I was lucky enough to sit down with Jon Huber of Crowned Heads a few weeks back to talk about his start in the industry, how cigars have changed over the past 20 years, the future of Crowned Heads, and a LOT more.
I’m sure everyone is already familiar with Crowned Heads, but for those who aren’t – Crowned Heads has been paving the way for “boutique” brands for well over a decade (I put boutique in quotations because “boutique” has become overly saturated and doesn’t mean the same thing that it did 10 years ago). Nonetheless, Crowned Heads has become of the industry’s darlings over the past decade, and they certainly have a bright road ahead of them.
On that note, let’s take a journey with one of the industry’s smartest and most humble individuals.
Kevin: Let’s just jump right into it. It’s crazy to think that Crowned Heads has been doing this for over a decade – when you first decided to start the company, did you ever think it would grow into the beast that it is today?
Jon: Oh yeah, no doubt. In fact, I thought we would probably be a little bit further along than we are today. But to be viable in this industry and in the conversation ten years later is definitely a big accomplishment – all in all it’s been a great ride. Just to put it into perspective a little bit, we launched our first cigar back in November of 2011, and at that time shipped it to 66 doors across the United States. Today, we’re in over 1,200 doors, and we are continuing to grow internationally, so just to see how far we have come in the past decade is really amazing. I am happy where Crowned Heads is right now, but I am not totally satisfied because I know where we can be in another 10 years.
One of the things I’m really proud of is the fact that a blend like Four Kicks is still viable in the marketplace today. A lot of brands come and go, and especially nowadays, they have a certain lifespan with everyone wanting what’s new and what’s hot, so seeing Four Kicks on store shelves after this long definitely gives me a sense of pride.
Kevin: Jumping topics a bit – you spent a lot of time working with CAO, so what were some of your biggest takeaways or best lessons learned from your time there?
Jon: More than anything, it’s just important to not put any limits on yourself or you what you want to accomplish. Cano Ozgener was such an important mentor in my life, and he had a couple of mantras that have always stuck with me. One of them was the idea that you could achieve anything you wanted to which was an important learning experience for me. I just have a lot of really fond memories from my time at CAO. We had such a great group of people, and honestly, I’ve never had more fun than I did back in the day with everyone at CAO.
When you start your own company, there is a lot more pressure on you – with CAO I was able to just go to work, have fun with my coworkers, and enjoy what I was doing, which happened to be something I was really good at. I still enjoy the process and the creative outlet today, but I have a lot of bigger things to think about – growing the company, making sure our employees are comfortable and happy, things like that. These are also things that I take pride in and enjoy, but CAO was just so much fun for me.
Kevin: Now I’m relatively new to cigars in the grand scheme of things, but I wanted to get your opinion on some of the biggest changes you have seen in the industry over the past, 10, 15, or even 20 years.
Jon: The introduction and insane growth of social media has been a complete game changer. I mean, back in 1996 when I started with CAO, the only way you could get a “story” out was to literally type up a press release, fax it to Cigar Aficionado and just hope that they would pick it up and report on it. And now, with something like Instagram, I can just post a picture and have it in front of 30,000 people immediately. It was such a different time and space, and you had to market your brands in products in such a different way.
I think consumers are vastly different too – today’s consumers are so much more knowledgeable about the products because they have access to any information they could possibly want about a cigar through the internet, Twitter, Instagram, forums, etc. Take Instagram live for example, you can watch from literally anywhere in the world and hop on to talk to Pete Johnson, or whoever – it’s just a completely different ballgame now.
When you look at the consumer back in the late 1990’s and even the early 2000’s, there was a lot more brand loyalty. People would go into a shop and grab their regular box of H. Upmann or Macanudo, and the idea for brands back then was just to try to get into that person’s rotation somehow, which was really hard to do. And now, you’ll have people come into the store and grab a couple of blends from Foundation, a couple blends of blends from Crowned Heads, a couple of blends from Tatuaje – nowadays, people are really trying to find the next hottest thing before it gets really popular. It was just a different space and approach back in the mid 1990’s when I got into the business.
