April 14, 2020

Right Place, Right Time, Right Vision: The Story of Drew Estate

The Drew Estate Mural
The Drew Estate compound can be found in the city of Estelí, Nicaragua, two hours north of Managua,  and on the western side of the Rio Estelí on the Puente Panamá Soberano, a small road that connects with the Pan-American Highway. Drew Estate is both a company and a factory and each departs from the traditional character of practically every other company and factory in the city.  However, it is precisely these unusual, distinctive and colorful elements that have made Drew Estate what it is today after 18 years in the industry. Some may ask how it is possible for a company of this kind to have survived as long as it has? The answer lies in the fact that it is a company that has had a vision from its earliest years. Jonathan Drew himself stated that, if they had not come up with the vision of the future as far back as the early 2000s, they would have been a company lost at sea many years ago, one struggling to find the shoreline. I had the good fortune to tour the Drew Estate facilities at the beginning of April, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that, behind its colorful façade—one that might be mistaken for the venue of a college rave—there is a well-oiled machine that is programmed down to the smallest detail.

Henry Pineda and Pedro Gomez
As in any great story, Jonathan Drew and the company were faced with challenges from the very beginning. To this day they are still working to overcome obstacles. They started out with nothing--with Jonathan sleeping in cigar factories in Estelí. But now they are a company that has over 175,000 square feet in pre-industry and production facilities, 120,000 square feet of unused land, a cafeteria and a medical facility on campus for its employees. From nothing to a full-blown operation, Drew Estate is a company that has never given up on its dreams and that continues to break glass ceilings. It is a company that promotes from within, and, because of that, they have employees who care and want Drew Estate to do well. Drew Estate is not a company led by one person; rather it is one that is successful and moves forward because of the effort of every single employee. As Jonathan says, “they do it together,” and that is nothing but the truth. You may ask how a company can have so many employees working so hard for them all the time? The answer is simple. As Factory Spokesman, Pedro Gomez, said to me, “Drew Estate takes care of its employees and works hard for them, and because of that they work hard and take care of the company.”

Area de Pilone in DE2

Entering into the industry during the height of the Cigar Boom, Drew Estate is one of the few companies that kept its doors open while others were closing theirs as the boom subsided. They are a company that worked hard to stay afloat; Jonathan will tell you what it was like buying tobacco from the banks in Nicaragua for roughly $3 a pound after those same banks had taken that tobacco from a farmer or factory that could not pay its bills. It was during these dark years, the post boom, that they began working on their vision for the company’s future. And that was when the magic really started to happen. Jonathan and Marvin Samel were determined to succeed where others failed; and, because of that, they knew what they needed to do. They were always a maverick company; but in these years they truly separated themselves from the pack and picked up speed. They began in 1996 with La Vieja Habana, a traditional cigar, and by 1999, when cigars were losing their market appeal, they released ACID, which to this day is a breakthrough cigar that has reached a whole new market with its unique and secretive infusion process.

Main Rolling Floor of La Gran Fabrica Drew Estate
By 2004 the company had moved its operations to Miami, Florida, realizing that the New York scene was not where they needed to be. However, they were still operating out of a dozen facilities scattered throughout Estelí. During this year, they hired Steve Saka as the President of Drew Estate after having hired Nicholas Melillo as their Director of Tobaccos and Production the year before. The company was in a great place now, and, in 2006, the company experienced two groundbreaking events. The first was that they bought a piece of land that would become the current home not just for production of Drew Estate cigars, but also for the pre-industry side of the business. Jonathan et al. recognized that it was time to consolidate Drew Estate into a single estate.  The second crucial event was their release of a new brand, Liga Privada No. 9. Like ACID, it was a groundbreaking cigar that showed the diversity of the company. Up until this point, they were known for their infused cigars; but the new release demonstrated their creative potential in the traditional aspect. In July of 2007, La Gran Fabrica Drew Estate opened. But before production could begin, the company needed to put its own personal touch on this plain and simple factory. They had the Director of Sub Culture Studio and company artist, Jessi Flores, work his magic.  Flores beautified the building six months before moving in. Since then, the factory has seen walls torn down—the evidence of which can still be seen on ceilings and floors—and  new ones installed to accommodate the ever expanding company. On our tour, Jonathan noted that they were going to be doing some modifications to a part of the building, even while recognizing that they could only take down walls so many times.

