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Master Blender Nicholas Syris, Founder of LH Premium Cigars and Lounges: “The cigar is the great equalizer”!
Each time that I go to Owl Cigar Shop/lounge in New Heaven, CT I look for something new to try. Needless to say that as the time goes by that’s becoming harder and harder. But even when you think you’ve tried them all, and you know what you want, surprise! My eye caught a box with some delicious-looking dark cigars, banded as Nick & Jim PBE. I took one, and after ceremoniously lighting up and taking a few puffs, I came to like it. Not mild, not full, kind of medium with a kick, just what I needed then and there. I always Google each new cigar I smoke to learn more about it and that’s how I came to find out that the master blender’s name is Nicholas Syris. That rang a bell, and I thought that it must be Greek. I was right, and after looking him up further, I was able to contact him, talk and produce the interview that follows.
Like almost all his colleagues, Greek American master blender Nicholas Syris comes from a tobacco-growing family and as a kid, he helped pick and sort the tobacco leaves. Not in Cuba, though, or another South American country, but in …Macedonia, Greece! In fact, one of his dreams is to roll a cigar with tobacco grown in the small estate he inherited from his father (talking about …My Father’s Cigars!). That would be a great tribute to his family, to the centuries-old tobacco tradition in Greece and a remarkable addition to his high end, boutique line of LH (Lavida Habana) Premium Cigars.
Nicholas started his professional life as a very successful audio video electronics specialist. Thankfully, it was his passion for good cigars that won him over and also led him to a side career on a radio talk program, “Smooth Draws” a weekly program dedicated to Cigars and the Cigar Lifestyle. It was also his love of cigars that opened the door, back in the mid-90s, to Saudi Arabian Royalty and subsequently the creation of the first of a several Lavida Habana Cigar Lounges. “The cigar is the great equalizer, where people from all walks of life, different cultures and various socioeconomic backgrounds can all bond over the experience of enjoying a cigar,” says Nicholas. And despite the anti-smoking hysteria that has befallen on the US and other parts οφ the world, “we are strong in our convictions and our desires to enjoy the pleasures that we derive from smoking premium cigars!”
You were born in Macedonia. What part exactly and how was life in a tobacco growing family?
I was born in Neapolis, Kozani, which is in the heart of the Macedonia region of Greece. My grandfather relocated to that region from the Black Sea area of (present day) Turkey during the Antallagi (population exchange between Greece & Turkey). My paternal grandfather was a tobacco farmer (kapna) for most of his adult life. My father and all his siblings were also tobacco farmers from birth practically, as was the practice in the villages. My father later learned another trade, as a tailor. He came to the US with his wife and me in tow, his one son at the time, when I was only two years of age. I spent a several summer vacations back in Neapolis and got to help out with the family business, sorting leaves and just being a part of the tobacco experience at a very young age. I was so intrigued, but never smoked cigarettes, but discovered premium cigars right out of college, and I was hooked! I don’t know if these experiences contributed or if it is that tobacco is just in my blood, but it definitely seemed like something I quickly became passionate, what started out as a very consuming ended up my present day vocation. Who would have predicted! I’m a husband and a father that believes you should always follow your dreams, do what you love, work hard and strive for success! Success for me is defined as the continuous journey toward the achievement of my goals!
Have you ever thought of making a “Greek Cigar,” not just in name, but made in Greece from Greek leafs that are produced there for centuries and are especially sought after for their aroma? It is a goal of mine, and a passion project to one day be able to produce a cigar utilizing not only tobacco from Greece, but from the very “stremmata” (acres) that I inherited from my father!
Although the cigar industry has greatly expanded the last 20 years, at the same time it faces numerous obstacles in terms of regulation that sometimes go beyond reason, to say the least. In New York we are not even allowed to smoke in parks, in the open air! What’s your thoughts, not just as a cigar professional, but also as cigar smoker: member of a persecuted minority? as I call us.
It has become increasingly more difficult to enjoy a cigar anywhere in the world, not just in New York, or in this country. I have seen country after country succumb to the anti-tobacco laws that have taken over the world. I don’t know about the rest of my fellow brothers and sisters of the leaf, but I for one, will continue to enjoy my passion and love for cigars. Even though we are but a very small minority, we are strong in our convictions and our desires to enjoy the pleasures that we derive from smoking premium cigars.
What did you do before you started making cigars?
