Ventura Cigar Company’s latest offerings are exploring new tastes and introducing exciting new ways that cigars tell stories
By Stephen A. Ross
The Cassar family never does anything by half measure. In the 1980s, the family established Kretek International and has since dominated the clove cigarette market in the United States with Djarum. Approximately 20 years later, the family purchased Phillips & King, a West Coast distributor, and has since turned the 111-year-old company into the largest specialty tobacco distributor in the country, offering more than 18,000 products to more than 6,000 tobacconists in all 50 states. So, when members of the Cassar family announced in late 2010 that they would be establishing their own premium cigar business, Ventura Cigar Company, it was only a matter of time before the company would make a big splash in the premium cigar world.
To be sure, the Cassar family had marketed its own brands in the past. The Hugo Cassar cigar was a popular brand during the boom years of the 1990s and has since maintained a respectable presence on the market. The Hugo Cassar brand was one of the first, if not the first, to introduce a barber pole cigar. Phillips & King has also marketed brands such as Cuban Rounds and Cuban Rejects in the value-priced segment. But Ventura Cigar Company would be another venture altogether, leveraging the Cassar family’s long-established close relationships with all the industry’s best cigar makers to create its own premium boutique cigar brands.
“We like to build things from the ground up and create our own brands,” says Kretek International’s president, Mark Cassar, in explaining the creation of Ventura Cigar Company. “The cigar business for us is not the only thing we do, but it’s one of our favorite things to do. It’s the only business I know where competitors hug each other when they meet. While other tobacco categories receive so much negative attention, the public thinks highly of cigars. You’re proud to give a cigar as a gift. You give someone $20 and they forget about it, but you give them a cigar and they remember it. It makes you proud about selling cigars and bringing something that is enjoyable to people. That’s the reason that we’re in the cigar business. We’re proud of the products that we sell and the partnerships we have with the people who make them.”
Brittny Peloquin, Jason Carignan,
Sergio Montolfo and Mark Cassar
Working with its partners, Ventura Cigar Company would specialize in creating complex new blends that would excite veteran cigar smokers and newcomers alike. The company would support its brands through memorable marketing and social media campaigns that drive consumers into premium tobacco shops asking for the unique cigars. And with one of the largest outside sales forces in the industry through its association with Phillips & King, Ventura Cigar Company would provide unrivaled support for its brands.
“Phillips & King is the largest specialty tobacco product distributor in the country, and we sell everybody else’s brands,” explains Jason Carignan, the chief marketing officer at Kretek International. “We got a taste of what it was like to have a proprietary brand of premium cigars in the 1990s with Hugo Cassar, and we thought it would be a great opportunity to get back into the market and create brands that tell new stories. It’s a very symbiotic relationship to have ambassadors of our proprietary brands for Ventura Cigar Company on the streets who are also ambassadors for Phillips & King. It improves our ability to be a one-stop shop for our customers.”
The formula that brought Ventura Cigar Company into existence has been a success thus far and only seems to be gaining momentum. Its flagship brands, PSyKo Seven, Archetype and Case Study, have all received high ratings in cigar industry publications and blogs. Each of these brands not only offers consumers interesting new taste experiences, but each brand tells an interesting story in a fun way.
When PSyKo Seven was released in 2013, for example, it became Ventura Cigar Company’s first big success story. Made by Davidoff, the cigar combined a Dominican hybrid wrapper, an aromatic Mexican Sumatra binder, and filler tobaccos from Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, featuring Peruvian tobacco as well as Pennsylvania broadleaf. The six-country blend drew notice, but what really caught consumers’ attention was the marketing behind the brand. PSyKo Seven features a cigar band that resembles a pharmacy prescription label that’s almost as big as the cigar itself. Packaged in a striking white box with a blood-red interior, the brand invites consumers to “Medicate Your Mind” by enjoying a PSyKo Seven.
“It’s a very good cigar in its own right,” Carignan comments. “But the aggressive and edgy marketing campaign to support it really drew attention to it and got people to try it for the first time.
“It was the first time we had done any sort of marketing support for one of our own brands. Everything coalesced into a very good package. The ‘Medicate Your Mind’ tagline really stuck with people, so it’s been able to grow organically. We tapped into a growing segment of cigar consumers who have an edgy mindset and who are a little more outgoing than the more traditional cigar smokers. They are sharing pictures of themselves enjoying PSyKo Seven on social media because they identify with the cigars so well. The brand has been able to engage with people on a grass-roots level so that it’s just grown naturally.”
We like to build things from the ground up and create our own brands.
The cigar business for us is not the only thing we do, but it’s one of our favorite things to do. It’s the only business I know where competitors hug each other when they meet. – Mark Cassar
To accommodate that growth, Ventura Cigar Company has added other varieties to the PSyKo Seven line. The company rolled out a maduro line extension featuring the same Mexican Sumatra binder and filler blend encased within a Mexican San Andres maduro wrapper. Ventura Cigar Company followed that up with the release of PSyKo Seven Connecticut, which uses the same filler blend as the other PSyKo Seven cigars but utilizes a Dominican San Vicente binder and an Ecuadorean Connecticut wrapper. From the mild to medium-bodied original PSyKo Seven to the fuller-flavored maduro release, the line now offers a strength and flavor profile to please any palate. The line also includes the Maduro Psykorillos, 3 1/4 x 20 cigarillos that consumers can enjoy when they are pressed for time.
“PSyKo Seven gave us legitimacy in the market as a really good premium cigar manufacturer,” Carignan explains. “A lot of stores carry the product, and we knew that our consumers were growing with our brand. We saw a growing group of consumers who were disenfranchised from the high-society image of cigar smokers. It’s not having private jets and six Rolexes and 25-year-old scotch all the time. It’s about being a plumber, owning a pair of Levis, having a camper and wanting to go out with some buddies and have a few cigars together. He drinks bourbon and not scotch. It’s an everyman’s approach to cigars, and in a sense it’s tapping into the movement of democratizing cigar smoking.”
