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Cigar lover lights up a new-old business

Douglas Imbrogno
"I love cigars. I love everything about them," says Brad Mayo, standing in the retail shop for his Jameson Cigar Co. in Huntington.

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Brad Mayo's Jameson Cigar Co. straddles two worlds: one new and the other old.

The new, always-on wired world makes a large part of his business possible. Internet purchases are a significant chunk of his trade as he makes sales 24/7 across the continent to people and shops on the hunt for custom-designed cigars.

Plus, there's the iPad, which the 29-year-old Mayo uses as a cash register for walk-in sales and to play the tunes heard in his retail shop at Heritage Village, a stone's throw from the Ohio River.

The old world is represented by his old-school cigars, hand-made in centuries-old fashion in a small factory in Santiago, Dominican Republic.

"I love cigars. I love everything about them," says Mayo, standing near a tall humidor holding boxes of the various blends and styles of Jameson cigars.

"The main thing I love about them is the handmade aspect and the variety and the passion that people in the business have. This is not a business you want to go into if you don't love cigars."

Mayo launched the company four years ago without a retail outlet, putting to good use his business management degree from Marshall University. He named the business after the men in his family and their sons, himself included -- James is his first name, plus the name of his son, father and grandfather.

In May, he finally moved into a retail space as part of a spate of new businesses at the revived Heritage Village shops across from the Third Avenue floodwall, easily located by the historic black locomotive parked out front.

"Our goal was just to create a brand, a boutique brand, you could say. What I wanted to do is make it available online and sell it myself in the beginning," he said.

As a cigar smoker himself, he would seek out smaller brands. He came upon cigars made by La Tradicion Cubana, owned by Luis Sanchez, first in Little Havana in Miami and then in the Dominican Republic.

"I really loved his cigars and kind of struck up a relationship with him. I went down to visit him. We just kind of hit it off."

Now, he travels to Sanchez's factory several times a year, tinkering with new blends and new cigars.

"What's good about the way we do it is it's such a small factory and I have such a good relationship with the owner, I can basically do anything I want. So, I can do these small runs. I can play around with blends. I mean, these are our blends only that you're going to find from us."

He also gets a firsthand view of his handmade product.

"In the Dominican Republic, rollers works in pairs. So, you'll have one guy who will bunch the filler and put the binder on. Once you do that, you've got to put the cigars in molds, and there are 10 cigars in a mold. It's a wooden mold and clamps together and you press it for an hour each side."

Once out of the mold, the partner roller will put a wrapper leaf on and finish them off and then a manager checks the day's production. He likes his cigars to sit for 30 days after that, he said.

"Once they're rolled, they're wet, so they have to dry out or they won't burn properly, they won't draw properly. Actually, the flavor changes over that period of time, and that's a good period of time for it to kind of come into its own."

His first commercial blends were dubbed the Jameson Red and Black labels. "After that, we came out with the Declaration, a Dominican 'puro,' which means it's an all-Dominican cigar," he said.

A lower-cost blend followed, dubbed the Southbound series. He recently unveiled their newest cigar, the Santos de Miami, a "square-pressed" cigar in a distinctive square shape unlike other box-pressed varieties with more rounded sides.

"It has been one of our most well-received cigars to date," he said. "It's kind of a unique cigar, a unique shape. There are people who prefer a box press. It's kind of a personal preference. Everything with cigars is a personal preference -- taste, flavor, strength, shape. That's why there are so many different shapes."

Making the right call on a new blend and shape is the sweet spot of surviving in the business, he noted. "A lot of cigars are hit or miss. You have to stay on top of the trends, you have to stay on top of what everybody else is doing. You have to try different things."

That's also why Jameson Cigar Co. does limited runs including one of the company's strongest blends, he said. "We have a PE No. 10, which is a variation of our Black label, and that is only available here in the shop. I'll sell it online a little bit here and there, but it's not always available online."

Yet the bulk of the company's line can be found at www.jamesoncigars.com, as well as through big online cigar outlets like the Famous Smoke Shop and in retail cigar shops across the country, including Squire Tobacco at 108 Capitol St. in Charleston.

Prices range from $3.50 to $3.60 for the Southbound series to $7 to $8.20 for a Santos de Miami, depending on the size.

Mayo says he's learning and adapting all the time.

"In my mind, we're just getting started. What we're trying to do is build a brand. I used to get frustrated in the beginning. But after four years you can kind of see things taking hold. Not to a huge degree, but more and every month, every year."

As the business develops, he can afford to light up and ponder the future. So, how many cigars does Mayo himself smoke daily?

It depends, he says.

"On average, two cigars a day. Sometimes one, sometimes three. Sometimes four or five if I'm in Miami or down at the factory."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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