One of the other things is the quality of the product nowadays. I think there is just so much more competition and better tobacco for the most today than there was back in the late 1990’s. The consistency of cigars today is just unreal, and there is so many really great products on the market – everything from house brands to the niche “boutique” brands. The quality of the product is substantially better now than it was when I started smoking cigars as a consumer in the mid 1990’s.
Kevin: So, I know that music is important part of your life, which is something that I can relate to. Can you just walk me through how music has influenced Crowned Heads, and your everyday life?
Jon: Music has just always been an inspiration to me. If I were given the choice of only having TV or music in my house, I would say “throw the TV away”. Music has always allowed me to almost create my own movie in my head and I’ve always been really inspired by it. You know, by happenstance, this influence kind of bled over into some of our early releases with Crowned Heads, and even some of our newer releases as well. For example, the name Four Kicks was inspired by a Kings of Leon song, and Headley Grange was inspired by the drum pattern of a Led Zeppelin song.
It's funny though, because we kind of fell into the trap where people say, “oh, they’re a music-based company”, but honestly, I get inspiration from a lot of different things, not just music. It can be anything – fashion, art, skate, and surf culture, whatever.
Kevin: Staying on the topic of influences, could you identify some people in the industry that have made the biggest impact on you?
Jon: Oh yeah, that’s an easy one. Starting with Cano Ozgener, he was the one that gave me a chance and really helped me get my start in the industry. He taught me so much about the cigar business, but just as much about life.
Mike Conder, who is my business partner now, worked with me back in the day at CAO and he has given me, and still does give me, so much insight into the industry.
A gentleman named George Brightman, who was one of the higher ups at Cigar Aficionado magazine back in the day, was such a force in cigars – he just knew everybody in the business and knew absolutely everything about tobacco. I’ll actually still send him samples and things to try to this day, and he’ll send me his feedback and thoughts, which is awesome.
Nowadays I consider Ernesto Perez Carrillo a close friend and a great mentor. I remember back in 1990’s I would read about him and La Gloria Cubana and how he was this amazing blender – he’s one of the guys on my Mount Rushmore of cigar blenders, and it’s insane that we text back and forth all the time now. I still have to remind myself sometimes like, “dude, I am working with Ernie.” Its just crazy.
Kevin: You guys have such a good balance of limited-edition blends, seasonal releases, and core lines. If it were me, all I would want to do is pump out limited-edition blends nonstop, so I’m wondering if trying to balance your portfolio has ever been a challenge for you?
Jon: Very much so – even to this day it’s still somewhat challenging. Going back to when we announced the company in 2011, I remember doing an interview and saying “I’m not into limited-editions. I want to build core brands, and I want to build equity in the brand”, which is something that I still believe in. And then, by accident, we kind of fell into the LE trap when we did Mule Kick. So, Ernie had told me that he had some wrapper leaf that was too dark for the regular Four Kicks, and he wasn’t sure what to do with it. I had him sort every box by wrapper color and long story short, those boxes are what became Mule Kick, which sold out almost immediately when we released it. So, that was really eye-opening.
So now, over a decade later, we developed a blueprint to figure for seasonal and limited-edition releases that included stuff like Las Calaveras, Mule Kick, and Belicosos Finos, etc. What I’ll do is lay out a mix of regular production and limited-edition stuff that equal somewhere around 12 or 13 releases well ahead of time so that we can properly plan production. One thing that people don’t realize is that it’s really the same amount of work for us to produce a project of 5,000 cigars as it is for a project of 150,000 cigars. The work for us really lies in the blending, packaging, graphics, and the legality side of things which you have to do for every release.
But getting back to your original question, it’s definitely a juggling act, but it’s become a core part of our business model throughout the years. And at the end of the day, its hard to call things like Las Calaveras, or Mule Kick new limited-edition releases, because we’re not really changing the projects all that much - obviously, the blends change, but were not starting from scratch with the project or anything.
Kevin: I’m glad you brought up Las Calaveras because I’m a big fan of those releases. I know this is probably a tough question for you, but if you had to pick your favorite Las Calaveras blend, which one would it be?