I’ve been an entrepreneur my entire life. I started my first business (a computer consulting firm) when I was still in high school. I cultivated it through my college years and I never looked back! Eventually I sold the computer consulting firm to pursue my first real passion – electronics. I’ve always been a gadget and technology junkie so my evolution into the electronics industry was seamless. I always loved music and movies so my passion turned into a successful retail and custom installation audio/video business. With an anchor retail store based in New Jersey, my company designed and installed personal home theaters. We started out in the northeast part of the state but worked with clients nationally and eventually, internationally. It was a fun and dynamic business that allowed me to meet and befriend many interesting people. Ironically, it was sharing a cigar that led to a unique friendship with a Saudi Royal Prince. He also became a client and I traveled to the Middle East, where I designed theaters for his palaces and other royals. It was the bond of the cigar that we shared that was the genesis of our friendship.
Is that what led to LH Cigars and Lavida Habana Cigar Lounges?
After almost 20 years in the technology business, I found myself being more consumed by my interest for premium cigars. Throughout my adult years, cigars were always instrumental in forming great bonds with clients and colleagues in business. Eventually, it became my business. A long-time friend and business colleague was tasked with putting together what became our first private cigar lounge in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He was the personal business manager for that first prince I met. Our business relationship grew through the years, but again it was the mutual love and passion for cigars that was the foundation of our friendship. I was asked to be a part of that project, and that project turned into the Lavida Habana Cigar Lounges. Part of my responsibilities were to assist procuring hard-to-find, limited edition and “special” cigars for the private clientele of the lounges. A number of our members are royals and they were accustomed to the finer things and that didn’t stop at cigars. They expected excellence when it came to their own enjoyment of premium cigars. Through a series of events, the LH Premium Custom Rolled Cigar was created. It was originally crafted by master rollers in Cuba made specifically for their pallets and particular tastes.
And that led to you having a radio program!
I was initially interviewed as the brand owner of LH Premium Cigars. Gary Laden, the driving force and host of the Smooth Draws Radio Show, based out of ESPN Radio 1230, The Fan, in Atlanta was very interested in my Cuba travels and experiences. He asked me if I would be interested in being a contributor to the show. What started out as a weekly segment, “Nick’s Notebook: A Cigar Enthusiast’s Guide to Cuba,” turned into me being a regular in a co-hosting capacity. It was also available as a podcast that was streamed by audiences in 81 countries. Unfortunately, after several years doing the show, Gary passed away due to health complications, and I was asked to continue the show, but could not add that to my already very full schedule of growing my cigar brand internationally.
How and when did you start making LH non-Cuban?
The first LH Custom rolled cigars were made entirely from Cuban tobacco. Initially it was difficult for our clients to appreciate the evolution of the cigars and how by blending tobaccos you can achieve more complex flavor profiles. The entire world (outside of the U.S.) has a very skewed view of premium cigars. The prevailing view is that only Cuban cigars are really worth enjoying and the rest are inferior. It’s thought that Americans have to smoke non-Cubans because they can’t smoke the “real” thing. They even go so far as to call all non-Cuban cigars, “fakes!” I wasn’t subscribing to any of that and it became my mission to introduce non-Cuban cigars to my clients. The task proved more difficult than I initially expected. Just getting them to try non-Cuban cigars proved a struggle. You have to understand their viewpoint. If you are used to a regular diet of a particular taste and flavor profile, as soon as something different was sampled, it was dismissed. They would immediately put it down and it was the end of discussion. It was a process that took years of putting together an initial blend that was similar enough to what their palates expected, but just different enough to peak their curiosities. This process culminated in the first non-Cuban blend of LH Cigars.
What is the blend in the LH line today, where are they made at and what can people expect in terms of strength, body and flavor profile?
LH Cigars today use wrappers from Ecuador, all from the same farm! The current mild, medium and full bodied blends are all wrapped with Connecticut shade, Habano and Criollo seeded wrappers. The binders and fillers are primarily from Peru and Nicaragua. We also use Dominican, Honduran as well as tobaccos from Brazil. For me this is the most rewarding part of the business. We are constantly experimenting with tobaccos from regions from all over the world. I love coming up with interesting and unique blends. It is especially rewarding when my fellow aficionados enjoy them.
LH Cigars became a global success and they are also available to us in the US. Where can we purchase them?
