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Lounge Presidente
Lounge Presidente

A Conversation with Nick Melillo

Insight and Wise Words from the Chief of Broadleaf



I’m sure everyone is familiar with Foundation Cigar Company by now; a company that has been making waves in the industry for years with award-winning blends, great branding, and industry veteran and owner, Nick Melillo.

A few weeks back, Nick was generous enough to take some time out of his busy schedule and sit down with me to chat about the newest innovations from Foundation, his many years of experience in the industry, and how it feels when you start to get old. I was also lucky enough to get a thoughtful history lesson on the discovery of King Tuts tomb (I am convinced that Nick should probably teach college history courses in his limited spare time), and an overview of how to make quality pasta sauce.

I can assure you that all these topics relate to cigars and tobacco in one way or another.

Take a journey with one of the industry’s most interesting and brightest minds!

The Conversation:

Kevin: You guys have a lot of new stuff coming out. Could you give us a rundown of what people should be looking out for and the inspiration behind these new launches?

Nick: So, Highclere Castle is a really amazing project that I started with a friend of mine who is actually friends with Lord Carnarvon, who lives at Highclere Castle, and whose great grandfather discovered King Tuts tomb in November of 1922. The fact that Lord Carnarvon’s great grandfather discovered King Tuts tomb was really one of the main reasons I decided to do the Highclere project in the beginning. The original Highclere Castle blend has been taking off and I think people are starting to learn more about the brand itself. This really sold me on the project for the 100th Anniversary of the discovery which is coming up - they tapped us to do a special anniversary box and they're also releasing a special gin that's been cured in whiskey barrels, which is actually pretty incredible. So, we wanted to do something authentic. You know, I'm not one for gimmicks and we actually replicated a box from the tomb; this is pretty much an exact replica of a box found within Tuts tomb. We even had an Egyptologist from Yale make sure that the hieroglyphs were correct. This new Highclere Castle is called Senetjer, which means incense in ancient Egyptian. It's a 6.75” by 52 perfecto with an Ecuador habano wrapper and a special blend that I made-up just for this project - it's going to be pretty limited.


Kevin: I just have to say that the amount of thought that you put into these new launches is really interesting to see.

Nick: Yeah, for me it's just pretty natural because I’ve always been into history, culture, ancient mysteries, and stuff like that. So, to be able to start my own company and then take the blends and compliment them with things that I'm passionate about has been fun.

We also did two line extensions for Wise Man Maduro and El Gueguense which are called Macho Raton. These are 4.75” x 60 perfectos packaged in 12 count boxes. The Macho Raton is actually the central image in this artwork and to many people in Nicaragua, Macho Raton and Gueguense go in hand in hand. The Macho Raton were mules that were used in the Gueguense dance so it kind of goes hand in hand that a lot of people refer to this central image in the artwork as Gueguense. So, I thought it was perfect for a little specialty size for El Gueguense and Wise Man Maduro. These are limited, quarterly production runs which we think will bring even more awareness to both of these lines.

Then we have a new size for Menelik which is a very limited, special release that we are doing on a quarterly basis. It's probably one of my heavier blends - very rich and very spicy with a lot of body. It's definitely rustic as far as a lot of my blends go.

The biggest release is our new core line, Olmec, which comes in either a Maduro or Claro and is available in five different sizes. The Olmec were really the mother civilization of the Americas who flourished in Veracruz Mexico, which is where all the San Andres Negro tobacco is grown. And people don’t actually realize that San Andres is one of the oldest seed varieties when it comes to cigar tobacco. It's one of my favorite wrappers and we have it shipped to Nicaragua, and we slowly ferment it at much lower temperatures, which I think completely changes the overall flavor of the tobacco.

Kevin: What changes do you see with this fermentation process?

Nick: You know, I always compare it to my grandmother's pasta sauce. It's the difference between opening a can of pasta sauce and throwing it on the stove with high heat and working with the freshest ingredients and letting it simmer. My grandmother would keep that sauce on there for eight hours at a low simmer. Why? Because once you start turning up the heat, you start losing a lot of the essential oils and flavor. So, if you left that sauce at high heat and you didn't touch it, eventually it's all going to evaporate - you’ll be left with nothing. This is the same with tobacco. Being able to slowly ferment and maintain those essential oils allows you to maintain flavor, strength, and body.

It really all boils down to time.

A lot of times you'll hear people say things like “it’s not fermented enough”, or “the tobacco is too young”, but a lot of times, it's actually the opposite. In a lot of these cases, the tobacco is over fermented because people take the temperatures up much higher during fermentation in order to get the process completed faster. In essence, they overdo it, and they take most of that essential oil and flavor from that leaf.

