It’s mid-June in North Carolina, and I’ve just arrived at the sprawling JR Cigars facilities for the Smokin’ in the Carolinas cigar festival. I have an early morning meeting with Robert Holt of Southern Draw Cigars, but, knowing only a little about the brand, I have no idea what he looks like. I make my way through the JR store and into the lounge where we’ll be meeting. The lounge is crowded, but right away, I spot who I’m positive must be Robert. His long salt-and-pepper hair is pulled back in a ponytail, he sports a beard, and he commands the room. There are a few guys standing in what could almost be considered a line to talk to him. I join the line.
It’s little wonder that Robert is so loved; Southern Draw Cigars are enormously popular and incredibly well-made cigars. Spend even a few minutes on Instagram and you’ll find at least one of your friends posting about a Southern Draw cigar. But not only that, after spending some time talking with him, I discover he’s also one of the most genuine and nicest guys in the industry, and he loves what he does.
We sat down, lit up the new Kudzu Lustrum medio-tiempo cigar [review below], and talked about how he got into the industry, why he loves it, and everything else you could possibly want to know about this rapidly growing cigar company.
Tell us where you began it all. What did you do before getting into the cigar industry?
I worked for 15 years in corporate America; I’m a radiofrequency (RF) engineer by trade, but before that, I also served in the army. In 2006, I left the armed forces and joined a little company called PrimeCo. Today we call it Verizon Wireless. I was one of the original founders, or what we call pioneers, of Verizon. I also spent some time at Sprint.
Doing that took me all around the world, and it’s what expanded my vision and understanding of the tobacco industry, the process of growing tobaccos, of fermenting tobaccos, and of turning them into what we see today: a beautiful piece of art that we get to smoke. But I’m thankful for that time because the wireless industry took me where I needed to be, to see what I needed to see, and to learn what is now the basis of what we do here at Southern Draw.
Do you ever look back on those days as an RF engineer and wish you were still doing it, or are you completely content where you are?
As my wife, Sharon, says, “It’s okay to look in the rearview, just don’t stare.” So, the answer is: I do glimpse back because it was a good time. It was a great economic time, but it led to divisiveness in the family. Money does that sometimes.
Having the humility that we have now stems from all those years of success where we didn’t need help from anybody else. I look back and say, “I’m glad I’ve grown, I’m glad I’ve learned, and I’m glad that family is now more important.” What we do matters, and it makes a difference, not just to ourselves but to communities around the world.
Your family is in the industry as well, correct?
Well, the Jacob’s Ladder is named for our son Ethan Jacob, and much like that cigar, he’s a big, bold young man. He’s got a lot of soul, just like that cigar. To say Sharon and I want to sway him into our business is probably the accurate term, but right now it’s just part time. We also know he’s got other passions, but at the end of the day, we’re going to pave the way and hope that he’s going to contribute in the long term and be part of what we do.
Because it doesn’t matter how high or how low, a cigar is always perfect, no matter what.
Did he have a lot of say in the blending of Jacob’s Ladder?
He didn’t, no. Every cigar we have has multiple stories, and they’re about the people who have influenced my life, whether it was the military or family and friends—people who really put themselves second or third to make sure that I was successful and taken care of.
The people I name my cigars after are people who demonstrated a lot of faith and a lot of compassion, both characteristics that I strive to have. And I tell you, my son and my wife truly are those kinds of people, and not just because they’re my son and my wife.
I get asked all the time, “Are you going to have a cigar named after you?” And the answer is: absolutely not. I don’t impress myself that much. I don’t have that personality; they do, and they’ve demonstrated it. He’s only 18, and I tell you, he has the wisdom of someone twice his age.
The blends characterize who they are and what they are. Their soul, their characteristics, their personalities are in those blends. Each blend is very carefully thought out, very carefully marketed, and ultimately, if people know them and they smoke their cigar, they say, “We get it. We get it.”
What makes Southern Draw stand out from other boutique companies?
