Manuel Inoa: “Tobacco is a part of me”

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Passion for cigars. This is the confession of La Aurora master blender, Manuel Inoa, when he talks about his work and every time he shares his knowledge in an event. And, in fact, Manuel is admired and loved wherever he goes. His knowledge of the tobacco world, of its flavors, its aromas, the balanced mixtures where all nuances are perfectly matched… are jaw-dropping to all those who listen to him.

And all that wisdom is the result of his work, dedication and passion for tobacco and cigars. Because he does not descend from a family of tobacco owners, as it would be expected of those engaged in this trade. “I’m different from everyone else in the tobacco world”, admits Manuel.

Most people who grow in the world of premium cigars are backed by a family tradition. However, the La Aurora master blender is different: Manuel Inoa is an industrial engineer. He got involved in the tobacco business by a friend who worked in the industry and hasn’t been able to leave since. “Tobacco got into my blood and I can’t leave it. Tobacco is a part of me, and I need it,” he says.

He started over 30 years ago in the tobacco industry. At first, he made his contribution in aspects such as distribution, machinery and “lay out,” and then directly in cigars.

In 1996, he became part of the La Aurora family. He recalls he started working in the cigar of Don Fernando, father of Guillermo León, company president. “The relationship grew from there, adjusting Don Fernando’s cigar, and so on… And from there, we brought innovations to the then-current blends, which were basically León Jimenes and La Aurora,” he says.

“They began to launch distinct-flavored cigars in the market and that forced us to reformulate blends. We started making special editions of the standard León Jimenes and La Aurora blends. Years have passed. I’ve been in La Aurora for 24 years and in the tobacco world for 34,” he summarizes.

What are the must-have traits or qualities of a master blender?

The basic quality is the knowledge of tobacco; not necessarily of the crop and field. A master blender must, obviously, be a smoker. A chef cannot cook if he doesn’t taste his food. We must look for those touches that will enrich it: the food, in the case of a chef, or cigar, in the case of a master blender. We must have these virtues: knowledge of the tobacco we are going to work with and its components, to avoid combustion or drag issues. We must be in contact with tobacco on a daily basis. And that takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight. Year after year, tobacco is changed by weather, the weather isn’t always the same. And the changing climate is the greatest challenge of a master blender: making combinations so that everything turns out the same when you launch a product.

How does the process of creating a cigar blend work?

In one of three ways. One is managed by the Marketing and Sales Department, where I work, and which is in close contact with the clientele. Our department determines what type of product is required for a particular market. Therefore, we work with a targeted plan. There may also be an external request to develop a product. A good product can come from all these works and projects, and we can save it for later, for a time when we need to launch something new, strong and good. From there, we begin to evaluate the product.

What type of tests do cigar blends undergo before being launched onto the market?

First, we must answer two questions: what elements must be used (from the marketing or upon a client’s request) and what we will integrate with the elements we must necessarily use. We have purchase agreements with farms in Ecuador, partially funded by us and to where we send our technical experts to follow up on. This tobacco is already ours and we must use it. We also have some purchase agreements in Nicaragua and Honduras, although these farms don’t belong to us.

If we have a wrapper from Ecuador, I’m forced to use it because we have it in stock. This is where the challenge begins, we must search for tobaccos that combine with this wrapper. If we have a medium strength cigar, we must look for filler tobaccos that combine perfectly with the wrapper I must use. There’s a big difference when we have to use another type of wrapper, for example, a Maduro wrapper. We make as many samples as necessary. For example, in the Preferidos, we’ve made about 92 samples in search of the most harmonic combination.

Then comes the filter, the company’s internal panel of smokers that evaluates and picks out what we are looking for and what doesn’t suit us. Then, we are left with a smaller circle of an internal panel, which are those accustomed to smoking different things, and from there we choose 3, 4 or 5 blends. Possibly, my blends—the ones I prefer—have been discarded from the start, because many blends were made, and mine probably weren’t everyone’s cup of tea. And we gradually filter them. Then it goes to the staff, four or five people, such as Don Guillermo or Gustavo Velayos (Marketing and Sales Director of La Aurora), until we are left with two blends, which we will send to external panels in the US and in the local market. From the input of all these experts, we make a decision and launch the product.

What can ruin a blend?

There are many factors in play. For example, having tobacco in stock, but only a few kilograms. We can design a beautiful cigar, but when we get that beauty ready for production, we don’t have enough tobacco in stock. So we must go out and buy it; however, unlike La Aurora, not everyone has aged tobacco (La Aurora has tobacco aged for over 12 or 14 years). If we can get our hands on acceptable tobacco that has been aged for six years, the flavor will no longer be the same as in our first attempt. So we must reformulate the blend, check our stock, and reformulate once more. But the tobacco is now very fresh so we must wait before it’s ready again.

Are there notes that cannot be combined in a blend?

There are notes which collide with each other, which stand out a lot. For example, spicy and hot notes, overwhelm us. But if we want to develop that in the market, we must gradually eliminate things in order to harmonize it. There are notes that will irritate the palate when developing a product, so they must be removed. There are also metallic notes, created by the ingredients, the nutrients used on the soil, that mustn’t reach the market.

There’s an eternal debate about which parts of a cigar enrich the smoke better… what do you think?

