Steve Saka – Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust
Cigar Press – Let’s start right off with some fan questions we pulled.
(Jon Fia) What aloha shirt will he wear when he comes to Hawaii and will he be taking surfing lessons?
Steve Saka – I went through a period where I use to wear an awful lot of ghastly Hawaiian shirts. Even had a few custom ones made along the way, but my wife begged me to stop wearing them. And honestly who can blame her? A 300 pounder dressed in really tacky, “light your eyes on fire” prints?!?! That being said I secretly saved one of my most favorite and her least favorite ones and I will be wearing it with pride. Ono Pono Kapu! I am sure I just butchered an entire culture’s language… and no, I will not be surfing.
(Mike Pfingst) The Brûlée is outstanding, when can we expect the see it in a Lonsdale or Corona Gordo?
Saka – Possibly, it really depends on the market. First off, know I have already blended and perfected a 4 7/8 x 48 and 6 x 46 format of this liga, but chose not to release them initially. Sobremesa Brûlée is a real departure from my typical blending style and it was crafted for those cigar smokers who tend to smoke sweet, smooth, shade style cigars so I decided to just release the three most popular formats for these smokers: Robusto, Toro and a Gordo. If the market responds favorably to Brûlée my intent is to release at least one smaller format.
(Michael Moreland) Why don’t you acknowledge that there’s an America outside of the East Coast?
Saka – Between Central America, Mexico, South America, the Caribbean and traveling across the US, I have been averaging 24 days of travel every month for the last 3 years. I take plenty of trips off the East Coast. And I bet if you asked East Coast retailers, including those in my home state of New Hampshire, none feel as though I spend enough time visiting. Problem is I am just one fat dude with a ton of responsibilities and it is simply impossible to be everywhere retailers and myself would like to be. Until there is time travel or at least, Star Trek “Beam me up Scotty” technology, no one will be satisfied.
(Brett Jarman) What’s your go to smoke on a daily basis?
Saka – I smoke an awful lot of cigars, most days 10, and this has been the case for multiple decades. I do tend to favor my own blends because they are always made to suit my own personal palate, so the bulk of the smoking is one of my own ligas and that really depends on my mood; very rarely does a day go by where I don’t smoke at least one Mi Querida, Sobremesa, Sin Compromiso and a Muestra de Saka. That being said, I also make it a point to smoke at least one or two cigars from other makers each day out of personal curiosity. I remain a cigar geek at heart.
(Chrman Lai) What was the largest fish Steve Saka ever caught and what was he smoking at the time? Did a superstition form from this?
Saka – Largest… hmm… most of my fishing is light tackle, technical so there have not been a lot of monster fish on my resume. I caught a 13lb 9oz largemouth once and a Red Fish weighing in at 42lbs in the Whipray Basin area of the Florida Keys. Both times I was smoking a Liga Privada No. 9 and no I am not superstitious. However, I will say that when the bite is tough, I often find lighting a cigar, relaxing a bit, not fighting the situation will many times lead to my fortunes on the water improving.
CP – Besides fishing what other ways do you relax?
Saka – Not so shamefully, I will admit I am a bit of couch potato. Sometimes I love to just binge watch whatever and smoke myself senseless. I love a well written, serial drama like Dexter, The Shield, Walking Dead, etc. Right now I am buried in rather silly show called Glow – it cracks me up.
CP – How much time do you spend, on average, creating a blend?
Saka – This really varies depending on how good I am at my job. After nearly 25 years of blending and having smoked easily over 75,000 handmade puro to date, I can often blend a very serviceable liga in just a couple days. But then come the tweaks and refinements plus having to take into account the impact of short term aging on the blend. Over the years I have developed a very methodical approach to crafting blends which has served me well. It taps into how I like to approach problems systematically and logically, it isn’t as romantic, but I know for me it is the most effective way to create unique, inspiring ligas for myself and others to smoke. I would say on average most blends require 6 months to a year before I am 100% satisfied.
CP – What is the inspiration for your bands and packaging?
Saka – Pretty much my own introduction period of the mid-eighties where almost every brand was some variation of a classic Cuban design. For me, this has always been the inspiration for my own design leanings. As for branding it is important to me that the name and feel fit the product. I look at how a cigar is branded and packaged as a promise to the consumer as to what the product will be like when they smoke it. Overall I would say my style is classic, but with a bit on a minimalist approach – the cigar is the star, but I want the design to add to the experience and represent the puro’s essence. Small sidebar, I am not a designer, yet I currently do all of my own design work, it is actually quite comical to watch me struggle with Illustrator and Photoshop.
CP – How important is continuity throughout your brands?
Saka – One of the different things about Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust’s marcas is that I am expressly trying to not have a style. I always strive to make a totally different smoking experience knowing that smokers crave diversity, myself included. However continuity is critical in regards to quality and caliber of each brand, I always strive to make them the absolute best within their given genre. I know that no single cigar blend I will make will every satisfy every smoker, so I never try to. Rather I do my utmost to make something that I believe any cigar smoker will try and at worst say, “Really great cigar, but not great for my personal palate,” with the hopes that experience will leave to wanting to try our other unique ligas.
CP – For anyone who may not know, you’ve been in the cigar industry for a long time. First with JR Cigars and then Drew Estate. Now Dunbarton, Tobacco & Trust. What are the benefits and challenges of owning your own company?
