It’s morning and Nicholas Melillo is talking cigars. For the cigar blender and founder of Foundation Cigar Co., the smooth, aromatic sticks of rolled tobacco are not just a business but a calling.
Speaking in his office in Windsor, which overlooks a historic Connecticut tobacco field, he moves seamlessly from history to science to culture and back.
The conditions of the Connecticut River Valley and the Windsor soil it created are unparalleled when it comes to growing tobacco, he says enthusiastically. “This 405-mile-long river, as it passes through the north of Hartford, left this sandy loam soil which is perfect for growing cigar tobacco,” he says.
Connecticut-grown wrappers are an important part of Melillo’s cigar company, which was founded in July 2015 but has quickly made a name for itself. The Wise Man Maduro, which sells for $10.50, was named the No. 3 cigar of 2018 by Cigar Aficionado, while the company’s Charter Oak cigar, made from Connecticut broadleaf or shade tobacco, was a top-ranked “best buy” in a list of cigars under $6 put out by the same publication. This success shouldn’t come as a surprise, as like Connecticut, Melillo’s history is steeped in cigar smoke.
A Connecticut native, Melillo grew up in Cheshire where his grandfathers on both sides of his family introduced him to the world of cigars. “I just fell in love with the culture, the ceremony of cigar smoking,” he says. “For me and my brother, smoking with my grandfather — it’s like a coming of age, you’re learning about life at a really young age. You’re learning about World War II.”
From them, he learned about Connecticut’s deep connection to the product. The state’s legendary dark broadleaf and golden-brown shade tobacco are still used as wrappers on many of the world’s top cigars. He also learned about the state’s once-thriving cigar industry.
“All of my grandparents, my great-grandfathers, all smoked Connecticut cigars,” he says. “Connecticut had a plethora of cigar brands into the late ’90s. New Haven had numerous cigar factories. Harford had numerous cigar factories. Bridgeport had numerous cigar factories.”
He read about cigar history and learned what he could from books.
At 18, right out of high school, he got a job at now-closed tobacco purveyor the Calabash Shoppe in Hamden. At the same time, he was studying international business at Quinnipiac University. After graduating he embarked on a world tour, traveling to places like Spain, India, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. All these travels were indirectly taking him back to cigars. While working at the Calabash Shoppe he met future cigar celebrity Jonathan Drew, who called Melillo in the early 2000s while Melillo was in Japan. “He was at the beginning stages of starting a cigar company [Drew Estate] in Nicaragua,” Melillo says. “He had been on my email list traveling around the world. At that time in 2002-03, nobody really wanted to be down in Nicaragua. He didn’t want to be down there. He was trying to focus on the promotion side of things. He offered me a job to move to Nicaragua and be his right-hand man.”
Melillo moved to Nicaragua, which he says was a dream come true. “I’m now around all of these amazing Cuban gentlemen that I have read about. Families that I have known about,” he says. “I’m 24 but I’m from Connecticut. Connecticut amongst Cuban cigar makers, amongst Nicaraguan cigar makers, they all know Connecticut and they all respect Connecticut for its cigar tobacco.”
He adds, “I started learning the leaf. I’m learning how to roll. I’m learning how to make cigars. I start to get really into the flavor profiles of the leaf.”
Each traditional cigar consists of a wrapper, binder and filler. Each component is made with different leaves, often grown in different countries, that are selected and aged for specific flavors and characteristics. Melillo learned how to blend and match these various leaves together in order to create an acclaimed product. He developed several blends for Drew Estate, including the Liga Privada No. 9, still one of the bestselling handmade cigars in the world.
After more than a decade with Drew Estate, Melillo decided to strike out on his own with a cigar company headquartered in his home state and dedicated to utilizing Connecticut and Nicaraguan tobacco.
“It was my dream to have my office in the [Connecticut River] Valley,” he says. “In everything that I do for Foundation, this connection between Connecticut and Nicaragua is a strong one for me. Connecticut is my home, Nicaragua has become my second home.”
The brand, which utilizes a combination of Connecticut wrappers and Nicaraguan filler tobacco, has proved a winning one. The resulting cigars are critically acclaimed and rich with aromas. Smells that bring Melillo back to being with his grandfathers in his home state.
There are several types of cigar tobacco grown in the Connecticut River Valley. The two most popular are Connecticut shade and Connecticut broadleaf.
Developed in 1900 by scientists and farmers, Connecticut shade is a hybrid of Connecticut broadleaf, Sumatra and Cuban seeds. It is grown under cloth tents that mimic the conditions of the Sumatra jungle by blocking sunlight and raising humidity. The thin leaf is prized for its gold-brown color and mild flavor, but less and less of it is actually being grown here. For the past few decades, Ecuador and the surrounding region has had success growing Connecticut shade: because of natural cloud cover, tents are not necessary, and cheaper labor combined with better yields make it difficult for Connecticut farmers to compete. Recently, the Thrall family farm, which has been growing tobacco in Windsor for centuries, converted 600 acres to growing grains for beer and spirits producers.
This wide (hence the name), veiny leaf has been grown in the Connecticut River Valley since the 1800s. After fermentation, it has a dark brown appearance and is prized for use in maduro (dark colored, strong) cigars. Unlike shade tobacco, its popularity is on the rise, and when seeds are transported outside of the Valley, it just isn’t the same. “This is very difficult to replicate in other places,” Melillo says. “This leaf here in the Valley is earthy sweet. You can’t replicate that. Because of the Valley, because of the soil, growing that in other regions, it hasn’t taken.”