Jonas Santana of Blackbird Cigars is taking care of things in a different way — his own way. He started out rolling cigars and eventually learned every aspect of the cigar industry. Experience and knowledge have served him well in building an extensive cigar portfolio that is carving a niche in the industry. Jonas talks to Cigar Life Guy about paying attention to the finer details, not wanting to be another Fuente, making music, and having fun while living the cigar life.
The First Premium Smoke
Cigar Life Guy: Tell me about your first premium cigar experience.
Jonas Santana: Honestly, I want to keep that to myself because it was in another factory and I want to respect that. It was not a good feeling. The first cigar my friend gave me was full-bodied, and I knew nothing about cigars. I was sweating (laughs). It was so freaking uncomfortable, but here we are. Here we are.
A College that Pays You
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?
Jonas Santana: Before I got into the cigar industry, I worked with my father. He used to have a drugstore. My marketing degree was nearly complete. A friend — the same friend who gave me my first cigar — told me he was making a brand, and he needed some help. He knew I was in marketing, so he gave me a job. So I started there, but I can tell you something when you work for someone. If you really pay attention, it is a college that pays you. But if you’re only there to make money, you probably won’t have a future.
I started there in that factory and I said to myself, I really need to become friends with the master blender because I didn’t know where it was going to take me. There’s an entire world in this industry — the growing part, the production part, the distribution, the branding. There are many things going on. So I said I needed to learn graphic design, how every tobacco tastes, how to roll cigars, and I needed to perfect my English. So I went to the master blender and said, “I really want to learn how to make cigars and understand everything.” Then he said, “If you’re really honest about this and you’re really going to commit to what you say, I want you here every day one hour before your work shift.” If you show you’re going to do that, I’ll teach you.
The next day I started like that. An hour before the shift, I made ten cigars each day, and I was enjoying the performance of each tobacco. I did it like that for one year and after that, the Master Blender left and I quit working at that location. I worked with the same company but moved to Miami. Over there it was crazy. It was tough. But now I can understand it because I was one man inside a warehouse doing marketing and sales. I was taking care of every shipment, shipping every order, invoicing, charging, doing events, and traveling. A lot of things at the same time. Back then I felt like trash, but as I have previously mentioned, if you work for someone and you really pay attention, it’s a college that pays you.
How has it helped in the current business? I know every single department of my business because of that. Now I understand why God did that to me.
The Art of Crafting Blackbird Cigars
Cigar Life Guy: You started from the ground up by rolling cigars. Why is it important for smokers to understand the detail that goes into the construction of a cigar?
Jonas Santana: It’s so important. Cigars are an art. Respect the art of it. It’s a tradition to make cigars. There are a lot of families that survive because of cigars. It is not a family tradition for my brother and me because we are the first generation in the cigar industry. But knowing every single detail that goes into cigar manufacturing is very important because I can tell you how long it takes to make a cigar from scratch. You’re going to grow the tobacco, ferment the tobacco, and make the cigar. If you do everything by yourself, it will take an estimated time of three and a half years. So, yeah, they need to understand how many hands touch the tobacco before you can smoke a cigar and the time it takes. It’s not like a cigarette. We take care of it in a different way.
The Smartest Bird in the Business
Cigar Life Guy: What is the inspiration behind the name Blackbird?
Jonas Santana: Which is the most powerful bird on the planet? The most powerful bird is the eagle. But which is the smartest bird? The smartest bird is actually the crow. So my thing is, how do I play smart against a bunch of eagles? Blackbirds, for me, are a respectful way to tell the mainstream brand I’m gonna play smarter than you. I know other companies have a lot of years in this, but I’m a new guy. How am I gonna scream? A crow is smaller than an eagle, but I’m gonna play smarter. So there are a lot of details that make some noise? That makes people know I’m there in the humidor.
I use colors. I use music because I’m a rapper. You can go to my Instagram — @jontanard. I incorporate the talent I have in music to promote my cigars because it’s fun. My marketing approach is more fresh. I would like to bring a younger generation to the industry because if I keep promoting my cigars like another Fuente, I’m gonna be another Fuente. I don’t want to be Fuente. Becoming like Jonas would be nice because I want to be Jontana; I want to be Blackbird.
So my line is all bird names. 80% are crow names — dark feathered birds. The Rook, Jackdaw, the Crow. The Unkind is not a bird. It actually used to be called the Raven. I named it The Unkind because someone who claimed The Raven brand name almost sued me. The lawyer who called me was really unkind about the whole thing. So I renamed it The Unkind. This worked out because a flock of ravens is called an unkindness. So I stayed in the same spot.
Everything from the Finch to The Cuco is mildest to fullest. Things I like to pay attention to are taking the smoker from mild to the fullest. The Cuco, for example, is a medium-full cigar — no pepper at all.
But let’s say you want a little pepper, and you want a fuller-bodied cigar. I have The Crow. If you want to be in the middle, there is The Unkind. But this is also marked by the time of the day. For example, the Jackdaw is the sunrise. It is orange. Sunrise cigar? Bright orange like the sun. The Finch?
Midmorning that’s how the clouds look, light blue — a mid-morning cigar. Then you have the Rook — high noon. For me, it’s an after-lunch cigar. Then you have The Unkind (which used to be The Raven). That’s purple. When the sunlight hits the feather of a raven, it turns purple. Dusk is also a purplish color.
During the night, after people finish work, they like to smoke a couple of cigars so we have the heat of the night with The Crow and the mid-night which is The Cuco.
What Makes Blackbird Cigars Unique?
Cigar Life Guy: You have described your brand as modern. What makes Blackbird unique?
Jonas Santana: I think I’ve explained a little about that. Music definitely. Colors. For instance, using pink. Most of the guys that smoke cigars don’t use pink stuff. I would like to be the opposite of what typical cigar brands promote. I like to be myself. The beauty of this is when you have your own stuff, you create your own niche, your own demographic, and your own followers, which is happening with the brand.
Cigar Life Guy: What is your favorite aspect of the cigar business?
Jonas Santana: Honestly? Traveling. Every time I travel, I get to meet new people. I get to try new food that I don’t find in Miami. Traveling is amazing. I live the life I’ve always wanted. Let’s say I’m traveling to Italy. I take my wife and come back and continue working. It’s nice. I enjoy traveling and meeting new people. It’s beautiful. The world is beautiful.
The Future of Blackbird Cigars
Cigar Life Guy: What’s next for Blackbird Cigars?
Jonas Santana: Currently we have a new factory. 30,000 square feet. My brother, who is a visionary, said we have to do it. If we really want to be consistent and develop new products, we want people to feel great about us, not only about how nice we promote cigars, but how we respect the art of cigars. We needed to have a bigger facility so we could ferment our own tobacco, get more tobacco, and make great cigars for years to come.
I want people to feel like, “Damn, I need a Blackbird.” I want people to feel when I smoke a Blackbird, I feel young. That’s what I want them to feel. I would like to comfort their minds and emotions. That’s more beautiful than money.
Cigar Life Guy: Have we missed anything? Please tell us anything else you’d like the cigar world to know.
Jonas Santana: No, we have missed nothing. Just remember Blackbird on Instagram. Check out some of the music. It’s fun. Don’t let anyone clip your wings. Follow your dreams.
Photo credit: Blackbird Cigars