Steve Saka of Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust Cigars Talks About His Most Memorable Cigar Industry Milestones
“I don’t know if it’s a good career–is it? Well, obviously you have to go back to the beginning, right?” – Steve Saka
This podcast takes a slightly different route than some of our previous “5 Things” features. Rather than the five cigars that made his career, Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust Cigars founder, Steve Saka talks candidly about five career milestones that marked the road to his success. If you know nothing about Steve or his rise to becoming one of the most distinguished cigar makers in the industry, this podcast will quickly get you caught up. If you’re already a disciple, you’ll enjoy hearing it straight from the “Sakasquatch’s” mouth.
Certainly, there has to be at least one cigar that links to each chapter of Steve’s career. So, based on what the subject of each milestone, I took the liberty of choosing a cigar that I felt would be the most appropriate.
Listen to the Cigar Advisor Podcast with Steve Saka of Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust:
Milestone No.1: In the Navy
Steve’s story begins in the Navy, where he first discovered cigars. For his first milestone, he speaks fondly of an officer who turned him on to some higher quality primos:
“I went to his state room and he bequeathed upon me like three, four cigars. I don’t remember what they were, but they were like real legacy mainstream brands, which were top of the market at the time…”
I think I have an idea of what those first premiums were. So, I chose the Sobremesa Brûlée because in the brand’s press release Steve is quoted as saying: “Sobremesa Brûlée is a re-creation of the milder, shade wrapped ligas of my early years… I wanted to share with others the way I remember those blonde cigars being.”
Milestone No. 2: Finding Other Crazed Cigar Geeks on the World Wide Web
As a cigar geek himself, in the early 90s Steve discovered that there were others just like him on what we used to call the “world wide web.”
“It’s where people that had niche hobbies… in our case cigar smokers… We would get together and have that back and forth. It was asc.alt.smokers.cigars, and I became really active in the group around ‘92, ’93…”
Steve later went on to build www.cigarnexus.com. (click on it now and it takes you to the Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust website.) Now, one would assume that the chat room was made up of the most ardent cigar smokers, many of whom must have been everyday cigar smokers. That reminded me of his Umbagog line. Named for the New Hampshire lake he fishes in, Steve says, “This is a cigar that doesn’t pretend to be special or seek to elicit the ‘oohs or aahs’ of the cigar snobs. It is an honest, hardworking cigar that is meant to be smoked, chewed upon, and lit however many times you wish. For me, it is the perfect cigar for mowing the yard, hiking, four wheelin’, and of course, fishing!”
Milestone No.3: A Discussion About Hot Dogs
Steve’s activity on Cigar Nexus got him the attention of J-R Cigars owner, Lou Rothman. It all started with a debate between the two men over who makes the best hot dogs…
“Two hours later, Lou goes, ‘Why don’t you come work for me? You go to all these factories, you’re really into it. You love it’… It was the first time that I actually got paid to do what I had been basically doing for free.”
I don’t know if Steve ever made a special cigar for J-R, but he did for Famous Smoke Shop to celebrate the company’s 80th Anniversary. (You’ll find two Dunbarton Famous 80th Anniversary cigars in the Saka Sampler below.) Here’s what Steve had to say about the Dunbarton Famous 80th cigar to me after this taping:
“When I make an exclusive for someone it has to be a unique and deliver a different experience. I don’t like to take something that already exists and make it a half an inch shorter, or a ring gauge larger, or just change the shape, because I feel like you’re just taking advantage of your consumer. So, when I take these projects, even though the quantities are relatively small, I take them very seriously, and the Famous 80th is definitely a unique blend.”
Dunbarton Famous 80th Anniversary:
Milestone No.4: The Drew Estate Era , or How to Help a Young Fledgling Startup
“Drew Estate brought me in as a partner and president and that really spring boarded everything from that point forward. We created the hottest brand in the marketplace. It seemed like at that point, everything we touched was just coming up gold.”
Originally created as Steve’s personal blend, word of the Liga No.9 and samples eventually found their way to outsiders, and the craze started with 52 stores. Next thing you know, cigar smokers were clamoring for what would eventually become a classic and what Jonathan Drew called Drew Estate’s answer to the Fuente Fuente Opus X.
Milestone No. 5: Enter Dunbarton, and Why It’s Better to Be the Head of the Rat
To fully understand what that subhead means, you have to listen to the podcast. But in 2012 the line came from a Nicaraguan tobacco farmer from Jalapa in the form of impromptu advice which eventually paid-off.
“While I was at the farm, I asked the guy, you know, why do you do this? I mean, you have like eight acres. It’s so much work and so little money. And he said to me, ‘It’s better to be the head of a rat than the tail of a lion.’”
In 2015 Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust was founded by Steve and his wife Cindy. The company’s first release was Sobremesa, and by the time they released Mi Querida and Todos Las Dias, the company had established itself as a leading contender in the so-called, “boutique” domain.
Additionally, Steve’s reputation as one of the industry’s top master blenders boomed. One of the finest examples of his work is the Muestra de Saka line. As Steve describes it on his website: “A muestra is the promise of a new experience. Muestras are horded and coveted by not only their makers, but by the cigar smokers who seek to catch a glimpse into the cigarmaker’s soul within their smoke. Muestra de Saka is just that.”
Finally, if you’re looking for one of the best ways to familiarize yourself with Steve’s artisanal blending talents, try a variety of his DT&T ligas in this sampler made exclusively for Famous Smoke Shop.