It’s one thing to work only with the filler, which has the largest number of combinations possible, and it’s an entirely different thing to work with a whole cigar, once the wrapper and binder are added. If we have a very soft base and a very strong wrapper, the wrapper will obviously play the major role, maybe up to 40 percent of the total blend. But if, on the other hand, we have a very strong filler and use a simple wrapper, the wrapper will represent about 10–14 percent, along with the binder. That is to say, it’s highly variable, depending on the blend. According to the weight of tobacco, the wrapper represents about 16–40 percent of the blend itself. As for the flavor, it always will vary according to the type of tobacco used: if we’ve used a very dry tobacco and the wrapper is very oily, obviously, the wrapper will be dominant; if we’ve used a very light tobacco, and the wrapper comes from the bottom of the plant (less tasty), the blend will obviously be predominant.

How does one detect the notes in a cigar?

The mouth only allows to perceive four basic flavors: sweet, salty, sour and bitter, since the umami cannot be perceived in tobacco. The taste buds are so close to smell we cannot distinguish what is coming from where. There are thousands of notes that can be achieved through the combination. The sense of flavor is lost when we have a cold and then we can detect cigar notes through our nose.

Throughout the smoke, when do we feel notes more intensely?

Right from the start, the cigar is intimate with us, at the first drag we already have an idea of what we’re smoking. Obviously, a cigar is dynamic, it changes throughout the smoke if it’s good, if it’s a Premium cigar. A cigar that doesn’t change, that always follows a line, is a linear cigar that won’t offer great satisfaction.

That is, in the beginning, a cigar has some notes, so, we usually divide tasting into thirds or quarters. We can say that during the first third we perceive notes like wood, roses, and stuff like that; in the second third there are other notes that, being more intense, take over the first ones, such as, tropical fruits, dry fruits; in the last third, the notes we couldn’t feel at first stand out, such as cocoa, chocolate, coffee… dark and sweet notes, like molasses. That’s why I always say that the best parts of a cigar are in the end. In any case, during the whole smoke, we can feel the filler, the binder and the wrapper.

How do the thickness and length of a cigar influence the smoke?

The length is about how much time we have to smoke the cigar: if you have plenty of time, you can smoke a Churchill; if you are in a hurry, smoke a Robusto, Corona or Petit Corona. The ring gauge is set by the habit of each smoker: some people prefer thick cigars, while others prefer them thinner. However, the ideal ring gauge is a small one, in order to acquire strength, information and pleasure, simply because a thick gauge makes us absorb more air than smoke, it will be more mixed. When the ring gauge is small or medium, the air is more concentrated with the smoke.

“The ideal ring gauge in order to acquire strength, information and pleasure is a small one. The thick gauge makes us absorb more air than smoke”, explains La Aurora Master Blender.

How do you recommend cutting the cigar?

We must know how to cut a cigar, obviously. There are several types of cutters, the double V blade, the ‘punch’—called “la bala”—and the normal cut, which is open. These are all comfortable in the mouth, but only the open cut allows us to perceive flavors and sensations. The ‘punch’ and the V cut will partially choke the free air distribution when smoking.

Does the ash matter to the smoke?

Ash adds elegance to the cigar and serves as a filter when smoking. It gradually filters and purifies the lit temperature achieved at the ring, where high temperatures are reached. Ash filters it. It doesn’t matter if the ash is brown, dark or white. That doesn’t determine whether the cigar is good. That depends on the blend: evidently, if we use a lot of dry tobacco, ash will be very white. If we use a lot of light tobacco, with a lot of oils, ash will be really dark, grey. What makes ash light or dark depends on the soil nutrients: magnesium, potassium, iron.

For those who are now entering the cigar world, what recommendations do you make?

The cigar is meant to be enjoyed; it doesn’t create any kind of addiction. This is about time and moments, enjoyment, pleasure and being in a group. We can be a month without smoking, and one day you smoke two cigars because you’re with friends and you fancy it. It’s about leisure and enjoyment, it’s not about hurrying up or having any kind of addiction. It’s about the real value of life not being cars or yachts, but time.

Do you have a favorite cigar?

As for the size, I prefer Corona Gorda, Corona and Lancero cigars. These are the three sizes I feel comfortable with. In terms of flavor, my favorite cigar, and which I smoke every day, is a blend called La Aurora 100 años. And the three top cigars are Don Fernando número 4; Founder’s Choice de Fernando León and La Aurora 107, all of these, corona shape. Even though I enjoy tasting things, wherever I go, I will have one of those three on me.

With what do you usually match cigars? And when do you usually smoke?

I usually match them with a good rum. I don’t drink any kind of rum, but only E. León Jimenes 110 Aniversario rum, because of the notes it brings out in the cigar: caramel, vanilla and cocoa notes. During the week, I usually smoke in the afternoon, and I match the cigar with a drink. On weekends, Saturday at 2 pm, with music, while preparing the grill… And at work, in the morning with a good coffee or a nice tea. There’s a cigar for each time of day: it depends on your mood, of how happy you are.

What cigars do you recommend for those who are starting out in this world?

I advise starting with mild cigarettes, such as the standard range of León Jimenes; La Aurora Cameroon or any La Aurora 107. These are not aggressive in terms of strength. They are creamy and smooth to the palate of a beginner. As you acquire more knowledge, and tolerate more, I recommend Preferidos Edición 1903, Guillermo Léon, Don Fernando, La Aurora 100 años and limited editions usually launched by La Aurora, such as the 2006 edition.

And as for buying a cigar… what do you advise?

If we don’t know what we’re looking for, it’s best to ask for the tobacconist’s help. To find the nuances we desire, we must communicate them to the tobacconist and follow his advice. It will always depend on what the store owner recommends. Obviously, if we know the brands, we can go ahead and choose what we want. The purchase can also be decided depending on how much time we have, to choose a Churchill or a corona-sized cigar, for example.

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