Interview: Steve Saka of Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust

In 2015, Steve Saka realized a life-long dream. He established Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust. His very own cigar company where he could create cigars based on what he felt was right. Prior to achieving this goal, Saka had established himself in the cigar world by creating the Liga Privada blend while working for Drew Estate. Before jumping on board with Drew Estate, Steve was an executive assistant for Lew Rothman (previous owner of JR Cigars). Working for these two cigar industry heavyweights, Saka gained immeasurable knowledge and experience that he leveraged to establish himself in the business and create his company.   

In five short years, Steve Saka has produced highly regarded hits such as Sin Compromiso, Muestra de Saka, Mi Querida, Sobremesa, Todos Las Dias, and Umbagog. Plus, he’s even had a Sasquatch named after him.  

We were able to catch up with Steve for an interview as he rolled cigar samples from his home in New Hampshire.  

It appears you don’t put your name on your cigars. Why is that?  

Triqui Traca No 764There’s basically two lines of thinking in this. The first is that you name everything with one name thereby identifying with the owner. This makes it much easier to sell, and much easier to market. You have brand “XYZ” and everything falls under this umbrella. And that’s great when everything is doing well. But! When things start to soften up it also hurts you because the brands are all tied together. Also, because I’m making such distinct cigars and distinct experiences, I don’t think the person that’s in love with Triqui Traca is going to be in love with Brulee. Those cigars are just worlds apart. I’m a big believer in brands that are islands onto themselves. The downside to that is that it takes a lot longer to grow them because you don’t get that one unified brand recognition. But, at the same time if a consumer smokes a Todos Las Dias and decides it sucks, it’s not going to impact how he feels when he smokes a Mi Querida because they are such different experiences. For consumers that are really keyed in and know who everybody is and what they are doing, it doesn’t make a difference. They already know what to expect when they smoke a Brulee versus a Triqui Traca. It’s really a brand strategy thing. Let me say it this way, really small companies grow faster when they are under one umbrella. Big companies stay big when they are under separate umbrellas. We’ll see which way makes the most sense.  

But Muestra de Saka has your name on it. Why?  

I mean I love my name. Not too many people have it. SAKA! It’s a loud name. ItMuestra de Saka NLMTHA has served me well. I don’t think it is necessarily a romantic name for cigars. When I say Saka, it doesn’t make me feel the same as when I say, Arturo Fuente you what I mean. That’s a pretty name instead of saying, I’m Steve Saka. It doesn’t have the right ring or feel to it. Some consumers would argue that it is because of that. It is why Rocky Patel stood out. It was so different from what the norm was. So, I ended up doing Muestra De Saka which has my name very prominently featured on the coffin. They are eye-catching on retailer’s shelves, and they provide a vehicle to explain who Saka is. I know a lot of retailers sell my cigars as Saka cigars, and that means those retailers have already explained the story. The consumers know what it means. But talk to me in ten or fifteen years. I don’t know if it was a good decision or a bad decision.  

It’s been said that you gave the factory manager leeway in creating the Muestra De Saka. Can you elaborate on that?  