We like to say that we’re the little brand from Texas to take a little spin off ZZ Top. But more than Robert, and Sharon, and Ethan, and our entire family in California, the bottom line is that this is 100 percent financed by family and friends. And these people all contribute behind the scenes.
But what really makes us different is that we’re mission-oriented. We realized something: We work for the people of Nicaragua. We work for the people who produce our tobacco, the people who work hard every day in the fields and in the factories and in the barns. As long as we have a mission and a charity behind all that we do, it makes us different.
We want to focus on the little things. We believe that it’s quite simple for us: this industry should be about unity, it should be about charity, and it should be about service to other people. What drives us every day is people, and we’re in the people business. Thus, the term Southern Draw. It’s a little bit hospitality, faith, and family, and a little bit about the science of a good and consistent cigar. You put the two words together and now you have Southern Drawl. Drop the “L” ’cause we all talk real slow. This industry is about spending time with people and having a cigar. It changes lives. It truly does.
This industry is about spending time with people and having a cigar. It changes lives. It truly does.
What’s challenging and rewarding about owning your own company?
When your goal is to have consistent cigars, everything you produce you want to be able to produce in perpetuity, you want to continue to grow. Sourcing the raw materials and ensuring that the process remains the same is a challenge, but it’s probably no different than most family-owned businesses.
We largely rely on friends and family to support our growth, and we’ve been blessed. We’ve grown 130–140 percent every year we’ve been in business. Ask brother Erik Espinosa, who told me early on, “Brother, you’re never going to make money in this business. You’ve got to do it for the passion.” And I thought, don’t tell my family that.
But the challenge is financing so we can continue growing and continue to do what we do at the level that we do. I sometimes stay up late at night smoking cigars on the patio thinking just about that.
The biggest reward is seeing the workers at the AJ Fernandez factory in Nicaragua, and seeing how well they’re taken care of and the opportunity they have is really rewarding. But the flip side of that is sitting in shops with veterans, their families, having a cigar and a conversation, working through challenges in life together, or sitting next to a very wealthy person or someone who doesn’t have as many resources. What I enjoy most is the opportunity to have a conversation and learn about people. It helps us appreciate who we are and what we are doing, and it verifies and validates that two chairs, cigars, and an ash tray will change a life if you allow it to.
Two chairs, cigars, and an ash tray will change a life if you allow it to.
Why do people call you the chief evangelist?
You know, it’s a moniker offered by my wife, Sharon. What I can say is in those 15 years of great financial success and growth in the wireless industry, priorities got mixed. And for us, it was always our agreement in our 23 years of marriage to put our priorities as faith, family, then business. I had it as business, family, and faith.
Chief evangelist for us is a reminder that faith has to come first. We can be champions of faith without being abrasive and to do it through our actions and not just through our words. As an evangelist, that’s what we do first.
Tell us more about some of your newest cigars, such as Ignite.
Ignite is a series of new cigars where we choose a military charity on an annual basis. 2018 was Cigars for Warriors. 2019 was just released, and this project will benefit the Navy Seal Foundation. The beauty of the project is we get to bring awareness to a vetted mission and charity. This foundation is very near and dear to us, and we want to make sure our funds go to helping families transition out of the military service and back into the civilian population.
And we’ll keep doing this every year and continue to change the beneficiary of that project.
Additionally, most people who follow Southern Draw realize this is an anniversary. God has blessed us, and we’re still here, so what we’ve doing to celebrate with Casa de Montecristo and the JR stores is we were able to produce a special anniversary series using a medio-tiempo wrapper, which is very expensive, very difficult to get, but so flavorful and so rich.
Today at Smokin’ in the Carolinas will be the first time we’ve unveiled this new cigar. It’s called the Kudzu Lustrum, and Lustrum in Latin means five years. So, this is the five-year aged medio-tiempo Kudzu Lustrum Toro. It’s a very special cigar to us.
Why do you think it’s important for the cigar industry to give back?
