Justin Andrews, only 34 years old, bears the countenance of a cherub and a beaming sense of humor to match. If you met him on the street you wouldn’t necessarily peg him as a cigar industry trendsetter. But Andrews got his start in the business at a very early age, and now, as the man behind Diesel’s successful Whiskey Row line of cigars, he ranks as a true innovator.
“It’s been an interesting journey for sure,” he says. “I come from a tobacco family, but it was all flue-cured and chewing tobacco. So I always carried fond memories from going to tobacco auctions as kid.” Still, it took a touch of serendipity to see Andrews launched on a notable career in cigars.
“As I was entering adulthood, tobacco started to fade from my life,” he remembers, “because I didn’t smoke cigarettes or chew tobacco.” Even so, it was while Andrews was in his senior year in college that he spotted a Craigslist ad seeking a marketing student to help with starting up a premium cigar company. “So I said, well, I know about tobacco … and this is cigars. How different could that be?” (He adds with a laugh, “Little did I know.”) Andrews secured the position, and for two years he helped the fledgling company get off the ground. That experience, along with his university studies in economics and marketing, amounted to a perfect jumping-off point for all that would follow.
Today you can find Andrews holding down the job of Senior Brand Manger at General Cigars and Global Brand Ambassador for Diesel. It is a position that requires 100,000 miles of travel per year, as he handles promotional events for Whiskey Row and makes overseas trips to factories cranking out product for General. He obviously doesn’t mind. Seeing the Whiskey Row series embraced by retailers and the buying public has proved a strong motivator.
It wasn’t too long ago that Andrews was casting about for a challenge just like this. In 2014 he sold his interest in the start-up to the founder who had hired him, and took a year off from the industry, doing some work at his father’s architecture and construction business in Fayetteville, North Carolina. “But I was missing cigars that entire time,” he says. So he didn’t allow too many months to pass before he landed the job at General, working out of the company’s headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, where he spends most of his days when he’s not on the road.
Andrews has now been with General for all of four eventful years. He says about working for the cigar giant, “It’s been an adjustment, mainly positive, but we do face different challenges as the largest manufacturer of premium rolled cigars. Our route to market [the time it takes to get a new product from conception to retailers’ shelves] is a bit slower than I was accustomed to. Whiskey Row took, like, two years, but a lot of that was because of the time it took me and A.J. Fernandez to figure out the best way to age tobacco in whiskey barrels.”
Stories like this one, telling how various cigar lines get developed, bear out a recurring theme: how relationship-driven the cigar industry truly is. Andrews may not be a grizzled titan of the industry (yet), but he knows the kinds of people who can add a crucial component to a project. If he had not previously built a friendship with A.J. Fernandez, he doesn’t think an experimental product like Whiskey Row could have been put together.
Yet another personal friendship, one that Andrews enjoyed merely by happenstance, was with a bourbon maker in Louisville, Kentucky—Kaveh Zamanian, the proprietor of Rabbit Hole Distillery. Zamanian was originally a clinical psychologist and professor in Illinois whose wife hailed from Louisville. During one of their visits to the city, Zamanian fell in love with bourbon. So in 2012 he quit his professorship and started his company making Rabbit Hole Bourbon. This gave Andrews an “in” when the notion occurred to him that he could use some bourbon barrels in the creation of cigars. Andrews recalls that during a visit to a General Cigar factory in the Dominican Republic, he noticed some port wine barrels being used to age leaf, and, as he puts it, “A light bulb went on: What if I could get some bourbon barrels from my friend Kaveh? The idea just sort of clicked.”
So Andrews contacted Zamanian and asked about the availability of charred Kentucky oak barrels after Rabbit Hole was done with them, and the Whiskey Row project was born. Zamanian says: “Together, cigars and great whiskey have created uncountable moments of quiet joy. Aging fine tobacco in bourbon barrels which were used to age Rabbit Hole Bourbon modernizes that great tradition. We’re excited that our partnership with Diesel gives us a hand in adding depth to what is already a profoundly enjoyable experience.” Andrews adds, “Of course, convincing A.J. Fernandez to get onboard with the plan was a bit of a challenge, because he is such a traditional cigar guy, and aging leaf in bourbon barrels was a bit outside the box.” So Whiskey Row required an element of trust among friends. Fernandez seems more than pleased with the outcome.