Raul DislaMost Muestra De Saka cigars are personal challenges to me. Like Exclusivo, I’m not a big fan of really aged tobacco so that line has tobacco that has been aged a minimum of five years. Some of those tobaccos have been aged for nine years at this point. I know that vintage tobacco is supposed to be a big deal, but for me, I think that they go lifeless and dull. So, the first challenge for me was to make a cigar out of those types of tobaccos that I don’t normally like to work with. Nacatamale is one where it is all from one single farm. One farm for the wrapper and binder, and one farm for the filler. There are only two tobaccos in the Nacatamale. I was trying to make one of those old farm style ligas [blends] using very limited ingredients. And this is true of all. Every Muestra De Saka (MDS) is not only a personal challenge to me, but it is also a challenge to [Raul Disla] the general manager of NACSA [Nicaraguan American Cigars factory]. He has been making cigars for decades for a lot of prestigious places. He’s never had his own brand or blend. He’s always executing somebody else’s instructions. So, I said, “I want you to make something for yourself … a personal blend.” The first question out of his mouth was, “What do you want it to be?” And said, “You’re missing the whole point here. I want it to be what you want good or bad.” He did it for about a year. Then I started busting his chops. I told him, I’m some guy from New Hampshire that has to come down here to show you how to do your job. The next time I went down, he presented me with four blends one of which was the U blend. I think the R blend was the most balanced the most refined. I think it was the best he liked initially. Then, I said, why don’t we set that one aside and maybe one day we’ll do something with it. The U one is kind of interesting. It is not a very complex blend. It is kind of pepper forward, but it had a nice transition in it. I said, what do you think if we do it for this year’s Muestra. No one really knows who he [Disla] is outside of the real cigar geeks and people inside the business. And, I said, “Why don’t we do this?”, and that’s what we did. I called it Unstolen Valor because I’m in an industry where everybody takes credit for things, they don’t deserve credit for. I wanted to show that I had nothing to do with this blend. I basically picked it up off the table and I said this is the one I’m interested in. But, if we wanted to make it a Muestra De Saka, it had to have a Muestra De Saka Quality because MDS’s are like $15 to $20 cigars. It had to be a super top tier cigar that was the only change I made. I think it has done well.  

Which Muestra de Saka do you prefer?  

The most expensive Muestra is the Unicorn. But my favorite one is the Nacatamale, which is the one with two tobaccos in it.  

What can you tell us about the Sin Compromiso?  

Sin Compromiso Seleccion No 2 TorpedoThe Sin Compromiso is a medium cigar, but it is just so smooth. It has a lot of flavor. It’s got a lot of chocolate, a lot of cream. It is a full-bodied cigar. The only thing I would say about a Sin is that I don’t think it smokes too well outside under a windy condition. I think with this cigar you need to have the smoke swirling around your head. It is a more nuanced smoking experience than some of my other cigars. I don’t think you will get that much out of it when the conditions are adverse.  

Are the Umbagogs hard to come by? 

No. We are making like a gazillion of them. It is just that we are selling them a lot faster than we can make them. It’s a good problem. There are a lot of retailers who have them on backorder. However, I think by February, I will be caught up on backorders. 

How has the pandemic affected your sales?  

Normally in December things slow down for us. For retailers, normally things pick up. For us, sales typically stop around December 7th to 10th. At that point, retailers have bought whatever it is they were going to buy for Christmas. This year [2020] we are still banging. Here we are on the 18th of December and selling just as much as we were two weeks ago. That’s really surprising to me. It’s all pull-sales. Accounts are calling us and saying, “I need this. I need that!” It has been a very strange year. We’ve done incredibly well. That makes me think, are we doing really well because people are stuck at home and smoking two to three cigars are day instead of two or three cigars a week? Or is it because the brand is doing really good and we would have had a better year if we had trade shows? I don’t know how to read any of it. All I can do is try to keep up and be thankful for what there is.  

Why do you think most cigar brands don’t stick around for too long?  

People come up with good cigars all the time. The problem is that they don’t stay good. Look at Sobremesa. It was introduced five years ago. Is it one of the hottest brands in the country? No! It’s not, but year after year it continues to grow. It keeps getting more consumers, more people buy it, more people add it to their rotation. This is really unusual in today’s market. We are in a market where brands get created, and they get discarded when the next new thing comes along. And there’s always a next new thing. That’s a real challenge for us. You get rewarded for making consistent cigars, but oddly enough the marketplace in the short term never rewards you for that. It always punishes you. In the short-term consumers always want to try what’s new. Consumers are always on the hunt. What you are hoping for is that they eventually come back and try one of your cigars again and say, “Wow! This is good.” I’m seeing more and more of that happen with us. The only way you can achieve that is by being consistent. Products that are locked in, dialed in, like Litto’s [Gomez of La Flor Dominicana] double ligero or the Oliva V. They become classics because they remain consistent. In the handmade cigar business that’s the hardest thing to do. You are trying to be consistent in making a product that is inherently inconsistent. A handmade product made of an organic material into something that is going to deliver a consistent smoking experience to the consumer. That’s a really big challenge. The smaller you are the more difficult it is for you to hope to do it. Even the big guys aren’t always successful. I think that is the thing you really have to try to focus on. It’s not the part that is sexy. It is not the part that gets you quick and easy sales.  