The economies in the countries that grow the tobaccos are struggling. The economic problems, the civil problems, and the social problems in these countries need to be brought to everyone’s attention. It’s easy to sit in a nice leather chair in Burlington, North Carolina, and smoke a cigar, but the more we appreciate and understand the plight and the struggles of the people who are producing this, the more we’re aware and the more we’ll make better decisions as consumers.
Charity is important, and let me say that almost everyone in the cigar industry gives back. If you own a big factory, you’re giving back by providing employment. There are factories that provide education for not only the children but also the parents.
So, we’re not any different than most cigar companies. It’s just that we’re very vocal about being specific in our charitable mission. We don’t have a lot, and we’re not wealthy people. When we give something, it’s literally taking food off the table, which is OK. My wife has sunk this into my head over the years: “Give of your first and give of your best.” We don’t want to be that brand where at the end of the year if we have something left, we’ll give. We want to give throughout the year. We want to struggle with them.
The charity that Fuente and Newman do is absolutely amazing [Cigar Family Charitable Foundation]. Bobby Newman is one of the greatest mentors if you want to understand charitable needs and contributions, and we’ve had a chance to sit with him over the years.
All that to say, giving back is the most important thing we do.
What is your most ideal time and place to smoke a cigar?
I’m going to go back to “Island Jim” Robinson, from Leaf by Oscar, who says, “My goal every day is to drink as many Heinekens and smoke as many cigars as possible.” So, for me, it started out as a way for me to spend time alone with my thoughts and to deal with things in my life and my military career without taking drugs or having to get therapy. Cigars became my go-to.
When I get up, I can promise you, the first thing I’ll do is have a cup of coffee and a cigar, and whoever is on my mind or heart at that moment, then that cigar reminds me about them. And at the end of the day when business has been talked about and I get the opportunity to sit down, no matter where I am in the world, I light up a cigar, pick up my phone, and I’ll look at social media and look at comments from customers and from retailers and the media. I get to at least acknowledge that you’re supporting our brand, you’re sharing our mission, and sharing our stories.
Beginning the day that way and ending the day that way, in appreciation, is the most optimal time for me to smoke cigars. I’ll smoke ten cigars at this event, but it won’t be the same as the cigar I had this morning or the cigar I’ll have tonight when it’s all over.
I’ll smoke ten cigars at this event, but it won’t be the same as the cigar I had this morning or the cigar I’ll have tonight when it’s all over.
Do you remember your first cigar?
I absolutely do! It was a La Gloria Cubana Wavelle. I remember I was near the end of my military service. I had never been a cigarette smoker, and I had never dipped snuff, which is kind of ironic for a military guy. But this cigar was shared with me by a guy that one of our cigars is named for, without mentioning his name—the Firethorn.
When I smoked it, he told me this, “We’ve got to be right. We’ve been through a lot. We’ve seen death. We’ve seen life. We’ve seen lives changed. We’ve seen lives lost. But I tell you what, when people are happy and excited and they’re celebrating, they smoke and they drink. And when they’re down and depressed and they’ve seen it all, and the world is coming to an end, they smoke and they drink. So, you can never be wrong with lighting up a cigar because it’s always right for the mood.”
And I said, “You know what? I will smoke a cigar every day of my life for that reason.” Because it doesn’t matter how high or how low, a cigar is always perfect, no matter what.
For more info, visit southerndrawcigars.com.
Kudzu Lustrum Medio-Tiempo Review
Produced by: Southern Draw and A.J. Fernandez Cigar Co.
Wrapper: Medio-Tiempo Habano
Binder: Nicaraguan Ometepe
Filler: Vintage Nicaraguan long leaf
Size: Toro—6 x 52 (box-pressed)
Time to smoke: 85 minutes
Release date: June 2019
About the cigar:
We recently sat down with Southern Draw founder Robert Holt at the Smokin’ in the Carolinas cigar festival in June and asked him about the brand new Kudzu Lustrum—which debuted at that festival—a cigar he calls “very special.”
