Interview with Rick Rodriguez of CAO Cigars

Rick Rodriguez Bobblehead

Rick Rodriguez has been working for General Cigars for more than two decades. He started out as a salesman. He eventually became a blender under the tutelage of cigar legends: Ernesto Perez-Carrillo and Benjamin “Benji” Menendez. He then was assigned the position of CAO’s Brand Ambassador, but he is more than just the face of the brand. Rick is involved with the blending, the naming and even the presentation of some of CAO’s most popular smokes. Neptune Cigars was able to pull Rick away from his busy schedule to talk about CAO, their future releases, and cigars from China.



What does it mean to be a Brand Ambassador and what are your responsibilities?

If you look at General Cigars, right now we have four of us doing this job. What I do is different than what Sean Williams [Cohiba], Laurel Tilley [Macanudo], and Justin Andrews [Diesel] does. I am more trained to be part of the blending process. One of my jobs is to work with a team in the factories and marketing and create cigars we want to share with the fans of CAO. The number one job for me is to  get information from marketing and transfer it to the factories. The second part of the job is going out and sharing the story and the “hows” and the “whys” we did this cigar. For me to have the ability to work with sales, marketing, and the factories, I’m living the best of the General Cigar’s world because I’m in touch with anyone that has anything to do with our lines.

 

You are actually in the farms, in the fields, trying blends and saying, “some more of this and some more of that.” So, you are more hands on in the blending process instead of just being the face of the brand?

Exactly! The marketing department creates the story behind that cigar. They say, “We’re going to want two or three cigars. We want a mild cigar, or we want to concentrate on new tobacco from a new country.” I take that knowledge, and I go to the factory and say, “Guys, the target has been given to us. They want a mild cigar.” As a blender you know if you want a mild cigar you know what tobacco to reach for to give you the desired flavor and body.

 

You once mentioned that you have had to learn to work with tobacco that you in particular don’t like. What is that like?

Yes, and that is when you lean towards your team. If I say, “I’m not a fan of XYZ wrapper, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad wrapper, it’s just not my choice of wrapper. I don’t share it too often, but I have made two or three cigars that I would not buy, but we’re not making cigars for me. We’re making cigars for the fans of CAO. I just try my hardest, and get with people that understand that tobacco, love that tobacco, and those are the guys that we are going to listen to. And if you really believe in that blend, that’s the blend we are going to use. I may not like it, but if that’s the blend the target likes we’ll go with it.

 

How important is temperature all the way from the fermentation of the tobacco to what degree a cigar is lit and smoked at?

Temperature is so important. We can spend an hour or two just talking about that subject. When you’re smoking a cigar in Florida and its ninety degrees, or you’re smoking that same cigar in Chicago when it’s twenty degrees. It’s not the same. Your environment has such a heavy burden on your cigar. In fermentation, temperature is our secret. As a manufacturer, CAO is not just using tobacco that nobody else can get their hands on. We all have access to all of the tobacco that is grown in the world. Pepin, AJ, Ernesto … everybody is using the same tobacco. How we create the different cigars is through fermentation. And fermentation is all about temperature. How are you going to heat that tobacco? How low and how long are you going to heat that tobacco? That will change everything from the flavor, the color, and the body. Temperature is very important.

 

Is there a department in the factory that you won’t show to anyone?

If you come to our factory, I’ll show you everything. Now, if Rocky Patel or AJ [Fernandez] comes to our factory, I’ll show him about ninety percent of my factory. The only part I’m not going to show and share with them is where the fermentation takes place, because if you know my fermentation techniques, temperature and time, you can make the same cigar. But if you don’t know how I process that tobacco you can use the same tobacco and you will come up with a different cigar.

 

How did you get into the cigar business?

I don’t have a direct history. My grandparents smoked cigars and they were in the cigar business. My father was not, so I wasn’t raised in the cigar business.  I was recruited as a salesman for General Cigars, and they offered me the opportunity to become a blender, and it changed my life.