How do you think Social Media has impacted the business?  

I’ve always said that the most important rating is the individual consumer that takes the time to snap a photo and give you a shout-out. They have no commercial interest. I think the cigars and comments people put up on social media in the end have more weight than anything else.  

Do you find yourself wanting to change a blend? 

This is the thing about Sin Compromiso. It got Cigar of the Year in 2018 by Cigar Snob. It did really well. It was the Number 2 overall on the Half Wheel Consensus in 2018. I haven’t added anything to Sin in the last three years. I’ve left it at the original five sizes. Most people would take it and capitalize on it make a Sin this or a Sin that. In year three or four there would be three more Sins. I decided to leave it alone because I think it is such a nice blend. I just want to give it time to percolate. I don’t want to hype it. I want consumers to come to it on their own. It is not meant for the hardcore nicotine junkie. It is meant for the guy that likes a Padron 1964 or the Andalusian Bull profile. The 2021 release is going to be the little kiss of love that I give to the brand. There is another version of Sin I made that is actually stronger. In 2021, I’m going to release a vitola that is slightly stronger. I am curious to see how it will fare with some of the hard-core nicotine junkie style bloggers. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I think Sin is right just the way it is. I also think the slightly stronger iteration is appealing too.  

Have you ever gone back and tweaked or changed a blend?  

I like to have a blend finished. Then, I like to come back and tinker with it. I spend so much time working on a blend. It is seldom thatSobremesa Gran Imperiales anything ends up on a shelf in less than two years in some cases it is even longer. Sin Compromiso took four or five years from beginning to end. From the first pilot crop which was Winter of 2013. After you’ve had it and it is done, it is kind of nice to go back after a year and just go huh. Now that you are removed from doing it, you look at it from the perspective of what’s on the shelf and how it tastes. I can only age a cigar for so long. It is not the same experience that a consumer is going to get after he buys a box that has been on a retailer’s shelf for a year. I like to come back and play with things. For the Sobremesa, I made the short Churchill, the Elegante en Cedros. It is kind of what I did with Mi Querida. I came back and created the Triqui Traca iteration of Mi Querida. Also, I like the tweak that was done on the Sobremesa Blue which was done four years after the original creation of the Brulee blend. I have a habit of coming back and playing and tweaking a blend. I don’t know if they are improvements or not. However, I do tend to smoke more of my tweaks. Except for the Mi Querida. I’m much more of Blue guy than a Red guy. It is not a question of one being better than the other. In the case of the Mi Querida the Blue is more chocolate. It has a more inherent sweetness, and the spice is lighter. Whereas in the Triqui Traca the pepper is more forward. When the pepper is more forward, what was chocolate is now more of a bitter chocolate. It is two sides of the same coin. Although I prefer the Blue, there are times when I want to smoke the Red and I prefer the 48 a lot. It is one of my favorite ones. Whereas in the Sin, I like the larger formats like the 6 x 54 pressed and the number seven: the seven inches by 56. It really depends on the blend. The Todos Las Dias for me is the thick Lonsdale. It is the perfect representation of that blend. But! My friend Chris Duque, who I know maybe watching because he’s crazy, he likes the half-Churchill, which to me is the least palatable of the five sizes. I feel it gets to the end too quickly. It’s too strong, too spicy, too sharp, too soon. I like a little more gentle ride into it with a thick Lonsdale.   

So, a bigger vitola for a stronger blend? 

No. It all depends on how it makes me feel. I like the little firecracker in the Triqui Traca, but I hate the fact that it is three and a half inches long. I feel like I’m smoking half a cigar. It gives you a tremendous amount of pop right out of the gate. It is the strongest of them, but at the same time the experience for me is too short.  

