As you immerse yourself in cigar culture, it doesn't take long to begin seeing and hearing the term “boutique” pop up when describing certain cigars. At first the concept of “boutique” and “non-boutique” cigars seem simple enough, however, when you dig into the question of “What is a Boutique Cigar?”, it actually can become a bit more convoluted than you realize. I will save you the research and give you some insight into the term “boutique” in the cigar industry.
According to Merriam-Webster the word boutique, in this usage, means “a small company that offers highly specialized services or products”. Well that seems simple enough - the cigars sold by a small company are boutique cigars. But what is a small company? Well, based on the Small Business Administration's “Table of Size Standards” for North American industries, a tobacco farmer with a revenue of under $2.5 million, a tobacco manufacturer with under 1500 employees, a tobacco retailer with under $11.5 million in revenue, or a tobacco wholesaler with under 250 employees, is considered a small business.
For reference, a look at the Altadis U.S.A website - the company responsible for brands such as Montecristo, Romeo Y Julieta, Aging Room, and many more - they claim to employ over 5000 people worldwide. No one would ever look at Altadis or Scandinavian Tobacco Group (The company with over 10,000 employees worldwide that is responsible for CAO, Cohiba, La Gloria Cubana, and many more) and think they were a small business or “boutique”.
However, a quick google search of Rocky Patel reports 38 employees and an annual revenue of $8 million. Hmmm.. so I guess Rocky Patel is “boutique”?
If you do some looking around at what constitutes a boutique cigar, a common theme is that production numbers are what dictate boutique status. That number is 1 million. Based on that, clearly Altadis, STG, Rocky, and many “big names” are not boutique - that’s a universally accepted thing. However, production numbers are not necessarily easy to come by for regular production cigars. Revenue numbers are a bit easier, however, there isn’t a simple conversion from revenue to production.
So if production numbers aren’t always public knowledge, how do we know what is boutique?
The Truth (And My Opinion)
At the end of the day, the truth is that the measure of “boutique-ness” in the cigar industry is hard to quantify. Just as I did above, you can look at some of the major players in the industry and plainly see that they are huge companies that produce a ton of product and generate plenty of revenue. You can then look at some other companies and clearly see that they produce far fewer product and have a smaller retail presence. Then there are a slew of companies in the middle.
In my opinion, what makes a company boutique is the “highly specialized services or products” part of the definition. At the end of the day, it takes an immense amount of knowledge, skill, and passion to take a seed, grow a plant, harvest the leaves, process those leaves, develop a blend of those leaves that is palatable and repeatable, hand roll enough of that blend to be able to sell them, and then market that blend successfully. The entire process is highly specialized and each final product is special.
Boutique cigars, in my opinion, are cigars that honor the process, that take pride in the final product, and that are passionate about what they are selling. Unfortunately, the larger a company gets, the less it becomes about passion and the more it becomes about profit. I don’t think STG is a boutique cigar company by any means, but, in my opinion, if you weed out the machine made products, the mass produced catalog “premium cigars”, and the Cuban knockoffs, you will find boutique cigars in there. Diesel may not have started out as a boutique line, but Justin Andrews has brought a real passion to the product and developed it into what I consider to be a boutique cigar company.
There is nothing wrong with smoking whatever cigars you like, whether mass produced, big companies, catalog brands - whatever. I personally smoke and sell boutique brands. Take a look at the Guitars & Cigars Farm inventory and you are going to see cigar companies that create products out of passion. They take care to ensure that they are offering cigars that are developed, produced, and marketed with intent and pride.
If you made it through this whole read, I appreciate you sticking it out and would love to hear your thoughts, criticisms, questions, or recommendations in the comments below! Thank you!