I always considered LH Cigars an international cigar because they were first available outside the United States. But for me as an American it was always my dream to offer LH Cigars to the U.S. market. Having been in retail all my life, I understand the plethora of choices already available to the American cigar smoker. With literally over five thousand options available, did I really want to become the five thousand and first choice in an already crowded market? The LH cigar grew organically overseas as our initial private clientele took and shared their LH cigars with their friends and fellow cigar lovers in other parts of the Middle East and world. I thought I should do the same and started getting people to smoke them here in the U.S. I am slowly and methodically introducing it to new markets, one at a time. Currently we have retailers in pockets throughout the U.S. We are looking for the right partners and brokers to help us continue to spread the LH word. If you contact us at our website lhcigars.com, we would be happy to direct you to a retailer near you. If there are no local tobacconists near you that carry LH we have a couple of our retailers that will ship to you!
How did you meet Jim Robinson and how the Nick & Jim cigars came about?
Our collaboration with Jim Robinson started when we met in Cuba. Robinson soon became a fan of LH Cigars and asked me to blend him a cigar he could use for a house blend for his Leaf and Bean retail stores. I designed a cigar taking into account Robinson’s personal taste profile. The cigar not only became a house cigar at Leaf and Bean, it also grew to be a personal favorite of Robinson’s! As a result, we made the decision to take the brand national and it received an overwhelmingly positive response. Originally we had announced we were releasing Lavida Isla, but shortly after the announcement, some hurdles were encountered in terms of using the name. As opposed to delaying the release, we decided to release the initial batch as Nick & Jim’s P.B.E. (Pre-Band Edition). We decided to take a challenge put in front of us and turn it into a positive. The packaging has a simple, yet rustic look. At the same time, cigar enthusiasts will be getting the same great cigar that was slated to be called Lavida Isla. Nick & Jim’s P.B.E.is a medium-bodied cigar featuring a dark Ecuadorian wrapper. It is available in one size, a 6 x 54 Toro.
In terms of expansion, not just territorially, when it comes to exploring new possibilities in the cigar making, what are ideas that you are working on and you could perhaps share?
I am always growing in my knowledge and experiences in the tobacco industry. I will continue to use the same century-old processes of making a quality premium cigar; from seed to finished product, but also continue to experiment in the latest techniques and innovations as my journey continues down my chosen path in the cigar industry.
Who are some of the great maestros you have met and been influenced by?
I have been influenced by many great masters from many different parts of the tobacco world. My greatest mentor has been Master Blender Raul Vallardes Diaz of Cuba, who devoted more than a half century of his life to the cigar world. Mr. Vallardes, for those who are not familiar, participated in the development of many iconic blends for Habanos. One of his latest blends was the coveted Cohiba Behike, as well as being apart of the development of the Trinidad blends, as well as the Cohiba Maduro 5 and Cohiba Gran Reserva. Mr. Vallardes has not only been a wealth of knowledge and experience that I have been able to tap into and learn from but a true inspiration for me as he has contributed so much to this industry.
What is your favorite place or places in Cuba to smoke a cigar?
The first place that comes to mind for me, as well as for many cigar aficionados, is at the Hotel National. The back terrace, or patio, to be more precise is ideal. It’s a very popular meeting area for cigar lovers that have traveled from around the world to come, meet fellow cigar enthusiasts and have a fantastic smoking experience.
How long you’ve been going there and how often do you go?
I’ve been legally traveling to Cuba now since 2009. As of late, my travels take me there on a very regular basis. In fact, now, because of my radio segments on Cuba travel and cigars I began to host guided trips to Cuba. Initially our radio show listeners, and those that follow me on social media can legally travel with me on one of my trips. If anyone is interested in joining me in Cuba, and love cigars, please visit: http://cigartourstocuba.com for more information.
Besides the obvious enjoyment, what else is cigar smoking for you?
Smoking a cigar for me has always about the experience. It revolves around a premium cigar, but that’s just the beginning. The ambiance of your venue always affects that cigar’s personal enjoyment. The social aspect of the cigar experience is really a critical component. I’ve always said that the cigar is the great equalizer where people from all walks of lives, different cultures and various socioeconomic backgrounds who can all bond over the experience of enjoying a cigar. It’s where a Greek-American can connect and become friends with royals from Saudi Arabia. It’s all about the cigar. I’m sure that is what the Taino Indians first discovered when they smoked tobacco. Then you had the peace pipe…. Okay, I’m really getting off topic here. My point being simply, cigar smoking is all about the experience. Sure, the flavors and aromas enhance the ambiance and the social aspect complete it and make it an event! That’s what drew me to first becoming a lover of the leaf and then to wanting to be a part of this industry!