What can you tell us about the U-Boat?  

Raul [Disla] made the U blend that we use for Unstolen Valor. The U Boat is my tweaking of that blend. It is my taking his work and saying I think it will be better if we did this with it instead of that with it. That’s essentially what U Boat is, but at the heart of it is still Raul’s work with me just nibbling on the edges. I don’t know what the future is for the U Boat in 2021. We had a lot of limited releases in 2020, and I really don’t what to have so many in 2021. I think it gives a very false sense as where you are as a company. I was very blessed with [limited releases] in 2020. Every single one of them sold out. I think the worst one of them sold out in five days. The best one sold out in like forty minutes.  

What do you think will happen in 2021 as far as any new releases?  

I have a plan for 2021. I’m behind the eight ball already because of the COVID scenario. I haven’t been able to travel back and forth to Nicaragua like I normally do. My first trip back to Nicaragua will be in January of ’21. For consumers, 2021 is going to be an incredible year. I think there will be so many new cigars that will be introduced in the marketplace. It’s going to be impossible for you to even try one-tenth of them. I just think there is going to be an avalanche of stuff.  

What are you working on for 2021?  

 For me, there really has been no development going on. I’ve actually been working on a cigar project on my dining room table here in New Hampshire for the last four months. I’ve been making samples to try in preparation for my trip in January. Can that be done by summer? I don’t know.  

You don’t want to make any promises. 

Yeah. I’m pretty much like 90 percent there working from my table here in New Hampshire, but it is not the same thing as being [in Nicaragua]. It’s one thing for them to ship sample tobaccos, but it is not the same as looking at all the bales and the pilones and checking everything. The way I make a cigar myself is not anywhere as good as the way they make them. What I think is right proportionally may not work once they start doing the “voodoo” that they do. I will have to tweak the blend a little bit. I don’t roll a cigar very well. Using my samples as a baseline is a terrible idea. Ultimately, I have to work with what the consumer is actually going to smoke. It is a problem the smaller guys encounter. When they get samples made in the factory, they are often made by some of the best torcedores [rollers] in the factory. Those are people that make the muestras [samples]. The problem is that they are not the same people that are going to be making the cigars the consumer is going to smoke. Once you get a blend finalized, you need to put it in production with real pairs [a team of bunchers and rollers] that are going to work on it every day. Chances are you are going to have to adjust the blend once it goes into actual manufacturing. Some of the things you want to be precise may not be as precise on the production floor. If something is a real problem, you need to re-think it to see how you can make it possible. We use the best pairs in the factory, but they are not the same as the master pairs that made the samples. These things need to be taken into consideration. Another thing you need to take into consideration is that cigars never taste the same in the factory environment as they do when people smoke them at home. Humidity makes a difference, elevation makes a difference, temperature makes a difference. Cigars taste differently in Esteli than they do here. There are a lot of things that we have no control over that impact consumers experience. You have to take into consideration as many things as possible to try to deliver something consistent.  

Someone mentioned that the U Boat is a creamier version of the Unstolen Valor.  

I feel that the Unstolen Valor is a very pepper centric cigar. It starts off as a soft pepper, and then it builds in spice as you smoke it. While I feel it is an enjoyable cigar, I don’t feel it is one of the more complex cigars. I feel that by softening some of the notes it lets some of the other flavors come out. That’s what the U Boat is. It is taming it back a little.  

What is your goal when creating a cigar? 

When I smoke a cigar, I want it to leave me kind of sated. I want it to leave me wanting more. One my mentors was a gentlemanEstelo Padron named Estelo Padron. He was the brother of the famous Jose O. Padron. Estelo was the lesser-known brother but who was also a very talented cigar man. He ran the Villazon factory before General [Cigar Co] bought them. He was the maker of all the Punch and Hoya de Monterrey back in the day. I was spending a week with him. He was showing me how to ferment broadleaf. He said, “Always remember! This is the most important thing when you create a cigar.” He starts pounding on his chest really fast. Being the newbie that I was I said, “passion, heart.” He said, F*@! passion. No! What I want is that when they are smoking this cigar and they are getting close to the end that they are checking their pocket to make sure they have another cigar. That’s what’s important!” I have always carried that with me. You want a cigar that is so good that you want another one right away.  

