For Drew Newman, fourth-generation owner of J.C. Newman Cigar Company, it’s about more than just cigars – it’s about honoring family legacy, time-honored tradition and crafting premium cigars that embody Tampa’s history as Cigar City.
In 1996, a 15-year-old Newman created and launched CigarFamily.com. His first foray into the family business became the world’s largest online cigar community in the 1990s and 2000s. It’s no surprise that after graduating from Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, the ambitious young man went on to study at Williams College, Oxford University, American University Washington College of Law and Princeton University, pursuing a prestigious legal career before returning to his roots at El Reloj, the family’s cigar factory in Ybor City.
El Reloj, a bastion of Tampa’s legacy as Cigar City, is the last remaining cigar factory in Ybor — once the cigar-making capital of the world — and also the last traditional cigar factory still operating in the United States.
Newman returned to the family business in 2017 with a vision – restore the factory, open it to the public and create an all-American, Tampa-made premium cigar. The product of Drew Newman’s loftiest ambitions, The American, lives up to this dream.
Unmistakable craftsmanship down to the smallest details defines the cigar, groundbreaking in its composition, a homage to the legacy of cigar making in the United States, to J.C. Newman and to Tampa.
“Cigars are to Tampa what wine is to Napa Valley,” Newman says. “Cigars are part of our cultural fabric and it’s important to keep the tradition alive for future generations. As the last factory still left in Cigar City, it’s our privilege to be able to continue the tradition and be ambassadors for the cigar industry and for Tampa.”
With The American, J.C. Newman excels as an ambassador. Photos by the Burgert Brothers hang in the rolling room, showcasing cigar makers practicing the same craft over 100 years ago. Today, the method has not changed.
“It’s the first time in the cigar industry you have a cigar with 100% American long-leaf premium tobacco,” master roller Luis Martinez says. “We use filler tobacco grown by Mennonites in Pennsylvania, binder from eighth-generation family farmer Jon Foster in Connecticut and the wrapper leaf grown in Clermont.”
The American is the first cigar rolled with a Florida Sun Grown wrapper, grown by Corona Cigar Co.’s Jeff Borysiewicz. The result of this blend? An outstanding, patriotic cigar.
“The last time people had a chance to smoke a cigar with a Florida-grown wrapper was over 50 years ago,” says Corona Cigar Company president and founder Borysiewicz, also the president of Florida Sun Grown. “We brought back growing premium cigar tobacco right here in Florida, and in doing so we’ve brought back a taste and flavor profile that’s been gone for a generation.”
“In the same way that Drew [Newman] is making cigars here in Tampa, we’re proud to be part of bringing the industry back home,” Borysiewicz adds.
Craftsmanship extends to every aspect of The American. Boxes that house the cigars are made in Miami using American hardwood and hinges from Massachusetts. Bands and labels are printed in Orlando using papers made in Wisconsin and ink from North Carolina. Every cigar is rolled by hand at El Reloj in Tampa.
Fittingly, The American was the first cigar brand rolled when El Reloj opened in 1910. When Newman decided to roll an all-American cigar, he realized that there was no better name to call it than The American. A century after it was designed, J.C. Newman recreated The American’s original shield, cigar label, and cigar band, which adorn each cigar and cigar box.
“It’s a way for us to showcase the history of our four-generation, 127-year-old business and also the history of cigar making in Tampa and America,” Newman says. “The history of cigar making in the United States is a rich one that predates the country itself. At the time of the American Revolution, tobacco was being grown in all 13 colonies. The first successful British colony here, Virginia, was successful largely because they learned to grow tobacco from the native population.”
With tobacco for cigars now primarily grown overseas, Newman’s biggest challenge was finding American-grown, premium tobacco leaves that would create the blend he was looking for.
“A complex, well-balanced taste, not too harsh,” he describes. “Searching for that flavor profile was difficult, as we didn’t have a wide range of varietals in American cigar tobacco. In the end, we’ve composed a great, unique blend that no one else has. It’s a very special project.”
Once all of the necessary components are gathered, cigar rollers like Martinez keep the art of cigar rolling alive.
“It’s a small-production, super-premium product,” Martinez says. “We make about 100 cigars per day in five sizes: Robusto, Toro, Churchill, Torpedo and Double Robusto.”
Martinez explains that the first step is making bunches, where filler and binder tobacco is combined in a mold and then pressed with the duration based on the gauge of the cigar.
“The larger gauges need more time than the smaller ones, usually around 45 minutes to an hour and a half. Then we can put the wrapper on,” Martinez describes. “When the cigar is ready, we let it age for a year in the aging room, allowing the ammonia in the tobacco to be slowly released. In this way, the cigar cures. It’s a fermentation process and in the end, the flavor is better, like a fine wine.”
The final product is an elegant, flavorful, medium-bodied luxury cigar with a unique taste and distinctive earthy flavors.
West Tampa native Dan Woodham encountered The American at the cigar’s release party and has been enjoying it ever since.
“I’ve been enjoying J.C. Newman cigars for decades,” he says. “They hit a grand slam with this one. The American is a truly inspiring smoke. It’s so well balanced and it has become my all-time favorite cigar.”
Cigar aficionado and social media content creator Ryan Mills was drawn to The American for similar reasons.
“It’s an absolutely premium cigar,” he says. “The American has an explosion of great flavor and creamy smoke. Between the cocoa and earthy tones, there’s a nice citrus note that pairs well with your favorite spirit. I keep a few in my humidor to hand out to friends.”
Like others involved in the creation of The American, Mills is excited to see the industry brought home.
“We need to get back to being Cigar City,” Mills declares. “This is how I feel about J.C. Newman and The American Cigar: I don’t ever want to see them leave. I want to see them and other cigar makers grow in Tampa. They’re keeping the heritage of Cigar City alive and refusing to let go of the decades of history Tampa brings to the cigar world.”
As Drew Newman envisioned it, El Reloj is now open to the public with a three-level cigar museum, guided tours, factory store, and private events space. Every week, cigar rollers walk through its doors to the tolls of the eponymous weight-driven clock that has been keeping time for Ybor’s cigar makers for over a century. Daily, they handcraft small batches of The American, Newman’s dream realized.
Open a box and unwrap one, and you can feel the history, legacy and creative craftsmanship held together by the finest heirloom tobacco leaves right between your fingers, each puff a reminder that Tampa was and always will be Cigar City.