Cigars & Leisure recently caught up with Arielle Ditkowich, president of La Sirena Cigars based in Roslyn Heights, New York when she visited JR Cigars in Burlington, North Carolina. In this chat we discussed everything from her early days in the cigar industry to her passion for cigars. Keep reading below to get to know “The Mermaid.”
Cigars & Leisure: How’d you get introduced to cigar smoking?
Arielle Ditkowich: I was already in the industry before I started smoking. I started working, doing events promoting cigars, and they put me in the humidor and would teach me about cigars. But I’d never smoked a cigar until I went to my first factory. Once I saw how cigars were made on machines, literally 200 hands involved, how could you not try one? That was the first time I tried one.
So how’d you land that job?
I was hanging out with my dad at the local cigar shop watching the game. Then I met Rene Castineda, the New York sales rep for Miami Cigars who later became its vice president. He saw me, said, “Oh, you don’t mind cigar smoke? You’re hired.” Easiest job interview I didn’t know I was having. He hired me to go to events around New York where I would cut and light cigars. But that wasn’t enough for me. It didn’t fulfill me. So he took me into the humidor and taught me the differences between the wrappers and the sizes and the flavor profiles, and from that day on I was selling the cigars in the humidor, and that’s when I fell in love with it. Fast forward to a year later, and that’s when they took me to the factory.
It’s one thing to have a job, but you obviously have a crazy passion for cigars. Where does that come from?
I think it quickly went from job to passion because, at first, I started because it was extra money in college, but then it took me into the humidor and they started teaching me different things I didn’t know. I thought cigars were for older men. I didn’t realize it was such a community. It’s the people. You could have someone running the country sitting next to a surgeon sitting next to a teacher, and they all have the same passion. That’s how I started with it.
But it all goes back to me seeing the process. Once you see how cigars are made, how many people you have, people working the in the fields in Nicaragua, in Chile… They’ve been doing it for years, and they love it. It’s a family business. Many of them are third generation. Once I saw that, I fell in love with the whole thing. I don’t know of any other industry or product in the world where it’s 100 percent handmade like cigars are.
When looking to create a new blend, what are the forces that dictate what you’ll do?
For me I use a lot of my heart. So I do things that are different. I guess I have a little bit of a feminine flair that most other companies don’t have. So I take that and I run with it. And people have responded to that really well. I try to have fun with the marketing and give things a different twist. We play with the packaging; when my bands came out nine years ago they were the largest in the industry. But at the same time, you have to have a great cigar. Anyone will buy a cigar once if it looks pretty, but if they don’t like it they’ll never come back again.
What I do now, I travel five days a week, three weeks a month. So I get a lot of feedback from the consumers on what’s working with the wrappers or the flavor profiles, and I try to incorporate all that into my next cigars. When I’m at home by myself, I’m smoking everything in the humidor. I try to really get a feel for it. But I’m definitely not a master blender, so I work with great people who are really knowledgeable to kind of get their opinions and expertise to create something that I think will do well in the market.
When working with that blender, how many attempts does it normally take before you find a blend you like?
With the La Sirena Original we got to the third blend and that was it. I didn’t even get down to the factory because they sent us the first three, and I didn’t want to change a thing. With the Merlion, that was a little different. We had an idea in mind. The first one was such a big hit, so we wanted the follow-up to be even better, so that one took us 27 blends. The Oceano line, that was interesting because we started the product two and a half years ago, but it got tabled.
So we had a blend we loved, but then we had to start all over two years later. We had the boxes, we had the names, we had the concept, but we had to start from the beginning because the blend wasn’t the same. The tobacco wasn’t the same. And even when we thought we had the final product, I took it back to the United States with me and let it sit for two weeks, smoked it again and hated it. It was bitter. There was one tobacco that just wasn’t sitting right with the rest of them. So we had to go back and fix it. And that’s one of the nice things about working with experts, I went back to Oso and told him it mellowed out after the first third, but it started so bitter I didn’t even want to finish. And he knew exactly what it was, and he took it out, fixed it and sent me a new batch. It’s an interesting process.
Have you always had such a sophisticated palate? Could you do that with food as well?
No. No, not with food, not with coffee, not with alcohol. I don’t even know that my palate is that sophisticated. I either like it or I don’t. I get spicy, creamy, smooth; but I don’t really get hints of oak wood maple sap syrup or whatever. I don’t get that flavoring that some people have amazing palates for. But my palate has grown exponentially since I started, and since then I have become more of a foodie, and now I have an appreciation for wines, and I’m really trying to explore them the way I explore cigars. Cigars opened my world in terms of tastes.
What is your favorite pairing between a liquor and one of your cigars?
People always ask me what one of my cigars will go well with, and, not to cop out, but my immediate answer is that it’ll go best with whatever you enjoy. For me, I don’t drink beer that often, usually I’m drinking wine. So if I’m smoking a more robust cigar I’ll drink a more robust red. If I’m smoking a medium/mild, I’ll go with a lighter red. If it’s summer and sweet, I’ll have a white. Maybe even with bubbles.
One pairing I found unique that I normally happened when I was doing an interview. I had a La Sirena Original and a guy poured me a Baileys®. I’d never had Baileys® before. I’m normally not into creamy, sweet drinks like that. But the spice from the La Sirena and the creamy from the Baileys® combined to give me a flavor that was out of this world. And since then if I’m having a La Sirena at a bar late at night I’ll have a Baileys® to go with it just because it’s such a good combination.
In your eyes, what makes a good cigar?