Jon: You know, I’d probably have to go with Las Calaveras 2015, but I know that the grail for everyone is probably 2014 which was the original one. It’s funny, because when we launched the first Las Calaveras in 2014, I had no idea if it was going to take off the way that it did – I honestly just thought it was going to flop, but it didn’t, and after that, I said “we have to do a 2015 version.” I remember working on the blend with Jaime Garcia in early 2015 and we were in the truck driving back to Esteli, and he handed me this absolutely beautiful robusto. I lit it, and I was like “holy s***, what is this?” It was one of the best cigars I have ever smoked, and that is the blend that ended up becoming Las Calaveras 2015.
There were a couple releases that flew under the radar for me – I thought 2016 was going to blow everything out of the water because it was broadleaf wrapper, and there wasn’t anyone making better broadleaf cigars than Jaime and Pepin at that point. It ended up not doing as well as I had expected it to which was kind of surprising to me. I also thought 2019 was really good, and that didn’t get the acclaim that I thought it would either. I’m really excited about the 2023 version – I think people are going to like it a lot.
I fortunately was able to revisit 2014 a few months ago – a good friend of mine came in one day to smoke a few cigars and he brought a few of them which was so cool because I haven’t seen them in forever. It was awesome because 2014 is obviously the one that put Las Calaveras in motion, but if you put my feet to the fire, I would have to say that 2015 is favorite.
Kevin: You said you were a consumer before you started working in the industry, so what was it about cigars that made you want to make a career out of them?
Jon: It was really the romance of cigars that drew me. I walked into my first cigar store almost by accident – I was looking for a gift to take back to California with me for Thanksgiving and I remember thinking “cigars are kind of a cool thing”. So, I walked into a local retailer here in Nashville and when I went into the humidor, it was like an epiphany – the smell of the cedar and tobacco was unlike anything I had experienced before, and at that point I knew I had to figure out a way to get into the industry. I started to learn more about the process of growing tobacco, and I was able to go to some factories and I knew that I wanted to work with cigars forever.
One of the things I’ve loved since I’ve gotten in the business is the camaraderie within the industry. Pete Johnson is one of my best friends in the industry and I don’t look at him or his brands as competitors per se. The cigar industry is more like a family where we are all rooting for each other to be successful. A lot of other industries are really cutthroat, and don’t get me wrong, there is competition in cigars, but at the end of the day we all want to succeed together.
Kevin: Alright Jon, I have one last question for you. I’m assuming you mostly smoke Crowned Heads stuff, but other than that, do you have any favorite brands outside of your brand?
Jon: I’ll be honest, 90% of the cigars that I smoke are unbanded samples for future projects. Sometimes at the end of the day I’ll go to the humidor and grab a Jericho Hill or a Four Kicks or something and just sit down and enjoy it, but most of the time I’m just smoking samples.
To answer your question though, I have been a fan of everything that Pete Johnson has done since 2003. I mean there really isn’t anything that Tatuaje has released that I haven’t been a fanboy of.
I love Illusione and Dion – I think he’s like an uber genius when it comes to tobacco.
I am a big fan of Willie Herrera blends – not only the Drew Estate stuff, but he will also just send me a bunch of blends to try out. I think his style and palette is really similar to mine.
I can’t forget My Father blends. I mean everything they do is absolutely fantastic.
I’ve always been a fan of Padron and Fuente too – but that goes without being said.
As I mentioned, Ernie has had such a big influence in my career. What he did with Encore, La Historia, and Pledge is just unbelievable.
We’ve also been working a lot more with Raul Disla from NACSA and he just knocks everything out the park. We just started working with them recently and I can’t wait to do more projects with them.
Kevin: Alright Jon. You made it through the gamut, and I can’t thank you enough for your time. Really looking forward to another year of Crowned Heads and talking again soon.
Jon: Thanks, Kevin. I really appreciate man. Just give me a shout and we will do this again for sure.
As always, to keep the length of this article somewhat manageable, there was some content that didn’t make it into this piece. Jon is a tobacco man at heart, so I’m sure that we could’ve talked about the industry and cigars for countless hours – it’s pretty clear that we will have to have a follow up session to dive even deeper.
Keep your eyes open for all the cool stuff that Crowned Heads has coming in the next year, and in the meantime pick up our Crowned Heads Brand Sampler to sample some of the blends that paved the way for them.
Be sure to leave a comment about what you would’ve talked to Jon about so we can make sure to get it on the schedule for the next time!
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