How long do you think it takes to refine your palate? Do you think it depends on the number of cigars you smoke? Or number of years you have spent smoking?  

Yes, to all. I would say it probably took me twenty years before I really settled in. Dialed in on what I really like and dislike. It took quite a while and having to smoke a lot of cigars. I’m at a point right now where I must’ve smoked about 100,000 handmade cigars. Early on, your tastes are going to change dramatically as to what you like and don’t like particularly in those first five to seven years. I think a lot consumers end up buying a lot of cigars that they end up regretting. Most consumers ride the mild to strong wave up the chain. At some point they end up on the dark end of the spectrum and smoking really head-banging uber strong cigars and loving it. Then, within three to four years they find themselves starting to dial back a little. They come to the realization that they have been trading strength for flavor. Also, to get a really good sense as to what you like you have to play with the vitolas, because the shape of the cigar really makes a significant difference. I think getting locked into a particular size is a mistake for the consumer.  

Is there a particular cigar size you would recommend a new cigar smoker to start with? 

For new cigar smokers, I think they should start with a toro. It smokes cooler. It has a little wider ring gauge. It is a little softer on the palette.  Also, if you’re looking to get your spouse or a friend into smoking cigars, I think you should pick something you like. Maybe something a little on the milder end.  

If you could go back in time to a younger Steve Saka and tell yourself one tip that would help you succeed faster or better in the long run, what would it be?  

It’s a hard question. From a sheer dollar point of view, I would have told Steve Saka of 2013 that he was an idiot to leave Drew Estate because that was a very nice paycheck I was getting. It is certainly one I have not recreated seven years later. From a big picture point of view, I think it would be trusting myself, and not really caring about anyone else’s opinion. In the end, I’m going to have live and die by the decision whether a blend is good or bad, sells or doesn’t sell. Focus on what I want to do, which is where I’m at now. I wonder if I had done that in the mid-nineties would I have ultimately gone with JR? Would I have gone to Drew Estate? Could I have started this company back then? Back when I was twenty-five years younger with more energy, more enthusiasm, more everything. I was smarter when I started. Now I’m wiser but my brain is not as sharp today as it was twenty-five years ago. I kind of wonder if I had started a small family company back then. But then again, there is a tremendous amount of benefit and education I got out of going through my experiences with JR and Drew Estate. Those are the types of experiences that people in our industry have. I think being more confident in myself back then would have been the thing.  

 How do you think your company Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust is doing?  

I like where we are headed as a small young company.  It is a lot more work than I think most people realize. You cannot mistake social media success with actual success. While we have been blessed, and we are doing well, I don’t think we are doing as well as a lot of people think we’re doing.  

What tip would you give a cigar company that is just starting out and struggling to push their brand?  

