Artists tend to be a commonly misunderstood bunch. By and large, they keep odd hours, enjoy solitude, and rigorously follow their hearts — all attributes which can set them apart from the vast majority of society. For visual artist James Brown — also a Sommelier, adventure traveler, and Range Rover enthusiast — his heart took him to the mountains of Nicaragua. There, Black Label Trading Co. was born. At their boutique factory, known affectionately as "Oveja Negra" (Spanish for "Black Sheep"), he and his wife Angela oversee production of premium cigars made to the highest standards imaginable, blended with love, and rolled in small batches to ensure serious attention to detail and "100% quality from seed to ash."
James and Angela (left) Oveja Negra (right)
Like their path to cigarmaking, the couple's journey to Nicaragua was made in something of a roundabout way. The two met and married while working in the wine industry in Tucson, Arizona, choosing to honeymoon in Mexico. They fell in love with Playa del Carmen, and rather than return to the States, instead called and quit their jobs to stay and live in the area. They stayed for a couple years, and from there, sold all their extraneous belongings and crossed the Atlantic with nothing but a suitcase and the plan to drive from London to Cape Town, South Africa. Settling in Ghana, they opened a beachfront eco-lodge, becoming a go-to destination for area tourists looking for a unique experience.
After a few years, the urge to travel took hold once more, and together with their three year-old son, they trekked back across the Atlantic, making it to Antigua, Guatemala, where they opened another business doing what they (at the time) did best: venturing to the middle of nowhere. Indeed, with a small fleet of Land Rovers, they carried visitors deep into the jungle, exploring Mayan ruins not commonly frequented by tourists. Their tours took them down through Belize and into Panama, and subsequently to Nicaragua. There, tobacco fields blanketed the landscape, and upon seeing the thriving cigar industry, James was captivated. He met a local industry insider, Armando Leiva, and began to learn as much about the process as possible over the course of a few years, eventually blending his own personal line of cigars to smoke. And it wasn't long before they had the idea to incorporate cigars into their jungle excursions.
James entertains guests on a guided tour of the factory.
The idea was a huge success, as clients enjoyed James' personally blended sticks so much that they wanted to specially order them. What began as an interest akin to their joint passions for wine and traveling slowly materialized into a project all its own before their very eyes. Cigars had been in the couple's periphery for some time, ever since their days in the wine industry in Tucson, but this was their watershed moment, and they knew they wanted to do something different. They opted to focus on the idea of special, small batch releases, choosing the name "Black Label," a term synonymous with select, premium offerings.
Rolleros and buncheros at work in Oveja Negra
This small-batch framework is crucial to understanding Black Label's approach to cigar making. The industry standard blending model usually sees a company conceive a blend for a singular vitola, after which they subtly tweak said model to add more sizes to the line. Black Label's approach keeps things simple, as each cigar's recipe is necessitated by the vitola itself. This results in blends created specifically for a certain size ring-gauge and length. If the blend was originally intended as a Corona, for example, it stays as such, along with a Robusto for those who prefer a thicker ring-gauge. And they take the approach seriously, even placing a cap on the number of cigars that rollers and buncheros can produce daily, ensuring maximum attention to quality, where most other companies would be more concerned with increasing output.
This attention is extended to Black Label's aesthetic, which draws inspiration from South and Central American religious imagery, with cigars like Salvation, Bishop's Blend, and Deliverance. Pushing the boundaries even further, Black Label's BlkWks Studio allowed James even more stylistic freedom, resulting in sticks like the Natural Born Killer, the Killer Bee, and the Rorschach. James does all the artwork himself too, ensuring each Black Label and BlkWks offering has the artist's signature touch. With such a diverse portfolio, an acute focus on small-batch blending, and an unparalleled spirit for adventure, the "black sheep" of the cigar world stand well apart from the fold.
The Black Label Smoking Lounge (left) Cigar aging rooms (right)