Michael Herklots Interview from Volume 7 Issue 2
Cigar Press – Do cigars taste the same now that you’re a father? Congratulations again, to you and your family.
Michael Herklots – Oh man, thank you. Same to you, you’re a little ahead of me, but what an incredible blessing. Rose was born Sept 19th and both she and mom are doing amazing. I’ll tell you, as I was adjusting to fatherhood I remember feeling very similar to the way I felt when I began smoking cigars. I used to see people smoking cigars at the mall or wherever and I didn’t smoke and that was that. But, when I began enjoying cigars and would see others smoking it was an immediate kinship, camaraderie. I was part of this exclusive club and I knew exactly how that person felt enjoying a cigar even though I’d never met them. I know the joy, the peace and the comfort a cigar brings, but you have to experience it to understand it. I’d see guys with kids, hell even my own father and grandfathers. I knew they loved me and I knew how much I’ve loved them… but I didn’t realize how much they loved me, until I felt how much I love Rose.
CP – How are you adjusting to the change?
MH – Life is about growing, about trying new things and hopefully helping other people. My entire career has been about new challenges and new opportunities. The last few years have been exactly that.
CP – It’s amazing how certain cigars taste depending on the time they are smoked.
MH – I’m a musician and we always say that you never play the same song twice. It’s the same with cigars. It has nothing to do with how skilled the manufacturers are. You as an individual will never be in the same moment because time just keeps ticking. So your moods, your emotions, your thoughts, never mind what you ate, drank or smoked already. Every single moment with a cigar is unique, never to be repeated. It’s why cigars should be enjoyed slowly. Frankly, if you’re not enjoying a particular cigar you should stop and move on to another.
CP – Have you found time to enjoy cigars as much?
MH – I enjoy cigars as often as I have time to enjoy them. It really depends a lot on where I am physically. During the week I smoke a lot of cigars for work and while I enjoy them it’s obviously not the same as enjoying cigars for pleasure. That being said I enjoy a lot of cigars. But, to be honest I don’t like to “fit-in” a cigar. I don’t enjoy bundling up to go outside on a cold day with a cigar. But I do really enjoy cigars anytime I have time whether for work or for pleasure. I guess it’s all the same to me.
CP – Do you remember when you first became interested in cigars and what drew you to them?
MH – Of course, I was attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. Every night my roommate, Chris Brown, and I would go for a different walk around the city to learn the lay of the land. One night we walked by Cigar Masters on Newbury Street (It moved to Boylston Street years later and has recently closed, unfortunately). Chris used to work at Poor Richard’s in Pittsburg. So he said, “Oh c’mon lets go in here and smoke a cigar.” I said, “Dude, I don’t smoke.” He started up the stairs and walked right in. I was like, ok whatever I’ll go in. And walking in the door was like walking into a portal, into this warp zone of all things cool. Everything looked cool, smelled cool, the leather, the music, the culture. I’d never seen anything like it. Chris picked out an Ashton Classic Panatela for me. He explained how to puff without inhaling. I remember thinking that this was a flavor I had never had before via a medium (smoke) and how freak’n cool is this? Of course I was a broke college kid and it was an expensive hobby. Then we discovered that a store nearby, Gloucester Street Cigar Company, did free Wednesday night tastings. So Chris and I used to go every Wednesday. That’s where I met David Kitchens, GM at the time. He later moved to Davidoff in New York and hired me when I left Boston. I suppose like any artist or creative type when you find something you like you don’t just like it you become consumed by it. Artists can’t just scratch a surface and do something once we have to get all dirty, roll around in it and completely immerse ourselves in it. So that summer, I guess it was 1999, a kid on my floor in the dorms was graduating and he worked at a little kiosk in the Prudential Center Mall called, The Humidor. I was staying in Boston to do a full time summer semester so I asked him to introduce me to the owner because I needed a job. I got hired that May of 1999 and probably around August the owner came, tossed me the keys and said, “Herky, thanks for everything, I just sold the cart. Don’t leave until the new owner gets here. Oh and I told him you’re making a dollar more than you’re making.” So, around 9:00 pm that evening the new owner showed up and said, “Herky? Butch says you’re a good kid. I don’t have to run this thing so you’re in charge. I’m gonna give you a dollar raise plus an extra stipend per week as manager. Just don’t fuck with me.” So, as I began to explain to him that I was a full time student who didn’t really have the time and was just looking for some part time work during school he dropped a duffel bag filled with cigars, handed me a couple hundred bucks, turned around and walked away. That was it. I called three or four of my cigar buddies and was like, “Dudes I have good news and bad news” and I hired all of them. We would work two or three hours at a time, between classes etc., it was great.
