Welcome to another episode of Smoke Rings. Recently, Steve Saka, the founder of Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust, stopped by our office here in South Carolina to visit our store and meet the team. While he was here, I had the opportunity to sit down with Steve and discuss Dunbarton's celebrated Muestra de Saka line, a vitola-specific range of premium, boutique cigars composed of unique, singular blends such as the Exclusivo, the Nacatamale, and the Unicorn. Tune in to learn more about the Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust brand with an overview of the Muestra de Saka line in this exclusive, behind-the-scenes interview.
Note: The following transcription has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Overview: Muestra de Saka
[Tim Vanderpool]: Hello, everyone, I'm Tim Vanderpool — the cigar specialist for Smokingpipes.com. Today, I'm joined by the man, the myth, the legend, and the mastermind behind Dunbarton Cigars: Mr. Steve Saka. So, Steve, Dunbarton has few lines of cigars, now: Sin Compromiso, Muestra de Saka, Todo Las Dias, Umbagog, etc. But today I just wanna focus on one: the Muestra de Saka. So muestra just means sample, right?
[Steve Saka]: Right. Muestra is the common term that we use when we're making a sample blend in a factory, no matter what it is. So Muestra de Saka just means sample from Saka. There's no real interconnectivity between the Muestra de Saka cigars other than the fact that they're all from me and they generally represent some sort of personal challenge.
You know, I'm like everybody else. I have my own inherent biases: things I believe to be true, things I don't believe to be true. So, often when I do one of these releases for Muestra, I'm trying to attack one of my own personal biases or overcome a personal challenge — something I don't think I'm particularly good at or something I want to do better. But aside from that, there is no interconnectivity; every year it's different. And that's one of the things that consumers need to know. You can try one and really love it. And you can try the next one and really hate it. The cigars are not connected in flavor profile. It's arguably the most confusing product that anyone ever made — I'm pretty good at that.
Muestra de Saka: Exclusivo
[TV]: So let's just jump right in. So the first release was in 2016, and it was the Exclusivo, which is a 6" x 52 cigar. What's the background on this cigar? Was this one made by Raul, too?
[SS]: No, this one is actually constructed at Joya. As for the background, here's the thing: In our industry, very well aged tobaccos are somewhat romanticized. Personally, I am not a fan of hyper-aged tobacco. I believe that there's a certain point with tobacco where it starts to eclipse its peak flavor. So most of my filler tobaccos are aged only about 18 to 24 months. Sometimes I'll use fillers that have been aged up to three years, but I tend to prefer tobacco on the younger side. And I'm talking about the bale aging, not shortcutting the curing or the fermentation process. But I find that when you bale age for too long, the cigar just loses the things that I find entrancing. It just kinda dials it down too much. So as a personal challenge, I wanted to make the Exclusivo entirely out of tobaccos that were a minimum of five-years-old.
Could I make something using nothing but vintage, very well aged tobaccos with results strong enough to make me want to smoke it? And that's always a criteria for me. I always ask myself, do I want to smoke it? Would I smoke it? Would I pay for it? If I'm not willing to pay for it, why would I expect the consumer to pay for it? So that's what Exclusivo is. And Exclusivo, within the Muestra line, is kinda what you would expect. It's the most balanced, it's the most nuanced, and it's probably the smoothest. I would say that it's medium bodied, but heavier cigar smokers might even put it a touch below medium.
Muestra de Saka: Nacatamale
[TV]: Nice. So, this cigar's already been aged a very long time. It's ready to smoke now. You can age it if you want to, but right out of the box, you're going to experience it the way that Steve intended. So, the second Muestra, released in 2017, was the Nacatamale, which is a 6"x48 cigar. So what is the Nacatamale?
[SS]: Okay well, nacatamale is one of my favorite foods in Nicaragua. It's kind of a hangover food; it's really heavy, very full bodied. It's this crazy sweet corn tamale that's normally packed with some sort of roasted pork, rice and beans, and a little bit of Spanish olive. Nacatamales generally are not made commercially for the most part. They're made by local women on the block. So you have ladies in every city competing over who makes the best nacatamale. For the Nacatamale cigar, then, I wanted to recreate that experience, combining traditional techniques with simple, high-quality ingredients.