“People who follow Southern Draw realize this is an anniversary,” Holt said. “The Kudzu blend was the first-ever blend in 2014 by Southern Draw, so what we’ve done with Casa de Montecristo and the JR stores is we were able to produce a special anniversary series for them using a medio-tiempo wrapper, which is very expensive, very difficult to get, but so flavorful and so rich. Lustrum in Latin means 5 years. So, this is the five-year aged medio-tiempo Kudzu Lustrum Toro that will be available beginning today.”
Holt says they plan to have a similar release every five years with production limited to 25,000–75,000 cigars for each release.
If you’re wondering what medio-tiempo is, it’s a priming of tobacco that grows on the very top of the tobacco plant and is only found in a select few plants. It’s strong and is typically reserved for higher end cigars, usually as a wrapper.
Other than the JR Cigar and Casa de Montecristo exclusive Toros, of which only 220 boxes were made, the rest will come in a belicoso fino 5 1/2 x 52 box-pressed size. The cigars are packaged in 10-count paper mazos with only 2,500 made. The packaging features hand-drawn art depicting the Holt family’s prior military service and the history of the brand.
“If we were entering a barbecue cook-off this summer and only had a single cut of meat to submit to the judges, the Lustrum would be a consensus choice by the family,” Holt said. “Offering extravagant and rather pricey vintage tobaccos at a blue-collar price is a thank you to those who have supported the brand over the last five years. We think we have a cigar worthy of celebrating the first five years of Southern Draw, which has made it longer and been more consistent than many expected.”
Since we were gifted one of the exclusive Toros, that’s the one we’ll be reviewing today, and if you get a chance, head over to a JR Cigar or Casa de Montecristo ASAP to get one!
This cigar features a gorgeous medio-tiempo wrapper (apparently very expensive and difficult to get) and has an excellent cold draw with notes of spicy pepper. The cigar lights up with minimal effort.
I immediately taste a copious amount of pepper and feel it on my lips, and there are wonderful aromas of caramel and spice.
The smoke production on this cigar is wonderful, and the smoke appears to almost have a bluish hue to it. As I move further into the cigar, I pick up more woody flavors and some chocolate. At a little over an inch, I tap off the ash.
This is a wonderful medium-bodied cigar, leaning toward the milder side, and I love how the spice transitions into sweeter flavors as the cigar progresses.
I will note that I love to save cigar bands to remember what I’ve smoked, but I had a bit of a hard time removing this band. After a few tries to remove it intact, it ended up tearing quite significantly.
But band aside, as it is a minuscule issue and in no way affects the cigar’s flavors, the Kudzu Lustrum is an excellent cigar and provided an extremely enjoyable experience (along with the whiskey and music—see below).
When I interviewed Holt, he told me that he likes to begin and end every day with a cigar by himself to just spend time thinking about the day ahead or the day that transpired. So, I, too, instead of scrolling through my phone or reading, decided to just sit and think about my day as Holt does, uninterrupted. Let me just say, I highly recommend it.
Blackened whiskey. This whiskey, from late master distiller Dave Pickerell in collaboration with Metallica, is smooth and oaky and perfectly accentuates the spice of this cigar.
The craziest thing about this whiskey is that while it’s being barrel-aged, it’s jolted to life by Metallica songs using a proprietary sonic enhancement system called Black Noise, which pummels the whiskey with sound, causing it to seep deeper into the barrel where it picks up additional wood notes.
Additional flavors of the whiskey are caramel and honey and heavy spice on the first few sips, with a smooth and slightly creamy finish. This whiskey was made for music and cigars.
Full review here.
This was my first time trying a Southern Draw cigar, and I’m an immediate fan. I have the original Kudzu Lustrum and 300 Hands to sample still, but I assume they’ll be great. From trying this cigar, and from talking with Robert, you can tell how much pride and passion is put into each cigar, and it truly shows.