EATONTOWN – Though he’s lived in the Shore area for 20 years, El Salvador native Luis Cortez brings a rich knowledge of the art of premium cigar-making to his 15-year-old business, Cortez Cigars in Eatontown.
“I came to the U.S. when I was 12, lived in California until I was 18, and then returned to El Salvador for a short time to work in our family business,” said Cortez, 40, a West Long Branch resident. “My family was in the coffee business and also had a small tobacco farm which supplied leaves to the domestic, artisanal cigar industry in El Salvador.”
While working there full-time, Cortez received a number of requests for premium El Salvadoran cigars from customers throughout South America and Europe. In order to “step it up to compete in the international market,” he said, “I moved to Cuba and worked in a cigar operation for two years to help perfect my skills in fermenting, aging and blending leaves for premium cigars.”
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While Cortez intended to use his newfound knowledge to start a premium cigar factory back home in El Salvador, “my brother Kristian had a business degree, lived in New Jersey, and suggested that we launch our premium cigar business here, where there was a large market,” he said.
Cortez moved to Red Bank in 2001 and the brothers began researching the industry, visiting local cigar shops, and assessing retail spaces.
While at an industry event, however, Cortez met a team from leading company General Cigars, who invited him to work for their firm. He spent the next two years with General Cigars, traveling to their factory in the Dominican Republic and learning their process for aging leaves and rolling cigars while Kristian worked at another cigar company.
“During this time, we kept on gaining experience but always planned to follow our original idea of establishing our own cigar factory,” Cortez said of their dream.
“In 2006, we finally moved forward and opened Cortez Cigars — first in a space in Shrewsbury and then in our current location in a 150-year-old farmhouse on Route 35 in Eatontown, where aging, blending and rolling occur in different rooms and where we also maintain a room or two for customers to enjoy a good cigar,” he said.
Premium blends, small batches
Fifteen years later, “we offer two types of cigars,” Cortez said. “The first type includes four cigars which are rolled in-house and can only be purchased here in New Jersey,” he said of premium products called Exit 109, The Navesink, 10th Anniversary and Cuba.
“In 2007, we opened a small cigar factory in Santiago, Dominican Republic, and also make 15 different premium cigar blends that are available in Eatontown as well as at Kristian’s business, Cortez Cigars, in Silver Springs, Maryland,” Cortez said.
“We use the highest-quality tobacco leaves aged for a minimum of three years for our cigars, but some cigars feature specially-selected leaves that are unique, aged longer and prized because they’re only available in small quantities,” he said of their products, which range in price from $8 to $22.
Cortez said that their eponymous cigars reflect a combination of his and Kristian’s collective experiences in the Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Dominican Republic industries — the world’s leading exporters of premium cigars — while also preserving a local boutique feel.
“Our philosophy was to mix those three approaches together but to keep making small batches of cigars using only Grade A tobacco to ensure the highest quality,” he said.
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“Over the years, many distributors and cigar stores have offered us contracts to produce mass quantities of cigars, but we feel that it would dilute our quality by forcing us to buy different grades of tobacco,” Cortez said. “Our cigars are exceptional and we sell to customers all over the country and the world, from New York City, Texas, California and Florida to Sweden, Argentina, Ukraine and more. Expert cigar smokers immediately know what they’re getting with a Cortez Cigar and taste the quality.”
Cortez explained that different cigar blends pick up different flavors — from notes of cedar and chocolate to coffee, roasted almonds and more — depending on the type of plant used.
“Ultimately, the heart and soul of a good cigar is how you plant, pick and roll the leaves,” he said, “and we pride ourselves on our process.”
According to Cortez, there’s a strong — and informed — market for premium cigars in New Jersey.
“There was a big cigar boom in the 1990s and today, people are very knowledgeable about cigars and demand the best,” he said, noting that 60% of their customers now represent a new generation of younger, well-educated smokers as well as an increasing number of women.
Among additional trends, Cortez said that new regions of the world are now entering the cigar industry. “While parts of the southern U.S. were built on tobacco and still continue to grow leaves, those products were earmarked for the cigarette, pipe and chewing tobacco markets and never made it to premium cigar industry,” he said. “Now, tobacco from Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Hartford, Connecticut; and Kentucky are being channeled to the premium cigar industry and we even have a line using Kentucky fire-cured, hickory-smoked leaves called ‘Kentucky Fire Cured’ that can be purchased in our store or on our website.”
Artisanal, handmade products
While the pandemic hurt many businesses, Cortez feels blessed to say that Cortez Cigars wasn’t one of them.
“Actually, 2020 was our best year in terms of sales of our own line, which grew dramatically,” he said. “We think that this was because so many people were working from home and had more time to sample the different cigars we make. Many customers also wanted to support local businesses, for which we’re so grateful.”
Though droughts, heat and other challenging agricultural conditions throughout Central and South America have led to a decline in the number of farms able to grow premium tobacco leaves for cigars, “we’re very comfortable because we’ve stayed a small boutique business,” said Cortez, who focuses on their company’s cigar production while brother Kristian oversees sales, marketing and packaging; six other employees (mainly family members) help support New Jersey operations.
Looking ahead, “I’ve been experimenting with growing premium tobacco leaves on the land behind my house and the results have been outstanding,” Cortez said. “They don’t call us the Garden State for nothing — the soil is amazing!
“We’re currently growing an acre and a half of Cuban-seed tobacco and will be making a small batch of 4,000 cigars this year — the first premium cigars made with tobacco leaves grown in New Jersey — and we’re very excited,” Cortez said.
“We always hope to keep growing and expanding our distribution to new customers and countries while still crafting small batches and maintaining the highest quality and standards,” he said.
For his part, “I’ve always enjoyed the whole culture and history behind cigars,” Cortez said.
“Tobacco is native to the Americas and has come to play a key role throughout the world,” Cortez said. “At the same time, so many techniques go into growing and rolling tobacco, which is still an artisanal, handmade product. I love the process of personally making a cigar or teaching my rollers how to make it, seeing my customers enjoy it and say what a great cigar it is, and knowing that we created it.”
Location: 152 Main St., Eatontown, and 23 Second Ave., Long Branch (seasonal)
Owners: Brothers Luis and Kristian Cortez