In the premiere issue of Cigars & Leisure we interviewed Lissette Perez-Carrillo, one of the co-founders of E.P. Carrillo. We had so much to cover and talk about that we couldn’t possibly fit it all into the issue so here’s an exclusive addition to our sit down with Lissette where we talk more about E.P. Carrillo, its cigars, her take on the cigar business and much more.
Cigars & Leisure: You’re not only a cigar enthusiast but also a leader in the industry, responsible for shaping your own company and brand. What’s been your experience being in such a position in an industry dominated by males?
Lissette Perez-Carrillo: I have had a wonderful experience working among men and women alike; because I grew up in the industry, there is an automatic assumption that I know about cigars. Once my co-workers, customers and end-consumers speak with me, they are well aware that I am familiar with cigars, including taste profiles, through my own experiences trying different blends.
I get a lot of “excuse me” when certain “words” escape from males during conversations, but other than that, I don’t feel I am treated any differently. I’ve also learned to see things more from a male perspective not only in marketing, but in general. There are times when I may have an ad idea and run it by some of my male work team or customers and get a different perspective that complements the original idea very well.
How do you view other cigar companies? Do you have to view everyone else as competition or is there more camaraderie and a sense of unity taking place?
As you know, our family has been in the cigar industry for generations now. So, I personally have over 25 years of exposure to the industry, have lived through the boom of the 1990s and have seen cigar brands rise and fall and come and go. But in all of this, I still view the industry almost as our extended family. For example, I get so excited about the IPCPR each year because I get to reconnect with the individuals and families that make up our industry and make it one of the finest in which to work.
What makes E.P. Carrillo stand out in the always expanding and growing cigar industry?
When we started E.P. Carrillo, our goal was to produce a top quality cigar, using the finest tobaccos, that consistently delivers a great smoke. Could we have abandoned the traditional Cuban application of a triple cap to each cigar? Could we have taken other shortcuts? Yes, we could have. But we have not, and we never will. My father has taught me—and his father taught him—that each and every day we need to try our best to adhere to the highest quality and highest standard of production in order to produce a really fine cigar, which is the core value that permeates everything we do here at E.P. Carrillo. No shortcuts and no gimmicks.
And hopefully the consumer recognizes this and understands that we take a traditional approach to cigar making and will not change our aging or production methodology for a higher profit. The consumer can rest assured that the cigar that they are smoking is a cigar that is the best that we can deliver. Does this make us stand out? I don’t know. But I do know that, as the cigar industry expands and grows, the consumer can rely on E.P. Carrillo and our traditions each and every time they reach for one of our cigars.
For those unfamiliar with E.P. Carrillo, what cigar or line would you recommend someone try if they’ve never had an E.P. Carrillo experience before?
This question really comes down to taste and experience. For example, for smokers who have been smoking for some years now and consider themselves to be able to smoke across most lines they are familiar with, I would recommend the La Historia E-III. Not only has this cigar line received numerous accolades, but it is also a great cigar to smoke. The character of the blend, along with its rich, complex flavors and fullness in body, make this cigar something incredible.
However, a new smoker—as in someone that has only been smoking for maybe a year or less—should try the New Wave Reserva. The Reserva is creamy and rounded with characters of toffee and light cedar. It is not as full bodied as something like La Historia, so it won’t affect a more novice smoker as much as a heavier cigar might. As I stated in the beginning, it really comes down to the smoker’s taste and experience.
What’s the piece of business advice you’ve received from your father?
I am not sure that my father ever gave a single piece of business advice that stands out in my mind; instead he instilled in me the greatest overall value I have, which is my independence. From a young age my father always taught me to think for myself, stand on my own two feet, find a solution when none seemed to be there, look at things with my own eyes and not those of others etc. This is what got me through school, then into college and then law school.
I always remember that independence my father instilled in me and how well it showed up again—five years ago I started E.P. Carrillo with my family and returned to my roots and the industry that taught me that independence. This is what my father gave me as business advice, but he did it in his own way, on his own time and as always the only way he ever has done it—with tradition.
Choose one cigar produced by E.P. Carrillo and give us a drink recommendation that you’d pair it with for the best relaxing experience.
One of my favorite pairings is the New Wave Reserva with a light and delicate Scotch whisky. I find that the flavors in the Reserva play well with something like a Glenfiddich 12 Year or a Glenlivet 18 Year. The cigar has this unique ability to bring subtle nuances of flavor to the smoker every time you smoke it, and the whisky pairs extremely well with that. The balance between the two opens the palate of the smoker on both sides, cigar and whisky, and I love that I always discover a new hint of flavor each time. If you age the New Wave Reserva for a few months the whole experience changes again, allowing the smoker to pair it with richer and balanced Scotch whiskys.
What would you change about today’s cigar industry?
The answer to this can truly depend on when you ask it given that the industry itself is always changing. However, if I had to choose one thing today, I would like to change the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] FDA’s lack of an understanding of what we in the cigar industry actually do and how different a cigar is from other tobacco products in terms of composition, enjoyment and lifestyle, which has resulted in its ongoing efforts to impose tremendous regulation and restrictions on our industry. Along with this, I would also want more involvement from the millions of consumers in the FDA battle so they understand that this fight, the FDA, is also their fight.
From all the criteria including blends and size that set cigars apart, are there any current trends you’re seeing in the industry today that you either find interesting or are put off by?
This is a great question. The industry is full of trends and criteria from sizes, for example Big Ring Gauges—thanks Dad—to consumer trends and desires. I would have to say that one trend I find interesting is the “What’s New?”; I understand the enjoyment of trying new blends. However, I’d like consumers to smoke more than one cigar of the same line, letting some age, finding the right pairings for that cigar or even just the fact that it really is a great cigar and smoking it over and over again. Sometimes an oldie really is a goodie.
In your opinion, what’s the key factor in creating a successful brand?
To be honest with you, when we started E.P. Carrillo, we didn’t specifically focus on “branding.” As I mentioned before, what we have focused on is producing a top quality cigar using the finest tobaccos that consistently deliver a great smoke. And since the beginning of E.P. Carrillo, we have hoped that our efforts would shape a brand defined by how we approach—and the passion we bring to—what we do. We are also constantly reaching out to retailers and our customers for feedback on our cigars to make sure we are meeting the highest standards we have set for ourselves.
So, to answer the question, I guess our approach may be somewhat backwards from the traditional branding effected by advertising executives or marketing consultants, as we focus on producing great products which then define our brand rather than trying to define a brand and subsequently produce a cigar to fit within the brand. As of last year, we are working to shape our branding more diligently and have seen positive reaction.
Part of our theme is leisure. When you’re not working and can relax, how do you spend your downtime?
That is an easy question. When I am not working, I like to spend time with my family. My kids are so much fun and spending time with them, whether at home or traveling, is a blessing.
Let’s end with this question: What’s a quote that defines and motivates you?
“Obstacles are just bumps in the road and true success is measured by how they are navigated.”