With the release of Foundation's El Guëguënse ("The Wise Man") in 2015, Nicholas Melillo became both company founder and master blender. Over 20 years in the cigar industry prepared Melillo for this debut, having run production for La Gran Fábrica Drew Estate in Nicaragua. Nicholas approaches cigar making from two perspectives, each informing and inspiring the other. On one hand, Foundation prioritizes quality components, consistent flavor, and expert construction. However, Melillo also recognizes the need for passion and soul, his devotion to premium cigars never eclipsing his heart for community. Honoring these two convictions, Foundation has developed strong, personal relationships with the community around Estelí, Nicaragua, from tobacco farmers and workers to local street artists, a cohort of which ("Colectivo ATOL") comprises Foundation's creative team.
On this episode of Smoke Rings, Truett Smith and I dive a little deeper into Foundation Cigar Company's portfolio, discussing everything from the brand's origins to the highlights of some of our favorite cigars from the manufacturer.
Note: The following transcription has been edited for clarity and brevity.
[Tim Vanderpool]: So today, we're going to look at Foundation Cigar Company. Obviously you're smoking one, Truett. Before we started carrying Foundation cigars at Smokingpipes.com, were you familiar with the brand?
[Truett Smith]: I wasn't. And that's one of the great things I love about working here. There are a lot of brands that weren't on my radar before I worked here, but now I'm able to be introduced to them. I get to learn about them, and obviously get to smoke their stuff. So Foundation was one of those, and since then I've really enjoyed their cigars and have continually come back to them on a weekly basis.
Foundation Cigar Company: The Tabernacle Broadleaf Toro
[TV]: That's good. Before we get into the blends and the components on a brief overview, for those of you who aren't familiar with the brand, Foundation is owned by Nick Melillo. And if anyone knows the name, or doesn't, Nick Melillo has been in the industry for over a decade. Previously, he was the Executive Vice President in charge of marketing, I believe, for Drew Estate. So he was instrumental in bringing a lot of big name cigars, like Liga Privada, to the market. After a brief period away from cigars, probably because of a non-compete, he eventually decided to come back into the market and started Foundation Cigars.
[TV]: Foundation Cigars are almost all made in the Tabsa factory, Aganorsa. Except for the Tabernacle, which is made by AJ Fernandez. So still Nicaraguan. Let's go over a little bit about the blends, not a ton of detail, just the basic components. Truett's going to give you more of the backstory, because he tends to do a lot more of the deep research in order to get more information about these brands on our website.
[TS]: Foundation has some really cool branding. The themes behind their cigars make me want to smoke their blends more, especially knowing the backstory behind them.
[TV]: Yeah, I mean, a lot of times people look at a cigar and say, "oh it's got this wrapper that I like." But some people look at a cigar and see that it has a cool story, cool branding, cool artwork — what we call, since I used to be a rep in the industry, the romance behind it.
[TS]: Exactly, yeah. And I'll admit: I'm a sucker for branding and storytelling. There may be two cigars that I like equally, but if one has a cooler band on it, or cooler box, that's gonna draw me a little more to it. Maybe it's superficial of me, but if two cigars are equal in terms of flavor and what I'm interested in in that moment, a nice band and cool history, or a cool story, or theme behind the cigar is gonna probably tip me over the edge for it.
[TV]: So we'll go into the cigars. The first cigar Nick came out with after he started his company was El Guëguënse. Truett, go ahead and tell us more about the name.
[TS]: It's pronounced weh-wen-say, and it's Spanish for the wise man. I also think it's related to an indigenous language in Nicaragua as well. Not to get too much into the theme, since we'll be doing that later on, but the El Guëguënse is a 16th century dramatic play, and Nick based the cigar off that. Or at the very least, it's inspired by that dance and musical and theatrical work, which is a real source of pride for the Nicaraguan people. Since Nick uses a lot of Nicaraguan tobacco, and all his cigars are made in Nicaragua, this is kind of an homage to the Nicaraguan people, and culture, and language, and everything. It's true Nicaraguan puro and his flagship cigar.
Foundation Cigar Company: El Güegüense Lancero
[TV]: The second cigar, and a continuation of that line, was the Wise Man Maduro. Nick didn't use the Guëguënse name on that one, and it's a slightly tweaked blend. It's got a Nicaraguan filler and binder, but it also features a Mexican San Andres wrapper, which tends to be a little darker, richer, and oilier.
[TV]: The next cigar that they came out with is the Charter Oak. Nick grew up in Connecticut, and that cigar has kinda two meanings to it. One of them I believe is the fact that "Charter Oak" was a 150, 200-year-old tree in his hometown that was basically a historical monument; it dated back to the beginning of Connecticut as a colony, basically. But then a storm destroyed it, and they had to tear it down, or it fell down. So the Charter Oak cigar was based on that. Even though Nick is the self-proclaimed chief of broadleaf, this was the first Foundation cigar to use broadleaf, and it was an homage to his grandfather, who only smoked Connecticut broadleaf cigars. So the Charter Oak Connecticut, and the Charter Oak Maduro, they both have Nicaraguan filler and binder. But one has an Ecuadorean Connecticut wrapper, and the other one has a Connecticut broadleaf wrapper. It's also one of the most price conscious, or value priced cigars in the Foundation portfolio.
[TS]: Yeah, if you're looking for a Foundation Cigar to smoke every day, or smoke multiple times a day, Charter Oak is exactly that. It's what Nick intended for it to be. Though, obviously, feel free to smoke any Foundation cigar every day.
