A Conversation with Tatuaje’s Pete Johnson
By Larry Wagner
In “The Illustrated Man,” Ray Bradbury’s 1951 collection of science fiction short stories, the unifying character is a man whose body is covered with tattoos, each of which tells a different tale.
Pete Johnson, the creator and founder of Tatuaje Cigars, also sports a number of tattoos, which tell wondrous tales of Opus X cigars and drinking French wine. But Johnson is so much more than a collection of tattoos. He’s a thoughtful, reflective businessman, indelibly focused on pursuing a goal and perfecting it. His colorful tattoos, and the cigar brand Johnson launched in 2003, are inspired by old-world tradition and a love for the finer things in life.
The Tatuaje brand has risen to the top of the boutique cigar segment, and many credit it with creating the category. As a result, Johnson has become the subject of numerous interviews and video blogs—so much so that this writer feared it would be difficult trying to get him to sit for yet one more interview. Johnson, however, proved to be extremely approachable and very willing to discuss his brand, its history and his journey as a cigar maker.
During the following conversation, we sought to explore the influences behind the creation of the Tatuaje brand and how, taken together, they form the picture of a modern entrepreneur with a classic sense of style.
Tobacconist: The Sunset Strip rock ’n’ roll music scene brought you from Maine to Los Angeles. How far did music take you, and how did it coincide with cigars?
Pete Johnson: In 1992, I was a musician, and I was smoking cigars onstage, but … the music was failing. The grunge movement came into Seattle, and my style of music, which was “hair metal,” was getting pushed out of the scene. I had already turned grunge a bit, and we had already cut our hair, but the Sunset Strip died, and it seemed like half of LA moved up to Seattle. But I wanted to go back to my home state of Maine. I wanted to open up a cigar store next to a coffee shop.
I went into Gus’ [Smoke Shop in Sherman Oaks, California] and asked the guys how much it would cost to open a cigar store. I think they thought I was trying to be a competitor. They told me it would be around $100,000. I wasn’t working, and I had no money, not even $100! I said to my girlfriend, “Maybe I should go to a cigar store and ask to become a part-time apprentice.” I wanted to learn more about the industry, about this hobby that I loved. I hit all the cigar stores in LA. Finally, one day Dennis Spike [of Gus’ Smoke Shop] asked me if I wanted a job. I was hanging around the shop so much I guess he figured, “Well that guy might work!”
Was that your introduction to the industry and the people in it?
I met a lot of people in the business. I joined the Grand Havana Room and became a member. Through that I became friends with everybody. I started going to Big Smokes. I was at every Big Smoke—New York, Miami, LA, all of them. I met Carlito (Fuente), originally at Gus’. Later he was at the opening of the Grand Havana Room when I was working there, and that’s when I decided to go to the Dominican Republic. The goal was always to create my own brand of cigars, something different from what was out there.
You took over the humidor in Gus’ and really got an education about the cigar industry. From there you went on to manage the Big Easy Cigar Lounge. But after a while you left and took a hiatus from the retail business.
I took about six months of exploring the industry to see where I wanted to fit in. I went to the Dominican Republic on my own. Luckily, the Fuentes were really generous with their time, and the same with Guillermo Leon. I spent most of my time with the Fuentes, but there was no opportunity there. It was 1996, the height of the Cigar Boom. No one could make a cigar for me. I knew Manolo Quesada had too much on his plate. Litto Gomez was too busy. I wanted someone to help me create something new. But no one had the time for that.
I visited a few more people, and a couple actually said, “We can make a cigar for you,” and they went, “here,” and they gave me their cigar without a band on it. I told them no, I don’t want that. I want to actually make something that I can feel a part of.
The only person who had time for it was Jochy Blanco. No one really knew him then. Now he’s pretty big. Jochy seemed to know how to make a good cigar. He was more like a private-label house, and he was willing. But I wasn’t ready. I went down there looking for a cigar manufacturer, and I realized I had no idea what I was doing!
Clearly Cuban cigars had, and still have, a great influence on your vision of how to blend cigars. Were there individuals in the non-Cuban cigar industry who influenced you?
Obviously Carlito [Fuente]. I still can light up an Opus X and it’s got it, that great depth of flavor. Of course, the Padrons. And also Christian Eiroa. He was working on a new project, and he sent me a pack of what became Camacho Corojo. That was as close as anything came to a Cuban for me. Even the simplicity of the brown and white cigar band was like the old Montecristos and H. Upmanns.
But if you look through my whole portfolio, all the inspiration is taken from Cubans. In 1991–1992 I was able to purchase a couple, and I really enjoyed them. They were different then. They were spectacular. I fell in love with them. I loved everything about the Cubans—the bands [and] the packaging were so great. It was the allure of the untouchable fruit but also the history. They invented it. And they were so perfect. Whenever I would hang around with cigar guys, I would try to give them ideas about something cigar related. No one would ever take the idea, so I put it in my back pocket. All they were was old Cuban ideas because I loved the Cuban history.