Encouraged by the success of PSyKo Seven, Ventura Cigar Company sought to expand its offerings to attract even more cigar consumers. The company had more stories to tell, and it would turn to the fields of psychology and mythology as inspiration for Archetype, a brand that it introduced at the 2016 IPCPR show.
“While PSyKo Seven was growing with the market, we knew we had to take the next step and introduce a little more complex smoke at a higher price level,” Carignan explains. “We had been toying around with some ideas for a larger umbrella brand. Our cigar smokers bought PSyKo Seven along with cigars from other manufacturers. We’d like to offer them a little bit of everything and try to convince them to try our other brands. We wanted to expand the storytelling narrative of our brands, and the result was Archetype.”
The name comes from the works of Dr. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. Jung recognized universal mythic character types that arise in the human psyche in cultures around the world. In his study of world myths, Campbell identified the common theme of a “hero’s journey” that told tales of characters encountering common human experiences in remarkably similar ways across time and cultures.
Archetype Chapter One consists of three blends made by Davidoff: the mild to medium-bodied Dreamstate, the full-bodied Sage Advice and the full-bodied Strange Passage. Archetype Chapter Two consists of two blends made by Drew Estate: the all-Habano and medium-bodied Initiation and the full-bodied Axis Mundi.
Both the Chapter One and Chapter Two blends have received acclaim in cigar publications and blogs, garnering high ratings, but the Axis Mundi and Initiation have received the highest acclaim, with Axis Mundi receiving a 96 rating and Dreamstate earning a 95 rating in Cigar & Spirits magazine. Axis Mundi was also rated the No. 6 cigar of 2016 by the same publication.
Working with companies like Davidoff and Drew Estate ensures that Ventura Cigar Company’s Archetype cigars are well-made and offer flavor and strength profiles that will please consumers. Ventura Cigar Company’s marketing plan for Archetype has taken lessons learned from PSyKo Seven and applied them to an even deeper stage.
“Archetype was a big push across the board with the storytelling concept behind it,” Carignan explains. “PSyKo Seven had tapped into a growing movement in the cigar industry that was going away from the traditional messaging of cigars. Other brands, such as Caldwell Cigar Company, are doing the same thing. We don’t have a heritage brand—a brand that’s been on the market for decades. We don’t have a personality brand where you have a face of the brand on the road 300 days a year pimping cigars. So, we are building concept brands that are focused on great cigars, packaging and marketing and providing our consumers a great smoking experience.”
Continuing to build on its foundation of creating concept brands, Ventura Cigar Company has also introduced Case Study, a series of 26 different cigar blends that will be launched over the next several years. Case Study is yet another example of the team at Ventura Cigar Company banding together to think of a new and fun way of bringing cigars to market. In this case, they turned to a 1950s project sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine for inspiration.
“Arts & Architecture magazine challenged the era’s architects to bring modern architectural concepts to the masses shortly after the end of World War II,” Carignan explains. “Each home was designed by a different architect, and they were built using the latest materials available and respecting the environment. The last home in the project was built in Thousand Oaks, California, which is just 10 miles from the office. We wanted to design a cigar brand around the same concept by going to the best cigar makers to build us cigars. The 26 different homes of the Arts & Architecture project correspond to the 26 different blends in Case Study.”
Some of the blends will be regular releases, and others will be limited editions available until the last box is gone. Ventura Cigar Company introduced the first five Case Study blends at the Tobacco Plus Expo show in Las Vegas in late February. Case Study 6 and 7 will be released a little later this year. The other Case Study blends will be released in future years.
“We want to focus on each of the blends in their own right,” Carignan explains. “These are specialty editions from our favorite friends in the cigar industry, such as Rocky Patel, Jonathan Drew and [Hendrik] Henke Kelner. We asked them to give us [their] best blends—the things they created for themselves or limited editions that they don’t want to produce anymore. We’ll buy everything and release it over the next three or four years.”
Once all the cigars have been released, the Case Study project will entail 67 SKUs—a third of which will be limited editions, denoted by a black band surrounding the cigar and available only to those retailers who become part of the Case Study retailer program. The white-banded Case Study cigars will be regular production editions.
“Some of them will take off, and others won’t,” Carignan explains. “That’s why it’s called Case Study—because we want to see what takes off and what doesn’t. We want to make the cigars new, but the brand will stay the same over the next few years. We introduced each of the Case Study blends before the Aug. 8, 2016, predicate date so that they were on the market. With the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] potentially regulating the industry, this could be the next 10 years of cigar releases. We have very strong relationships with virtually every manufacturer in the industry. They all want to make cigars for us. If something changes with the FDA, then we are in a good position. Very few companies have the access to the top manufacturers in the industry like Ventura Cigar Company.”
While uncertainty regarding how much power to regulate the premium cigar industry the FDA will ultimately have remains, the folks at Ventura Cigar Company are poised for success no matter what happens. Kretek International and Phillips & King have long fought against regulatory overreach and tax increases. Selling products in every state has made the whole organization better equipped to mitigate regulatory risk, and they believe that FDA oversight could have the unintended benefit of making them even better cigar manufacturers.
“We’ve been around a very long time, and we’ve faced a lot of hurdles through the years,” Carignan concludes. “We rolled with the punches pretty well, and we’re not going anywhere. We’re no stranger to this kind of regulation. The benefit of the FDA regulations is that we are focusing on building great brands that have legacy before the predicate date. We can focus on getting out in front of the consumers the cigars that we already have versus always trying to introduce new products. It forces us to make the products we currently have better than ever.”