Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust
By Stephen A. Ross
The English language doesn’t have a word for it—sobremesa. It’s a Spanish word that describes the time after a meal and before all the dishes have been cleared from the table. It’s when conversation, relaxation and reflection among close friends and family flows easily as they enjoy each other’s company with a good drink and a fine cigar. It’s one of life’s simplest, but most rewarding, pleasures. And it’s the inspiration and name for the first release of Steve Saka’s new company, Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust.
To be sure, there have been many of those sobremesa moments in Saka’s life. After enjoying his first cigar in 1984, he became a self-described cigar geek, obsessed with learning as much as he could about tobacco and making cigars. Long before it became fashionable to do so, Saka traveled to cigar factories in Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic to enhance his cigar knowledge. In the fledgling days of the internet, he posted his thoughts on the news group alt.smokers.cigars and later established his own website, cigarnexus.com.
Those contributions on cigarnexus.com drew the attention of JR Cigar’s founder, Lew Rothman, who contacted Saka about writing a book. The two men met in 2000 and Rothman offered Saka a job as executive consultant. Saka remained with JR until it was sold to Altadis in 2004. From there, Saka planned to live a life of semi-retirement with his family in New Hampshire until getting a call from Drew Estate’s Jonathan Drew with an offer to be president of the company.
Under Saka’s management, Drew Estate experienced tremendous growth. The company’s Liga Privada cigar, a blend made specifically to Saka’s taste, was introduced and proved to be exceptionally popular from its inception, while other Drew Estate brands also grew. But with Drew Estate’s success, Saka found himself more focused on the business of running the company rather than on his first love of creating cigars. So in 2013, he left Drew Estate intending to once again seek semi-retirement in New Hampshire.
Saka’s love for making cigars, however, proved insurmountable. Despite worries regarding the future of premium cigars in the United States, Saka returned to the industry after a two-year hiatus with the introduction of Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust at the 2015 IPCPR show.
“I wanted to return to my roots and just be a cigar geek again,” Saka explains. “I wanted to focus primarily on cigars and tobacco, plus I wanted to do it at a much smaller scale. The idea is that I would be less burdened by the business aspects of such a company and be allowed to focus more on tobacco, cigars and being creative.”
The company is named for the town in which Saka lives, and thus far it is purely a family-owned and -operated endeavor. Saka worked with two legendary companies, Oliva Tobacco Company and Joya de Nicaragua, to release its first cigar, Sobremesa.
“I wanted to work with Joya de Nicaragua because of my relationship with the Martinez family [owners of Joya de Nicaragua],” Saka says. “The Joya de Nicaragua factory is an icon within our industry. It was the first Nicaraguan cigar factory, and it is known for crafting the finest puros and is home to the most experienced torcedors in all of Central America.
“Those facts, however, had little to do with why I chose to work with them on Sobremesa. It was the family and the key people in the factory that make it so special. They are the living embodiment of integrity, honesty and exceptionalism. I could craft a great cigar in many factories, but there is no other factory I would entrust with a task as important as crafting my first independent brand. I knew in my heart they would always do their utmost to execute my vision even when I couldn’t see everything with my own eyes and that they would take as much care and pride in Sobremesa as I do.”
With tobacco sourced from Oliva Tobacco Company, Sobremesa is made from an Ecuadorean Habana Rosado No. 1 wrapper, Mexican Negro del Temporal binder, and filler tobaccos from Nicaragua and Pennsylvania. Packaged in 25-count boxes, Sobremesa is available in six sizes: Corona Grande (5 1/4 x 44), Cervantes Fino (6 1/4 x 46), Robusto Largo (5 1/4 x 52), El Americano (6 x 52), Torpedo Tiempo (6 x 54) and Gran Imperiales (7 x 54).
“Sobremesa is a departure from the bold, brash, earthy blends that I am best known for,” Saka explains. “It is a sophisticated liga intended for the experienced cigar smoker who can discern and appreciate the quality and flavors of this cigar. While it may appeal to the newer smoker, I believe many of its subtle nuances and attributes may be lost upon their inexperienced palate. This is a cigar that really focuses on the details from the aesthetics—construction, intricate blending, and the weaving of multiple flavor and aroma sensations. While I welcome every consumer to enjoy a Sobremesa, I feel as though it will best reward the serious cigar connoisseur with a sharp palate better than the journeyman cigar smoker. The line between a very good cigar and an exceptional, world-class cigar is very thin, and I believe this cigar is best smoked by those who have the experience to discern the difference.”
Creating exceptional, world-class cigars is Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust’s sole purpose. Having smoked thousands of cigars in the last 32 years, Saka has a strong opinion on what he likes and the quality standards he demands for his cigars. For these reasons, Saka crafted Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust’s motto, “puros sin compromiso”—cigars without compromise—as a promise of the types of cigars the company will produce.
“Quality is assured by being incredibly judgmental, demanding and not using anything that’s just ‘acceptable,’” Saka says. “I never solicit the advice of others on my own work product. I always make up my own mind and do my own thing. I am a big believer that the cigar world has become too vanilla, product-wise, with too many makers and brand owners trying to please everyone. I believe when you try to make a cigar that everyone likes you are ultimately creating a cigar no one loves. I do what I think is right, always trying to bring my point of view to the market regardless of the trends or the thoughts of others. It is important to me to absolutely love the product, and then my hope is that others will recognize my efforts as worthy and will support its success.”
Enough people have supported Sobremesa to encourage Saka to plan the release of a second cigar. Oliva Tobacco Company has been an instrumental part in the release of Sobremesa, providing the tobaccos used in the blend. Saka is turning to the NACSA factory, of which Oliva is part-owner, for the yet-to-be-named cigar, which will feature a Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper.
“Historically, the NACSA factory is well-known as a manufacturer for budget-minded handmade cigars,” Saka explains. “The Oliva family expressed an interest in broadening their manufacturing capabilities to begin producing finer handmade cigars, and they asked to work with me on the project. For me, it’s a tremendous honor and one I do not take lightly, nor are they. In less than a year, they have made dramatic changes in infrastructure, tobacco pre-industry, standards and quality control. They have even named the very talented Raul Disla as their new master cigar maker and have given him full operational control. Few outside of Nicaragua know who Raul is, but those of us who are actually in the trenches do, and this should prove to be a monumental shift in the future of this factory and the cigars they will craft. I am very excited to be part of this renaissance.”
Being a part of NACSA’s transformation is the latest in a series of exciting moments in Saka’s career in the cigar industry. He’s met many interesting people—from the average-Joe consumer at the local shop to leading business people, sports superstars and political figures from around the world. He’s talked with Playboy Bunnies, people wealthy enough to buy an island and one man who cut off his former partner’s head (it’s a long story, Saka explains). Saka jokes that the people he’s met while in the industry are the most unusual folks you could meet outside of a traveling roadside carnival. But the most memorable are those smaller moments—like those sobremesa moments—which, upon reflection, prove to be the biggest moments in a lifetime.
“I have come to realize that the truly most important events in your life seldom ever seem all that important at the time,” Saka reflects. “Career-wise it began with me just joining in online conversations back and forth with other crazed cigar geeks. Who would have ever thought that would be the genesis of an entirely different career path? Sharing a coffee and arguing about the best brand of hot dogs was the interaction that lead to my eventually being hired by the industry genius Lew Rothman at JR Cigar. A random meeting with an energetic kid from New York City as he was trying to sell cigars in my local shop would be the beginning of my relationship with Jonathan Drew. People are always looking for that ‘big moment’ when it will all change, and what I have learned is it is often the smallest of moments that really matter.”