Using the Force
Friday, August 12th 2022, was a hot and sticky day in the Connecticut river valley. I should know. I was just wrapping up harvesting eggplants at a vegetable farm and feeling dead-beat as I saw the sun retreating. It was a long day. Drew Estate’s Barn Smoker hadn’t graced this side of the North East since the pandemic put a pause on the whole world. But today, it was BACK! I was ecstatic to be covering the event for Fine Tobacco NYC, however, dehydration, a sore lower back, heat exhaustion, and the usual fatigue of a full week working manual labor had my spirits down. Getting consumed in Hartford traffic on my way to the event also didn’t pick my mood up. Tonight was the pre-party. A VIP-only event. I had to get my mojo going again. Once I checked into my hotel, I gave the old cold-shower and electrolyte consumption a try, and WALLAH! I was good to go!
The pre-party was hosted at the New England Air Museum which was located within the Bradley Airport. I was assuming it would be another maylay of traffic and taxi cabs, however, it turned out to be a very docile paved back-road that took me right to the property. I cannot compliment the parking-lot staff enough! They directed my vehicle and every other cigar craving maniac into a spot immediately at arrival, with a smooth and welcoming attitude. The line to get in was also a logistical masterpiece. Drew Estate representatives were ready, willing and able to help you with any questions as well as made sure you received the swag bag of your dreams. If you participated in the last Freestyle Live event for the Nica Rustica Adobe, then you’re familiar with the sleek “DE25” black leather backpack stuffed with goodies, however, you probably didn’t receive the FOUR BOXES of event-only cigars! It was like Christmas Day in the middle of summer. It was also a lot to carry. Drew Estate staff, again, were conscious and caring enough to advise event goers to place the items into their car, before heading off into that night’s festivities. The parking staff assured me they were keeping guard of the lot all night, and that brought some rest and assurance to this born and raised New Yorker who remembers finding his fathers car one morning parallel parked on cinder blocks!
Yoda makes a cameo
After weaving through the battleship-gray halls of the New England Air Museum only stopping to take pictures of to the wall-to-wall history of American aeronautical achievement and a cool selfie next to a WWII bomber plane, I was back outside on a sprawling green. There was a red carpet with a Drew Estate backdrop for all your inner celeb photo-op needs, a huge tent housing a casino, three open-bar kiosks, long catering tables adorned with BBQ, and a professional grade out-door concert stage. I ran into my fellow reviewer Justin, and we grabbed some pictures and dined on smoked alligator loin, washing it down with cold adult beverages. So far I was impressed, but God, I NEEDED A SMOKE! After using my city boy charm and my sad puppy dog eyes, I managed to score a LIGA 10 Anniversario which technically weren’t meant to be given out until later that night. Lets just say I’m still quite the looker, even with a sunburn. I even managed to light the cigar in time for the main event! Before I knew it, I was sitting in a comfy camping chair, front-and-center, to hear the legend himself, Jonathan Drew, deliver the night’s opening remarks.
Now, any smoker who at least has 20+ years under his belt, may have never seen Mr. Drew in the flesh, but you are at least familiar with how ACID and Liga Privada cigars not only changed the cigar industry- but also added to our community- keeping the pulse alive after a post-boom drought. Today, Drew Estate is the largest cigar manufacturer in the world, with a SKU for every palate on the planet.
When Jonathan Drew finally took the stage, it was straight to business. He shared all the stories of Drew Estates’ grass-roots efforts and humble beginnings. We were presented with a heartfelt slide-show of pictures that detailed Drew Estates’ rags-to-riches journey with a very authentic and emotional Jonathan Drew narrating every step of the way. You always hear from cigar manufacturers- especially nowadays with the glut of boutique brands- how hard it is to actually make it in this industry. However, I think it’s safe to say that no non-Cuban start-up cigar company has ever traversed the wind and the waves- literally a hurricane- like Drew Estate did and still managed to build an empire. If this was a Billy Graham crusade or a Jim Jones Kool-Aid hand-out, I think I just saw angels descending from on high! Jonathan Drew deserves a medal of honor. Somebody, get me another Liga!
Jedi training camp
Saturday, August 13th 2022, was the first day of what is officially considered the “Barn Smoker.” Drew Estate holds these in many different states, especially those with tobacco farming heritage. If you’re not familiar with the terroir of the Connecticut river valley, just repeat after me, “SANDY-LOAM!” In the wine world, sandy-loam is known to make vines thrive, especially cabernet. In the tobacco world, more specifically in Connecticut, it makes for plentiful cash crops of shade wrapper and broadleaf. Due to competition, supply and demand, and labor costs, Connecticut shade has mostly relocated to countries like Ecuador. However, because of companies like Drew Estate, who have brought heralded acclaim to broadleaf, a majority of the tobacco farmers who are left in the Connecticut river valley exclusively grow the sun-kissed sweet and rustic wrapper leaf we have all come to adore. The sandy-loam terroir only adds to its vigor and yields. As a farmer myself, when I pulled up to the well-maintained acreage managed by Dunn & Foster LLC., I was again blown away at how meticulous the planting rows were kept, as well as the sturdy long-lasting construction of the curing barns. It was like taking a walk back in time while still being in awe of how current big agriculture companies pull off the feats they do every season to keep American GDP on top of its game.