 

How long have you been working as a Brand Ambassador? Rick Rodriguez Brand Ambassador

I started with General Cigars in January of 2000. I’ve been with the company for 21 years. I was a salesman for about four years and then they approached me. Mr. Coleman, who owned General Cigars at that time, approached me and said, “a lot of our master blenders are retiring. Benji [Benjamin Menendez] was going to retire. Ernesto [Perez-Carrillo] is leaving us. We have to prepare for the future and start to train somebody who is able to blend cigars for us.” I still question why they chose me, but they trained me very well. I’ve been a brand ambassador for about 13 years. I was a blender for about 18 months for La Gloria [Cubana] when Ernesto left. We formed a team called, “Team La Gloria.” It was me, Michael Giannini [of Foundry Cigars] and Yuri Guillen, who was the factory manager. We formed this team. About 18 months later, they merged with CAO and when that blend was retired, they tapped me on the shoulder, and said you now are going to work with CAO. I’ve been with CAO for about 11 years.

 

How would you convince a cigar smoker to try CAO over other brands?

I don’t think I would try to convince them. I’d say, “if you truly are a cigar lover, you are always looking for that little nugget of gold in that humidor, and maybe if you pass by CAO for whatever reason, I will tell them to give it a shot. I’d ask them, “What do you smoke?” If they are smoking a mild cigar, I would suggest the CAO Gold. If you’re smoking a full-bodied cigar, try our Flathead or Consigliere. I would want them to pair whatever they’re smoking with one of ours. I wouldn’t want you to go from Pepin to my Gold because that represents a mild cigar, and you are more in the full-bodied range. We have cigars for you too. It doesn’t shock me that they haven’t tried CAO, but as a cigar lover I would try any manufacturer that they think they could enjoy.

 

Are you suggesting cigar smokers go out and judge for themselves?

Yes! You judge your cigar. Who is me to say, “this is the best cigar ever?” Really? For whom, for me! You can say, “this is the worst cigar.” And you can share your cigar with me and say, “this is my favorite cigar.” But when I smoke it, I say, “this is awful.” But who’s right and who’s wrong? I’m right for myself and your right for yourself. I don’t get into what I like versus what you like. I buy and smoke my cigars for myself. I’m not buying a cigar for you to enjoy and for me to smoke.

 

What major changes in the industry have you seen in the last twenty years?

To me, the first thing is body. When I started, about 15 years ago representing La Gloria or CAO, body was the crying force out there. It was like “if it doesn’t get me dizzy, I don’t want your cigar.” Today, we see smokers who still want body, but they want more flavor. It is what I hear from fans of CAO and what they want from us. But we know we just can’t give you flavor without body. It is the reason why we have multiple cigars from mild to medium to full bodied. We make all types of cigars for fans of CAO to enjoy. Also, sizes. Five years ago, people wanted large ring gauges. Now, people want smaller ring gauges. For instance, Lanceros are more popular today than they were three years ago. Size is changing.

 

Everyone keeps talking about the Lancero comeback. I know they stopped being popular at some point. Why do you think that is?

I think a lot of people view a large ring gauge cigar from a price point of view. For example, if I spend $10 on a cigar, I want to smoke a cigar for two hours. Versus if I spend ten dollars on a Lancero, I can be done with that cigar in 45 minutes, so why should I trade down in ring gauge? Well, most people don’t understand what the manufacturer is trying to do for them and that’s to showcase the wrapper. When you are smoking a Lancero what we’re trying to do is give you more of that wrapper flavor. When you go up to larger ring gauges, we’re trying to not only show you the flavor of that wrapper but also the importance of the filler and how that reacts to your cigar.

 

cao bones cigarsWhat is your favorite cigar right now?

Within the CAO line, I would say I’m smoking a lot of Bones because its new. I’m like anybody else. When something is new in the market, I tend to smoke it until I can’t smoke another one. It’s not because I don’t enjoy it. It is because I smoked it for two months in a row, and I’m ready for something else. I’ll always have a soft spot for that line, so I’ll always go back to it. For example, Flathead. We launched it about six or seven years ago. Do I smoke as many Flatheads today as I did seven years ago? No. I don’t because I have more cigars that I have blended and enjoy. But when I go back to that cigar, I’m like oh why would I ever give up on it?