DE2
Since 2007, the company has continued to be on the rise with successful releases in the Liga Privada brand and a marketing and distribution agreement with Joya de Nicaragua.  There has also been the creation of Undercrown, MUWAT, Herrera Esteli and Nica Rustica as well as a venture into pipe tobacco. Last, but not least, of course, there has been the construction and completion of DE2, which is their 61,000 square feet leaf processing facility. It is in this facility that the company stores, sorts, cures, ferments and ages their prized tobacco. Currently, they have enough tobacco for three years’ production of their cigars, if no changes are made. As Nicholas Melillo said of their building, “it is the Drew Estate Bank.” It is here that the company has its money—not in dollar bills, but in tobacco leaves from A.S.P., Plasencia, AGANORSA and others. The investment that the company has been putting back in itself is truly incredible. As Jonathan told us, “It is great that we have enough tobacco for three years production, but I want us to have four to five years of tobacco.”

Nicholas Melillo
With so much success, it is hard to see what else the company could do to break new ground. But on this tour, Jonathan Drew and Nicholas Melillo announced that  the next item on their checklist is “going green.” Outside of DE2 is a very small lot of Criollo ’98 tobacco.  This is merely a test crop Nicholas told me. It is really their first “field,” you could say. However, with 120,000 square feet left of unused ground, their plans are to grow tobacco there as well. Nicholas told me that, to date, “they are a company that has only bought the tobacco that goes into their cigars”-- a system that has prevented them from being limited only to their own tobacco and that has presented them with the opportunity to make unique blends. But with their growing their own tobacco, “they can and will reach a whole new level in the production of cigars.”  Their 120,000 square feet of unused land is nothing when it comes to growing tobacco, “but that is tobacco that will be grown on the Drew Estate compound, and that is truly special.” What seeds they will be planting were not specified, but with Criollo ’98 being the popular tobacco of choice because of its resistance to diseases, they will most likely be planting that in one field or many. They did not give too much information about where they will be buying land to begin planting their own tobacco; but with such close roots to Nicaragua, there is no doubt that we will see Drew Estate farms there within the next year or so. As Jonathan told us, they wish to move past the “root system” to become an integral part of the “organic matter of Nicaragua.”

Processing

On my trip I was able to see the true nature of Drew Estate and see the genuine love that they have for the country and the cigar industry. Some may look at them as a maverick company that uses an unorthodox approach in order to get attention; but the truth is that they are who they say they are. It is a company that is comfortable in its own skin and, because of that, it is truly authentic. This is not a company of traditionalists—of “suits.” Rather it is a company composed of individuals who know who they are and have no fear of expressing that.  It is a company that reaches out to all individuals and makes a connection on multiple levels. They take care of their employees and, because of that, their employees take care of them. Looking back on the history of this company and everything they have done to get to where they are today, it is no surprise that that they have been so successful. Certainly, it doesn’t surprise me.


Spending time with these individuals and listening to their stories, I kept asking myself: “why would anyone not want to work for or with them?”  On several nights during the tour, I asked myself whether I would have invested in this company early on if Marvin and Jonathan had approached me. Would I be a naysayer, or a “dirty rat,” as Jessi Flores so colorfully put it? Or would I have been a believer like some of the smart ones? It is an easy question to answer now; but I like to think that I would have invested early on if asked.  Drew Estate is a company that has changed and challenged the cigar industry since day one. With their new vision of being a company that moves seamlessly “from seed to smoke,” I am sure that Drew Estate will advance to a whole new level.   
Inside the Drew Estate Compound