Today the entry points were a little different then the pre-party. There was a VIP line with swag and early-admittance to attend a breakfast party. The general admission had to wait one more hour to enter, but AGAIN, attendees received the best looking man-purse I had ever seen and MORE FREE CIGARS! I mean what other event do you know of, that will gladly hand you an extra large Boveda ziplock bag full of event-only cigars! This was like celebrating your birthday the day after Christmas. All attendees received a raffle booklet complete with free cigar-coupons and cocktail tickets.
After enjoying a nitro coffee or espresso, that paired beautifully with the Tabak Especial natural or negro- both given to you at the breakfast kiosk- you were welcome to sit under the cool shade of a tent and were briefed on how the day would go. All attendees were split into three groups, destined to travel between three “tobacco experience stations.” Depending on what group you were in determined what “experience,” you were to have first. Each station was manned by one of the top Drew Estate team-members (Willy Herrera, Pedro Gomez, or Jonathan Drew), as well as, one representative of Dunn & Foster LLC. There was a station covering the early stages of broadleaf cultivation (seedling, transplanting, etc.), another station that covered broadleaf harvesting and tobacco nuances, and a third station that was situated in an actual curing barn with an overview on all the final stages broadleaf goes through before us consumers get to enjoy a premium cigar. Event goers were encouraged to partake in a Q&A after each presentation before moving onto their next curriculum.
A scrumptious BBQ buffet was served around noon and then it was off to event “activations.” This is where that raffle booklet and free cigar ticket combo came in handy. There were multiple tents for attendees to enjoy a unique immersion in well established Dew Estate Brands like Deadwood, Undercrown, ACID, Herrera Esteli, and Pappy Van Winkle. AKA MORE FREE CIGARS! There was even a Joya de Nicaragua booth in the house and a Subculture Studios tent where an old-school Soul Train line spontaneously broke-out and custom sneakers were being bedazzled with paint markers. DID I MENTION OPEN-BAR!
The Falcon on auto-pilot
Sunday, August 14th 2022, was a repeat of the previous day. The only difference was that there was one general admission line with similar swag, and every one entered at the same time. I was told that in the past, Drew Estate normally keeps the Connecticut leg of the tour to a one-day-only experience. This year , however, the company felt that there were still patrons of the brand that couldn’t quite make it on a Saturday, and perhaps would rather attend on a Sunday. Speaking with my fellow reviewer Justin about this beforehand, we definitely felt there were more people in attendance then the previous day. The atmosphere and vibe was also a little bit more laid back. The same itinerary as Saturday was in store for the new group that just arrived, and since I had already experienced it prior, I took privilege as a so-called member of the press to interview some folks. Every journalist craves a star-studded or presidential interview. I was fine interviewing the guys I met in line. There were lots of retailers in attendance throughout the weekend, and I just happened to run into a couple of fellas from my neck of the woods- Upstate New York – WOOP WOOP! One of the gentlemen, an employee at a cigar lounge, had attended all 7 Connecticut Barn Smokers, while the manager of the same store was about to lose his virginity. Like everyone else I had covertly put on the hot-seat that weekend, they had the same answers to my questions. They are not only Liga fans, they are Drew Estate Fans! Even novice smokers I spoke with vouched for the consistency and diversity of the portfolio. The brick and mortar crowd couldn’t imagine a spreadsheet that did not boast ACID as their shop’s top-selling cigars to date and year after year!
In a galaxy far-far away
Back on my patio, a week after the event, I sit here finalizing this article and debriefing from one of the greatest moments I’ve ever had since beginning my cigar obsession years ago. I’ve smoked most of my event-only cigars, and even rocked the man-purse and camouflage Barn Smoker hat together to make a bold fashion statement. This was my first Drew Estate Barn Smoker. I am forever grateful for the team at Fine Tobacco NYC for giving me the opportunity to attend. I would be lying if I told you I didn’t want to attend the other two left in the pipeline for this year to be held in Kentucky and Texas. Before I had children, and had to have some semblance of a career, I had worked tirelessly in the marketing gig circuit, going from street promotions to handing out swag and attracting new potential consumers at various events. I can bluntly say, Drew Estate knows what they’re doing. From start to finish, I felt welcome with a family-like hospitality. The accommodations, which were all out-doors, were well maintained and kept orderly on all three days. The staff was professional, available, and helpful. The catering was delicious, the drinks never stopped, and there were more free cigars than a blue whale could stick in its blow-hole. If you ask me for the one moment that stuck out the most from the whole weekend- it was definitely the VIP pre-party. To actually hear Jonathan Drew speak with such gusto and a skin-in-the-game attitude was not just entrancing, but as mentioned, REVIVING! Even after all this time, even after the Swisher buy-out, even after all the FDA drama, there is a man out there who still seems indomitable, focused, and hungrier than a rookie fighting for a spot on the roster. Also, it is great to see a company who has had such past success and fervor for their events, fearlessly reboot their community building soirees (just like other cigar festivals are planning to), but they even went a step further by adding the extra day for their fan-base. Let me ask you something: “Who does that?!” “Who does that in the midst of a current economic slowdown?!” They even managed to raise $27,0000.00 in donations for Cigars for Warriors. As we head into the last months of this year, there is already much to be remembered of 2022. But for us cigar enthusiasts in the North East, Drew Estate’s Barn Smoker 2022 is a crowning achievement shared not just among us cigar geeks, but for Drew Estate as well. Thank you Jonathan Drew for making the world seem fun and inspiring again! See you all next year!