I’m a sucker for packaging, but that doesn’t make a good cigar–that just makes a pretty cigar. But that draws me in first. A good cigar to me hits all the notes you want it to hit, whether you’re in the mood for spice that day or something that is smooth and easy. My palate changes based on the mood I’m in. A good cigar fits that need. A good cigar is about quality and consistency. If I know the burn is going to be even. If I know the draw is going to be perfect. Now a days with so many great cigars out there it’s easy to find that. Then it’s just a matter of finding out what meets your flavor profile. There are so many options. And it changes. After eight years, I’m finally getting around to enjoying some Connecticut wrapper. A good cigar is just the one you are enjoying at that moment.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Traveling. That’s also my least favorite part. The actual travel part quite frankly sucks. No one likes an airplane and a suitcase and TSA. But once I get where I’m going, I get to see cigar places. Every shop is different. Even if two shops are owned by the same people a block away from each other they are going to be different. The people are what makes it amazing. So I get to travel all over the world to places I probably never would have been, to smoke cigars with people I never would have met. That’s the best part. And it’s real friendships. People in the cigar industry do it because they love it. It’s not something they have to do, it’s something they enjoy doing, and meeting those people is my favorite part.
What’s your favorite vacation spot?
Israel. I love going to Israel. Cigars are expensive there because of the taxation, but they’re pretty open to smoking them anywhere. You can smoke on the beach. You can smoke in courtyards or hookah bars. No one ever looks at me and asks me to put my cigar out. I was literally smoking a cigar while floating in the Dead Sea. And through social media, I met a guy who works at a bar in Jerusalem, and we became friends on Facebook, and when I went there we met up and had a cigar together.
What do you do in your downtime?
I have a passion for children. Before I got into the cigar industry full time I was getting my degree in education. I try to make it so I get to work with kids when I’m off. I take a few weeks in the summer and run a camp for kids with hearing loss. I’m big into fundraising and charity all related to children, so I try to make that a priority and stay grounded. My end goal–there’s not a single deaf school in the entire country of Honduras. Coincidentally Honduras was the first country I visited to see a tobacco farm and factory. So if I were to combine my two passions, I would love to start a school for children with hearing loss in the country of Honduras.
Cigars, generally, is an industry dominated by men. And then you’re also so young. Are people surprised when they realize you’re not just a pretty face, but running the whole show?
I think many people are a little bewildered at first. They look at me and say, “I don’t really understand.” And I was a theatre major, so you combine that with the cigars and teaching, and most people don’t think that makes sense at all. I started [in the industry] when I was 24 years old, and it was kind of random. But my parents have always been super supportive of me and my two sisters, and encouraged us to go for it if we found something we loved. It didn’t have to be one thing, so I’ve taken that and run with it. I think when people meet me it makes more sense. I’m kind of all over the place but it works.
What’s the one thing someone visiting New York City would have to do before they left?
See a Broadway show. You have to see a show. And maybe not even Broadway. Off Broadway. Even off off Broadway. I saw one last Tuesday, I literally laughed for an hour straight. My stomach hurt afterward. It was a small production, $35 ticket. That’s what I’d recommend, see live theatre.
How about something the cigar smoker needs to do in New York?
Try to smoke a cigar in Central Park and get away with it.
What’s your dream car?
It sounds crazy, but a Landrover Discovery. I don’t know, I’ve just always wanted that one.
What are you actually driving?
I drive a Volkswagen Eos. Hardtop convertible. It’s perfect.
Do you have any hidden talents?
Hmm. I can blow a really big bubble with chewing gum.
What if they called and said you were going to be on America’s Got Talent that very night?
Definitely not blow a really big bubble with chewing gum. I’d probably get a few of my girlfriends together and have a singing group. I have some really talented friends and singing has always been a huge outlet for me. I like to sing show tunes. Or pop songs that I make sound like show tunes.
I hear you’ve actually had a singing experience similar to that?
My two sisters and I were part of a choir group that got to perform on Saturday Night Live years ago with Adam Sandler. He was singing the Chanukah Song Part III, and it still plays on television around holiday time, and I still get phone calls from people going, “Is that you singing behind Adam Sandler?” I’ll start getting the phone calls soon.
Is there are quote that you love? Anything that defines you or you find particularly inspirational?
It’s my senior yearbook quote, and I like to say it in my head every day because it still speaks to me. And of course it’s from a Broadway show. “You never know until you reach the top if it was worth the uphill climb.” From Avenue Q. It’s about puppets that have sex with each other.
Anything interesting going on with La Sirena?
My youngest sister, Mariah, just graduated from college last May, and she is making her first steps in the industry. She was doing events while she was in college, kind of the same way I started, and she’s been running a cigar shop in Queens for the past few months. Beginning with the New Year she’s going to come on the road with me and be the second mermaid, if you will. Hopefully we’ll be traveling together doing events, and then traveling apart as she slowly becomes another face of La Sirena. She really found a passion for cigars, kind of the same way I did. Together we could be a killer team.
Any new lines coming?
Right now we’re really happy with where we are. We have our three core lines for La Sirena. We bought Old School Cigar line which had three cigars, so we’re pretty happy with our portfolio right now. We’re not rushing to come out with a new blend. We’re just taking it slowly, building the company one day at a time.
We are working with Rocky Patel, and joining his cigar cruise. That’s going to be Memorial Day weekend, which also happens to be my birthday. Seven day cruise from Miami going to the Grand Cayman Islands, Honduras.
We thank Arielle for taking the time to speak to us. To learn more about the La Sirena brand visit its website lasirenacigars.com and find it on Facebook. You can follow La Sirena and Arielle on Twitter @LaSirenaCigars.