Thirty, 40, even 50 years ago, cigars were much simpler. You would typically have one tobacco variety that would be used for the entire filler; you would have another tobacco variety that would be used for both the wrapper and binder. And that's the way, even today, that Cuban cigars are made. There's a certified seed for the filler crop and there's a certified seed for the wrapper crop. It's not like my brand Sobremesa, which uses seven different tobaccos, from seven different farms, with four countries of origin. With Nacatamale, my question was could I make a cigar using those old techniques without using a lot of ingredients?
With this approach, you don't have a lot of variety. And the only way you can introduce any sort of complexity or nuance to the cigar is by how you work that one tobacco and how you position it. You ferment this a little longer, you ferment that a little less; you age it a little differently. So that was the challenge. Is it possible to make a cigar in this modern era, when we're all using five to seven different ingredients, that could stand up, head to head, against one of those modern cigars, even though there are just two ingredients? It's what, today, would be commonly referred to as a farm-style cigar.
The Nacatamale has two countries of origin. All the filler comes from one particular farm in Jalapa. And then the wrapper is an Ecuador Habano wrapper that's grown by the Oliva tobacco family at their La Meca farm. And of the Muestras, it's actually the one that I personally favor the most. It's a bit punchier. It's a bit zippier. It's amazing how nonlinear it is, given that there aren't a lot of ingredients in it. It's really quite an entrancing blend.
Muestra de Saka: NLMTHA
[TV]: So earlier you mentioned personal biases on sizes and shapes, which brings me to the next Muestra cigar: the 2019 NLMTHA or "Now Leave Me The Hell Alone." It's a 7"x38 Lancero. So how do you feel about Lanceros, Steve?
[SS]: Oh, well, anyone that follows me is pretty aware of how I feel about Lanceros. I generally think they suck. Now, there's a certain segment of the cigar-smoking population that raves and about them, but the vitola is very simplistic. As a blender, there isn't much room for technique or tricks of the trade, because there's so little room in the cigar to do anything. So every time I've ever made a Lancero in the past, I've always felt like it would be better as a Lonsdale. A Lonsdale just gives you so much more flexibility, and you don't lose the elegance of the shape.
In fact, when I made the blend for the Liga Privada L40, that cigar was originally supposed to be an L38. But I cheated and made it just two ring gauges bigger, so I could add another half of a strip, just to lend it a little more interest. I was hoping that the L40 would be the last Lancero that I ever had to make, but the cigar geeks in our industry hammer on you continuously for Lanceros, so I finally caved. And that's why I named it "Now Leave Me The Hell Alone. "
When it comes to Lanceros, there's really only two directions you can go. You can go with the swizzle stick, pepper stick kind of cigar, or you can go with that very elegant, nuanced, balanced style of Lancero. I gravitated towards the elegant, classic, old-style Lancero. And also, because it's a challenge, I limited myself to working within that traditional 38 ring gauge, even though I would've rather made it a 40, 42, or even a 44. But that wasn't the challenge. The challenge was to make a classic Lancero. And I have to tell you, of all the ones that we have made, it's actually the one that surprises me the most, because I have sold probably an excess of 5,000 boxes. The fact that people still buy the NLMTHA, I guess, means that I didn't do too bad of a job on it.
Muestra de Saka: Unstolen Valor
[TV]: It's an interesting cigar. It's a Lancero. Steve hates making them, so buy more of them so he keeps making them. The next one we're going to talk about is the Unstolen Valor, which, I believe, was blended by Raul Disla.
[SS]: Yeah, so Raul Disla is the general manager and master maker at Nicaraguan American. He's a man that's been in cigar business his entire life, literally since he was a kid. But he's never actually ever made his own brand or his own blend. He's always executing the work of others. So a couple of years ago, I said, "Raul, how about you make some cigars for yourself? Just make what you like." And his first question was, "What do you want it to be like?" I said, "No, slow down, Raul. You're missing the point. What I want is for it not to be what I like. I want it to be what you like." And he kind of dragged his feet. For a full year, he didn't do a damn thing. And finally, one day I was just like, "What? You don't know how to make a cigar? You can't make your own blend?" The next time I showed up, like a month later, he presented me with four blends: R, A, U, and L.