 

But isn’t the CAO Pilon one of your favorite cigars too? CAO Pilon cigars

It was my fourth blend for the company. We had to work with the tobacco for about three years and other types of tobaccos to see which ones could withstand the new fermentation process, we were trying to do. If you are new to CAO, you should start with the CAO Pilon because you will see what we are about. The tobacco, the flavor, the presentation everything about this cigar is so spot on. I think you will walk away saying, “this is something special.”

 

Rick FlatheadFlathead is such a popular brand. How did it come about?

At the time, I was working on another project that I didn’t believe in, and I didn’t want itCAO Flathead V660 to launch. I pulled the plug on it. I was in the factory and I said, “I’m not going to do this.” I don’t believe in this blend, the name or the packaging. For me to go out there and lie to my fans of CAO, I’m never going to do that. I went to General and said, “unless you want me to really say, “don’t like it. Don’t believe in it. Don’t want it,” and you launch it, I will do it.” They came back and said, “if you don’t do it you will have no cigars to launch on this trade show that’s going to take place in two months.” Then I said, “I have this crazy concept of a line called Flathead. It is based on my love affair of old cars and pin-up girls.” They said, “you have until Friday to submit something to the marketing department.” We created that cigar in less than two blends and one box design, and we launched it. And it took off. It is the number one selling cigar for CAO today.


CAO Flathead V660 flypaperI love the design of the Flathead box and the fly-paper sheet. What can you tell us about it?

Here’s a little-known secret, the young lady on the Flathead V660 Carb is my mother when she was 17 years old. When I presented it to my mother, I was crying. I said, “I want to show you something that without you I would never be here to do what I do and so this is the way I’m going to honor you.” I showed her the picture, and she said, “Oh! This young lady is beautiful.” I said, “Mom does it look like anyone you know?” She said, “no.” I said, “Mom, let me show you another picture.” It was her standing in front of a car, and I said, “that’s you.” She just broke down and cried. That’s the beauty of this business. You can put into the name, the design or the packaging some of your history … some of yourself in a line. For my company to allow me to do this was something else.

Who has the most influence when it comes to deciding what the box is going to look like?

In my case because of my history with CAO, they really rely on me. About 70 to 80 percent of the time, I have the influence to say this is the design I’m looking for. My concept and the end concept are so far apart from each other, and sometimes it is spot on. My influence of what to name a cigar and what it looks like has a lot to do with me understanding the fans of CAO and what they want from us. They rely on me to share the information with them.

 

CAO Bones Domino TableHow did the name Bones and its concept come about?

 Bones is because I love dominoes. We don’t call them dominoes in Tampa. We say we’re going to slap some bones down. The marketing guys are like, “Stop! What did you call it?” Plus, I just love the word “bones.” And they loved it too.


What I love about the design for the Bones box is you can use it to play a game.CAO Bones Dice Game

We discovered that up north when they are playing dice, they call it bones. We were going to put just one domino piece in the box. And I’m like what are you going to do with one domino? But if you put a set of dice on it you can toss that dice. So now you just reverse the lid, and you have a place to throw the dice and collect money from your friends if you’re lucky.

 

What does General and CAO do to create hype before a cigar is released?

We use social media to leak out what’s coming without sharing a lot of information. We don’t want to share too much because it can cause you to prejudge. It is the reason why I don’t talk a lot about the blends anymore unless you smoke the cigar. If I give you a new cigar, the minute I give that cigar to anybody they’re first question is “what’s the blend?” If I say it has “XYZ” tobacco, they’re going to say, “I don’t like that blend.” They are already setting themselves up to not liking the cigar. But I let them smoke it first and they’re like “I love it.”

 

How do you revamp a brand that has lost its charm?

