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Cigar 101 with Mark Holden and Corey Johnston of BLEND Cigar Bar

cigar number one pairing is coffee

Davidoff

Two of the world’s top cigar pros share what you need to know to enjoy relaxing moments at the cigar bar.

Whether you are new to cigars or an old pro, the top dogs at BLEND Cigar Bars have some valuable knowledge to share. BLEND has recently expanded to four locations across the U.S.—Pittsburgh, Nashville, Indianapolis and near Houston in the Woodlands, Texas.

Blend Cigar Bar founder Mark Holden

Blend Bar

BLEND was recently awarded an exclusive partnership with Davidoff, creating Salomones, a private-label premium cigar blend that was created specifically for BLEND Cigar Bars. BLEND is the only retailer that has established such a partnership where a manufacturer develops a custom recipe solely for one brand.

ICONIC LIFE sat down with CEO Mark Holden and President Corey Johnston to discuss their brand, their new cigar label and how to get started in the world of cigars.

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BLEND was recently awarded an exclusive partnership with Davidoff, creating Salomones, a private-label premium cigar blend that was created specifically for BLEND Cigar Bars.

exclusive partner of Davidoff Mark Holden

Davidoff

When Johnston is asked about how he got started in the cigar business, he has a relatable story to share. “Long story short, like many young college graduates, I didn’t know what to do. One day, I was sitting around smoking some inexpensive cigars. I thought I might start a little cigar business on the side and sell to golf courses and steak houses.

And so, in 1992 I started a wholesale business and a special event cigar business. From there, I worked for a cigar manufacturer, and then I worked for Davidoff, actually, in the early two thousands.” With the partnership with Davidoff being a core component to BLEND, it seems Johnston’s career has come full circle.

“I recognized the need for a cigar bar in the area, and so, I opened up a cigar bar. Then I met Mark Holden, and we decided let’s make it bigger and better, and cater to people who don’t even smoke cigars.”

founder Mark Holden of Blend Cigar Bar

Blend Bar

Both Holden and Johnston agree that their bars curate a different experience than any other cigar bar out there. Their sophisticated spaces are unlike the timeworn image of a dark, wood-paneled, smoke-filled lounge, strongly scented and packed with people.

With a goal of making BLEND a social place for people to gather, Johnston and Holden invested heavily in their ventilation systems, changing over the air eight times per hour, so that the smell of smoke doesn’t linger in the space, or in guests’ hair and clothing. They used lighting and designed the bars to be more user-friendly. Their open, elegantly designed spaces are approachable for everyone.

After being in the business for many years, Holden noticed a trend toward cigar specialists who now are training to become “cigar sommeliers.” In fact, BLEND Cigar Bar’s Indianapolis location is managed by the U.S.’s first-ever cigar sommelier.

Blend Bar exclusive partner of Davidoff Cigars

Davidoff

“It’s just like going out to eat,” Holden says. “Instead of looking at a wine list, some people may ask to talk to the sommelier to help them with their choice. It’s the same way with cigars.” Experiencing and learning from experts is actually one of the top things Johnston and Holden recommend for cigar novices.

When first diving into the world of cigars, it’s important to dispel some of the common misconceptions about smoking. “I think when a lot of people first get into cigars, they think they need to smoke it like a cigarette and puff on it a lot. We tell people to slow down; you only need to take one puff a minute. Smoke it slowly and enjoy it,” says Johnston. Just as one would slowly sip and savor a nice bourbon or vintage wine, the same goes for cigars as well.

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Davidoff partner Blend Bar Mark Holden

Davidoff

Selecting a cigar as a novice can seem overwhelming or intimidating, which is why both Holden and Johnston recommend visiting a cigar bar like BLEND that has experienced professionals behind the counter, who are there to educate and assist. Aside from flavor profiles, your choice should also be based on things like the ring gauge and length of the cigar.

Johnston says, “the bigger the ring gauge, the more smoke on the palette. The smaller ring gauges will give you less smoke power, and that’s how you taste the tobacco. So that’s where all those little nuances create the experience.”

The biggest mistakes that Corey Johnston and Mark Holden see by cigar novices is that “they don’t know how to properly cut and light the cigar, and they’re not shown how to hold it,” says Johnston, which is why he recommends being shown in person.

Blend Bar founder Mark Holden talks cigar 101

Davidoff

“You can watch YouTube videos, but really it’s more beneficial to go to a place that’s well established that can assist you. You can smell and touch the cigars. There’s just more romance to it, you know? That’s one thing about cigar smoking, it’s no fun over the internet,” he says with a laugh.

Another tip that these pros recommend is keeping track of your tastes and preferences. Write down which cigars you liked, and why, and even indicate what you paired it with. Cigars are commonly paired with scotch, bourbon or wine, but the most popular pairing around the world is coffee.

So many cigar enthusiasts are also coffee enthusiasts, which is why BLEND is crafting their own signature coffee as well, adding to the bespoke experience in its cigar bars.

So many cigar enthusiasts are also coffee enthusiasts, which is why BLEND is crafting their own signature coffee as well, adding to the bespoke experience in its cigar bars.

Blend Bar coffee line for cigar smokers

Blend Bar

The premium experience of premium cigars starts with the seeds, which become part of the carefully crafted mélange of tobaccos that compose a premium cigar. According to Johnston, many factors influence the cigar’s flavor, including “the soil in the field, the aging process, the selection of different tobacco.

And so, when we say different tobacco, there’s something like 160 to 170 different seeds, different types of tobacco plants that are used. For example, there might be an American seed grown locally, but it can also be taken to, say, Ecuador and will develop a different flavor.”

In Mark Holden’s opinion, it’s all about “blending different types of tobacco together to get the right taste. For example, the taste in the first third, is a little different than in the second and third. The cigar’s flavor evolves over time, and they do that by design. It’s like crafting a complex recipe.”

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