“Aging the binder leaf in the bourbon barrels added an unexpected layer of flavor and aroma right beneath the wrapper. When you smoke Whiskey Row, you get a unique and complex experience that engages the senses unlike any other cigar I’ve smoked.”
There were technical challenges to overcome. Just working out the Whisky Row manufacturing process and product line took Andrews and Fernandez about 16 months of trial and error. Andrews says: “We had to figure out how much tobacco to put in the barrels, what tobacco to put in the barrels, how often to rotate the tobacco in the barrels, and how much air flow to allow. It all became pretty scientific.”
The two men tried putting rolled cigars in a barrel, but that didn’t work. They tried packing wrapper leaf and filler leaf in the barrel, but that didn’t work, either. “It turned out that the binder leaf had just the thickness needed to handle the absorption involved,” says Andrews. “That worked great.”
Andrews adds that making Whiskey Row cigars is still not an exact science, “but we are definitely perfecting it as we go along. We strive for consistency, but you will find that some of the cigars will have a little more or a little less of the bourbon influence, depending on where the leaf was positioned in the barrel or how much time it spent in the barrel. To me, that aspect brings almost a beautiful inconsistency—part of the charm.”
The Rabbit Hole bourbon-aged cigars come in four vitolas: robusto, toro, Churchill and gigante. Now there is a newly launched line of sherry cask Whiskey Row cigars in all of those shapes except the Churchill, again using casks procured from Rabbit Hole.
“Whiskey Row doesn’t taste like any other AJ Fernandez cigar,” says Andrews. “A.J. is known for throaty, front-of-the-tongue spice, Nicaraguan pepper, full body with depth of flavor. But Whiskey Row is more an any-occasion cigar. There is enough flavor and complexity here to keep you interested, but not so much that it overpowers.” Andrews says his own blending preferences steer him away from heavy, dense tobaccos that are strong on the palate, favoring more of a “crisp, clean flavor.” He adds, “I blended this to pair with Rabbit Hole whiskey specifically.” The filler leaf is all Nicaraguan, the wrapper is Ecuadorian habano and the binder is San Andrés Mexican. Most binder leaf is fairly neutral in flavor and primarily just aids in combustion. “So by aging that binder in the barrels,” says Andrews, “it adds a unique flavor just beneath the surface. We figure 60 percent to 70 percent of the flavor of a cigar comes from the wrapper, so by adding that extra dimension of flavor to the binder, you really do create a unique cigar.”
Andrews is a bit cagey about disclosing how many Whiskey Row cigars are moving, but he says, “It’s a lot. Whiskey Row is a successful line.” Early sales strength in Pennsylvania (owing to the footprint of Cigars International and its brick-and-mortar presence there) is now spreading to other regions. “We are successful in what we call the must-win states, which are the states that wine companies focus on, and beer companies and liquor companies—California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois. These are the main states I hit hard. So far word of mouth has done a lot of the lifting elsewhere. But then there are pockets of strength, too, such as Nebraska.” (Rabbit Hole whiskeys are available in Nebraska, which lends itself to promotional events where Andrews can arrange pairings.) Between Andrews and the sales staff at General, they chalk up 80 to 100 promotional events per year, and thus far the Whiskey Row line has secured accounts with close to 1,500 stores nationwide. Considering that General Cigars products are offered in thousands more locations, there is still plenty of room for the line to grow, and it is growing.
The Diesel brand is firmly committed to its brick-and-mortar accounts. “That’s where we spend our marketing dollars, and that’s where I travel,” Andrews says. “We are in the business to support brick-and-mortar shops, and our pricing contracts make it competitive for everyone. We don’t want shops finding our cigars available online for cheaper than what they are paying us.” If a shop wishes to stage an event, they typically commit to buying at least 35 boxes. As Andrews points out, with that 35-box purchase they get a couple of extras: “We have what we call event kits,” he says. “I designed a bar, a Diesel Whisky Row bar, that has a 150-count humidor built in, and a wine rack and bourbon rack. So four or five weeks before I show up, that kit gets shipped to the retailer and put on display with signs announcing ‘Win this bar’ at an event to be held on such-and-such a date. I also had ashtrays made from whiskey barrel lids, and I designed a whiskey barrel lighter. So we offer goods that help drive the brand. One of these events is really a nice party, with box deals and a lot of unique stuff that I don’t sell, that you can only get at one of these events if you purchase the product.”