Saka – Benefits are that there is no one else to satisfy, but myself. I don’t have to worry about bankers, partners, magazines, bloggers, or anyone. It allows me to always do what I think is best, even when I am wrong. It is a very liberating feeling. As for challenges, it is the lack of support. We have a great team, arguably we are the best run and operated small cigar manufacturer in the market, but I do miss minions. The last two gigs there were incredible resources and very talented people at every level which were there to help with the development, design, marketing and sales. The value of such infrastructure cannot be underestimated. I am confident that if we continue to build our team with the right people like Cindy Saka, Yvonne Ramée, Dave Lafferty and Jonathan Saka we will get there. We just hired our 5th full time employee, so while we could probably employ twice as many folks today, I prefer we take our time and do it right.
CP – David Lafferty was part of your Drew Estate past how is it working together again and what is his role in the company?
Saka – I love Dave, he is a Yankee like myself with that biting sense of humor, no nonsense approach and unreproachable work ethic. While Dave is our VP of Sales, he really is over qualified to be such at our small family company. He is the type of talent you would find at one of the Big 5, but he became available and expressed an interest in joining our merry band. Rarely do opportunities come along where someone of his caliber becomes available, so while it was too soon for us, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make him an integral part of DTT.
CP – How is it working with family?
Saka – Family businesses are always notoriously difficult. You not only have the normal lunacy of just trying to survive the trial and tribulations presented by any young business, but now you have the family dynamics to contend with. Unfair as it may be, you simply expect more from family than a typical team member and this can often lead to a lot of turmoil. That being said, to date we have avoided almost all of that. I am truly blessed by the quality of the people in the company, both family and not.
CP – It’s no secret Sobremesa Brûlée is not your favorite blend. Yet, people love it. How difficult is it to blend a cigar you wouldn’t normally smoke yourself?
Saka – I never said that. I have said that Brûlée is not my typical style. It has been a couple of decades since I regularly smoked a shade wrapped cigar. So I went into the creation of this cigar with the concept of trying to recreate the experiences I use to enjoy from these cigars: milder, smoother, to allow the nuttiness and gentle sweetness to shine. And most critically, to create such a cigar that I would actually not only want to smoke, but would be willing to buy. This is always a key point for me, I know people work hard for their money and they have hundreds of cigar choices, so it is always my responsibility to produce something worthy of their support. By the way, I have found myself smoking two or more Sobremesa Brûlée each day by choice, this particular cigar has really rekindled my personal appreciation for this style of cigar.
CP – How was Sakasquatch born?
Saka – Like most nicknames, they are born out of the most unexpected situations. One day while driving back from New Jersey to New Hampshire I found myself without cigars in the truck to smoke. This is a Code Red scenario for me, so I quickly “googled” for a local retailer and popped in to buy a half dozen cigars. As soon as I walked in the door, the owner said, “Oh my God, Steve Saka is in my cigar store! It is like seeing a Sasquatch!” And from there the guys who hung out in the store morphed it into SakaSquatch. I would like to claim it was some masterstroke of marketing genius, but it was not, rather something just inspired by an offhand comment. I am actually surprised at how popular the whole “SakaSquatch” thing has become.
CP – Who is the typical Dunbarton, Tobacco and Trust enthusiast?
Saka – Easiest question of the interview! For me, DTT smokers are the best informed, most educated and experienced of cigar smokers. They do not rely on others to tell them what they should or should not like, they have their own many years of experiences to judge from. Honestly, I think our cigars are exceptional, from the nuances to the notes, their construction and burn, so many fine details are agonized over and crafted of materials that genuinely are a cut above. And as a result, we don’t “give” anything away: what it costs to make such a cigar consistently great is the price and we are confident that consumers who can tell the difference will decide the price for admission is well worth it. Newer, less experienced smokers, those consumers who shop based on magazine lists and articles, etc. are not the typical DTT supporter. We craft the best for those who can appreciate the difference. Period.
CP – Earlier you mentioned that you smoke other people’s brands. What do you usually go for and why?
Saka – I make a point of smoking at least one or two cigars from other makers daily. And yes there are quite a few I like and stock in my own humidor. I tend to lean more toward favoring Nicaraguan offerings, but the one steadfast rule for me beyond my just random daily sampling is I only stock cigars made by makers I personally respect. After thirty plus years, I know most of the folks in our biz, so for me it is important they really be knowledgeable about our craft, tobacco, and factory operations. While there are some very good cigars made for folks who are essentially marketers first I tend to ignore them, because often that very same factory makes a much better product for themselves under a different moniker. For me, it really matters who are the people behind the cigar.
CP – Tell us more about Dondurma, the cigar that is meant to be retrohaled.
Saka – First off, it is not important to retrohale in order to enjoy a cigar and don’t let the cigar snobs shame you into it. Cigars are meant to be enjoyed and relaxing, no one needs to be told how it is best for them to be smoked. That being said, retrohaling definitely can add to the experience, opens the smoker up to much richer and deeper flavors and can really tell the experienced smoker a lot about the tobacco and liga. When I am smoking for work such as crafting a liga or sampling tobacco, I always retrohale. When just kicking back to smoke a cigar, I will typically retrohale a half dozen times during the length of the cigar, but that is me. It is something I developed back in 2015, it is an odd blend that contains a unique Comstock leaf and a 5 year old hybridized Esteliano ligero. It is a very peculiar liga in that it really NEEDS to be retrohaled in order for it to be enjoyable in my opinion. Smoked without doing so, it is just good, but when retrohaled it is phenomenal.
CP – You have accomplished so much in the first 4 years (of DTT), where do you hope to be in the next four?
Saka – The next four years? We have been running like we are being chased by a crazy, mega-hungry monster grizzly for the last four; just the notion of thinking about where I hope we will be in next four years in unfathomable! In a perfect world, everything will be the same, but with a few moments sprinkled in where we could maybe take a step back and at least savor the fruit of our lives.