In terms of tobacco, Rafael Nodal could be likened to the winemaker of Chateau Lafite Rothschild or the brewer of Pliny the Younger. His specialty is making cigars, which have been ranked among the world’s finest by industry publications.
Nodal is set to visit Sacramento, a city that has enjoyed its share of stogies, especially among the Capitol crowd. He will be a featured guest Friday at Just A Cigar, an Arden Way tobacco shop and cigar lounge.
For the Cuban-born cigar maker behind Boutique Blends Cigars, the trip happens to coincide with his home country being a key current event topic. President Barack Obama arrived in Havana on Sunday, the first visit to Cuba by a sitting U.S. president since 1928, for a two-day tour that attempted to further normalize relations between the two countries.
It all sounds like a welcome turn of events for cigar aficionados. Cuba is home to a tobacco culture that dates back to the times of Christopher Columbus, and produces such sought-after cigar brands as Cohiba and Montecristo. However, given the United States trade embargo with Cuba, they’re banned for sale domestically. With relations improving between the countries, there’s a sense that Cuban tobacco could someday become a staple of domestic cigar shops.
“I do believe we’re closer than ever to having Cuban cigars here,” Nodal said in a phone call from Miami, where he had lived since 1983. “I would love to able to compete directly with Cuban cigars. We already do in Europe, and I welcome the possibility. It will be another flavor that we can enjoy.”
Nodal is a native of Ciego de Avila, a province of central Cuba known for its sugar cane and citrus crops. He arrived in the United States during the Mariel boatlift and trained as a classical violinist. He later worked as a health care industry executive, but switched his focus to cigars after visiting a tobacco shop in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.
“I particularly like the amount of flavors you can obtain when you blend different tobaccos,” Nodal said of cigars. “With cigarettes, a lot of chemicals are added, and they’re very addictive. We like to think our tobacco is something of a celebratory nature. You sit down, relax, talk. It brings people together.”
Nodal entered the cigar business in 2002 and launched his line of Boutique Blends Cigars in 2010, which includes the brands Aging Room, Swag and La Boheme. With Cuban tobacco off limits, Nodal, like many other cigar producers, sources the majority of his tobacco from the Dominican Republic. Nicaragua and Honduras, with its mountain terrains and soil similarities to Cuba, are also key countries for premium tobacco production.
Nodal is now a much heralded name in the cigar industry. His Aging Room Quattro F55 Concerto was ranked the second best cigar of 2013 by Cigar Aficionado, right behind a chart-topping Montecristo No. 2 from Cuba, and noted as a “balanced, sophisticated cigar that displays rich notes of roasted coffee bean and sweet cedar.”
“Rafael makes some of the most highly acclaimed cigars in the world,” said Robbie Bowen, owner of Just A Cigar. “That Aging Room Quattro F55 Concerto was the highest-rated cigar that you could buy in the U.S.A. It’s the high quality of the tobacco, the craftsmanship.”
Bowen said he hopes that one day his shop will stock Cuban cigars like the Montecristo No. 2. But even with Cuba and the U.S. taking steps toward diplomacy, he doesn’t expect Cohibas and other Cuban cigars to start flooding domestic shops in the near future.
“There hasn’t been any substantive change in trade policy,” Bowen said. “I think we’re years away from seeing a major change, but I do think it will happen at some point.”
Nodal’s products meanwhile are celebrated in Sacramento, a city that at times has been synonymous with cigars. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger once had a cigar-smoking tent positioned outside of the Capitol, a move that mobilized anti-smoking protesters.
Sacramento is also home to a number of cigar shops, including Tower Pipes & Cigars, Fatman Cigars, Adam’s Cigars, Tobacco Road, Briar Patch and Casillas Cigar Co. Many of them, including Just A Cigar, also double as lounges with cushy leather furniture for unwinding with a smoke.
“Sacramento has a lot of politicians, and they love to celebrate with cigars,” Nodal said. “They make it more difficult to smoke (through anti-tobacco legislation), but they do seem to love cigars.”
The Cuban-born cigar maker visits Sacramento to meet local cigar aficionados and showcase his products. The event includes cigar specials and complimentary barbecue.
- When: 5-10 p.m. Friday
- Where: Just A Cigar, 2720 Arden Way #120, Sacramento
- Cost: Free
- Info: 916-485-2345