His favorite of the four was the R blend, and it was very good. It's probably the one that I think most people would prefer, but the U blend really caught my attention because it's a very linear cigar. Normally that's a negative thing, but it's got this really nice, soft pepper nature to it that just builds the more you smoke it. It's really a very enjoyable cigar. So I said to Raul, "Hey, you know, nobody really knows who you are. What do you think if we make it one of the Muestras?"
Everything about the Muestras is a personal challenge. And, while this wasn't a personal challenge of me, it was a personal challenge of Raul. We called it Unstolen Valor, because I've been very clear to everybody that I did not blend this. I picked it off a table. The only interaction I had was saying, "Okay Raul, if we're gonna do it, it has to be to Muestra de Saka grade standards." It had to have a little better leaf sorting, a little better selection, and more attention to detail, because all the Muestras are very top-shelf style cigars. But aside from that, it's completely Raul's expression. The term Stolen Valor refers to when people take credit for work they didn't really do. So I decided to call it Unstolen Valor, because I'm very clear with everybody that this is a blend made by Raul Disla.
Muestra de Saka: Unicorn Diademas Deluxe
[TV]: Perfect. So the next cigar is sort of the elephant in the room, or should I say the unicorn in the room? The Unicorn is extremely limited in the amount of cigars released. Tell us about the cigar.
[SS]: So, I made the Unicorn completely out of spite. In all of my previous gigs, I unfortunately never really connected with the retail stores. I never really knew what was happening in the marketplace. But when I started Dunbarton Tobacco and Trust, I had to start touring the country. And one of the things that shocked me was how many super high-priced cigars were on the shelves. I understood the Opus X BBMF, and I understand the Padron Hammer and Davidoff's tippy top stuff. But I was seeing cigars made by these no-name people who I'd never heard of, who I'd never seen in 30 years, that were selling for like $40, $80, $120, even $200.
So I began exploring this. As a manufacturer of cigars, there's only a certain amount of money you can spend on production. Even when you're making absolute top shelf cigars, there's only so much you can spend. Once you get beyond that, it's all about branding and positioning and the marketing of the cigar. So I began asking myself how much could you actually spend on a cigar if you just went hog wild crazy? What could you actually spend? So my plan was to make this ludicrously produced cigar and give it away at events. Well, it turned out when I got to the end of this rainbow, I managed to spend $38 a cigar at the factory level. Which is just beyond absurd. It makes no sense whatsoever.
I personally touch every leaf in the Unicorn. I sort everything. I have the team cream the 24,000 pounds of broadleaf down to 6,000 pounds. Then I go and hand-pick the 200 pounds that are going to go into Unicorn production. Everything about the Unicorn process makes no sense. So I made these cigars and I realized that I couldn't even afford to give them away. So what I ended up doing with them is offering them to retailers who met certain criteria. Retailers who bought $X in the month of February, for example, I said, you're going to get five Unicorns. I set the price using the same pricing structure we always use. It's a 40% margin, which made it a $50 wholesale cigar, which makes it a $100 keystone cigar. But I didn't sell any. I just gave them to our retailers. Buy X amount of product, you get five Unicorns. Here's the value.
Some of the retailers sold it; some of them gave it to their five best customers. Some of them said, "Hey if you buy a box of Saka stuff, you're gonna get one of these." Next thing I know people want more damn Unicorns. So, now, I have pretty much committed to going through the effort and making 1000 Unicorns every year. It's a regular production item, but it's the only thing in my whole portfolio that I intentionally limit. Because honestly, as a company, we're not gonna get rich selling Unicorns. And I'm also very blunt with consumers. It's an exceptional cigar. It's a very unique shape. But it's a really bad way to spend $100. You'd be much better off buying six Sin Compromisos, or eight or nine Mi Queridas; you can buy a bundle and still get four more of Umbagogs for that price. But the Unicorn is really unique. No expense has been spared. It's kind of like Wagyu beef. You've got to try it at least once in your life. But I don't think someone's gonna smoke a lot of Unicorns.
[TV]: There you go. That's the Muestra de Saka portfolio in a nutshell. For more of Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust's Cigars, check out Dunbarton's page on the site. Get your Unstolen Valors, your Unicorns and the rest of Steve's fine cigars. And, Steve, thanks so much for making time for us.
[SS]: The pleasure is absolutely mine. Thank you.