CP – How long did you work for Davidoff? What did you do?
MH – We closed The Humidor in July or August of 2001. The owner opened another store outside the city. I didn’t want to commute for a day job. I was finishing school and working a lot as a musician so I figured the timing was right. I really couldn’t stay out of it for long and ended up taking a job at Gloucester Street Cigar Company for a few months until I graduated and moved to New York in May of 2002. I had been dating an actress in New York and would go to the city to visit. I’d hang out at Davidoff with David Kitchens, the GM then, while she was in rehearsals. David said if I move to New York I’d have a job. So I did. I showed up to the Davidoff store and he said, “Y’know I really don’t have anything available.” I almost shit. So he walked me over to De La Concha and introduced me to Mr. Melendi and his son Randy and told them they had to hire me. They offered me a job to start in two weeks. About a week later David called me back and said, “OK, I have room. You start Monday.” I said, “But David, you just got me a job at De La Concha.” He said, “So quit.” I still feel terrible about it but I really wanted to work at Davidoff and for David. So I called and explained the situation and the Melendis were very gracious and understood. So I started in June of 2002 at Davidoff’s Madison Ave store as a salesman. It was an incredible experience. I was the youngest guy on the floor with spiky hair and five earrings. I had gone out and bought three suits from a Brooks Brothers outlet. They were all like heavy flannel wool and it was the hottest summer ever. I set my schedule Wed-Sun, so I only had to wear a suit three days a week and could rotate appropriately. It was priceless. As a young guy and the new hire I had no customers of my own. I had to just develop a style that was authentic to me. I was a 22 year old kid selling $20 cigars to Mr. Madoff and big wigs. Guys would spend more on a humidor than my car was worth but it was what it was. I learned quite a bit from David Kitchens and he really gave me the freedom to create my own style and take risks. In 2003 we did the first in-store dinner with Ashton. I’ll never forget, Manny Ferrero wanted to do a dinner with food, wine pairings etc., and I said, “Let’s do it in the store.” Kitchens said “Make it happen.” So we rented tables, chairs, linens, glassware, forks and knives. Then we turned our upstairs lounge into a prep kitchen. Manny walked in that evening and the store was set up like a New York City restaurant and he just looked at me and said in a way only Manny could say, “Holy fuck’nshit.” It was such a hit that we bought tables and chairs and were doing dinners for fifty people once a month. Then in 2006 I got a call from Dr. Banninger (President of Davidoff USA at that time). It was my birthday and I thought he was calling to wish me a happy birthday. And he said, “Michael, grab your things and come to Columbus Circle we just acquired the store and you’re the general manager.” It was just so out of the blue. Within two hours I was meeting the staff. We closed for a few days to regroup, update/integrate systems and then we were open. So I worked at Columbus Circle exclusively until June 2008 when David Kitchens took a position at Holt’s in Philadelphia. Davidoff put me in charge of both Davidoff stores. It was quite an honor, quite a responsibility and without the amazing teams in both stores there’s no way I would have been able to pull it off. I remained in that position until June 2012.
CP – What led to Nat Sherman?
MH – The Sherman family was looking for someone to run their flagship store on 42nd Street. At the time I didn’t think it was exactly the right fit for me. We were in the process of moving the Davidoff Madison Avenue store from 54th Street to 53rd Street and I’d been involved with that project for a long time so I didn’t feel comfortable leaving. However, after several conversations with the Shermanswe were able to identify some greater needs for the company and their long term strategy. Not just related to the store but to the brand as a whole, particularly the premium cigar side. So I accepted on the conditions that I could finish the Davidoff relocation. Both sides kept my resignation quiet for 3 months. It was a great transition. Kevin Threat, who’s the longest serving employee at Columbus Circle and a great guy, was promoted to the manager position there. Then we found Luis Torres for Madison Ave. Both guys are doing an outstanding job.