Jeff Mouttet, the proprietor of Riverside Cigars in Jeffersonville, Indiana, says his shop has hosted two Whiskey Row events, and he recommends them highly. “It’s a first-class event,” says Mouttet. “It really resonated with our customers. I think we sold 150 raffle entries. Diesel brings in plenty of swag, and what’s really impressive is that they do all of the work. My guys hardly had to do anything to get ready.” Importantly, Mouttet also reports that Whiskey Row is a brisk seller. “We’ve re-ordered four or five times,” he says.
There are a lot of fine cigars out there competing for shelf space, but at the same time there is clearly still a market for a user-friendly cigar that offers something a bit different, a distinct if subtle note of deliciousness that belongs only to one brand. Justin Andrews caught that lightning in a barrel. Whiskey Row is an idea, and a product, that will doubtless make all the difference in the future course of his career, even if he lives to be an old man. It is an inspiration to see a young fellow discovering his passion and creating something for all of us to enjoy. That passion comes through in the flavor of Whiskey Row cigars, even if you never meet Andrews to witness the light in his eyes when he tells of it.
Diesel Whiskey Row Cigars
|Size||6 x 54 ring gauge|
|Binder||Mexican San Andres|
|Manufacturer||Tabacalera AJ Fernandez in Estelí, Nicaragua|
|Filler||Nicaraguan Ometepe, Jalapa and Condega|
|Purchasing Info||Purchased retail for $9.95 at Blackbeard Cigars in Greenville, NC|
|Smoking time||1 hour, 23 minutes|
This cigar features a shimmering habano wrapper leaf and solid construction—substantial to the touch, weighty and well-packed with no soft spots—just the kind of specimen we’d expect from AJ Fernandez and General Cigar’s Diesel brand. The mouth feel of the Whiskey Row Toro is perfect, at least for those of us who favor toros. It gives confidence you can safely clamp down on this smoke with your favorite clench and not do damage. After a punch cut, the cold draw is easy, with hints of oak and leather over a subtle, figgy sweetness.
- I was able to warm the foot and achieve a nice, even light with a single 3-inch wood match, and I was rewarded instantly with ample smoke and a pleasant rush of black pepper and spice, but these opening flavors soon settled and melded. I’ll say up front that from light-up to finish this cigar offers a straight-ahead, rich, delicious, medium-bodied flavor with a coffee-and-cream base and wood notes. There is no forward whiskey flavor here, but throughout the smoke there is a “certain something” in the profile—it is intriguing and enticing, and you’ll begin to look for it on every puff, even if you can’t quite put your finger on where it’s coming from.
- Of course, the same could be said for a lot of well-designed blends. In this case, the calling-card subtlety surely owes to the binder leaf and its special treatment—all those months spend aging in a bourbon barrel procured from Rabbit Hole Distillery. It is a process that allows the cigar a flavor profile that is at once bright and not too heavy.
- I took off the solid, granite-colored ash 30 minutes in, before it could drop into my lap, but it must be said that this is a well-behaved cigar. The burn line remained straight throughout. The finish on every puff is long; you’ll still be tasting your last puff when you go for your next. And the retrohale is divine, with black pepper and cinnamon, and enough cream never to bite the sinuses. The nic hit is light enough to be approachable for most anyone.
- I can report definitively that Whiskey Row pairs beautifully with unsweetened iced tea. Pairing it with Rabbit Hole Bourbon would doubtless rate a positively congenial experience. In any case, a Whiskey Row Toro would nicely fit the bill either after lunch or at mid-afternoon, or after a light dinner. It is well-conceived, well-constructed and not too expensive. Tobacconists wishing to try some of Diesel’s Whiskey Row cigars on their shelves all know that General Cigar is not a difficult firm to reach.