Smoke Rings: La Barba Interview with Tony Bellatto


elcome back to another episode of Smoke Rings. Today, we're chatting with Tony Bellatto of La Barba and the new Bellatto Premium Cigars, with a new release called The Edition under the Bellatto brand.

Note: The following transcription has been edited for clarity and brevity.

[Tyler Caldwell]: Hello, everyone. I'm Tyler Caldwell. I'm sitting here with Tony Bellatto, known for La Barba Cigars and also Bellatto Premium Cigars. Today we're going to be talking about the newest release, The Edition, under Bellatto Premium Cigars. So, Tony, take it away.

[Tony Bellato]: Well, first of all, it's a lot nicer to talk to a Caldwell that is way cooler than the other Caldwell I work with, so.

[TC]: I appreciate that.

[TB]: I wanted to let that be known to the audience that you're the cooler of the Caldwells.

[TC]: I'll take that compliment.

[TB]: But, yeah, we released The Edition this year. I've been in the cigar business of manufacturing cigars for 10 years under La Barba Cigars, distributed by Down and Back, who also distributes Caldwell. And I'm a partner in Lost & Found Cigars, which is also about 10 years old, which is a fun project that you guys like to get behind, too.

[TC]: Mm-hmm.

[TB]: This year was my 10th year as a manufacturer, as I said. It was my dad's 50th year as a cigar retailer. So, what my dad and I decided to do is to commemorate that sort of anniversary that we have in the business. So, we made a cigar with Henderson's father instead of Henderson.

[TC]: Okay.

[TB]: We liked the idea that Ventura's are a family business. So, our core line of La Barba is made with Henderson Ventura, and now the Bellatto Premium Cigars are made with his dad, William.

Smoke Rings: La Barba Interview with Tony Bellatto

La Barba Cigars

[TC]: Interesting.

[TB]: We did that because he's got a very old-school, Dominican-style of blending. So, The Edition cigars, both of them that are out now, the Connecticut and the Brazil, are going to be more of that Old World, earthy style.

[TC]: Mm, I taste that.

[TB]: A little bit of hay, a little bit of that barnyard, but also a lot of that Dominican sweetness and full-bodied presence without being too strong, whereas La Barba's more focused on Nicaraguan tobaccos, and it's a little bit more contemporary.

[TC]: Okay, cool.

[TB]: So, there's The Edition Connecticut, and we use an Ecuadorian Connecticut wrapper. The fillers and the binder fillers are about 21 years old, between 18 and 22 years old, before they're put in the cigar. We lost our first edition of Edition in the fire last year. They were supposed to be released at last year's trade show. Unfortunately, the factory burned down, so these have been aging for a year already as cigars.

Again, the first one's an Ecuadorian Connecticut, and the second one is a Brazilian Arapiraca Maduro. That's a very cool wrapper that not a lot of people use. It's a lighter Maduro, so it's not going to be that full, like the Broadleaf or San Andrés profile that you're used to in that, but I think it's a very approachable cigar. Both Editions are good with coffee, in my opinion, and they're great in the morning, and also great with a port or a dessert after dinner as well. So, yeah, that's Edition. There's a Robusto, a Lonsdale, and a Toro in each size. Lonsdale in each size is my favorite. I'm a thinner ring gauge cigar guy myself.

[TC]: Same.

[TB]: So, that is Edition.

[TC]: Cool, so people who have heard of La Barba and you, yourself, they know you for cigars, but you also have a coffee business too, right?

[TB]: Yeah, so, I'm a ... I have a lot of different things going on. So, originally, I went to school and I fell in love with wine when I was in college, so I went to school for wine and became a WSET-certified sommelier. I introduced a wine program into my dad's cigar store. He's been in business since 1972. So, we added craft beer and wine to the store's portfolio as a retailer distributor. And at that time, we were ... my dad's funny, so he was giving away coffee in the '90s and decided that it didn't make him any money, right? So, he decided to start selling coffee, and we found a coffee roaster in Ohio that was contract-roasting for our stores.

As I became more developed and interested in wine and cigars, I became more interested in coffee myself, and we were getting our coffee roasted by a local gentleman who was getting ready to retire, and he asked if we wanted to buy his business. I jumped on the opportunity because I really wanted to get into coffee roasting and get my hands into something. I have enough to do, but I wanted to get my hands into something new because coffee and cigars are supposed to be together. Coffee and pipes too. I can't think of a time of having coffee and not wanting a cigar, or vice versa. You know what I mean? So, we started roasting the coffee. It's called Youngstown Coffee Company. Since founding the company in 2017, we went from a five-pound roaster to a 70-pound roaster.

[TC]: Wow.

[TB]: We have coffees from Indonesia, Tanzania, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua ...

[TC]: Everywhere.

[TB]: Everywhere. Yeah, everywhere in the Coffee Belt, we get coffee. And then once a year, we'll get some Blue Mountain, or some Kona for Christmas. People don't generally spend $50 on a pound of coffee for their morning commute.

