’s like the Statue of Liberty for any Nicaraguan.”

El Gueguense cigars are made at Eduardo Fernandez’s TACSA factory in Esteli. A Nicaraguan puro, the cigar’s tobaccos are sourced from Fernandez’s Aganorsa farms in Jalapa and Esteli, and the blend offers a medium to strong body.

“I wanted to step out of the box and do something I hadn’t done before,” Melillo explains. “I wanted to share with people this experience of what Nicaragua means to me. The tobacco is the root of it all. El Gueguense is reminiscent of the Cuban-style flavor profile, but it’s an authentic Nicaraguan cigar. It’s got some cedar, spice with some creaminess. I don’t want to overwhelm my palate. I’m a stickler for balance. I don’t want something one-dimensional. It’s one of these cigars that you’re not going to feel the strength of it off the bat, but you will feel it after sitting for a while and then get up. You’ll definitely feel it if you smoke it on an empty stomach. It’s deceptively strong.”

El Gueguense is available in four sizes—Churchill (7 x 48), Torpedo (6 x 52), Robusto (5 x 50) and Corona Gorda (5 x 46)—and packaged in beautiful and colorful 25-count boxes.

“I put all my energy into really developing this project,” Melillo says. “It’s the first one that I have done A to Z— packaging, bands, everything. I really admired the Cubanstyle packaging, so there was no other way for me to present it. I wanted it to feel that you were almost getting a piece of history.”

“I want to work with retailers who understand what Foundation is all about—build brands that have some depth and have a story,” Melillo comments. “They’ve been really responsive and excited about it. They know I’ve been doing this for the past 12 years, and they respect that. It’s flattering to see the response. We want to support the people who are supporting us. It’s amazing how many people can actually pronounce the name. For people to learn a new crazy word and translate it to their customers has been amazing.”

El Gueguense’s reception among consumers and retailers has been strong thus far. Melillo reports that a year after its release, El Gueguense is being sold in more than 200 premium tobacco shops nationwide. Melilla was pleased with the progress that Foundation Cigar Company has experienced so far and was planning slow and steady growth for it based not only on sales projections but also on the yields for upcoming crops of tobacco. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) plans to regulate the premium cigar industry, however, have forced Melillo, and countless other cigar manufacturers, no doubt, to step up production and release new cigar lines before the enactment date. So at this year’s IPCPR show, Foundation Cigar Company introduced The Upsetters, Charter Oak and The Tabernacle.

Like El Gueguense, The Upsetters is more than a cigar. It’s an autobiography told through tobacco. In February 2015, Melillo traveled to Jamaica to celebrate what would have been Bob Marley’s 70th birthday. While he was there, he visited tobacco fields and curing barns. He loved the tobacco he saw and started thinking about how he could incorporate Jamaican tobacco into a cigar.

“I wanted to put Jamaica back on the map for premium tobacco,” Melillo explains. “Jamaica has a long history of growing tobacco that rivals Cuba. They grow a tobacco called cow tongue, which has been cultivated and blended in Jamaica since the Arawak planted it thousands of years ago.”

The Upsetters pays homage to underdogs and those who stand up for their rights against oppression. The cigars are blended with Nicaraguan and Jamaican filler tobaccos and are offered with different wrappers, depending on the size. There are eight varieties of The Upsetters available: Django (5 x 54, claro wrapper), Small Ax (4 1/2 x 40, claro wrapper), The Original Rude Boy (6 x 60, maduro wrapper), The Skipper (4 1/2 x 38 x 54 Torpedo, claro wrapper), Para El Sapo (4 1/2 x 38 x 54 Torpedo, candela wrapper), Zola (6 x 52, maduro wrapper), Rock Steady (7 x 48, claro wrapper) and Ska (4 x 32, claro wrapper).

“I first smoked a Macanudo Hyde Park in 1996, which was made in Kingston, Jamaica,” Melillo shares. “Apart from the old broadleaf brands from Connecticut, it’s what got me into cigars. Since then, the industry in Jamaica has faded away due to many issues, but they’re still growing incredible tobacco, which should be recognized in its own right.”

Broadleaf is easily Melilla’s favorite tobacco. He sometimes likes to call himself “Chief of the Broadleaf,” so it should come as no surprise that The Tabernacle, a super-premium cigar, includes a Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper. The rest of the blend, which is made at AJ Fernandez’s Nicaraguan factory, includes a San Andres Mexican binder and filler tobaccos from Honduras and Nicaragua.

The Tabernacle is packaged in 24-count boxes and is offered in the following sizes: Torpedo (4 1/2 x 52), Corona (5 1/4 x 46), Robusto (5 x 50), Toro (6 x 52) and Doble Corona (7 x 54). The Lancero (7 x 40) is available in 13-count boxes.

Charter Oak also draws heavily on Connecticut’s influence on Melillo, and it pays homage to Melilla’s grandfather who worked at the Winchester Repeating Arms factory in Hartford during World War II and enjoyed broadleaf cigars made nearby by F.D. Grave.

“I wanted to choose a name that represents the greatest symbol of my home state, the Charter Oak,” says Melilla. “Historians estimate that this unusually large oak tree began growing sometime during the 12th century in what is now downtown Hartford. Native Americans, who cultivated tobacco nearby, held councils beneath its massive branches. The tree is mentioned in Dutch explorer Adriaen Block’s journey guidebook in 1608. By the mid-1600s the plot was parceled and a farm was built with the agreement that the local tribe could share this sacred tree. In 1662 King Charles II issued a royal charter to the Connecticut colony granting an unusual degree of autonomy. However, when his successor, James II, appointed an English governor general to reclaim the charter, it was hidden in what became known as the Charter Oak, one of our country’s greatest symbols of American independence. I wanted to create an economy minded, everyday smoke for connoisseurs—something tasty and delicious but didn’t break the bank.”

Charter Oak cigars are wrapped in either a silky Connecticut Shade wrapper or a hearty and rich Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper. The rest of the blend is made from some of the best Cuban-seed tobaccos available in Nicaragua. Charter Oak is packaged in 20-count boxes and is available in five sizes: Rothschild (4 1/2 x 50), Toro (6 x 52), Petit Corona (5 1/4 x 42), Grande (6 x 60) and Lonsdale (6 1/4 x 46).

Foundation Cigar Company has allowed Melilla to pursue his passion for introducing new tobaccos or reintroducing tobaccos that have been largely forgotten to the market. It’s one of the main reasons he established the company in the first place. Yet, due to the FDA’s decision to pursue Option 1, it could all be for naught—Foundation Cigar Company could crumble into dust along with many other vibrant boutique cigar manufacturers. Still, the fight for the industry’s survival promises to be a long one, and Melillo plans to keep doing what he loves.

“I love working with tobacco and blending it,” he says. “We still don’t know how much this is going to cost and what the details of the regulations are, but I think that we can have a really nice business. It would be great to have a factory some day and keep sharing my passions for tobacco and travel with the rest of the world. I still have hope for the future of this industry and Foundation’s place in it.”

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