Updated: Jan 7
I've been asked by several people to start a blog for The Continental Cigar Club. Things people want to know is who am I? What sort of experience do I have to share? What has motivated me to focus on cigars? My goal for this blog is to bring the education we teach at The Continental Cigar Club to those who don't have a Continental Cigar Club to go to. I will be defining Cigars & Civility which is our motto at The Continental Cigar Club. I'll be covering etiquette from club etiquette, to cigar cutting and lighting. Cigar selecting. How to navigate Covid-19 in a cigar club.
So I'll start here with introducing myself. My name is Patrick Potter, I am a cigar enthusiast of over 35 years. I am also the Founder & CEO of The Continental Cigar Clubs. I am a Certified Master Tobacconist. I am a Micro-Boutique Cigar Maker. My passion for the leaf seems to grow with each passing year. I love cigars. I love the experiences cigars inspire and meeting fellow cigar enthusiasts. Not everyone can become a "Master Blender"; but masterful blends can come from anywhere.
My Journey to Cigar Making
If there was ever a time where I felt more like a stranger in a strange land is when I embarked on the path of cigar making. This is not for the faint of heart. This business in my opinion, is much like the restaurant business, it requires a strong business savvy both domestically and internationally, supply chain knowledge, a little bit of geo-political knowledge, a shit ton of creativity, long range laser focus, plenty of time, nearly exhausting patience and most of all money.
My first cigar was when I was fourteen. It was an Onyx corona. It tasted like bittersweet bakers cocoa and host of earthy flavors. I always enjoyed cigars. I was the guy smoking a cigar when everyone else smoked cigarettes. Till I dated a girl who smoked cigarettes and you can imagine what happened next. I quit smoking cigarettes ten years later, and began smoking cigars again. I love cigars.
I apprenticed as a chef when I was 16. It wasn't because I was some prodigy found in a neighborhood kitchen crafting up noteworthy fan fare. I was a tough kid, from a even tougher city. I grew up with violence all around me. Fighting was a common occurrence. I grew up fighting. Aggressive, unyielding and I was big for my age. I learned not to lose. I had to grow up a bit faster than most. I saw things like domestic violence, dead bodies, and men being carted off to jail as early as the fourth grade. I suffered through most of my teens with the passing of friends mostly from suicide and drug abuse. I grew up in the 80's and it wasn't fun, not for me. My family kept a close eye on me. Seeing what I couldn't, apprenticing as a chef was a life saving intervention. I later went on to become the American Culinary Federations youngest Certified Working Chef and from there I took off. I Certified as a Sous Chef, then Chef de Cuisine, then Pastry Chef and eventually Executive Chef. I loved creating food. I loved watching the expression on a persons face when they ate my food. The gastronomic experience is like no other- on par with great sex and yes, great cigars.
By 19 I attracted a global hotel chain where I was head hunted for an Executive Sous Chef role for its corporate headquarters. My job was to work with the Executive Chef of corporate to help with chef trainings, ItIt wasIt was a lot ofIt was a lot of responsibIt was a lot of responsibiIt was a lot of responsibilIt was a lot of responsibiliIt was a lot of responsibilitIt was a lot of responsibility. I had complete control over the kitchens of every property under corporate control. This afforded me the rare opportunity to lead a part of an opening hotel team. Where we would be assigned a new property for instance in Hong Kong. We would work with locals, hire local staff, train and get the property ready for its grand opening. It was awesome! I had the time of my life. It was like being in the circus. Five countries later and eleven new hotels put to bed, I was enjoying a fast life with all the amenities.
It came to an end a few years later, namely out of burn out. I had developed a near catastrophic addiction to alcohol and drugs. I was 22. Having literally just seen the world through bouillabaisse and raviolis, I found my bigger than life persona depressed and ashamed. Needless to say it took a year before I went to rehab. I was 23. I've been in recovery ever since. Sobriety opened new doors, but closed the door to wine tasting, wine pairings, liquor pairings and more. I felt like Eric Clapton did when he got sober. I couldn't play my guitar. The life associated with the hotel culinary business and sobriety didn't emulsify. I was committed to being on a new path.
A guy I went to rehab with was a Tour Manager for a recognizable band and they were going on the road that summer, and he needed a security guy. I fit that bill to a T. I had traveled a lot in recent years new how to take care of myself. I found a new home. Words & Music. I loved sitting on the wing of the stage and watching a band I grew up listening to play all their hits. It was nothing less then spiritual. The job and the road was comforting. I spent the next ten years touring. Touring however was only a part-time job. The most you can tour is six months and those are world tours. Most of the year is just three or four months.