Kevin: Switching gears a bit into a more difficult question, what would you say your favorite blend from the Foundation portfolio is your personal favorite?

Nick: That is a tough one, and honestly, I really don’t have a single favorite. For me, I have to like everything blend that I release to the market – I won’t put out something that I don’t like or anything that I can’t fully stand behind. With that said, I'm a little biased being from Connecticut. I grew up around Connecticut broadleaf tobacco, so I definitely have an affinity for broadleaf and the Tabernacle. I do have to say that I've been smoking a lot of Olmec over the past three months or so – I am going through a lot of boxes. But yeah, Tabernacle is definitely one that’s close to my heart.

Kevin: The Tabernacle was really what got me all-in with cigars. Before I got really into cigars, I use to only smoke the big, well-known national brands and I randomly bought the Tabernacle lancero on a whim because I thought it just looked really cool on the shelf. After I smoked it, I remember thinking to myself “is this what cigars are supposed to taste like?”, and I ended up buying a box – the first full box of cigars I ever bought. At that point there was no turning back for me.

Nick: Let’s go. That’s awesome man. I love to hear that.

Kevin: So, I said that the thing that really drew me to Foundation in the first place was the interesting branding and packaging. In your opinion, do you think people are swayed more by the branding or the actual cigar itself?

Nick: You know, I really think at the end of the day, if you're going to have a successful brand, both of these things have to come together to create magic. I think packaging definitely sways people, especially if you're in a shop and might not have someone guiding you in a certain direction - you’ll definitely be persuaded by the bands, the boxes, the packaging, and how it looks. I think at the end of the day, if the cigar is not there and the cigar is not what you're looking for as a consumer, that's only going to last so long; I think the brands that really last, end up having both of these things. There are a lot of cigars that are great cigars, where the branding is just not exciting, so the people are not attracted to it. I also think you could have really good packaging with a mediocre cigar and that causes it to sell a little bit more. At the end of the day, I think for ultimate success, you need to have the magic of a really good cigar and really great branding to come together to make a brand that will last.

Kevin: You obviously spent a lot of time working at Drew Estate. What are some of the biggest lessons or takeaways you brought with you when you started Foundation?

Nick: Man, that's a good question. Listen, nothing happens without a team, and I think I was fortunate to be surrounded by such a talented group over at Drew Estate. You know, there are so many hands that go into things, so many details. There are so many things that could go wrong if you're not careful, so building a solid team is crucial. And it might sound so obvious, but clarity and communication are a huge key. I was fortunate to spend over a decade gaining experience from and working with a really talented group of people which I think helped me develop my own style and techniques when it comes to blending. You just have to be open to learning because there are a ton of knowledgeable people in this industry and there’s always something to learn, especially when it comes to tobacco. So those are really some of the biggest things that I took with me from my time at Drew Estate when I started Foundation.

Kevin: I’ve got two more questions for you. First, what drew you to cigars initially?

Nick: It was really my grandfathers. You know, my grandfathers smoked Connecticut cigars and their fathers smoked Connecticut cigars. So, when I was growing up, sitting down, and having a cigar with my grandfather was probably just one of the coolest things that I could think of - being able to just sit with him and talk and hear stories about World War II. It was honestly like a coming of age for me, and something I will always be grateful for.

Kevin: Last question: It’s pretty clear to me that you love cigars and tobacco, but what are a couple of other things that you are passionate about?

Nick: I really enjoy hiking – I try to do a hike every morning. I also love music. I’m a big fan of reggae from the late 60’s and early 70’s, jazz, blues, hip-hop – really any live music in general.

Kevin: Thanks again Nick, for taking some to chat with me today. It is greatly appreciated and I’m looking forward to doing this again.

Nick: Kevin, I appreciate it, man. It was great talking to you. Cheers!

Closing Thoughts:


To keep the length of this article manageable, there were a few subjects that Nick and I discussed in depth that didn’t make it into this piece unfortunately. What I can say, is that we only began to scratch the surface of topics that Nick would have been able to give a full lesson on (something I am looking forward to doing more of in the future).

Be sure to be on the look out for Foundation’s newest offerings and in the meantime, sample their current selection of award-winning blends in our Foundation Brand Sampler, or buy a box of your new favorite Foundation cigar here at Cigora.

Let us know in the comments what your favorite foundation blend is, which new release you are most looking forward to, and what questions you would have asked Nick.