I had the pleasure of hanging out with Willy Herrera, Master Blender for Drew Estate recently and I must say that this guy knows his stuff when it comes to cigars. More importantly I saw first hand that he is as cool as they come. Spending about an hour talking and smoking some Norteños, Herrera took me through his journey from the corporate world to the world of cigars and how he ended up creating and blending or one of the largest and most popular premium cigar companies in the world.
One thing I’ve learned about interviewing people is that there are times when you should “control” the conversations with questions, and other times (especially when you’re trying to learn something) that you just shut up and let the experts talk. This was a session for the latter.
We just talked about what we love, cigars. Willy explained to me that growing up in Miami, FL, he was always around Cuban cigar masters as his community and those working at the family’s factory, El Titan de Bronze, all came from the Old Way. Everything he knew about cigars early on was Cuban, which is what became the impetus for Herrera to join Drew Estate.
Working in banking, Herrera claims that he really wasn’t interested in working in “the business” at first. Though his family was responsible for producing top cigars for several companies, he found himself in the corporate world, only spending time in their factory on weekends. Then one day he says that his father was sick and needed some temporary help in the factory. Taking a week off from his finance job, what was intended to be a week of “filling in” quickly became a passion. In that one week, Herrera says that he engulfed himself in every aspect of the factory’s production, even teaching himself how to roll cigars. After his week of helping out was over, Herrera decided to submit his resignation to his employer and devote all of his time to cigars.
At El Titan de Bronze, Herrera smoked everything that was being produced there in attempts to develop his palate. He then began to purchase other cigars, bringing them to the factory to try and to compare them. When his father asked why he would bring other people’s cigar there, the younger Herrera stated that he wanted to see what the rest of the industry was doing so that he could make something that no one else was. At that moment, the eldest Herrera gave his son access to the tobacco room and gave him his license to go in and blend. That was 15 years ago.
Catching the eye of Jonathan Drew, Herrera was challenged to bring his “Cuban feel” to the popular company. Admitting that coming to Drew Estate was overwhelming at first due to the shear volume of tobacco at his disposal, he accepted the task and made the best of it. “Tobacco is like technology and buying a computer. Something new is always being discovered and as soon as you get one thing, the next has come out. I’ve been blending for 15 years, but I’m still learning!”
Always seeking to fill any gaps in the industry or in the Drew Estate portfolio, Herrera’s goal is to offer something for everyone. With that though, he claims to always blend to his palette, that if he doesn’t like it, he won’t continue with it. Likening his blending to cooking, Herrera states, “Some blends sound good in your head or on paper. You have to tweak, add, takeaway and try some new things. It takes time to mix things up to find the right one!”
Inspired by one of everyone’s favorite cigars, the Padron 1964 Anniversario, Herrera’s Norteño was his attempt to pay homage to the cigar and to put his own spin on it. “That’s just a good cigar. It’s consistent, you know what you’re gonna get and it delivers every time you smoke it. That’s what I wanted for Norteño.”
Wrapper: San Andrés
Filler: Estelí and Jalapa Nicaragua
Bold, spicy and sweet, the Norteño is the first release from Willy Herrera since being officially named Master Blender for Drew Estate. The release followed the award winning and breakout first release, the Herrera Esteli, and is followed up by his newest creation, the Undercrown Shade. The maduro-wrapped, box pressed Norteño sports a deep green and beige band with an image of Nicaragua’s national bird, the Guardabarranco or “Cliff Guardian” in the center. Watching Herrera light up as he expressed how beautifully beyond words the bird is in person and how they could not do it justice with the picture, I cannot do this cigar justice by giving it a typical review. The Norteño is a must try if you enjoy innovative, bold and full-bodied cigars.
Our Smoke Break took place at The Smokey Cigar II in Brentwood, TN.