[TV]: Yeah, feel free to smoke any of them, but if it's two days before payday, and you don't have the budget, grab the Charter Oak. You won't be disappointed. It's all personal preference, like anything in the cigar industry. Anyway, the next release from Foundation Cigar Company, which is also the only Foundation cigar not made by Aganorsa, is The Tabernacle. And that's made by AJ. I'm actually smoking the Tabernacle broadleaf right now. It features Nicaraguan and Honduran fillers, a Mexican San Andres binder, and a Connecticut broadleaf wrapper. The other version of The Tabernacle is the Havana Seed, which has a little bit more Honduran than the Broadleaf, but the same filler components and binder.
[TS]: With the Tabernacle, and the Wise Man also, there's this theme that Nick is hinting at, or at least a kind of common thread that I have never come across in really any other industry, obviously specifically the cigar industry. It's this King Solomon theme. Obviously, in ancient Israel, King Solomon was known as the Wise Man. And so there's that relation, but then there's also, the son of the Wise Man. The band work for the Tabernacle, for example, features the old King Selassie of ancient Ethiopia, who's traditionally considered the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. So there's this thread that's all woven throughout: The Tabernacle refers to the temple built by Solomon which held the Ark of the Covenant. And King Selassie apparently brought the Ark of the Covenant from the Tabernacle, so there's this common thread of ancient Israel, ancient Ethiopia, all interwoven throughout Foundation's branding. And it all fits in with the Tabernacle, because Nick loves Connecticut broadleaf, and so if the Tabernacle is a temple, then the temple or the Tabernacle cigar is kind of housing the Connecticut broadleaf as the wrapper. It's cool, very very intentional branding. The thing I just noticed today, as I was kind of re-familiarizing myself with these blends and the brand and whatnot, is King Selassie was the 225th King of ancient Ethiopia. And for the El Guëguënse, there's such a high standard of quality, they only make 225 El Guëguënse cigars in the factory in Nicaragua. Obviously it's a different cigar, but just that number being the same stood out to me.
[TV]: Well, I appreciate that, cause I did not know that. That knowledge that just goes around, but like you said, it's all about the romanticism; I mean that's a pretty deep dive, and that's pretty cool, actually, to learn.
[TS]: And the artwork is just beautiful. Hopefully you can see it on our website closer up, and Pete might even zoom in on these later on, but very intentional color choices and intricate details, the design work, the patterns. I think Nick really nailed it when it came to presentation of these cigars.
Foundation Cigar Company: Menelik
[TV]: I agree. And since diving even further. The cigar I'm smoking, it doesn't always have the most beautiful wrapper on it. It's got slight imperfections; it's got a little bit of discoloration to it, which just proves to me that there's nothing artificial about this. And don't get me wrong, it's a beautifully constructed cigar. Sometimes you get cigars that almost look like they're too perfectly done on the wrapper, but this has got just the right amount of mis-coloration, a little bit of veiny-ness to it; it's phenomenal. And the smoke has got an unbelievable complexity, ranging from citrusy pre-lights to the bold flavor rush of white pepper notes. I'm about a quarter of the way through it, and it does have some strength to it, but it's not overwhelming. I thoroughly enjoy this cigar. I tend to shift towards the Corona size in this, but they've got multiple different sizes depending on what you want to smoke.
[TS]: So, since you just talked about what you're smoking, I'll talk about what I'm smoking. I'm smoking the Menelik, which was an event-only cigar. And although it's now more available, it's still limited in production. They're not making a ton of them compared to some of the other lines, but it's available more often than simply just being an event-only cigar. It's one singular vitola, a box-pressed robusto. Menelik is this cigar, there's no other options. And it is, hands down, my personal favorite out of the entire Foundation lineup. It features a San Andres wrapper with Nicaraguan fillers. And, for me, the flavor profile just hits perfectly on that balance of cocoa, leather, woodsy notes, and subtle sweetness. There isn't a ton of spice to it, just a little bit in the background there. Again, the Menelik name and theme are all tied in with Solomon, the Wise Man, and the Tabernacle, etc. The Menelik actually ranked #8 on our Top 10 Cigars of 2019, so be sure to check that out.
[TV]: We have one line left to discuss from Foundation, and that is the Highclere Castle.
[TS]: Which totally departs from the El Guëguënse, Nicaraguan, King Solomon, and Tabernacle themes. Instead, it heads over to England. Foundation actually partnered with the Lord of Highclere Castle, which is, you'll probably recognize it, from Downton Abbey, as the estate where Downton Abbey was filmed. And also, deeper cut, Jeeves and Wooster, which was an old British show featuring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. It was a comedy show with the two of them, and it was also filmed at Highclere Castle.
Foundation Cigar Company: Highclere Castle Victorian Corona
[TV]: I didn't know that, I'll have to check that out. Back to the cigars for a second, the Highclere Castle actually comprises two cigars: an Edwardian and a Victorian. One has a blue box, one has a red box. The Highclere Castle Edwardian, or the blue box, features Nicaraguan fillers and a Brazilian Mata Fina binder, which adds a very distinct flavor. The wrapper on the Edwardian is a Connecticut shade, and the wrapper on the Victorian, which is the red box, is an Ecuadorian Habano Maduro. Both of these are among their higher priced cigars, their top level cigars. Again, both feature beautiful artwork, continuing the trend with all that.
[TS]: Being one of their higher lines, it's evokes that luxury and royalty with an old English Victorian era, Edwardian era, aristocratic kind of theme behind it.
[TV]: So that's Foundation Cigars in a nutshell. If you want more information on the brand, you can explore the full portfolio here. If you're a fan of Foundation, feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. And stay tuned for more interesting videos if you like this!
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