So what was I doing for the other six to seven months of the year? I had gone to work for my Uncle Bob. Uncle Bob was a retired Special Agent with the FBI. Well he a little more than that, but as far as this story goes, uncle Bob loved me and gave me a job to help me figure out my next moves. He trained me just like a special agent. All the investigative skills and later I went on to become a certified fraud examiner. Which was a big deal back in those days. ( I sound so old.) I learned Insurance Fraud, Real Estate Fraud, Bank Fraud and Schemes like Ponzi Schemes and Money Laundering. I became proficient in sub-rosa investigations and had a particular knack for interviewing people. His shop was small, just him and two other retirees and myself. We took long lunches at Pacific Dinning Car almost every day and I got hear about all capers they investigated, it was awesome.
During those ten years, I opened a small breakfast restaurant in Santa Monica called Blueberry- a guy I knew from the nightclub / bar business had some money from an inheritance - he and I quickly collaborated and opened this little hot spot that would eventually make the LA Times Food Edition. Blueberry was crazy popular with lines down the block. My partner managed, I invented the recipes. And after more than a decade of success. I returned from the road unexpectedly for two reasons. My last client Rick James had passed from a heart attack and my restaurant partner was hospitalized for addiction. It was a double-whammy.
So much to process at the same time, I was overwhelmed. I knew I wasn't going back to the road. Rick's death changed my feelings about touring. I tried to take the restaurant back over but the damage he caused was catastrophic. I loved this place. It took a couple months to figure out my next move. Along the way a patron who loved the restaurant contacted me. He offered me a partnership to open more of them. So I was off to Santa Fe, NM. We opened several and they were popular. Just as the recession of 2008 was approaching, I had just finished my MBA and Juris Doctorate a year prior. It was always a thought to go to law school, but I never had the time or the wherewithal. Having a solid working partner made it easy to for me to attend one of the first online law schools as part of an MBA/JD pilot program. I couldn't believe how much I loved the law. It sure has come in handy.
At the end of 2007, my grandfather passed away. That was devastating. I attribute him to so many pearls of wisdom. He was a sound business man, who started with nothing and grew a monumental business through some very tough times. One of his entrepreneurial ventures was Tinder Box International. He partnered with Ed Kolpin, the founder of Tinder Box in 1946 and sat out to franchise the Tinder Box, by 1984 when they sold to Villazon Distributors (now General Cigar Co.) they were the largest Tobacconist in North America.
My grandfather left me his trove of business acumen, but none more important then his memoir of when he was developing Tinder Box. This would later become the foundation for the business plan for The Continental Cigar Clubs.
It's the end of 2008 I'm strategizing my next course of action when I was contacted by a friend of my Uncle Bob's. He was a spy. Like, super legitimate CIA spook. Everyone called him Dewey. He had the thickest New England accent and always called me pally. Dewey was retired. He was a CIA Station Chief for 40 years. This guy saw it all. He's looking for someone with sharp skills, a law background and experience running a company. After getting as many facts as he was willing to share. I drove down to San Diego to meet him and went over the structure and plan. Within that year he'd landed a military contract that would ultimately finish off any training I was missing. This was the dream job. I had began a memoir about these next sixty months. (coming soon) It all made for TV stuff. I sort of felt like Ian Flemming for a short time. Most of it was boring, but it had it moments and the money was great. The contract came to end in 2013 and was essentially left to close the London office. While living there for forty-eight months, I grew a fondness for London. I loved civility as defined by the Brits. Never being a Military Officer I found it very conforming and predictable. I really liked it. So I was unemployed again but not for long.
I decided to stay in London. I was commuting between Los Angeles and London at this time. I had developed some roots and was taking full advantage of them. I lent myself out to a couple of head hunters who found me a quick fix. And I was off. My new employer sent me to Esteli, Nicaragua to learn about how they grow, and process tobacco. I spent nearly five months there learning farm to factory. I didn't get a lot of varietals information this was literately a different side to tobacco I would find out later. This knowledge proved essentially for when I pitched this same role to a U.S. competitor, who quickly snatched me up. I had begun to use the contract training I had acquired to applied it to these two companies.
And so my Cigar Making story begins here...
As i said, I was fortunate to have had an introduction to the industry, when I was an investigative contractor for two 'Big" tobacco companies, one out of the U.K. the other out of the U.S. where I was given my first introduction to tobacco. Every tobacco company be that cigarette, snuff, pipe or hookah, vape or cigar have one thing in common. Market share. Dominating market share is what generates revenue. The tobacco world is difficult as it is with logistic issues, over regulated states and countries, staggering taxes, misidentified product categories and theft; the most concerning which is where I came in, was counterfeiting. I had developed an investigative approach to intellectual property investigations which led to seizures and arrests. I had been certified by Interpol in Counterfeit Tobacco Investigations when I was in London. There is more to this story, but for the moment that's all that's relevant..