CP- What is your roll with the company?
MH – So Nat Sherman basically has two divisions, one our all-natural cigarette business and the other our premium cigar side. The retail store falls under the premium cigar division so that’s the division I’m responsible for. My official title is, Vice President of Retail and Brand Development for Nat Sherman International. So basically I oversee the retail operations of our flagship Townhouse store on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Pat Felitti is our store director there, and handles all the day to day operations for the store. Pat was formerly general manager of Rothmann’s Steakhouse which was the restaurant we used for all our in-store events at Davidoff. It was also where I had lunch about four days a week, so I just couldn’t stand to be without him. Ha! On the wholesale side, Ike Karipides is our sales director. Ike used to work at Barclay Rex in Manhattan when I started at Davidoff. We’ve always been good friends and this was finally an opportunity for us to work together.
CP – What can people expect form Nat Sherman?
MH – Ultimately I think people can expect quality and consistency for sure. I think they can also expect that we will continue to look for gaps to close rather than simply responding to trends. Whether it’s in the humidor of our flagship store or the humidors in stores around the world there is no section with empty shelves that say “Coming Soon.” Every humidor is filled with products that manufacturers believe are great and that obviously the retailer believes are great. The last conversation I want to have is why our products are better than anyone else’s. I prefer to have a conversation of why they’re different. So from blends to packaging to pricing to shapes, it’s important that we continue to play within the spaces of the industry. Mr. Sherman always says “There are 88 keys on a piano but there’s a lot of space between those keys.”
CP – I love to see traditional sizes, smaller ring gauge cigars etc., but big cigars are consistently hot and selling. What do you think that’s all about?
MH – Y’know what the most important question in the world is? Why? I ask myself why anytime I want to make a decision. It’s also the question I always asked when working in retail on the floor. If a customer walks in and says, “I only smoke Cubans” instead of trying to figure out which Cuban he smokes and what you have that’s closest to it, ask why? If a guy says I only smoke big ring gauges, ask why? It’s a great way to move someone to a different size when you can still cater to a desire for richness or strength that he or she may be looking for in a fatter cigar. Trends are trends and preferences are preferences. They’re different. Our job is to make sure we analyze both and if we decide to make a product to cater to one we make sure we’re doing it the best way we can and differently than the others who are already doing it. Personally, I don’t like big ring gauges. I didn’t learn to smoke cigars with big ring gauges so they’re new to me. For newer smokers, they learned to enjoy cigars on a fatter scale. So, for many cigar lovers a 50 ring gauge is small or medium. For me, a 50 is still fat. With our newest products we offer some larger ring gauges. Our Timeless collection from Nicaragua has a 60 and our 1930 from the Dominican Republic has a 56. We also just launched the Nat Sherman Sterling, made up of four small formats, 4” x 40, 5” x 42, 6.25” x 53 and 5.75” x 46, which are classic, elegant vitolas. We just offered a limited number of Super Lanceros at 8” x 38.
CP – How much time do you spend in the Dominican Republic?
MH – A lot. At this point I’m probably down there every four to six weeks. I don’t get to Nicaragua as much as I’d like but it’s a much more difficult trip. The Dominican is a direct three and a half hour flight from New York.
CP – What is your favorite thing to do while in the D.R.?
MH – Work. Usually I go for 24 hours so we pack a lot in. I’ll go directly from the airport to the factory and work until dinner. Then have dinner with the Quesadas, my Dominican family. Then I’m back at the factory by 8 am the next morning and work until my flight. I used to go less often but for more time and go to the beach. It’s a beautiful country but now it’s really all about working and getting things done.
CP – Do you get to do much other traveling abroad?
