From the sizes and vitolas, to the overall construction and flavor, Warped Cigars are made the Cuban way, using techniques like the Cuban triple cap, historic covered foot, or entubado bunching, at either El Titan de Bronze factory in Miami or at Casa Fernandez's Tabacos Valle de Jalapa S.A. in Nicaragua. Many of their sticks are produced only by category 9 torcedores. As a boutique manufacturer, each Warped release is unique in construction and flavor, yet all Warped Cigars are noted for their consistency. On this episode of Smoke Rings, I sit down with Kyle Gellis, founder of Warped Cigars, to discuss the company's origins, philosophy, and plans for the future.
Note: The following transcription has been edited for clarity and brevity.
[Tim]: Tell us about yourself. Where are you from, what did you do in your childhood?
[Kyle]: So I was born in New York, and then we moved to South Florida when I was about 15 years old. At the age of 14, I started my first company, called Warped Customs, which was in the paintball industry. Since I was eight, I had played paintball. I played tournament paintball and then semi-professional paintball from the time I was eight all the way up until I was 18. Warped Customs was the largest manufacturer and distributor of paintball head-wear in the country. We then had distribution and eCommerce all through the US, as well as distribution in Lisbon, in Portugal, and Vienna, Austria.
[Tim]: You don't look like the stereotypical cigar manufacturer. How did you get into the cigar business?
[Kyle]: I was around cigars my entire life. My father was a cigar smoker so he would let me pick the cigar out of the humidifier for him, he'd let me cut it, and then he'd have me sit with him while he smoked it in the study at home. They were always around. They brought him a lot of joy, and what he did is he would tell me from the consumer side what he liked and he didn't like about the cigar he was smoking. I kind of learned from the opposite end from a young age. When I was 16, he gave me my first cigar, which was a Montecristo #2. It was a Cuban that he gave to me when we were on a cruise. From there, when I turned 18, I lived about an hour north of Miami. I hopped in my car and I drove down to Little Havana, and I just went from factory to factory back then, which there was a lot more factories down there at that time. Knocking on the doors, seeing who would work with me. Had a lot of them slammed into my face, except for one. That was Sandy at El Titan, still to this day, almost 13 years later, I'm still working there.
[Tim]: Thirteen years? Most people just know Warped from the past six, but you've actually been grinding and hustling for 13 years with this?
[Kyle]: Correct. When I started, I was producing a few hundred cigars a month, selling them online. Back then on cigar forums like BOTL, Cigar Asylum, things like that. Then from there, building it all the way up. Everyone thinks that we were just kind of like an overnight success, but no, I've been doing this for 13 years, you just know where the company has been since you've known Warped, 'til this day. We did the first IPCPR six years ago because we weren't a big enough company to do it [before]. Then we just took the full jump in and have just been around ever since.
[Tim]: 13 years ago there was a lot of big players in the game and not a lot of smaller boutique brands in terms of that. Your first year as Warped, what was that like?
[Kyle]:It was kind of mind-altering, because I was learning a whole new aspect of blending. I'm the type of person that I want to be hands on, 100%. Everything needs to go through me. I was learning how to blend at the time. Luckily, I had a lot of the right teachers, I was around the right people, and I knew what I wanted in terms of a blend. In terms of what a cigar should be, with the help of my father, all those times growing up 'cause he smoked Cubans. I wanted to create something that was medium-bodied, light-bodied, but still complex and flavorful. At the time, back then, that really wasn't the trend. It was more spice. There were still more classical sides, but it was more spice driven.
Learning from that perspective and then just obviously being there everyday. Literally driving my car from my home in Jupiter to Miami everyday, which if you're familiar with that drive, the 95 South is a pain. But everyday, I'd drive down. Everyday just learning more and more and more and more. Until I got comfortable enough to be like, okay. I'm gonna blend something different this time. Over the years, you get better and better and better. You're learning more. You're being taught along the way, not only from a blending perspective, but from rolling. See, back then, Maria was still rolling at Titan. She was fresh from Cuba, so I was learning manufacturing and rolling from her and what they did in Cuba. All the rolls were from Cuba so I was always learning every little thing that they would tell me from back in their old country.
All of that came together and really drove my palate to where it is now. So when we did our first IPCPR, the trend was at the point, 60 and 70 ring gauge cigars. We released a 36 ring gauge with La Colmena. By doing that, we attracted a lot of people because we were just so different. We were exclusively different. No one wanted to touch that. No one thought we would sell it.
It was just a unique situation where I didn't want to be like everyone else 'cause I saw what was going on in the industry. Everyone was just following the same trends and they still do to this day. You see every manufacturer doing this or every manufacturer doing that. We came out with small sizes, bringing back traditional looking boxes in cigars and really the emphasis was always on quality and consistency of the blend, but obviously you need to give the cigar identity.
