From the first premium cigar he smoked in a Maryland swamp to blending his first Lancero, Greg Free, founder of Fuerte y Libre Cigars, has been living free, smoking strong, and enjoying cigar life. Free talks to Cigar Life Guy about his ever-growing cigar portfolio, the upcoming name change of his company, and his favorite part of the cigar industry camaraderie.
First Premium Smoke for Greg Free
Cigar Life Guy: Tell me about your first premium cigar experience.
Greg Free: In 1992, I purchased a new home next to a protected wetland in Frederick, Maryland. I thought it was a very fancy park, not the swamp that it turned out to be. So I never went outside. One of my neighbors who I became friends with, asked, “Why aren’t you ever going outside?” And I said, “There are mosquitos everywhere.” He suggested I try smoking a cigar. He handed me a Baccarat, and I smoked Baccarat for three years. At one point, he went on vacation, and I had to go out and cigar shop myself and pay for a cigar. I was just amazed by how many cigars were in that shop. My entire world exploded at that point.
Cigar Life Guy: Tell us how you got started in the cigar industry. What else did you do before, and how does it help inform what you do with your current business?
Greg Free: I live in Washington, D.C., and worked in government contracting for a couple of decades. I started in government contracting, doing recruiting and hiring to fill positions to support federal work. When I left, I was senior VP of the “people” side of government contractors, so program management, and recruiting. I was the facility security officer and was in charge of construction projects.
I left that two and a half years ago to do this full-time, but I started the company — really the foundation of it — in 2012. That’s when I started putting capital aside. In 2013, I started researching what I needed to do to become a tobacco importer from a federal perspective. 2019 was when we finally got cigars into the country, but I was working a full-time job during those six years.
On Smoking Strong and Living Free
Cigar Life Guy: Your motto is “Smoke Strong, Live Free.” Can you tell us more about what inspired it?
Greg Free: The company name inspired it. I wanted something that spoke to America, so I created the name in English first — “strong” and “free.” It seemed like a perfect statement for the country. Our strength is really how we get our freedom. And the flip side of that is my last name is Free, and I also smoked strong cigars, so it worked out. Then, I translated that to Fuerte y Libre to pay homage to Spanish culture. But ultimately, that’s why Carlito Fuente sued me for my trademark. The premise from their side was that Fuente and Fuerte sounded too similar and would create consumer confusion, which I don’t think is true, but it is what is. I wish they had trademarked the word because I would have never filed for the name. I don’t hold a grudge. It’s just business.
So, I’ll be changing my name. We just settled in May. I haven’t made an official announcement because part of the settlement was to get some time to change the name. It’s known within the cigar community. There will be a press release, but I’m waiting until the first cigar comes out with the new company name which will be Fortaleza y Libre. And that word also means “strength.” It’s used in the cigar industry to represent strength — the “Fortaleza” of a cigar. I wanted to keep that strong and free moniker to keep a hold of the company’s original premise.
The Greg Free Blending Process
Cigar Life Guy: You proudly grow your tobacco in the Tamboril region. Why is it essential even for the novice cigar smoker to understand all aspects that go into the construction of a premium cigar?
Greg Free: Speaking about regions, all of our core tobacco, the Dominican tobacco, grows on one 40-hectare farm. I grew up on a farm. I went to college for horticulture. So, it was important that my core tobacco remained consistent from season to season and cigar batch to cigar batch. In the Dominican Republic, if you don’t have a tie to a farm like most small factories, you wind up going to the warehouse where you get what’s left.
It’s still going to be great Dominican tobacco, but it’s not going to be grown on the same soil using the same farming techniques, crop rotation, and the addition of any chemicals or fertilizers. The area’s distinct microclimate also plays a role. So we’re particular about where the core tobacco comes from, and it keeps our blends consistent since inception. Tomorrow’s new batch of Bodacious will taste the same as the blend we created four years ago.
I don’t know that the novice needs to understand the construction process, but I think they need to learn what they like. How you do that is by understanding your three or four typical tobaccos. So if a Ligero is in there, you need to know what impact that has on a cigar. What impact does a Nicaraguan Ligero have versus a Dominican Ligero? What an Ecuadorian Connecticut wrapper has that differs from a Connecticut shade wrapper. You’re learning the differences for your own purposes.
As a consumer, you go into a store and you know: I don’t like Connecticut shade, but I do like Ecuadorian Connecticut. Or I love Ligero, but I‘m not a fan of Nicaraguan Ligero. It’s a little too strong for me, but I do like a nice Dominican Ligero. It’s the same with fillers, binders, and other wrappers. It’s a function. For example, you may love chicken but only in a particular Italian sauce (laughs). When you go into an Italian restaurant, you decide “This is what I want.” It’s a similar idea at a cigar store. You’re going in, looking at the menu, and picking what you know you like.
Cigar Portfolio Mentionables
Cigar Life Guy: You have created a variety of blends since Bodacious in 2018. Tell us a little more about your cigar portfolio.
Greg Free: The foundation of the name is strong and free. I was smoking really strong cigars when I started blending. It turns out there’s a lot more flavor in the medium range. So when we came out with our first couple of lines, we were in that medium range.