You can do two or three things. You can concentrate on it if you believe in it. You can re-purpose it by talking about it like “Hey! Don’t forget Gold.” Gold right now is the number three best-selling cigar in our line, and we have never talked about it. When we looked at the presentation for Gold, it was the same presentation they had twenty years ago. It was outdated. We’re going to revamp the packaging and make the cigar what it is. When you see the new packaging you’re going to say, “Oh my God! What is this? I want to try it.”

 

CAO ConsigliereI wanted to ask you about the Consigliere line. Isn’t that a nod to the Sopranos line?

We listened to the fans. For years, they asked when are you going to bring back the Sopranos? We could not use that name without the support of HBO. We called them and said you have a new movie coming out would you want to partner up with us? They said, “Oh yeah for sure. Four dollars a cigar.”  We said, “no!” I’m going to take that four dollars out of your pockets, HBO and put it back in the pockets of the consumer. What you’re smoking is the same blend that they had originally released. The only size we’re missing is the six by sixty. So, we’re going to honor “Tony” one of the original characters from that show. It is on the market right now.

 

Is there going to be a new Amazon Basin on the way?

We don’t have a new Amazon Basin that we are going to release in the future, but I know that we are going to do another Amazon cigar in the end of this year. Possibly in the Fall of 2021 or the beginning of 2022. It is already being made.

 

What else can we expect other than the new Amazon basin? What can we expect in 2021 from CAO?CAO Arcana Series Mortal Coil cigar

Right now, we have three cigars that we are going to introduce. Two small batches. One is going to be released in February called Mortal Coil and when you see this presentation it is unbelievable. The band and the box are very cool. It is a cigar that kind of reminds us of some Amazon Basin series, but it is not using Amazon Basin, but the way we treated the tobacco is very special. It is more of a full-bodied cigar. To me, it is spot on with the body and flavor I want to deliver. I think we are making about 5,000 boxes of those.

 

CAO Zocalo cigarsThe one that I’m very excited about is the Zocalo, which we are launching full time. Zocalo is a cigar we shared with the fans of CAO about two or three years ago. It was a one size a 6 by 60. The feedback we received was “great blend, great cigar, but can you give us a smaller ring gauge?” Now we’re going to have three sizes including the 6 by 60. It is going to be released worldwide so we are going to have Brazilla, America, Colombia, Nicaragua, Italia, and now we’re going to do Zocalo. And we’re going to represent Mexico.


The next one is “Torque,” which we are still working on. I really enjoyed working on Torque. It is very full bodied. When you see the presentation, you are going to want to buy it. It looks like an oil can. The name is based on the torque of your engine as in “give me more torque,” meaning more power. It’s going to be fun. You are going to have a blast with that cigar.

 

You have fans all over the world. What have you learned about cigar smokers in your travels?

I was lucky enough to visit Europe for 8 years in a row, and I went to China two years ago before the flu [COVID-19]. That was such an exciting trip. I learned that what we smoke and how we smoke versus how China and Europe smokes is very different. In the next five years, American consumers will have the opportunity to enjoy a cigar that has been grown and manufactured in China. What I smoked was not bad. I was like wow. I’m not saying it was in the realm of what we are doing as manufacturers, but I would definitely put them as a great bundle cigar right now. The manufacturers I talked to have been in the business for two to five years and they are already creating this! What are they going to create in the next five years? I think it is great for cigar fans because there will always be something new.

Image(s) Sources:

Rick with Bobblehead, www.instagram.com, https://www.instagram.com/p/B2raPpon53h/, Accessed on March 23, 2021
Rick at cigar shop/lounge, www.instagram.com, https://www.instagram.com/p/B4WGRtkH1dM/, Accessed on March 23, 2021
Rick holding Flathead Cigars box, www.instagram.com, https://www.instagram.com/p/CF3C4ImnD1F/, Accessed on March 23, 2021
CAO Flathead V660 flypaper courtesy of General Cigar Co. 
Bones Domino Table, www.instagram.com, https://www.instagram.com/p/CDZjLBxn1-r/, Accessed on March 23, 2021


Published on March 23, 2021.

By Luzzie Normand
Co-Founder & Editor; Neptune Cigars Inc.
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