We were going really traditional routes, looking back at Cuba and looking back at the vintage artwork, but modernizing it a touch. That attracted a lot of attention and then obviously we came out with the Flor Del Valle band, which if you've seen that band before, it's in my opinion, and we've been told a lot, one of the most beautiful bands that people have seen in recent years. It was taking that emphasis and really going forward, going full tilt with it. One thing that we enjoyed was that so many consumers adapted. They just adopted it. They took it and they ran with it and the vision that I had for it. We're forever grateful for all those consumers who believed in us. Back when I first made cigars, there was a blog that's still, to this day, stogiereview.com. He reviewed my original cigars and every year at the trade show he still comes and sees me and we still talk. 13 years later we still see each other and to me that's like, that was like one of the coolest things. He's like, "I remember when you were selling these in Cigar Asylum and I reviewed it." I'm like, "Yeah, man. You've been around for the entire trip." A lot of people, like you said, Tim, have only seen the past six, but there's seven more before that.
[Tim]: Your company was kind of, correct me if I'm wrong, built on social media and through people who followed you and pushed for retailers to stock your product.
[Kyle]: That is correct. Yeah. So we took Warped in a different route than the traditional way that cigars are sold. Traditionally, it's a sales rep system. At the time, no one really wanted to touch a young brand. Reps didn't want to, but my vision was to always be different. I said, why, I thought of it differently. I thought of it, if you go to a rep, the rep is just gonna go to the shop owner and then try to pitch it. Well let's go to the consumer and let's have them interested in it. Then they go to the store owner and say that they want this. So it's more positive for the shop and it's more positive for the consumer. We went that route. We have no reps, we have no brokers, we have no distributors. Our staff is full-time, in house, only with us. In our offices in Jupiter. I think that that has allowed us to really be who we are because our team is 100% dedicated solely to Warped.
[Tim]: When you're coming up with a new cigar brand or a new cigar, what's the process? What's your inspiration? Do you come up with a name first and then go off of that? Or do you come up with something you wanna blend and then name it in reverse?
[Kyle]: It can work both ways. Sometimes you're inspired by something of a visual nature that you think of the name first, and the identity that you're gonna give it, and then you create the blend around it. Whether you're coming up with a name for a cigar that's more traditional and more rustic then you're gonna come up with a blend that's that way. If it's the opposite end of the spectrum, I've been inspired by material. Where then I'll do the blend and then the name will fall in later. It really just depends on the situation that you're going through or what you're trying to accomplish.
[Tim]:What are you most excited about in the cigar industry?
[Kyle]:I think I'm most excited about to see is how we can push into the next generation. How can we take a very traditional industry, a very proud industry with a very rich history, how can we get it to move forward in a time where quality is at the utmost importance now. Consistency, customer services, and the buying patterns of consumers have changed significantly. Also in a path of regulation that is going to come upon us. How do we navigate these waters? I think that it's gonna be very interesting to see how brands that are very traditional get to the younger demographic of the 22's to the 35's and 40's. Because they're gonna carry it forward. How do we keep this going and how do we get people interested and enjoying this handmade experience? I think that's the biggest challenge that this industry is gonna have and one of the most unique ones to watch is how the older generation handles it. Younger ones, you can already see them adapting and moving forward and doing it, much like our brand is. We're very youth driven. We react very well with social media and we've just taken what we've heard about, what we feel is important. We put emphasis on quality, consistency, construction, and experience with consumers. We have our own pathway. How does everyone else adapt with it and what's their pathway gonna be? It's just kind of nice watching from afar and seeing what everyone else is doing even though we're solely dedicated to following our path.
[Tim]: What's next for Warped?
[Kyle]: That is a question we constantly get asked. Some people may know that I have a wine brand, some people know that I have DROP. What avenue is next? I've been approached to do Bourbons; I've been approached to do a few other projects, but Warped, right now, is doing what we've always done. We're just making sure that we make sure the consumers are happy. Quality, consistency, having product in stock, but in stock at a level that is always the same. I've always said that I want people, whether they smoke a Hacienda today or in three years or five years, I want it to be the same experience. I don't want them to be like, "This has come down. This has done this." And that requires a lot of work. A lot of that work is done on the ground in Nicaragua, which is why I'm there so much. It's just to make sure that everything is the same.
When shipments come in, we validate them. We will not send out products unless it's been verified by me personally and we'll verify multiple different boxes from the shipments. Nothing leaves without us giving a stamp of approval. If we have to hold it for a month until we think it's ready or we have to age it longer, we will do that. Even though we try to age it all at the factory, sometimes in transport, during the hot months of the year, it gets a little bit more humid. We have to let it sit. We have to let it come back. We have to do these things to make sure the experience is always the same. Looking at it, it's just we need to, I think the entire industry just needs to look at the consumer. These people are spending hard-earned money on having a fantastic experience and we need to make sure that we give it to them each and every time. We're trying to raise the bar in the industry as a whole. Just for the betterment of consumers. That's what we're trying to do.