MH – Not really. It’s rare I travel for pleasure these days, especially abroad. We went to Italy on our honeymoon which I loved. The Amalfi Coast was so beautiful.
CP – Do you have any cigar rituals? I always stick the cigar foot up to my nose as soon as I pick it up. If I don’t like what I smell I’ll usually reach for something else.
MH – I suppose there are worse places to stick it. I think my rituals have just become part of my process. First I smell. Then I feel foot to cap. Then I cut and dry smoke. Then I fire up. I rarely use a punch or V-cut as I prefer the cigar to be open fully. So I’ll either remove the cap with my fingers, or cut straight.
CP – For me, construction is one of the biggest factors that set a great cigar apart from others, outside of personal flavor and body strength preferences. What is a key element for you that would make a good cigar great?
MH – There’s so much to consider with construction. For me, the single most important part of a cigar is combustion, because it affects everything. If a draw is too tight it burns slow and the tobacco at the foot gets too hot so the taste is sour. If the draw is too loose then all of the tobacco gets too hot too fast. If it burns uneven, even if the flavor is fine, people will complain. So the ligeros have to be positioned in the center of the bunch followed by the visos and secos etc. One of the things I ALWAYS look for and it drives the factory crazy is the turn line, making sure that when the wrapper is cut the lines are even and the turns are even.
CP – Juan Cancel brought up the subject of mold vs. plume on Facebook. You gave a great answer, care to share again?
MH – I like Juan a lot and one of the things I like most is he eagerly asks questions. We are in a time where everyone is an expert and if it’s on a blog somewhere it must be true. There is a lot of great access to information but there is as much access to wrong information as right information. Sometimes I also think we can be OVER informed and I’m just as guilty of it. This need to over analyze, split hairs finer and finer. Now a cigar review is split into thirds. An entire paragraph is dedicated to the flavor of the dry smoke. I remember when I first started in the industry Alfons Mayer would give me a cigar and ask what I thought. I’d start smoking and talk about what I tasted and felt, and he would just laugh at me and say “You taste all that in there?” Now I feel like I’m an old timer when I read reviews.
CP – What do you like to pair with a cigar?
MH -I am a big believer in pairing. I work a lot with chefs and wine makers. We will spend hours over the course of several days putting together tasting notes and pairings. Taking into consideration temperature and textures and how they all work together. Frankly, sometimes you just want a slice of pizza and a coke and if I’m smoking a cigar, then it’s my favorite pairing when you ask me. But, ultimately, my first choice is wine, for a few reasons. First, it’s lower in alcohol, so I can have more of it but also, and more importantly, higher alcohol spirits have an evaporative effect for me. So, the flavor of the spirit takes the place of the flavor of the cigar and dominates. It’s different to create real dialogue, the way you can with wine. Even some white wines, they layer better on the palate.
CP – What type of cigar would you save for a special occasion?
MH – I must literally have 200 cigars I’ve held for special occasions over the last fourteen years. Limited editions, gifts from friends and I’ve had countless of special occasions and never break them out. I always go to what I know is going to be great so I don’t ruin the occasion. Same with wine, I had bottles I was holding and holding and finally this past New Year’s Eve I opened one… corked. So I poured it down the drain. Opened another bottle, beautiful old Bordeaux, but, eh… I don’t know it wasn’t what I wanted to celebrate with so I poured it down the drain. Then I opened up a bottle of Napa Cabernet that I knew I’d like, that I’ve enjoyed a dozen times and I loved every glass. I believe that there should only be one focus. If it’s a moment, like a birth or wedding let the occasion be the occasion and compliment with things you know you’ll love. That way you don’t lose focus on what it is you’re celebrating.
CP – What type of occasion would you be apt to break out something special?
MH – Second cigar of the day, any day. Though I don’t believe in fresh palate, I mean, who tastes anything on a fresh palate? I don’t even know where I’d get one. If I brush my teeth is that fresh? It’s minty fresh, but I don’t know about fresh. I like to start my day with an espresso and a cigar I know. It’s the best way for me to calibrate my palate. Then I’d fire up whatever the special cigar is.
*photos by Jesse Meyer