[TC]: Sure, so let's go over a little bit about the Ricochet line. You started with the Oscuro, correct?

[TB]: Correct. Ricochet was originally a line that was meant to be ... the reason it's called Ricochet is 'cause it's a throwback to my history in wine. And the initial one was going to be called Primitivo, but I found there was a trademark issue there. So they all just became Ricochet. And the reason why it was called Primitivo is because Primitivo is a grape that's grown in Italy that's a cousin to Red Zinfandel, and I love Red Zinfandel and cigars. This cigar was designed specifically based around the flavor profile of Red Zinfandel. It has a San Andrés Mexican Maduro wrapper with Indonesian Sumatra binder, and fillers from Nicaragua and Pennsylvania. The cigar's very ... it's full-bodied, again, but I don't, generally, I have a very mild palate, so cigars that are strong for me aren't really strong for a lot of people. So everything that we make between La Barba and Edition strength-wise is in the middle. But body-wise, the mouth feel is more full. As with Red Zinfandel, there's a lot of spice, a lot of vanilla, a little bit of graham cracker, and some of those earthy, hay characteristics to it as well.

I also love Bordeaux, the Right Bank specifically. So I did the Mexi-Sol. We found a wrapper that hadn't undergone the Maduro process yet in Mexico. It's a sun-grown Habano wrapper from Mexico, which I had never seen, and I started playing around with that and ended up with a cigar that's going to be more of that Cabernet, Merlot-like in body and strength. Again, a little bit of sweetness, but the Habano wrapper on this is very spicy, so a lot of white pepper, and I get made fun of for saying this all the time, but it has almost like a star anise note to it. And I got a pen thrown at me — Caldwell threw one at me when I said that for the first time — but it does. It's got a slight licorice note to it.

And then, most recently, I did the Crü Shade. It's an Ecuadorian Connecticut. I wanted to make this in the style of a Pinot Noir that gives that light-body feel but has some backbone, so it's more of a Burgundy in that it's got Pennsylvania Broadleaf in there. In that way, it's not a Connecticut smoker's Connecticut; It's a cigar smoker's Connecticut, 'cause a lot of guys that like Connecticuts are looking for that really mild, easy-going smoke. This is a little bit more full, and it's got a little bit more spice to it, so if you're used to smoking big Nicaraguan cigars, this is a great cigar to smoke in the morning. I make a 4" by 44 on this one. I call it the Cafe. And that's another cigar that's just killer with coffee.

[TC]: I could attest to that.

[TB]: Yeah. So, that's the Ricochet line. I'm hoping to add one more SKU to this. I'm working on the cigar now. Unfortunately, we lost our first two cigars that we made in the fire, Red and Purple. In the Purple, we used a tobacco called Carbonell, which two years of crop got burned up in the fire as well as all the cigars. But I would like to, in the future, re-explore that blend, 'cause it was a very good blend. It was very successful for us, so I'm hoping to put that in a Ricochet form here in the near future when we get back and rolling.

[TC]: Awesome. Yeah, the Purple Lancero was one of my all-time favorite cigars.

[TB]: I know; I think my buddy, Zach, sold my last box of 7" by 40s and, yeah.

[TC]: We're going to have to talk to him.

[TB]: I know.

[TC]: So you gave us some insight into potentially bringing back the Purple. What else entails the future of Bellatto Premium Cigars?

[TB]: As I mentioned earlier, we had a devastating fire in our factory, and we kind of had to grind our gears and, I don't want to use the Phoenix metaphor, but I might as well: We rose from the ashes. So we're using, currently, our former factory that was a bit smaller, which is Henderson's father's factory. And he was basically using that as a lab and a place for him to hang out and make cigars for him and his buddies. So he would just hang out in the factory all day, and make cigars, and they would sit around and play dominoes, and he's retired so it was a playground for him. Initially, my production for La Barba and the Bellatto Premium was going to shift to that factory, and Caldwell, Lost and Found, and the other brands that Henderson makes were going to be in a bigger factory than the one we had. And we all had to kind of shift gears and move to the smaller factory, so it became an opportunity, an unfortunate opportunity, to trim a lot of fat, but it got our heads on straight about focusing on where we want to go as a company.

I think that was the only good thing that came out of the fire; figuring out what we did wrong, what we've done right as a company, how we can grow, what can we add, and a chance to get back to the drawing board on blending. It's hard to focus on quality control, blending, boxes, and bands when you're growing exponentially. But when you get a chance to put the brakes on things, it allows an opportunity to reevaluate all the little tiny things that you need to realize in order to grow.

[TC]: Sure.

[TB]: So the future is us, hopefully, maintaining that model of me staying in a smaller factory with a more boutique approach as the other brands grow into the larger factory.

[TC]: Cool, that sounds cool, man. So, make sure you guys check out La Barba and Bellatto Premium Cigars on Quite a few offerings on there, and there's always something for everyone's palate.

Smoke Rings: La Barba Interview with Tony Bellatto

Bellatto Premium Cigars

Category:   Cigar Certified
Tagged in:   Cigars Smoke Rings


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