In 2003, you were director of sales for the Grand Havana Room, still hoping to make your own cigar, when you were introduced to Don Pepin Garcia.
Pepin was making private labels for customers of Tropical Tobacco. He had me try some samples, which I rejected. I went and got a Cuban from my stash, gave it to him and said try this. The guy rolled cigars in Cuba, so when he smoked it he said, “This is what you want? I can make it easily.” He did, right on the spot. And within a few months, Tatuaje was in production.
That was in Miami, where the original brown label is still rolled. Now most of the production is made in the My Father Cigars factory in Esteli, Nicaragua, where 250 rollers can produce four million cigars a year. Why keep any production in Miami, with only 11 rollers making 400,000 cigars a year?
Each of those rollers is either family or a student of Don Pepin’s. All the rollers in Miami can roll any shape. They all roll in Pepin’s style. I’d put those rollers up against any rollers anywhere in the world.
Another passion of yours is wine. How did that project come into being?
In 2011, I had just gotten a contact in Bordeaux. There was an American guy over there who had this concept— he’ll help you make your own wine. It was kind of a vanity project. I always wanted to make my own wine and put my name on it. So, it’s basically you go into a room and you pick from all the different vineyards they have, all the different juices, and you play mad scientist. I went over to do the 2011 vintage, but they asked if I would be interested in some 2010, which was a big vintage.
I thought it wasn’t available, but they said they had a few barrels left. The catch was I could only have 20 percent. I knew the proportions I wanted, so I blended their 20 percent and 80 percent from other vineyards, and I found my happy place with what I liked. I got to taste the wine with the owner of that vineyard and he said, “This is really good. Would you mind if I offered a taste to my wife?” I took that as a really big compliment.
I had come up with a blend that tasted good to me. It’s like with cigars. I don’t grow the tobacco; I just go into a room and taste. With the wine, it was very similar.
So we’ve touched on cigars, wine and rock ’n’ roll, and it brings to mind a print ad of yours, which I really like. It shows you sitting with a wine barrel …
… Sitting on the floor, bottle of wine, a box of cigars, a bundle of cigars, wine glass in my hand, a guitar and all the pedals laying on the floor on a Persian rug. I’ve always wanted to replicate that ad. It’s still one of my favorites because it shows everything that I do.
Now we come to the year 2018. It’s your 15th anniversary, and you’ve created a cigar to honor
The blend and the two shapes, a Belicoso Fino and a Torpedo Grande, are something I made exclusively for the Grand Havana Room in 2004. It’s very elegant, simple, in a flat 10-count box, which is very similar to a lot of the flat 10-counts you would see from Havana now. So it’s very old-school, like the old Quai d’Orsays and Davidoffs from Cuba.
What I did this year is I looked at the bundles I had, and they were kind of in-between the shade colors. I had kind of upped the shade over the years from a rosado to a rosado oscuro. I really love the rosado claro on the SW we do in Miami, but I also like the darker oscuro on the traditional Brown Label. So I said let’s do them both. Same varietal, same blend, same everything. I’m just color sorting. With the rosado claro you get the sweetness, and it lets the spice from the filler come through. The oscuro gives you the stronger, heavier, more chocolate-like flavors.
We read that you feel you’ve done pretty much all you can in terms of creating new cigars. You’ve hinted at making skateboards and surfboards, you actually produced high-quality denim jeans and flannel shirts, and you even joked about making underwear. What other outlets have you found for your creativity?
It’s a creative outlet just to find new things. At one time, I talked about doing e-cigarettes. It sounds weird, right? But it was right when regulation was starting, and they weren’t talking about e-cigarettes yet. So I thought we could sell a bunch of ’em and use that money to fight regulation of premium cigars. My new creative outlet was the documentary Hand Rolled. For me, it was important for the story of the industry to be told.
A friend in the business mentioned that he’s been with you when you’ve gone to distilleries in Kentucky to get your own casks of whiskey. Have you done that, made your own casks of whiskey?
We’ve done a few casks. We did a couple with Buffalo Trace, one with Eagle Rare and we did Blanton’s. They’ll send me samples if I’m not around to go in to taste them like we did when we were in Kentucky, and we just pick out one we like. So we’re not blending any, we’re just picking. I think the most fun one we’ve done is with a distillery called Willett Distillery. They do everything barrel strength, Family Reserve. They allowed us to go through their brick house and pick out a few barrels. The first one we did was a five-year barrel of their own distilling, one of the first private label barrels they ever did.
What do you do with it? Do you have it bottled?
We have it all bottled and we sell it, through a distributor, to our Saints and Sinners Club members.
But you have no plans to get into that as a business?
No, no (chuckles). That’s a different world. It’s just that I always feel like I’m a little bored, like I need to do something more. I feel like my fulfillment level isn’t completely there. I want to participate more.
Pete, we’ve gone on longer than either of us expected to, so thanks so much for everything.
It’s been a pleasure!
For more info, visit tatuajecigars.com.
Check out our interview with the directors of Hand Rolled: A Film About Cigars, which Johnson produced.
Originally published in Tobacconist Magazine.