Pete Johnson of Tatuaje 13yrs of Monster Series
Cigar Press – For those who have been living under a rock – tell us where the Monster Series idea came from.
Pete Hassell Johnson – A friend of mine in Boston named Jose Agosto, who was part owner of Gloucester Street cigars, told me that I needed a themed cigar. I had come up with a couple different ideas for themed cigars at the time. I was going to do a whole rival themed cigar, like between different sports teams. But not call them Celtics and Lakers, but have subliminal artwork on the boxes and color ways to mimic teams that battled against each other. Never did it. He showed me a pair of Nike’s that had Frankenstein on them and it kinda inspired me and he said the word monsters. That was perfect. Of course Frank was the first one because of the pair of Nike’s that I saw with Frankenstein on it. It was really just seeing some Nike’s though.
CP – Was it your intention to end with the Bride?
PHJ – It was always the intention to end with it. When I did the Frank, I knew I wanted to save the Bride for last. I had it mapped out to where there were originally thirteen in a row. Then I think I got a little tired and decided to skip all the way, since I already had Chuck and Tiff in the lineup, I decided to skip from ten to thirteen. But since day one the Bride was always going to be number thirteen.
CP – How long did it take you to come up with the lineup that you wanted to use for the series?
PHJ – I actually had the lineup set pretty much since the first week that I started to do the series. I wanted to go two old, one new, two old, one new. Then towards the end, since I put Chuck and Tiff in there, which were both new it kinda screwed it up a little bit. That’s when I had Michael Myers at number ten so I just jumped to the Bride at number thirteen. There were a couple others in there we just never did. The creature from the black lagoon was thought of, but then it got a little off track when I saw another company do the Swamp Thing.
CP – Did you expect it to grow into such a big cult following?
PHJ – Honestly we made so little of the first batch I didn’t expect it. I think the first batch, no one really wanted them. There were only 13 retailers that got them. I knew people that were buying seven, eight boxes in a clip because they had access to them. Then the next year, everybody wanted them before they even came out. It caught on a little sooner than I expected it to. I never expected the cigars to go for the price they are going for now in the secondary market.
CP – It’s hard to imagine a lot of these cigars not being around anymore. Do the Monsters have a future?
PHJ – Yeah. The plan is to see how far we push away the FDA. If we can get an exemption first of all. If we can’t then we’ll go for substantial equivalence and a lot of these blends are very traditional in my lineup. Some are awkward sizes but I could get a lot of substantial equivalence with them. The whole plan was to go back through the series. I have a plan for next year already that I’m not talking about. It’s not another monster but it has something to do with the series. Then the plan, if all goes well with the regulations in 2021 to bring back Frank. Then just rotate through the series again.
CP – Same sizes and everything?
PHJ – Yeah but I’ll change up the art a little bit, the band a little bit so people don’t confuse the old with the new, keep the size the same and just change the box and band a little. That won’t stop someone from taking off an old band and putting it on a new cigar though.
CP – Each cigar is as unique as the Monster it pairs with. How difficult was it for you to come up with so many different cigars?
PHJ – It’s always difficult. I was struggling one year. I think it was the Mummy. I knew that if I didn’t have it in que at the factory on time I’d be screwed. I was literally calculating the day as far as how many cigars could be made per day based on the pairs rolling them. With the deadline of having the cigars to rest and age a little bit, and then get boxed up. It was a challenge every year. I knew I had to do it but I didn’t know exactly what yet.
CP – Did you look to each Monster for inspiration as far what you think they would translate into a cigar?
PHJ – Yeah the Monster is always the key to the blend for me. Frank was an ugly kinda monster. Just square and boxy, so of course it was boxed pressed and a pretty hefty cigar overall. The band mimics the colors of the monster. Then the Drac was the total opposite. It was elegant with a bite. It was supposed to be a refined, more milder cigar but with a darker wrapper to give it a little extra bite. Then of course Leatherface was the same thing as the Frank, a very ugly and rustic monster that’s why the band wasn’t even a band. It was a piece of torn up tobacco put on the cigar. The theme always comes along with the monster first. Then I feed off of the monster to get the actual final product. The same thing with Mummy, again it took me a while to get it right and situated. But you’re talking about a very tall, long monster with a whitish tone with the wrapping. I decided to use a lighter wrapper on the cigar with a covered foot so it covered the cigar completely. There are always a lot of tiny parts that piece it all together. It all just steam rolled. Box of thirteen, that’s obvious, coffin shaped box that’s obvious, blood splattering, that’s obvious. In my head I knew people would think I was crazy for doing this, but I had to try something different.
CP – What’s your favorite monster movie.
PHJ – Oh man, that’s tough. Honestly though, one of my favorite monster movies is, well it really isn’t a monster movie, but it’s an old Abbot And Costello movie where they meet all the monsters. You have to go way back to remember that.
CP – That’s way back!
PHJ – That was a fun one though. It was really cool. I don’t know though, I think I still enjoy Leatherface a lot just because of the different directors over the years. Halloween obviously. But that’s a tough question.
CP – What about cigar wise?
PHJ – The Frank is still my baby. He was the one that started it all. I don’t get to smoke many of them. I’m looking at boxes though that I want to save for some reason. I have no idea why. Kruger and Michael Myers were on the top of my list as far as flavor profiles go. If I had to pick something off the wall that I would smoke more often would probably be Tiff. Something about the Pudgy Tiff that’s really solid.
CP – Were the Pudgy’s and Skinny’s for example, based off of the response of the series or a way for you to explore more of the blends in different sizes?
PHJ – It was a little bit of both. One, it was to explore the blends in different sizes. Since we already did the regular monster, we had to come up with a way to do the same cigar in a different size to supply the demand and give people a choice besides just the regular monster. Sometimes people would say the Mummy is too big for them, it was a super big cigar. When they got a pudgy Mummy though they thought it was awesome. I think when I started doing the Skinny Monsters, Cazadores Monsters and Lancero Monsters that was a way to see what the expression of the cigars were in those particular sizes. Now you’re talking about every cigar is the same size, it’s just a different blend for the monster. Compared to every year is a different size and a different blend.
CP – Have your tastes changed looking back over the years? Do you like any more or less than you used to and would you change anything?
PHJ – I don’t think so. Honestly, the Monsters, everyone thought they were supposed to be super strong. But I wanted them to be smokeable. As far as the blending goes on the monsters, what was fun about doing it was that it was more of an expression of a moment in time and it wasn’t about a formula. Every monster had its own style because of who the monster was. It was nice to go through them. Like the Mummy for example being more of a refined and elegant creature. My palate goes all over the place. I want to smoke things from mild to medium to strong all day long. I don’t want to sit there and only smoke one thing. It’s nice to be able to seasonally change up the flavor profile and kind of surprise people.