JR Alternative History · Part 2 – JR University
JR Alternative History
Then, at the very height of this Cigar Boom era Villazon was acquired by General Cigar. Given the severe shortages of Hoyo, Punch, Excalibur, and other Villazon brands at the time, General asked us to find another source for the JR Alternative. We understood their position fully and bore no ill will over this request. And all’s well that ends well anyway … and this ended incredibly well.
We moved the production of the JR Alternative (which, by the way, is probably the third-largest-selling handmade cigar in America, behind Macanudo, Romeo, and Fuente) to NATSA in Nicaragua, a factory that was capable of turning out large quantities of totally handmade cigars. Unfortunately, NATSA like every other factory during that time period did not have a sufficient inventory of premium-quality seasoned tobaccos to make such a vast quantity of finished cigars. Therefore, the first Alternatives from there in 1995 were indeed sub-par. However, today’s Alternatives, being made from what is undoubtedly one of the largest inventories of properly seasoned tobaccos in the world, are, in my opinion, excellent and better than a heck of a lot of the name brand premiums.
Because our earliest Alternatives were, in fact, the same cigars as the original (just without bands) there never really was any reason to try to copy or imitate what the manufacturer was making … because it really WAS what the manufacturer was making! At NATSA it was different; we had to make something LIKE the original.
The process today is probably more like the Villazon products of old than the name brand Villazon products in you local cigar store. That’s because Frank Llaneza, the founder of Villazon, is running the show at NATSA. He buys the tobacco, he makes the blends, and he is the final judge on when these cigars are suitably aged for shipment. And since he’s the guy that invented all these brands in the first place, it isn’t hard to deduce that these JR Alternatives are virtually indistinguishable from the many brands he was making in Honduras in years past.
As far as our Dominican made Alternatives. They are made by the major producers in that Island nation: General Cigar, MATASA, and ALTADIS. If it’s a Don Diego or a Macanudo, it’ll have a U.S.A.-grown Connecticut Shade, an Upmann will be Cameroon or Java, and a Romeo will be wrapped in whatever wrapper that particular version of Romeo normally comes in. The same would be true for Montecristo, Casa Blanca, Fonseca, or any other brand.
We do the best we can while still attempting to keep the cost bearable for the consumer that does not have “deep pockets,” or those consumers who are just unwilling to spend a lot for a handmade cigar.
A lot of our customers have been buying from us for over 40 years … and they were older folks to begin with … so we’re talking about people that are 70, 80 years old, and some even older.
Ever hear older folks go on and on about how much a hot dog was when they were young … or a car … or the rent? Heck, I do it all the time with my kids. Well, these JR customers are very price sensitive … they always write me notes about how they remember when a fine handmade cigar was a quarter, and a Larrañaga was half a buck. Most of these people are long retired and live on fixed incomes, so we are compelled to do our best to hold the price of this product down, to the best of our ability. It’s our small way (LaVonda’s and mine) of paying back those long-time customers who are the very reason for our success today.
Well, it’s pretty obvious by the tremendous variety of JR Alternatives we feature today that we repeated our success with Villazon’s products with every legitimate producer of quality handmade cigars as time went on.
In no particular order, because maybe I’m getting too old to remember myself … we made a deal with a fellow named Joe Feigelis, at Consolidated Cigar, to buy all the overproduction of their La Romana factory, and these we used to create JR Alternatives for Don Diego, Flamenco, H. Upmann, and their other Dominican brands. Again, the same cigars, but not quite always the same quality, as I suspect a portion of these cigars may have been seconds … However, because they were pouring in at a rate of over a quarter of a million per month, it’s obvious to even an idiot that there couldn’t be that many seconds in the whole world … Eventually, we had stockpiled so many of these bundles that entire second floor of our warehouse collapsed under the weight (believe me, it was a hell of a lot of cigars)!
Then, when the Sandanistas took over in Nicaragua in 1982, we bought all the inventory of Nicaragua Cigar and turned them into JR Alternatives to Joya de Nicaragua. When Lane Ltd. (the importer of Royal Jamaica) needed volume, we bought up an ocean of Royal Jamaicas and turned them into the JR Alternative for Royal Jamaica. Later on, we had MATASA make JR Alternatives for Casa Blanca, Fonseca, etc.
When our supply of the Cameroon-wrapped bundles that we had bought from Consolidated started to peter out, we made a deal with Fuente to supply us with Cameroon-wrapped cigars to use in lieu of our Upmann, and Cueta-Rey Alternatives (a move we had to make to insure a supply of African Cameroon handmades) and so, we also started to make Fuente Alternatives as well …
Then I got one of the worst ideas I have ever had (but, hey … if you don’t try, you’ll never really know just what you’re capable of doing). I decided to open my own JR ALTERNATIVE FACTORY! So, in partnership with Villazon and MATASA, we built a factory in Santiago, and I told Carlos Fuente, Sr., “In about a year, I’m gonna move the production of the JR Alternatives to a factory I’m opening with Frank Llaneza of Villazon and Manuel Quesada of MATASA …”
Talk about a move that has come back to haunt me a thousand times! Today, Fuente is one of the hottest product on the planet … and, like a shmuck, I left there to start making cigars on my own!