The core of the Bodacious and the Bushwacker is a delicious Dominican Pilato Cubana tobacco. There’s no Ligero in there. We’re not trying to amp them up. We’re just using the wrapper combinations for added variety. They’re both medium cigars. There are two different wrapper choices in the first two lines of both.
After we settled those, we got ourselves in some shops, and COVID hit. I wanted to come out with something full-bodied. So, I started working on a full-body blend, which became the first true blend I developed. I settled in the medium-full range because it tasted good, and I didn’t want to mess with it anymore. That was the Midnight Bender. The next line I wanted a Connecticut wrapper, but I didn’t want it to be a mild cigar. It had to be something I could enjoy.
The core of that is another blend I created. It has a double Dominican Ligero. It has a Mexican San Andres wrapper leaf blended into the filler. So it has a fuller body and a full-strength core surrounded by Dominican binder and Ecuadorian Connecticut wrapper. It looks like a mild cigar, smokes like a medium, but has the flavor of a full. It’s our best-selling blend, and it’s a really creative, complex blend that goes with anything. I smoke more of them than anything in my portfolio, not because it’s my favorite, but because I always have them with me. I never know what I’m going to be doing, and I always try to match my cigar with my activity, whether it’s drinking, walking, mowing the lawn, or whatever. The Sun Country covers a lot of bases for me.
After the Sun Country, I wanted to come out with an anniversary stick. We create all of our test blends in a 6 x 50 Toro, which is a little unique in the industry. Most people use Coronas for that, but that’s how I started. So I know how it works for me. When we started testing different vitolas, we got to a boxed press, and that blend spoke to me. The flavors really jumped when it went into a box-pressed. That was our first and only box-pressed the Segundo Viento (Second Wind).
Then we waited a couple of years because I wanted a true mild. Then it becomes about rounding out the line. The true mild took me two years until I finally came out with what I would call a three on a scale of 1-10 in strength and body. I couldn’t do a true mild because I just couldn’t smoke it, so it’s just Dominican filler and binder, an Ecuadorian Connecticut wrapper. But that wrapper brings a little spice, so it’s more than a plain grassy Connecticut wrapper. It’s got a little something that keeps me interested. I’m not putting out anything, and I’m not smoking (laughs).
The final thing in the line is we needed a true full. We’ve got a true full. It’s been in the aging room since January. Now it’s a matter of just getting bands produced. So these are going to have some good age on them. The core of the blend is the first-generation Cuban seed planted on our farm three years ago. (The Intimidator)
I don’t intend to be one of those companies that crank out new blends every three months. It’s really just what makes sense for the line. I want to create legacy lines as opposed to short-run limited editions.
Cigar Pairing with Greg Free
Cigar Life Guy: Pairing cigars with spirits is an integral aspect of cigar life for many smokers, and you often highlight this with your cigar line. What are some of your favorite pairings?
Greg Free: It’s interesting. I never had a cigar with coffee until I was on my first factory visit in 2018. My interpreter — you would think with a Panamanian wife, I could speak enough Spanish to get along. I understand it, but not speak it. So, I had an interpreter, and he asked me what kind of cigar I had with my coffee. I told him I never had a cigar with coffee, and he told me I was crazy.
I drink my coffee with cream and it’s a great experience to have coffee and a cigar. Unfortunately, days don’t line up very often where it makes sense for me to get up and have a cigar with coffee, so I don’t do it often, but it’s probably my favorite.
On the spirits’ side, I’m a low-proof bourbon guy. Anything under 90-proof is in my wheelhouse. All of your classic stuff. My favorite is Eagle Rare; It’s a ten-year bourbon. I go for something smooth and low-proof because I’m drinking whiskey while smoking cigars, always in combination. And I genuinely want to experience the cigar more than the whiskey. Eagle Rare kind of sits in the background. It’s not so hot that it’s competing with the cigars, it’s just adding to it.
Favorite Part of the Cigar Industry
Cigar Life Guy: What is your favorite part of the cigar industry?
Greg Free: The camaraderie amongst other brands and brand owners. I’d estimate 90% of the people I’ve met in the industry will help you with anything. It’s a unique industry. In government contracting, everything is a secret. No one tells you anything. Then, you enter an industry where people tell you what they pay per pound for tobacco. How much they pay their rollers — who receive piece rates — the dollars and cents information and where they think the best tobacco comes from for their wrappers. They even share their specific recipes. It doesn’t happen in other industries … like the restaurant industry. And it certainly doesn’t happen in government contracting. I guarantee you that Hershey’s hasn’t released their chocolate recipe to Mars. The cigar industry is unique, and that’s my favorite part.
News and Upcoming Events
Cigar Life Guy: Have we missed anything? Please tell us anything else you’d like the cigar world to know.
Greg Free: I guess the only thing we haven’t referenced is my upcoming event. I am coming out with an event exclusive to Lonsdale. I’ve wanted to come out with a Lancero for a long time. It’s a tough cigar to roll and challenging to get the blending right, and it’s one I haven’t been able to accomplish until now. But I am coming out with a Lonsdale that’s going to be a unique blend to the lineup. We’re calling it the Tahonta. After all, famous rodeo bulls inspire all the cigar names.
Photo credit: Greg Free