Creating a brand with Cornelius & Anthony’s Courtney Smith
By Frank Seltzer
To look at Courtney Smith, you wouldn’t guess the willowy blonde has been working hard in the cigar business for more than 20 years. But she has. She joined her family’s company, Signature Cigars, in 1995. She ran the family’s store in Washington, D.C., while her father had two additional stores in suburban Maryland. In 2009, she left the retail side to go over to manufacturing with another Washington-area resident, Bill Paley of La Palina cigars. Working with Paley gave Courtney a great opportunity to try things she had dreamed of while being in retail. Her biggest success at La Palina was the blending and manufacture of La Palina’s Goldie, made at El Titan de Bronze in Miami. She also made good connections with manufacturers and, quite often, you never know where those connections will lead.
About 200 miles south of Washington, D.C., Steven Bailey’s family had been in tobacco for more than 150 years. Cornelius Bailey was the patriarch of the family, first planting tobacco in Virginia in the 1860s. For many years, the family was content to grow tobacco until Mac Bailey—Steven’s father—decided to get into the tobacco brokerage business, becoming a middleman between the growers and buyers. That, in turn, led Mac and Steven to start making cigarettes in the early 90s. Their company was named “S&M Brands” for “Steven” and “Mac.”
Things were going well until 2009, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) entered the picture for cigarettes. Steven and Mac had a passion for creating different taste profiles with tobacco, but the new FDA involvement prevented that. Knowing the company needed to diversify in order to grow, and to satisfy his blending itch, Steven began looking at cigars. First, he introduced the Lex 12, a premium filter-tipped little cigar, in 2011. The Lex 12 was a hit, and Steven wanted to move more into premium cigars.
He needed a name for the company, so again he turned to history. He chose Cornelius & Anthony to honor the past, his great-great grandfather Cornelius, and to be current as well because Anthony is his middle name. Steven knew his hands were full with S&M Brands, and he needed help for the new cigar line.
Courtney left La Palina in 2015 and was taking some time off to travel. Steven had been asking around about whom to bring in, and one of the manufacturers recommended Courtney. Steven called her while she was in Italy, and the two decided to meet once she was back. Steven drove the 200 miles from his office to Washington, D.C., to meet Courtney, and they hit
it off immediately.
“I knew it was the place for me,” says Courtney. “It is a family company, and I am from a family business and our personalities were a perfect fit. We have similar senses of humor and a very similar work ethic. All the boxes were checked, so I jumped on the opportunity. I couldn’t wait to go back to work with Steven.”
She took the job of director of brand development, which sounds nebulous but actually is a lot of work. “I handle our branding, product development, packaging, operations, marketing, trade shows, export and house accounts, in addition to handling the processes—ordering, manufacturing, importation, and inventory for cigars and components,” Courtney says.
A short while later, in the spring of 2016, Cornelius & Anthony released its first cigar, the Cornelius, for which Courtney had turned to her friend Sandy Cobas at El Titan de Bronze in Miami.
“I really wanted to center Cornelius & Anthony around Steven’s family history in tobacco and their heritage as an American tobacco family,” she explains. “I wanted the feel of the 1860s, when Cornelius started growing tobacco. I also wanted a cigar that would appeal to anyone in terms of flavor and strength. A special mix of flavor and balance that was unmatched, and I knew Sandy could do that. Since the cigar is named after Steven’s great-great granddaddy, it needed to be very special. And we wanted it to be American-made.”
The cigar is the company’s most expensive due to its Miami origin, running from $12 to $15 and change. It uses an Ecuadorean wrapper and binder over Dominican and Nicaraguan fillers with medium strength.
By the IPCPR show in the summer of 2016, the company had added three more lines. The Venganza (or Vengeance), the Daddy Mac—for Steven’s father—and the Meridian to reference Steven’s love of fishing. Courtney reached out to Erik Espinosa and his La Zona factory in Nicaragua for these. The Venganza is a medium- to full-bodied cigar while Daddy Mac and Meridian are medium-plus.
Last year, the company added Senor Esugars and Aerial. Humor is a big part of what they are doing at Cornelius & Anthony, and Senor Esugars is a good example of that. The box artwork features Steven holding his dog Oscar, who is a company mascot. Oscar is very friendly and loves to give kisses, so his nickname is Mr. Sugars. Courtney says, “Steven wanted a maduro cigar that was both spicy and sweet. Once we picked Mexican San Andres maduro for the wrapper, we decided to call it Senor Sugars but spelled phonetically for the way they pronounced it at the factory.”
Courtney is proud of the artwork on the boxes and bands, which she and Steven have tried to keep in the vein of Cornelius’ day. For example, for the Venganza, Courtney found a patent from 1876 for the Bailey machine gun. Though a different Bailey, she felt the coincidence was too much, given the time period around Cornelius’ start, and the name. The artwork is hand-drawn by an artist in a vintage engraving style. “A couple of our constant images are Cornelius and the derby hat, which is why Oscar is wearing a derby on Senor Esugars.”
The derby hat will also be featured in the company’s newest release this year, a box-pressed cigar called The Gent. This is a medium-strength stick that features an Ecuadorean rosado wrapper with a U.S. binder and Honduran and Nicaraguan fillers for what Courtney says is a super-sophisticated blend. She says it is creamy, balanced and good for anytime. The other new release is the companion cigar to The Gent: Mistress, the fullest cigar so far in the company’s inventory. Mistress uses an Ecuadorean Habano wrapper over an American-grown binder with Pennsylvanian ligeros, providing a very bold taste but not, as Courtney says, “a punch in the face.” She adds, “This is not your typical mistress definition. I’ve always joked that cigars are mistresses because many wives get upset when their husbands go off and smoke cigars alone. This blend may be bold, but it is also incredibly smooth, which is exactly what we wanted.”
As a small and relatively new boutique company, Cornelius & Anthony is making steady growth. As for Courtney, “I am having a ball working with Steven,” she says. “We really mesh. It is nice to be able to work with someone who inspires me.”