Respect is often only earned and easily taketh away. Spanish speaking countries the world over rely on respect. It can't be bought. It can look like you could lease it, but at the end of the day if the factory doesn't believe in you they will not support you. I was fortunate to have met Guillermo Pena a Cuban migrant, now an American Citizen- who worked for Partagas Factory in Havana, Cuba and later on went to work for Don Pepin at My Father. Gui is from a small town in Santa Clara region of Cuba, called Las Villas.
Las Villas resident are mostly farmers. Gui grew up on the farm. His father is a Lancero roller. Making him very critical to a factory. In Cuba those that specialize in one modality of cigar making can earn a greater place in the company by out performing others. Lancero and Perfecto rollers are the highest valued.
When I met Gui I explained by background and what my passions are. He, I think was unsure at first what to think. But he welcomed me in to home anyway. I spent some time in the factory. I learned about tobaccos. Criollo, Corojo, Connecticut Broadleaf, Pennsylvania Broadleaf, San Andres Broadleaf, Habano 2000 from Ecuador, Piloto from Dominican Republic and so forth. So many varietals. He started me by learning how to bunch.
I had a plethora of ideas. So many cigars I smoked up that point in my life. Everything from Honduran, to Dominican, to Nicaraguan and Cuban. So many flavors, so many different vitolas (blends), so many stories.
The FDA Cometh.
Regulations were on the horizon. Just around the corner, the rumors were building that the FDA was about to regulate cigars like cigarettes. Having relationships in Washington, I was able to ascertain some deadline dates and a basic outline for what was going to be allowable. I voiced this concern to Gui, who helped me manifest my concepts. We broke new ground. I had roughly 25 different cigars made, named and sorted. I started selling locally. Made sure to get my licenses from both Pennsylvania and California. My first warehouse was in Allentown PA super small. It gave me a tax free location to store cigars without putting myself in harms way. I needed to figure out how to sell on a grander scale. Dealing with California was a daunting task. But it let my law degree kick in and was able to get a grasp on the legislation and the taxation rules around cigars.
By August of 2016 I registered 25 cigars, of which are still registered and exempted for substantial equivalence. Don't ask me the hoops I had to jump through to pull this off by myself but I did. Again, I go back to the part above about what is necessary to make it in this industry. I had to spend a bunch money producing the cigars, sell some of them, create invoices and essentially prove I was in commerce after 2012 but before 2016. I was able to provide bona-fides: invoices, import records, advertising and photos of the finished products by the following deadline date.
TABAC Trading Co.
Tim Swanson from Cigar Daily tried corning me on this name. Why TABAC its so generic? Yes it is Tim. It's actually short for Nicotiana tabacum which is cigar tobacco. I work with Cigar Tobacco. It's generic just saying that. It gives me the broadest freedom to create without pigeon holing myself. I wasn't interested in being Chef driven brand. I wanted my works to have their own identity and character. I make cigar largely out of creative design. Blends influence stories, which influence packaging and so forth. So I spend a lot of my creative time blending.
I blend by taking what I call non-conflict tobacco's and creating small filler rolls to taste the composition of the fillers, then adding different binders till I find the right match to the taste I'm searching for, then the wrapper. For me its a different process then having someone roll me twenty cigars and me picking the one I like the most. I work backwards - I love a lot of cigars - but I'm waiting for the blend I haven't tasted before to jump out at at me.
Is it an art? I think its both art and science. My training in blending goes back to my culinary apprenticeship. Our Chef put us through tons of palate training. He would test us monthly. Starting with ten purees of vegetables that had been blanched, pureed and left at room temperature. Blind folded, we would have identify each sample. Then it would be fruits. Then it would both fruits and vegetables. Then it was stocks. We would have to be able to identify a minimum three out of five spices used in the sachet that flavored the stock. Failure in any of these would terminate our apprenticeship. Becoming a chef isn't just following a recipe, its creating the recipe. Why do these flavors pair well together?- It's the job of a Chef to know why.
All entrepreneurs need to learn graphic design if you can't get what your thinking about actualized than you have to pay someone else to do it - its costly. I learned Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, Quark and host of others many years ago. It's proven to be one of my greatest assets. I can now, after the cigar is created - develop the cigar ring, the box art, the design and the marketing. Blow is my very first release. TRIFECTA. Its a patent pending double footed perfecto that, quite literally can be smoked from either end.
I placed the cigar horizontal as to not to influence the patrons decision as to which cigar to chose first. (From right to left) Pennsylvania Broadleaf / Connecticut Shade, Double Claro / Ecuadorian Habano, and Brazilian Mata Fina / Indonesian Sumatra. These three cigars have the ability depending on which side you smoke from to give you a contrasting flavor profile up to six from all three cigars. I designed the artwork its placement on the box, the box itself and the cigar rings.