“Don’t do it,” but that sounds very anti-competitive. The reality of our business is that it is not a sexy business. It is a real blue collar grind it out kind of business. We are making a luxury product, but in the end, it is a commodity. It is meant to be consumed and re-purchased and consumed. I think people who are just getting into it don’t typically grasp how difficult it is. Even companies that consumers see as being successful are really on the verge of bankruptcy. It is just that tough. We are five years into DTT [Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust] and I think we are very successful, yet my current salary is $24,000 a year, and I get that only to get the company health insurance. I’m still not making a real paycheck out of a company that has been as successful as we have been. We have a lot of advantages. We have pedigrees and relationships. We do a lot of business with great customers like yourself at Neptune. For a lot of people on my end, they think getting into Neptune is a big deal. The reality is getting into the big accounts really hurts you. Your product really needs pull. You have to focus on the little stores to build interest and desire for your product. People think, “I got into Smoke Inn, Corona, Cigars International” instantly it is going to start raining cash and that is not at all what happens. It is a much longer grind it out process. I’m not saying people going into it are not going to be successful. They have to go into it with the understanding that that’s what it is going to take.  It is a much longer row to hoe than most people can comprehend. They have to think in terms of “I have to plan on losing money, and how do I control how much money I’m going to lose. Also, how am I going to personally survive the beginning years of this company.” It is really hard to put in the effort and be enthusiastic about something that has very little return after a couple of years. Can you be successful? Absolutely! During the cigar boom in the mid-nineties, we had nearly 2,000 cigar companies in the marketplace. Of those 2,000, how many made it to the other side? Rocky Patel, Alec Bradley, Drew Estate. If you start thinking about it, I don’t think you are going to come up with 20 that actually made it. You have some exceptions. Litto Gomez was there before the boom but he took off during the boom. And that was in an environment that was the best environment ever. Retailers were buying anything because they couldn’t get what they wanted or what they needed. I don’t think that’s the way it is now. Right now, the marketplace is highly competitive. I think retailers are much more selective about what they choose to carry. On the plus side, because of social media, it is much easier to get the word out, so that’s a huge advantage that 20 years ago we didn’t have. But it is also a disadvantage too, because when something sucks the whole world knows about it pretty quickly. If someone was going to go into the business, I think they need to have very realistic expectations. They are going to be successful, but it is going to take five to ten years of really hard grind, and you really have to find a way not to go bankrupt in those beginning years, survive so you can get to the next step. Typically, in our industry, an overnight success is at the ten-year mark.  

What’s the story behind the Sakasquatch?  

SakasquatchWhen I worked at JR Cigars, I used to drive there.  I never moved to New Jersey. I still lived in New Hampshire. One day I was in my truck heading back home to New Hampshire, and I realized that I had left my cigars at my desk, and I was already 45 minutes away. I can’t drive without smoking a cigar. It is like a seatbelt for me. I checked on my phone and found the closest cigar store and popped inside with the intention of buying four or five cigars to get me through my five-hour drive. When I walked in the retailer just looked at me and said, “Whoa! Steve Saka is in my cigar store. It is like seeing a Sasquatch.” I don’t really spend a lot of time in cigar stores. When I was an executive with JR, I rarely spent any time in stores. I bought a few cigars and started talking to some of the regulars of the lounge and wound up spending an hour and a half. Then, I got back in my truck and drove to New Hampshire. Then I started once a month stopping at that store and smoked a cigar with those guys on a Friday afternoon and they just started calling me, “Sakasquatch.” A rare Saka sighting and that’s where it came from. I never really used the nickname. It was just at that one store. Then four years ago, I have a good friend, Jerry Smith, who makes a lot of cheap things out of China calls me. One of the things he makes are bobbleheads for Major League Baseball. One day he calls me, and he said he needed a picture of my head one straight and one from each side. I’m like why do you need a picture of my head? He said, “it is something I’m working on.” And I said, “what are you working on that you need a picture of my head?” He said, “it’s a gift. I want to make a custom cigar-smoking bobblehead of you.” And I said, “I don’t want a bobblehead of me.” And he was like, “I’m trying to give you a gift. I’m trying to do something nice and you are being difficult.” And I said, “I don’t want a bobblehead, but do you think they can make a sasquatch smoking a cigar?” And he said, “I can ask them.” And that’s what they did. They made one, and it was a gift I received from Jerry. When he gave it to me, and I held it, I said, “This turned out really cool.” So, we set it at the bar. We were at Famous Smoke Shop at the time. The owner from Famous came in, he saw it, picked it up and started laughing, and he said, “this is brilliant. How do I get these?” And that’s how it started.

Image Sources:
Images added on March 11, 2021.
In order of appearance from top to bottom:
Steve Saka,,, Accessed on March 11, 2021
Raul Disla,,, Accessed on March 11, 2021
Estelo Padron,,, Accessed on March 11, 2021

Published January 10, 2021
Updated on March 11, 2021

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