Earlier this week, we caught up with James Brown about his new cigar company – Black Label Trading Company. James can be a difficult man to get a hold of as his work takes him to some of the more remote parts of the world. An avid adventurer and modern-day explorer, James also runs No Limit Expeditions. No Limit is a guided 4×4 adventure company that treks through some of the most remote and inhospitable jungles of Central America.
Offering guests a little taste of the expedition life, a No Limit trip isn’t your typical luxury safari. There is the occasional night at luxury villa and gourmet meal, but guests have to work hard and earn it. When the trucks get bogged down in the tar like jungle mud, it’s all hands on deck with shovels and recovery gear in hand. One thing is certain, on a No Limit trip you will get dirty.
The following is our interview with James about Black Label and the story behind it …
M: Can you provide us with a little background information about yourself?
JB: That’s a very long story, but I’ll give you the concise version. Once upon a time, I had a seemingly normal life as a Sommelier in the US working in some of the top restaurants. After that, it’s been a whirlwind 10 years of living in Mexico, Africa, and now finally in Central America. My wife Angela & I started No Limit Expeditions four years ago. Since then, adventure travel through the wilds of Central America has been my life. Now, I still do No Limit trips, but also spend most of my time on the development of Black Label Trading Company. The plan in the near future is to move from Antigua, Guatemala to Nicaragua in order to be closer to our cigar production.
M: When did you first get into cigars?
JB: I got into cigars when I was in my early 20’s working in the restaurant business. My boss smoked a lot and working as a Sommelier in the world of wine & liquor, it was just a natural progression.
M: What are some of your favorite smokes?
JB: Back then, I loved the Padrons & Ashton Cabinet VSG’s. Today my favorites, outside of Black Label of course, are Ezra Zion, Paul Stulac, Viaje and I will still happily burn a Padron anytime.
M: What types of cigars do you prefer?
JB: I’m a huge fan of Nicaragua tobacco in general, in my opinion, they offer the best filler possible right now. With wrappers you have endless possibilities. I love each type and style for their own unique characteristics. Maduros are my favorite, but I also love Habanos, San Andres Mexico, and the list goes on. If I had to choose my style of cigar, I would have to say a medium to full-bodied, earthy, box pressed Maduro in a 5×54 vitola – specifically our Black Label Last Rites.
M: What makes your smokes different from the other guys?
JB: First and foremost, our blends. We have focused on defining very unique flavor profiles that you don’t see in cigars everyday. Also, our philosophy is simple – make a great cigar. If a cigar is perfect in a Robusto then why make it in five other sizes. We keep it simple with usually 1 or 2 sizes per blend. This also goes along with our small batch mind-set. We keep production very limited to ensure quality every time. The last thing is our branding. We’re not trying to keep some Cuban legacy going. We want to make new school smokes and we want our brand to speak to our generation of cigar smoker. You won’t see any photo-shopped pictures of me on a horse in a tobacco field – that just isn’t us!
M: Where were you when you had the idea of starting your own cigar company?
JB: It was on a trip. It had always been a lingering idea in the back of my mind, but the more time I spent in Nicaragua with Eric my partner, the more it seemed to make sense. We started meeting people within the industry and getting to know the production side of the business. It just went from there. We both love Nicaragua and the people involved in the cigar industry in Esteli, so it made things easy.
M: Where did the Black Label name come from? What’s the inspiration behind it?
JB: Like any new business we threw around a lot of options, but Black Label Trading Company just stuck. We knew we wanted the brand to be a bit edgy, a little bad ass and to stand out amongst the sea of other brands. It also had to have a sort of dark elegance to it. The inspiration was, as cigar consumers, we really couldn’t relate to a lot of the current brands on the market. Black Label is the brand we’d been searching for over the last few years and couldn’t find, basically its just the cigars we wanted to smoke.
M: How many different cigars do you currently offer?
JB: This is a little out of the box for a new brand as well. We offer six different blends in two size options. Most companies don’t offer as many, especially just starting out, but we felt confident in all six blends so we figured why not go for it. They are all unique. The thinking behind it is to offer something that many different pallets will enjoy.
M: How many people are on your team? How did you meet?
JB: It’s a very small team. Eric, who I met on a No Limit trip, plus myself and the Nicaragua crew consisting of four rollers and our master blender. We kind of just met through the grapevine. Esteli is a pretty small town. Production wise we want things small so our team is perfect. Some companies make thousands of cigars a day, we prefer to make under 200.
M: What has been the greatest accomplishment to date?
JB: I guess the best thing is when someone in the industry who seriously smokes a lot of cigars tells you that the product is great and really unique in the world of cigars. Not just reviewers, that’s great too, don’t get me wrong, but it’s different when it’s someone who has been around the block for thirty plus years and has seen it all. Cracking open the first real production box and smoking one was pretty damn good too!
M: What has been the greatest challenge to date?
JB: The world of cigars if full of challenges. Tobacco laws in general are very tough world-wide and people’s rights as tobacco consumers are being depleted daily, so that is one of the biggest. We’ve made tons of mistakes early on with the boxes, labels, and you name it. It’s definitely been a growing process over the last couple of years. Being in Nicaragua full-time will be the long-term solution for most things.
M: What’s next for Black Label? Where do you see it in 6 months, a year, or 5 years from now?
JB: I like that our smokes are getting a sort of cult following, people have heard about them but have to do some work to track them down. I hope that continues to be the case, I would love to see that following grow over the next few months. We’re only going to be in very select retailers and we want to keep it that way. Over the next year, the plan is to add a couple new smokes to the lineup. Maybe three. I have a lot of blends that need to see the light of day. We are constantly experimenting trying to create the next great Black Label smoke. Five years from now? Man, who knows? I’m more of a day-to-day guy. That’s just too far … smoking a Black Label for sure, that’s all I know.